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And now let’s talk about bridge! (interview to Norberto Bocchi)

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bocchi by leoneNorberto Bocchi has kindly given  us a long interview:  We have  referred a number of topics, each accompanied by a quote, and we therefore invited the Italian Champion to discuss with us.

N. 1  Discipline. In the “Battle of the century”, i.e. the Match Culbertson-Lenz, Oswald Jacoby, partner of Lenz, picked up these cards: ♠KJ74 QJ98754 void ♣64. He opened 1; more a bad auction than a bluff. Lenz had ♠AQ103A AQ97 ♣A752. He bid 3NT: too fast, maybe, but he hadn’t an easy auction: in the system of time (1930), the new suit response weren’t forcing. Jacoby bid 4; Lenz went back to 4NT. Jacoby insisted: 5; Lenz insisted too: 5NT, and so on until Culbertson doubled Jacoby’s 7.After that hand Jacoby refused to continue and was replaced by Winfield Liggett. We can say that it has been the most spectacular example of indiscipline in the history of the bridge: both repeatedly refused to recognize the captaincy of the other.

How much must be respected the discipline in a pair? Which situations call it for to be more strict?

 Norberto Bocchi: We should care of two kind of discipline: inside the pair and outside the table. At the table it’s matter of technique: needs to know the partner and respect him, his choices and his madness too. The partners should be reliant each other, and both must row in the same direction: one mustn’t bewilder the other for look “finer”. That’s I call pair discipline. Outside the table the most important thing, moreover in the great events, is the oneself discipline: not to go to sleep late, not to make sex all the night, not at immoderate eating and, moreover, not to drink. This also is a form of respect to the partner.

Is the young Madala a undisciplined partner?

Norberto Bocchi: Not at all! Madala has maybe a sui generis character, but he never has given pains to me as partner. He’s enough disciplined: he sleeps, studies and does what he must.


N. 2 Beasts. Alfred Sheinwold said about instinct: “Scientists used to think that animals were guided by instinct and men by reason, but recent experiments reveal that bridge players also rely more on instinct than on thought. Is it possible that bridge players aren’t human?” [from “Classic bridge quotes” by Jared Johnson – 1989 Devyn Press].

How much do you rely on instinct?

Norberto Bocchi: This question looks as done for me. I’m an instinctive player. Genius and recklessness: often, although I see the technical manoeuvre, I do something else because I’m an instinctive player. I agree with Sheinwold: the strong players sometime perceive something that others do not. I play much on the instinct, on opponents’ gesture and demeanour.

Is this what’s called “presence at the table”?

Norberto Bocchi: Yes, as I was saying, I often play in unorthodox manner because my feeling drove me otherwise: I can say that seven times of ten I “guess”, then the partners forgive me the three times of ten when I don’t guess. An instinctive player doesn’t only follow the instinct, of course, but he’s able to feel when he can. The instinct is a gift, and I sometime use it. Another instinctive player is Zia Mahmood, which often makes very original things, outstanding, and “guess” very much.


N. 3 The kibitzers and the silence.  Maria Erhart, the greatest Austrian championess, has said about screens: “In one way, the game was much nicer without screens. We always had lots of kibitzers, but now the atmosphere at major event is almost dead and has become very sterile. On the other hand, I understand that most players prefer the silence that playing with screens brings” [from “World Class” by Mark Smith -1999 – Masterpoint Press].

Do you prefer the silence of the screens or the kibitzers?

Norberto Bocchi: There are two different bridge-playing and both have advantages and disadvantages. I think that bridge is a serious play and it shouldn’t be huddled by kibitzers; this, however, deals with high level bridge. When kibitzers are at table, the feelings are different and you are brought to play in different ways.

Then you, high level player, don’t want kibitzers …

Norberto Bocchi: Only the captain or the vugraph operator.


N. 4  About systems. In the system you played with Giorgio Duboin, the opening 1♣ and 1NT were integrated: 1NT varied between 12-14 and 15-17, depending from the situation – love or vulnerable – and from the place; 1♣ “covered” the remaining balanced hands. Playing with Agustin Madala, your new partner, this feature vanished: now 1NT is fixed to 15-17. Why? We must note that Giorgio Duboin too, in his new partnership with Antonio Sementa, has given up this treatment; however, in their system the opening 1♣ is busy on other tasks.

 Norberto Bocchi: I have changed because, only at very high level, the weak no trump could be dangerous. It’s a very aggressive way of bidding, but let me explain better. We Italians are the strongest – as all say – then we don’t need to be very aggressive for win. Let this kind of bridge for weaker players. We don’t anymore interest it: we have practiced it because was funny, but now we have got rid of it also because such an intricate system calls for greater concentration: you must always be aware of being love or vulnerable and in what place you’re sitting, because the system changes depending upon the seat and the situation and all become very, very complex. It addedd sacrifices for crummy advantages. About the Duboin-Sementa’s new system, I tell you that we also have many burdens on the opening 1♣, maybe more than they have. We play a very compressed system, so compressed that it has became difficult to find room for new hands.


N. 5  Double. In your book “The system Bocchi-Duboin”, on page 214 is written:

“…The takeout double is too much important for being misunderstood about it. Let’s take good will and holy patience and make clearness, with the partner, so to avoid any confusion on this main auction”. With Agustin Madala you play “light takeout double with good shape”, Now, please Norberto, take good will and holy patience and tell us how much light could be your double and how much good should be the shape of it. Let’s start from the hand that we submitted to the Spanish championess Montserrat Mestres Rodrigues.

South opens 1; You, in West, have:

♠A1094 6 K982 ♣K1094. E-W vuln: do you double? If not, add what needs for a double; if yes, worsen your hand until we can see the minimum which is enough.

Now replace hearts with spades: South opens 1♠; you have:

♠6 A1094 K982 ♣K1094. Same situation, same questions.

Norberto Bocchi: I double with both hands. It’s not matter of points: the good players don’t count points but look at shape. Also with few points, in these hands are three heads and the three suiter hand: where’s the problem?

Montserrat replied she would have doubled the former hand but not in the latter: she passed for reopen later, maybe…

Norberto Bocchi: Montserrat is a dear friend, but I don’t agree. The Bridge is fine because it varies too; it’s not matter of being right or wrong, rather are picks, often subjective, never to be discussed. The bridge is a picking out play. Sometime we confront ourselves. Lauria, Versace, or Duboin ask me: “What do you bid with these cards?”. Well, my reply often is different from their. But nobody is wrong, indeed I always accept the viewpoints of the great players. Now, on this hand I say “double” because it’s the more technical thing. But if another player says “pass”, I don’t discuss it: could be right too; of course, if someone should bid…7, it would be wrong. Much depends on personal playing style.


N. 6  Evergreen. Time Magazine elected, ten years ago, the three pairs strongest of all time: Forquet-Garozzo, Rodwell-Meckstroth and Hamman-Wolff. It seems to us indigestible, so not feeling to remove any of the three pairs, we decided to extend the selection to five, adding Avarelli-Belladonna and Reese-Shapiro. Do you agree? Or those who take off? Allowing you get to seven, who do you put in? (Not allowed to quote your teammates, current or past).

Norberto Bocchi: Sorry, no. I cannot reply if I cannot cite my teammates, past and current.

And if you could do it? What do you reply?

Norberto Bocchi: Sure I put Lauria and Versace between the strongest pairs. And, sincerely speaking, I should also put there my pair with Duboin, when we played together. But I think that these two pairs are considered very strong by all the world. I remember an interview to Rodwell and Meckstroth on Bridge World magazine: enquired concerning the strongest pairs in the world, they replied just that the only pair at their level were Bocchi-Duboin. Of course, we were much pleased of this, because that happened in times when we weren’t yet in our best brightness: we were winning something, not yet all! Coming back to the question, I insist on putting the pair Lauria-Versace between the top three, and looks odd to me they aren’t. Anyway, the strongest pair of all time in my opinion is Belladonna-Garozzo, not Forquet-Garozzo. Aren’t doubts on this. If you ask 100 people about, 95 should show Belladonna-Garozzo.

And what about including Fantoni-Nunes between evergreen?

Norberto Bocchi: Not really. They’re a good and admirable pair, but not adequate for entering the World Bridge Hall of Fame.

Yet both have won so much…

Norberto Bocchi: The team with Lauria-Versace and Bocchi-Duboin was winning since years; Fantoni and Nunes have had certainly done their duty and because this we have gone along winning.


N.7  System and Partnership. The Time Magazine’s selection didn’t say which of the three pairs has been the greatest. We think Forquet-Garozzo, at least because they have built an important system, the Blue Team Club.

Are you and Madala planning something of new, about systems?

 Norberto Bocchi: You know that i’m considered a “system maker” along with Lauria. He’s still working on systems and has many ideas that we often compare with mine. We together have introduced many innovations in the past, but now I’m working long alone. Bridge is always evolving, as all sports. I stress that Bridge is a sport, although of the mind. Things are today changed than the past: the bidding system was once most important, today is very important the contested auction, more important than the uncontested one. Today the opponents always “break the boxes” by overcalling and you must have good agreements with the partner and always figure out new ploys against their interferences: they tease you, they overwhelm you, they forestall your calling. This will be the future of Bridge. The Bridge thought as bidding system today is clumsy, for not saying it’s dead. I don’t say that all systems are equals, but a good system is worth as another good system. What is worth is agreeing with partner on intelligent conventions: this means that a pair becomes very strong. I’m working with Madala in this direction. Lauria is a great system-analyst, as I was telling you before, and we exchange ideas between us, ideas, not conventions. You have to know that the ideas on which basis we played seven-eight years ago are today spread worldwide. Most conventions are ideas coming from me and Lorenzo: all the transfers at one level were then matter of our studies eight, maybe nine years ago, and we anticipated all. We won by this ideas: now they have been copied by all and we are looking for new solutions.


N. 8  Ban. Federal policies limit conventional systems, to the almost utter ban of the Weak Opening Systems (WOS, so called “Pass systems”), allowed only in the Bermuda Bowl and Venice Cup. We, on the contrary, would prohibit those home systems in which the conventions are scattered without logic, grown like mold on stale cheese, and needing sign language for their understanding.

What do you think about WOS and other HUM (Highly Unusual Method)? Do you agree their ban?

 Norberto Bocchi: I agree, and I explain why. First, to ensure the bridge is more spectacular: these systems, in facts, send the spectators away. The bridge itself is a difficult game and should instead be understood as possible by the viewers. You can check it on BBO (Bridge Base Online): if a table plays one club opening for hearts or one diamond for spades the kibitzers go away. I think we must catch the eye of the people, and do not send them away from that wonderful game. Second, for a technical reason. Are in the world eight or nine nations where the bridge is played professionally (Italy, US, Norway, Poland, French, Netherland and few others). In the other nations are most amateurs, then it happens that, between professional players, we have the suited defences against the Pass Systems, but we have studied how to do before. But if we meet an intermediate level team, and we exhibit a Pass System, they cannot have idea on what to do. It’s as a duel between a swordsman and a gun man. You could be the best in the world with your sword, but if I have the pistol…you’re a corpse. These are the two reasons for I say: let’s prohibit them.


N. 9 Sexes battle. Norberto, who do play better, men or woman? Before you reply, here some useful hints.

Helen Sobel, in her book “Winning Bridge” wrote: “…At least among champions and master players, I have to give a nod to the men [maybe because] boys grow up to be more fiercely competitive…”

Sabine Auken nods as Helen, but for different reasons; in “I love this game” she writes: “…Women are multi-tasking…Men have a much better ability to forget everything around them and to totally focus on a task at hand…on the other hand, they are completely incapable of doing more than one thing at the same time. My husband, Jens, is unable to blow his nose while reading the newspaper…”

Sabine writes that these thoughts – but about Jens’ cold – come from a great English Lady, Sandra Landy; however, we know perhaps a more ancient origin. By late sixties, the Italian Lady Ida Pellegri published on Bridge d’Italia an interview to Rixi Markus: there she said what Sandra told later to Sabine (Sandra Landy has been Rixi’s teammate for many years).

 Your opinion, Norberto?

Norberto Bocchi: Let’s say straight away that’s not matter of being less or more intelligent. The man, however, is compounded of partitions different than the ones of the woman. Now, Bridge is one sport where the men’s partition suits better than the women’s. Ademas, as said in Spain; furthermore, as Sabine says, the man is more able to concentrate. When a man is engaged in something, he does that and nothing else: the women are different, I see it in my wife too. When playing, a woman notices the neighbour’s stockings, the dress or the jewel of another woman, etc. It’s difficult to find a woman doing oneself utmost at table, and this involves insufficiencies. Therefore we say that the man play a lot better than the woman. I repeat that it is not about the intelligence: in other things she is much more enlightened of the man. Above all weighs the custom: the men play cards since 1300, while women do not.

 About Sabine Auken: you played with her, which player she is?

Norberto Bocchi:  I have played with her and I’m playing yet. Sabine is the classic German. I have played with all the strongest Italian women and I can tell you that she is a bit different for she has the typical German attitude: she has a character suitable to the bridge, never depressed, always fighting; at table she’s pitiless, she likes to win. These qualities, combined with a good technique, raise Sabine Auken as one of the best players in the world. She’s one of the few women with whom I enjoy talking about high-level bridge. She’s the number one in the world but, compared to the number one men, I see the difference.

So do the women definitely lose this sex war?

Norberto Bocchi: No way they could win. And I hope that no woman would be hurt for what I’m saying, but between women and men are some steps.


N. 10 Golf. G. Bernard Shaw said: “To play golf is not necessary to be stupid, but it helps.” How do you comment this aphorism of the famous Irish playwright? Would you tell us a bit on your relationship with Golf?

 Norberto Bocchi: I think that G. B. Shaw has never played golf. It’s a sport as many, and isn’t to be stupid or not. The aphorism is well known, but has nothing to do with Golf. You should play it to understand. It’s a sport that has many links with bridge: need concentration, discipline, the ability to choose the right action at the right time; in short, on the psychological level it has much in common with the bridge. As you pick out which card to play at the table, as in Golf you must choice the right post for get the green. When next to hole, the concentration is all and the technique isn’t enough. Before shooting you must study the situation. Then the aphorism is more funny than founded. I’ll tell you, I find in Golf as many stupid people as in bridge. But there’s a difference: the Bridge is a game that leads, at high levels, to be original and then happens that people who play bridge are more fun, but there are fools everywhere.

 Thanks, Norberto.

Thanks to you, Laura.


by Laura Camponeschi ( consultancy by Paolo Enrico Garrisi )

September 14, 2010



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One Reply to “And now let’s talk about bridge! (interview to Norberto Bocchi)”

  1. Excellent interview and so very generous of Norberto Bocchi
    to share his insights. It is completely clear that the Italian contributions to basically standard styles are strokes of genius
    and quite easy to incorporate because like all things authentic
    are totally obvious once you “see” it. I have played the Italians in important matches on occasion and they are also total sportsmen. A credit to bridge on every level.

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