Chris Willenken talks about … (interview)

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Last Sunday (June 3,  2012) bridge star Chris Willenken from US was a guest of the Bridge Live Show, broadcast on BTCC ( Channel), the new web TV produced by Neapolitan Club and  The interview was hosted by Jan van Cleeff and  Laura Cecilia Porro. We publish here a summary.

Welcome Chris. We start with five dilemmas. All our guests will have to pick a word out of two, to his liking. You only has to pick one word. An easy one to start with, earning money as an auction trader or bridge pro?

It’s a wonderful life to be able to think about bridge and be engaged with bridge all the time, so it’s an easy decision, I much prefer playing bridge.

This was to let you feel at ease. Pick a name: Michael Rosenberg or Migry Zur Campanile, as a bridge partner?

Migry is one of my best friends in bridge but I have been playing with Michael Rosenberg for 2 years and I feel that we have a wonderful synergy both at the table and away from the table. So for me that’s also an easy choice, Michael Rosenberg is my bridge partner.

Another one: Woolsey or Cappelletti?

For me any convention where 2 clubs shows the major suits is superior to any other choice, because advancer has the opportunity to bid 2 diamonds and ask the longer major, so we get to play in the right contract when overcaller is 5-4 in the majors, so I would say Woolsey for sure.

We call it Multi Landy here in Europe, but never mind. Another easy one, maybe, Vanderbilt or Reisinger?

That’s a very good question. I’d like to cup out and say both because the Reisinger is the most wonderful test of match points: it’s mp when you cant complain about your field protection, because you choose your own teammates. So that’s a wonderful one-of-a-kind event, whereas Vanderbilt as wonderful as it is to play a long week knock-out, we also have the Spingold, the world championship every year, Bermuda Bowl, Olympiad, Rosenblum, I choose Reisinger for its uniqueness. All kidding aside one wonderful feature of the Reisinger is that because of the BAM format, it is essentially a matchpoint game where you are playing against the field. The seeding is relatively unimportant to the team prospects, whereas one critique I would make of the Vanderbilt is that if you start from a very high seed it is relatively easy to get fairly deep into the tournament, because you are going to have easier draws. On the contrary the team that does not have very may American seeding points it is going to really have to win many more tough matches to get to the same level, and that’s really a problem with any sort of knock out, it is not a criticism of the Vanderbilt per se but whoever has to play the best team is going to have a tougher time than any other team whereas in the Reisinger you play pretty much the whole field, so it is a more pure result.

The last dilemma: where is bridge best: in Italy or in the Netherlands?

Asking an American is probably not gonna get you the most expert answer. I think there’s a lot of parallels between bridge in Italy and Netherlands for what I’ve seen. I think that Netherlands’ bridge has followed Italian bridge in a certain way, which is that Italians were the first bridge culture which had a ton of system innovation, you would have good pairs constructing their own system, and now in the Netherlands as well. When I started playing in tournaments in the Netherlands 10-12 years ago, all the top pairs were playing essentially a standard base with 5 card majors -maybe Dutch doubleton- but the range of system was very small. Now if you look at the last World Championships, you have three pairs playing completely different systems, a precision pair, a strong club with canape pair, and a fairly standard base pair (Brink and Drijver), of course with lots of complex conventions but their base is standard. It is hard to choose, both cultures are positive towards innovation and both programs are successful, both are sponsored at very high level, we need time to tell which is the better program. I can give you an answer in 10 years by looking at Bermuda Bowl results.

Very interesting. This proves that you know quite a few about how bridge is played by your competitors, on the other hand you are obliged to give one answer, Italy or the Netherlands?

In that case I’ll have to defer to how many Championships Italy won. I would have to give Italy the edge just on the sheer length of domination, but if you were asking me which team I fear going forward then I might have to abstain.

You play with Michael Rosenberg, one of the big stars for decades, how is it to play with him? Is he a fast player or not?

He is an extremely thoughtful player. One reason that we are good partners for each other, is that I am considered to be a fairly fast player, although as I get older not as fast as I used to be, one nice thing is that Michael has the opportunity to take his time and get very very deep into the hands knowing I can make up the time later if necessary.

Are you not getting nervous? We have a famous pair in the Netherlands (Bauke Muller and Wilbo de Boer). In Santiago 1993 Wilbo de Boer was always getting a little bit nervous because he had to play a bit faster than usual, is that the same with you?

I am realistic about the fact that playing with Michael Rosenberg I am probably not going to be able to play my very best bridge on all hands for time reasons, but on the other hand what matters is how well the partnership is playing. Michael and I have of course discussed this, and I said: Michael make sure that what you are involved in is not just interesting (because Michael does have an academic approach to bridge he’ll get involved in intellectual problems and dive into it), make sure that there are IMPs on the line because if I am playing a tough vulnerable game on the last hand I’d like to have more than 60 seconds to play. I had to play in the Rosenblum a 4-3 spade fit at the game level vulnerable with 45 second on the clock, otherwise we get penalized. There is that tension, but if your partner is a good slow player it would be foolish to take him out of his element, these are successful players, they did not get to that position by playing quickly.

What happened in the last US team trials? You and your team were knocked out in an early stage…

We survived the round Robin, and then lost in the first knockout to a good young team, my age was probably over the medium for the other team, we lost a 2-day match to a team including John Kranyak and some others who played very well.

In what team were you playing?

Jeff Wolfson and Larry Cohen, who were our teammates in 2010 Rosenblum (with slightly more success), Chris and Bart Bramley, this team came together relatively at the last minute and so Chris and Bart did a very nice job of getting into shape to play with us fairly quickly.

The new cycle starts next month in Philadelphia, you are in a new team still playing with Michael?

Michael Rosenberg and I play in the Marty Fleisher team and his partner Kamil and new partnership Chip Martel and Zia.

This has to do with the fact that Weinstein and Levin went to Nickell.

I am sure it does, there is always a lot of movement, both partnerships and teams, and this is a big year for everybody moving around in the States.

You have a pretty important and convincing state of records, what you consider your best result ever so far?

I am proudest of Michael Rosenberg and my result in 2010 Rosenblum where we were a very new partnership and we reached the semifinals through what I would say was a pretty tough draw. We beat a fairly strong South African team which knocked Italy out of Bermuda Bowl in 2007 (round of 32). In the round of 16 we met Cayne, Seamon, Lauria, Versace, Balicki, and Żmudziński, and defeated them. We played the current incarnation of the Fleisher team, which were the reigning US champions, before losing to Nickell, who’s been the bane of my existence for many years now, by 4 IMPs in the semi-finals, in a match that was close all the way.  Even though we did not end up with the medal out of the tournament, I was proud of all of those wins, we really had two fairly inexperienced partnerships, because Wolfson and Cohen were playing together and they were just starting their partnership as well, and to come through all those tough teams was quite rewarding.

Last October you did a pretty good job in the Netherlands playing in the transnational (Veldhoven), and reached a late stage.

We lost by single digits in the semi-finals, by 7 imps to Israeli juniors who ended up winning the tournament. We had to come through a pretty tough draw where we beat Angelini, Brogeland, Fantunes, Meckwell in the quarter-finals. If we got all those wins to come in a row, unfortunately in each tournament we have a few interesting wins, not enough in a row to get the gold.

More and more feel sympathetic with you, you seem unlucky in the draws. What’s your impression of the young Israeli team?
I’ve played a total of one match against one pair, we played the entire match against Birman and Padon and they seemed to be very nice guys although I must say Birman makes Michael Rosenberg look like a speed demon. He’s very very slow, there was always time trouble but it was a very congenial match, they played well, and they had 7 IMPs more than we did at the end, which is what counted.

Listen to this list 5. Michael Rosenberg, 4. Muller, 3. Alon Birman 2.Andrew Robson, guess who’s number 1.

That’s a pretty slow list! P.O. Sundellin P.O. and I have not overlapped very much. He’s more of a coach and commentator since I’ve been playing in international bridge, I have not played more than the occasional match point board against him, it’s 7 minutes a board so everybody he’s hurrying along.

You are not European, but you may still have an opinion about the upcoming European Championships. Do you have any favorites or can you give 6 teams likely to qualify?

I cannot rank them with any great confidence, especially since the Italian team is going to be missing Fantunes, but of course Netherlands and Italy are expected to finish towards the top, but there are a lot of good young players from some countries which have not been that successful internationally. Of course we have the Israeli team which won the bronze medal in the last European and one of the pairs that’s often playing with them is Pachtman-Ginossar who were my teammates in the Rosenblum. I do not think they qualified this year, but Israel will send a fine team.

Pachtman-Ginossar will play in Lille, in Dublin they will play Birman and Padon, Schwartz, Fischer, and Herbst brothers.

That would be one team to watch out for. And maybe as a dark horse, I may choose Denmark, because there are some very good young players who have been playing in the American nationals lately. every time I play against them against them, they seem to be playing really quite well, maybe this is not a surprise prediction in Europe, but in the past year I have been very impressed by what I have seen and although they have not had any high results in the European recently, based on the level of talent there, they can become a real contender in European and World events.

I agree with you, Denmark is not an automatic favorite, they have very strong players, and maybe they can take care of a big surprise there. Now a question from public: Do sponsors in the US want to take part in competitions?

In the US sponsors uniformly want to play, there’s very little corporate sponsorship. Most of the top players are traveling the country with many different sponsors, many weeks of the year with different sponsors in different teams, based on demand, whereas in Italy there is one sponsor for the entire year. I do not do that myself: when I am not at a bridge tournament I am teaching bridge which is what I like to do, but it is very much a culture of playing sponsorships.

Norberto Bocchi has raised the issue that US sends two teams to the Bermuda Bowl, what do you think of this?

There are a lot of ways to look at that issue. I could make an argument that there is a European Union and each of the European countries sends a team: we are USA there are 50 states, so we should have 50 teams. I am not advocating that but there are a lot of ways to look at it, I do not think that simply saying “one country-one team” is a good answer. If you look at the US teams and their performance in past Bermuda Bowls, both US teams are in the knockout phase, so it would seem silly to limit the US to one team when we know that that second team has a real chance to win the tournament, the event is less of a tough event. That’s gonna be a contending team that we are removing. It seems a fair compromise considering that there are so so many professional players, it really is a collection of independent states, which each have its own governments, so we could make some analogy with political situation in Europe, in the sense that there is some European overside, but most discretion is left to individual countries.

Ty Chris, we are very glad to have you in our live show!

Before leaving,  let me say a thing. About what is doing for bridge, I mean having these interviews, I wish you the best of success in continuing the interviews. I am always very interested in hearing what other players have to say. I hope you are starting a tradition for bridge, I hope in five years you can have me back for a second interview, after you have interviewed everybody else.


BTCC team

June 6, 2012

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