Fulvio Fantoni: Claudio Nunes is much stronger than I am! (interview)

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 Hi Fulvio, first of all we want to congratulate you on your splendid performance at Philadelphia; the only Italian to win a gold medal in the mixed championship, and the only Italian on the podium, together with your partner Claudio Nunes, in the open team championship. These prestigious results consolidate your position at the top of world ranking: you are always Number One! Your take on the Philadelphia world championships? Certainly a very positive take.

 I’m very happy because naturally winning a world title is always a great privilege. I’m also very happy for the third place in the team event and for the fifth place in the open pairs, which I believe are excellent results.

Are you happy also about the fifth place in the open pairs?

A fifth place certainly isn’t a medal but in a competition as important as the open pairs it’s a result that gratifies me. In my opinion the open pairs is the toughest competition that exists, both because every hand is important and because 15 sessions of Mitchell of 26/ 28 hands are really very tough, also considering the very high level of the players.

For us fans it was gratifying also because only you and Claudio were in the final to represent Italy.

Actually there were other Italian pairs who played the qualifications and semifinals, but who didn’t get through to the five sessions of the final. Since we had played in the team event and had reached the semifinal, we were promoted to the final automatically without having to play five long sessions of semifinals. But Claudio and I always like to play the open pairs and we would have participated even if we hadn’t qualified directly for the final.

Let’s talk about the mixed pairs: you won playing with Donna Compton. What kind of a player is she?

I think Donna Compton, more than a player, is an excellent bridge teacher and in fact she has a great school with many pupils in Dallas: Bridge Academy of North Dallas. She also has the role of captain of the Nickell team and sometimes even of the USA team. Last, but not less important because of this, she is also an excellent player. Because she is a great friend of mine, we decided to play the mixed championship in Philadelphia together. We had already played together in the 2002 world championships, getting to the final, and in a national American competition with mixed teams, which we won together with Petra Hamman and Hemant Lall.

You aren’t a “new” couple then?

Well, it was the third time we played together.

These victories, as we said, consolidate your position at the top of the world ranking. How much does this ranking really count?

Undoubtedly it’s very important, both from the professional and the personal point of view. It’s certainly pleasant to find yourself number one, I won’t deny it. The ranking is based on results obtained in European and world championships, and we are in the first two places, also because since 2002 we have been (I think) the only pair to have always reached the podium in every major  world competition.

Besides the popularity which it brings, does being number one also cause some problems? Does it cause jealousy? In short, is it hard to remain in the bridge world as number one?

What can I say? From some things which are written and stated, it would seem so. Evidently they are part of this “status” even though they shouldn’t be, but life is like that, it’s acceptable.

Do you know Claudio’s position after Philadelphia?

Second. And with a clear advantage on the number three.

Claudio is second only after you?

To tell the truth, Claudio is second to no one, because he’s much stronger than I am!

 We’ll talk about Claudio and your partnership later. Let’s go back to the mixed pairs: I’d like to ask you what you think about women in bridge. This is what Sabine Auken writes in her book “I love this game”: “… Women are multi-tasking. Men have a much better capacity to ignore anything around them and focus fully on one objective at a time. On the other hand, they are completely incapable of doing two things at the same time. My husband Jens (Auken) can’t blow his nose while he’s reading the newspaper…” What do you think?

I agree with Sabine Auken. Effectively a man has a much higher capacity to concentrate just because he focuses his attention on only one event. I’m sure that a man playing bridge might not know what is happening 50 centimeters away from the table, something which would be difficult for a woman.

During the mixed pairs you found yourself playing against a very good player, a certain Iolanda Riolo, who got a top score bidding a beautiful slam against you.

We were at the last session of the qualifications. Iolanda was playing with our friend Thomas Bessis who is a very strong player. In no time at all they bid 7 hearts and when Iolanda started to play, she was a bit worried because 7 hearts is always a difficult contract, but I reassured her and said, “Go on, make these seven hearts!”, and she did.

You risked compromising the tournament with that zero.

Actually we even risked qualifying. But it was fair, they bid a good contract and they made it. Iolanda was playing her tournament and it was right that she made her result.

I would like to say, in case anyone doesn’t know it, that Iolanda Riolo is your wife. Also you got married a little more than three months ago … can you tell us something about your wedding?

I think it was a good wedding, we had a good time. We got married in Cortona, an enchanting town in Tuscany, and the ceremony was held at Borgo Tre Rose in Angelini’s holding. We celebrated with our closest friends, and had a wonderful day in very picturesque surroundings.

Iolanda is the daughter of the great Enzo Riolo: I ask you for a remembrance of your father-in-law, who died just a short time ago.

Enzo had a passion for bridge, he lived for bridge which he loved deeply. He dedicated most of his life to bridge in a very rewarding way. With his school he created many pupils, he formed many young champions, and bridge needs this, passion and dedication to searching out new blood for our magnificent sport.

Thanks to Enzo, today Sicily produces many champions.

Certainly, and a lot is due to Enzo if the Sicilian school is so active. He was an important starting point, not only for Sicily but also for all of Italy. He carried out an enormous job with his writing and his publications, which were always very thorough and precise. I “collaborated” with Enzo: he brought me his writing and asked me to check it for possible errors, and sometimes we discussed it also from a technical point of view. He asked me to check and correct his output, every time with no less passion than the preceding time. I would say that Enzo always had an immense passion for bridge; he dedicated himself completely to teaching it, to try to give his pupils the best teaching material possible.

Talking about teaching, how much does Fulvio Fantoni study? I mean, does the number one in the world still study?

Yes, certainly he still studies, he tries to review our system, to know it. But every once in a while he doesn’t remember it because he’s not a machine and therefore, every once in a while he also makes errors. Only machines don’t make errors. But believe me, we study and we study a lot, we try to make changes to our system, which although it may be good or bad, always needs changes. There are always elements to be adjusted.

 I ask you this because someone sustains that the Fantunes system is still lacking and that it needs study and adjusting. Obviously I refer to what one of the greatest and recognized experts on the subject, Lorenzo Lauria, said in the interview he recently granted me.

All systems always need changes and adjusting, including ours naturally. We have fun playing bridge with the Fantunes system: I don’t think it’s that bad, also considering what they say about it abroad, where the opinions are quite flattering and lack any kind of conditioning. I’d make a distinction between improvements and deficiencies, I don’t think it’s lacking, but I agree if you say that improvements can be made: every system can always be improved. Under certain aspects it’s a dangerous system, but over the long term I think it has shown that risks are greatly exceeded by the results obtained.

Well big Fulvio who still studies in order to improve, let’s talk precisely about your errors. It happens that you and Claudio bid a slam without having Ace and king of trump. I remember it happened in the club championships in Bologna, 7 hearts without AK of trump and without K of spades also I think .. how can this happen to the number one and number two in the world?

It happens when the interpretation of a bid is incorrect. The two players of a partnership make their bids and as long as the significance of these bids, as usually happens, is understood by both partners, obviously errors don’t get made. When on the other hand, and it’s easier for this to happen in competition, one of the two thinks something different from the other, that is when the error takes place and thus the bid which may seem absurd, and which instead arises from an incorrect interpretation of the message given by the partner.

In the face of these errors, how does the partnership react? Do you laugh about them? Do you get angry? Do you argue?

Certainly we don’t laugh because the disappointment is too great, but certainly we don’t argue, absolutely not.

What rapport do you have with Claudio Nunes?

We have an excellent rapport. We have two very different personalities but we get along well together. Also because I could never play with someone with whom I don’t get along.

You say you have different personalities and it’s true: it seems to me that Claudio is very shy and introverted, while you are very open and sunny.

Perhaps Claudio has a particular personality, he seems to be snubbing you when it’s not always the case. His shyness sometimes causes him to seem unpleasant but in a group of friends, where he feels at ease, he is a wonderful person, cordial and extroverted.

So you are friends outside of your bridge companionship?

Precisely. And now that he has moved to Ostia, where I have lived practically since I was born, we are neighbors and therefore we see each other often. We see each other outside of bridge, we do many other things together.

For example, what else do you do besides playing bridge?

Things friends do: we go out to dinner, to friends’ parties, to the cinema, we have even been to the soccer stadium together.

To root for the “maggica”? Say it, say it!

To root for the magic Roma team, yes!

Fulvio, returning to bridge, I’d like to ask you something else about your system and more generally about conventions. I’d like you to discuss your weak 1NT opening when vulnerable: it’s very risky but what are its advantages?

Certainly it’s risky. But let’s say that our system requires this opening. In fact we can’t put a weak 12-14 balanced hand opening in any other part of our system. In this circumstance we are ”obliged” to open 1NT even when vulnerable, which certainly involves elevated risks, but in the end we have seen that in any event the outcome is positive: more points are made than are lost. The player in first seat, vulnerable against not vulnerable, usually would not open with 12 pts. Really, more me than Claudio, he is more agreeable to opening while I sometimes pass with 12 pts.

I have seen that you play the Slawinski leads, so I ask you, the risks and advantages of this lead and above all how do you reply, giving the count or the preferred suit?

Usually we reply indicating the preferred suit. Then obviously it depends on the situation, when the dummy goes down. Every situation foresees its own specific reply, always based on agreements clearly studied beforehand. On this subject I can give you a small scoop. I think we won the mixed pairs in Philadelphia precisely because of discards and replies. Donna Compton and I played a mixed Italo-American system for the discards, since I had asked Donna to follow my indications. In fact I gave her a series of indications on how to discard. The start was a bit difficult because my partner wasn’t used to this kind of discarding. I assure you that it isn’t easy to play discards based on the situation which changes from time to time. However when Donna understood how we played in defense, we won the championship. And this is a great merit of Donna, who in such a short time absorbed this novelty. As regards the Slawinski leads on the other hand, I say it’s quite a difficult system and I wouldn’t advise it for a beginner: it takes a lot of commitment.

I’d like your opinion on the “perfect hand” for a take out double according to Lawrence. He says that the perfect hand is a 4441, and with this distribution 11 pts are enough to interfere after any opening at a 1 level. South has opened 1 ♥; in West Lawrence doubles with: ♠ A1094 ♥6 ♦K982 ♣K1094: 10 points in honors and solid. [Michael Lawrence, The complete book on takeout doubles – Magnus Books, Stamford, Connecticut]. How would you bid?

This is a question you should ask a technical expert, and as you know I now only do “commercial bridge” so I shouldn’t answer, but I’ll try to just the same. According to me it depends on different factors, whether we are vulnerable or not vulnerable, whether our partner has passed or not passed. And it depends on whether we are playing a pairs tournament or a team tournament, what strateg is being adopted. There are very many factors. With a 3 suited hand and 11 points, normally there is no doubt and the opening should be doubled. However if our partner has passed and we are vulnerable, the double is not necessarily obligatory.[“commercial bridge” was the espression used by Lorenzo Lauria, L.C.]

If we invert hearts and spades in Lawrence’s distribution? That is if we hold (vulnerable): ♠6 ♥A1094 ♦K982 ♣K1094, with opening 1♠?

Certainly the situation changes because if you double 1 spade you force your companion to bid at a 2 level. The risk increases: therefore all the factors which I mentioned before influence the decision to double or not. Personally in this situation, vulnerable against not vulnerable and with a passed companion, I may even decide not to double, even if logically the distribution of the hand and the possession of 10 and 9 give the hand a stronger value than just the honor points.

Let’s go to another topic. On the Neapolitan Club and BridgeTopics.com a series of interviews have been published in which you were the subject of bitter polemics. If you want, I give you the opportunity to reply or to clarify what you already said.

Thank you but I am not interested in sterile polemics and frustrations of other people. I prefer not to comment on them and to go ahead in my own way, with the knowledge that professionally I haven’t disappointed my sponsors and all those people who participate in my bridge weeks, enjoying moments of serenity and friendship playing bridge.

Are you a bit annoyed with “these journalists” who brought out these polemics?

No, they are journalists and they do their job, writing. The problem maybe is that they write what they are told and sometimes, depending on the person speaking, this doesn’t coincide with the truth.

To wind up Fulvio I’ld like to talk about your upcoming engagements: the first is the championship at Izmir (Smirne) in Turkey.

It’s an important championship for us, the Champions’ Cup. It’s vital for us.

In the team lineup I note that that the Angelini Team has once again the three Norwegians. Are you sure they can play? I say this with clear reference to the complaint presented by the Varese Team during the club championships in Bologna.

Generally speaking I would say that if the registration has been accepted, it means that it’s permitted. In addition the Angelini team sent official requests for clarification, both on a national and an international basis. Before putting three Norwegians in the lineup we officially made a request to the responsible organizations, who gave their replies, we’re not inventing the rules. We trust the replies the responsible organizations give us.

In the case of the club championships in Bologna, the procedures were regular then?

If the Varese Team thinks that there were irregularities, they have a perfect right to make a complaint. On our part, before including three Norwegians in the lineup, we made our verifications with requests both to the Federation and to Olympic Organization. Once the replies were obtained, we followed the indications given to the letter. In fact the registration of the team was accepted. I repeat, on our part, we made sure beforehand that it was possible to make this registration. To be precise, they replied that we could register three Norwegians, but only two could play at the same time, or in the same session. And we followed the indications received.

Among your future obligations, have you planned to participate in the BBO Italy tourney on Monday evenings? As you know Rosalba Carbonetti, TD of the Monday tournament, organizes special evenings dedicated to the champions. The event takes place also with the participation of our radio (RadioBridgeindiretta) which you know very well because you were a guest exactly at the inauguration of our broadcasts.

Very willingly. Certainly I have put it on my agenda and with great pleasure, indeed I hope to do so as soon as possible. My problem as you know, is always the engagements.

Yes, you are always busy with engagements …

That’s not the only problem. Yes, I try to carry out my job always in the best possible way. Since in the past I was used to working, even if this is a special kind of job, I do it with zeal and maximum professional behavior. But there are also family questions. Since I have a wife and son, when I don’t have work engagements I like to be with them as much as possible. Without mentioning that since I am often abroad, when I return I like to deal personally also with the practical problems of the family. However I want to assure you that I’ll do my best to participate, as always, in your initiatives. Indeed I take this occasion to say hello to Rosalba who as we know is very capable and always organizes things well. You also know how much I appreciate the initiative of the radio which succeeds in involving people and thus getting many persons to approach bridge.

I thank you, because I know you share and support our effort to make this sport popular and to make it a source of culture and socialization.

Even though I am a professional bridge player, and give my greatest commitment to my competitive activity, I believe it’s also my duty to promote bridge at all levels and in all its forms, therefore not necessarily competitive, but above all, as a game, and as a social and formative activity. I think that the different activities of promotion must always be increased, if we want to liberate bridge from the niche to which presently it’s relegated, and enlarge the public of bridge fans, attracting young players and new players in general to this “mind sport” par excellence.

 by Laura Camponeschi (translated by Carol Sims)

(Photographs made by Fernando Lema in Philadelphia)

November 8, 2010


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