CBA: Obligatory first question – how did each of you learn to play bridge? Matthew, the apocryphal story of learning to play while crawling under your grandmother's kitchen table must have a back story.
Matthew: Yes – much later when I was 5 or 6, I was stupidly involved with a chess game against my cousin, when I heard my grandmother double the opponents in a four-spade contract in a gleeful voice. Not only that but she added: “Five trump, I have five of them!” Well, I ran to the kitchen and watched as my mom finessed through my grandmother's five trump and made the contract. I then conceded the chess game, got some chocolate milk and sat down to watch the bridge game. It was not until I was 12 that I actually played duplicate. My dad was the first life master in Jersey City, and he and his cronies taught me a lot. I think bridge has to be taught to kids, or they'll never know what they're missing. It should be part of a social studies class in grammar school.
CBA: I know the ACBL has made a commitment to introduce bridge to kids. Why do you think that bridge hasn’t been more integrated into school curriculums? In this regard, some people have maintained that bridge’s connection to poker will ultimately boost its popularity, but I could see how this association would make schools wary.
Matthew: You answered the question. If bridge is thought of as just another card game, with gambling aspects to it, education boards will not want it as part of the curriculum. Bridge has to be promoted as a social and intellectually stimulating game, a game that helps students to learn to think in all walks of life, and a game that helps students to learn poise, etiquette, and other social skills.
CBA: Pam, how did you learn the game?
Pam: I learned in college. I went to Case Western Reserve and worked part-time in a law office. One of the young lawyers in the office needed a fourth in his regular weekly game and so he gave me a little point-count chart published by Charles Goren, and he explained to me that bidding is a language (I was an English lit major so that appealed to me). In addition to playing in the lawyer's social game, there was a weekly duplicate game on campus, plus an ongoing rubber bridge game in the student union during lunchtime. I got hooked!
CBA: You've both played bridge all over the world. Most NABCs are
played at large hotels and small convention centers, but I'm sure you played
bridge in some unusual places. What was your favorite venue, and what made it
Matthew: My favorite nostalgic venue was Valkenberg, because that's where I first met Pamela, 30 years ago. Actually, I was just kibitzing and she was playing, and though we were introduced, she was too busy thinking about the bridge hands to have anything to do with me. Other wonderful places were Beijing and Verona. A really enjoyable tournament is held in Tel Aviv in March, where players from all over the world come. We met Belladonna and Forquet there, from the original Blue Team, and Pamela partnered Forquet in one of the events. Then we introduced them to our Italian bridge student in Tel Aviv, who made us pasta dinner while Belladonna charmed everyone with anecdotes.
Pam: My favorite venue was also Valkenberg, which is a little resort town in the Netherlands. It was my second world championship (I played for Canada). It was there that I found out that although I had an aptitude for bridge, I basically knew NOTHING! I found this out by going through the hands every night with the Irish team, who were staying in the same hotel as the Canadians. That was a blow. I would probably have given up the game except for the fact that at this tournament I was introduced to a young American hotshot, whose name was Matthew Granovetter! We met only to be introduced and shake hands, but I ran into him again some months later in Toronto, and . . . .
CBA: You play together quite often, but you also partner with a variety of other players. I won’t ask which you enjoy more, but I do wonder if playing with other partners enhances your partnership with each other. Do you learn things and bring them back to your own partnership? On the flip side, are there certain aspects of your partnership together that are “sacred” and you keep private?
Matthew: I learn a lot by playing with other partners, but mostly I learn I prefer to play with Pamela.
Pam: There are no aspects of our partnership that are “sacred.” On the contrary, we air our differences of opinion in our monthly ACBL Bridge Bulletin column “Partnership Bridge” – we've been writing that column for almost 25 years, and it's amazing that we are never at a loss for disagreement material! For the most part, we love the same systemic tools and general style (e.g., what constitutes an opening bid, opening-lead style, etc.), and just to show you that nothing's sacred, we are planning to publish a series of booklets revealing all the secret weapons incorporated in our system “GUS” (Granovetter Unified System). The fact that I play with other good partners has been very, very beneficial to our partnership. My other partners and I usually discuss our bridge games with Matthew, and that keeps our own partnership fresh with the infusion of new ideas. Sometimes I am on the same wavelength more naturally with other partners, but I still enjoy playing with Matthew most of all because he pretends to overlook all of my mistakes. :-)
CBA: Speaking of mistakes, are there some that stand out? Do you approach mistakes by trying to learn from them, or by brushing them off? Some of us tend to overlearn from our mistakes, while others seem to make the same mistake over and over again.
Pam: Lots of my mistakes stand out! I think that making the same mistake over and over again comes from stubbornness. A person refuses to believe that he or she is “really” wrong so they continue to do something that doesn't work over and over, hoping to “prove” that they were right all along. Obviously, this is an ego problem. Interestingly, the best bridge players are very humble and the mediocre players are arrogant. When you are humble, you can admit that your mistake was a mistake and go on to the next level.
Once, I made a dumb mistake and sulked about it until my partner said, “You know, you're not that great; you make mistakes.” That remark actually helped! Now when I make a mistake, I think of what Bob Hamman always says about himself, which is: “I know every time I sit down to play I'm going to make 10 mistakes; so when I make one, I just say, OK, that's one; OK, that's two; etc.” For Bob, a mistake can be playing the 3 instead of the 4, but at his level, that's still a mistake.
My worst mistakes occur when I'm not “engaged” in the hand – in other words, not doing all the work a hand requires, or not being 100% focused. Recently, I went down in a hand because I had miscounted my losers and “gave up,” so to speak. I was not “engaged” and I think it's inexcusable. If you play bridge to while away the time, then you don't want to break your head on every board and you make careless errors, but if you think bridge is an art form, like I do, you have to sweat to play well – for one thing, you have to count endlessly and that's hard work.
Sometimes I go through periods of having weird lapses. Once, for a few months, I couldn't count my long suits! I'd have seven diamonds and count only six. Finally, when my partners put down a long suit in dummy, they would say “six hearts” or “seven spades.” That was very scary but thank G-d it went away. I think we all have lapses that are unavoidable. There are also mechanical errors, which are unavoidable, where you pull the wrong card or lead out of turn. Our brains play tricks on us! I hate making mistakes because I feel like a fool when I do. But the late Victor Mitchell, who I think was the greatest player who ever lived, used to say all the time, “Bridge makes fools of us all.”
CBA: How about selecting teammates? I have to imagine the process of putting together a team at the highest levels is awfully, well, delicate. It’s difficult enough at the club level or for a local tournament – it’s got to get thorny when you’re transitioning from one established world-class team to another.
Pam: We almost never get to pick our teammates. We mostly play on professional teams and are invited to play on a team already in place. In the olden days, first-class players played exclusively with each other in national and international events, and they played with students or proteges only in secondary events. Some people, like Edgar Kaplan, managed to do this throughout their lives. But it's now virtually impossible to play on a team without a sponsor; after all, bridge players must make a living. Once in a while we do play “for fun” and then we play with friends whose company we will enjoy both at and away from the bridge table.
If I could pick anyone I wanted for teammates, I would choose Meckwell, of course. Jeff Meckstroth is from Ohio (as I am) and we've always been friendly since I first met him decades ago when he was skinny and sported a long blond ponytail. I love the way Jeff thinks and I love his ferocity at the bridge table. I love talking to Eric Rodwell about bridge and I like him a lot as a person, so obviously they'd be perfect (not to mention how they play). I like both of their wives as well! My third pair would be Alan Sontag and David Berkowitz. They're a new partnership, but we played with them in California at a regional last year (on Rose Meltzer's team) and won all the events. They were humble and funny and they are both great players. We recently played with David in a Florida regional as well, and we beat an all-star Polish team and it was fun. Plus, we've known them since we first met and I think of them like family. It always helps when you feel comfortable with your teammates and can be honest about your game with them.
CBA: I’m trying to imagine Jeff Meckstroth with a ponytail. :-) Do you have a favorite event? Winning one of the Reisinger/Spingold/Vanderbilt trifecta has got to be at the top, but is there another event you really enjoy playing in?
Pam: I never won a big event like the trifecta you mention, but I did win the open three-day National Swiss and that was a lot of fun. I've also had a first and two seconds in the Cavendish Teams. I guess if I had to pick an event I'd like to win the most it would be the Reisinger because people say that board-a-match is really the best game because it gives equal weight to every hand (in a Spingold, you can play a trick better on ten hands for 10 imps, then lose 13 on one board on a slam swing – so you're down 3 imps instead of ahead by 9 boards!). As far as I can remember, I played in the Reisinger only once (on a bad team) and was cut the first day. Would love to give that another try.
CBA: In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by the ACBL today? I suspect that the ACBL has a challenging job juggling its priorities among game promotion, sanctioning body, tournament management, club administration, rules and ethics authority, and member services, to name a few. The United States Bridge Federation (USBF) was effectively spun out of the ACBL in 2001 to separate the task of selecting and supporting United States teams in international competition. Should the ACBL consider something similar for its other functions?
Matthew: The ACBL's biggest challenge is to increase membership and lower the average age. If the ACBL is successful in this, everything else will fall into place, because it will become a wealthy non-profit organization, with a future. Right now the ACBL is a solvent organization without a future. The new CEO and the board of directors have to see the forest through the trees: the promotion of the game to young people is the top priority. Advertising strategies are needed. We have a great product but it's not selling.
CBA: But bridge has an awfully steep learning curve compared to other competitive pursuits. I keep coming across references to players who learned the game “by picking up Scheinwold’s Five Weeks to Winning Bridge,” or something like that. Most folks today just don’t seem to have the time or willingness to do that. It seems we need to find a way to make the game more accessible—something like MiniBridge, which seems to have enjoyed success as an introduction to the game in Europe.
Matthew: Bridge is the greatest game ever invented and I've seen kids pick it up after a few minutes. Maybe the book Five Weeks to Winning Bridge backfired – it's too long – maybe it keeps people from learning the game! We wrote a book with Charles Schulz illustrating his Peanuts cartoons. The book was called, “Learn Bridge in 9 Minutes.” I think it's just a question of the right marketing. Our publisher, unfortunately, didn't market the book – they just wanted a title. We need a good marketing strategy for bridge and the game will boom again.
CBA: There always seems to be a certain amount of nostalgia among
experienced bridge players for the halcyon days of yesteryear. Has the quality
of bridge improved since you've begun playing, or are we missing something
compared to the past?
Pam: I would agree that most people think the good old days were a lot more fun. It's true that there was a lot of screaming going on. In those days, instead of “zero tolerance” for rude behavior, we had “anything goes.” But basically I think the reason it was more fun is because the game was mostly a hobby; even the best players had “day jobs.” Interestingly, even back then, Meckwell weren't exactly what you'd call a barrel of laughs – they were deadly serious and that's why they've done so extraordinarily well. I think today people are equally serious – we are playing to excel and win, not to have a good time! But you can actually do both if you play our new system, GUS. I haven't had so much fun playing bridge since I was in college.
Matthew: I agree. Years ago the “characters” were more pronounced, less tame. Today everyone is on his best behavior – nice, but boring. We need to let loose and form a venue for the very top players to be characters again (where beginners to the game will not be offended). This would take a bridge pro tour where prize money is at stake and people could watch with a smile as the players' eccentricities were displayed. Good entertainment and promotion for the game! We're working with Larry King, the tennis promoter, to do this – using our new GUS system to try to light up a spark in the bridge world, similar to the way C. C. Wei used Precision to promote the game (when I started playing) and even the way Ely Culbertson and Charles Goren promoted their systems 60 years ago. The thing about GUS is that it's scientific and fun – every auction is new and fresh. We hope this will turn on teenagers to the game and spur corporate sponsorship for a pro tour.
CBA: Right — one of the reasons bridge is so inhospitable for television is that the players are so wooden at the table. The ACBL Rules and Ethics practically mandate this behavior, so it makes sense to get outside of the formal ACBL structure when bridge is played for exhibition purposes. If there was a format where the top players had the elbow room to show off their “eccentricities” and pizzazz, is there anyone in particular that might surprise us?
Matthew: Yes, I think most of the top players are eccentric or have habits that other top players know about and joke about – and are not publicly known. For example, Jeff Meckstroth is very careful about the way he writes his scores in the convention card . . . . Try touching his scorecard one day and see what happens. Or Bob Hamman will clear his throat whenever he is about to make, what he thinks, is a superbly witty remark. Kit Woolsey, when he has a problem, puts his hand over his forehead but when he's getting a series of good results, he'll start rocking back and forth. Steve Robinson likes to joke at the table: “We play upside down – we smile when we don't like the lead.” Well, that's a few examples. Years ago, however, star players would have more “dangerous” eccentricities, like the time Sidney Lazard knocked the orange juice out of Phil Feldesman's hand, because he thought orange juice was bad for his game, or the way Ira Rubin would smile gently at his partner, asking him to explain why he had made the bad play he made, and then – upon hearing the explanation – explode in a shriek, heard across the room. And then there was Helen Sobel, who as declarer, to guess a queen, would cross her legs and play the defender who didn't look at her for the queen.
CBA: You’ve mentioned your new approach to bidding — “GUS” (Granovetter Unified System). Tell us more about the system —does it have a pedigree? What kind of auction style is it? Is it something suitable for the everyday club player, or is it targeted for the expert?
Matthew: It's based on “relay bidding” which means one-way auctions, where one player asks the other player to describe his hand. This type of system was first introduced to me by a friend of mine when I was 20 years old and I was smitten with it, and have been devising methods like this ever since. It's easy to play such a system, if you have an open mind and are willing to dramatically change styles. Young people already play similar methods in other countries – it's appealing to them, because the idea of picturing your partner's hand exactly before the dummy comes down is imaginative and fun. We older players could do it too ... in bridge, I believe you can teach old horses new tricks, because most bridge players have fertile minds and are looking for fresh ideas. GUS is especially fun for couples who can discuss the system at home between sessions. So in answer to your last question, it's not only suitable for everyday players, it should inspire them to play even more bridge!
CBA: I’m personally looking forward to learning more about GUS, and I believe you’re going to offer some classes in the near future on selected parts of the system. I really like the approach you’ve taken for weak two-bids; I can’t stand Ogust responses because they provide nonspecific answers to multiple questions, leaving the 2NT bidder with a guess more often than not even with the Ogust response. What is your least favorite convention in modern bidding?
Pam: That would be preemptive jump raises and jump shift responses to an opening bid (in and out of competition). I know that “blocking” bids are important, but for me, it's so much more fun to reach a good game or slam than it is to preempt my own auction. I find that those bids push the opponents into lucky cold contracts more often than not. This has nothing to do with preempting as an opening bid – that is invaluable because it takes up so much space. But if partner already showed an opening bid, what is the point of preempting him? Do the opponents often have a game or slam after we opened the bidding? I think not . . . .
CBA: Right — it seems there are so many tactical bids available as responder when holding a weak hand, especially when you have a fit. Some people think they qualify as quasi-psychs (e.g., responding 1NT to partner’s 1S opening with Qxxx Jxx xx xxxx), but I think it’s just good bridge.
Pam: Yes, “stealing” is definitely good bridge! Alvin Roth once suggested that if you are favorable and partner opens a weak two bid, and you have a bad hand, if second hand passes, you should raise with a singleton! Each opponent will have length in partner's suit and if the points are evenly divided, nobody will be able to double, so you'll go down a few at only 50-a-trick! I actually had a chance to raise with a singleton after (pass) –2H– (pass) but I passed like a coward and they got to 3NT making (vulnerable), when a 3H bid by me would have blown them out. On the other hand, I cannot tell you how many times my opponents have pushed me into thin games that are cold by making “weak jump raises” of their partner's suit.
CBA: Matthew, do you have a least favorite convention?
Matthew: I love conventions, gadgets, etc, so this is a tough question for me. My least favorite would be the entire 2-over-1 system. Everything is forcing, but it's difficult to know when partner has extra strength, and how many clubs he has when he bids 2C! My next least favorite is Michaels for a major and an unknown minor. I've lost tournaments on this one, when the bidding went (1S)–2S–(4S)–all pass. Our side had a 5-5 minor-suit fit, but the fourth hand, with five diamonds and three small clubs could not bid 4NT to ask the minor, since partner may have held clubs. Pamela and I have played for years “color cue” where 1S–2S or 1H–2H shows the two suits of the same color. Identifying the suits you have early in the auction is helpful, don't you think?
CBA: Absolutely—this would also seem to be an argument for treatments like negative free bids, non-forcing new suits by advancer, and other ways of getting involved in the auction without getting overboard. Do you like these treatments as well?
Matthew: I don't like negative free bids, because it's difficult to describe when you have a good hand if you have to start with double. But we play a 2/1 in competition is forcing only one round, so it can be light. As for overcalls and responses to overcalls, we have always played them not forcing – competitive bidding is a jungle and you have to get your long suit in ASAP, in case you have a nice fit.
CBA: You both regularly play at all levels of competition: club games, Regional tournaments, NABC+ events, and internationally. What is the biggest difference between the top flight players and the rest of us that scratch around as club players? To put it another way, what part of the game could most of us get better at if we realized how much improvement was possible?
Pam: The biggest difference is that top-flight players are deadly serious about the game. They play it for a living and they are very hungry to do well on every single board. They have regular partnerships and they put a tremendous amount of effort into their system notes, so they have agreements in place for almost every situation that you can imagine. To this day, Matthew and I spend a great deal of time at tournaments discussing bridge with other experts.
I don't think you can improve without playing with and discussing bridge with good players. I was very lucky because the best players played with me when I began (this was in Cleveland). In addition, all the young players would go out for something to eat after the game, and we'd go through all the boards. If you aren't lucky enough to be able to hire a teacher or to discuss bridge with experts, then I'd say the best thing you can do is force yourself to count on every hand. Count the points, count the distribution, and try to imagine the layout. But, really, the best way to learn is to have an expert teacher, either a friend or a pro, and listen to what they have to say rather than “airing” your own point of view on every hand!
Matthew: The difference between the top flight and club players is also concentration. As a kid, I kibitzed Paul Soloway in a world championship and he played too fast from dummy as declarer and blocked a suit. He slapped his knee and cried out, “Paul!” to himself. It was probably the only time in his life he had ever done this. The top players pride themselves on concentration. We all know the story of the bet between two people in an English bridge club – they had a naked woman sit down to kibitz a famous player. He didn't flinch. He played the hand with excellent technique and then went on to shuffle the cards for the next deal. Well, if you didn't know the story, you now do. (He eventually noticed.)
CBA: I’m not sure Cincinnati would be ready for that! Any thoughts on the best way to introduce rubber bridge players to duplicate?
Matthew: Actually, I'd like to introduce duplicate players to rubber bridge. For one thing, there aren't many rubber bridge games left these days. For another, it's the duplicate players who are missing out on all the excitement. The strategies of rubber bridge are very interesting, and the ability to play lots more deals in a small time frame help rubber bridge players become better card players. I think we should find a way to run rubber bridge tournaments. There'd be more luck, but the excitement of the big scores, completing partscores, winning a rubber, even getting your honors, would be fun.
CBA: I never thought of it that way—we might just have to look into some of those ideas! Matthew, Pam, thanks so much for your time and thoughtful answers, and we’ll see you around the bridge table.
© 2011 Cincinnati Bridge Association and Matthew and Pamela Granovetter