Ray Lee

Pay for play

I am sitting in the Vugraph room yesterday, watching George Jacobs struggling in the final of the Bermuda Bowl, and thinking about how much I hate the idea of playing sponsors.  It tarnishes the event somehow when the world championship is not being contested by the best players — the USA team in each of the three finals is carrying a sponsor.  And I use the word ‘carrying’ deliberately.

When Jacobs has been in, the USA team is losing IMPs to Norway — so the question is, are they good enough to win those back when he’s on the bench?  The USA women’s team has a sponsor who admits to being merely a club player, and who notoriously failed to cash her nine tricks in 3NT earlier in the event, costing her side a game swing.  Rose Meltzer is a very nice lady, but despite being the first woman to have been on a Bermuda Bowl winning team, I don’t think she would claim to be a world-class player.

I remember about fifteen years ago acting as a recorder at a Vanderbilt final.  I was excited to be right at the table, in the middle of the action with all these great players. But I soon realized there were only three real players at that table — the fourth was there by virtue of the size of his wallet.  Even that far back, it felt very sad.

At the same time, I realize that I don’t have a problem with my old friend Glen Holman, who moved away from Toronto some years ago, bankrolling the South African team.  For one thing, he and his partner played almost every set, anchoring the team.  For another, he’s not simply hiring a bunch of top pros to carry him to some undeserved success.  Those guys don’t exist in South Africa.  What he is doing is making it possible to do in style and comfort what they were probably going to do anyway.  More power to him.

There’s no doubt sponsorship has some plusses, in that it allows some people to make a decent living out of the game, improving their own skills as a result.  But it has its dark side.  Quite apart from the ‘purity of the game’ issue, it is attracting young players to play in and for the USA rather than their own countries.  Canada has lost Fred Gitelman, Geoff Hampson and Gavin Wolpert, just to name three recent defections.  Sweden’s Jenny Reiman, Gavin’s wife, now lives in the States, and who know how long she will continue to play for Sweden?  Probably exactly as long as it takes some sponsor to offer her enough money to play in the US Team Trials.

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking over the last couple of weeks about the way we go about this international stuff in Canada — what we’re doing wrong, and the kind of changes we need to be looking at.  Watch this space for a series of blogs on this topic over the next little while.


Ken RexfordOctober 11th, 2007 at 11:00 pm

I’m not sure what frustrates me more. On the one hand, you have the strange irony of the arrogance of money resulting in embarassment that the ego will not recognize. On the other hand, you have the real talent watching this sad display on vugraph instead of playing in the event.

Jonathan FergusonOctober 12th, 2007 at 1:49 am

While you may have a point about certain clients in some instances, using George Jacobs as an example is absurd. His record in pairs and team events speaks for itself. And check out his Butler rankings in the round robin compared to, say, Zia and Rosenberg.

Ryman, not Reiman.

The CBF is toxic to junior bridge. We have had among the best talent in the world (Wolpert/Demuy, Grainger/Korbel, Sabourin and Lavee) but the CBF has demonstrated that it’s not interested in fielding the best teams. If you’re worried about the future of Canada in international bridge competition, start there.

Gavin WolpertOctober 12th, 2007 at 11:36 am


this is a non-negotiable part of bridge. These clients make it possible for the majority of the top bridge players in the world to be able to put enough time into the game to improve. Without someone paying helgemo and helness to play all of the major tournaments do you think they would be in the final? no they are here because they are well practised. George Jacobs has played his share of boards in many many big tournaments and done extremely well, I don’t think its fair for you to suddenly take a beef with him because of 1 rough set, as you would not do the same if zia had a really bad set.

Also, Norway has won imps almost every set this match, so singling out 1 bad game really doesnt work.

As for me moving to the USA, that was because there was little chance I could win a world championship in Canada. By the time I was qualified to compete at the world level the top pros you mentioned fred, geoff, mark molson had all already moved to the US and it became quickly clear that we do not have the pool of players to field a winning team. why is that ? because we dont have any full time pros that are improving at the same rate in Canada as all the other countries, and why don’t we have pro’s in canada? because we dont have clients.

It is a working system

Tim CapesOctober 13th, 2007 at 2:01 pm

The system is in some ways broken, but it can’t be fixed. Bridge doesn’t generate enough spectator interest to charge to watch and use that money to pay members of a team a salary so the strategy used in most team sports is out. The alternative of adopting a system similar to what individual sports do with cash purses based on results would have a lot of appeal, but you’d still have clients, and you’d discourage a lot of play at the amateur level if you need to pay $5000 a player to get into a top event so that the prizes are big enough to fund someones career.

Its one thing to complain the system is broken. It’s quite another to actually fix it, here I think its fairly clear no other system can be implemented, and if you disagree please suggest a viable alternative.

colinOctober 14th, 2007 at 7:36 pm

I wasn’t going to get too far into this, but I completely disagree with Gavin that it’s a working system.

It’s a system that depletes the game and makes the top level of the game lesser. It takes away from the best of the game.

Everything you say about Canada is correct but for exactly the wrong reasons. There are very few other sports or games (off the top of my head I can’t think of any) where a player who isn’t remotely qualified can win a world championship when it’s contested based on skill.

There is no way to solve this without providing a financial solution to make the professionals earn a living without resorting to being forced to play with horrible players. The Aces was the first attempt at exactly that, there may have been subsequent attempts as well.

Money tournaments, cash prices, sponsorships, government money are all potential ways to fix the situation to have the top players remain top players. If this wasn’t bridge but was a much more popular / visible sport like Hockey where all the top players were migrating to the US as that was the only way they could win a world championship you can bet your ass that would change VERY quickly.

MichaelOctober 15th, 2007 at 1:37 pm

This one’s going to last forever, and there’s no real answer. Until you can make as much spectator money in Bridge as you can in Hockey, the money’s going to come from sponsors. And not everybody’s an Ira Corn or Maria Theresa Lavalla.

Do I like it? No, not really. Does it work? Yes. Does it mean that the USA is going to import more players, making them artificially even more of a power than they would be straight up? Of course.

Would fewer people try this, instead trying a different way to get to the World Championship, if the USA could only field one team? Don’t get me started on that one…

Colin, look at sports where the money from viewing (either spectator or advertising) just isn’t there, and see how many would move to win a world championship (or, conversely, would move to get to a world championship, if that’s the only way they could). If you want the epitome of Sponsorship in the bridge sense, see the America’s Cup. Frankly, the sponsor buys the boat and the crew’s time. Yeah, they’re yachters, but they aren’t world class.

Jeff SmithOctober 15th, 2007 at 7:41 pm

There is a simple solution to the problem, it keeps the best players in thier native countries and allows them to continue to make a living playing the game full-time, and best of all there is a single group within the US that could make this a reality…

The USBF simply has to decree that the US Trials as we know it are no more, and furthermore that the trials moving forward will be a pairs trial with the top 3 pairs forming USA 1, and the pairs 4-6 would be USA 2.

This is the way teams used to be selected (back in the old days) and it would eliminate almost entirely the “brain drain” from Canada.

In fact it would be quite possible that players such as Gavin, Geoff, Fred and others would magically repatriate themselves and Canada would become a bridge power.

The pros would lose 1 tournament a year from thier pocket books but the US would be able to send much stronger teams to the World Championships year in and year out, and is that not the sole madate of the USBF…to send the best possible team to the World Championships? Judging the USBF on that criteria alone its quite clear that this orginization is a total failure at the present time.

RayOctober 17th, 2007 at 1:02 pm

My point exactly. I have nothing against sponsorship or people earning a living. I do have a problem with someone buying a world title and being hailed as a great champion. And I have a problem with the world events not being contested among the best possible players. As for having no chance of winning a world title in Canada, that’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. If our top players were still here instead playing on US teams for pay, we’d be pretty competitive. Let me ask the question Bobby Wolff poses in his forthcoming book: Would you rather play for a US sponsored team in their Trials, with a guaranteed payday win lose or draw, or play on a team made up of the best three pairs in your own country (Canada, for example) with a shot at bringing a world title home? I think I know the answer…

In the next couple of weeks I’m going to post some ideas about how Canada should be selecting and funding its international teams, as a follow-up.

LindaOctober 19th, 2007 at 9:13 am

I agree with Jeff and Ray. Maybe it is unrealistic but I want to see the best in the world competing against each other once a year. Surely the pros can play for their country then. Alright they are not going to make money for that one event but they can use the event to gain prestige and most importantly to play in a great event. If we ever want bridge to be a spectator sport this event above all else is important.

Stacy Jacobs » coincidence? i think notNovember 5th, 2008 at 12:05 pm

[…] Lee, who took an ignorant swipe at my husband and the other American playing sponsors during the World Championships last October, is at it again. This week he’s handicapping the […]

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