Ray Lee

Why doesn’t Canada do better? Part 2

Let me describe a scenario for you. In order to choose Canada’s Olympic hockey team, we invite players to form teams across the country and compete with one another in a regional playoff competition. Eventually, the winner will be Team Canada, and get to pick their own coach. It won’t bother us if Gretsky and Lemieux play on different teams (and as a result we can’t send both of them), because the whole process is fair and egalitarian. Ridiculous, you say? Well, that’s exactly what we do in bridge.

It has been obvious to me for a long time that while it is nice to have the CNTC and CTWC as national championship events, they are a very poor mechanism for selecting international representatives. If anyone needs proof of this contention, simply look at our finishes in the Bermuda Bowl and Olympiad over the last 10 years. We are not the United States. We cannot afford to send our third or fourth or eighth best team to a world event, confident that they will be top contenders. We must do everything in our power to send our three best pairs in each team. Full stop. End of discussion.

Now, there are those who will immediately cry, ‘What about ‘team chemistry’?’ In my view, it’s vastly overrated – and in so far as you need it, it can be developed. More important is to have people who can perform at this level of competition. I was at the 1972 Olympiad, in which Canada took the bronze medal in the Open event, behind the Blue Team and the Aces (no shame, that). I don’t remember Murray or Kehela spending 5 minutes with their teammates away from the table. And Gowdy and Phillips spent most of the time feeling furious because they weren’t getting to play very much. Not much chemistry, but six guys who were terrific bridge players. As Casey Stengel put it, ‘Nice guys are ten a penny; give me someone who can hit.’ Year after year we’re sending groups of players who like each other, who have formed themselves into teams with ‘chemistry’ – but who, at this level, patently cannot hit.

How do we change this? I’m going to propose something so radical here that I know it will not happen in Open competition for a long time. So I’m going to suggest that it be tried for the women, for two reasons: 1) I think if you take a survey of CWTC level women in Canada, you’ll find they like my idea – certainly the few I talked to in Shanghai did. 2) When they see that it works, the Open players will want to try it themselves. But before I explain it, let me sketch in some background.

We have several problems in Canada: lack of funds (addressed in a previous post), geography, and a small population. I doubt there are more than about a dozen women players in the country who are both seriously interested in playing internationally and have any chance of being competitive at that level. These players are scattered across a very large country. Leaving them to find and form their own teams, based on who knows whom and who likes whom, is a formula for disaster. But there is a model that could work, one that has been tried successfully in other small countries – Australia and the Netherlands come to mind immediately. It is as follows:

1) Identify a group of perhaps six pairs to join an international squad. Talented individuals in remote areas can be identified, and encouraged and helped to find appropriate partners. Pairs Trials from time to time can be used to help identify newcomers and augment the group as people are cut or drop out.

2) Under the guidance of a national coach/manager, the squad practices and trains on an ongoing basis. Internet play and matches can be very helpful here.

3) Teams selected from the squad are sent to high-level events to gain experience against the best opposition – the Nationals are an obvious place to start. It’s also very easy to arrange Internet matches against good opponents.

4) Teams for world championships are selected from among the squad by the coach, in consultation with a Selection Committee composed of top-level players with international experience. Ideally, this should be a four or five person group with representation from each area of the country. However, let me emphasize that this Committee is composed of players, not politicians. It should be self-perpetuating, thus ensuring that replacement members are of a calibre similar to the persons being replaced.

Now this takes time and effort, and most of all money. But this is the CBF’s job!

I recognize that for Open teams, this is a pipe dream and won’t happen unless its efficacy can be demonstrated for the women. However, without doing anything quite so radical, I would urge the following immediate changes to the current system.

1) CNTC entry should be restricted to six-person teams. Failing this, augmentation should be done by a CBF Selection Committee (see above).

2) CNTC entrants should have to commit to playing in the next world event. This year, three members of the CNTC winning team were unable to go to Shanghai, and were therefore replaced. I wonder how the second place team felt about that? Should anyone drop out for medical or other acceptable reasons, the replacement players should be chosen and/or approved by the Selection Committee, rather than rubber-stamped by the Board as at present.

3) The team captain should be either selected by the CBF, or chosen by the team from a list of approved captains provided by the CBF. A prerequisite for being a team captain should be international experience as a player or captain. The job requires organizational skills, people management skills, and sufficient bridge ability to understand and judge a pair’s performance level and act accordingly. It’s not enough to be good buddies with the team – in fact it’s probably a negative, because it makes it harder to sit out a pair when you have to. In addition, it’s helpful to have been to a world event, to understand how things work, and how to get things done when necessary.

I’;d be very interested in feedback from readers on some of these ideas.


Jonathan FergusonNovember 14th, 2007 at 4:24 pm

I think the hockey analogy is poor. Take curling. We don’t split up teams to send the theoretical ‘best’ 4-person team to the olympics/world championships.

I don’t trust the CBF to do much of anything and certainly would oppose giving them the power that you would delegate to them.

I’d rather see playing time determined by some sort of formula (involving Butlers) than by a captain appointed by the CBF. If the captain is chosen by the players, though, then let him make the decision who to play.

I disagree that all CNTC teams ought to be 6- baggers or that all participants in the CNTC ought to be willing to spend thousands of dollars to travel to an event they have virtually no chance of winning. If my greatest bridge aspiration is to win a CNTC with 3 of my friends, I should absolutely be allowed to pursue that dream.

Here’s my proposed solution:

The CBF membership should vote on the question: Are you happy with how Canada’s representatives to world championships are selected or would you like to see a change?

If they vote for a change, I’d suggest the following:

If a 6-person CNTC-winning team wishes to participate with the same 6 players who won, they should of course be permitted to do so.

If fewer than 6 of the original team members wish to participate, or if there were fewer than 6 original team members, then any intact partnership from the team will still be automatically allowed to participate. The remaining 1 or 2 partnerships would be selected in a (4 or) 6-session IMP pairs event.

The IMP pairs event could be held opposite the CNTC final. Perhaps one of the partnership slots (if any exist) could be held open for the strongest pair on the team that lost in the final, if they want it.

If that is deemed impractical, then you could offer slots based on overall Butler rankings in the round robin portion of the CNTC.

Finally, remember that Wally and Piotr ANCHORED the team when they played in the CNTC and that team won the final quite comfortably. But in Shanghai, on the world stage, Wally and Piotr struggled.

Also remember that almost everyone raved at the amount of work and preparation that Nader put into getting this team ready.

I would argue that it’s far more a lack of talent than a lack of strategy that will keep Canada off the Bermuda Bowl podium for some time to come.

Nader HannaNovember 15th, 2007 at 4:08 pm


There is no question that, due to geography, funding and other constraints, our method of selecting national teams does not allow us to select our best teams.

As you know, earlier this year we started a new process to select our junior national teams. This process is very much what you are suggesting for the women. We have 27 players from across the country registered in the program and through several online practice matches, quizzes, etc. a selection committee will select our teams for next year’s events.

This process works for the juniors because they have less ability to form teams and partnerships, and fewer resources to travel to trials, etc.

I am not sure that the barriers to forming good teams are the same for open and ladies teams. They are in a better position to form teams and partnerships from across the country (and indeed they do), and they have more resources to travel to zone and national finals.

In my opinion, we need to maintain the CNTC and CWTC as our national team championships that people aspire to win. We do need separate events however to determine our international teams. In such events only teams that are committed to go to the world championships would participate. These teams would be seeded based on the performance of the team in some predetermined tournaments (NABCs, CNTC/CWTC, etc.). We would get a stronger competition of committed teams, and one that is not constrained by geographical representation. This process is still not ideal but it is better than what we currently have.

I also think that you are minimizing the funding challenges facing the CBF. To think that by conducting some tournaments that offer cash prizes instead of master points the CBF can be in a position to send teams to NABC’s to practice is at best overly optimistic. It is unfortunate but true that many Canadian players are only interested in master points, and are not interested in funding our national teams (according to a recent survey done by the ACBL). Corporate sponsorship is also a challenge as not many large corporations are interested in a group of fewer than 17,000. The US with 10 times the bridge population does not have a corporate sponsor.

Finally, as far as selecting the NPCs, I totally agree and have made the recommendation as far back as 2003, that a NPC should at a minimum be selected from a pre-approved list of people that meet certain international experience criteria.


Roy HughesNovember 16th, 2007 at 10:53 am

The CNTC, as well as serving to select Canada’s international teams, is an exhilerating event, and provides a wonderful opportunity to meet and match wits with players across the country. There might be better ways to select the strongest team for international play. My first choice, for that purpose only, would be an extended IMP pairs event, with the top 3 pairs forming Canada’s team, with a captain selected by the CBF. I find bridge to be most essentially a game of pairs, as opposed to one of individuals or teams of 4 or 6. But a pairs qualification would compete with the team championship for time and other resousrces, and might not be worth the gain in selection effectiveness, if any. With respect to selection by committee, as opposed to qualification by contest, I find the selection process too problematic. It is too hard to find selectors, and too difficult a job to do fairly.

Glen AshtonNovember 17th, 2007 at 12:09 pm

Years ago, reading the British bridge magazines about their selection committees and all the complications that ensued every year, after a while it was clear that this was a flawed approach.

One key problem is that picking the right talent selectors is very hard. The skill to rank talent accurately is much underrated. For comparison, see the sports drafting process, where armies of scouts are left guessing who will be better in the big leagues.

Many of those picked to be talent selectors go with relatively safe picks, basing their choices on reputation and hype, instead of close examination of the strength and weaknesses of the partnerships. In England, this left up-and-coming partnerships very frustrated with the selection process.

To compound this, in Canada we are so spread apart, so players in the middle of the country might not be aware of budding superstars out west and down east, while the West and the Atlantic might not know who’s running centrally.

Thus I believe that a competitive process to select our team is necessary. However I also believe that the CNTC process to pick our World Championship team entry is wrong too.

The CNTC process to pick our national team championship team is fine, and provides opportunities for teams from across this country to win it. In brings some of the top players in the country together to enjoy some days of great Canadian bridge.

The end result, as Ray notes, is not necessarily the most optimal bridge team to represent Canada internationally. It just represents a team that performed the best for a week, compared to the other teams assembled.

In the CNTC process there is no battles against other international players, and there is no measure on how the CNTC team, or its partnerships, will do when faced with international calibre competition. Thus winning the CTNC provides a team to represent Canada that is unproven in international competitions, and it should be of no surprise that our teams then have lukewarm results.

For comparison, the US teams almost always participate in the Vanderbilt, Spingold, and Reisinger cycle (Spring, Summer, and Fall NABCs). The top twenty teams in these events are now packed with the best international players. To do very well in these events requires playing well against the Italians, the Polish, the Norwegians, the Chinese, etc., as well as the top US players. These events can be the proving grounds for teams.

Many years ago, somebody asked Bruce Ferguson if he was at all nervous playing in the CNTC final that day – he replied that the CNTC final was nothing compared to the last days of the Vanderbilt.

Yet our Canadian teams are rarely seen in the playoffs of these ACBL events. Certainly Canadian partnerships and individuals have done well, but our teams don’t have the time and money, as a whole, to compete in these events three times a year.

For example, for this year, the best practice of the squad going to China would have been to go to Nashville, meet Mexico there for a 2 day playoff, and then play in the Spingold as a team. There they would have faced the strong competition in the Spingold that they also would be tackling in Shanghai. However, quite understandably, the team didn’t have the time off available, and the money, to play in Winnipeg, and then Nashville, and then Shanghai. It was win the CTNC, beat Mexico, play some online, study hard, and off to the Worlds.

There they took on teams like USA 1, that have been playing for years in the Vanderbilt, Spingold, and Reisinger. How can we expect the Canadian team to have any hope of doing well against competition so much more experienced at playing the opponents at that level?

If we want our Canada teams to do well at the international level, they must be composed of partnerships with plenty of experience in the Vanderbilt, Spingold, and Reisinger (or similar events if they prefer to play in Europe or elsewhere). Winning the CTNC does not make a partnership ready for world championship level competition. Neither, for that matter, does winning knockout events at regionals.

Another problem with using the winning CTNC team, as it is, to represent Canada in the World Championships, is that the team is often regionalized – that is the team is composed of players mostly from the same area, who know each other. We end up with a best of breed – the best players from an area winning the CNTC – instead of a best of show – the best of the best winning the event. This is fine for CNTC purposes, but not ideal for having Canada represented by the best team possible.

I believe for Canada to have the best team possible we need to have the best partnerships available, and this is not necessarily the winning the CNTC team. However this should not be done by selection, using a committee or the like, which I believe introduces a flawed approach. Instead a competitive process can identify the winning partnerships to be invited to join the team.

Some might considered a pairs event, such as an IMP pairs, to decide the pairs for the team, but this is unsound for reasons similar to the CNTC. In addition IMP pairs are a bit of the lottery, as top players will tell you.

Instead I believe it is better to establish a point system for Canadian partnership performance in the top four level events – the CNTC, and the Vanderbilt, Spingold, and Reisinger. The top three performing partnerships should be invited to join Canada’s entry for the World Championship team. If a pair declines then partnerships just lower on the performance list should be invited to take their spot.

Canadian partnerships that are composed of a client that used professional players on their teams to assist in obtaining good results in the CNTC, Vanderbilt, Spingold, and Reisinger, should have their performance ratings adjusted to reflect the handicapping.

This performance scoring across the major events will allow Canada to be represented by partnerships doing well across many events, with 3 of the 4 events having world class international competition. Partnerships will have been through the “blast furnace” and forged for world championship level play.

This process will be biased towards partnerships that have the time and money to play in most or all of these events, instead of just one. However that is how it should be – we will need players that are fortunate enough to be able to invest heavily into bridge – to do well at the top of the world requires dedication.

For me, if we had a Canadian team that won the Vanderbilt next year (as if), and then another that won the CNTC, I rather the Vanderbilt winning team represent Canada at the World Championship level. A performance scoring method may make that possible. Let’s pick the best partnerships against world class opponents.

Fred GitelmanNovember 19th, 2007 at 12:48 pm

Hi All!

In my view you should be focusing on your strengths:

1) Eric Kokish

2) The fact that Canada seems to produce a lot of really good young players

3) The fact that Canada has plenty of players who, although not world-beaters, under the right cirumstances would be able to hold their own at the highest levels

The first 2 points are important because international bridge has become so much more competitive over the past 10 years. You simply need to have at least one superstar pair in order to have a chance to win.

Canada’s superstar pair is not going to come from the sort of people who have been playing in the CNTCs for the past 20 years (ie the kind of people I refer to in 3 above). It could come from finding someone for Kokish to play with, but more likely in my view it will come from a pair of young players.

Regardless of whether or not you are able to utilize Kokish as a player, there is no excuse (other than money) for not utilizing him as a coach. Eric has proven time and again that he is able to help turn bridge-nobodies into real contenders. For him not to be seriously involved as a coach for Canada (provided you can afford him) is crazy IMO.

About the young players, unfortunately you rate to lose more of them unless you can find a way to make it worth their while financially to stay in Canada. Given the insane sums of money that professionals players are paid these days, that is going to be hard. Probably your best hope is that a Nick Nickell type appears on the scene in Canada.

About 3, there are plenty of players in Canada who are good enough to be “third pairs” on a winning team. In practice most of these players and the partnerships they play in rarely play anywhere close to their potential. This is because they don’t play enough, are not serious enough when they play, do not play in challenging events, rarely if ever get Kokish-quality coaching, have “difficult” personalities, and do not have much experience playing against the best from other countries.

These guys need to do some more work in order to be assets at the international level. Once again money comes into play – many of these people have families and jobs. Until the time comes in which they can afford to devote a LOT of their time to bridge, nothing good is going to happen.

About the difficult personalities: I will not name any names, but you know the kind of people I mean. These people are like a cancer on any bridge team. No matter how well they play it is not worth it because they invariably make their partners and teammates play worse. Some of Canada’s top and near-top players need a serious attitude adjustment. I would not bet on this happening so my best suggestion to those of you who are not assholes is to not play on teams with those who are.

Changing the way in which Canada selects its teams might help, but I would not bet on it. This is really about economics – you need to find a way to make it possible/worthwhile for your talented players to realize their potential.

I am still a Canadian at heart so I will be rooting for you 🙂

Fred Gitelman

RayNovember 22nd, 2007 at 9:45 am

So most of us agree that the CNTC is a fun event, but not the way to pick our international teams — what we’re arguing about is the right alternative, and how we pay for it. I still believe that a serious effort at marketing can come up with a corporate sponsor, and that CBF-sponsored games and tournaments can come up with whatever else is needed. And Fred is absolutely right — it’s simply criminal to say that we don’t have enough money to get Kokish more involved with our teams. BTW, the curling analogy doesn’t work for two reasons: 1) in curling we are the USA in bridge — whoever we send is the favorite for the world title; 2) curling is a genuine team sport, where all four players work together and have to, while as Nader points out, bridge (even teams bridge) is basically a pairs game.

MichaelDecember 17th, 2007 at 6:12 am

I’m a bit late on the feedback, but it is an interesting topic. It seems there are some basic questions here that are probably best tackled one at a time instead of all at once.

1. Is the status quo good enough, or is there a better way?

It seems that, while not unanimous, the agreement is the status quo is not good enough.

2. Should the Canadian team be selected at a team level, a pair level, or an individual level?

There are arguments for all three. Currently it is selected at the team level. It sounds from Nader’s comments that the juniors, at least initially, is moving to an individual basis. Intuitively, I’d think that a pair selection algorithm would be best unless one of two things were true: team chemistry and knowledge/trust of teammates matters more than Ray suggests in his post; or, Canada’s top pairs aren’t willing to play with each other and are only willing to play on their specific teams with weaker pairs (either due to personality or sponsorship/money).

3. Should team selection be base on committee selection (like a national hockey team), sustained performance (like a point system or rating system), or instantaneous performance (like one big selection event)?

Again there are pluses and minuses of all forms (and some combination would be possible).

Personally, I’m skeptical that committee selection could both be fair and, equally important and probably even more difficult, be perceived to be fair.

A sustained performance would likely get the best read and the best results, but only if all the contenders for Canada’s top pairs/teams can play all the events and do so on an equal footing. It seems that using any of the non-selection events is problematic if some top or potential top pairs/teams aren’t playing the top NABC+ events, and the team events in particular are bad when some are playing as the professional anchor on a non-Canadian team with a weak but high paying sponsor while others are playing as the third pair or even the client to a top team of non-Canadian pros while others are again not playing. And at least until there is enough money that Canadian contenders can be paid to play together in the events at a rate competitive with what they can make on non-Canadian teams or in their non-bridge playing careers any such method will be very difficult and likely not produce the best results.

A single long selection event, then might be the best compromise. I’d propose an IMP Pairs event that had only small carryovers with several qualifying cuts in order to try and mitigate against the random factors.

You could probably combine the methods by having a rolling rating somewhat like golf and tennis. For example a simple scheme might have: first place is 10 points, second place is 9, third is 8, … 10th is 1 point. And then weight your results from this year times 5, last year times 3, and 2 years ago times 1. Top 3 scoring pairs are offered the slot on the team. This has the benefit of rewarding sustained results while meaning that people attempting to qualify only need to clear their schedule to play one event a year. It does bring the downside that a newer player may need to play multiple years events to qualify so if some new star wins convincingly in their first year they may or may not make the team depending on the competitive balance of previous years.

4. Lastly, if there was enough money, you could have the question of how far in advance and for how long should the team be selected.

If you have enough money that you could make it worth people’s while to play closer to full time on the Canadian team, rather than doing non-bridge work or playing with clients, then you could select the team well in advance or for periods longer than a year or two and have part of the condition of being on the team that you have to compete as a team in the top NABC+ and top other international championships.

Even the US dream team men’s basketball has recognized the need to select the team earlier and play in warm up competition before going to play in the world championships and Olympics. If the CBF could afford it, that seems like it could only help.

Concluding, it is clear that talking about different possibilities can only lead to good things. It also seems like there should be nothing stopping fund raising and marketing starting right now as no matter what selection process ends up being used, even the status quo, the team would benefit from more funding.

RayJanuary 8th, 2008 at 11:07 am

I agree, the more we talk about this stuff, the better chance we have of coming up with something that actually works. But in the end it all comes down to money — money to have proper trials, money to fund the teams, money to coach the teams, and maybe even money so our best players won’t play for the USA. There has to be some serious fundraising before anything will get done.

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