Bridge Home Local Next

A New Golden Age

by Bruce McIntyre, Vancouver, Canada


(Thanks to the either the miracle of time travel or the wild imagination of the author, neither of which I fully understand, this report on bridge entering the 21st century arrived at Matchpointer headquarters in time for this issue. Enjoy.)


It has been apparent for some time that bridge has undergone incredible changes as we wind down the 20th century and enter the 21st. We've all witnessed these amazing changes in the past three years, and slowly we have come to identify the trends, but not the underlying reasons behind them. Let's look back on what happened:

In July of 1998, a rural Indiana Senior's centre's newsletter reported that the weekly bridge game had ended. "The skill level of the players was too wide, and the best players are now looking into weekly excursions to a local bridge club, whereas the more social players are continuing to play, but not as part of any serious or semi-serious competition." This report was not the earliest we were able to find that clearly shows the developing trend, but many of the players in that group went on to great bridge fame very quickly.

By the fall of 1998, this scenario had been played out across America, and to a smaller extent in the rest of the world. There was a serious rift in senior's centres between the social players and the players who wanted to play competitively. The competitive players began to look elsewhere, and organized weekly (in many cases more than once a week) excursions to nearby bridge clubs, where they did reasonably well.

We didn't much notice at first, but gradually a few more things became apparent. Most of the competitive oldsters were men. And a lot of these men were quite good. Few if any had been ACBL members in their younger years, which was another surprise.

At the NABC in Orlando in November 1998, there was a flurry of complaints about these excellent players in the Senior Bracketed Knockouts. How did such great players get into the lowest brackets? When the trend became even more pronounced, somebody went through the open stratified results and discovered that an unprecedented number of Flight C pairs had gotten overall placings in Flight A or B, and that 20% of the Flight C pairs won 90% of the possible Flight C awards.

By the end of 1998, ACBL membership was up slightly, club attendance was up, the Rookie and Junior Master halfway leaders of the Ace of Clubs and Mini-McKenney in most Units had been left in the dust by the stampede of seniors, and the reactions were starting to begin.

The Clubs loved it. Almost all of these new good players had played very little tournament bridge before, and their discovery of duplicate was putting money in the clubs coffers. Not only that, the new seniors were joys to play against: they loved the game, were confident they could be successful, and were happy to help the other players when they had problems and questions. In short, they just weren't like other duplicate players.

The ACBL loved it. Memberships went up, both to the ACBL, and to Bridge America, which happily filled the void left behind at the senior's centres by departing competition-starved players. Tournament attendance went up a little. By the end of the year, Memphis was coming to the conclusion that something had happened to bring men in their 60s, 70s, 80s, and even 90s, into the tournament world. Plans were made to do things to accommodate this new demographic at NABCs in 1999.

For awhile, the people supporting the Zero Tolerance programs claimed that ZT was the reason behind the surge. This proved untrue, but the new seniors almost unanimously supported Zero Tolerance. The Bulletin interview with George McGinn, the player who had started the bridge excursions in Indiana (and who had topped the ACBL with a 79% score in the 1998 ACBL Instant Matchpoint Game) asked him about the Zero Tolerance program. "Well, when you play at a place that doesn't punish the hotheads, they seem to get the idea that they can get away with anything. When I played for fun there weren't no hotheads. Can't see why playing in a tournament there should be. The Zero Tolerance thing is just there: nobody gets punished too much for small stuff, but it keeps things happy when the hotheads get riled up. I think most of us new boys would sure not want to play without it."

The term "new boys" stuck. McGinn captained a team of them that went to the semis of the 1998 Vanderbilt in Vancouver. As was widely reported at the time, his partner Grantland Steeves, decided on an anti-percentage line on the final board in 7NT, which decided the match. "Sure he knew clubs were 4-2," explained McGinn. "He figured that the guy at the other table would finesse against the player with four, so to get a swing he tried for the drop. You never know whether you're ahead or behind in this game: those guys are good tough players, they think real hard over everything—can't blame Grant for thinkin' we needed a swing to beat 'em. Maybe what we learn from this is that us new boys can play with the top guys, without looking to swing a few and get lucky."

So much has been written about the 1999 Summer NABC in San Antonio that it seems unnecessary to add much other than the well-known facts. A small clique of expert players looked upon this phenomenon of quickly-rising seniors with disbelief, and came to what they felt was the obvious conclusion: that some form of cheating was taking place. Subtle pressure was placed on the "new boys" at the table in the form of frequent Director calls, and a few years earlier, before Zero Tolerance took effect, it might have worked beautifully: the seniors might have left for good. But as the tournament progressed, and the Director calls increased, the "anti-new boy" clique began to get frustrated, because there was no evidence of any sort of cheating. The first three days had the "new boys" called to a Committee five times, and they won all five, and in four of them the appellants lost their deposit because it was clear that the appeal was frivolous.

By the midpoint of the tournament, there were ugly rumours about the actions of the "contras," as the "anti-new boy" clique came to be called. Eventually the contras in their frustration began to go outside the bounds of decency, making insinuations of wrongdoing without calling the Director first. The new boys were well aware of what was going on by now and called the Director immediately. Several contras were ejected from the session under the ZT guidelines, and a few received lengthy suspensions. Sadly, the commotion, while making it clear that cheating was not involved, distracted McGinn and the other new boys enough so that they were unable to reach the final stages of the big events. But as McGinn said in the Daily Bulletin: "the new boys is not just us at the top; it's a whole bunch of people who are discovering this game at all levels. Seems like we got hit on this time because we got good too fast and people thought some pretty ugly thoughts. We got beat at the top because of the distraction, but a lot of new boys are doing real well in lots of events here. And at least now people know we ain't doing anything nasty."

At the Boston NABC in the Fall of 1999, the schedule was changed drastically to add a great number of non-Senior bracketed knockouts. The thought was to keep the players from having to face new boys because of their lower masterpoint totals. It wasn't too successful: the new boys, buoyed on by the success of their peers at the highest levels, stayed away from the bracketed and masterpoint-limited events. After the brouhaha at San Antonio, they wanted a shot at the doubting established experts!

In February of 2000, the Contras book, By Way Of Apology, appeared. The authors publicly apologized for their actions in San Antonio, and tried to explain why they thought that cheating was involved. "We have played this game at its highest levels for a long time, and have never seen anyone reach the top levels—let alone two or three teams worth of players—as quickly as the best of the "new boys" have. We understand that our actions were wrong, but we urge the ACBL and WBF to look into this peculiar trend. Never before have so many people in a particular demographic taken up the game, with as much success. Something must have happened somewhere along the line: let's find out what it is or was so that we can exploit it and create a new Golden Age of Bridge."

By now the trends were apparent: the new boys consisted almost exclusively of men over 60, most of them happily married (most of the wives did not play, or played socially only), and almost all of them had very little tournament exposure prior to 1998. There were exceptions, as there always are in trends, but generally the picture of a typical new boy was quite accurate. An ACBL subcommittee was set up to find out what could be concluded from this trend.

George McGinn had a poor Spring NABC in Cincinnati. Several of the other new boy teams did well in the big events, but McGinn's play suffered. His teammates explained that the death of his wife a month before the tournament seemed to be having an unseen effect. McGinn was diplomatic: "Everyone has bad days; sure, I've had some real bad ones, but this game remains exciting whether you win or lose, specially when you have teammates that are as patient as mine. I'll be back. Dunno whether Edie's passin's got anything to do with it—maybe it does—but I sure thank all the people who sent notes and cards."

McGinn missed the summer NABC in Anaheim, though. He was on a cruise, and returned from the cruise remarried—and itching to get back on the tournament trail. Later that year, McGinn's team won the International Team Trials, qualifying to represent the ACBL in the World Championships. He topped all players in masterpoints at the 2000 Fall NABC in Birmingham.

The ACBL Committee looking into the senior resurgence made their report in Birmingham, and while their findings were kept secret, they were asked to study the issue further and include the WBF in the circle. Rumours leaked out: the new boy's secrets are about to be revealed! The McGinn team may be disqualified from participating! All were denied. Eventually the findings were made public by way of a statement from the WBF president released in the booklet of the 2001 World-Wide Instant Matchpoint Pairs:

"Welcome to the 21st century!

"In the past three years, we have noticed the world-wide rise in the number of newer players, and the astonishing success of these newer players at incredibly high levels. We were saddened to see that bridge players were skeptical of this at first, and we are happy to see that that wave has passed and the new players are being welcomed by the "old guard." (Most of these new players are older men, so perhaps "old guard" is misleading here!)

"In order to expand this base of players, the WBF, in conjunction with the ACBL, has undertaken a study to discover why, in mid-1997, a significant number of elderly male players began playing bridge and discovered a great talent for the game. We interviewed many players and have come to a conclusion that we are surprised was not obvious at the time. We have considered the conclusion, which involves medications, and have decided not to disqualify anyone, but instead to continue to work so that the specific ingredients of the medication can be made available to all who wish them, without unpleasant side effects. The medication appears (as an unintended side effect of its original purpose) to enhance one's ability to play bridge. We don't know yet why other intellectual games are not similarly affected, but our preliminary studies show that without a doubt the cause is indeed the medication.

"Ladies—and especially gentlemen—of the bridge world: it's Viagra."


Gopher Editor's note:

Bridge Home Top Local Next
Top of