Cedric at last year's JTI
Cedric has a great history in developing bridge players and nearly all our recent Junior competitions have involved players like the Dessain brothers and Rob Myers that started playing with Cedric. Each week Cedric visits five schools to run lunch-time and after school clubs, mostly with Primary School age children. I cannot begin to calculate the hours he has spent in the last ten years or so, not just teaching bridge but preparing hands and teaching aids. Cedric is very modest about his work, but the deep affection of his protégées speaks volumes. Students who have left the town to go to University or employment elsewhere often come to the club on Saturday morning when they are visiting to lend a hand and join in.
Trying to solve one of Cedric's tricky problems
The central cog in this work is the Saturday morning club in Harrogate Bridge Club. For two hours every week, young players can drop in, play a few hands, receive some teaching and advice and tackle some of the fiendish bidding or playing challenges that Cedric has prepared. The Saturday morning we arrived numbers were somewhat depleted because of other events going on, but two tables were already underway. Sarah and I joined in with some trepidation; it’s always easy to look stupid in these situations. Cedric receives lots of support and he told me that if he ever needs help he can always find volunteers. Yorkshire CBA supports Cedric's work financially paying for refreshments on Saturday mornings and helping with petrol money. Almost any Bridge Club could do something along these lines.
Saturday morning in Harrogate
As the morning comes to the close, more young players arrive from all over the country. Harrogate BC is acting as the host for a training weekend for the U20 Squad. Entry to the squad is open to any youngster who wants to come and the squad is run extremely effectively by the Squad Manager, Michael Byrne. Every six or eight weeks, depending on other events, up to thirty or so young players turn up and undergo a weekend of vigorous training, tuition and card play. The level of commitment is high. This time the Harrogate players can have a lie-in, because the weekend is based in their home town. Others have travelled from the South, from Manchester and even Edinburgh. Michael tends to arrange the weekends where the majority of players live so that accommodation is no problem. Players turn up with sleeping bags expecting to sleep on the floor at the home of one of the other squad members. It's a glamorous life being a junior international player or a wannabe.
There's lots of noise and laughter, even argument sometimes, but it's all very serious. There's quite a lot of variation in the experience and skill of the squad from relatively new players to seasoned internationals. At the moment there is a big prize at stake. The U20 team came fourth in the European Championships in 2007 and as a result have been invited to the Mind Sports Olympiad in Beijing in October. University commitments will mean that not all the leading contenders can play and junior partnerships tend to change on what sometimes seems to be a three monthly cycle so the team is by no means settled yet and Michael and his assistants, Alan Shillitoe and Duncan Happer are assiduously grooming and assessing the young hopefuls.
This weekend the extremely experienced international player, John Armstrong has agreed to come along and lead the training. Everyone knows that John is one of the nicest people in bridge. (As a TD I must have been present at hundreds of events where John has played and the only time he ever called me, except to ask for a board to play, was because he had made a poor claim) John had prepared hands he himself had played over the last few months, mostly on the theme of competitive bidding, although there were sure to be some tricky play and defensive problems as well.
Ben Paske and Rob Myers take on James Paul and Graeme Robertson
The six tables play eight boards — I wouldn’t say in anything approaching silence, but there is a definite air of concentration, punctuated by the occasional outburst of hysteria. After 50 minutes or so (most juniors don’t hang about), the serious work begins. Each table in turn is asked to reveal the outcome of the board and explain the thought- (or lack of thought-) processes that lead to the contract and tricks won or lost. This is a very daunting procedure, we all know as bridge players how absurdly badly we can play at times, so having to confess all to your peers and friends is not easy. John is a wizard at explaining how he dealt with problems at the table and especially how he tries to understand the way that opponents are thinking and playing. A masterclass in every sense of the word. I especially liked this hand.
Perhaps we should think of it as a declarer problem first.
You are West. There are plenty of different auctions but say South opens 3NT — showing solid(ish) minor. You bid 4. North joins in with 4NT and partner, East, bids 5. This "floats" (Junior Bridgespeak for everyone passes) and you are left to play at a slightly uncomfortable level. The trickiest lead is probably a trump. What's your plan?
How good are you at finessing? You've got to do better than that as North has all three of the missing Black cards and all three finesses will lose. How unlucky is that? Junior Bridge players will tell you that three losing finesses only happens 12.5% of the time, but here that's not right. South's 3NT told you that he only had high cards in a minor suit so it's 100% certain that North will hold the cards he does. The general idea on this sort of hand is that we need to get rid of the non-crucial suits (elimination) and force North to do our dirty work for us and make him lead the crucial suits (end-play). There are several ways of achieving this on this hand but the simplest is something like this. Win the trump lead in dummy, with the Ace, trump a diamond high and draw the last trump with the eight in dummy (note that important part of the plan — you need the 8 to get to dummy, so you cannot now ruff the second diamond). Now North's safe diamond exits are eliminated and if he ever plays that suit we can ruff in one hand and discard our Club loser in the other. Nothing can save North now. Take the spade finesse, North wins and has to lead a black suit. A club or diamond concedes defeat immediately so a spade comes back. Now declarer can win a cheap trick and play the Ace and exit with the fourth spade. North is cooked now and has to concede defeat as he only has the minor suits to lead.
The full hand was:-
If you got this hand right perhaps you should think of joining the U20 Squad (if that is that you were born after 1988). I only just miss out by forty years.
On Sunday we went to the Railway Museum in York. If you haven't ever been there it's a great place, like a giant's toy railway set, wonderful ancient engines like tamed beasts surrounded by all sorts of railway ephemera and bits of railway station signals, royal coaches and the like. The idea was to promote bridge and mini-bridge to visitors to the museum as part of a mind-sports awareness day. The visit was arranged by Matt Betts the EBU's Communications Officer and supported by EBU staff and volunteers from Yorkshire Bridge. Over 100 people young and old sat at a bridge table and had their first "Taste-Bridge" session. We all thought it was a great day. The England Junior Squad took part in an Exhibition match with players from York Bridge Club. Thanks to all of them too. Lots of photographs which really seem to have captured the occasion can be found here.
One interesting feature of the day was that many of the chess-players were quite young, probably as young as six or seven. This led me to think about the best age to teach young people to play bridge. There are very different opinions and I'd be very pleased to hear from you with your opinions either as a player or as a teacher. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I had a very interesting conversation recently with Chris Dixon, another extremely experienced international player and the Junior Team NPC, who has been recently appointed as County Youth Officer by Wiltshire. Chris believes strongly that we should target older children around sixteen or so and has ambitious plans for a Summer School in Bath where he aims to teach bridge from scratch in one day. I asked Chris what he thought the differences between bridge and chess were that lead to child prodigies in chess much more commonly than in bridge. Chris said that he thought chess was a purer game, at most levels it is just the player and the board that are involved. Bridge is much more psychological. We need to learn to handle partners and opponents. Chris intends to demonstrate that bridge is a challenging and absorbing competitive activity for young people. Looking back on that Saturday afternoon in Harrogate, I think he may have a point. He's promised to send me details so I’ll let you know how he gets on and how his days go.