Editorial comments concerning Burke by Rod Southworth

Burke is being featured for two primary reasons.  Not only is he a great example for other young players, but he has an excellent insight into duplicate bridge.  As a very young player competing against adults, I often heard people saying that he should be with people his own age, his peers.  My response was “He has no peers!”

When he became a tournament director, our Cheyenne unit asked Bill Michael, our tournament director, if he would allow Burke be an assistant director.  Burke was so young that he had to be driven to our sectional.  In addition, this kid with a rather high voice and acne had to prove himself worthy.  It did not take long for everyone to accept him as a qualified director.

Check out the King of Bridge article on our website that highlights his many accomplishments.  Here are his responses to the questions he was given to answer as a featured player.


How did you first get involved with bridge?

My parents played with my grandparents in our living room when I was very young. I was naturally curious, so I wanted to watch, and soon played a hand of my own. Pretty soon I was hooked!

What do you like to do when not playing bridge?

Study at Yale, direct bridge, read, travel, and work.

What was the biggest obstacle you faced in becoming a good player?

Finding good players who would take a chance on playing with me, being so young and seemingly inexperienced. 

Because of your background (card sense, math skills, competitive nature, etc.) what part of duplicate was relatively easy to learn?

I feel like I have good intuition with the play of the hand and think I picked that up the quickest. Also, the scoring and the strategy with balancing probabilities is easy for me to compute because I think I’m good at mental math.

What do you like most about playing in regional and national tournaments? 

I love the feel of the top competition, playing against world-class players (and once in a while, beating them!). Also, it is fun to play in an event that I know is only offered a couple of times per year, such as a three-day national pairs event. Also, I love long tournaments in that I go and just shut the world out… the only thing on my radar for that whole week is bridge, and the rest of the world just falls away. It’s surreal.

What persona (character, image, etc.) do you strive to maintain while playing duplicate? 

I attempt to appear relaxed, kind, and honest, and do not wish to appear as if I’m taking it too seriously—bridge is still a game, and nobody is going to die if a game doesn’t go well!

What are some of your best memories of playing in tournaments around the country?

One of my best memories is at the first national tournament I played in DC in 2009. I was playing in a side game with my youth partner of the time, and we were playing against my dad. His partner doubled his bid, so I called the director. The director announced, in a booming voice, to the 100+ tables in the room, “Ladies and gentlemen, this young man is calling the director on his father!”

What suggestion or helpful comments would you like to give to relatively new players?

It’s going to take a long time to get good, so don’t get frustrated if it isn’t going well or you aren’t winning yet. I think the best way to learn is by experience. Lessons and reading work for some people, but I don’t think anyone can really claim to have mastered a concept without having screwed it up a few times in action at the table.

What are some common bidding problems players should avoid?

Bidding too high with a misfit. If you and your partner are both rebidding your own suits and neither one likes the other’s suit, then it’s probably time to pass ASAP… the higher you get, the worse it will be.

What are your thoughts on team games vs. pair games?

Pairs are tough. You see a way to make an overtrick with probability 60%, but if it fails, you go down, and you have another way that will make the contract 90% of the time, but will never score the overtrick. Do you go for the overtrick? Depends… how many other tables will be in this contract? Did you bid a pushy game, in which case making it will be a good enough score? Did the opponents find a good lead, in which case making it won’t be any better than going down given that others will all be making the overtrick? Match points has so many elements and it can be very difficult to decide what to do.

Teams are “easier,” I think, though they can be frustrating. My partner found an excellent play to make his contract once during the Spingold last year, but he was in 2D, and the brilliant play won us a total of four IMPs. IMP scoring rewards high-stakes contracts (which are sometimes guesses) disproportionately in my opinion, though so does Rubber bridge. I’d say both formats have ups and downs, though I’ve usually found myself most successful in knockouts and pair games. Swiss is the worst format in my opinion, because one guess on one hand can change the course of the entire session, which is usually not true to such a degree in the other two.

In general, what are good strategies for defense? 

Think about what the declarer is doing. He’s trying to make his contract, and the way he’s playing the cards is what he considers the best strategy for doing so. This helps to paint a picture of his hand. Think about whether his actions would be logical given different hand types he might hold, and use that to narrow down the alternatives.

What are good pre-empting strategies?

Do it a lot! If you’re going to bid at a high level for a preempt, do it as soon as possible and all at once — that’s how to be effective. Don’t worry about getting doubled and going down… if this never happens, you aren’t using them enough! Overall, the most important thing (as with almost everything in bridge bidding) is to know your partner’s pre-empting style. It should be well-defined (even if wide-ranging) so as to help you to plan the bidding and defense.

How much is extra length in a suit really worth? 

I don’t believe in adding HCP to one’s hand for extra length. If you’re on the border between accepting and not accepting an invitation, for example, then extra length in a side suit (such as having a 5-card suit on the side) might be enough to make you decide to go for it, which is fine. But it might also be worth nothing. If your partner has known shortness in your long suit, that probably makes your hand worse. Extra length might be helpful, but I try to consider it only when evidence shows that it might be useful, not “automatically,” as some players do. Of course, length in one suit usually implies shortness in another, which might also be helpful. 

Which are the very most essential conventions for novices?

I think people should be taught 2/1. Standard American, while perhaps initially simpler, is not a good system, and it is probably in aspiring players’ best interests just to learn 2/1 from the start in order to save the effort of trying to switch over later from Standard American. I think the same is true for Upside Down carding. I know almost no expert pairs that play standard carding. Might as well just learn upside down from the start. As you get more advanced, take some time with your partner to discuss in exactly which situations doubles are penalty, takeout, maximal, etc… This will result in much more effective competitive bidding (and also fewer -730s on your scorecard and upset partners!)

What are the keys to developing a delightful and effective partnership?

The most important thing is to remember that this is a game and that there are many more important things out there in the world. Remember that your partner is the only person in the room whose score is definitely positively associated with yours whenever you get upset with him… he probably isn’t any happier than you are that he made that mistake, and yelling at him won’t make it any better, nor will it increase the chance that he plays better on the next hand. 

How can one do well playing with many different partners?

Get to know each one’s style, and in general, try to play similar systems with the partners if you can. Remember which ones are more aggressive in certain situations… often these “intangible” partnership agreements can be useful to remember.

What are your thoughts on zero tolerance, bridge ethics, and/or the recent cheating by high level players?

I think that the cheating is unfortunate, though given that (a decent amount of) money was at stake, I can’t say I’m too surprised about it. People do a lot of things to make money. I’m not considering becoming a professional bridge player, and while I might prefer for the sake of the game that people only played for fun and not to make money, I also realize that this game is the livelihood for professional bridge players and do not want to take that away from them. As a director, I believe that director training should be overhauled and significantly improved. I have received and witnessed inconsistent rulings at the highest level of play, which is inconceivable in any other sport—imagine an umpire unfamiliar with the Infield Fly Rule trying to work the World Series. With better training, I think directors would be more able to maintain consistency in ruling on things like slow play, zero tolerance, and general ethical concerns.

How do you feel about on-line bridge games for practice and/or tournament play?

I think it’s a great feature to have available, though I personally do not enjoy playing online because, even without distractions, I still can’t focus very well. Something about actually putting the card on the table with my hand helps me to get into the zone and concentrate better.

What can local units do about gaining new players, with so many older players leaving the game?

I think Learn Bridge in a Day, which is a campaign my home Unit 363 has embarked upon, is a wonderful strategy, and the results speak for themselves.


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