Judy Kay-Wolff

“ Real ”  Bridge Over Troubled Water

Forgive my referencing the popular Simon and Garfunkel title, but I can think of nothing more appropos than our worsening situation here in Zone 2. I cannot speak for other administrations, but I do want to share sincere facts and concerns of a writer, Barry Senensky, who made contact with me on my site for the first time a day ago. With his permission, here are his feelings verbatim:

Thanks for following up with me. I really appreciate it. First a little background on myself:

I am one of the younger bridge players (I turned 60 last year-which I believe puts me around the 10th percentile in terms of age). I have been an ACBL member for over 40 years. I am an actuary and have my own small business (with 5 employees) which focuses on building predictive models for the insurance industry. Many of the large US and Canadian life insurance companies are my clients. I live in Toronto. My district director is Paul Janicki.

Over the last few years I have become very concerned/interested in the future of bridge and while I have not “run any numbers to prove it” believe that membership/attendance at tournaments is likely to “fall off a cliff” sometime within the next ten years.

I wanted to do something about this, so at the start of this year I reached out to ACBL president Suzi Subeck suggesting that we develop a series of question and answer columns together for the bulletin discussing the various strategic challenges facing the ACBL and the boards position on these issues. My theory was that if the membership became more aware of the issues, something might come of it to improve the situation.

Suzi was semi-open to this idea but the editor of the bulletin vetoed it (saying that the bulletin was not for this purpose and that if Suzi said something incorrect he would have to edit and he didn’t want to be in that position — reasons that in my opinion made no sense). Suzi was not going to challenge him (again something that made no sense to me as she was the President of the Board and he was an employee of the ACBL), so the articles did not happen.

Subsequent to that, I corresponded with Suzi and Paul Janicki about my view that membership is likely to fall off the cliff in the next ten years or so. Suzi indicated that everything was fine with membership levels and she would let me know if there was a problem. Paul Janicki responded differently saying the board knows there is a problem with membership (and the extent of the problem) but it is being addressed and under control.

Paul provided me with a report that is produced quarterly for the board on membership levels. The report was very basic and really did not provide the metrics on membership that a well run organization would want to assess where they stood. In particular, the information on distribution by age of new members and new member continuance of membership after one year (40% do not renew their membership after the first year) was not available. After reviewing the report, I reached out to Suzi and volunteered that if they could provide me with information on new members, I would do a 10 year projection of ACBL membership using sophisticated actuarial software that I license (taking into account the age of members and continuance rates that vary by age and years of membership). I would do the projections for free provided that they agree to publish the results on the ACBL website. I also indicated that the projections would be done using assumptions agreeable to the ACBL board and that the ACBL board would have full rights to audit my calculations. Suzi agreed to this and put Paul Janicki in charge of making it happen. Well, it is two months later now and I am still waiting for Paul to do something on this initiative. When he does respond to my e-mails (which isn’t often), he indicates that he is very busy with other board matters which take priority and will get to this when he can.

The response I have received from Suzi and Paul has only increased my concern/interest in the management and future of the ACBL. While browsing the ACBL website, I found financial statements for 2013 that indicated that board expenses were $625,000, which equates to 25,000 per board member. So I asked Paul if those were the expenses of the board members and he indicated that they were. To me, this seems quite excessive for volunteers. Especially in this day and age when most entities are dramatically cutting down on their expenses either by shrinking overhead or technological advances. So I asked Paul if he would consider taking a motion to the board proposing reducing board expenses to $300,000 a year (still a large amount by my thinking) and using the freed up monies to reduce card fees at Nationals by $2.00 per session. Paul indicated he would not support this and thought that the expenses of the board were appropriate. I asked the same question of Suzi and have not yet gotten a response.

In conclusion, feel free to use whatever I say on your website and I would be more than happy to discuss any of this further with you.

What I have learned over the last little while can be summarized as follows:

In my opinion, the ACBL board has close to dictatorial power, is not focused on the important issues (and arguably does not have the skillset to do so). Much of the long time membership and the younger pros are aware of these issues, but feel either that they are powerless to do anything or are not motivated to do something about it. In my opinion, the only hope for the ACBL to survive long-term is for a group to emerge and take control of the board (by winning elections for director in enough districts). This group would run on a platform of transparency and fiscal constraint and would have as a top priority the development and implementation of a strategic plan to bring North American bridge back to health.

(I am only the messenger, but thought this would be of interest to all bridge lovers who constitute the dues paying membership. JKW)


12 Comments

jack mendelsohnApril 20th, 2015 at 3:33 pm

Thank you Barry Senensky for all you are trying to do. It seems as the ACBL is treating you like the enemy. You are constructivley attempting to help.

Judy Kay-WolffApril 20th, 2015 at 4:30 pm

Welcome back to this site, Jack. It has been far too long since you have added your two cents.

Barry’s outpouring of concern was a shock to me as I was unaware that much of what has been happening was public knowledge. Perhaps because of his detailed plea, others will also speak up and take affirmative action by contacting their unit and district representatives, expressing both fear and concern about both the plight and the flight of so much money in the past year or two.

The thought of the ebbing of our wonderful game, especially at the top levels, is devastating to me and there is no better time than the present to get one’s self involved.

Barry, we all thank you (for your concern and boldly sharing your experience and concerns with the public) and to Jack for speaking up as a wakeup call!

Let us all contact our Reps before it is too late!!! Remember, WE are the ACBL. Without our dues and card fees, THEY cannot exist! Dwindling funds are frightening.

Howard Bigot-JohnsonApril 20th, 2015 at 9:54 pm

HBJ : Everybody knows the battle’s over
Everybody knows the good guys lost….
What an amazing but shocking insight as to how bridge in the USA has succumbed to THE ESTABLISHMENT……puppet administrators dancing to the tune of shadowy and sinister power elite , who they either belong to or choose to represent.
Democracy is a theoretical dream or ideal , which can never exist in reality. Members are income fodder who are rendered powerless now the establishment has its roots well established.
Once governing bodies obtain power and wealth nothing on God’s earth will change their determination to hang onto what they’ve worked so hard to achieve. ” Work ” as in back-stabbing , crawling , arse-licking and mutual back-scratching.
If only this blog of yours Judy had the audience and readership of all American bridge players , then perhaps the seeds of a revolution could grow into something big and worthwhile.

Judy Kay-WolffApril 21st, 2015 at 12:19 am

HBJ:

Don’t be such a pessimist. The battle is far from over. The public is simply getting a realistic education as to what has transpired behind closed doors despite attempted coverups. The word is gradually coming out and the slowly depleting treasury has produced a rude awakening. It is time that gutsy, knowledgeable bridge players whose sole agenda is preserving the honor and beauty of our once magnificent game stepped up to the plate and fought the personal motivations of those seeking control without giving a rat’s ass to our eventual fate.

JRGApril 22nd, 2015 at 9:16 pm

I sent a link to your post to a friend of mine who runs one of the local clubs (there are really only two that hold ACBL accredited games). Here response was:

“I totally agree.”

Judy Kay-WolffApril 23rd, 2015 at 6:38 pm

JRG,

Forgive my trite reference, but “things are going from bad to worse” at all levels (duplicates, on line, sectionals, regionals and even the so-called exalted levels of Nationals). Never thought I would live to see the day; however, the fun and excitement of earlier times I will cherish forever.

After attending well over 145 NABCs during the span of nearly sixty years, although I loved seeing old friends and meeting new ones, it reached the state of diminishing returns with the pleasure ebbing. Now with many of the politically-based, power-hungry new regimes taking over and off-the-wall prices not helped by the economy, the prospect has become distasteful and renting DVDs or watching reruns are more appealing.

Soaring prices are taking their early toll on local reservations at the upcoming LV Regional on The Strip. Early morning (9 a.m.) starting times for many are also not conducive to attendance for locals bucking early morning highway traffic. The jury is still out.

Check out my previous blog . The game has reached a crucial time where rethinking (and constructive ideas) is imperative if we are to survive. Status quo is not the solution!

SamApril 23rd, 2015 at 8:20 pm

Sounds like there is much more to this issue than you have revealed. I am not a local, but I think this concerns all of us regardless of the venue in which we participate.

Curious,

Sam

Judy Kay-WolffApril 23rd, 2015 at 8:29 pm

All in good time.

dannyApril 27th, 2015 at 3:02 am

The money is no doubt an issue, but it is a tiny fraction of the real problem, demographics. The ACBL has come up with some contrivances to keep membership levels from falling, ie forcing any one who plays in a national event to be a member, and increasing non member fees at regionals. I have no problem with those ideas, but they are band aids masking a HUGE problem.

We still have the baby boomers as a last gasp for this organization. They are between 51 and 69 by ‘definition’. But, we know that most of the bridge playing boomers are from that first half of the boom. My generation, gen X or whatever you call it, is just not playing. 15 years from now, the middle of the boomers will be 75 years old. The older ones will be 84. Does the ACBL realize just how bad that is? Do they realize when they make room guarantees for 2020 and beyond that the numbers just won’t be there?

Judy Kay-WolffApril 27th, 2015 at 3:36 pm

Danny,

You are sooooo right on target! I believe the ACBL has so many issues right now, this is one of the least of their problems (and, of course it should be a prime consideration) as it is taking its tolls on units and districts as well .. especially in these trying times. I know how over-projected recent local room reservations for tournaments have been and we are still five years out.

Bobby keeps harping on mandatory bridge in the school systems here (as in many European nations and especially Asia), but if this is not achieved soon, we won’t have to worry about any projections, as bridge will become history .. alas, no more, no more!!!

Barry SenenskyApril 27th, 2015 at 8:00 pm

I thank this discussion for being the impetus for ACBL President Suzi Subeck to get back to me. See e-mail trail below which I think you will find interesting. Suzi believes the ACBL is doing fine in terms of membership (as the membership levels have remained stable over the past 15 years) and she is too busy booking hotel rooms, playing bridge and doing meet and greets to really pay much attention to strategic issues.
I really believe that the ACBL Board of Directors is working very hard and doing their best. However, the problem is that for the most part they are lacking the leadership skills necessary to understand and act on important strategic issues. Just look at their cv’s/backgrounds (available on the acbl website). Who amongst them has had a senior leadership role in the past? President Suzi was a stay at home mom. While this is an honorable role in society, it provides no training whatever for strategically overseeing a complicated business with 15 million dollars of annual revenues.
The problem is compounded by the fact that it is very difficult to change the culture/makeup of the board of directors as ACBL members vote for only their district representative.
The only solution I can think of is to form a group of like minded members from all over the ACBL, develop a set of ideals and objectives focused on rebuilding bridge in North America and then wrest control of the board of directors by getting enough candidates with ideas consistent with this ideology elected to the Board. Once the group has a majority of the members of the board, the necessary changes can be implemented. I am willing to be an active part of such a group. Likeminded individuals please feel free to contact me.
Below is the e-mail trail with Suzi:
From Suzi to Barry:
My thoughts:
You, Barry, suggested gathering a lot of data and creating an “Actuarial” study to project membership in what you purport is a dying organization. Quite simply, actuarial mathematics is not well designed for studying membership populations of organizations. The actuarial study you propose is based primarily on mortality projections with adjustment for new membership and membership retention. The ACBL is not a closed population with death being the only way out of the population and birth being the only way into the population.
Membership recruiting programs and leisure activities of the North American public have a dramatic influence on membership statistics. Recruiting and membership recruiting programs are controllable by the organization and change from time to time. For example, the ACBL might choose to focus on developing new young members through school based programs; or it might, instead, choose to go after the forty to fifty year old population by recruiting social bridge players. Switching among recruiting and/or different types of retention programs is an outside influence that would invalidate the suggested type of “Actuarial” study.
Before one asserts that the ACBL is simply an aging population that will die out in a few years, one should take a look at the following table of data taken from the CEO reports that are included with the online BOD minutes and readily available to all members:

YEAR MEMBERSHIP
2000 167,300
2005 156,400
2010 165,000
2015 167,400

This data seems to suggest that our members are living longer and the ACBL’s membership recruitment/retention programs have been working.

It is just not a good use of the ACBL’s resources to spend a lot of time gathering data to support a study with dubious validity.
Thanks for your concern.

Suzi

From Barry to Suzi
Suzi,

While we may have different ideas as to how to get there, we are both on the same team, with the same objective of wanting bridge to thrive and flourish long term in North America. Therefore, I really don’t understand why you and Paul are treating me like I am the enemy. Just like you and Paul, I am willing to readily volunteer to use my skills and expertise to the benefit of the ACBL.

Membership Projection

Firstly, I am not sure why you insist on calling this an actuarial study and then implying that this somehow makes it less valuable or relevant. It is plain and simple a membership projection using state of the art techniques and methodologies. With the abundance of computer power available these days, projections such as these are widely used and have widespread acceptability.

Secondly, the amount of work required by the ACBL is minimal. All that I need is information on the age distribution of new members and their historical continuance rates as members for up to 5 years from joining. This is information that the ACBL should already be gathering as it is essential to monitoring and measuring the success of recruitment efforts.

Thirdly and most importantly (and as I have said to you before), what I am proposing to do is project forward the membership for 10 years (maybe more) using sophisticated software which uses projection assumptions for new entrants and continuance of members that vary by age and years of membership. These projection assumptions would be based on recent experience but reflect what is our best guess as to what we expect to see in the future. This would constitute a base scenario. A board designate would have sign-off rights on the base assumptions (which should alleviate any concerns that you could have about my bias). And as well, the board would have full rights to audit the validity of the calculations.

After we have created a base scenario, we could run several alternative or what-if scenarios to see the impact on projected membership of doing things such as doubling the new members or increasing the 5-year continuance rate of new members. These what–if scenarios could be particularly helpful in indicating to the ACBL where to focus their efforts in increasing membership.

The analysis that you provided below on membership levels in absolutely no way suggests that members are living longer or that the membership/recruitment program has been successful. It simply shows that membership has been relatively stable over the last 15 years. Nothing more, nothing less. With due respect, for you to suggest anything other than that shows that you are out of your depth in understanding financial projections.

So where are we with this? Let me suggest we back up a bit.

The first question to ask is would the ACBL benefit by having sophisticated projections of membership levels into the future and also an analysis of the various sensitivities of membership levels to things such as increased membership (at various ages) or increases in continuance rates of new members. I would answer an unequivocal yes to this. I hope you would do the same. If so, the next step is for you to get comfortable with the projections that I am proposing.

The way to do this, is not to consider me an enemy of the ACBL and dismiss whatever I have to say, but to understand what I am trying to do. To this end, I am willing to have a call with you and your colleagues (at your convenience) to answer any questions and address the concerns that you may have about the project.

I am confident that once you fully understand what I am trying to do, you will see its value and will fully support it.

I look forward to your reply
Barry

From Suzi to Barry
Hi Barry,
I will get back to you on this as soon as I can. I do NOT see you as an enemy of the ACBL. I don’t even see you as an annoyance to the ACBL. I think the problem here is that I am extremely busy with bridge obligations making it hard for me to devote the time I consider respectful to answering your emails. If you can wait till I have (or take) a break from doing the newsletters and signage I do for my Regional in Lake Geneva next week, I will be happy to respond and I will sound more friendly.
We returned on Monday from a sectional in South Bend IN and a regional in Gatlinburg TN. I attended countless meetings and spoke at a huge amount of gatherings. I answered questions of more members at large and volunteers than you can imagine. In between I wrote and edited the USBF Women’s Team Trials bulletins from my hotel room for the USBF event occurring simultaneously with Gatlinburg in Fort Lauderdale, FL. These bulletins reach a large amount of bridge players around the world. They are very important to the USBF and the ACBL as well as worldwide.
I take commitments very seriously (too seriously if you ask my spouse). I still need to shop for the hospitality suite in LG. Our hospitality chairman passed away suddenly a week or so ago… just 3 weeks after being diagnosed with esophageal cancer. He was also to be the partnership chair for the Chicago NABC this August. I have had to find replacements… difficult in a normal situation… worse under these circumstances. Carl had chaired partnership for the last FOUR Chicago NABC’s.
Please cut me some slack or at least appreciate the fact that besides being a figurehead, I really do work for bridge.

I promise to answer your comments below when I can. But it may be a week or so down the road at the conclusion of the Lake Geneva tournament. (immediately followed… well not immediately but close… with the USBF Open Trials!)

Thanks for understanding.
Suzi
From Barry to Suzi
Hi Suzi
Not to be disrespectful, but your reply below brought two old sayings to mind:

1. “Actions speak louder than words”-While it is good that you say that you do not consider me an enemy of bridge, yours and Paul’s actions sure speak loudly that you do!
2. “Nero fiddled while Rome burned”-The number one priority for the President of the ACBL should be dealing with strategy matters. I come to you with a strategic matter, yet you are too busy with operational matters (that can and should be handled by someone else at a lower level in the organization) to give my matters the priority that they deserve.

As you said, you will get back to me when you can!

KevinApril 28th, 2015 at 1:41 am

Thanks for posting, Barry.

If your citing of Suzi’s professional background is correct, her response was clearly ghostwritten, and it would be helpful if she could simply get a direct connection to whomever is (apparently) making these decisions and/or providing a justification for rejecting your generous offer.

Two points:

The analysis rejecting your offer is clearly offbase. I want to be clear: maybe there is some justification for rejecting your offer. On another bridge blog, someone suggests that the ACBL did some demographic analysis several years ago; perhaps that analysis obviates additional work. I simply say that the analysis presented above misses the point of what you’re proposing and why.

Several ACBL members identified the critical problems with the ACBL’s current technology plan several years ago. Offers were made from highly qualified members to right the ship for free (as here) and those offers were rejected with the same attitude you’ve experienced. That suggests to me a broader problem that needs to be addressed.

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