Judy Kay-Wolff


Perhaps the most controversial issue in all of bridgedom is the explosive topic of sponsorship and professionalism and what it has done for the game and to the game. The differing views range from the cold facts of life to realistic idealism and esthetics.

Professionalism is an exciting carefree way of supporting one’s self – shirking the responsibility of a real job (and it’s great work if you can find it)! It provides convincing rationale for a talented youngster to quit college (even high school) to pursue the cushy dream of becoming a bridge professional (even though it doesn’t enthrall the parents who had greater aspirations for their offspring). It broadens one’s horizons to travel to a different city every weekend and get to see the country (and possibly the world). It bolsters one’s ego to gain recognition en route to mastering a difficult, captivating, intriguing game. It is self-satisfying to rub elbows with the bridge hoi polloi and be thought of as a fellow pro. That is when you know you have arrived! But realistically – the big lure (especially for a young person without a formal education, training or experience) is the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. He or she may earn more in a month than they could normally make in a year as some apprentice learning the ropes.

The enticing bottom line is – no 9 to 5 job, no punching the clock, no ‘same old/same old’ routine — far from the ennui of positions held by the bourgeois. Unfortunately, it is a dog-eat-dog world out there and some make it and some don’t. Aside from talent, much has to do with being in the right place at the right time. The top pros are in demand and don’t have to hustle. The others must scratch, claw, grovel and constantly be on the prowl for new clients to make ends meet. Another factor — foreign infiltration has been a killer. And — with the abundance of superstars for hire – the sponsors are in the driver’s seat, having their pick of the litter. End result: The exceptional Professionals have discovered a windfall doing what they do best – and the well-heeled Sponsors can learn, improve and strive for their place in the sun. It is a terrific arrangement! (Besides – the stomping grounds are never-ending — from lowly Club Duplicates to Sectionals, Regionals, Nationals, Grand Nationals, Team Trials and eventually for the lucky ones — World Championships). From there – it’s deja vu! The cycle regenerates itself and they’re off and running again!

However, there is a third factor not to be overlooked — the game itself! How has it changed and where is it heading? Whether or not you care to admit it – it is not the once-elegant hobby that came to the fore in the late thirties and forties with the emergence of our insightful bridge organization. Back then, bridge had an aura of dignity, formality and class and showcased some of the revered superstars of the game. We are indebted to Charles Goren for being such an innovative promoter. If you read The Lone Wolff, you learned that Goren was among the first of the celebrated players to hire expert partners and teammates. However, his purpose was not as much for self-gratification as it was for marketing (and off the record, he was far from what you think of as a classic ‘sponsor’). He could win on his own. His ‘hired hands’ simply enhanced his chances – a safety play, of sorts.

In the next two decades, others followed suit (namely — the Dallas Aces and the Precision team). They differed from the teams of today (mainly in caliber) whereas both sponsored teams from the seventies featured all top professional players minus a paying/playing sponsor. The motivation of the non-playing sponsors differed as the teams reached their heights. Ira Corn’s goal was for The Aces to win a world championship (which they accomplished in 1970 and 1971) and C. C. Wei had a profound interest in promoting his Precision System. Madame LaVazza’s current star-studded Italian Championship Team is unique in its sponsorship aspect as the team’s popularity and success are her primary rewards – not dismissing that it keeps the name of her coffee company before the public! Her role is strictly as a non-playing sponsor as she roots from the stands – a fitting gesture!

Today (especially in the States) it is a different ball game. Mega-rich sponsors have turned the game into a contest that old timers have trouble recognizing. American currency (though worth much less these days) has become like Monopoly Money – plentiful when bridge sponsorship looms on the horizon. Big Money is in first place – while Bridge has been relegated to a prominent back seat. Our U. S. bridge events have been infiltrated by foreign top professionals who have been mesmerized by the color green – and why not? There is no question their inclusion has made for much healthier competition, inspiring improved bridge – though the foreigners have displaced a horde of U. S. pros who held their own until the immigration process began. Many of our guests have acquired dual citizenship and some have taken up permanent residence in the States in order to ply their lucrative trade. Encouraging individuals to improve their lifestyle and economic standing is what America is all about! But, let us be objective! What has professionalism (both U. S. and Foreign) done for (or to) the game?

There are diverse schools of thought about the infusion of big bucks into the bridge economy — but the equation itself is quite simplistic: The luxury of high-priced pay dates, first class hotel and flight accommodations, fine cuisine, etc. in exchange for professional players’ expertise at the table and their availability to dine and socialize with their clients when invited. It is an ideal reciprocal arrangement. The professionals earn their keep and the sponsor who lusts for stardom (which may not have ordinarily been achieved playing with peers) has purchased his or her supporting cast. If the story ends there, no adverse repercussions occur.

However, in the major ACBL Team Events, if the group includes foreign players, it presents a major moral problem in the aftermath – namely, the Trials. I challenge the process when successful finishes in NABC team games with foreign (non-resident) participants influence the issuance of seeding point qualification for the United States Team Trials. Frequently those in the decision-making capacity have vested interests in the outcome. So much for impartiality! Since non-residents are ineligible to play in our Trials, how can anyone really justify the awarding of Trials seeding points to their erstwhile teammates who must seek replacements. In the absence of the participation by the foreign superstars, the scenario and results may have been far different. Let us examine some of the alternative possibilities:

What assurance is there that they would have made it out of the starting gate (without them)? What assurance is there that they would have fared as well against other teams along the way (without them)? And – the sixty four dollar question — what assurance is there that the U. S. performers would have finished in the money (without the foreign magic makers)? Surely no one can object to foreign participation in a U. S. championship (pairs or teams) whether they be amateur,  expert or professional. On the other hand, no one can justify the unwarranted issuance of seeding points to a team with one or more individuals who do not meet the Conditions of Contest for the Trials to represent our country (zone). Besides — foreign experts who don’t live to see the Trials may have a great impact on determining who eventually represents our country.

Turning away from the outsider issue – let us address an equally touchy subject: Participation by an acknowledged non-expert in a World Championship.

When a sponsor purchases the services of professionals to form a team to hopefully represent the United States of America, I (and countless others) believe that it distorts the majesty of the game. It detracts from the glory that was once bridge. Maybe my naïve, old-fashioned view stems from the delusion that representing one’s country is indicative of the ultimate in bridge playing – not bridge paying!

Since every rule has exceptions, allow me to qualify the above reference. There is one individual (Nick Nickell) who, though a recognized sponsor, has continually upheld his end as a player (not to overlook his winning several world championships). His consistent individual bridge record for over a decade substantiates his reputation as a respected partner, teammate and opponent. According to several authoritative individuals, notwithstanding his generosity, his performance in itself negates his relegation to a sponsorship role.

In a recent blog by Ray Lee (ray.bridgeblogging.com. dated September 23, 2008), he addresses the issue of sponsorship in general. I feel compelled to share an excerpt from his article entitled “In Defense of a Free Press…. “ It stems from his earlier criticism and open displeasure with the performance of a U. S. sponsor during a world championship last year. Replying to some flack received from the player’s spouse, he elaborates …..

“…………… I’m not saying these nice folks are bad players — indeed some of them are quite good — just that they’re in almost all cases not world-class. How would those who watched the Ryder Cup last week feel if the first foursome had included some 4-handicapper who was funding the US team?  That’s almost always the situation in bridge, and I think it’s a pity that world events aren’t contested among teams of the very best players. ….. “

Amen! You echo my sentiments.


Danny KleinmanOctober 2nd, 2008 at 12:07 am

And then there are professionals like me. I’ll tell a story on myself. A couple of years ago I filled in with a very weak player to help a local club fill what would otherwise be a half table and a sitout for half the pairs. On the first round, I watched my partner blow two tricks in 3NT, going down on a pianola for four. Knowing what I was up against, I went into Full Hand Hog mode, and we won. That “won” me this very weak player as a student.

Next couple of times we played, we were barely above average, and she asked, “Why did we win when I didn’t pay you, but now that I’m paying you we don’t win?”

I told her why we had won the first time, and said, “Now that you’ve hired me I don’t hog any more of the hands from you. When I put down the dummy, you see just what I’m supposed to have for my bidding. And I will be dummy whenever I’m supposed to be, as I want this to be a learning experience for you. If you’d rather be turning the cards as dummy than declaring contracts, go hire Fred Hamilton. I assure you he’ll do a good job.”

Manny GrossmanOctober 2nd, 2008 at 2:14 am

The aeticle written by Judy Kay Wolff was excellently done. It was a pleasure to read the article. Three cheers for Judy

LindaOctober 2nd, 2008 at 7:48 pm

I think it is your turn to write a book, Judy

M BlumenthalOctober 2nd, 2008 at 8:13 pm


This is not a new problem. To my knowledge it happened many years ago, also. As well as Goren, you had those like Stayman who the top players knew were sponsors. but this was not revealed to the average player in books or columns.


JudyOctober 2nd, 2008 at 10:39 pm

About “M. Blumenthal” — This gentleman is far too modest to use his full name. He is none other than the celebrated bridge star of the sixties and seventies — Mark Blumenthal — who at one time was one of the Dallas Aces. Mark has not played in many years — but I can assure

you that Bridge was not his only claim to stardom. When it comes to trivia, puzzles and word games — don’t even try — as your ego will take a severe beating. Ask one who knows! JKW

Robb GordonOctober 4th, 2008 at 4:33 pm

There are two issues about team sponsorship here. The issue of foreign players and seeding points seems obvious.

The other issue – sponsors representing the U.S. is troubling and, as Mark says, not a new problem. There have been all kinds of half-hearted attempts by the ACBL to regulate professionalism, none of which have been effective. Other countries have selection committees. But these present their own conflicts.

There was a time when the Team Trials were pairs events. It was claimed that this was an ineffective method of selection because there was no “team harmony” and we couldn’t beat the Blue Team that way. It has since become clear that team harmony was not the problem!

Perhaps a pairs trial would be an effective way for sponsors to “earn” their way onto a US/North America team. I would love to hear other suggestions!

JudyOctober 4th, 2008 at 5:16 pm

Responding to Robb Gordon. The reference to ‘team harmony’ tickles my funny bone – recalling an incident a few years ago. I attended an open Team Trials Meeting where one of the top professional players pooh-poohed the possibility of a Pairs Trial as the concept of three pairs would lack what he called ‘camaraderie.’ I agree with Robb — but let us take it one step further. ‘Team harmony’ translates to ‘camaraderie’ which down in the trenches means ‘green points’ (in the vernacular known as money).