Remembering John Armstrong

August 30, 2008 at 1:48 am Leave a comment

Early in July when John Armstrong unexpectedly died the world lost not only a great bridge player, but also a most gentlemanly one. The Times obituary can be found here.

John Armstrong 1952-2007

John Armstrong 1952-2007

The last time I played John was in the 2006 Commonwealth Games bridge tournament. It was in the Swiss Pairs component and of course Armstrong-Hackett were the number one seed. My partnership not only reached table one and got to play them but as luck would have it we had an extraordinary win after a series of monumental disasters for our esteemed opponents. It was a moment of glory for us, not so much the win itself, nor even overtaking them for a while, but the fact that such great players were interested in our scorecard for a few rounds….It was really only fitting that despite their setback against us, they nonetheless won by a country mile.

The win was unusual for me, having been beaten up by Armstrong more often than I care to recall. One such occasion was the NEC, held in Yokohama each February. I wrote up the 2002 tournament for the now defunct Bridge Today. Here is the article as it appeared.

How we beat the team that came second in the 2002 NEC

Cathy Chua

‘That’s it, I’m not playing any more, I’m going home.’ We’d just scored up round two of the NEC. Darren Wolpert III (aka The Kid) had lost to Australia and he’d had enough. Actually we’d blitzed our opponents in round one as well, but they were Japanese and already home. They had nowhere to run.

Then Sweden, and we were holding our own until the last couple of boards. Let me explain that my partnership couldn’t get to the tournament until 35 minutes before play started, straight from an overnight flight from Sydney. By the end of match three I was out for the count. I picked up two nondescript hands, did nondescript things with them – utterly relieved that I’d had nothing to do. And so PO Sundelin and Johann Sylvan picked up two fine slam swings and it was my fault. If only I’d read the next day’s Bulletin before this match. Kokish declined to feature our encounter, even though it was on the top table, because of the Swedish bidding methods. I could see his point. There are things I’d rather do with Sundelin than watch him relay. More or less anything, actually. If only I’d known, I would have done anything to stop him.

Still, a third sensational set in a row by our teammates Bruce Neill and John Roberts saw us keep 14 VPs, just a couple off the pace. It was enough to make you go down to breakfast and hope people had noticed your score. I had enough VPs under my belt to saunter up to the table where John Armstrong and his teammate Pablo Lambardi were sitting. We had one of those chats you can have when you are winning. ‘Beat Canada I see’. ‘Beat Canada I see’. It was a bit repetitive. England had played Canada in round 3 and maxed them as well.

‘How do you like that Jurek Czyzowicz?’ I think it was me who’d asked that. I’d been relying on the sheer momentum of the physical process to keep me awake during that first day but Jurek made mincemeat of that plan. Never mind bridge. If they had world pausing championships he’d be Canada’s man. ‘Yes,’ said Pablo plaintively in agreement. ‘All the time he thinks, thinks, thinks. What’s he thinking about? I don’t understand. Maybe in the middle of a difficult contract you think. But he thinks all the time. He’s on lead, he thinks. What’s there to think about when you are on lead? You just lead a card.’

It took me aback a bit, I must admit. It’s not the sort of thing you expect a good player to say. I began to wonder if the next match – against England – would be a piece of cake. Evidently their main strategy was not to think. Perhaps some members of the Canadian team thought too much. But surely those English had understated the case for thinking all the same.

So there I was, declarer as North early in the match on this hand:

Bd 13
Dlr N
All vul


I’d responded 1NT to 1 and partner had raised to 3NT. Armstrong, East, led the two of diamonds (third or fifth) and from there it was plain sailing. A club to the queen held, the ace dropped the king and as West took the third round, East discarded the nine of diamonds. What else but a spade shift from West. After winning the third round the hand was a readout: Armstrong was 3352, hearts were breaking, easy game.

Only Armstrong showed out on the third heart. He’d led fifth from his six card suit. If he’d led his true card I would have easily thrown in his partner in the endgame for the ninth trick. I looked at him. Armstrong has this slightly mischievous but utterly good hearted smile – he’s always looking to bring you down gently. He hadn’t had a diabolical plan for this hand. It just turned out that way, he assured me. Suddenly I could see The Kid’s point. ‘That’s it, I’ve had enough, I’m going home.’ I’d been roughed up by Sundelin and then by Armstrong, charmingly roughed up, but roughed up all the same. It was all too hard for me. If Charlie Brown’s sister Lucy was a bridge player, she’d go screaming down the tournament hall ‘What happened to chivalry? What happened to letting girls win?’

This was the whole layout:

Bd 13
Dlr N
All vul

QJ86 Box K105
J932 85
K Q98752
J763 K2

I could only think of one good aspect to this hand. If John had done me over the other way around and led his third from five, so that I’d gone for the endplay and failed with hearts 3-3, my partner would have hated that. He never sees the point of going done because things break.

Ever since Pablo’s words have rung in my ears. ‘What’s there to think about, you just lead, you just lead, you just lead…’ It made me look back on the match against Canada. Czyzowicz was on lead with this hand:


after the auction:

West North East South
1 Pass 2
3NT All Pass

Where 2 was 11-15 balanced with less than 4 spades.

After a long interval he led a spade and he was right to be reluctant. We’d played the hand the right way up and the spade was the ninth trick. In the other room a spade lead from West made shooting 3NT easy.

Bd 4
Dlr W
All vul

Q1096 Box AJ54
63 9852
A82 J94
Q843 J10

‘Just lead’, Pablo would say. And if Jurek had, maybe some other suit would have popped out. Not liking the lead didn’t help him any. But then again, maybe that wasn’t what was happening.

Jurek Czyzowicz is the most placid Pole I’ve ever met. The mere fact that things weren’t going well didn’t seem to bother him in the least. In fact, I began to doubt my judgment – were we winning? So, maybe the point is he wasn’t thinking in those long intervals where nothing happened. Maybe he was doing some sort of Zen placid thing that is the very opposite of thinking. Whatever was going on (or not) it was peaceful. Three matches in a row I had the most charming screen mates possible. Indeed, I might mention that against Jurek Czyzowicz, we got to a point in a hand where he played ace and another spade towards Q109 in dummy. Partner followed low. Then a pause during which I sat there with Jxxx thinking ‘play 10, play 10, play 10’ when – and I really don’t know how I did this – I dropped my entire spade suit face up on the floor right next to Jurek! And he spurned this extra bit of knowledge to make the maximum number of tricks anyway.

I hope this story about not thinking doesn’t sound trite. I have an inkling that opening leads should be made Pablo style. The sports psychologist will tell you how important it is that you are on ‘automatic’ when playing at your best. Karlene Sugarman bluntly says ‘If you think less, you will achieve more’ and however contradictory that may sound in the case of a brain game, it still holds. There are cases in bridge where one has so much information that it would be a crime not to put it to use, even in cases such as the opening lead. But this hand is one of the others. The information available is not nearly enough to make a case for any lead. So go with your instinct, not your analysis.

This article has an obvious direction to take from here: Canada and England were the eventual finalists and there will be some delightful theme where Pablo flicks out his leads with the contempt the process deserves – and, Bingo! While Jurek finds some profound idea after great deliberation, only to get the diabolical losing layout.

But that doesn’t seem to be the story at all. After we played England in round three, I couldn’t help teasing Paul Hackett – had he dumped Armstrong? Well, look at this hand, would you believe it, he had 6 diamonds. Winners make their own luck, and if that’s what he can do in a match of no particular importance, early on, then watch out. And it was obviously contagious. Look at his partner’s, Brian Callaghan’s, approach on the next hand. I don’t know Brian, but he strikes me as a stoic and reliable chap. On top of that he could be profoundly thoughtful.

What do you do with this hand when partner opens 3?


Perhaps you have a 4, lower minor slam try available? But if partner has a pile of poop with a singleton spade, he won’t cue it and that is near enough to all you need. How will he know that Qxx in hearts is great, but AK of clubs is dirt?

Lev tried 6 in the semifinal e-bridge vs. England. But Callaghan had an idea stunning in its simplicity which would frequently get him to slam when it was making and never when it wasn’t: he bid 3. If partner didn’t raise, he knew he could bid 6 next. If partner did raise, then he could correct to 5, knowing that they were off 2 spades (yes, it is still possible that opener had the ace/king of spades…). Partner did raise to 4, Callaghan did correct to 5 and now came the splendid bonus of Callaghan’s thought processes. It sounded to the opponents like they’d been conned – a psychic 3 bid to keep them out. Double! Redouble!! An unusual way to score +800.

Bd 18
Dlr East
Vul N/S

QJ1032 Box 85
AK53 8
AKJ5 Q987643

Open Room

West North East South
Callaghan Gawrys Armstrong Jassem
3 Pass
3 Pass 4 Pass
5 Pass Pass Double
Redouble All Pass


West North East South
Lev Senior Blanchard Lambardi
3 Pass
6 All Pass


13 IMPs to England

The final was between England and Canada and was a wonderfully close affair, but in the end those %^&$# Canadians lost. Why do I care? I’d written the title of this article as soon as I heard who the finalists were: ‘How We Beat the Team That Won the NEC’. That sounds ok, doesn’t it? Makes up for an undistinguished tournament? Gets my team into the limelight? Instead I had the awful choice between ‘How We Lost to the Team That Won the NEC’ and the rather desperate one selected instead. Canada: you owe us.


Entry filed under: history. Tags: , , , , .

Upsetting the Chinese. Afterthought on the Shanghai 2007 World Bridge Championships Lesson #1, wherein smug comes undone.

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