What happens when selectors select teams? A true story.

June 8, 2009 at 6:42 am 24 comments

Some of this post is direct quote, but since it is from my own History of Australian Bridge, I haven’t thought it necessary to make that clear in the text.

In the 1950s Victor Champion, grand man of Victorian bridge, decided that the reason Victoria was no longer doing well in the Interstate was because the team was selected the wrong way.

Note that logic which is still being used at Australian level. If the team’s no good it it because it’s the wrong team, not that we aren’t good enough and should make our bridge better. Please, don’t let’s work on our bridge, just change the selection methods.

Victoria had won every Open interstate before WWII and now had lost its way. The reason it had lost its way was simple. In the post war migration to Australia, Sydney got the better players. Simple fact. Simple consequence: NSW was finally able to win the Interstate and to do that in convincing, consistent fashion.

At the time Victoria selected its team by team competition. For some years NSW had chosen the most egalitarian of methods, selection by pairs competition. It let anybody get on to the team without having to know the right teammates.

Not that Champion didn’t realise that the difference between Melbourne and Sydney was the migrant impact. But still he thought that the solution had nothing to do with bridge. Instead he insisted on a plan that devastated Victorian bridge: selection by selector.

Asking members to trust in the frail, human judgment of a selection panel was sufficient to fill some with foreboding. Champion, however, wanted even more….his idea was that there would be a sole selector. ‘For this exacting position’ he said, ‘I must admit I had only considered two people – Dr Thwaites and, if I may say so, myself’.

The idea had been mooted and handsomely rejected several times since the war, but sometimes people with bad ideas are simply persistent enough that they come to the fore. World War II itself was lesson enough of that.

In 1955 the editor of the State Bulletin wrote ominously that ‘To be sure we have never seen so many old bridge friends cut each other dead, or walk the other way when they see each other, in so short a time’.

Mohl, one of those against selection expressed the case in an article entitled Selection: Power without Glory. He pointed out all the obvious theoretical difficulties of selection by selector and then moved on to express the worst fears of those against it: ‘…most important of all – they want to be able to keep certain players out of the Interstate Teams. This, I believe, is at least as important to them as to bring other players in’.

This is the crux of the matter and the reason why tempers and emotions ran so high. Those against selection had good cause and it was no coincidence that many were Jewish. Recent history could scarcely endear them to the notion of handing concentrated political power to any one person. If the dispute had just been about the selection of a bridge team, perhaps it would have been resolved, if not amicably, then at least with the practicality which has accompanied these confrontations in the past. It was not only about bridge, however. It was about politics and personalities, it was about a group of dedicated and loyal amateurs embroiled in attempting to save a game which had been ripped apart by World War Two, it was about a gorup of champions unable to come to grips with a New Order.

The end was heralded by a letter to the State Bulletin in which the writers announced that since selection by selector had been brought in, they would no longer be available for consideration for the State team. It included many of Melbourne’s best players.

There could only be losers in this bitter controversy. In September 1955, the Bulletin announced that a split had taken place once more in Victorian bridge. Champion was made vice-president of the State Association and his choice of team for the Interstate was also announced.

Meanwhile, a new competing Bridge Association was set up by those who could not stand selection by selector. It was ruinous for Victorian bridge. The BAV operated for some twenty years, its players out in the cold. Lost not only to Victorian, but to Australian bridge was a host of talent. I can’t help but mention in particular Ethel Ernst, member of the famous Austrian world champion team that included Rixi Markus before WWII. Two of the members came to Australia. Rixi went to the UK.

Selection by personal opinion was not the recipe for recovery that Victoria needed. It was to be over a decade before Victoria won another Open Interstate championship.

Point is, this will always be the the bottom line of selection by selector. ALWAYS. Even if it worked as the best method, and there really isn’t anything to say that it does, it just isn’t worth it.


Entry filed under: history.

That Acol two…. Four spade play problem

24 Comments Add your own

  • 1. David Morgan  |  June 12, 2009 at 6:18 pm

    As someone who is unlikely ever to play for Australia my comments lack the understandable self-interest of some others. (Not that that’s bed; but it is a fact that should be acknowledged.) I’m not attracted in principle to the idea of a selector for many of the reasons that others have put forward, especially issues to do with real or perceived favouritism.

    However, I’m not convinced by the counter-arguments that any trials format will necessarily produce the best team.

    (There is another issue to consider, which is whether we always want to be represented by our best team or whether we want to send partnerships that may become part of our best team in the future so they have a chance to develop and gain some of the necessary international experience.)

    Notwithstanding Ben’s arguments (including in earlier discussions of this topic I don’t see the market (i.e. some trials process) always producing the best result. There are many reasons for this but a principal one is that 128 board matches *at IMPs* are no guarantee that the better team will win. (Some will rightly see the fact that the team I’m a part of won the Victorian Pennant and subsequent playoff as an example of this. I wouldn’t disagree.) There is just too much luck involved (who is declarer, NT ranges, choice of bidding or leading or signalling methods when there is no theoretical merit of one method over another, etc). As well, there are just too many boards at IMPs where there is no reward for skill: it’s only the overtrick or catering for the obscure 5-1 break in the side suit that didn’t eventuate or . . .

    The Bridge World wrote about this issue — the likelihood of the better team winning — many years ago and noted that the odds increased the longer the match. In the 1980s (and in some subsequent WCs) the WBF tried to do something about this by playing 160-board or longer matches.

    As Kaplan and Rubens noted at the time, the odds of a better team winning vary significantly with the form of scoring. They pointed out that better teams were MUCH more likely to win any match, whatever the length, if the scoring were board-a-match, a format that places a high premium on skill on every board.

    A logical solution would be to select the team using board-a-match scoring. That way we are more likely — perhaps much more likely — to have the best team win. However, such an approach has obvious flaws, particularly that the events they will be contesting will be scored at IMPs.

    So, I reluctantly support some form of trials based on IMPs scoring. I do so not because I think it’s ideal but because it’s the least worst way to choose a team. A bit like democracy.


  • 2. sartaj  |  June 9, 2009 at 4:31 pm

    Here’s a (potentially irritating) proposal:
    Sartaj Hans is appointed sole selector of the OzTwo Team. In order to be fair to the rest of the players, he devises this scheme

    He will select four pairs onto the team, with the idea that three will be available for any of the Challenge matches.

    The Challenge matches will be 128 boards long, played over two days at say Double Bay Bridge Club and telecast on BBO. Any team has the right to announce a challenge.

    The expenses for each match would come to about $1000 per match, includes directors’ fee, premises hire, BBO.

    The stake in the match is that the losers pay all the costs. Winner gets nothing.

    To make things interesting, SH offers a 40 imp carryforward to any competing team.

    Any takers for a bet ?

    • 3. cathychua  |  June 11, 2009 at 7:37 am

      I think this is a great idea, Sartaj. There must be some players reading this who are young enough to want to take it up. Back when I lived in Double Bay I would have been chaffing at the bit!

    • 4. Khokan Bagchi  |  June 12, 2009 at 10:10 pm

      I’m not clear what your point is here, Sartaj. If you think that any team you choose could consistently beat any other team by more than 40 imps over 128 boards, I think you’re wrong, but who could bother proving it in a nothing match?

      • 5. Khokan Bagchi  |  June 12, 2009 at 10:17 pm

        And more to the point, do you really think that any team you choose is a realistic chance to be a world beating team?

      • 6. cathychua  |  June 13, 2009 at 7:18 am

        I totally disagree with you, Khokan. It wouldn’t be a nothing match, it would be fascinating. If two top teams playing bridge isn’t an occasion for its own sake, well, it doesn’t say much for the game iteself, does it? If bridge is only worth playing if it is for something really important, then the game isn’t worth playing, full stop.

        This is a wonderful opportunity to play a long match, which we don’t get to play at all in Australia any more in the best environment for an interesting principle. That’s enough reason to do it and, I really don’t understand why it hasn’t been taken up!

      • 7. Ben Thompson  |  June 13, 2009 at 10:22 am

        My only problem with playing the match is the hourly rate. Win, lose, or draw, it’s long way short of … pretty much any job I’ve ever had, including the paper round.

        • 8. cathychua  |  June 13, 2009 at 6:30 pm

          Ben, Have you not ever added up the appalling amount of money you’ve spent on bridge in your life? I have discussed in previous posts the issue of whether or not there should be any chance for players to be rewarded for playing well at bridge and I received deafening silence from all of the readers of this blog. I’d consider this much less a waste of money than the average bridge tournament. I’d start IMPs up AND if I won I wouldn’t have to pay the ‘entry fee’, and I’d be playing a strong team to boot…sounds like a good deal to me!!

          • 9. Khokan Bagchi  |  June 14, 2009 at 12:15 pm

            Cathy, as you seem to be so passionate about the beauty of the game and see Sartaj’s proposal as a real contribution to furthering the game as a whole, why don’t you accept the proposal?

            • 10. cathychua  |  June 14, 2009 at 10:53 pm

              Oh, If I lived in Sydney I would.

      • 11. Khokan Bagchi  |  June 13, 2009 at 11:07 am

        I guess we’ll agree to disagree, Cathy. I’ve always thought that the 128 board match between the top Australian and NZ qualifiers following the Zone 7 Playoff is a waste of time for everyone, given the teams for the Bermuda Bowl have already been selected. I’m pretty sure that all the competitors agree.

        In a similar vein, when I’m in a situation where winning seems impossible eg the 1989 Playoff final that pitted Theeman against Lorentz, I have no qualms in conceding, even though there’s an opportunity to play further boards against a good team.

        • 12. cathychua  |  June 13, 2009 at 6:32 pm

          Yes, that is one of the fantastic things about rubber bridge: every trick of every hand counted. Maybe that’s why Tim was able to give such fabulous example of somebody who cared, ie respected the game itself. All day every day he played hands that counted. I guess when he had to play the odd bit of tournament bridge there wouldn’t have been any reason to suddenly start treating bridge like it was a trivial thing that didn’t matter.

  • 13. Ben Thompson  |  June 9, 2009 at 11:42 am

    Selection by selector for Australia would almost certainly be unduly Sydney-centric.

    If selection by selector were introduced, every other state would be rightly and mightily unhappy. I expect that the non-NSW state associations would quickly set up an alternative to the ABF. The WBF would have little choice but to recognise the body representing the clear majority of Australian players, and we would slowly and acrimoniously revert to selection by actual play.

    Cathy has shown us just how damaging that would be. Let’s hope the ABF doesn’t listen to the specious, perhaps meretricious, whispers of those who think selectors (particularly themselves) know best.

    • 14. khokan  |  June 9, 2009 at 12:34 pm

      It’s not clear to me that anyone actually WANTS Australian teams to be selected. If so, who are these people within the ABF? While I’ve read Peter Gill’s views on this issue, I’m not aware that anyone else is seriously considering using selectors.

      My guess is that, in the case of the Yeh Bros team being selected by a panel, there was insufficient time to run a qualifying event.

      If there is no-one within the ABF agitating for selection by selectors, why are we rehashing this debate?

      • 15. Ben Thompson  |  June 9, 2009 at 1:12 pm

        There’s a great mis-quote of Edmund Burke – “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing”. (Burke really wrote something much different but with the same meaning).

        The best way to ensure that the ABF doesn’t lose its collective marbles and go with selectors is to repeatedly point out what’s wrong with selectors. It isn’t enough to write a letter to the Bulletin in 1955. We all forget. The irretrivable failings of selectors have to be explained over and over, again and again, so that near everybody has the knowledge to reject it summarily every time. Sometimes before it even comes up.

      • 16. cathychua  |  June 9, 2009 at 3:46 pm

        Just to irritate Peter Gill – hi Peter, if you are reading this. Of course we love you dearly, really, even if we are being irritating.

    • 17. phil markey  |  June 10, 2009 at 10:50 am

      “Let’s hope the ABF doesn’t listen to the specious, perhaps meretricious, whispers of those who think selectors (particularly themselves) know best.”

      as far as this blog goes the only people prepared to defend selection seem to be me and gill – i didnt do any whispering – i dont think i said anything specious – i didnt proclaim to know whats best – and i dont know what meretricious means

      re selection in victoria 50 odd years ago – i dont find the comparison compelling

      perhaps the shallow egos comprising the anti selection lobby could expalin could explain this recurring problem for me…

      why is everybody going to be cross about selection ? – is it because every selector by nature is bias ? – is it because bridge players are sensitive about direct views about how good they are in comparison to their peers ?

      • 18. cathychua  |  June 10, 2009 at 12:34 pm

        It’s because, Phil, the bad sides of it simply aren’t worth the good sides. That was the whole point of the story.

      • 19. Ben Thompson  |  June 10, 2009 at 1:25 pm

        Exactly so – Phil & Peter are quite upfront in defending and/or advocating selectors. Yay you guys, and everyone else who is expressing their point of view, for getting into open, sometimes very open, debate.

        To save a few dictionary hunts:
        Specious means superficially sounds sensible but isn’t
        Meretricious is more like obviously made up in an attempt to look good but is clearly not very attractive underneath. Comes from the Latin word for prostitute.

        I like Cathy’s story because (a) it supports my point of view and (b) it’s a pretty heavy example of what can go wrong if you go down the selector path. As to its relevance – history is jam-packed with examples of repeating the same mistakes through not understanding, or even being aware of, earlier failures.

        I have no problem with someone telling me I’m not on their list of Australia’s 6 best players. It’s very likely that I think the same about them. We can even trade reasons why.

        Here’s some uncomfortable reality – on any given day, or in any given year, quite a lot of players could be on the best Australian team. My opinion is based on my perception of history and will be moderately accurate in the near future. Moderately.

        As to who would actually be the best Australian team in 3 months time, the best I can do is say the Thommos won the playoff against all comers, and this year, they’re it. Every one of those players is on the list of “could be best on their day”. Most importantly, they held their nerve when it counted, which I rate very highly. I don’t care if someone collected 250 PQPs during the year. If they can’t perform when the pressure is on, they are not in the top 6.

        Maybe if we aggregate everyone’s views we get the definitive list of the 6 best players. Maybe we don’t.

        If we play it out with actual genuine bridge hands, we get actual genuine proof of who was better on the day. Invest effort in making the selection event(s) as good as possible at selection, but that’s where the effort should be going.

        Are selectors biased? Absolutely. It’s an essential consequence of the human condition.

  • 20. Khokan Bagchi  |  June 8, 2009 at 4:17 pm


    I’m surprised that you don’t discuss the merits, or otherwise, of Tim Seres and partner being an automatic selection for the Australian team for many years. I’m not sure whether this was a good thing for the quality of Australian teams, overall, but it certainly wasn’t egalitarian.

    • 21. cathychua  |  June 8, 2009 at 9:13 pm

      Does somebody know if that is true? I know it was always talked about, the idea that Tim should be automatic, but off the top of my head I can’t recall it being the case, certainly not for years. If it is discussed in my history maybe somebody could remind me where as I don’t really have a clue what’s in the book.

      • 22. Khokan Bagchi  |  June 8, 2009 at 10:39 pm

        Have a look at the archived results on the ABF website – you only need to compare the Trials results against the Australian team for that year. I think that Tim and partner had automatic selection status from 1972 to 1977. One Australian Bridge (AB) article in 1978 documented that this merely resulted in Tim being an automatic selector instead, as the Interstate Teams and NOT also became selection events.

        Denis Howard wrote a very interesting (and controversial) article in AB around this time saying that Australian teams should be built around Tim Seres, Roelof Smilde, Dick Cummings and Jim Borin.

        I’m sure that Bill Jacobs would be the full bottle on this issue.

      • 23. Bill Jacobs  |  June 9, 2009 at 10:44 am

        I cannot give you the precise dates, but for some years, Tim Seres + partner was automatically selected onto the Australian Open Team, and the Butler Trials were used to select the other TWO pairs.

        Essentially, this happened during the 70s (and maybe the 60s?). This arrangement was terminated in 1978 (plus or minus 1 year).

        My opinions on selection have been stated previously on this blog, so I can only say: ‘hear hear” to Cathy’s piece.

  • 24. Chris Mulley  |  June 8, 2009 at 10:13 am

    I’m sure you don’t need my endorsement, but that is a SERIOUSLY good piece of history writing in the space constraints of this medium. Now that I am no longer a science nerd, perhaps I should wheel out History of Australian Bridge for another look.


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