The news that the top bridge player in the world, Geir Helgemo, a Norwegian competing for Monaco, has been banned from the game for six months for doping at last fall’s world championships in Orlando has sent shock waves through the game.

Helgemo, a 49-year-old man, admitted taking a synthetic testosterone and a female fertility drug – both can stimulate muscle growth and are banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency, an arm of the International Olympic Committee (IOC). The World Bridge Federation, which sponsored the Orlando event, is affiliated with the IOC and abides by its rules on doping.

The officials who announced Helgemo’s suspension said the stuff he illegally and knowingly took did not fall into the category of “performance-enhancing drugs,” but gave no explanation why he took them.

Frankly, I’m not sure. Those week-long World Championships are endurance events where you play two or three sessions every day and you need to be build up your physical strength and stamina. Of course testosterone isn’t the only drug on the banned list – it also includes Ritalin, prescribed for ADHD, and I could see bridge players trying that, too, to enhance concentration at tournaments or club games.

It all boils down to the fact that people will do anything to win – and at any level.

I didn’t even know that bridge was subject to anti-doping rules, and I don’t believe that the American Contract Bridge League (ACBL) has any doping rules in effect at its national tournaments or has ever given any player a drug test. Perhaps that’s why the ACBL has always had an arm’s length relationship with the WBF – they may not be anxious to enter this minefield.

Frankly, with some high-strung bridge players, I’d want to be sure that they’re “on their meds” so they don’t go off at the bridge table. The average age of the ACBL membership is about 71 and all of us probably take several maintenance drugs every day – many of us take our pill boxes to bridge. I shudder to think what doping tests would find. At one tournament a player had permission to keep his cell phone on to hear his automatic reminder to take his meds halfway through the session.

And how would drug tests be administered? I can’t imagine one of our female club co-managers summoning a 96-year-old male member into the bathroom to make him pee in a bottle for a urine test. And who’d pay for all those tests, anyway?

No one was drug-tested (yet) at last weekend’s Silver Sectional tournament in Stuart, FL, which broke all attendance records for the event, drawing players from all over the Treasure coast as well as some of the pros operating out of the Palm Beaches with their clients. The chief ACBL Director for Florida, Harry Falk, had trouble fitting enough tables into his home club – and had to stagger mini-breaks to avoid long lines at the ladies’ restroom.

My partner Christine and I played the first day and while we couldn’t crack 50% in the morning, we eked out a 51% game in the afternoon good enough for 5th place in our section and .60 Silver MasterPoints.

The highlight of our day was a small Slam in Spades Christine should not have been able to make against our good friend Mary Savko, one of the best players in Florida. This case of highway robbery which got us a tie for a top score deserves a Bridge Burglar blog entry, with Mary playing the role of my column’s anti-hero, Flustered Flo, while Christine will be her nemesis, Smug Sam. I’m Christine’s (Sam’s) North partner Shy Shem who becomes dummy, while Mary (Flo) is playing with her usual partner, Loyal Larry (although in real life it wasn’t Ellie Hanlon).

South Dealer; neither side vulnerable

K 9 3
K 9 8 7 3
A K 9 5 3
West East
4 2 7 6 5
Q 6 5 4 2 A J 10
J 8 6 Q 7 2
 A 10 5 J 8 4 2
A Q J 10 8
10 4
K Q 9 7 6 3

The Bidding:

South West North East
(Smug Sam) (Flustered Flo) (Shy Shem) (Loyal Larry)
1 Pass 2 Pass
4 Pass 4 NT Pass
5 * Pass 6 All pass

*Blackwoood Ace-asking convention response showing one Ace

Opening lead: Ace of Clubs

Conventional wisdom says that when you’re defending against a Slam, you should lead an Ace if you have one, but is that conventional wisdom always right?

It isn’t, as Flustered Flo found out playing the West hand at a recent Sectional tournament near her home where a lot of the people she played against regularly were also in attendance. When her nemesis, Smug Sam, landed in a dicey 6 Spades contract on the diagrammed deal as South, Flo decided she had to follow the conventional wisdom, play it by the book and lead her Ace of Clubs on the first trick.

That didn’t turn out so well as Sam ruffed the trick in dummy, drew trump in three tricks winding up in his hand, collected his two top clubs, gave up a club to East’s Jack and claimed his contract – he had the rest of the tricks with trumps, Clubs and dummy’s two high Diamonds.

The small Slam for 980 points turned out to be a tie for a top score for Sam and Shem, and thus a tie for a bottom for Flo and Larry, which made Flo none too happy.

“How did you even dare to bid a Slam missing two Aces?” Flo asked Sam afterward.

“Well, my partner put me in the Slam,” said Sam, smug as always, “but I really didn’t mind him doing it. When I jumped to 4 Clubs, I was telling him I was bypassing 3 No-Trump because I wasn’t interested in playing there. And I was also telling him I had a powerful hand as long as the contract was played in one of my black suits. By the Losing Trick Count (LTC) method, I had a four-loser hand even though I had only 12 high-card points. That’s a powerhouse. My partner got it and that’s why he put me in Slam.”

“Actually, now that I see the hand, our two Aces were in the suits in which you guys had voids,” said Flo. “Could you have made 7?”

“You’re right, Flo,” said Sam. “I could have. After ruffing the first Club, I could have come back to my hand ruffing a Heart, or a Diamond after taking the top two Diamonds, then ruffed another Club in dummy. Then I’d get back to my hand overtaking dummy’s last trump and finish out drawing trumps. All my Clubs would have been good after that. But with our distributions being so crazy, I thought your hands might present similar challenges, so I decided to play it safe. I was happy to make my small Slam. Going for the overtrick wasn’t worth taking any risks.”

“So I guess I gave you the contract by leading my Ace of Clubs,” Flo said. “But how can that be wrong? Doesn’t everyone say that if you’re defending against a Slam and you have an Ace, lead it – otherwise you might end up eating it?”

“It just goes to show you, Flo,” said Sam, “that everything in bridge is situational. Sometimes it’s the right thing to do to lead an Ace against a Slam – and sometimes it isn’t. In this case, if you just make a passive lead of a trump, the most I can make is 5 Spades, not 6. I will have to lose 2 Club tricks instead of just one – or none as you pointed out, if I’d played it more aggressively.”

“This game is driving me crazy,” said Flo. “So how do you know the difference? When is leading the Ace the right thing to do and when is it not?”

“You have to think,” said Sam. “In this case you’re not likely to eat your Ace of Clubs because I bid them as my second suit so I’m going to have a bunch of them. There’s a little danger of eating it. Then you also know that there are likely to be some weird splits in a wildly distributional hand because of my bidding that rejected any suggestion of No-Trump. With all those circumstances in play, it’s just too dangerous to lead an Ace for fear it might get ruffed and set up a bunch of tricks for your opponents, which is what happened here. You were better off making a passive lead and forcing me to come to you.”

“I think it’s just my bad luck,” said Flo, “that I always seem to get the difficult hands against you. Maybe there’s some kind of pill I can take to sharpen my brain when I come up against you.”

“Don’t go there, Flo,” said Sam. “The top bridge player in the world was just suspended for doping.”


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