In Between Rich and Poor

My partner Christine and I always assumed that running a bridge game as a business is a penny-ante affair and no one really gets rich off bridge – with the possible exception of a handful of professionals who are so good they can command $200,000 annual salaries plus bonuses from their rich “sponsors.”

But just like there are a handful of professionals who make a very good living off bridge (although recent revelations implicated several of them in cheating scandals), there may be a handful of bridge entrepreneurs who actually do make a good living off running a game.

This past weekend (11-21-2015), Christine and I played the Sectional tournament at the In-Between Club in Sarasota on Florida’s West Coast. What we saw and heard surprised us. First of all, we did okay in the morning pairs, finishing fourth in the B stratification with a 53% game for .78 Silver MasterPoints.

In the afternoon, we dipped just below 50%, but we took a couple of good boards off Sally Meckstroth, wife of the Clearwater, FL-based top pro in the country, Jeff Meckstroth, who, along with his partner Eric Rodwell, has a whole bidding convention named after him. Jeff was home watching college football – Sectionals aren’t big enough for him – but we got to admire Sally’s sparkling jewelry as she made several notes on questions she’d have for Jeff when she got home on the hands she played against us.

Bridge clubs generally fall into two categories – membership associations or privately-owned clubs. The In-Between Club, so named because it started years ago as a club not for the top pros, but not for rank beginners, either, is actually owned by a single entrepreneur, Michelle Golden, who’s now in her early 60s and recently had a feature written about her in a Sarasota business magazine.

We knew In-Between is the third-largest club in the U.S. by number of tables, but we were still quite startled to find a huge space of almost 6,000 square feet that regularly holds 70 tables for day games (one night game a week is not very well attended). Sometimes extra tables are put in the kitchen. Golden charges $9 card fees ($10 for special charity games with extra MasterPoints), directs most games herself and has a sizable additional revenue stream from classes, most of which she teaches herself.

The place is pretty much a dump in a run-down strip mall with many empty storefronts and rent can’t be too high. Hospitality snacks put out for Sectionals are sparse, the chairs are hard and uncomfortable and the ancient bidding boxes appear bleached from having been put through the dishwasher many times.

But no one can argue that Golden isn’t a good businesswoman. We calculated that between card fees, bridge classes and revenues from soda machines (not insignificant) she grosses close to three-quarters of a million dollars a year and may net close to half a million – and remember, it’s a cash business; the IRS has not yet audited bridge clubs based on the number of tables published the Bridge Bulletin.

No wonder we heard that Golden rejected an offer of $4 million for the club. Even though most clubs across the country are struggling, a few clubs with lots of tables can actually make their owners millionaires.

One hand from the morning pairs session in Sarasota makes a good Bridge Burglar blog entry. My super-light overcall with a 4-card Spade suit to the 9 kept our opponents from bidding and making an easy 3 No-Trump Game. My hapless South opponent who got snookered will become my column’s anti-hero, Flustered Flo, while I’ll be her East nemesis, Smug Sam, once again.

North Dealer; East-West vulnerable

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

The Bidding:

North East South West
1 1 2 Pass
2 NT Pass 3 Pass
4 All Pass

Opening lead: Queen of Spades

Weak overcalls are risky in duplicate bridge. If your partner has nothing, you could get doubled and go down a bunch, even at the One level. But if your opponents have good hands, most of the time they will push on to try and get a Game themselves.

So you’ll probably get away with weak overcalls. They serve two distinct purposes, and either outcome is fine: 1) you happen to hit your partner with a suit he or she has, too, and you can develop active bidding defense against opponents who have the majority of the points, or 2) you can make your opponents believe you have something and keep them out of their best contract.

On the diagrammed deal at a Sectional tournament in her home state, Flustered Flo became a double victim of such deception, when she wound up playing 4 Hearts as South. She should have been in 3 No-Trump making an overtrick, but the 1 Spade overcall by the East hand played by her nemesis, Smug Sam, kept her out of that contract. And when she realized the extent of Sam’s deception, she got so flustered that she misplayed the 4 Hearts and went Down Two – giving herself and her North partner, Loyal Larry, an absolute bottom and Sam and his West cohort, Shy Shem, an overall top with 100%.

Flo captured the opening lead in dummy with the Spade Ace and immediately led the singleton Club. Sam took his Ace and led back a small Club, allowing Flo to take three Club tricks in her hand. West chose not to ruff the fourth Club, pitching a Diamond instead. Flo, meanwhile, pitched two Spades and a Diamond from the dummy. Still afraid to draw trumps on her seven-card Heart fit and fully expecting a 4-2 split or worse, Flo then led her last Club. Both West and the dummy pitched yet another Diamond, but Sam was only too glad to trump in with his 9.

Sam led back a Spade to Flo’s King and Flo then reluctantly started drawing trumps, leading low to dummy’s King and dropping Sam’s Queen. She continued with a trump to her Ace and was dismayed to see that the Jack did not fall when Sam showed out. Flo next took the Ace of Diamonds, capturing West’s Queen, and continued with the Diamond Jack, giving Sam his King.

Sam next led another Spade, forcing Flo to trump, but that meant that the West hand took the last two tricks with the Jack-6 of trumps, trapping Flo’s 10. The defense had taken five tricks – a ruff, two trump tricks, the King of Diamonds and the Ace of Cubs for Down Two. The minus-100 score turned out to be an absolute bottom for Flo and her partner Larry. Almost all other North-South pairs had played the hand in 3 No-Trump, making an overtrick. They took four Club tricks, a Diamond, and two tricks each in the majors, and got an overtrick by setting up either another Spade or a Heart.

“Three No is where we belonged,” lamented Flo. “But how do we get there after his Spade bid?” she nodded at Sam. “He really screwed us up. How do you dare bid a Spade with that paltry hand anyway?”

“Anytime I have at least 8 points and a five-card suit or a four-card major, I’ll overcall at the one level if my partner isn’t a passed hand,” said Sam. “Here I had 9, better than a minimum. Either I catch my partner with something, or I trip you up. Either outcome is fine by me. In this case it was the latter.”

“But I could have doubled you and you’d be Down Three for 800,” said Flo. “Didn’t that scare you at all?”

“Not in the least,” said Sam, smug as always, “because I knew you were not going to do that. And by the way, you could also have made your 4 Hearts contract. You don’t have to be so scared of drawing trumps. All you need to lose is one trump trick, the Ace of Clubs and the King of Diamonds.”

“I got so flustered by the gall of your bid that kept us out of 3 No that I totally misplayed it,” said Flo.

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