Pick Up Partners – or Exactly why am I doing this?

I decided about 18 months ago that I would learn to play Bridge better. I’ve played Bridge on and off (mostly off) for almost 50 years – but actually trying to improve – that never happened.

So 18 months ago I made the conscious decision to focus my energy, such as it is, on bettering my bridge play. Since then I’ve spent about 7 months playing ‘real’ bridge with real partners, and the other 11 months either studying or playing on line – or both. Mostly both I shall admit.

How is it going you ask? Not that well, unfortunately. Bridge is a really really tough game. There are 52 cards in the deck, but there are a zillion (maybe more) combinations and permutations on how those cards can be arranged in the 4 hands. And the trick is to figure out the optimum contract for each set of 4 hands – and then make that contract.

Easier to do if you can see all 4 hands of course. But that’s so not how the game works. Nope – you have to figure out the contract by bidding your hand – and trying to visualize what could be in the other 3 hands from the bidding. Example – the person to your left (LHO – Left hand opponent) bids 1 Spade. Well, he should have 5 spades, and at least 12 points. And so on.

I’m not trying to teach you how to bid, or play in this mutter. I’m just explaining that the game is complicated – and folks spend their entire lives trying to get better at it. It’s like golf. Some days are better than others, the goal is to have more better days than not so good days. But golf is a personal sport – you compete against yourself. In bridge – it takes 4 people, you and your partner – and the two opponents.

And that’s where PUPs – or Pick Up Partners get involved.

I am currently in Charlotte, NC attending their Regional competition. Like most competitions, it’s held in a big hotel, with games in a variety of different rooms, and at different levels of playing skill. To determine playing skill, there’s a thing called Match Points (MP). You get MPs by playing and winning matches of 24 (more or less) boards. In theory, the number of MPs you have earned should be a measure of your playing skill. But I’m reminded of the old joke – I’ve been doing this job for 12 years – 1 year of training, and 11 years of repeating the same thing over and over. In an attempt to make the MP system better at measuring skill, and not just being a reward for attendance, the ACBL (that’s the American Bridge League) created different colours – Black (gotten easily in club games), Red (gotten in Regional or National competitions), Silver (oddly enough – these come from Sectional Tournaments which I’ve yet to figure out how to know which they are) and the highly valued Gold Points.

Gold points are the toughest to get – and to earn the title of ‘Life Master’ – you need 50 of them. So it’s not unusual to meet folks with plenty of Black – but not enough Gold to get that title. In any case – you get the idea. There are MP (a measure) and coloured MP (another measure).

Back to my efforts – in 18 months, I’ve earned about 40 Match Points, 5 of them Gold and 2 of them Silver, – which isn’t amazing, but it is pretty decent. There are folks here with thousands of Match Points – yesterday I played (and we lost badly) with a gal with over 2000 match points. We should have done a lot better – I’m not sure what went so wrong, but there it is.

On Monday I played with a fellow with around 300 Match Points – and we placed first Overall in the Gold Rush Pairs. Some days I’m a hero, some days I should haven’t have picked up the cards.

So – partnership game – you can’t play without a partner. And I have yet to find a regular steady partner. I’ve been very lucky about Picking up Partners (PUPs) in the various cities I’ve been to, some of whom will play with me again – some of whom never want to sit across from me again – ever. (I had one PUP announce that to me about 3/4 of the way thru a game. Not one of my better days.)

So where do you Pick Up Partners? Most bigger games (like this one), have what is called a Partnership desk. Folks who aren’t fortunate enough to bring their own partner, put up a yellow card describing how many points they have, when they are available to play during the competition, and what biding conventions they use. I think there is a critical bit of info missing off the standard partnership cards. I’d really like to know how long you’ve been playing. My favourite partners generally haven’t been playing for years – they are still in the ‘learning’ mode – and know the newer conventions, and some of the newer ideas of partnership.

But it is what it is. You post your name, then other folks stand in front of the board – reading each and every card, searching for someone who sounds like they might be a good partner. It is a bit like the worst meat market ever. Think e-harmony with a scoring system. Or your first dance at Junior High – all the guys on one side contemplating all the girls on the other. If you have to post your name – you open yourself up to rejection – in a big way. And while some folks (like my 2000 point partner from yesterday) have been playing long enough to know that number of MPs is just one way of judging folks, other folks take actual point count seriously. And I have to agree. I don’t want to partner with someone with 20 MPs earned over 10 years. They probably aren’t very solid players. And in return, someone with over 1000 MPs might not want to partner me. If I’ve only been playing seriously for 18 months, I probably make plenty of beginner errors.

Which is true.

I make a lot of mistakes. I bid wrong – showing more points than I have, or too few. I pass when I should bid, and I bid when I should pass. And worse – I forget things – not usually what my partner bid – that’s often an error by folks who are more ‘beginner’ than I am, but I will lose track of the count of one of the suits, I might forget that a spot card in dummy is good and leave it stranded, or I might opt not to take a finesse when the odds are in favour of the finesse actually working. I have gotten better at making safety plays to make sure that the contract makes – but under the pressure of the match, sometimes I will forget that I made that play…

As I said, it’s complicated.

But fun.

In the past 18 months I’ve thrown myself on the PUPs board in 4 different Regional and National Competitions. I’m not sure that makes me a veteran, but it does give me some experience. And I’ve had some success – friends I played with in Toronto in April who were totally keen to play with me again in August. And I actually had a lady ask me to join her (as her bridge partner!) on a bridge cruise in February. So here’s my advice to folks who need PUPs.

1) Be nice to the folks running the partnership desk. They do an amazing job – there are hundreds of folks looking for partners, and their goal is to try to make as many of them happy with the match-up as they possibly can. It’s a completely thankless job and one that requires the patience of Job and the social skills of a match maker. Be nice to them. Thank them. They are your buddies in this game of finding a PUP – let them know you appreciate them.

2) It is easier to find a PUP later in the competition. I’m not sure why this is – but it’s true. I guess maybe things happen. I found my 2000 point partner because her regular partner suddenly had to leave – an emergency back home. On Monday – the partnership board was almost empty. Today (Friday), the board is almost full. But some of the cards, despite the best efforts of the folks running the desk, get left long after the player has found a match. I know – totally frustrating. But still – finding a PUP on day one of the competition is a huge challenge. Finding one later on is a bit easier. Maybe.

3) Keep a record of your agreements. Folks will say on Monday – let’s play Friday evening. Ok – that’s a date. But there are 3 games a day, and there are 7 (or more days). In my case – I needed PUPs for 16 games. And I blew it big time. Agreed to play on a team in the morning of day 3 – only to discover I’d also agreed to play in a single match in the same time slot with another person. Not a good way to make friends – trust me! I know I’m repeating myself – but on Monday at noon I needed to find partners for 16 games. I didn’t have a partner for all 16 games until Thursday at noon. At least my dance card is full now. That’s a huge relief.

4) Get your partner’s contact information. And keep notes. There is absolutely nothing worse than deciding after a game or so that you are not a match made in heaven, and forgetting that a day later. Or worse – a month later. Or in my case – a year later. Notes are critical. Email addresses matter to! You never know when you are going to be doing PUPs somewhere else and these folks will re-appear. It’s a universe after all – only so many folks in it!

5) Go over the convention card early – and try to keep to the simplest possible set of agreements. I played with 7 partners – not one of whom used the same conventions. I tried to make notes of who played how – but my little brain got completely bolloxed up by partner #5. No wonder my ability to play got worse during the week – I simply couldn’t remember if the person sitting opposite me played a specific convention – or not!

6) Be nice. Be very nice. People play a lot better if you compliment them then if you critique them. Trust me. And body language matters. If I messed up the last hand – don’t hold a grudge on the next hand – I won’t play better if you are sitting across from me with a scowl on your face. And no matter how badly I do – please don’t tell our competitors. One of my partners – after I’d played the hand, won and gotten a top score – announced – well she tried her best to lose.

7) And for goodness sake – don’t try to improve your partners play during the match. Waste of time. You’ll get them focused on the last hand – not the hand we are playing now – and it’s likely to be completely different. This advice is even more important if you are playing social bridge with your spouse. You’ll have a much better game if you just live with the mistake and solider on!

8) Always assume your partner is an expert – that they are bidding their hand correctly. And don’t try to ‘save’ them. Man – I wish I’d remembered that advice a few times when I tried to ‘save’ only to make matters much, much worse.

9) Partnership Mantras – My partner knows what they are doing – if it’s a mis-fit – Pass. My partner has a reason for doing what they did – try to imagine things from their point of view – what must they be looking at to make that bid, or not to bid. My partner knows what they are doing. They know what their hand is like – I don’t.

10) Thank your partner. Thank them when they put down their dummy, thank them when you finish playing, thank them for giving you an opportunity to play with them. They didn’t have to say yes. And they did.

Signing off to go play more bridge…

The Soup Lady

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