David heads for Bridge Olympics
A bridge partnership is like a marriage, says David Price, who trusts his will prove strong in China when the chips are down.
A bridge partnership is like a marriage, says David Price, who trusts his will prove strong in China when the chips are down. He explains all to Steven Russell, including the tale of the stuffed moose.
THE sparks from those dazzling firework displays have died down and the smog has returned to Beijing, but the Olympic spirit hasn't quite disappeared from China's capital.
On Friday the city plays host to the first World Mind Sports Games, billed as the Olympics for activities such as bridge and chess, and using some of the facilities that saw service when the athletes did their stuff.
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Among those flying the flag for England is David Price, who lives between Sudbury and Halstead.
“I think England has a very good chance,” he reckons. “The favourites will be America, because they have always had more strength in depth.”
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It would be nice to step off a plane with a ribbon hanging around his neck, wouldn't it? “If I get a gold medal I shall certainly ask BA for an upgrade!” he laughs - a reference to British Airways' feting of our Olympic champions a few weeks ago.
He's not one to shout about his achievements but David, 59, is a player you'd want on your side. For a start, he's a Premier Grand Master - at the top of the tree - in The English Bridge Union rankings.
He has plenty of tournament wins under his belt and was in the team that four years ago did well in the European championships in Malmo. That result earned a seat at the subsequent world championships: The Bermuda Bowl in Estoril.
It was the first time an English team had ever reached the world championships - “though there's a slight con there,” he smiles, “because it used to be Great Britain, and back in the '90s it sort of developed back to Wales, Scotland and so on.”
Names notwithstanding, it's been more than half a century since the world title came to these isles.
Like football, cricket and rugby, you can be the best sportsman ever and still end up on the losing side. That's because bridge, similarly, is a team game.
“That can be a frustration if you're as fresh as a daisy and playing wonderfully, and everyone else is missing the plot - and vice-versa,” he admits.
“A bridge partnership is very like a marriage, actually. You get 'divorces'. You spend a lot of time together, and you get frustrated sometimes with yourself - because you know you can do better than you're doing.
“You get frustrated with your partner because you know they can do better . . . and particularly when the things that the partnership does together don't work!”
The personalities of bridge partners, and being on the same wavelength, is as important as technical ability, David feels. “You could take the two best individual players in the world, and sit them down to play together, and they might not perform, because of conflicting personalities.”
He's always preached a team ethos, “because I've always believed a team can perform at a level greater than the sum of its parts”.
Bridge players can be quite sensitive at the highest levels, where the stakes are greatest, and a diplomatic approach is sometimes essential.
“With some people it's practically impossible, though. You open your mouth and they think you're going to criticise them!”
It can be difficult when a partnership ends.
David recalls a former partner, many years ago, saying he wasn't sure he wanted to carry on at the level they were playing at.
So David found a replacement. “Then I got it thrown at me as recently as about four years ago that I'd dumped him, at a dinner party. It's bizarre! It's not what happened.”
Bridge has long held its own Olympics, but this year it's been incorporated into the World Mind Sports Games, along with chess, draughts, Xiangqi (a Chinese board game) and Go (originated in China about 3,000 years ago and is said to be the oldest board game).
The event runs from October 3-18. David is part of the “seniors” team. It is made up of three pairs, two of which play at any one time.
He and partner Colin Simpson are likely to be in action much of the time, as they're the English pairing that probably packs the biggest punch.
The first eight days is effectively a qualifying stage, nations grouped together and playing round-robin matches, before the competition reverts to a knockout format.
It might not involve swimming 100m or leaping hurdles, but high-level bridge is certainly taxing, says David.
“What people don't realise is that if I come back from a week's play - or a fortnight, as it's going to be in Beijing - I'll sleep for a week. It's extremely tiring, and therefore you need to be reasonably fit and watch what you eat and drink. It's a mental sport.”
Success demands single-mindedness, the ability to focus, logic, harmony with one's partner, psychological understanding, and the ability to put yourself in someone else's shoes.
In fact, he argues it should be taught in schools - and it would be wonderful if it were recognised as a sport and given state or lottery funding.
“In a couple of European countries, certainly the Netherlands, it's on the curriculum. It teaches teamwork, discipline and so on: useful in any walk of life.
On Wall Street, when in the past they've wanted new traders, they specifically looked for bridge players.”
For the moment, though, the focus is on the present - and Beijing.
There should be no lack of motivation in the English camp, but does the team go in for the kind of bonding exercises so beloved of American footballers and rugby players, such as group hugs and chants?
“Well, it's funny. In Malmo, we started off quite poorly. So someone said 'We need something that bonds us.'
“We looked round and there was a stuffed moose. Sweden, you see. So we all had to go and pat the moose before every game.
“As soon as we started doing that, our performance improved!”
England came fifth. “The Italians won by a mile, but during the second week - after the moose - we actually outscored them! It may sound daft, but these things can actually mean something.”
Hoping to prolong the magic, the team got a little fluffy moose toy to take to the world championships, “but it didn't do any good. We ended up kicking that!”
IT was his sixth-form lunchtime card school that introduced David Price to bridge - sparking a love affair that has endured for more than 40 years.
“One day someone came in and said 'Shall we try bridge?' We all said 'What's bridge?' And he said 'I'm not exactly sure, but my parents play.' And off we went. I bought a book and that was me hooked.”
David was born in Colchester but the family moved around a lot and he went to school in Kent before reading natural sciences at Pembroke College, Cambridge.
“I was one of these people who didn't know what I wanted to do,” he says, so after university went to Portsmouth, where the family was now based, and began his working life at a little insurance brokerage there.
Bridge took a grip and he regularly travelled to London to compete with and against very good players.
It seemed sensible to move to the capital and he started winning tournaments in his 20s.
Workwise, David joined forces with a bridge-playing friend in an insurance-broking partnership, left to go into the City, and became MD of an insurance-broking outfit.
“And then we fell out of love and I decided that I'd had enough of the rat race. But what else could I do? (He was in his early 40s.) Fortunately I had this second talent, at quite a high level.”
That skill was, of course, bridge. For a while he played for money, usually at a club in Marble Arch, and eventually took over the running of the establishment.
He did quite well, he admits, but “You have to have your wits about you when you're playing for substantial sums of money. You could win or lose £20,000 in an afternoon.”
This was the pattern of life for six or seven years. Then David met wife-to-be Jenny, who came to a bridge weekend he was running.
“One morning, when I was getting in from the club at 7.30am and she was just heading off to work, I thought 'Well, this is no good if you want to have a life. The time has come to effect change.'”
For a couple of years he helped an acquaintance set up a new business venture. Then, eventually, there was “a hankering to move out of dirty and smelly London”.
David wondered about his good lady, a city girl born and bred, but she proved game.
Two or three years ago they moved to the Essex/Suffolk borderlands, to a centuries-old house where they live with sundry cats and dogs, and haven't looked back.
That stressful world of commerce has been left behind. Nowadays, David teaches bridge and hires himself out as a professional player.
As well as benefiting directly from his skill, those who pay can also learn from his experience.
“It's a bit like if you were a golfer, playing as a pair, and decided you wanted to win at all costs,” he smiles.
“So you hire Tiger Woods to play with you. A similar thing happens at bridge.”
What was it that he liked about bridge when he really got the bit between the teeth in his 20s - the intellectual challenge?
“Certainly there was that. In a way, looking back, I think it was a form of escapism as well. When you sit at the table for hours on end, playing, nothing else in the world really matters. The pressures and stresses, they evaporate, and you focus.”
He also admits being competitive, “in a fair way. Sometimes you have to assert yourself and stick up for your rights, in all walks of life. Bridge is no different. There are people who will try to abuse you, and it's as well to be capable of looking after yourself.”
That doesn't often happen - and not at the top level. It's invariably players whose skill doesn't match their ambition that can be a bit edgy.
Overall, bridge in the UK is in quite a healthy state, he reckons.
“The thing that depresses me a little is the absence of youngsters coming in. I blame computers for that.
“These days, kids seem to attach themselves to a keyboard as soon as they are able. So instead of going out and playing games, they play games on that.
“Whilst you can play bridge online, it's not the same. The psychological aspects, for a start, go out the window. You can't pick up the body language.”
While the game once had an elitist image - well-off folk sitting around in dinner jackets and smoking cigars - it's no longer the case, insists David, who says the game attracts all kinds of people.
What perhaps hinders bridge is that it's not really a spectator sport, so TV isn't greatly interested. And without that exposure, it's hard to break into the public consciousness.
“I also believe that success plays a part. What was tennis in Sweden before Björn Borg? What was golf in Germany before Bernhard Langer?”
Even though David has reached dizzy heights himself, he can still find enjoyment playing at club level at Clare, say.
He sometimes partners Jenny in the Suffolk C team - the couple having dealt with the slight tension there used to be when they started playing together!
“It's not a game I'd necessarily recommend husbands and wives should play together,” he says, with a twinkle in his eye. “Some get on all right; with others it just creates constant bickering and friction!”
There's an amusing anecdote. In 2006 and 2007 David won the Suffolk seniors pairs with partner Andrew Moore, whose wife Jane is a former international.
“This year we went to see if we could win it three times in a row. Jenny played with Jane - and they won it!”
- David Price is available to teach bridge. He be contacted by email on
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