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Kimelman PaulsBy BRIAN PAULS

The ultimate attainment for competitive bridge players is participation in the World Teams Championship.

Countries compete against one another. The event this year is scheduled for Lyon, France in mid-August. The author of this story had the good fortune to represent Canada in 1978 when it was held in New Orleans, USA. The qualifying system then was not quite so rigorous. Almost four decades later, the challenge has become decidedly tougher for Winnipeg’s stars, despite their undoubted qualifications, to advance to what baseballers call “The Show”.
Former Winnipegger Danny Miles, a three-time winner of the Canadian championship, was featured in a Jewish Post & News story by Myron Love in May after he and five other experts won the 2017 title right here in Winnipeg. His local teammates were Bob Todd, Doug Fisher and Neil Kimelman, all of them among the elite of our many superb players.
We all thought that the guys should immediately start training for Lyon, but it turned out that the powers-that-be running the World Bridge Federation, located in Lausanne, Switzerland (and perhaps as divorced from reality as the liquid-lunchers of FIFA in Zurich) had given an exemption for only one North American entrant (the USA, naturally) and had ruled that Canada ought to play off against Mexico, in the sweltering month of June in Mexico City, for the right to participate as a second American team in The Show.

Well, unfortunately Neil Kimelman and the Canadian cohort were unable to survive the combination of a competent (but also lucky) Mexican team, plus excessive heat and pollution in Mexico City, so Canada will not be represented at The Show. It began badly for Neil upon arrival; his luggage travelled back and forth across the globe prior to rejoining him more than 36 hours after his own arrival, obliging him to compete at the bridge table in borrowed underwear, and without his usual meds. His teammate, Danny Miles, missed the event altogether due to other commitments. It was a close match, but they were eliminated.
To some extent, professionalism played a role in their loss.
In North American tournament bridge circles, overall ranking of players may be based upon the number of master points a player holds. Master points are bestowed at each event upon the successful players. The system is comparable to rewarding an adult with a Gold Star as though he/she is a Grade II child with good class attendance, but in other ways it bespeaks great achievement. Most competitors are hungry for the recognition that amassing large quantities of master points may bring to them. They play, not for money, but for the points, and some are prepared to expend large sums in order to win those points.
The number of payers (known as clients) has been increasing exponentially over the past few years, and many top players accept large heaps of compensation in exchange for partnering the clients, (becoming known as professionals) and thereby assisting the clients to win points.
What is the connection of that to the World Championship? The answer lies in the pervasive influence of money at the highest levels of the game. Money can buy an entire team of top professionals. Money can cover the expenses of a top player moving from one city or country to another. Our representatives, all of them amateurs, and none of them a full-time competitive player, earned the Canadian championship by topping several teams containing one or more professionals, but they were unable to replicate that feat far from home, pitted against one or more full-time professionals on the opposing team.
There has never been any citizenship or residency test to fix eligibility to play for one country instead of another. Bridge mercenaries abound. Politics has always had a role too.
In 1968, the World Championships were held in Cannes, France. Israel was drawn to play against Egypt one afternoon. Shortly before game time, the Egyptian captain, the actor Omar Sharif (then at the peak of his career while starring in the films “Lawrence of Arabia”, “Dr. Zhivago” and “Funny Girl”) sat down with the entire Israeli team. No one else arrived at the table. As game time neared, the director came by to ask Omar about his teammates. He shrugged. “I think they were going shopping in Italy this morning” he said. “I guess they got held up at the border”. Omar remained quietly in his chair until the match was declared to be defaulted to Israel. Before he departed, some of the Israeli players took private photos of Omar sitting alone holding a deck of cards. He allowed it once they all agreed in advance not to distribute them outside their immediate circle. When asked why, since he was captain of the Egyptian team even though he lived permanently in France, he had allowed the non-appearance to happen, he purportedly replied: “They have to go back to Cairo. I don’t”.

Neil Kimelman, now retired, is 62 years of age. He met his wife of 37 years, Colleen, at the bridge table. Their progeny, 34-year-old Erin and 30-year-old Kyle, do not play bridge. A lifelong Winnipegger, Neil has published numerous articles and three books on high level bidding at bridge, the most recent effort having captured a prestigious award from the International Bridge Press Association. He serves as current president of the Canadian Bridge Federation and edits an online bridge publication.
His is a classic tale: Grew up playing cards in the home. Parents used to play bridge socially all the time. Met one’s spouse at the bridge table. Children not interested in the game. Playing in the World Championships has been and will continue to be his Dream. He calls it his personal Pursuit of the Holy Grail.
Who plays tournament bridge these days? The answer, of course, is: very few young people. If they offered discounts to seniors at a regular weekly duplicate bridge club, no one would be paying full price.
I asked Neil to describe the allure of tournament bridge. The response was unsurprising. He suggested the thrill of victory, the mental challenges, the camaraderie, the unending variety, the constant requirement for partnership cooperation. Then, he said : ”It’s fun”.
Perhaps some advice from Mark Twain sums it up…for him, and for all of us who play the game: “Find a job you enjoy doing, and you will never have to work a day in your life”.