Scotland’s Samantha Punch is putting together a series of interviews with the world’s finest players under the title ‘Bridge Encounters’ . Bridge Magazine Online has kindly given us permission to publish this extract from her interview with Jeff Meckstroth.
What was it that really hooked you into bridge?
I was always very competitive. I grew up playing tournament golf. I was a golfer… grew up on the golf course. I played golf tournaments as a junior. I was first man on my High School team for 3 years and had ambitions to be a pro golfer. When I was just going to start College golf, I broke my elbow and that was a big factor in steering me into bridge. Well, you can play bridge with a broken elbow but you couldn’t play golf.
Did you have a particular mentor or inspiration?
Not anyone in particular. I played with all sorts of people and I got the opportunity and became known in the bridge world to play with a lot of great players. I got even to play with Oswald Jacoby before he passed away. When I was up and coming he was a very old man but he asked me to play in a Swiss teams so I took the opportunity and that was incredible. I played with Barry Crane 3 or 4 times. I can’t say that was a very pleasant experience… he was brutal to his partners. He’s the only guy that ever made me cry.
He would just yell in front of about 40 kibitzers at the table. There was only one knockout at these tournaments and the pair game was done early so everyone was crowding round to see the final of the knockout. Actually, it was him who was struggling but he was just berating me publicly, you know.
How did you cope with that?
Well, I was very supported by the rest of my team. I was on the Precision team at that point. Kathy Wei and Ron Anderson and Dave Berkowitz. They were all very supportive. What’s really funny is the next day I was supposed to play in the Open Pairs and Barry wouldn’t play with me. He played with Berkowitz and I played with Kathy Wei. Well, they were 2nd in the Open pairs and I won with Kathy. That sort of… that was fun.
That could have been critical in terms of putting you off.
Well, I mean, you know, in fact Barry felt really bad. He apologised profusely, bought me a gift and down the road 6 months later he was begging me to play with him ‘cos he had a hard time keeping partners he was so brutal to them.
And did you play with him again?
I made the mistake of doing that, yeah. Again it was not a pleasant experience really.
Were you nervous the first time you played with Jacoby?
No, I wasn’t too nervous. It used to be I got nervous playing with some of these big players the first time. Like the first time I played with Paul Soloway I was a bit nervous. I ended up playing a lot with him because we would go to regionals together. He was a pleasure at the table. I played with so many great players… Gerald Carvelli, Dave Berkowitz and how I really got better was I would see the strengths of their game. I would see the strengths of their game and I would take their individual strengths and make it a part of my game.
Which ones stick in your mind as key?
Mark Jacobus was a very big influence in the fact that I played with him for about 3 months, in 1977. I was first getting professional games and we were both on the same team, therefore playing together a lot in professional situations. That was the first year where I got into any sort of National prominence. I finished 3rd in the McKenney race, it was a bigger deal back then.
Why was it a bigger deal?
Well, the Master Point race… it seemed more important. Barry Crane always controlled that… if Barry didn’t give you his blessing to win then he would come out after you and try and beat you. There was some genuine races and a lot of bad blood. In 1980 Mel Skolnick was going for the McKenney and he had a very bitter battle with Barry Crane. I was playing on a lot of Mel’s teams, in fact at the end of the year Mel was hiring multiple teams to play in the Swiss to just try and play Barry, to knock him off. He would hire any pro available to just enter the event to try and keep Barry’s points down.
And why are points so important to people?
I mean, it’s all about the titles for me. I want National Championships and the World Championship. As Paul Soloway said, points are just a reflection of attendance, you know. If you attend a lot of tournaments you’re going to get your points. People have the impression I’m playing bridge every week which is not true, I play in the 20s, 20 something weeks a year. I won’t really play much more than that. Eric and I are cutting back a bit on our Regionals. I think we have 13 scheduled for next year. One year we did 19 Regionals, I think that’s the most. And 16 last year, and it’ll probably be 14 next year, that’s about right.