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Ben Thompson

Ben ThompsonI learnt bridge the first time when I was 10. My mum, granny and uncle needed a 4th so they spent 5 minutes explaining the rules to me (“easy” I thought) and off we went. On the 2nd hand I had AK8xx of diamonds and a 14 count. My uncle opened 1D but I thought my hand was probably better so I bid 2D. We finished the hand then they threw me out.

I learnt bridge the second time 10 years later. I was about to start a PhD (around artificial intelligence) and my plan for the summer was to generally goof off. My brother David had roughly the same plan. Our mum, who thought the Protestant work ethic was for wimps, told us to go learn bridge at Andrew Mill’s club in Kew. We grew up playing all sorts of card games, so we happily trotted along. I spent all my spare time for the next year playing bridge and then dropped out of my (very dull) PhD.

I was lucky to learn from Milly; he focussed on how to think about bridge rather than how to follow rules. He taught essentially every good junior in Victoria for over 20 years. I was also lucky to learn at roughly the same time as Rob Fruewirth. He’s a ridiculously talented bridge player and we formed a very successful partnership playing strong club with symmetric relays.

I worked at UCLA for a while and got back to Australia just in time to be invited with Rob onto the Australian U25 team for 1989, Australia’s first official junior team. Andrew Reiner was instrumental in making that happen, and he became a great mentor and friend. The Australian team was the same for 3 years in a row, and we developed great team spirit. We made the semis of the world championship in 1989, won the 1990 PABF U25 teams, and snagged a bronze medal at the 1991 world championships.

Rob and I also won the VCC in 1991, playing with Simon Hinge and Wally Scott – our first Open national title. It was really a terrific confidence booster for a couple of pretty raw juniors.

Professionally, I worked in academia into the early 90s before switching to consulting, which paid (a lot) better yet still allowed me the flexibility to play a lot of bridge.

After finishing as a junior player, I got the chance to captain the U25 team (including my brother) at the 1993 PABF, which we won. I got my first Open “cap” in 1994 playing Acol with Simon Hinge (the only target event that year was the PABF). 1994 was a great year for me on a more important front– I started living with Jenny, and we got married at the end of the year.

By 1998 I was playing Goren with Bill Jacobs. We made the Open team – again a year where the only target was the PABF, this time in Kobe Japan. Like in 1994, we finished 5th, feeling pretty mediocre about it. On the other hand, Jenny and I took our baby daughter Rachel on the trip, and being very happy, tolerant and most of all blonde, she was a huge hit with the Japanese.

I’ve taught bridge, and run some holidays, and played professionally, but I never played a lot of professional bridge and I always resisted it. I’d noticed that a lot of the old pros basically hated bridge but seemed to keep on doing it because they had nothing else to do. I love bridge and I didn’t want that to be me, so I’ve always made sure I worked outside bridge.

I focussed on career and family after 1998. Something had to give, and I barely played national events for about a decade. I stayed connected with the national scene with a spell on the ABF Management Committee and a longer one on the ABF Tournament Committee. I was on the Victorian Tournament Committee for about 20 years, starting in the early 90s, before transitioning to VBA President in 2012.

I did an MBA in the early 2000s and got into strategy consulting before becoming head of strategy at Tabcorp, then the 10th largest gambling company in the world. Nowadays I consult with a miscellany of small, medium and startup businesses (the startups are the most fun!).

There are some useful crossover skills between bridge and business, particularly the strategy work I do – eg visualisation, working backwards from the end, reasoning from limited information, and reading human behaviour. I really enjoy the imperfect information and human frailty aspects of bridge. 30 years in, I’m still learning and that’s what keeps me playing.

With my daughter heading into teenagerhood, I was able to get more serious about bridge again and reformed my partnership with Bill Jacobs. We had some great results together, including making the Australian open team for the 2013 PABF, and the 2016 Olympiad.

The two bridge results I feel most proud of came in this period.

In 2014 I had cancer (non-Hodgkins lymphoma). I finished chemotherapy on Christmas Eve that year. My incredibly supportive friends and teammates Bill, Phil Markey and Justin Williams insisted we stick with our plan to play the NOT 4-handed, even after I explained in November that I only got out of bed so I could go back to sleep on the couch. I finished 2014 feeling like my brain had fallen out of my head, and I was pretty worried about letting the guys down. I was determined to bring all my focus to bear, and we managed to win the SWPT. That felt truly amazing; I was so relieved to find that my brain still worked. I’ll always be grateful to Bill and the Bruces for their unwavering faith in me when I had very little myself.

In 2016, Bill and I came 8th in the World Pairs. We’d made the final in 2010 and come about middle in a field that later turned out to have been riddled with cheats. I was very keen to see how well we could do in a “clean” field in 2016. It felt terrific to know that we could play world-class bridge under world championship pressure. Bill is resting on his extensive laurels, but I still have the drive to compete at the top level.

Outside of bridge, Jenny and I love sport and all kinds of theatre. I’m perpetually curious. I love learning new things, and I read widely. Every couple of years I set myself a new learning challenge. At the moment, it’s Spanish (mi esperanza está poder leer a Cervantes en el original – real Spanish speakers can correct my poor grammar).

 

International Appearances and Results

Year Place Event
1989 4th World Junior Teams
1990 1st PABF Junior Teams
1991 3rd World Junior Teams
1993 1st NPC – PABF Junior Teams
1994 5th PABF Open Teams
1998 5th PABF Open Teams
2010 R32 Rosenblum Cup (World Knockout Teams)
2010 34th World Open Pairs
2013 7th PABF Open Teams
2016 =22nd World Bridge Games Open Teams
2016 8th World Open Pairs
2017 7th NPC – PABF Open Teams
2017 15th NPC – Bermuda Bowl

 

I’ve also played a bunch of invitational tournaments around Asia. I particularly enjoy the NEC Cup, where we’ve made the quarterfinals and come 2nd in the pairs.

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