Start small, play big

Martin Zhao and Jacob Freeman have been playing together since last summer’s Wernher Open Pairs.

Jacob Freeman was dancing in the Grand Ballroom Thursday night. The 17-year-old from Toronto had just found out he’d qualified for the second day of a national event for the third time this tournament.
Jacob started playing bridge when he was 5. He’d been playing online poker and watching his dad play on BBO. His dad didn’t want him playing poker, so Jacob switched to bridge. A year later he was playing online with a fellow Torontonian who didn’t know his age but was impressed enough to invite him to dinner. “My mom got on there and said, ‘He’s 6.’”

Albena Vassileva and Olivia Laufer, both 15, are members of Canada’s Under-21 team.

Olivia Laufer, a student at the same high school who started a bridge club with him there, didn’t officially learn bridge until she was 7. But she can still claim an earlier start than him because she’d been going with her parents to club games since she was an infant. When she learned to talk, her first words were “partner bid 2NT.”
As recently as a couple years ago, Jacob and partner Martin Zhao were playing in 299er games, and a couple years before that, so were Olivia and partner Albena Vassileva. Now all four are members of Canada’s national youth teams, and they’ve been playing in national events in Philadelphia. Martin, 14, is on the Under-16 team, and the other three are on the Under-21 team. Both girls are 15 but will turn 16 this year.
Freeman and Zhao qualified for the second day of the Lebhar IMP Pairs in 35th place, and last night they qualified in the Silodor Open Pairs. And Freeman and Vassileva qualified in the Rockwell Mixed Pairs.
The four of them entered the Vanderbilt and drew the last seed (the bottom 10 were randomized). On Monday they played a four-way match starting against the highest-seeded team not to have a bye. They then faced Richard Pavlicek’s team for the third spot out of the group. They were up 4 IMPs at the half but didn’t make it. “It was a nice experience, a pretty nice moment being up at the half,” Albena said.
“I thought there would be more pressure,” said Olivia. But then she was kibitzing the Vanderbilt when she was 2, so it wasn’t all that new.
She and Albena both started learning bridge in school bridge programs at their elementary schools when they were 7. Jacob already had a few years of playing experience when he started a similar program at his school while in grade 3, but between the volunteer teacher from Unit 166 and his school, they designated the program for grades 4-6 and told him he was too young to participate. He ended up needing special permission to join his own club.
Martin learned the latest at 11, when he was encouraged by his dad to go to a bridge camp, and he was mentored by Nader Hanna. He formed his partnership with Jacob last summer at the Toronto NABC. The first hand he picked up was an extremely strong two-suiter with six spades and seven diamonds. The opponents bid to 5*C*, which Jacob doubled, and Martin settled for defending. They set it 800 but lost 16 IMPs because they missed 7*S*. “I thought Jacob was never going to play with me again.”
The next day they were planning to play in a regional open pairs but at the last minute decided to try the Wernher Open Pairs. When they qualified for the second day, they decided to continue playing together.
They’ve since been to four regionals and some sectionals, but don’t have much time to play. “I play hockey, and my partner skis, so we don’t play much in the winter,” Jacob said. “And I’m in grade 12, so I have university applications.” He recently made Bronze Life Master and this year has already earned half as many masterpoints as all of 2017, when he gained 230.
Jacob and Martin have experimented with some advanced systems and play a complicated version of 2/1 that some pros gave them, modifying it along the way. “The most important part is conversations away from the table,” Jacob said. “If we’re going to have a long-term partnership, we need to be able to talk about the difficult hands and have productive conversations.”

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