Describe a year in the life of Larry Cohen.
These days, I am probably home 185 days, on the road 180 days. The "home days" are my favourite time. When at home, I do lots of writing, often working on my website where I write tons of articles, deals, instruction, etc. I also play golf 3-4 times a week and watch lots of sports on TV. On the road, I am playing in tournaments or travelling to different venues (sometimes cruise ships) to teach. I love the teaching, but I don't love being on the road and taking airplanes, sleeping in different beds, eating bad food (at home, I eat healthy). I play in 5-6 major tournaments a year (such as national and international championships), and about 5-6 week-long regional tournaments.
Most of our readers will probably know you from your book on the Law Of Total Tricks. Do you use the Law yourself at the table?
Often, although it is so automatic for me, I don't really have to think about it. The 2- and 3-level battles are all about the Law of Total Tricks. I might as well be dead if I ever allow my opponents to play a two-level contract with an eight- card fit. It is more fun for me to push the opponents from the two-level to the three-level and take them one down, than to bid and make 7NT redoubled on a triple-squeeze.
After writing that book, do you sometimes feel that people blame you now when they get a bad result?
Absolutely. I get credit and blame. Unfortunately, too many players don't understand enough about LOTT to know what they are talking about. Just because there are 17 trumps, doesn't mean I expect 17 tricks. You have to know about "adjustments". Analogy: the same thing applies when counting points. Consider the two hands K1098-AJ10983-void-K104 and QJ2-QJ43-Q83-QJ5. To call both of these hands 11-counts is not "adjusting" properly.
Leaving aside your personal bias as a writer, do you think that it's important to read a lot when it comes to improving your bridge?
Absolutely. Reading was a huge element of my transformation from "amateur" to expert. I wouldn't recommend reading too much about bidding and defense, but would instead focus on declarer play.
Why is that?
Because bidding and defense require too much partnership detail. Besides, are you going to read about bidding or defensive methods and somehow memorize the recommendations? Not practical. On the other hand, reading declarer play problems, trying to solve them, then reading the answers is always going to build your skills in a useful manner.
What books would you recommend?
Any Kelsey/Reese classics. I especially like the quiz/over-my-shoulder style so the reader is challenged to find the solution on his own.
Are there any books that were important in developing your own game?
It's very basic (not for experienced players), but Dorothy Truscott's "Winning Declarer Play" helped me turn the corner. Later on, two books really opened my eyes to the beauty of the game: Right Through the Pack (Darvas) and "Adventures in Card Play" (Kelsey/Ottlik). I don't recommend the latter book for anyone but expert-level players. My favourite line in a book is the last one in this book. The authors talk about how declarers all over are mangling hand after hand, but they fear not insulting them, for "they will never reach this page in this book".
At what point did you start taking bridge seriously as a lifestyle choice?
I toyed with it in high school, but got crazy while in college. I tell people I "majored in bridge." I went through the phase that most players do where I was consumed by the game 24/7. In my early 20s I started to get paid to play on teams (this was just becoming popular in America at the time). Still, I had a "normal" job in an office for a company where the president was a bridge player. He let me have lots of vacation time to play in all the major tournaments. It wasn't until 1990 (when I was 30) that I made bridge my full-time occupation.
Is there a good living to be made from the game?
I am a three-headed monster when it comes to bridge income. Writing and teaching are two of the three. Those are my passions – I love both. But, neither is a "get-rich" kind of thing. They are labours of love. On the other hand, playing professionally (the third head) is quite lucrative these days. The top pros in American earn a good living from playing on sponsored teams.
What are your thoughts on sponsors in bridge?
I have mixed feelings. If people have the money and can afford the luxury of hiring pros (as partners or teammates), why not? There is some resentment and jealousy – I suppose that is natural. Also, many people (even with the money) feel they would rather play with their peers than to "buy onto a winning team." Most of the sponsors that have paid me to play on their teams are terrific people – and often very good bridge players. On the other hand, I think it would be easier to win the World Championship if I could play with David and two other top pairs on the team (as Italy and most other non-American countries have done with great success).
You won your first national title at 22. What was the catalyst for this?
I think I was very "sharp" at that age. What I lacked in experience, I was able to make up for by avoiding card-play errors. I didn't have a photographic memory or anything, but I could remember and focus at a much better level than I can today. I really didn't expect the big-time success so soon. I know it sounds modest, but I think I was a very lucky player. I did read a lot, and was fortunate enough to be able to talk bridge with more experienced players (such as Marty Bergen).
Do you and David put much work into system discussion?
David and I have been partners for nearly 20 years. This is a huge edge. Over the years we have put in the work, but now there isn't much needed other than maintenance and a few tweaks. Note the word "few". I think system changes are the downfall of most good partnerships. We try to keep our agreements basic and simple. We are practical. We know that adding new stuff comes with a big memory price. Not only might we forget the new agreements, but we might mix them up with an old one. I think of system changes as "lose/lose" propositions.
Do you spend a lot of time going over your results?
Always. After every session, we review every deal, and I can't stress enough the importance of this.
"What could I have done differently?"
"If I had bid this, what would you have thought?"
"When I played the deuce, did you think it showed clubs? Or was it encouraging?"
"Would you expect me to preempt with this hand?"
Note that none of this postmorteming involves things such as: "Let's switch the meaning of 3C so that next time we can show 5-4-3-1"; it was that kind of discussion that ultimately ended my partnership with Bergen in the 1980s. And there is never any discussion at the table. All postmortems happen after the bridge has finished.
Do you have any other advice for players aspiring to expert level?
Yes, "Play Bridge with Larry Cohen – Days 1,2,3." A cheap plug, for sure, but everyone who tries the CDs raves to me about how much they learn. On every deal you bid, play and defend with expert over-your-shoulder commentary guiding you through the decisions. What better way to learn (other than to hire a pro, but that is ten times the cost)?
What if anything are you still learning about the game?
That there is always something new to be learned. The moment anyone thinks they know it all, they are making a big mistake. Not only is the bidding always changing, but I always see new beautiful concepts in card play and defensive themes. This is an amazing game! Something very basic that I didn't realize until recently is the following: When you open 2NT and partner transfers to a major and then bids 3NT, you should always correct to the major when holding 3-card support. Don't ever decide to pass 3NT because you're balanced. Don't mix this up with the auction 1NT-2H-2S-3NT. There, you could often choose to play 3NT when balanced even with three spades. On that auction, you are pretty sure dummy is 5-3-3-2. But after 2NT and a transfer, dummy could be very off-shape. There is no room. Recently, my partner transferred and then bid 3NT with 10xxxx-void-Kxxxxx-xx. That is quite extreme, but if you prefer, consider Qxxxx-xx-x-QJxxx. What else could you do but transfer and then bid 3NT? So, opener should never pass 3NT with three-card support.
Do you have a favourite hand?
All of my favourites are in "My Favorite 52." I let the reader play all of them! Probably my most favourite is Hamman's famous defensive play on Deal 22:
S KT87 S AJ9543
H QJ3 H AK5
D 43 D T92
C KQT8 C 2
WEST NORTH EAST SOUTH
Wolff Cohen Hamman Bergen
pass 1H 2S 3D
4S pass pass 4NT
pass 5D Double All pass
West led a spade which Marty ruffed. He played ace and another club, ruffing in dummy with the eight. Instead of overruffing with the nine, Hamman discarded a spade! By holding on to his three trumps he eventually gained trump control and the contract was three off.
If Hamman had overruffed, the remaining trumps would have fallen in two rounds and Marty would have had time to set up the clubs and escape for one off.
What in your bridge career are you most proud of?
I'd say it is my reputation amongst my peers. Not just as an expert (there are plenty of those), but as an ethical player. There are so many areas in this game where you could take advantage (mainly in the tempo area). By always bending over backwards to be "clean", I enjoy the game more, and relish in the reputation of being an "honest" player. I've written many articles about this aspect of the game, the most notable "Sleeping with a Clean Conscience."
What is your most memorable bridge moment?
My most memorable result is probably our second-place finish in the World Pairs in 1998. I wrote a well-known article about it called "Losing at Lille". We led the gruelling 7-day event until disaster struck on the last two deals.
Another memorable event was the 1984 Spingold when Edith Rosenkranz (the wife of my teammate George Rosenkranz) was kidnapped. We had to play our matches in a private room to protect us from the police and reporters. Edith was recovered unharmed before the end of the event.
Out of all the world events you play in, which one is the most fun?
The Cap Gemini tournament at the Hague was special. They invited the "top 16 pairs" in the world each year and treated us like royalty. It was a tough event, but played in good spirit. It was bridge the way it should be. Unfortunately, the company has stopped sponsoring the event.
Do you still enjoy playing?
Not as much as you would think. I don't like the pressure of getting paid. When I make a mistake (and we all do), I feel I have let my sponsor down. I'm happier to read about interesting bridge than to sit there playing lots of deals and having only a few that pique my interest. Also, I don't like physically sitting so much.
So I guess you don't play socially very often?
Social bridge? Not for me (unless you could get me plastered first). The only bridge I play is top-level bridge. Sorry if I sound like a bridge snob, but I go crazy when I see bad bridge being played. The local-duplicate is torture for me. I get so impatient when the players are slow to sort their cards, enter the private score, get with the program. The postmortems (especially if there is a travelling scoresheet) are painful. One of my pet peeves is the silly commentary when the players see that 650 was made at the other tables ("Gee, Madge, it makes 5!)" They don't realize that just because it did make, that it isn't necessarily a make). When I teach, I can change my mindset (fortunately).
If you could play with anyone you haven't played with yet, who would it be?
Only dead people. Don't take that the wrong way. I've been fortunate enough to partner all the stars of our era in various exhibition events. I wish I could go back in time though, and play with some of the famous stars of yesteryear.
So if you've played with everyone, I guess you won't mind telling us who is the best player in the world!
It is hard to say who is the best worldwide, as I see mostly the American players. Right now, if I had to win an event for my life, I'd choose David – because even if he is say, #15 in the world, our partnership would make up for the difference. But, if I had to choose one partner with whom I have no agreements, and had to win, I think it would be Jeff Meckstroth. His at the table attitude is a winning one. I remember partnering him and his pep talks ("let's put the pedal to the medal.")
This reminds me of a story. Many years ago, I was fortunate to partner Jeff on a pro team sponsored by a lady, let's call her "Mrs. Ethel Jones." Ethel was well-known in her local community which is where this tournament was played. Jeff and I were facing our first opponents (two ladies I had never seen before). They had no idea who we were. But, they glanced down at the entry form on the table and saw Ethel's name on top. This put them into a state of shock, awe, respect, and fear. One of them kicked the other under the table and whispered, "We're playing against the Ethel Jones team!!!"
Are there any other players you look up to?
I admire Zia's game. He makes mistakes, sure, but he has a great attitude about them. He suffers for only a short time and then lets it go. He told me, "ten minutes later, it's all gone – out of my mind." I need to be more that way. Zia is not afraid to do what he thinks is right and live with it. He has flair and he gets a lot of fun out of the game. I wish I could have more fun and let Zia influence me more. Bob Hamman's intense concentration, one-deal-at-a-time approach also helps me. I want to be more that way. Sometimes I can't get the previous deal out of my mind and it hurts me with the current deal. Maybe it is impossible to be both Zia and Hamman at the same time (amusing, since at the time of this interview they are planning to become regular partners).
Marty Bergen is another player who had a great influence on my competitive bidding. He was great at disrupting the opponents' auctions and getting in there to fight competitively in the bidding. My current partner, David Berkowitz, has helped me a lot with constructive slam bidding.
Which is the greatest bridge country in the world?
America has the most depth (the #100 player in America is scary good), but I suspect Holland, Italy and Poland have more "top players per capita" than the US. Players from many Northern European countries (Iceland, Norway, Sweden) are quite talented.
But of course Australia is really the greatest bridge nation! On my 1994 visit to your country, I got a great impression of the enthusiasm for the game. In that regard, no country I've ever played in has made a better impression.
What else did you get up to while you were here?
I stayed at the Goodman's home in Queensland, which gave me the flavour of life there. I had a bad cold, so was limited in my sightseeing. I did try to see the Great Barrier Reef, but there was a rainstorm that prevented my visit. They told me it happens once a decade. Just my luck. I suppose I'll have to try next time.
Do you have any advice on how Australia can become a threat at world level?
Yes. Have the top players play against the world's best. In the 1980s and 90s the Dutch raised themselves to world-class level by flying in top world pairs to play practice matches. They were fortunate to have sponsorship – and I've heard of similar possibilities in Australia. Also, I'd try to get away from some of the home-grown systems that are popular there. Stick more to basics. Maybe some of those "unusual" home-grown brews are good, but the problem is that many are not allowed in world competition. So, if the Australian stars master, say, Moscito, but then have to change the system in the Bermuda Bowl, they are at a huge disadvantage.
Do you think the game has changed much since your early days?
Yes, there is more preempting now (this is good for the preemptors, hard on those getting preempted). More competitive fight – they don't let you play in 2H any more (this, I take some blame for). Also there is much more artificiality.
What are your views on complex systems, and the ACBL's position on them?
By now, you know that I like KISS, but my views are unpopular outside America. I actually like the fact that the ACBL restricts artificiality. It seems, though, that most in the world are happy if every time you bid clubs it means something other than showing clubs. I know that Bob Hamman is in my camp here, but we are losing the battle. I don't like when I need a decoder ring to read bridge deals. The public can't appreciate the expert game in its current state.
Do you think the future of bridge is in crisis?
Yes. Not only because it is too hard for the public to understand, but because young people aren't playing. There are too many other "toys" for them. We have to get the youth interested in bridge. ACBL is trying. Many other countries have good programs in the works. I think the computer is the way. We have to teach them online and get them to play online. I would love to see more bridge in schools. As a learning / social / math tool, what could be better?
Apart from writing your most famous book, what would you like to be remembered for?
Maybe you should ask my wife that one! Actually, I really don't want the LOTT recognition. That should go to Vernes (the discoverer) or Bergen (who popularized it and wrote so many conventions based on it). I'd rather be known for my intermediate-level teaching and other writing, especially interactive software. I am most proud of my "over-my-shoulder" presentations.