Interview with Martin Henneberger, winner of the 2019 Summer NABC Robot Individual

Canadian Martin Henneberger, known to BBOers as Taydog won this year’s Summer NABC Robot Individual with a score of 68.62%. Martin had been in second place after the first two days by about 4 percentage points behind fellow Canadian and star player Fred Pollack (FredP on BBO), but Henneberger’s day three score of 67.52% secured his win and an NABC title.

Martin shared with us his thoughts on the three-day NABC online experience and the thrills of winning over a field of 1900+ players.

Tell us about you, who are you, where do live, kids, cats and dogs? 🙂

I was born and raised in Vancouver, B.C, Canada. I currently live in a suburb called Coquitlam with my partner in both bridge and life, Dianne Isfeld. We are regulars at the local bridge clubs as well as frequent travelers to sectionals and regionals in our area. As a “young” man ( I will turn an “old” 50 next month) I worked in the casino industry. I was also a proprietor of a poker club for a short while. During my more adventurous days, I took a 2-week vacation to Brazil and ended up living there for 5 years where I taught conversational English to bank executives. I still have dreams in Portuguese to this day! These days my life is much more subdued with my time spent traveling, on the golf course, or playing bridge. 

For how long have you’ve been a BBO member? And an ACBL one? 

Martin and his father, Heinz

I joined the ACBL in 1997. I credit my father, Heinz, for getting me started in the game. He inundated me with bridge books during an extended hospital stay and suggested I give duplicate a try during my recovery period. Not lacking confidence, I waltzed into our local club fully expecting to win the first time I sat down. After rolling a 36% game and coming dead last, I decided to sit down with the “sharks” for a rubber game. Needless to say, my bank account became significantly smaller over the next several weeks. It was then that I realized what a complex and fascinating game this was. My desire to learn and improve grew strong. I was humbled. I was hooked.

I have been a member of BBO for as long as I can remember, although the exact year I joined escapes me. I do remember changing over from OK Bridge after a friend convinced me that BBO was where I needed to be. I really liked the feature of the Vugraph and have been a loyal customer and fan ever since. It has been fun to watch it develop into what it is today. 

Did you expect to win when you joined? Walk us through your sessions, and tell us when did it feel like you might actually be able to win?

I truly believed that I could win if all the stars aligned. I was also realistic in knowing that there is a lot that needs to happen, including things not under my control, to beat out 1900+ players and finish in the #1 spot. I had won single sessions before and finished in the top 20 overall, so I knew winning was at least within reach.

My thought process going into the first session was to play loose and by the seat of my pants. I would re-evaluate how to tackle future sessions depending on how I finished. I had made up my mind in advance to put the “pedal to the metal” and play aggressively throughout. Halfway through the first set, I felt like I was on a roll as the momentum was in my favor. Midway through the set, my only bad result was a self-inflicted off- shape NT upgrade that landed our side in a 5-1 at the 4 level (board 2). 

Then my lackadaisical play got the better of me on board 12

After a favorable lead, 13 tricks were there for the taking. Instead of stopping to count, playing solely on instinct, I pulled a second round of trump holding myself to 12 tricks.

The rest of the set was stellar and I finished up with a 72% game, good enough for 3rd overall on the day.

Now that I felt I was in contention with day 1 in the books, I decided to take a more deliberate approach on day 2. No more “brain farts”. Counting and careful play became my motto. I was still in “pedal to the metal” mode with the bidding, mixing up 4 card major openers with frequent NT upgrades. I would bid any game I could sniff, matchpoints be damned.

I started off like a cannon, scoring one good board after another. Then came Board 7. Playing a routine 4♠ contract, I managed to be the only person to go down in game when I “safety played” the trump suit into what I thought was the “safe” hand. I could hear the robot chuckle when they now gave their partner a club ruff. I managed to lose two spade tricks via a ruff holding K974 opposite AT82. Sweet!

Late in the set, I tried to operate and got caught speeding for 3 or 4 below average boards. I wasn’t feeling great by the end. Luckily for me, I had several top boards along the way allowing me to finish with a 66% game and was sitting 2nd overall.

Day 3 was crunch time. However, I had my work cut out for me. Sitting atop the chart was fellow Canadian, Fred Pollack, who had rolled two 73% games and was sitting pretty. I knew from past experience, however, that it is extremely hard to post 3 monster sessions in this event. I calculated that if I could score around 69%, Fred would need a 62% to stay ahead of me. There were also approximately 6 others that were in contention and could leapfrog both Fred and me with a huge final session. Playing competitive sports all my life had me understand that what others did was out of my control for an individual event such as this. I simply needed to take care of business from my end and let the chips fall where they may.

Things started out great. Then, On board 3,  I bid to 3NT after an invitational Stayman sequence holding a 15 count that included AKQxx of clubs. This was a clear acceptance for me as the club suit offered the trick source I’d want most of the time. Low and behold the robot found a diamond lead from Jxx and caught their partner with AKQTx.  Adding insult to injury, the opening leader also held KJT97 of spades.

My brain was screaming sabotage! Don’t tell me this was the theme of things to come.

As many of my real-life partners can tell you, I’ve been known to go on “tilt” after a result like this, and this time was no different. I proceeded to average 75% on the next 8 boards, having very little to do with skill and more to do with reckless abandon. It was on board 14 that I thought I may have just lost the event. I picked an inopportune time to open 2NT with an off-shape 18 count that contained a 5 card suit. As if I hadn’t learned from the first session, this resulted in a minus score when once again I found myself in a hopeless 5-1 fit two bidding levels higher than the field. It was my first and only real ZERO of the tournament.

Perfect timing I thought to myself. The final stretch felt good save for the ultimate board (24) where I made a lazy bid of 3NT instead of making a forcing bid in a new suit and missing an easy slam as a result.

Dianne and Martin

I went to check my preliminary result and was pleased to see that I had scored 67.52%. I felt a mix of emotions as I was proud of what I had done yet concerned about the boards I had “chucked”. These events often come down to a board or two with decimal point percentages separating the overalls. Oh well, I knew little mattered should Fred come anywhere close to his performance on the previous 2 days. All I could do was wait.

At 10 pm local time, Dianne heard a fist-pumping yell from another room as she then knew I had won. It felt great. There were many ups and downs for those 3 days and now I could just let it soak in. A special thank you to all involved in making that journey a memorable one.

What was your strategy with the robots? Any psychs that worked out, or down-the-middle play?

Down the middle play was never a consideration. I play in several fantasy sports leagues where 4th place gets the same prize as last place. For me, this was yet another all or nothing competition. I wanted to be very aggressive in the bidding knowing full well it could backfire at any time. I’ve had my share of 42% games and was prepared to add another one to the list. I also knew that 3 games of 55% would get me nowhere close to the overalls and that three 65%’s wouldn’t win it. I have had enough experience over the years with the robots to know what might work and what won’t.

I was determined to play 3NT as much as possible.

I also picked my spots for opening 4 card majors.

Upgrading or opening off shape NT was something I was looking to do holding the “right” type of hand.

Bidding aggressive games at matchpoints is not usually a winning strategy but I felt that my declarer play combined with the passive leads of the robots would help carry me through.

I did psyche during the tournament, but you have to be careful and pick your spots as the robot partner never gets the joke. The auction can lead to one where you are unable to recover.

I made quite a few tactical bids during the sessions that I wouldn’t classify as an outright psyche. My favorite example of that happened on Board 17 of the final set. After 2 passes to me, I opened 1 in 3rd seat. Partner bid 2 as a fit showing jump with the opponents passing throughout. Holding Ax x AJxxx KQ98x, I knew that diamonds were where we wanted to be. My finger went to bid game in diamonds when a little voice cried out to try and swindle 3NT. I knew that a spade lead would be most unwelcome, so I dutifully forced the auction with a 2♠ bid of my own. The chances of this backfiring were slim. Partner would only raise and insist on spades with 4-5-4-0 shape. It had to be a good bet on this auction.

Jackpot! The lead deflector worked like a charm when I racked up 11 tricks in 3NT.  All other results were going minus in 3NT or playing a diamond contract.

Do you play with robots on BBO normally, or did you train for this event in particular? 

I play regularly with robots on BBO. Before the tournament, I had been practicing with challenge matches to fine-tune my game. I  previously played money bridge with the robots when that feature was available. I was sad to see that discontinued. I also play the ACBL daily or hourly robot tourneys. I only participate in the events that allow for “best hand” as it pains me to watch the robot declare or to be dealt lousy cards for the session.

Any thoughts about the robots? 

The robots have their strengths and weaknesses. I dislike the lack of defensive signals given by the robots. From what I’ve read and come to understand is that the robots defend based on the auction. This allows a lot of manipulation to take place. I also find their passive lead structure to be advantageous for the declarer. It frequently gives away the timing on the hand. Over time, one can take advantage in knowing the robot is, for the most part, not leading away from specific honor holdings.

The one thing that I do like in particular, is the fact that you can cursor over what bids mean. Not only can you see what the robot’s bid means, but you can also see what the robot will think your bid is telling them.

How does this compare to your IRL tourney experiences, especially the NABCs.

There is no comparison really. There is no substitution for “real life” bridge. On the plus side, you can finish a session in as little as 30 minutes over 24 boards since the robots play as quickly as you do. I prefer the “human” element and social interaction at the table, however.  It’s tough to get a “read” on your opponent or pick up on a tell when there is no table feel involved.

What’s your favorite live bridge tournament?

My favorite tournament is the Gold Coast Congress in Australia. It is a beautiful city, a great venue, and a well-run tournament. I have been there twice and plan to return. The Bangkok Bridge Festival as well as the Bridge Festival in Pula, Croatia also come to mind.

Any final thoughts about the online NABC format and serious online tournaments. 

Security is always a concern. Fortunately, I still believe bridge is an honorable game, so that doesn’t enter into the equation for me yet. I also believe BBO does a great job of minimizing any potential breaches or collusion without sacrificing convenience or enjoyment.

Would you play again?

Yes, absolutely. I was impressed when Alex Perlin won his second title and will strive to match that feat!

Could you offer a tip or two for players new to the format and to playing with robots? And tips for experienced players?

Newer players should definitely check what bids mean before making them. I’ve had far too many auctions go “off the rails” due to a misunderstanding. Focus on counting out the hand instead of thinking or worrying about signals.

For experienced players:
It pays dividends to understand the ramifications of having the “best hand” at the table. Knowing that other players can’t have more hcp’s allows you to take advantage during the bidding and while defending or declaring. How to take advantage might be a lesson for another day or a secret I’ll have to keep in order to NOT level the playing field. 🙂