Interview with Phil Clayton, winner of the 2019 Fall NABC Robot Individual


Meet the newest NABC Robot Individual Champion, long time BBOer and expert player Phil (Phil Clayton). Phil managed a consistent ~70% performance on all three days of the 2019 Fall NABC Robot Individual, with 69.83% on Day 1, 70.82% on Day 2, and 70% on the final day, combining to average 70.22% in the overalls. Just before heading to San Francisco for the Fall Nationals, Phil agreed to answer a few questions for BBO.


Tell us a bit about yourself, what do you do in real life?

My wife Kimi and I live in Frisco, TX (North of Dallas). Our kids are grown and live in the west and we have one grandchild and one on the way.  We have been in Texas for three years, after having lived in California for 30. I work for NTT Data, and manage the Program Management Office at Toyota. 

How did you start playing bridge? And how did you find BBO?

My parents played party bridge and had copies of Goren’s Bridge Complete and the Sports Illustrated Book of Bridge. I read both of them cover to cover five times before I was 13. I played my first duplicate in Northern Montana when I was 16. I discovered BBO very early, which is one of the reasons I was able to procure the name “Phil”. I still read a lot to keep my game sharp. 

You have played the previous editions of the NABC Robot Individual, on and off. What determined you to join this time?

Not sure. I received a few emails and took advantage of the discount. I have done reasonably well two of the three times I had played previously (top 40). I also think these are a great warmup for the NABC’s, which I will be playing in next week. 

What do you usually like to do or play on BBO?

I don’t play casually very often. I play with Karen Jachetta (Karenemcd) on Monday nights, and I try to practice a lot with my regular partner, Andrew Gumperz (agumperz) in set games with Ed Davis (ebunny), David Weiss (djw), John Swanson (swanson) and the like.

You can occasionally see me either playing or kibbing at Richard Pavlicek’s nightly match (rfp). If I’m bored, I will sign up up for a ‘star challenge’ . 

“Normal” play, or gaming the robots? What was your strategy? 

Here’s a summary of my personal approach: 

1. My style here is the same as real life. Aggressive in spots, but never crazy. I try to play the hand, but I defended profitably a few times when they were vul. and collected 200 or 300. 

2.  Don’t ever take a position in the bidding that might get you a zero board. You do not have to do crazy things to do well. My worst board over 72 hands was just under 20%, and I only had 11 scores under 50%. I can only remember stepping out twice. One time worked out and one time did not. I don’t think I had a single 100% board. 

3. You need to be a great declarer to win this. While the bots will misdefend, that happens to everyone. Take every hand seriously, like you would at a tourney. Most of your contracts will be the same as every other table, and you need to be able to take your tricks. 

4. Here’s a few deviations that I will make:

  • Sometimes open the ‘wrong minor’ with 4-3 for misdirection
  • Shade 1N to 14 (with one exception as you will see)
  • Open a good four-card major if I’m light in any seat
  • Pass partner’s 1 level response if I think game is hopeless
  • Preempt heavy if I think slam is remote

Walk us though your NABC Robot Individual experience. Any boards you found interesting or challenging?  

I was proud of myself for consistency. Over all three days, my game varied by less than 1% and had two games just north of 70%.

I worked hard to minimize distractions around the home for a few hours over the weekend. Sometimes after work, my play suffers from fatigue, but I was pleased with my game on Monday evening when it mattered. 

I normally play at a pretty fast clip, and found myself taking a lot of time on routine hands. As a matter of fact, I thought I had applied a Sominex coup against the robots once or twice!

I enjoyed these hands: 

My favorite hand was probably Board 22 on Day 2:

Based on West’s discards I worked out a complicated squeeze without the count.

Board 8, Day 3: 

I made an aggressive balance and played it precisely for nine tricks., 

Board 17. Day 3: 

I didn’t go overboard in the bidding and executed a baby endplay for 9. 

What improvements you would like to see for the NABC Robot Individual?

Great question. One of the reasons that poker exploded in the early late 90’s / aughts was because of online platforms like Full-Tilt and Party Poker. They would offer online satellites that would qualify a player for the main event at the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas. There is no reason that the league could kick back some of the revenue for this event to top finishers and apply it against either travel expenses to the next NABC, entry fees, or both. Additionally, I noticed a few name players like Eric Greco and Zack Grossack played this year. If the NABC online doesn’t count toward Player of the Year, or the Fishbein / Mott-Smith Trophies, it should. Because you have such a wide spectrum of players, I can see more than three flights as well. 

Is there anything else you’d like to add?  

Just a big thanks to BBO and the ACBL for taking the initiative to host these events. I would also like to congratulate some of the other top finishers like Liam King (chewylime) who posted two mammoth scores on the first two days, who made me play my best to catch him.