Can you win like John Armstrong?
A few months ago Graham Kirby and I were driving home from a Crockfords match. We had just played against Paul Hackett and our conversation had naturally turned to the person whom all of us were lucky enough to play bridge with, John Armstrong. As we had a long way to go, Paul had asked Graham and I to think about the memorial trophy for John.
We briefly discussed how suitable the planting of trees in John’s name and the annual winners name was – as John loved the outdoors and orienteering. But it didn’t take long for our conversation to shift to how different playing bridge with John was, compared to playing with anyone else. We shared stories about the spirit in which John played the game which has contributed as much to British Bridge as being one of the exceptional players of several generations. John was welcoming to anyone he met at the table, whether they had been playing for two months or if he was playing against some of the best players in the world. John would encourage opponents who were total beginners and if they asked, he would take time to help them improve. At the same time, I remember him laughing and joking on the other side of the screen with the great Norwegian, Gier Helgemo in the middle of the European championships.
John took time and care playing at his local club in Derby and gave up a lot of his own time to help junior teams and teach. The first time I spent more than an hour with John, he had agreed to Captain our junior team in the European Championships in Cardiff. My mum always told me how she loved it if she was lucky enough to play against John and Graham. This was not because she did well, but because of how charming they both were and how much fun it was to visit their table.
After playing in Cardiff, John had, in his usual selfless way, offered to give me a lift back to the North. During the journey, there was a moment that changed my outlook on bridge forever. John suggested we play together in the Premier League the next year and I was totally honoured, excited and in awe. We played in and won several Premier Leagues with Paul Hackett and Tony Waterlow, then later with Tom Townsend and David Gold. There was not a single cross word in any of our teams. In fact, whether we were in the Gold cup semi-final and I stupidly played in a redoubled cue bid costing us a place in the final or whether we were beating Forrester / Robson and the Hackett twins by 1 imp after 128 boards, John always smiled, laughed and treated everyone with respect.
I learned how the game should be played with John. People often talk about how the British are missing that winning mentality and boy did John play to win. He never lost concentration, gave away a sloppy overtrick or did anything less than the meticulous preparation required for playing international bridge. What all of those lucky enough to play the game with John have realised is that being a winner is not to the exclusion of charm, whit and warmth.
If you know anyone who plays the game in the spirit of John please nominate them for the John Armstrong memorial award by emailing Paul Hackett on: Paul.firstname.lastname@example.org