The long charm of the law

An Interview with Matt Smith

By Bob Levey, Washington NABC Daily Bulletin #6

Matt Smith is one of the ACBL’s longest-serving and most popular National Tournament Directors. He regularly works the most prestigious events at NABCs, as well as regionals and sectionals near his home on Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Smith has also worked more than 15 World Bridge Federation championships. In 2011, he was named the winner of the Fred Friendly Award by the Professional Tournament Directors Association. At the recent Canadian Bridge Federation Championships in Toronto, he sat down with Bridge Bulletin correspondent Bob Levey to discuss the game and his career. The interview has been edited for clarity and flow.

How long have you been directing, Matt?

I started club directing in 1973. My father and brother had a bridge club. I’ve been tournament directing since 1983.

Was it love at first sight?

I remember getting $8 a session when I started. That was pretty good money for a 16-year-old. I don’t remember any particular calling to be a bridge director. The more I did it, the more I loved it. I still do. At the end of a tournament week, I’m just absolutely exhausted, but also exhilarated.

Did you ever have another career?

I worked for the provincial government as a clerk, but I never really had another career. I took a year off to run a bridge club and I’m still deciding what I’m going to do.

Do you play?

As much as I can. Once a week, maybe twice a week when I’m home.

Are you good?

I’m OK. Many people at my club are better than I am.

Do you think most directors are good players?

You don’t have to be a good player to be a good director, although it would surprise many players to learn how good some directors are. The trick to being a good director is to recognize what you don’t know and make allowances for it. Most good directors do. You’re known for seeking the opinions of other directors and top-flight players before making a difficult ruling.

Why do you do this?

If I just look at the hand record, why should you have confidence that I’ve made the right ruling? I always consult players when I can. I’m not supposed to be an expert player. I’m supposed to be a laws expert.

The appeals process at NABCs was changed recently. Now, appeals committees will consist only of directors, not players any more. Good thing? Bad thing?

I’m very much in favor of this. Before, some players had the idea that a director’s ruling was a stepping stone. It wasn’t the final word. You could always appeal. Fair enough. I mean, you can appeal the color of the sky if you want to. But I don’t think we should be asking three people to sit up past midnight hearing appeals.

What makes a good director?

People skills. The ability to read people. And the ability to listen. The basics will never go out of style. You need to be able to start a game on time and not be overbearing. Be like a baseball umpire. Nobody notices him. But he knows the basics. In my experience, many club directors are afraid to enforce the rules – especially the rules about slow play – for fear of driving away paying customers.

What’s your solution to this?

If I had to run a club again, one thing I would do differently is to be more aware of the people who are held up by slow players. It’s more important to keep them coming back than it is to penalize slow players at the club level.

If Matt Smith encountered slow play at a club, would he walk over like a tough-guy deputy sheriff and lay down the law?

Oh, no, that’s the wrong way to do it. I’d try to get people to understand the rules ahead of time. Remember, most bridge is social. Most people play for the social aspect of it.

Does a good director need to have a mind like a steel trap?

The biggest requirement is comfortable shoes.

And yours are … ?


Black ones?

I have a pair of blacks and a pair of browns. Can’t see why I need more than two.

So you’re always sartorially correct?

Let’s just say that my wife worries about my clothing choices when I go off to a tournament without her.

I’ve polled several directors and they all say that Matt Smith is the best. What does Matt Smith say?

I don’t think there is a best. It’s like arguing about who is the best baseball player. There just isn’t one. There are things I’m good at, yes. But I work with directors every day who do things better than I do. What I bring to the job that’s useful is that I’m good with people, I have studied the laws and I’ve been around for so long that people know I don’t have any ax to grind. I just want to do the right thing.

Where do you see bridge going in the future?

I’m not worried about the future of bridge. Really, I’m not. A lot of people learned the game, had a life and then came back. We’re also getting people who start when they retire. I can’t see that not sustaining us. I also think the Internet is attracting new players.

Your comments about the recent cheating scandals?

I had heard rumors, for sure. There was a lot of talk among players about certain other players. Personally, I sort of grew up with the idea that if somebody was willfully cheating, there were avenues that dealt with that. Whatever the mechanism was, it didn’t work well enough and fast enough. When I first started reading about this latest wave of scandals, it really bothered me that there was no due process. It still bothers me. Yet I’ve sort of come to the conclusion that something had to happen out of the box.

Have the 2015 cheating accusations, and the publicity surrounding them, eliminated cheating from bridge?

Players seem to think it has solved a lot of the problems. The cheating scandals all revolved, directly or indirectly, around people making money from the game.

Can the ACBL police that or stop that?

Not without violating people’s right to make a living or to choose who they play with. Remember, people have been cheating since before money was involved. Cheating is more about people’s egos.

Any difference between Canadian and American bridge?

There isn’t really that much of a difference, even though there are ten times as many bridge players in the States. Yet there is great bridge talent in Canada, obviously.

What do you think of the superstar teams of young European men who are doing so well in North American tournaments?

Bridge becoming better is a good thing, and I think it has because of these guys. Yet I do have to say that I’m always amazed when these kids who can’t even grow a beard are in the finals of the Vanderbilt.

Your future plans?

I still love directing. No immediate plans to stop doing it.

Are good young directors coming along?

They are. But it’s difficult to get to full-time. You need to be so good at so many things – computer skills, people skills, administrative skills – and that takes many years.

After all these years, do you still like bridge players?

I love bridge players! They’re weird, funny, smart. They’re exasperating sometimes, of course. But they still make me laugh. And I still make them laugh.


Author Note: Bob Levey is a retired columnist for The Washington Post. He is a Gold Life master, and he won the Bean Red Ribbon Pairs in 2010.