March 4, 2024
James Coutts

James Coutts

How did you get started in bridge? At what age? Who from?

I learned through lessons at the local bridge club when I was 18, so half my life ago. The bridge club did a recruitment drive around high schools (running lunchtime sessions) when I was in my last year at school and although I didn’t actually attend the high school classes, a good friend of mine did, and he thought I would like bridge. He was right!

What do you do professionally?

I’m a town planner by profession. I work as a Senior Planner for the Victorian state government’s Department of Transport.

Who is your partner and for how long? Longest partnership?

I’ve been playing with my partner Liam since I moved to Australia in early 2018, so coming up 3 years. We also played a youth PABF for NZ together in 2010.

My first serious partnership and to date my longest one was with Nick Bailey and lasted about 5 years until he stopped playing to pursue other interests. We met at the local bridge club lessons, became good friends, and played several times for the NZ youth team. We put a lot of effort into our complicated relay mini-precision system, which really got me thinking about bridge in different ways and got me hooked on the game.

I’ve also played a lot with both of my younger brothers and with my (real-life) partner Ellena Moskovsky. In Melbourne I’ve recently started playing quite a bit with Justin Mill in major Victorian events (as Liam lives in Sydney).

If you had a choice who would you like to play with? Australia and Internationally- living or dead?

I’d loved to have had a game with the late Justin Lall before his untimely passing, he was a great player and a great person. In terms of people who are still with us, two of the people I admire most in the bridge world are Geir Helgemo and Boye Brogeland – I’m sure it would be a thrill to play with either of them.

In your playing career, what is the bridge success that has the most meaning for you?

Really tough to choose one! My most meaningful and memorable results in chronological order are:

  1. Winning the NZ Teams (at NZ Congress) for the first time in 2013, my first major national win. My team was underdogs throughout but had a great run and it was a really exciting experience.
  2. Winning the NZ Open interprovinicals (ANC equivalent) on a team with my 2 younger brothers in 2014.
  3. Winning the Gold Coast Congress teams in 2019 with a group of close friends.

And your worst moment in bridge?

I think it would have to be missing out on the playoffs at the 2016 World Bridge Games (Mixed) by 0.01 VPs. But any very small loss (and there have been plenty!) is really grating.

What do you do you do between sessions to put you in the best frame of mind for the following session?

Firstly, I really hate being rushed so I make sure to be organised and ready to play with plenty of time in advance. If I’m playing the morning session, I will make sure to get up a couple of hours before play so I can prepare in a relaxed manner. I also like listening to music for a while through my headphones – this helps me focus and get into the present. I go through phases of having different ‘bridge focus’ music that I listen to when preparing to play. So if you see me sitting or standing around listening to my headphones prior to a session I am not meaning to be anti-social, I am just trying to get myself in the right frame of mind to be the best bridge player I can be.

Do you have a favourite and least favourite convention?

I love Flannery and I promise you that I am not an 80-year-old American in disguise. I also think xyz/2-way checkback is really valuable – it enables so much space to distinguish between different types of hands. I really encourage advancing players to add that to your arsenal if you haven’t already.

In terms of least favourite, the one that springs to mind is Minorwood. Maybe it’s not that bad in theory, but I have seen a lot of partnership mishaps with its use when one person thinks it applies and the other doesn’t. Or someone is worried about bidding 4C/D because they think their partner will take it as Minorwood. Aside from the potential for misunderstandings, I also feel that setting suit and cue-bidding is much more important than asking for aces/key-cards at a slightly lower level. Controls in suits are more important than number of aces.

Carding is a very important part of bridge and I’ll also take this opportunity to share my dislike for the odds/evens convention. Partly because of the very frequent tempo issues I have seen with users of odds/evens, but also I like to keep things simple in general, and giving partner a nice and clear low-encourage or high-discourage signal has a lot going for it.

Would you prefer to have more system or less?

Tricky question. Having tried both ends of this spectrum I really feel it depends on the personal and partnership situation.

When starting out with a new partner or playing casually, definitely less system. I think it’s really important to be able to focus energy on your own card play, and getting to know your partner’s card play and bidding style.

Liam and I have a medium amount of system and it’s the right balance for us. I have grown to really like having some flexibility in bidding, allowing myself to exercise judgement about what the best call is on a hand, and not being too tied down by system rules.

Having said that, I know that some people really thrive on learning and developing complex systems and I’ve enjoyed it myself in the past. For me personally, high complexity means a lot of revision work and I don’t have time for that in my life currently with my full-time work, and bridge as a serious but part-time hobby.

What do you do to improve your game?

Regular practice and review of hands is really important. I like to do a mix of things: practice matches against good players, regular revision of partnership notes, and having proper debriefs with my partner. Sometimes Liam and I debrief over a chain of emails, and other times we have a zoom meeting to go through a session or event. Liam and I have improved a lot as a partnership because of our frequent discussions.

Favourite bridge book?

I really haven’t read many bridge books, I should read more but it is hard to find the time! I like interesting stories and recently read Peter Fredin’s biography ‘Master of Bridge Psychology’ in one sitting. I also read and enjoyed ‘The Rodwell Files’ but it was extremely dense and needs to be revisited to take it all in.

What interests or hobbies do you have besides bridge?

My two main passions outside of bridge are music and cricket. I really enjoy playing around with the various musical instruments (mostly guitars) I have at home, and generally listen to music that I like for at least a couple of hours every day. I’m a big supporter of the NZ international cricket team (sorry Australians!) but also enjoy watching other international games, particularly test matches. I play competitive indoor cricket every week as my main form of exercise.

Recently I’ve taken up cryptic crosswords and have been enjoying that as a new mental challenge. I also like playing many other card games and board games.

What is the number one thing that bridge has done for you as a person and for your life?

Well I would have to thank bridge for introducing me to my partner of 7 years, Ellena. Apart from Ellena though I have met so many of my best and closest friends through bridge. I’m not a very naturally social person by nature and was even less so when I learned bridge at age 18. Attending particularly youth tournaments in my early days was great in that I found a group of like-minded people who loved games and other intellectual pursuits.

It’s also a hobby that allows me to spend time with my brothers, Ellena, and other friends and family. I love going away to major congresses and greatly value the social part of them – catching up with friends for a beer or dinner along with some lively bridge discussion is a lot of fun.

Bridge Results and Awards

Aside from national titles as mentioned below:

Simon Award for the Sporting Gesture of the Year 2016

National Titles

NZ Teams 2013, 2017
NZ Pairs 2018, 2019
South West Pacific Teams 2019
Gold Coast Teams 2019
ANOT 2021

State Representation

None as yet (I moved to Australia in 2018). I regularly played for my province at youth and open level prior to moving over.

International Representation

NZ Youth team, 2007-2010
NZ Mixed team, World Bridge Games 2016

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