by Ann Curtin

Catherine is in her final year, reading mathematics at Trinity College, Cambridge. She has shone as a bridge player from an early age, having been part of the national under 20 team. She is now part of the national under 25 squad. She is President of the University Bridge Club. Successes this year have included coming second in the Teams at Watford and coming second in the Great Northern Pairs. Catherine is also President of the University Scottish Dancing Club.

Catherine, for someone so young you are an extraordinarily successful and mature player. When did you start playing bridge? Where did you learn? Did you play much at school?

When I was 13 my Dad worked for Beechams and their bridge club started some lessons which my Mum and I went to. I then played at the Beechams Club for about a year before venturing to the local Worthing Bridge club.

I didn't play at all at school until I tried teaching some of my friends in the sixth form. Since I left, the school has started a club for third and fourth years and I was invited back to present the Minibridge certificates at the end of the first term.

There is a lot of talk at the moment about the benefits of single-sex education. What sort of school did you go to? What are your views on the pros and cons of single-sex education?

Until I was 12 I went to a mixed comprehensive school and then I changed to a girls' private school. I think that single-sex schools are a good idea (speaking from the female viewpoint). Girls perform much better in their adolescent years in this environment. Whether this is also true for boys is debatable - I don't know! However, I think that in pre-adolescence a mixed education is important. At a young age the attitude between the sexes tends to be more neutral and both can learn and achieve competitively. An entirely single-sex education can lead to difficulty in mixing with the opposite sex in later life.

As part of the under 25 squad please tell us in some detail what happens at a training weekend. Do you think the weekends are useful?

A third to a half of the time is spent playing and then discussing the hands. There are usually two or three good players and, by going through the auction and play at each table, it is easy to pick up good tips which they have learned through experience and are not generally found in a bridge book. The rest of the time is spent discussing a certain aspect of cardplay by declarer, and doing exercises on these with partner to improve one's partnership understanding.

The weekends are very useful as you gain experience from better players as well as improving partnership understanding - which isn't always easy if you and your partner live in different parts of the country.

At the last weekend we spent the whole time playing 20 board matches with screens. The longer matches need practice to enable you to concentrate 100% of the time and the screens also take a bit of getting used to (like bidding boxes when you first use them!).

You seem to have the ability to play with several different partners, some of whom might be considered demanding. Do you have any particular philosophy on this point?

Playing with partners who complain about everything is of no use to someone wanting to improve. However, constructive criticism from a demanding partner will encourage you to concentrate and this, above everything else, will help you to improve. Also, a better player can point out something you wouldn't otherwise have thought of and this game is all about experience and acquiring knowledge of a variety of situations.

Please tell us about Scottish Dancing in the University.

Scottish Country Dancing is a purely social activity. There are competitions in Highland Dancing (the fling, sword dance etc) but that is a different dance form. The reel club meets every Monday and about 40 people turn up to try some more dances and improve their step work. Scottish Dancing is, in fact, as popular a hobby as Bridge as there are clubs to go to any night of the week, and dances every Saturday if you are prepared to travel within 30 miles or so.

As President of the University Bridge Club do you have any thoughts on the future of the Club and/or Bridge in the University?

The University is still thriving with 10 tables turning up to the Duplicate each week and 6 pairs of Cambridge students in the U-25 and U-20 national squads. This trend looks likely to continue and hopefully we will win the ECL league again soon - although this year doesn't look too promising so far! However, the weekly duplicates have been running into problems over the last couple of years as it seems that there is no college in the university willing to hire us a room to play in!

Please tell us about a hand that has given you pleasure.

Here is a hand from one of our ECL matches this term. You hold:

H AQJxxx
D x
C x

You open 1h and partner bids 2h which in your system shows either about 5-9 HCP and 3 card support or 4-7 points and 4 card support. You obviously need to know about 3 cards - hK, dA, cA. Partner could hold two of them but if she holds none then you might be able to make only 4h so this rules out RKCB (Roman Key Card Blackwood) which is one of the options. The remaining options are:

2s/3c/3d - asks for help in that suit - typically a holding like KJxx or similar.
2NT/3NT - 15-19 HCP balanced - not quite suitable!
3h - NF, pre-emptive    - ditto
3s/4c/4d (splinters) - showing a slam invitational hand, a singleton in this suit and inviting partner to cue bid an ace if she can.

Your only possible trial bid suit is spades, but partner might bid just 4h with either
sxxx hKxx dAxxx cQxx or
sx h10xx dKQxx cKxxxx which won't help so your only option is to splinter - but in which suit?

You could bid 4d, but then with dA and hK partner won't think her ace is that useful and may bid 4h, just as she would if she had no useful cards. Similarly, if you bid 4c she may only bid 4h with cA and hK.

The solution to this problem is to splinter in spades! You know partner can have no wasted honours in this suit so is bound to think her hand is useful and will cue whichever ace she has at the four level (or sign off as desired with neither). Once you know that she has an ace the 5 level won't be going off so you can bid RKCB to find out if partner has a second key card.

In this case partner responded with 4h and cA was led.

Dummy came down with:

H AQJxxx
D x
C x
W         E
S Jxx
H 10xx
D Kxxx
C Qxx

North continued with the cK - not expecting me to ruff! I could then cross to the sJ, cash cQ (throwing my diamond) and take the (working) heart finesse to make 12 tricks! At other tables, where the bidding had resembled the hands, the defence cashed their two aces and now, if you cross to the sJ and take the heart finesse, and it loses, you may be in danger of a spade ruff if spades are 4-1 (my line also had this problem but I had only lost one trick at this point so it was safe to do this). So as it was teams the declarer took the safety play of cashing hA and losing one for a surer 10 tricks.

+2 imps - pity it wasn't pairs!

Catherine, it has been a very great pleasure, for those of us who live in Cambridge, to have had your company at the bridge table while you have been here. We wish you well in your final exams, and in your future. Thank you for talking to us. Ann Curtin