Surrounded by his co-workers, National Tournament Director Matt Smith was presented with the Jean Molnar Employee of the Year Award on Tuesday. The award recognizes a field employee for outstanding customer service. It is named in honor of Molnar, a beloved 20-year veteran TD who consistently delivered outstanding customer service through her technical expertise, her quick and effective response and her ability to handle all situations professionally and calmly.
“If I could do half of what Jean did in treating people well, I would be happy,” said a surprised Smith when he was announced as this year’s award recipient.
In making the presentation, ACBL Executive Director Joe Jones said, “Frankly, I’m surprised Matt hasn’t won this already!”
Smith started directing as a teenager. “My father and brother ran a bridge club in British Columbia,” he says, “so in June 1973, I took the certified directing exam. I have a card signed by Easley Blackwood.”
Smith, who lives in Victoria BC, sees himself as a problem solver. “The director’s job is twofold: resolving disputes and enhancing the social side of the game – making it relaxing and enjoyable. It’s important to make sure people know they’re being treated fairly.”
National Tournament Director Rick Beye called Matt Smith a deserved winner. “In his early career he was known as Wonder Boy,” Beye says. “John Ashton nicknamed him that because he just got it – he understood what we’re supposed to be doing. He makes things good for the players and he’s good with staff.”
TD McKenzie Myers says that most of the good parts of his TD game were learned at Smith’s feet.
“I was lucky to ‘grow up’ as a TD inside his sphere of influence in the ACBL,” Myers says. “Matt is quietly competent, always kind and understanding, and constantly works to improve the tournament he’s running as well as tournaments in general. I’ve worked for Matt at sectionals, regionals, NABCs and U.S. Bridge Championships, and he brings an unparalleled level of professionalism and expertise to each. He’s helped me succeed at many things but still been willing to let me softly fail when that was the way to help me learn.”
Smith has earned the respect of players as well as co-workers. In a post on Bridge Winners last year, world champion Steve Weinstein said, “For my money, Matt is the best of the best. Whether it’s the World Championships, the Spingold or a sectional side game, if Matt’s in charge, you know the event will be run professionally. In my experience, his rulings are always well thought out and explained clearly and thoroughly; even when a ruling goes against you, you might disagree, but you understand why the decision was made.”
Weinstein said that perhaps Smith’s greatest gift is a talent for defusing tension.
“I remember one such incident from a charity pair game at a regional in the Bay Area,” Weinstein said. “I was declarer and did a poor job of keeping track of my tricks. I thought I was down one and the opponents happily accepted that result.
“But as I ran through the play in my head, I realized I had made it. When I told the opponents, they got very upset. ‘You said you were down one!’ With tempers flaring, I called the director and Matt came to the table. I explained the situation. The opponents insisted I was down, fixating on the fact that I had said I was down. Things continued to go downhill. Matt calmly said, ‘Let’s humor the young man and go through the play trick by trick just in case he is right.’ He calmed them down and they eventually agreed on the result.”
World champion Bobby Levin holds Smith in highest regard as well: “A wonderful guy, the best director ever and a bigtime dog lover – who could ask for more?”
Robb Gordon, ACBL’s National Recorder, says he has known Smith for many years. “I’ve worked with him on the Laws Commission, in appeals situations and as a player. He knows the Laws about as well as anyone. He is always both professional and pleasant. He brings a bucket of water rather than a bucket of gasoline when he comes to the table to make a ruling. I wish we had 500 Matt Smiths.”
National TD Gary Zieger points out that Smith is one of just a couple of directors who have won all three of the ACBL’s awards recognizing achievement by field staff: the Tom Weeks Award, the Fred Friendly Award and now the Jean Molnar Award. “And he almost deserved them!” Zeiger quips.
(The Weeks and Friendly awards are no longer given out.)
In April, Smith, 61, is “slowing down” and returning to part-time status.
“I want to stay home more,” he says. “I’ll play more locally at clubs and tournaments, and I’ll direct part time in Canada.” He will also continue in his role as head director for WBF’s World Championships.
The Memphis and Las Vegas NABCs are the last North American Championships on Smith’s horizon – as a director. “But I may come play,” he says.