The Declarer (Floyd McWilliams' Blog)

Saturday, February 14, 2004

One of the great things about bridge tournaments is that anyone has an opportunity to compete against the best players in the world. There are three national tournaments a year in America and Canada, and any player is welcome to enter the top events. It's as if a weekend hacker could pay a small fee to enter a tournament and play against Tiger Woods.

As far as I know, bridge is the only game in which this is possible. Of course it is partly due to the relative obscurity of the sport; there are a lot more people who would like to play against Tiger Woods than top-rated bridge player Bob Hamman. Because a bridge deal takes five to ten minutes to complete, it's typical for tournaments to hold short matches. A two-session pairs consists of 26 two-board matches; a full-day Swiss typically has eight seven-board matches. More matches equals more opponents, which means more of a chance that a player will get to play against a star. And finally, bridge has elements of randomness so that experts do not win all the time. Certainly an expert will beat a novice over the course of many hands, but there is no guarantee that the expert will prevail on any one specific hand.

You don't have to go to a national tournament to play against champions. My friend Scott just started a job at Google, which is very close to my workplace and the Palo Alto Bridge Club. Earlier this week he asked if I wanted to play in the Friday night barometer. I was happy to do so, but it turned out that the game was cancelled due to a regional in town, at the Mariott in San Mateo. So we planned to play there instead.

Now regionals are mostly about all-day events. If you play one session you are stuck in the "side game," or "Continuous Pairs," or as my friend Jo calls them, "Drooly Pairs." These are not strong games.

Friday night did offer a slightly better event, a one-session Swiss. This is for the people who were eliminated from the first round of a two-day knockout. But our other bridge-playing friends were not available, so we were stuck with the pairs.

Yesterday, after a hectic day at work, I drove up to the Mariott. When I first moved to the Bay Area, there was a big sprawling castle of a hotel called the Dunfee, a stone's throw from the intersection of Highways 92 and 101. It was torn down, and a Mariott now stands in its stead. When Scott and I were in line to get entries, I saw Sherrie Greenberg, a local expert. She asked if I wanted to play in the Swiss, and I happily accepted.

We were one of the last teams to buy entries, so we were placed in a three-way match that lasted two rounds. In the first match we played against some Russian guys who played a strange system. Our opponents had the cards and they did fairly well with them, bidding a cold slam and mostly staying out of trouble. Then we played against some local Chinese fellows, some of whom are pretty good. We got some unexpected imps from this bidding foulup:

I was red on white, in second seat, and held SAKx HKxx DJ9xxx CAx. RHO passed and I said, no problem, 1D. In our system, the Caroline club, this is nebulous showing diamonds, or diamonds and clubs, or any 4441, or a 13-15 notrump. Scott responded 1H and I rebid 1N.

Scott alerted this and explained it as 10-12 balanced! And he was right! Normally we play 10-12 notrumps in first and second chair but when red on white we play 13-15. I was really sweating as we might miss a vulnerable game. Scott passed and RHO reopened with 2C. I could not take advantage of my knowledge that I had more than Scott expected -- it's "unauthorized information" to me -- so I passed. This was passed out.

We beat 2C one trick. Scott had 11 points, and we were supposed to be 3N. But: 3N had no play! At the other table the player with my cards tried everything and found that nothing worked. +50 and +300 added up to a surprising 8 imps.

After two rounds of play we compared. We beat the Russians by 9 and the Chinese by 7. Next we were matched up against a team that included Mike Schneider, who has participated in the Bridge World's Challenge the Champs and is often credited for submitting CtC and Master Solver Club hands. Mike is a big, bearish sort of guy with a gravelly voice, very friendly and quite a good player.

On the first board I picked up this hand: SQxxxxxx Hx DJxx CKx. Vul against not, Scott dealt and opened 1S! RHO passed, I jumped to 4S, and LHO overcalled 4N showing the minors (or maybe a two-suiter, I didn't ask). Scott rebid 5H, showing equal or longer hearts; this did not fit my hand and I retreated to 5S.

Scott held SAJxx HAKxxxx DA Cxx. A club lead would have beaten him as the SKx was behind the ace, but my RHO led a diamond and now Scott could set up the hearts for pitches. At the other table the opponents bid to 6S and my teammate led CA. We gained 13 imps.

Two hands later Scott opened a strong 1C. My RHO had CAQJT9 and little else; he tried to get in our way with a 2C overcall and we made him pay. I had CKxxxx and he went for 500 against our partscore.

On the last hand I picked up SAQTxxx HATxx Dx Cxx. Scott opened a 10-12 notrump. I blasted into game (maybe a 4D transfer to spades would have been better) and scored up 420 for a 7-imp pickup. We won the six-board match 37-1, giving us all 20 victory points. We had 47 VP's and were just behind the leaders, who had 50. We would play them in the last round.

The leaders turned out to be the powerhouse George Rosenkranz team. Rosenkranz invented a system (Romex) and for a very long time was one of the top players in Mexico. He is also a very successful industrialist; he founded Syntex, a pharmaceutical company which developed cortisone and the birth control pill.

The other players were multiple national champion Eddie Wold, Bermuda Bowl winner Mike Passell, and expert Bob Morris. We played against Passell, a tall and powerfully built man in his fifties, and Morris, who is smaller and younger, with dyed blonde hair. The only real scoring in the match came on two boards. On board 23 -- the Michael Jordan board -- Scott dealt and passed at all vulnerable. RHO, Passell, opened 2H. I held SKJTxxx HJTx Dx CKQx. I should probably pass since Scott would have opened all hands with 10 or more points. But I couldn't resist competing for the partscore, so I bid 2S. Scott then jumped to 4S. Uh-oh, I thought, I've really done it now. Well I really did get us +620 when Scott put down SA9xx Hxx DAxxx CJxx. This was worth 10 imps.

On the first hand that we played, my LHO, vulnerable against not, opened 2S. Partner passed, and RHO raised to 4. I had a fair hand -- ST8 HKQ8xx DAKJx Cxx -- but decided to believe the vulnerable opponents and passed.

Declarer had SAKQxx HJx Dxxxxx Cx. Dummy had S9xx HAT9x Dx CAKQxx.

At our table, Scott led a club and the contract could not be beaten. Declarer cashed two clubs, pitching a heart, and led a diamond. I won and had no good option. If I return a trump, declarer wins, takes one diamond ruff, pulls trumps, and crosses to dummy with a heart. At the table I returned a heart. Declarer did not score the CQ, and was overruffed once by Scott, but three diamond ruffs in dummy were enough to see him home.

Rosenkranz led a heart. Our teammate won, cashed two clubs, and led a diamond. Wold won and returned a trump; declarer won and ruffed a diamond. Now the contract can be made only with the somewhat double-dummy play of a low club (my hand cannot ruff because then the CQ can score; if my hand pitches then declarer gets to score both low trumps in his hand). In practice declarer was uppercut and went down.

The lead decision was somewhat random as Scott's hand was SJxx Hxx DQxx CJxxxx. We lost the match by 5 imps and tied for third place. If that board had been a push, we would have won by 7. But we could not have won the event; while we were battling it out with Rosencranz, a third team with 46 victory points scored a near-blitz and finished first.



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