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Hard Knocks in The Big Easy

  by Richard Pavlicek

The Spingold Knockout Teams concluded last week in New Orleans with one of most exciting finals I can remember. Two sponsored teams survived five days of 64-board knockout matches, winning most of them by significant margins, to face off in the final. The cast of players:

Diamond TeamMeltzer Team
John Diamond - Brian PlatnickRose Meltzer - Kyle Larsen
Geoff Hampson - Eric GrecoFulvio Fantoni - Claudio Nunes
Brad Moss - Fred GitelmanDavid Berkowitz - Alan Sontag

In the first quarter Diamond jumped out to a 34-11 IMP lead, then widened it slightly to lead 70-43 at halftime. Both sponsors (John Diamond and Rose Meltzer) had played the entire first half, so they could retire and let the big guns fight it out to the finish. Big guns indeed, as Fantoni-Nunes (Italy) are the top-ranked pair in the world, and the other three pairs (U.S.) are equally tough in my opinion. As the story goes, you could start the bidding with four aces against any one of them, and wind up with a Yarborough.

The third quarter was a nightmare for Diamond, taking the wrong view on almost every decision, while Meltzer got them right. With the momentum of a freight train, Meltzer converted a 27-IMP deficit into an 18-IMP lead. At the whistle stop, Meltzer led 96-78.

In the fourth quarter the momentum shifted to Diamond, but gains were only mild. With just two boards remaining in the Closed Room, Meltzer still led by 12 IMPs. Play in the Open Room had concluded, and the last two boards, both partscore deals, seemed flat. No one could see any way for Diamond to pick up 12 IMPs; it just wasn’t in the cards.

The Fateful Deal

As almost all would agree, fate can be fickle; and depending on which side you’re on, merciful or cruel; but most assuredly, unpredictable. The penultimate board was about to prove this in spades, both figuratively and literally.

South dealsS 4 3WestNorthEastSouth
N-S vulH 7 4FantoniHampsonNunesGreco
D Q J 8 61 C
C Q 7 6 5 2Pass1 DPass1 S
S K 10 6 5TableS Q 9Pass1 NTPass2 H
H K 6 2H 9 5 3Pass2 SAll Pass
D K 10 5D 4 3 2
C J 9 3C A K 10 8 4
S A J 8 7 2
H A Q J 10 8
D A 9 7
Diamond N-SMeltzer N-SWestNorthEastSouth
2 S South3 S× SouthMossBerkowitzGitelmanSontag
Lead: C 3Lead: D 51 S
Made 2 +110Down 3 -800PassPass1 NT3 H
Pass3 SPassPass
Diamond +14 IMPsDblPassPassPass

At Table 1, Greco opened a strong club (16+ HCP), and after a negative response (0-7 HCP) the rest of the auction was natural. Hampson’s preference to 2 S was routine, since Greco only promised 5-4 in the majors.

After a club lead, Greco handled the forcing defense in typical expert stride. Eventually he scored three club ruffs (the last by ruffing a good heart to reach dummy) together with the trump ace and four red winners to land his contract. Plus 110.

The Drama Begins

Despite playing a strong club system, Sontag at Table 2 chose to open the South hand 1 S. No doubt this was based on the vulnerability, as preemptive actions by his nonvulnerable opponents could be awkward after an artificial club. True of course, but this seems more like a reason to change systems than a cause to deviate unilaterally. I much prefer Greco’s straightforward approach to follow his agreed methods.

When 1 S was passed around, Gitelman came to life with 1 NT. This might seem eccentric, but it’s based on sound logic. Moss was marked for values after the limited (usually 11-15) opening, and if notrump is ever to be in the picture, East must declare to gain the positional value of the S Q. To emphasize, if Moss held S A-x-x H J-x-x-x D K-Q-x C Q-x-x, you’d have a better chance of making three notrump from the right side than 1 NT from the wrong side. Most experts are loose about point-count minimums for a balancing 1 NT, requiring only that the maximum be less than a strong notrump.

Given a second chance, Sontag was happy to show his heart suit, and the decision to jump is well-judged. A key factor was having the right spade holding (ace) to offer great prospects for a successful heart contract. Indeed, even if Berkowitz held a Yarborough, e.g., S x H 9-x-x-x D x-x-x C x-x-x-x-x, there could be an excellent play for game. Sontag was unlucky on this occasion, to be sure.

With equal length in Sontag’s two suits, Berkowitz took the usual action to return to the first suit — about which I strongly disagree. This was not a typical preference situation as in the Open Room, where opener could be 5-4. Sontag had to be at least 5-5 (else he would never jump) and his hearts rated to be stronger by the logic of my previous paragraph. Further, the North hand has better hearts than spades (7-4 vs. 4-3), so the only merit in a spade preference is to allow Sontag a chance to bid again. Yikes. The wise course is to leave well enough alone; check out while the checking’s good.

The Mighty Hero

Somewhere in my past I learned that green moss grows on the north side of trees; but this Moss sat West, and the only green was in the bidding cards he had contributed so far. When the final bid came around, Moss could picture the entire deal. Spades had to be 5-4-2-2 around the table, so Sontag was in a tenuous contract that rated to collapse. I’d like to say that “Mighty Moss” sang out his famous yell, “Here I come to save the day!” but I can only confirm that he wielded the ax. All of a sudden the spectators were abuzz about the denouement of this courageous double. Down one seemed likely, but that would not be enough to swing the match. Could the defense do better?

Moss had an awkward choice of leads and guessed wrong with a diamond, won by dummy’s queen, and declarer tried the heart finesse. Moss won the H K and alertly shifted to the C J, forcing declarer to ruff. Sontag next led the S 8, which rode to Gitelman’s nine to reach this position:

S win 7 S 4TrickLead2nd3rd4th
H 75. EC A?S 735
D J 8 66. SS A?64Q
C Q 7 6 57. SH A275
S K 10 6 TableS Q8. SH J6C 69
H 6 2H 9 59. SH 8S 10D 6D 3
D K 10D 4 3Lose the rest
C 9 3C A K 10 8
S A J 7
H A J 10 8
D A 7
East leadsC

Declarer seems destined to lose a diamond and two more trumps (down one), but the play took some strange turns in the heat of battle. Almost certainly this was due to fatigue, as it was well past midnight following nine grueling days of bridge. Gitelman (East) fell from grace by returning a high club, allowing declarer to ruff. Now the contract could be made*; and from my experience, such an offering to Sontag is like dangling raw meat over a crocodile.

*Cash the H A, ruff a heart, ruff a club, cash the S A, and lead hearts to endplay West when he ruffs.

Alas, Sontag also fell from grace, as he next cashed the S A and led hearts. When Moss ruffed in he was able to draw Sontag’s last trump and exit in clubs for Gitelman to claim the rest (a club had been pitched from dummy). Ouch. Minus 800 meant a whopping 14 IMPs to Diamond — the new leader by 2 IMPs.

The Final Board

With kibitzers still in shell shock, the last board reached the Closed Room. Now Meltzer needed a miracle to produce IMPs from nowhere, but it wasn’t to be. Board 64 was about as flat as expected, although Diamond managed to pick up an IMP (playing a 4-4 fit instead of 1 NT) to pad the victory margin to 3 IMPs.

A night to remember.

Article 7A41   MainTop   Hard Knocks in The Big Easy

© 2010 Richard Pavlicek