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A Hazy Shade of Winter
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"Time, time, time

See what's become of me

While I looked around

For my possibilities

I was so hard to please

...

Hang onto your hopes my friend

That's an easy thing to say

But if your hopes should pass away

Simply pretend

That you can build them again..."

-- Paul Simon

Because I am working so hard, and I expect a lot of myself, I find it difficult to stay positive during a slump. My slump that had begun late in 2017 continued into 2018. Through much of the winter, it felt like I was playing in a haze, somehow off-kilter in both bidding and play. I felt like I was seeing more of what was going on, yet often playing worse. It was confusing and frustrating, but I refused to give up on my dream of learning to play high level competitive bridge.

Then, as it felt that the confusion and frustration were just beginning to clear, I found myself on vugraph in a close 120-board match at the United States Bridge Championship. 

Early in the year

Reading Josh Waitzkin's The Art of Learning (recommended by John McAllister in this article) helped me during my slump. As much as I understand intellectually that mistakes are learning opportunities, the occasional external reminder helps.

To start the year I played very poorly for two days at a regional in Monterey. Then Debbie Rosenberg and I barely made it to Day 2 of the District 21 NAP-A final and were below average on Day 2. It is quite a feat to drag Debbie down below average, but I seemed consistently up to the task in January.

The tide began to turn in February at the District GNT's where I "played up" by entering the open flight. Here is a hand from that event. I thought the hand was more interesting as a defensive problem than a declarer play problem, so I will ask you to think about it the perspective of my RHO, who faced an interesting decision at trick two defending 6NT. Put yourself in the East seat:

North
10xx
Qx
AKJx
AKQ8
East
KQJxxx
xx
xx
xxx

I was South and had opened 1 and shown 4 diamonds and a spade stopper. 

You, East, had overcalled spades and partner had obligingly led one to your Jack. Declarer ducked, leaving you on lead. What do you think about your prospects for defeating 6N, and what do you return?

If declarer doesn't have both the A and K, he won't have enough tricks.

If declarer has the A and K, then he has 3 top tricks in each round suit and presumably the A. Whether partner or declarer has the Q, you can see that declarer can take 4 diamond tricks. That makes 11 tricks. What about clubs? It is possible partner has clubs controlled, but if declarer has only 3 heart tricks, that leaves partner guarding both clubs and hearts. If declarer's hearts aren't running partner will be squeezed in the round suits. It looks like declarer can take 12 tricks.

Is there anything you can do to get in their way? It doesn't look like you can do anything if they are 2=5=4=2, but things could get interesting if declarer is 3=5=4=1.

Lets say this is the hand:

West
x
Jxxx
Qxx
J10xxx
North
10xx
Qx
AKJx
AKQ8
East
KQJxxx
xx
xx
xxx
South
Axx
AKxxx
xxxx
9
D

Now on a club return declarer has to take the diamond finesse before testing hearts, retaining the heart as an entry to dummy for a club-heart squeeze against West if the hearts don't break. It is possible declarer might get this wrong.

Here was the full deal:

West
xx
Jxxx
Qxx
J10xx
North
10xx
Qx
AKJx
AKQ8
East
KQJxxx
xx
xx
xxx
South
Ax
AKxxx
xxxx
9x
D

On the actual hand it didn't matter what East did, but Bridge Winners chief editor Eugene Hung made the play that gave me a chance to go wrong if the layout was such that his play mattered. He returned a small club. Just as Eugene foresaw, I took 12 tricks on a club/heart squeeze. It was a defense I didn't think I would have seen myself, but I appreciated it and hoped that over time I would be able to find similar defenses.

Overall we had a good day at GNTs. Our opponents in a 3-way match with 2 survivors were VANCE (Grant and Greg Vance, Jessica Lai, Dmitri Shabes, Len Vishnevsky, Jo Ginsberg) and MANDALA (Cheryl Mandala, Yul Inn, Li-Chung Chen, and Eugene Hung). We (me and Lynn Shannon, and teammates from last year's GNT-C Aravind Alwan and Olivier Chapelle) were underdogs in both matches, but somehow we were leading both matches at halftime. We had a fortunate first half against VANCE where their mistakes proved costly and many of ours didn't. Had I played well against VANCE in the 3rd segment we would have been in a very good position to win that match, but I made a number of costly and frustrating errors. VANCE took the lead in that segment and we were unable to catch up in the 4th. In the match against MANDALA I made fewer errors, but our opponents didn't give us much to work with. Nevertheless we entered the 4th segment with a lead, and only lost when very late in the match they found the killing lead against a slam where we did not. Having lost both matches, we failed to advance to the next day, but I felt good about how I played against MANDALA, and having been within a few mistakes of beating VANCE was nothing to be upset about.  

Ups and Downs

Playing well in the match against MANDALA was encouraging, but the winter malaise hadn't fully cleared.

Cadir and I entered GNT-B with Aravind and Olivier. Based on that district qualifier, the ACBL might want to consider revoking our 2017 GNT-C title and reinstating my 199er eligibility. Painful day.

At Philadelphia Nationals I had mostly good first days and not-so-good second days:

  - average on day 2 of the Silodor with Debbie, despite a strong start to the fourth session

  - survived to day 2 of the Vanderbilt, partnering Liz Sylvester (a talented Australian player who like me had learned to play bridge in the last few years) with Debbie and Cadir as teammates; we lost badly to PSZCZOLA (Pszczola, Nowosadzki, Kalita, Brink, Drijver), but that was to be expected

  - With Debbie, Cadir, and Randal Burns, qualified high (25th, over 95VP) in the Swiss, but faded badly on Sunday

I didn't think I had played particularly well in Philadelphia, but making it to day 2 of the Vanderbilt was a thrill even if we got there by knocking out our friends (JOEL; Geeske Joel and Will Watson are friends from our local club, and would be our teammates at the USBC later in the article; in this event Geeske was partnering Daniela von Arnim and Will was partnering Richard Meffley). 

Meanwhile, at home I had more mixed results. I played a pairs game at the Modesto Regional with John Miller; our undefeated streak couldn't last but our 61/57 was good for 4th and perhaps as some sort of consolation prize we won B. Later at that event a couple of slightly below-average sessions with junior Sarah Youngquist somehow won gold for 2nd in C.

Off to Houston

I had some business to attend to in Houston, so when I saw that the United States Bridge Championship was in Houston, it seemed like an opportunity to get in some high-quality bridge without creating any net new travel (time away from family is one of the primary constraints on my bridge schedule, and why I attend far fewer regionals than I otherwise would). Debbie was available, and our friends from the club Geeske and Will were available to team with us.

We were seeded 19th of 21 teams, which seemed about right to me. Most of the teams looked far stronger than us, but playing in a 2-day round robin against very strong teams with screens throughout and hand records sounded like a great experience. The seeding predicted us to finish 16th of the 18 teams in the round robin. I knew that anything can happen in an event with short matches and thought that there was a decent chance we could finish a few spots higher than that, but looking at the teams ahead of us in the seeding moving up 5 spots to earn one of 11 qualifying places seemed like quite a stretch. 

Round Robin

The Round Robin was a blast. We started out strong and at one point were as high as 7th, but then we began to drop. For most of the event we were out of qualifying position, but never far enough out to give up hope.

On the second day our second match was against BORKER (Jay Borker, Daniel Korbel, Michael Rosenberg, and Roger Lee). Jay has won the Blue Ribbon Pairs and his teammates were all well known pros so, as in most of our matches, we were big underdogs. I blew a game I should have made, but as it turns out we had some good fortune on some other boards which left the match even, excluding Debbie's favorite board of the match, where an extra imp would not only translate into about half a victory point but would provide bragging rights in the Rosenberg household. 

North
AJ
A9753
43
KQ63
South
KQ75
84
AQ7
A875
W
N
E
S
1NT
P
2
P
2
P
3NT
P
P
P

Daniel led the J, I played small from dummy, Jay put up the king, and I won the ace.

Now I have 11 tricks if clubs break. Debbie has taught me not to concede tricks that I might not have to lose. Sometimes playing IMPs I ignore that advice in the interest of time, but not when I can see even a glimmer of hope. Here it seemed things would have to be lying just right for me to take a 12th trick on a red suit squeeze, but even good defenders aren't perfect and there were layouts where natural defensive plays could give me the help I needed. My best chance seemed to be to immediately duck a heart. Since I expected that I would be squeezing LHO (Korbel), I wanted to get any potential guard out of RHO's hand as soon as possible, so on principle I led my small heart to maximize any chance that Daniel wouldn't split (which in retrospect can't matter to the heart position).

Daniel played the ten, I played small from dummy, and Jay overtook with the king and returned a diamond which seemed normal enough. Luckily for me on the actual layout it turns out he couldn't afford the standard top of two small return; when Jay reasonably played the 9 from an original holding of K92 Daniel was squeezed. He pitched the 10 first, then the heart, and made me work to remember - after he pitched the 5 at trick 10 and 8 at trick 11 - that my 7 was high. One trick too early for a beer, but we won an IMP and the match. 

We were still below the cut line as we headed into the final two sequestered matches, but I remained optimistic. This time my optimism was rewarded with a strong finish. We qualified 10th, but we were just a few VPs above the 12th place team. Those overtricks can matter.

The reward for qualifying was a 120-board match with #3 ROSENTHAL: Andrew Rosenthal-Aaron Silverstein, Bob Hamman-David Berkowitz, and Chris Willenken-Eldad Ginossar. I was excited: 120 boards behind screens against one of the semifinalists from the most recent Spingold sounded great. Playing for two days against the winner of nearly half the Bermuda Bowls since I was born was going to be unforgettable. Just getting to play this match was a bridge fantasy turned real.

Is This Actually Happening?

On Sunday morning I discovered that our match was on vugraph; Jan and the team had elected to cover the first segments of the matches with the 3 highest seeds. After the first segment they would have two more vugraph operators and would cover the other three matches, plus whichever of the initially covered matches was most interesting. 

After the first segment, most of the matches were holding true to form. In general the higher seeds were leading, with the 7-10 match close and the 8-9 match exactly tied. The margins in the matches with the 3, 4, 5, and 6 seeds were all 20-something IMP margins. Mostly as expected - except the 3-14 match was backwards, we were leading ROSENTHAL 35-12!

Throughout a surprisingly close - scratch that, a shockingly close - match I thought my declarer play was erratic, but I was pleasantly surprised to have gotten more than my usual share of defenses right.

In the first segment Debbie's advice to always count declarer's tricks was just what was needed. If only I could follow her advice more effectively we would have more boards like this:

Max
J97632
AQ4
J8
QJ
Ginossar
A5
K9753
AQ32
K2
W
N
E
S
1
P
1NT
P
2
P
3
P
3NT
P
P
P

I led the 6, declarer played low from dummy, and Debbie won the King. She returned the 7; declarer put in the 8 and covered my J with the K. Now declarer played dummy's 2 and ducked Debbie's 10 to my Queen.

What's going on? First I think declarer is marked with the Q and the A on the play, and likely the K on the bidding. That gives him four diamonds, two clubs, and two spades for 8 tricks off the top now that the K is out of the way. But where was his 9th trick coming from? Debbie has taught me to notice something unusual when both sides play the same suit. Why did declarer play on the suit Debbie returned, off at least the queen, jack, and ten (and on Debbie's play probably the 9 too)? That seems like an odd line unless declarer has at least 5 of them. With 5 clubs, declarer can set up a long club, losing at most two clubs, the A, and K along the way to taking 9 tricks. Without 5 clubs, and probably holding exactly 4 spades because Debbie didn't return one, declarer either has a 5th diamond for a 9th trick or a heart to take a winning finesse for his 9th trick, but no reason to be playing clubs. It seems declarer is 4=0=4=5 and working on setting up his 9th trick in clubs. It wasn't quite a lesson hand where everything was absolutely certain, but things seemed to fit together.

If this is the hand, can I stop declarer? 

I won't have time to set up spades but a small spade wouldn't hurt anything. What happens if I return a spade? Declarer can cross to hand in diamonds to set up the club suit; with the 2 on the board declarer must have another diamond entry to his hand to cash the club and spade. A diamond does no better; he can win on the board, unblock the spade, and cross in diamonds to work on the clubs. We are held to 4 tricks and declarer gets 9. 

But declarer can't see my hand. I can test him with a heart. If he goes up with the K he will have his ninth trick on the actual hand, but if Debbie has the A playing the K is a disaster. Since I don't want him to go up, a small heart seemed best.

At the table I played the 4, declarer played the 5, and Debbie's 6 held the trick. The contract was now doomed. 

Here was the full deal

Max
J97632
AQ4
J8
QJ
Ginossar
A5
K9753
AQ32
K2
Debbie
K
J10862
1097
10976
Willenken
Q1084
K654
A8543
W
N
E
S
1
P
1NT
P
2
P
3
P
3NT
P
P
P
D
3NT South
NS: 0 EW: 0

Should declarer go up with the king? I think an expert defender would never play a small heart without the A here, but at the table it may have been hard for him to read much into my play.

From declarer's perspective a good player in my seat should be able to place him with at least 9 cards in the minors; when Debbie doesn't return a spade with a stiff A on the board and switches to a club without much there she probably doesn't have another spade. Declarer can see spades are likely 6-1, and declarer can expect the player in my seat to know that and therefore figure out that he is exactly 4=0=4=5. If I didn't hold the A I think declarer can work out that a good player in my seat would lead back a heart honor, even if unsupported, to hold the lead and be able to put another heart through, since a third heart trick for us would set the contract. 

I suspect that if I were a stronger player it would have been easier for Chris to work out to go up. Here it appears that my mistakes paid dividends; a very strong player went wrong where he would have had a clearer inference against an expert. At least that's how it looks to me, but my confidence in understanding what world-class players would do in any given situation is low; on a future hand it would have been nice to have that judgment.

Cinderella Run

After winning the first segment, we pushed the second. Of the three matches originally on vugraph ours was closest, and the only upset in the making. We stayed on vugraph for the whole match. Later I heard that throughout much of the match we had 500 kibitzers; I am glad I didn't know that during the match!

We lost 4 IMPs in the third set, and another 19 IMPs in the fourth segment which left the match tied after 60 boards. The next morning we squeaked ahead by 2 IMPs in the fifth segment. In the sixth segment we lost 34 IMPs, so we were behind 32 IMPs with 30 boards remaining. We still felt that we were in the match, and I thought that our opponents might be feeling more pressure than we were. In the seventh segment we were able to capitalize on some opportunities; as it turns out we picked up exactly 32 IMPs, leaving the match tied after 105 boards.

Let me just pause here for emphasis. The match was tied after 105 boards. 

I should add a few words about my partner and teammates here. While it is clear that we were underdogs, I don't think we were quite as big underdogs as most people likely believed, and I don't feel like it's right to talk about us being underdogs without giving the rest of the team their due.

- Will Watson may not be a big name nationally but he is a very well-respected expert in the Bay Area. If he weren't so dedicated to directing some of the local club games - where he is also outstanding - he might have more time to travel and I expect he would be better known. For what its worth, last time Will entered the trials he also faced a team with Bob Hamman in the round of 16, but that time he won. Sorry to break your streak Will!

- Geeske Joel is a strong player, a dedicated student of bridge, and very focused. She and Will are a well-practiced partnership and play well together. I think they are an underrated pair. They certainly had a very successful four days in Houston.

- Debbie? It was a strong field but I wouldn't trade her for anyone at the event. 

As for me, if you found some of my good plays surprising, I will remind you I have a very very very good teacher. My mistakes are all mine.

Watching a Car Accident in Slow Motion

Speaking of mistakes...

We entered the final segment tied, but I made a series of major errors and we lost the segment 65-15. Looking back at those boards is painful, but necessary for my learning. I may need more distance from the emotional pain of losing to fully process the hands intellectually, but I'll do the best I can under the circumstances.

I had two mind losses during bidding that segment: I cue bid a second-round control above game, and I mangled a Stayman sequence that I would have thought I would get right every time. Ugh. I also played a slam poorly: my line had chances but I was sloppy. Unfortunately that sloppiness may have cost half our losing margin, since they weren't in slam at the other table.

Let me take you to the scene of the crime (rotated):

Hamman
Q872
KJ86
8
10864
Debbie
A654
A5
K2
KQ975
Berkowitz
J9
1093
J1097654
3
Max
K103
Q742
AQ3
AJ2
W
N
E
S
3
3NT
P
6NT
P
P
P
D
6NT South
NS: 0 EW: 0

Hamman led the 8 and I played the K from dummy, Berkowitz following with the J. 

I thought about a few ways to make the hand. If Berkowitz held the K, then I would make by playing a low heart to the queen. If Hamman held the K, I might squeeze him in the majors. But for that to work the preempt needed to be trash. Playing a heart to the queen would limit but not destroy my squeeze chances. I would still have a simple squeeze against Hamman if Berkowitz had 2-2 in the majors or fewer, but my threats would be the lowly 6 and the 7, so almost any time Berkowitz held three in either major he would be able to guard that suit. I didn't think much about whether Berkowitz would play the K if he held it when I led away from the ace. If I had a clearer read on that it might have helped me have more clarity in evaluating different approaches to the hand.

They were favorable, so 3 could be light. I have minimal experience behind screens, but I thought the correct procedure was to ask my screenmate about his preempting style. I disliked doing this, because I thought an ethical opponent might be influenced in the direction of telling me about the hand he actually held, so in this case I would have preferred to ask Hamman about Berkowitz's preempt style. I decided that was not the correct procedure, so I asked to have the screen closed and David told me his hand could be quite bad. But "could be" doesn't mean "is", and I still had squeeze chances if the heart was wrong, so after thinking a bit more, I played a heart to the Q, which lost. In retrospect, I should not have asked if I was still going to take that line upon hearing that answer, but that is what I did. On the actual layout Berkowitz could guard hearts leaving Hamman free to guard the spades and I was dead. 

There was really no reason for me not to play some clubs and learn more about what was going on. It is possible that my diversion to ask Berkowitz about his preempt style, with the extra mental effort to think about both how to do so and whether it was right to do so, distracted me from gathering more information, or perhaps I was just tired. Had I played some clubs, when I saw that Berkowitz had a stiff club I would have known that 22 majors was impossible, and I might have rethought my plan. 

At another table Michael Rosenberg cashed four rounds of clubs pitching a heart from hand, then conceded a spade to his LHO. I like this line a lot. If spades are 3-3, he sets up a long spade in dummy. When the spade length is on his left, he makes on a major suit squeeze whenever his LHO holds the K. As an added bonus, the way he played it a high diamond was the squeeze card; all he had to do was watch for the K and if it didn't fall, then try the spades - even I could get that ending right! I certainly don't expect myself to come up with the same line as Michael Rosenberg, but I do expect myself to take simple steps to determine that part of what I am playing for is not gonna happen.

I don't know if making so many errors in the final segment was the result of pressure, exhaustion, or frustration from earlier errors distracting me, or just coincidence. I suspect it was a mix of the first three. One big lesson learned: if I want to compete at a high level I need to better manage my state of mind through a long match with ups and downs. 

We lost the final segment 65-15. Not the way one wants to end a match, especially my first time on vugraph with 500 kibitzers.

Regardless of how it ended, we had made it through the round robin and played even with a strong team for 105 boards. I give huge credit to Debbie, Will, and Geeske - but if ever I can give myself credit for a decent result partnering Debbie, surely I could here. My most important goal for this year was to play well against strong competition. For significant stretches over 4 days, I did that. Over time I will learn to do it more consistently.

Despite the awful final segment, I left Houston very happy.

"Hang onto your hopes my friend

That's an easy thing to say

But if your hopes should pass away

Simply pretend

That you can build them again

 

Look around

The grass is high

The fields are ripe

It's the springtime of my life..."

Reflection

In a comment on some advice from Fred Gitelman, Henry Bethe made an analogy between becoming an expert bridge player and earning a PhD in Particle Physics or Theology. Over the last 3 and a half years, I have often thought bridge was much harder - I believed if I had put as much effort into Particle Physics I would be most of the way to a PhD, yet expert bridge play seemed far away.

During that time, it has often felt hopeless, or at least unlikely, that I would actually achieve my bridge goals. But I refused to give up hope. I clung to the idea that great coaching plus hard work and a logical mind would eventually prevail. Or perhaps - in Paul Simon's words - I simply pretended. 

Finally, after four days in Houston, I had some evidence that someday I might succeed. Maybe my hopes aren't so crazy after all.

Now as I look back on the analogy to earning a PhD in Particle Physics, I see what was wrong with my thinking. Trying to learn expert bridge play as a brand new player was like setting out to earn a PhD in Particle Physics from scratch. Nevermind an undergradute degree in Physics, I had to start by learning arithmetic and algebra so that I could learn calculus and differential equations so that I could then learn Newtonian mechanics, electromagnetism, and quantum mechanics. Only after that would I be a reasonable entrant into a PhD program. 

I don't think I have mastered the bridge equivalent of an undergraduate curriculum, but on balance I feel ready for grad school.

I am excited to begin the next phase of my bridge journey. 

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