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Castro Valley Sectional
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Coming off a tough week at the club, I went to play in the Castro Valley Sectional.  A week ago Saturday, I had the great pleasure of playing with Bridge Winners' own Greg Humphreys, who was in town on a business trip for his day job at Google.  We drove up together in his rented convertible, with the wind whipping through his hair... Although the outing was very enjoyable, we had two below-par sessions, despite me letting Greg play North the first session.  We had some tough competitive decisions to make in a very strong field, and they didn't always go our way.  

My regular partner Kevin Schoenfeld had been keen to play in the Sunday Bracketed Swiss Teams event, as this was his home unit.  Our regular teammates, Michael Fleisher and Mindy Foos, were unavailable as a pair, but Michael was available if we could find him a partner.  I corralled Spencer Sun into playing with me, which left Michael and Kevin to play together in two first-time partnerships!  It promised to be interesting. :)  As Spencer is relatively young, he doesn't have many points, so our combined 6000 points put us at the bottom of bracket 2.

Spencer and I collaborated on a card ahead of time through the Bridge Winners convention card application.  Kevin and Michael went the low-tech way, and worked theirs out in pencil at the event venue prior to the start of the event.  In settling on our card, Spencer and I quickly jettisoned anything that wasn't familiar to both of us, so we'd be on relatively firm ground, having learned from previous bad experiences playing with first-time partnerships.  Keep it simple!   It was a wise strategy, and yet it was amazing how many things came up in the first few matches that we hadn't discussed.  

In our first match we met the only team that had fewer points than us.  They beat us soundly, with us losing by 13.  I went down in a 3NT contract, but in doing so, I had revoked early on in the hand.  It was a revoke that absolutely wouldn't have mattered, as I was about to pitch several losers on the run of a long suit in dummy, and had I not pitched the wrong card from my hand on the lead from the opponents, I would have pitched it on the next trick.  Still, a revoke is a revoke, and I was assessed a one-trick penalty for down 3, rather than down 2, costing us 2 IMPs.   At the other table they were in a major-suit game, down 1.  But it wasn't all that important; the big swing was on a board where my partner and I took a phantom sacrifice against a vulnerable game, for a 10-IMP loss.  It was a reasonable decision, but one that didn't work out.

The second match was a good one, and after a little back and forth we wound up winning handily by 21 IMPs to gain 18 VPs, bringing us back above average.

Match 3 illustrated a theme that would crop up from time to time during the day: minor-suit slams are difficult to bid when you are not a practiced partnership.  We had not discussed much about slam bidding other than that we were playing 1430, cuebidding first- and second-round controls, and playing non-serious 3NT.  We purposely did not add any minor-suit slam asks (either kickback or Minorwood), figuring they would just lead to trouble.  As it turned out, not having an agreement also led to trouble.  

On the penultimate board of match 3, I picked up the hand below, and the bidding unfolded as shown:

East
109
KJ9xx
K10x
K9x
W
N
E
S
1
P
1NT
P
3
P
3
P
4
P
?

Now that my partner had jump shifted, I was liking my hand a lot.  His bid of 4 meant that we had a club fit, and I thought that 6 might have a lot of play.  I wasn't worried about quick losers given that I had second-round control of every suit but spades, which was the suit he had bid.  The only thing I needed to do was to make sure that we were not off two aces.  The bidding indicated he probably had a distributional hand, so it wasn't totally clear how many points he had.  I figured he had no less than 18 HCP for his bid.  However, if I bid 4NT and he only had two keycards, then we were too high. What would you do?

I decided to make a temporizing 4 bid, hoping that I'd get across the idea that I was interested in slam, and hopefully his next bid would be revealing.

South
109
KJ9xx
K10x
K9x
W
N
E
S
1
P
1NT
P
3
P
3
P
4
P
4
P
?

At this point, he bid 4NT.  I scrunched up my forehead and thought real hard.  What did he mean by 4NT?  I didn't know.  Regardless, I was certain we could make 4NT, and at this point I thought that it was better to go for the sure thing rather than risk us going down in a slam off two aces.  Because I had first bid notrump, I would be playing the hand.
 
On the lead of a low diamond, a hand that was beyond my expectations came down in dummy:
 
North
AK865
A
Ax
AQJxx
South
109
KJ9xx
K10x
K9x
W
N
E
S
1
P
1NT
P
3
P
3
P
4
P
4
P
4NT
P
P
P
 
Holy moly!  A 22 count!  I could tell that we were almost certainly cold for 6, but there was nothing I could do about it at this point, so I focused on making the contract I was in. I could count 11 tricks off the top without working up a sweat (two spades, two hearts, five clubs, and two diamonds).  What's the best play to make six or even seven?
 
North
AK865
A
Ax
AQJxx
South
109
KJ9xx
K10x
K9x
W
N
E
S
1
P
1NT
P
3
P
3
P
4
P
4
P
4NT
P
P
P
 
I stared at the dummy and made a plan before playing to the first trick.  It was a good thing too, as transportation to my hand was going to be a challenge, having what looked like only two entries to my hand: the K and the K.  It looked like there were good possibilities to make extra tricks from either spades or hearts, and there might be squeeze possibilities.  Certainly if clubs split, the opponents would need to make some discards. I decided to avoid committing myself to a line of play until I found out what was happening in clubs.  
 
I won the opening lead in dummy with the A to preserve the entry to my hand, as well as to convey less information to the opponents about my diamond holding.  I played low to the K, both following.  Before continuing clubs, I tested spades, playing the 10.   This brought out the J from LHO, which I covered and won in dummy.  RHO followed with a low spade.  This was a useful data point, as it looked like spades might not be splitting very well.   I played a high club from dummy, and both followed, so clubs were behaving.  On the run of the clubs, which broke 2=3, RHO pitched two spades, LHO pitched a diamond and two hearts, and I discarded a heart and a diamond.  I unblocked the A, both following.  I played a diamond back to my hand, winning with the K.  I now played the K, and RHO dropped the Q.  The play of the J dropped the 10 from my LHO, and I could now claim seven!  I was sad we weren't in slam, but happy that I'd taken the time to think through the hand and preserve as many options as possible.  
 
At the other table, the opponents had had an unusual auction, and ended up in 6NT:

W
N
E
S
P
2
P
2
P
3
P
4NT
P
5
P
6NT
P
P
P

South had mistakenly bid 2, which was alerted, since their partnership plays it as a bust.  South meant it as hearts, but the correct bid would have been 2NT given their agreements.  North now jumped in spades to tell his partner "I've got a really good hand with solid spades... please don't pass!"  South, realizing his original mistake, now asked for keycards in spades.  Despite having all five keycards, North answered one or four (although it's certainly possible that North thought that they didn't have a suit agreement and correctly answered four aces).  South now thought it best to place the contract, and bid 6NT.  

Unfortunately for them, they encountered better defense from our teammates than I did from theirs.  Our teammates also led a diamond. However, declarer played low from dummy, and when RHO played the Q, won the K in hand.  Declarer now played the 10, LHO covering with the J, declarer winning the K in dummy, and RHO following.  A low club back to the K, and declarer now played on the 9, LHO showing out.  At this point, the declarer was toast, since he no longer had any way to get back to his hand to try plan B, hearts.  Kevin as East held Q7432, which was good enough to deny declarer 4 spade tricks, and declarer was down 1.  In the end, our slam-bidding deficiencies didn't cost us too much, and we wound up winning the match by 17 IMPs for 17 more VPs. 

I later asked Spencer why he hadn't opened the hand 2.  He decided it would be too difficult to bid any other way, given that he had two powerful suits. We could have recovered if we'd been more familiar with each other's style and he had been certain that my temporizing 4 bid was really a Last Train slam try.  In retrospect, I think the best response to my 4 bid would have been 5NT: pick a slam.  I would have then bid 6, which I still believe is the safest slam for us to be in.  It certainly depends on a whole lot less than 6NT!  But next time this comes up, I'm sure we'll both be able to figure it out on the fly. :)
  
Match 4 was a tennis match, with lots of back and forth. Ultimately we lost this match by 6, gaining 7 more VPs.   After a short lunch break, we came back and tied the next match.  
 
In match 6, at the other table, Kevin picked up the following hand:
 
South
A
Ax
Axxxxx
xxxx
W
N
E
S
1
P
2NT
P
?
 
2NT is 11-12 HCP balanced.  Your bid?
Kevin took the plunge and placed the contract in 5.  On the lead of the Q, dummy came down:
 
North
xxx
Qx
KJx
KQ10xx
South
A
Ax
Axxxxx
xxxx
W
N
E
S
1
P
2NT
P
5
P
P
P
 
After winning the opening lead in hand, pulling two rounds of trump (trump splitting 2-2), he was able to flush out the A and bring home six.
 
At our table, the bidding went a little bit differently:
 
W
N
E
S
1
P
1NT
P
2
P
3
P
P
P
 
Unfortunately, the responder had started with an underbid and they could not recover, so they ended up declaring a part-score.  They got the same lead from us and were able to wrap up six, as there was little to the play.  (Only a heart lead keeps it to five.)  Win 6.  Nice bid, Kevin!
 
Board 5 saw a contract being declared from different sides because of the bidding.  Down 1 at our table, making at the other table.  Our teammates decided to create a game force first, and then find a fit, which was smart.  Declarer at their table didn't count her tricks nor did she reverse the dummy, which was necessary to make the hand.  Our teammates had the advantage that the dummy really was the dummy, so in a way, it was easier to play from that side.  +13 IMPs.
 
We had another slam auction which was very simple:  1 (partner) - P - 1 - P - 1NT - P - 4NT - P - P - P.  I had a nice 18-count with long diamonds, and could think of no other way to invite.  Spencer held a minimum and wisely passed, wrapping up five.  At the other table, they wound up bidding all the way to a slam, down 1.  Win another 13. 
 
We wound up winning the match by 41, for a badly needed blitz.
 
In the final match, I picked up the following hand in fourth seat, no one vulnerable:
 
Ax  Axx  xxx Qxxxx
 
The x's were actually decent spots, but they're irrelevant for this story.  LHO opened 1, and partner bid 3.  RHO passed, and I sat there looking at my 10 count for a moment, and tried to decide if it was worth it to push to 4.  I decided game was unlikely, so I passed.  LHO now doubled.  I kept my thinking cap on, since if RHO now bid, I was going to be put to another decision.  Partner passed, and now RHO passed!  I breathed a sigh of relief.  Decision made for me!  
 
On the lead of the 9, partner was able to make four, for +630.  At the other table, our opponents settled into a nice 3 contract, making four, undoubled.  So we gained 10 IMPs on that board.  This proved to be the decisive board, as we won the match by 9, putting us a 91 VPs for the day.
 
Was it enough?  The team that had beaten us in round 1 was in first place going into the last round.  They would need to lose their match by 6 or more for us to win.  When the results came in, they'd lost by more than that, relegating them to second and giving us the win.  We were all pleased after our somewhat rocky start.  Despite the inevitable bidding misunderstandings born of unfamiliarity, we weathered the day very well!  Nice job team!
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