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Facing the champs - a great bridge experience

This article that I wrote was already published in the District 20 newsletter, The Trumpet, with some minor edits and extrapolations, but I hope it has some entertainment value outside of our district as well.

This year District 20 was represented in the Open Flight Grand National Teams competition at the Toronto Nationals by Craig Huston, Hal Montgomery, Stan Sather, and me. Craig and Stan are veterans, having represented district 20 in the open flight on multiple occasions, but for both Hal and I it was our first time playing in the open flight.

For those of you who are unaware, the grand national teams competition starts with 25 teams, one from each district. On the first day there is a 2-session qualifying Swiss teams event, from which the top 16 teams qualify. After the first day, there is a 16 team seeded bracket for full-day, 64 board knockouts, which go on for four days until one team is left. As a bonus, the top four of the qualifying Swiss get to choose their opponents from the bottom 8 teams, so there is more to play for than just qualifying.

Over the first 6 matches of the qualifying Swiss we were in good position, having won 73 victory points. At that point we hadn’t played many name players – the most notable of our opponents were teams including Jerry Helms and John Onstott. One of the hands that helped us greatly was played against our neighbors to the North, District 19:

West
K103
1053
64
J8642
North
AQ75
A6
K1092
A53
East
84
KJ982
AQJ73
7
South
J962
Q74
85
KQ109
W
N
E
S
1
P
1NT
X
2
2
P
3
P
4
P
P
P
D
4 South
NS: 0 EW: 0

This was the auction at our table, I’m not sure what transpired at the other table. The opening lead in both cases was the 6 of diamonds. At both tables east took the J and A of diamonds, and then led the 7 of diamonds. At our table I ruffed with the J of spades, and West overruffed with the K, and led a heart. That was the end for the defense, as I rose with the Ace of hearts, pulled trump with the AQ of spades, led a club to the king, and, having a complete count on the East hand, took the proven finesse against West’s jack of clubs to establish a discard for dummy’s last heart. At the other table, declarer ruffed with the 2 of spades, and got overruffed with the 3. West returned a heart to the ace, and now declarer decided to finesse the jack of clubs. The hand fell apart completely at that point, and when the smoke cleared declarer was down 4, for win 14.

As I mentioned, we were in good position after 6 rounds. It was a good thing, too, as the next two rounds we played two very strong teams, district 23 from Los Angeles, including Jill Meyers, and District 24 from New York, which included six national champions, including 4 (Joe Grue, Joel Woolridge, John Hurd, and Kevin Bathurst) who just finished 2nd in the Bermuda Bowl. We got killed (I blame District 20 Director Merlin Vilhauer, who had left us alone all day and then decided to kibitz the last two matches, which obviously made us nervous…), and wound up the day with 74 victory points, qualifying 14th out of 16.

That night, I got a call in my room from Stan, telling me that we had been selected as opponents by the top overall seed, the Spector squad from Florida. That team was composed of Eric Rodwell, Jeff Meckstroth, David Berkowitz, Gary Cohler, Mike Becker, and Warren Spector. I wasn’t able to find the number of championships won by Spector, but the other five are professional bridge players with a combined 136 NABC wins at that time. Meckstroth and Rodwell might be the best partnership in the world, and Berkowitz and Becker have been elected to the ACBL Hall of Fame. Safe to say, we were underdogs in this match.

In the first quarter Stan and I sat against Meckstroth and Rodwell, while Hal and Craig played Spector and Becker. We got slightly the worse of the first 8 boards, then we started to pick up some momentum. The biggest swing of the set was the following (Meckstroth sitting W, and Rodwell E):

West
Q103
A104
9852
972
North
AJ92
J98
10743
54
East
K875
6
AKQJ
K1086
South
64
KQ7532
6
AQJ3
W
N
E
S
1
P
2
X
4
P
P
X
P
P
P
D
4X South
NS: 0 EW: 0

Stan and I play intermediate 2 bids (9-14 HCP with a 6+ card suit), but with a 6-4 hand with all 12 HCP in the two suits, this hand is too strong to open at the two level, so I opened 1H. Stan made a simple raise to 2H, and after Rodwell’s takeout double the king of clubs rates to be onside, so I just jumped to 4 hearts. Rodwell made another take-out double with his extra values, and Meckstroth decided to sit. On the opening lead of the 3 of spades (3/low leads), I inserted the 9 and Rodwell won the King, and then switched to the J of diamonds. I ruffed the diamond continuation, and spun the king of hearts on the table, Meckstroth winning. He continued diamonds, and it was a simple matter to take two club finesses, get my club ruff, and finish drawing trump, for +790. In the other room Spector and Becker did not get to game, so that was worth 12 imps. As an aside, this was a tense contract for me, and when I scored it up, I had to ask to take a 5 minute break because my arms were shaking after all of the adrenaline had left.

We thought we had played well that first quarter, and when we scored up our card, we found that we were ahead 34-14. The second quarter Meckstroth and Rodwell decided to sit against Craig and Hal, and Stan and I faced Spector and Becker. There were some swings flying around these 16 boards. On the board with the biggest swing this quarter, Stan’s choice of opening leads and our carding methods allowed us to set a game made by Hal at the other table (Spector sitting N, and Becker S):

West
AQ1083
J3
KJ
J842
North
K4
AQ95
962
KQ106
East
J962
84
A1074
753
South
75
K10762
Q853
A9
W
N
E
S
P
1
X
3
4
P
P
P
D
4 South
NS: 0 EW: 0

In the other room, a similar auction occurred and Meckstroth led the 4 of clubs, letting Hal get rid of two spades on the clubs after pulling trump. In our room, Stan led the Ace of Spades, and I signaled with the J of spades. In our methods, a high card to the opening lead indicates a good card in the obvious shift suit, which, in this case, was diamonds. Stan promptly switched to the K and J of diamonds, and I gave him his diamond ruff for down 1, winning 10 imps for the NV game. We won the 2nd quarter 31-26, making our lead at halftime 65-40.

In the third quarter, Meckstroth and Rodwell sat against Craig and Hal again, and Stan and I sat against David Berkowitz and Gary Cohler. Right away it’s apparent that we are getting the worst of it. In fact, I felt our lead might be gone after the first 5 boards of the set, partly because I had gone down in a cold 3N after Berkowitz and Cohler found a deceptive defense. This hand actually got written up in the Daily Bulletin (luckily I was not actually named):

West
863
A4
107654
K72
North
4
653
AQJ93
AQ84
East
QJ102
KQ87
82
J93
South
AK975
J1092
K
1065
W
N
E
S
1
P
2
P
2
P
3
P
3NT
P
P
P
D
3NT South
NS: 0 EW: 0

Cohler chose to lead the 2 of clubs (playing 4th best), and I ducked to Berkowitz’s jack. Berkowitz then returned the 3 of clubs to my T, Cohler’s K, and the dummy’s A. I came back to hand with the king of diamonds, and had a decision to make. If diamonds break I have 9 tricks, but if they don’t I need to bring in the clubs for four tricks. Not thinking the hand through fully, I decided to play Cohler for 4 clubs and finesse the 8 – Disaster! I’m now cut off from dummy, & eventually wind up down 2, for lose 13. In retrospect, I should have realized that a club lead was very likely on the auction from any length, and just played for diamonds to break, with clubs 3-3 as a back-up plan. This wasn’t our only poor result, and we wound up losing the 3rd quarter 13-72. Our 25 imp lead had quickly becoming a 34 imp deficit. The 4th quarter we try and swing a little bit, and wind up losing that one 20-38. We were out, and the Spector squad went on to win the event.

I didn’t really know what to expect going into this match, but it helped that we were regularly playing online practice matches against some of the top pairs in Portland in preparation for this event – despite not having many “name” professional players, it turns out that the bridge here is of a fairly high standard. Our teammates played well, and we hope that this experience helps us raise our level of play in the future, should we get another opportunity to represent district 20.

I have now been on two flight B GNT teams and one open flight GNT team, as well as winning a place in the open NAPs. All in all, I would say that the experience of going toe to toe with the best players in the world was the most enjoyable experience of my brief bridge life, even though we lost in the end. If you have never played in a GNT or NAP event before, I would highly recommend participating in the next cycle. If you win, it’s a good way to get money to travel to national bridge tournaments, and the big tournaments are definitely worth the experience, both to make you a better bridge player and because the atmosphere makes you realize how big and wonderful the bridge community truly is.

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