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Firecracker Sectional
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This past week I played five days at our unit's home sectional, the Firecracker super sectional in Santa Clara.  This is one of the largest sectionals in the country, and runs for five days.  This year it boasted a range of events similar to what you'd find at a regional: two-session pairs events, two-day KOs, Swiss, etc.  I played five days with three different partners with three different cards.

The first day, I played with Debbie Rosenberg in two single-session pairs events.  This was a practice session for Nationals.  Before playing we had removed a few things from our card that one or the other of us didn't normally play.  We had two respectable sessions in which a number of additional points of discussion came up, so it was very good practice.

I was scheduled to play the next day in a two-day KO with one of my newer partners, Robin Booth, and some friends of mine, Garth & Maggie Wilson, with the goal being to get Garth his life master.  All Garth needed was a schmeasly 1.2 silver, so it seemed quite possible, and I was really motivated to help.  Unfortunately, at the last minute something came up and they were only able to play on Thursday.  So our plans changed, and we wound up playing separately in an afternoon single-session pairs event.  Garth & Maggie had a good enough session to score in the overalls in C, effectively earning Garth his gold card.  In the evening, we teamed together in the evening Swiss, which in our case, was NOT the loser Swiss.  We all played well, and after three matches, we were so far in the lead that as long as we didn't completely tank the last session we'd win.  We lost our last match by a small margin, but still won the event handily.  Garth got his Life Master and we were all very happy.  

The next day I played in a two-session pairs event with Robin, in which we had two decent but not great sessions.  During that session we discovered a number of things that we each thought were standard, but weren't.  So the sessions became a great catalyst for discussing and firming up some of our agreements.

On Saturday, I played in a compact KO with Greg Humphreys, teaming with two other Bridge Winners members, Sriram Narasimhan and Jayesh Goyal. We ended up at the bottom of the top bracket, and we won both of our opening round-robin matches handily. Unfortunately, we lost to an excellent team in our second match. After a nice dinner during which we watched the World Cup match and talked about cricket, we played in the evening Swiss, winning three matches and ending up 3rd in B.  All in all it was an excellent day, and a lot of fun playing with two new people we'd only previously met online.

On the final day, Greg and I teamed with fellow Bridge Winner Ari Greenberg, and Ari's regular partner, Li-Chung Chen, to play in the A/X Swiss. We won our first four matches, and lost our last three matches to finish above average, just out of the money.  For the most part, we got to play against really good teams, and the team played great.  It was a very satisfying day of bridge for me, with lots of good hands.

Greg and I have played a few times previously, so we used the card we had played before.  However, I really didn't take as close a look at it as I should have, and I had agreed to play a number of things that were relatively unfamiliar to me, which was probably unwise.  We had agreed to play Flannery, but like anything else, if you haven't defined the followups, you're not really playing the convention.  So we discussed the followups, which were a bit different than those I normally play, and I committed them to memory.  We also played a different response structure over the minors than I was accustomed to, and there were a few other things on the card that I had to keep in mind that I wasn't used to playing.  It's fun to learn new things, but in retrospect, I realize that this is difficult to do in a casual partnership, and I should have taken things off the card that I had never played before, as this probably wasn't the best way to learn them. That would have been the smart thing to do.  But then I wouldn't have as many good stories to tell, would I?

I picked up the following hand in second seat, red versus white:

North
AQxxxx
Axx
x
AK10
W
N
E
S
P
1
P

A really nice 17 count.  Imagine my surprise, when Greg responded 3NT!  So now I'm going through our card in my mind... 3NT is 16-17 balanced, right?  I have 17.  6NT looks like the right place to be, so I confidently bid 6NT.  After the board got passed out, Greg announced a failure to alert.  I blanched and glanced down at our card.  It didn't look like anything was written there, but I did see splinter.  3M+1 announced a hand with a four-card trump fit, 9-11 HCP, and a singleton somewhere.  3NT was our 16-17 HCP response over 1m. Crap!  Sorry pard.

On the lead of the 5, dummy came down, and Greg had some thinking to do. 

North
AQxxxx
Axx
x
AK10
South
K10xx
KQ10x
Q10xx
J
W
N
E
S
P
1
P
3NT
P
6NT
P
P
P

6 is cold.  Your partner left you in 6NT.  At least they didn't lead a diamond!  Plan the play.

North
AQxxxx
Axx
x
AK10
South
K10xx
KQ10x
Q10xx
J
W
N
E
S
P
1
P
3NT
P
6NT
P
P
P

You can count 12 top tricks (six spades, four hearts, and two clubs) if either hearts split 3-3 or if you can locate the J.  You have some squeeze possibilities as there may be a club-heart squeeze, especially with the perceived need to hold onto diamonds.  (After all, they have no idea what you have in your hand.)  You could take the proffered club finesse on the opening lead, but the odds seem to favor banking on either hearts coming in or someone having to pitch some number of clubs.  Greg eschewed the finesse and won the opening lead with the A.  Then he played off all his spades, watching the opponents' discards.  During the run of the spades, West was feeling the pinch and pitched a heart.  After running all the spades, Greg now started on hearts, playing low to the K and then low to the A in dummy, West showing out.  Now he was able to claim 12 tricks, losing a diamond. Phew!   At matchpoints this would have been a top.  At teams, it was a nailbiter, which turned out to be a push when the other side was in the more sensible and normal 6 contract.  We immediately changed our card so that 1M - 3NT showed a constructive raise with 5 trump, an agreement I was more comfortable with.
 
In our penultimate match, we played two boards in a row that were won or lost on the bidding.  On the first board, we had a competitive auction where our opponents eventually won the contract, but had a difficult theoretical decision to make.  The auction began as follows:
 
W
N
E
S
P
1
2
2
2
3
P
?
 
The question is... what is 3?  Is it asking or telling?  Is this a matter of partnership agreement or is there a standard meaning?
W
N
E
S
P
1
2
2
2
3
P
?
 
In fact, my West opponent didn't think either of those things.  He decided the 3 bid agreed hearts, so he bid 3.  From there, the auction continued:
 
W
N
E
S
P
1
2
2
2
3
P
3
P
4
P
4
P
4NT
P
5
P
6
P
P
P
 
The 4 bid was natural.  After the 4 bid, opener probably thought that responder had lots of hearts, and bid 4NT to ask for keycards. Once dummy came down, it wasn't clear whether 5 was an attempt to sign off in hearts or something else, but after that, opener placed the contract in 6 and responder wisely passed.
 
Greg led the Q (Rusinow leads) and a surprising dummy came down in light of the auction.  
 
West
x
KQJxx
x
Axxxxx
W
N
E
S
P
1
2
2
2
3
P
3
P
4
P
4
P
4NT
P
5
P
6
P
P
P
 
Declarer won the opening lead with the A, I followed low, and was surprised when declarer followed.  I did the math, and the cognitive dissonance of seeing clubs in dummy initially caused me to think that the clubs were splitting 1-5-6-2.  Nope, that's not a shape.  Greg had in fact overcalled an excellent four-card club suit. It turned out that declarer was 5-1-6-1 and held five spades to the AQ.  At this point, there was no problem putting the contract three down. At the other table our teammates got to 3NT contract with less interference and a more straightforward auction. It was not a cakewalk, but they managed to bring the contract home for an 11-IMP gain.
 
All four hands are shown below, along with the suggested auction:
 
West
x
KQJxx
x
Axxxxx
North
KJ10xx
10xx
Qxx
10x
East
AQxxx
x
AKJ1098
x
South
xx
Axxx
xxx
KQJ9
W
N
E
S
P
1
2
2
2
3
P
3NT
P
P
P
D
3NT West
NS: 0 EW: 0
 
This sequence, where the opponents have bid both unbid suits, and you and your partner are looking for NT doesn't come up very often in my experience.  It would have been prudent for us to have had a quick conversation right after this board to clarify our own understanding of our agreements. But we didn't. This was unfortunate as we'd soon learn.
 
On the very next board, I picked up the following hand in third position, red versus white:
 
North
AKx
Qx
Jxxxx
J8x
W
N
E
S
1
1
2
2
3
P
?
 
(You may be wondering how it was possible for us to play two boards in succession with the same vulnerability; we played the last board of the set followed by the first board of the set in a seven-board match.)
 
Your bid?  
 

North
AKx
Qx
Jxxxx
J8x
W
N
E
S
1
1
2
2
3
P
3
P
?

Yep.  It was the exact same situation as in the previous hand.  But Greg and I hadn't clarified this situation: are we asking or telling?  I thought I was asking when I bid 3. Greg thought I was telling, and was worried about spades. (Strong sense of deja vu, eh?) With Greg holding a stiff spade we quickly found ourselves in 5. (Conveniently I always play North, so Greg can be the declarer.)  Both hands are shown below.

North
AKx
Qx
Jxxxx
J8x
South
Q
Ax
xxx
AQ9xxxx
W
N
E
S
1
1
2
2
3
P
3
P
4
P
5
P
P
P

On the lead of a low spade, plan the play in 5.  (And, while you're at it, plan the play in 3NT.)

North
AKx
Qx
Jxxxx
J8x
South
Q
Ax
xxx
AQ9xxxx
W
N
E
S
1
1
2
2
3
P
3
P
4
P
5
P
P
P

In 5, you are in a bit of a pickle.  You have a lot of work to do.  You have to locate the K.  You have to avoid three diamond losers and a heart loser.  If you win the opening lead in dummy, you can pitch one diamond loser, but what will you do about the other losers?  If you win the lead in your hand, then you have two spade honors on which to pitch losers.  But you need to get to the board to do that, and the spade honor is the only way to get there to take the club finesse. So really, the only line of play with any chance is to win the Q in hand, and play for a stiff K to drop when you play the A.  Then you can get to the board with the J and pitch two losers on the good spade honors. Greg was able to do that analysis at the table, and although the K was onside, it was not stiff, and there was no way to make the hand.
 
At the other table, they were in the same contract (perhaps having the same misunderstanding that we did).  However their auction was different. Instead of overcalling his Jack-high spade suit, East supported West's hearts, so naturally a heart was led on the opening lead.  The heart gives you the 11th trick, as well as transportation to the board allowing you to take the club finesse.  Later, you could go to the board with the K and pitch a losing diamond on the A, eventually conceding two diamonds.  
 
On the first board of the last match, we had another amusing auction.  In first seat, as dealer, no one vulnerable, I picked up the following hand, and opened the bidding 1.  The auction progressed rapidly:
 
North
Kxx
KQ10x
Kxx
Qxx
W
N
E
S
1
P
1
P
2
P
4NT
P
5
X
XX
P
?
 
Your bid?
North
Kxx
KQ10x
Kxx
Qxx
W
N
E
S
1
P
1
P
2
P
4NT
P
5
X
XX
P
?
 
We had no agreements on redouble in this context.  Well, we had no agreements on redouble in any context other than three-card major-suit support. I suppose if I thought about it further I might have figured out what the redouble meant.  At the same time, I really didn't want to pass with a three-card club suit, and quite frankly, having by this time completely forgotten that I'd opened one club in the first place, despite being able to stare at the 1 club card placed in front of me, I bid a temporizing 5, hoping Greg could read my mind and know that I meant this as showing that I had the K and the Q.  He placed the contract in 5, and on the lead of the J promptly wrapped up thirteen tricks for +510.   It turned out that my LHO had doubled 5 on Kx holding the A.  But because I had no idea that Greg actually had clubs, and we didn't have any agreements that would allow us to expose a double fit earlier in the auction, I was reluctant to pass.  All four hands are shown below:
 
West
Q987x
8x
Q10xx
Jx
North
Kxx
KQ10x
Kxx
Qxx
East
AJ10x
J9
Jxxxx
Kx
South
x
Axxxx
A
A10xxxx
W
N
E
S
 
1
P
1
P
2
P
4N
P
5
X
XX
P
5
P
5
P
P
P
D
1
5 South
NS: 0 EW: 0
 
At the other table, our teammates did not double the artificial bid, and the opponents wound up in 6.  On a spade lead, the contract cannot make; on any other lead, declarer has time to pitch his losing spade.  
 
On the next board I picked up an awesome 4-6-2-1 hand and decided to explore for slam after Greg opened 1NT.  I bid Stayman, and after Greg's 2 denial, bid 4 to transfer him to hearts, showing six hearts.  The 4 bid was doubled by the very same East who doubled the !5C bid in the earlier auction. Still smarting from the last board, I couldn't tell whether they were messing with us or what, and decided they were.  I pressed on to ask for keycards, despite my heart suit being A76532.  Partner has the missing honors, right? Wrong. We stopped in 5, but it was one too high. On a diamond lead, we were down 1, losing two diamonds and a heart.  Poop.
 
On the very next board, we had ANOTHER slam hand.  A hat trick of slams!  This time we confidently bid our way to a 6 contract, which went down 1 because trumps were 4-0, and the missing trumps were QJ109. Later on in the match, I declared a 4 contract, and decided to play for a bad trump split based on table feel, neglecting to stop and verify my assumptions before making my move, so I was down 1.
 
It was a see-saw match.  We didn't know what to expect when Ari & Li-Chung came back to compare.  On the first board, there was no double at the other table, and Ari & Li-Chung found the killing lead to set 6, gaining us 11 IMPs.  The next board was bad.  The other table was in 4 making, and we were in 5 down 1. Lose 12 IMPs. We won 2 IMPs on the 6 slam down 1 because our teammates doubled the opponents holding two guaranteed trump tricks.  We won a few IMPs on two part-score boards, and lost 10 on the hand I didn't make.  All in all we wound up losing the match by only 3 IMPs.
 
From the week, I learned a ton of things, in large part because I played exclusively with relatively new partners, all who have way more experience and bridge chops than I do.  One is: clarify your agreements when either you or the opponents have a misunderstanding.  (Sure, you should have clarified them in the first place, but it's difficult to discuss every last thing before you play.)  Two: in a casual partnership, channel Larry Cohen and keep your card as simple as possible, and stick to the methods that you both know. Third: If you're playing on a team of experts, and you're not an expert yourself, you're naturally going to make more mistakes than the others. It's normal, so don't beat yourself up about it and try to learn from your mistakes!  Fourth: When two suits are bid by the opponents, in any context, bidding an opponent's suit SHOWS.
 
I also learned that I am really influenced by results at the table, which I determined is in large part because I'm bad at analysis.  This is something I need to work on a lot and am going to put together a specific plan for the future, because I'd like to get better at it.
 
All in all, it was a great week.  We helped Garth get his Life Master.  I got to play with some new partners and great teammates.  We did well in a few events. And I got some renewed focus on improving my game just in time for Nationals.
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