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Flin Flon, or How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love The Cat's Ass
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Background

A few months ago, my good friend McKenzie Myers called me up and said "Hey Greg, want to play a sectional over July 4th weekend?"  Never one to refuse an opportunity to avoid family obligations, I immediately said yes.  "Great!", he said.  "The sectional is in Flin Flon."

... Is in what now?

Flin Flon is very nearly the geographic center of North America.  Located about 11 hours north of the US-Canada border, it can be quite challenging to get to.  McKenzie and our teammates would be driving from Oregon, about a three-day trek.  While I would have loved to join them on this road trip, work and life got in the way, and I had to make plans to fly.  Because I was planning to be in California the week before, and because I also live near a small airport, I selected the rarely flown route CHO-ATL-SFO-DET-MSP-YWG-YFO.  Most of these flights were on Delta, but the only airline that services Flin Flon is Calm Air, which has about 1 or 2 flights a day from Winnipeg.  I felt sure that Calm Air would be poorly named.

After a week in California, and now holding my forgotten passport (overnighted to me by my very patient wife), I headed back to San Francisco International Airport to venture into the unknown.  I was pretty excited, since other than the Toronto nationals I had only ever been to one Canadian tournament before (the Penticton Regional in 2011), and I got married after one of the evening sessions there!  Who knew what this one would bring?

July 3, 2014

My flight from SFO left around 10:30pm, and I've been conditioned to arrive at airports very early, so I returned my rental car around 7pm and headed to my gate.  Normally one wouldn't get to Minneapolis from San Francisco by way of Detroit, but there was no late night direct flight from SFO to MSP, and I didn't want to miss the day of work.  I was pretty surprised when I wandered by a gate for... you guessed it, a direct flight from SFO to MSP that was labeled as leaving at 8pm.  I must have looked confused, because the gate agent said "Headed to Minneapolis?"  I answered "sort of" and explained my Detroit stopover. They invited me to get on the direct flight, and while I regretted the frequent flyer miles lost, I happily accepted.  Apparently this flight had been delayed by over 7 hours and so was still on the ground in San Francisco.  Their loss was my gain, I suppose.  In addition, I received an apologetic email from Delta later saying that I would receive a bunch of miles for the extreme delay.  Score!

Of course, due to the change in itinerary, I had to spend the night in Minneapolis.  The airport has a number of sleeping mats for people stranded there overnight, so I swiped one of those and tried feebly to sleep near my eventual gate.  This was not much of a success despite noise-cancelling earbuds, so I passed the night finalizing some of the new Bridge Winners entry sales software, and headed out of the country.

A five-hour layover in Winnipeg saw more entry-software writing, and eventually I boarded this plane to Flin Flon:

Calm Air!

I had my trepidations about Calm Air, but I was thrilled to find that there was copious leg room, the ride was smooth, and the scenery was exquisite.  I'm going to try to fly Calm Air exclusively whenever I visit northern Canada.

McKenzie was waiting for me at the airport, and we immediately drove at an alarming rate  (I think it was about 600 KM/h but honestly I'm not that familiar with the metric system) to the local bridge club, where they were having their weekly evening game.  Playing bridge after about 22 hours of air travel and little sleep sounded... perfect.

Sadly I was too tired to record my hands, or the score, but I seem to remember we did okay.  Mostly what I remember was that, as the farthest traveler to the club, I was allowed to select an entry to receive a door prize.  I somehow picked my own entry, and won two glass mugs that say "McKeen's Trucking, Flin Flon" on them.  I think McKenzie could see how much I loved these mugs and wanted both of them, as he agreed to sell me his.  What a great guy.

After the game we went back to the house we rented, which was right on the water in Denare Beach, at the northeast portion of Amisk Lake.  I failed to take any pictures of it but, incredibly, Google Street View has been there.  Google.  Is there anything they can't do?

July 4, 2014

What better way to celebrate July 4th than waking up in a tiny rural town north of the 54th parallel?  If you ever visit this part of the world, I strongly advise you to bring about 3,000 liters (roughly a half-gallon) of bug spray.  Holy moley there were a lot of mosquitoes.

The sectional was actually being held in Denare Beach, in the "Denareplex" (I am not making that up), which was just a short walk from our house.  It looks pretty much like a typical small sectional.  Somewhere in the hastily grabbed panorama below you can see McKenzie helping set up (click the small button in the upper right of the image for full-screen panorama action).

The first session was an IMP pairs game, and our team decided to mix up partnerships for the first day, so I played with the inimitable Harvey Bush.  Harvey and I decided that no matter whether we had a rock-crusher of a game or an embarrassment, we had to beat McKenzie and Randall.  We were one place in front of them when this debacle happened:

South
J108765
Q1093
654
W
N
E
S
1
1
1
4
4
5
5
6
X
P
?

Well, what do I know, I passed and we were quickly -1660.  More on that score later.  The companion board of this round saw us miss an easy slam.  We finished nowhere, and McKenzie and Randall managed to place 5th, probably by avoiding nonsense like this.

Determined to see who the weak link was, I played with Randall in the afternoon.  Randall's last name is Paul, but he assures me he is not the junior senator from Kentucky.  I'm not so sure.  Although neither pair placed in the pair game, we did edge out McKenzie and Harvey, singling out Harvey as the obvious weak link on the team, or perhaps Randall as the ringer.  Randall and I did record -670 and -1100 on our scorecard, so the answer was not obvious.   Obviously we would have to try our other lineup to finalize it all.

Before the final session, I won my second door prize of the week, and the very first of the tournament, for farthest traveled, which earned me an extremely nice Calm Air jacket.  I saw it before the prizes were handed out, and had already decided to buy one if I didn't somehow win two door prizes in a row.  I was elated.

The final session was a Swiss, and the director made it quite clear that this was a zip Swiss (5 minutes a board), and there would be no restrictions on conventions.  McKenzie and I therefore hastily agreed to play one of my favorite no-restrictions system, called "Please Lord Let Me Hold Balanced Hands".  Rob Brady taught me this system, but the name is mine.  The system is:

1: 8-10 balanced
1: 11-13 balanced
1: 14-16 balanced
1: 17-19 balanced
1NT: any unbalanced 1 suiter
2: 20-22 balanced
2: 23+ balanced
2: weak 2
2: weak 2
2NT: any 2 suiter

All responses to the balanced bids are transfers, except any level of notrump, which is natural.  The first step over the notrump openings are pass/correct; other calls are natural and forcing.

We really had no idea what we were doing, but it didn't matter, we had had several beers and we were ready to unleash this system on Canada.

My notebook had been (temporarily) misplaced, so I'm lacking hand records, but I do remember that Mckenzie responded 3NT to my opening bids.  A lot.  Including the unbalanced 1NT opening.  When all the smoke cleared we were 5 victory points behind two teams that tied for first and second.  I finally had me some sweet Canadian masterpoints.

July 5, 2014

McKenzie and I awoke determined to win the flagship event: the two-session open pairs.  The trophies for the pair event were these beautiful things on the right.  The bases were made of solid nickel, so they were incredibly heavy.  Flin Flon is a nickel-mining town, so this made a lot of sense.

 

We were doing pretty well when this unusual sequence came up:

South
K
76
AK6
AJ108653
W
N
E
S
P
P
2
3
P
3
P
4
P
4
P
?
Obviously my passed partner was trying for a slam even though I hadn't shown any interest over 3, but could he have the cards I needed for slam?  The spade king is huge, but if partner has the spade ace, that's not enough to deal with two heart losers and a slow diamond loser, and I would still have to negotiate the trump suit.  McKenzie will always open a hand containing five controls, so he cannot have A A K.  I decided to stick it out in 5.  

This was a disappointment when dummy turned out to be A10xxx -- QJ10xx Kxx.

That's right, the opponents have an 11-card fit in hearts.  The possibility that partner had a heart void never occurred to me.  This doesn't even seem like an instance of "trust partner"; he could easily have just had both major suit aces and wanted to show them on the way to 5 in case I got excited, although as I write this, I realize now that if partner had length in both black suits, both major suit aces, and presumed shortness in diamonds (since the opponents weren't raising hearts, God bless 'em), slam should be pretty good opposite that hand too.  In any case, +640 didn't feel like a very good score.

We had a number of solid results and a few defensive mishaps by our opponents, but a -590 and -1460 saw us finish with around 55% for the afternoon.  We definitely had our work cut out for us if we wanted to ship the whole event, especially since the leaders had had a 68!

Open Pairs, Session Two

We knew we needed a big game to win those nickel trophies.  We got off to a great start when the opponents went down in a cold game, and then:

South
Q103
KQJ
AQ83
QJ5
W
N
E
S
P
1
P
1
P
2NT
P
3
P
3
P
3NT
P
?
We were playing 14-16 NTs.  I knew partner was 5-4 in the majors, but with no shape and values in the minors, I decided to pass 3NT.  I felt that I was already ahead of the game having deceptively opened 1 (since it seemed like the hand was likely to end in some number of notrump, I wanted to discourage a club lead).  The opponents did, in fact, lead a diamond, and I made 9 tricks.  I believe 3NT could have been beaten on best defense, but 4 just had absolutely no play, so we got to the only spot where we had any chance of going plus.

On the next round I heard this unusual auction:

South
K72
Q96543
63
KQ
W
N
E
S
1
P
2
4
P
?
I trust McKenzie, so I know he's not bidding 4 in the middle of a 2/1 auction at unfavorable vulnerability on a pile of garbage.  I have a well-placed K and the KQ of clubs which, while surely nice, are probably at least somewhat wasted opposite what sounds like an 8+ card suit headed by the AJ.  All that being said, I do have a 10 count and the opponents seem to be in a game force, so that doesn't leave much room for partner to have anything.  Maybe he just has ten clubs and nothing else?  

I elected to pass, and of course my LHO bid 4, which passed back around to me.  Still bumfuzzled about what was going on, I chose to defend 4.  The dummy was slightly unexpected:

West
Axxxx
x
QJxxx
xx

Sigh, I guess they got me. 4 made in comfort, and 5 was a cheap save.  We were sliding backwards.  Then, on the next round we bid 3NT again with an 8-card major suit fit for a very good score, and this:

South
Q
AQJ1053
AKJ84
A
W
N
E
S
P
P
P
2
2
P
2
3
P
4
5
5
6
P
P
?
I hate opening two-suited hands with 2, but this hand seemed too good to chance 1 passing out.  I was torn over 6 -- I wasn't certain that we had a slam, since there was the diamond queen to contend with.  Partner was surely short in diamonds, but would I be able to pull trumps and ruff my diamond losers?  Eventually I decided that at these colors, my LHO could easily be screwing around, and we could still have a grand, so I should at least bid the small slam, since there was no sensible way to investigate for a good grand slam.  It's entirely possible that bidding and making a slam will be a fine score here.

Surprisingly, 6 got doubled on my right, and my LHO led the A.  This is what I saw:

North
xxxx
Kxxxx
xxx
Q
South
Q
AQJ1053
AKJ84
A
W
N
E
S
P
P
P
2
2
P
2
3
P
4
5
5
6
P
P
6
P
P
X

This was not a great start.  I had already lost a spade, and fully expected a diamond to be ruffed at trick 2.  However, my LHO continued with the K, so I won, drew trumps (they were 2-0), and cashed the A, RHO following.  Obviously there was no way to make the hand now, with LHO having minors, but when I crossed to dummy and led another diamond, RHO followed again!  Clearly there was some bidding mixup, so now I just went with the odds and finessed the diamond.  It held, so we had +1660 (LHO actually had black suits).  Told you we'd come back to that score!

Two boards later, this fun play problem in 6 with a small diamond lead:

North
xxxx
KJxx
x
Axxx
South
AKJ
A954
AKJ73
K
W
N
E
S
P
2
P
2
P
2NT
P
3
P
3
P
3
P
4NT
P
5
P
6
P
P
P
 I decided almost right away that I probably wasn't going to take the heart finesse; this suit combination of KJxx opposite A9xx has a standard safety play for 3 tricks (cash the king, leard towards the A9), which would get me up to 10 top tricks, although if trumps *were* bad and I had to ruff diamonds good I wouldn't be able to pick up Q10xx on my left any more.  In spite of this flaw, I just felt that a trump to the king was more likely to be successful, especially since the diamond really smelled like a singleton.  If the trump queen was coming down offside I would have a great result.  Sure enough, RHO had Q10 doubleton of trumps, so I ended up scoring two spades, four hearts, three diamonds, two clubs, and a ruff for 12 tricks.  I think if I had known ahead of time that the trumps were like this I could have made 13 tricks, but many pairs made only 11 tricks after a failed heart finesse and a diamond ruff.  +980 was actually an unshared top.

On the next board, our opponents had an accident and found themselves in 6 in a 2-1 fit.  I held KQJxx in the passout seat but Gavin has taught me not to balance in such situations.  I could feel the momentum building.

The Cat's Ass

The Flin Flon tournament has a tradition unlike any I've ever heard of.  Every year, they present a trophy lovingly named the Cat's Ass to the pair that has the biggest disaster in the open pairs.  Of course, McKenzie and I were still hunting after those nickel trophies, but little did we know we were about to win the real prize.  It's hard to photograph something with shiny engraved nameplates on it, but I did my best.

Two boards after our opponents went for 500 in 6 undoubled, I picked up:

South
KQJ109
10xxx
KQx
x
W
N
E
S
P
2NT
P
3
X
P
P
?
Now, McKenzie and I hadn't discussed how to handle Stayman getting doubled, but what I usually play is that opener's pass denies a club stopper (he just answers Stayman if he holds a club stopper), and responder can then redouble to re-ask (other continuations by responder are also possible, and it can sometimes be advantageous for opener to criss-cross the majors when responding to the redouble, but such topics are beyond the scope of this story.  Dave Caprera wrote a great article for the April 2012 Bridge World about this topic).

So merrily I redoubled, about to have a nice scientific Smolen auction on our way to one of a few possible slams.  Of course, next thing I knew I was declarer in 3-XX.  Uh oh.  Normally partner would redouble himself if he has a huge club holding like KQ109x, so I didn't feel great about this.  Here's what I saw:

North
Axx
AKxx
AJx
Axxx
South
KQJ109
10xxx
KQx
x
W
N
E
S
P
2NT
P
3
X
P
P
XX
P
P
P
 LHO led the queen of trumps, and I ducked.  Certainly not the worst contract I've ever been in.  It sort of looks like all I'm going to lose is four trump tricks, so I had high hopes for +840.  Heck, 4-4 trumps could see me to +1240!  LHO continued a heart, and I tried to win it, but it got ruffed.  That's not good.  At this point, realizing that I was going down, I stupidly (but without matchpoint cost) pitched another heart on a subsequent round of trumps, causing me to lose my other stopper in that suit.  I swear I wasn't trying to win the Cat's Ass trophy on purpose.

Trumps were 6-2, so I never had any hope anyway.  When all the smoke cleared, I lost five trumps on power, a heart ruff, and three hearts for 9 tricks.  They made my contract; I was down 5, for -2800, the second-worst score I've ever received.  Also note that while 6 has no play due to the 5-0 trump break, 6 and 6NT both make on a round suit squeeze, assuming you duck a club instead of just playing for 3-2 hearts.  A club lead against 6NT would almost force you into the right line.

About two minutes after the round was called, Buz announced that the Cat's Ass trophy race had a clear frontrunner, and it was a doozie, so anyone hoping to win it needed to step on the gas.  Our opponents had obviously reported our result to the trophy committee.

Undeterred, McKenzie and I won 68% of the matchpoints on the 12 boards that followed, but it was not enough.  Our 61% game could not catch the eventual winners, who piled on another 64 on top of their 68 in the afternoon.  We were 5th in the event, but it was clear that we had won.

After our debacle, I was still feeling that we were having a good round, and I asked Buz if anyone had ever won the Cat's Ass and the event at the same time.  He informed me in no uncertain terms that winning the Cat's Ass disqualilfied you from winning the event.  I'm not really sure if he was kidding or not.

McKenzie looks so proud, and I'm so glad he has that shirt.

After the event, the entire tournament was invited on a chartered houseboat for a tour of Amisk Lake.  Our team failed to buy tickets for this event through a series of misunderstandings, but one of the local players said "no problem, you guys can come on my boat!"  What an amazing group of people.  The other boat even cooked for us (although, to be fair, we did agree to circle back to Buz's house after the houseboat ran out of liquor):

Denouement

The two-session Swiss on Sunday was full of drama; we finished second by only one VP, needing to beat our final opponents by 31 IMPs to win.  We were up 31 with 1 board to go, but lost 3 on the final board to finish just shy.  Mostly good bridge got played at our table, even when we pushed -1100.

After the session, we went to see the Denare Beach Limestone Crevices, an astonishing geological formation unlike anything I've ever seen. Here McKenzie cheats death:

Finally we battled our way through the bugs back to Buz's house for a cookout and more homemade liquor.

My trip home was a waking nightmare; the Calm Air flight was 90 minutes delayed, causing me to miss my flight from Winnipeg to Minneapolis.  The next Delta flight out of Winnipeg was the next day, and I really needed to get home, so I was forced to abandon that itinerary and buy a new one-way fare on United, that took me from YFO-YWG-YYZ-IAD-CHO.  My flight out of Toronto was quite delayed, but mercifully so was the flight from Dulles, so I finally arrived home at 2am, just 6 hours later and about $800 poorer than I originally planned.

This was a damn amazing tournament.  It was tiny, nearly impossible to get to, and swarming with mosquitoes, but I got to play bridge with one of my favorite people, and I left feeling like every single person I met is my friend.  Even the worst person we met was still pretty nice, especially by bridge standards!

Unfortunately they don't have this tournament every year; it's a lot of work and most of it falls on Buz.  I hope I can go back someday and try to avoid being the first repeat Cat's Ass winner in Flin Flon history.

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