This being my first article on this site I might as well introduce myself. I’m Dave and have been playing Junior bridge for Ireland for the past five or so years and still have another five to go. I’ve missed writing bridge blogs or articles since my brief foray into it a few years ago. Since then, I either haven’t had the motivation or the time to write anything.
I have been repeating my Leaving Certificate (equivalent of SATs or A-Levels in the USA or the UK, respectively) this year and with just Applied Mathematics (one of my better subjects) left to go this Friday I have the time and, after watching Ireland on Vugraph today, the motivation. I wasn’t at the venue myself (Dublin, Ireland) but rather watching from the comfort of home. And after 6 hours of exams yesterday the obvious way to relax in order to prepare for Applied Maths was to write this...
Hanging around the tail end of the qualifications spots, some good results were needed for Ireland, not only to qualify for the second group stage but also to stand a chance at making to a qualification spot for the World Championships (scheduled for next year in Bali). The top nine teams qualify from both groups with each team carrying over the scores against the teams who have also qualified from their group. They then play the nine qualifiers from the other group. The top 6 (I believe) from this mixed group qualify for Bali. Although slightly convoluted, a nice system, in my opinion. The only real downside is that there are some ‘nothing’ matches towards the end of the first group stage when teams who are definitely qualified play a team who is towards the bottom of the group. In these cases the match counts for absolutely nothing for either team as the match’s result is not going to be carried forward.
Today, Ireland played Hungary first, who were ahead of Ireland by a handful of Victory Points, followed in the afternoon by Italy, who were leading the field. For those of you who are not familiar with European bridge, Ireland would be considered a mid-to-high tier team. The team playing in Dublin has three well-established partnerships with developed and well-worked systems. Tom Hanlon and Hugh McGann play a Carrot Club (a two-way club system), as do Tommy Garvey and John Carroll. Nick Fitzgibbon and Adam Mesbur play a Precision-style system. Facing Hungary was Tom and Hugh, arguably Ireland's best pair and definitely their most successful, and Nick and Adam who could be described as ‘Slow and Steady’.
The Irish were out of the gates quickly scoring 5 IMPs on a double part-score swing. Following this up on board 3 the Hungarian E/W ended up going down four, vulnerable, in a 4-3 fit at the three-level with a nasty 5-1 split in trumps. This gave Ireland an unusual 10 IMPs. They were obviously out for blood as the very next board Nick found a nice lead to defeat 3NT (one of 5 pairs to beat it), gaining 13 IMPs. Over the next seven boards 30 IMPs trickled in for Ireland, on some seemingly inconsequential boards, while only conceding 1 IMP. The next board, however, Hungary scored their first and only double-digit swing. Hanlon and McGann rested in an innocuous 3♦ while the majority of the field (including the Hungarians) were in a cast-iron 3NT. This gave the Hungarians 10 IMPs. After another IMP to Ireland, an interesting hand to play came up.
The contract was 4♠ by East after a small heart lead (indicating length) from South.
On the face of it, it seems a wonderful place to be but it is also one of those hands with a couple of different lines to take. Trying to combine the endplay opportunities and the more conventional and obvious ways to make would be the key. Keeping your club holding intact and trying to throw North in at some point to hope for some sort of partial elimination seems to be a very reasonable line and that is what Gabor Winkler (the Hungarian East) elected to do. He won the opening lead in dummy and took a successful finesse of the nine of trumps to limit the losers there to one. Following this he cashed the ♠A, crossed to the ♦K, and took a diamond finesse, losing to North's ♦Q. After a heart return, the contract still had chances. If the hand with the last trump also had 3♦s (you can discard a losing ♣) or of course if the ♣A is onside but this was not to be and Hanlon correctly ruffed in with his ♠K and sent a ♣ through dummy for one down. Four declarers made the contract. Nick and Adam took the low road, after failing to find the double fit, and chose to play the simple 3♠. This was the second time in the match that Ireland stayed out of a seemingly reasonable game but this time gained 5 IMPs instead of losing 10.
After Hungary gained an overtrick IMP but then lost 5 by overbidding to a 22-point 3NT with two flat hands, came the most interesting board of the match. All pairs in this match made great decisions on this board. So being on lead to 6♠ you have learnt that dummy has 6-7 hearts, declarer has 6-7 spades and dummy was semi-reluctant to agree spades. They have all the keycards and even have made attempts at grand slam.
There is a definite logical reason to lead aggressively against small slams in a suit. In general, your side hold one certain trick (why else would the opponents stop short of grand?) so you need to find a second trick. With this in mind you underlead a king or queen hoping partner has the honour you don’t have. When your side gets in with your ‘sure trick’ you can take the trick you have set up from the lead. And while you may not have a top trick here given that they have all the keycards, you do have JTxx of trumps which should be good for one trick. So through this reasoning both Norths led a diamond (Tom the ♦6 and Gal Hegedus the ♦J).
Now from declarer’s point of view, what is the plan?
The key to this hand is obviously to set up your heart suit to throw your losing diamonds thus allowing for a losing trump. All this is wonderful but on this lead there is a snag. If you were to go up with a ‘lazy’ ♦A without thinking, you end up forced to start ruffing hearts before you have a chance to deal with trumps, due to a lack of entries. You could easily, as is the case here, lose an additional trump to either an over-ruff or a trump promotion. It is by no means 100% to let the opening lead run to your ♦Q but on balance I believe it is the right play as it retains the ♦A as an entry so the rest of the hand is quite easy to play given favourable major breaks. And even if you lose to the ♦K, you ‘just’ have to rely on trumps breaking 3-3 as you now have enough tricks to make the contract without setting up hearts. Adam Mesbur and Geza Homonnay both let the diamond run to their queen and through similar lines made twelve tricks. In the rest of the field only two other tables got to 6♠, both making, one with the lead of the ♦J.
That was it really with another 1 IMP to Ireland on the last board. Hanlon and McGann managed 19 positive scores opposite Mesbur and Fitzgibbon who had nine positives this led to a 56-IMP win for 25 VPs.
Going into the last match against Italy, Ireland were 21.5 VPs clear of tenth while Italy still led the group by 5 VPs over Israel. Ireland played the same lineup again.
Well I believe an apt adjective to describe this match would be trounced. Ireland was simply outplayed. Italy played some wonderful bridge which was a pleasure to watch. Ireland on the other hand made a few errors and got a deserved result against a team of Italy’s calibre. Versace in particular made some great plays. All tight decisions seemed to go the way of the Italians, and while some of that could be attributed to luck, 39 IMPs difference is a lot to explain away.
Board 1 set the tone of the match. Through similar auction both Mesbur and Madala ended doubled in 4♠ however, the Italians, in defence, found five tricks where Ireland couldn’t. Italy gained a deserved 5 IMPs. Again on board 5, better play and defence led Italy to two extra undertricks in a vulnerable 3NT.
The real damage though was done mid-match when Italy gained 30 IMPs over three consecutive boards. On board 11, Tom decided to downgrade a 7-count with four-card support for partner's opened major and showed a pre-emptive hand, this led Madala to play in a pretty hopeless 4♥ after Bocchi balanced with a double, down one. At the other table, albeit in a competitive auction, Lauria took his 7-count at face value and made a mixed raise (showing something like 7-10 points, 4-card support and a fairly balanced hand).
This put Versace in a tough 4♠:
I couldn’t even start analyzing this. I’ll let Versace’s play speak for itself. After a trump lead, the maestro played for a dummy reversal, setting up his fifth club. To do this he gave up a club, ruffed three clubs in hand, then drew the last trump in dummy before enjoying the last club. During this he also took the double finesse in diamonds playing a diamond from hand and running the nine. If North instead elects to split his honours, denying Versace an entry, the last club can instead be thrown on a diamond which can be set up. All roads lead to ten tricks. He gained 9 IMPs for his impressive effort. Only two other declarers (Manuel d’Orey Capucho from Spain and Vladimir Marashev from Bulgaria) made 4♠ (both doubled) after a heart lead.
On the next board, Italy gained 11 IMPs when Bocchi found a spade switch after a top club lead. Nick couldn’t find the same switch after leading the ♣K and finding three cards opposite when Adam showed count. The only other defender to find the same switch as Noberto Bocchi was Joerg Fritsche from Germany. Another 11 IMPs earned by Italy.
Here's the deal:
Board 13 showed Italy more than capable of bidding aggressive games. They gained 10 IMPs when Ireland stayed at the three level.
More aggressive bidding from the Italian North-South led them to a slam after a competitive auction missing two keycards. With a 10-card fit the king wasn’t dropped offside, this gave Ireland their only swing of 11 IMPs as Nick and Adam stayed out of slam.
On board 18 both teams went down in slam which was on a finesse, again after a competitive auction. The last swing of the match came from a nice piece of declarer play, again by Versace. The Italians bid to a nice 6♣ through a conventional sequence while Ireland stayed in 3NT arriving there through an uncontested Carrot club auction.
So after the ♠4 lead, Versace was facing this:
Although you have no top losers you lack a lot of winners and the 4-1 trump break complicates things a bit as well. Versace though, made it look easy by playing a diamond to the ♦9 at trick two and after discarding a diamond on his top spade he simply cross-ruffed, scoring five side-suit winners and seven trump tricks. On a non-spade lead things are a lot trickier and in reality may go down although it is still possible to make as the ♥Q can be dropped in three rounds or you could take a spade finesse.
So after losing 23-7 in VPs Ireland finish the preliminary group stage in seventh which is not a brilliant result, but it’s far from awful. This leaves them 14th in the second group stage, lying 14 Victory Points behind a qualification spot to the World Championships. It is no doubt going to be a steep hill to climb but it is definitely achievable.
Outside the play itself, I would like to mention the voice commentary that Roland Wald (Vugraph organiser) has been running. It has improved a lot since it began almost one year ago. Organising and focusing the commentary of the more vocal bridge players who may or may not be used to using a microphone and speaking online can hardly be an easy feat. This morning he was joined by the famous David Bird whose commentary was very enjoyable. During the senior match in the evening (the Open series had the evening off) he said “relative wonderfulness of the different commentators” while comparing himself to Roland. This alone would have been enough to make me applaud his commentary. Commentating the Italian match was Richard Bley (Germany) and Graham Osborne (England), who were also very good. Also I’d like to add that despite not being a native English speaker, Roland can, when needed, bring a wonderful level of sarcasm, condescension or bluntness.
So for myself I am looking forward to watching Ireland throughout the rest of the event. The final group is looking to be quite exciting as all teams (with the exception of Iceland) have a realistic chance of qualification if they can string some good results together.
I’d love some criticism or feedback if you have the time to leave a quick comment as I plan on continuing to write articles at least in the near future.
Plus... it's free!