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Beijing_QueenFor me, nothing in the world can compare to competing in high-level bridge tournaments. Unfortunately, medical school will keep me from the big stage for the next few years and quite possibly a couple decades. While reflecting upon this sad truth recently, I took my wallet out of my back pocket and pulled from it a playing card I’ve kept with me for the past three years. It was given to me in consolation by my friend and former partner, Roger Lee , after a set where a misplay of mine cost the U.S. Junior team a berth in the semifinals of the first World Mind Sport Games in Beijing. Turning the card over in my hand I saw on the back a picture of the Toronto skyline, a reminder of the upcoming Summer NABC that I will miss and symbol of the mixed emotions of my bridge career, past and present.

Beijing was my first tournament as a member of the U.S.A. Under-26 Bridge Team, and I was pumped. We performed well in the round robin, qualifying for the knockout stage in fifth place (out of eight). But any good feelings we had were quickly swept away when Poland (the top seed and de facto team to beat) elected to play us in the quarterfinals. After 32 of the scheduled 48 boards we found ourselves in a 45-IMP hole, a seemingly insurmountable lead considering the way the opponents had played to that point. We had a magical run in the final set, and almost pulled it out, but ultimately lost the match by 9. Sadly, after we had compared scores, I realized I had an opportunity to swing the match in our favor on the following deal, board 39.

Sikora
K763
K63
653
862
Lee
A9
A852
Q874
K107
Nawrocki
QJ104
J1097
KJ2
Q5
Fay
852
Q4
A109
AJ943
W
N
E
S
1
P
2NT
P
3NT
P
P
P
D
39
3NT South
NS: 0 EW: 0
3
1

When I first played this deal I couldn’t have imagined the enormous impact it would have on my bridge career. After the lead of the 3, I merely tried to take nine tricks in the form of two diamonds, five clubs, and both major-suit aces. In order to avoid a potentially devastating heart shift I won the A at trick one and led a diamond to the ten, which held. Now, recalling that my team had been so far behind at the start of the third set, I opted to float the J, which lost to the queen; nine tricks were now impossible.

 

Sikora
K763
K63
653
862
Lee
A9
A852
Q874
K107
Nawrocki
QJ104
J1097
KJ2
Q5
Fay
852
Q4
A109
AJ943
W
N
E
S
1
P
2NT
P
3NT
P
P
P
D
39
3NT South
NS: 0 EW: 0
3
1

My decision to finesse West for the Q was a ‘state of the match’ play. The standard way to play this particular suit combination is to cash the king and then run the ten. This line will win five tricks in the suit whenever it doesn’t split five-zero and either: 1) East holds the queen, or 2) West holds a singleton Q—all told a 50.9% chance. I reasoned that if the Polish pair in the other room had also reached 3NT declarer would play the percentages and tackle the suit in the normal fashion. Therefore, I tried to create a swing by assuming West held the Q. Once I had set my mind on this position it was best to lead the J without cashing the A in case West held four clubs. In isolation, this play will succeed only 48% of the time—the difference coming from the inability to protect against a stiff Q with East while picking up Qxxx in West’s hand. Of course, there was the small threat that the Polish declarer could predict I would play against the odds and so do the same himself in order to prevent an adverse swing—spy versus spy.

Although it’s a decisively inferior line, running the jack is a wonderful place to hedge when the chances of winning are already small.  The odds of success for either play are not that different, but the potential return is huge. I was devastated later to discover that, had I played the suit in the ‘normal’ fashion, we would have won the match.  Our Polish counterparts didn’t even reach game and my play of the club suit was immaterial in creating a swing against their partscore contract of three clubs.

In the weeks following the tournament I experienced several sleepless nights wondering if I had done the right thing. I was fortunate enough to be able to discuss the problem with Detroit-area legend and 13-time national champion, Chuck Burger. Chuck convinced me that, although the play problem looks simple at first glance, there are a few exceptional lessons lying below the surface that I didn’t fully grasp while at the table. Several of these are powerful inferences that can be made after the first card, the 3, hits the felt.

Sikora
K763
K63
653
862
Lee
A9
A852
Q874
K107
Nawrocki
QJ104
J1097
KJ2
Q5
Fay
852
Q4
A109
AJ943
W
N
E
S
1
P
2NT
P
3NT
P
P
P
D
39
3NT South
NS: 0 EW: 0
3
1

The Polish East-West pair play 4th-best leads against no-trump and, because the 3 was the lowest outstanding spade, West was known to hold only four spades. As he would hardly ever choose to lead a minor-suit on this auction West’s lead of the 3 says a surprising amount about his heart suit as well! For one, he holds fewer than five hearts because he would have led his longer suit rather than a sparse 4-card spade suit (he didn’t lead a top spade so doesn’t hold an honor sequence). Furthermore, West is less likely to have fourhearts because, holding four,  he might have led that suit rather than spades. This last concept is somewhat difficult to grasp, but it’s a corollary of restricted choice.

This realization has obviously had a major impact on my opinion of the hand. After playing a diamond to the ten, West is known to have at most three diamonds and at most eight cards in the majors, likely seven. Therefore, West is likely to hold at least three clubs! That would make him around a 60% favorite to hold the Q.

Whether or not the Polish declarer in the other room would have drawn the same conclusions about the hand on the lead of the 3 is far from clear. Regardless, if my goal were to play the club suit in a way that went against the odds I should have finessed East for the Q, which would have won us the match and almost assured our team a medal in the world championships. True, taking an action that’s at least 20% less likely to succeed than the alternative isn’t as attractive as the 2.9% difference I’d initially projected, but desperate times call for desperate measures. As it happens I made the right play at the wrong time, rather than the other way around.

My discussion with Chuck opened a whole new door for me in bridge. I’ve kept the Q Roger gave me as a reminder to always strive to think with clarity both at and away from the bridge table. It also serves to help me not obsess too much over mistakes, since there is often a chance at redemption. My chance at a world championship may not come again until years from now but--though I’ll never forget this hand--I’ll always look back on that tournament in Beijing with special fondness. Not only was it my introduction to big-time bridge, it ultimately helped me to restructure many of the ways in which I approach the game. For those of you going to Toronto next week, good luck! And enjoy the big show while you’ve got the chance.

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