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Road to the GNT Final Four, Semifinal Q1
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When we left off, we defeated our neighboring District 7 team to advance to the 2017 Open GNT Semifinal. Standing in the way of a shot at a National title for Noble and me was a bunch of nobodies from District 9: Coren-Bathurst, Ekeblad-Dwyer, and Meckwell. As with the previous two days, we started the day playing the first quarter, and our opponents decided to exercise their seating rights in Q2 and Q3. We'd be playing on Vugraph as well - this was actually a first for me, which was kind of exciting. Our USA 2 Junior team was on Vugraph a few times in 2006, but I believe we happened to be sitting out each time.

As underdogs in the match, we decided to try to maximize the variance through our choice of seats, since nobody had a strong preference otherwise. Everyone knows Meckwell play Precision, so we decided to sit against them to put the two Precision systems at the same table. We did not realize that Dwyer-Ekeblad were not only playing a version of Precision with relays after 1, but also they were playing the 1 opener as 0+ as well. From there the systems diverged, but I found it amusing that we likely failed entirely at our goal!

This quarter started off quietly with a push in a 33-HCP 6 bid by Meckwell and our teammates, and a spade part-score making an overtrick. Then things took a turn for the exciting when I picked up:

North
10954
6
AJ85
9532
W
N
E
S
4
X
?

We are pretty aggressive (but not Kit Woolsey-aggressive) in 1st seat favorable. How many clubs would you bid?

North
10954
6
AJ85
9532
W
N
E
S
4
X
?

If the opponents bid a slam, it seemed like I would probably save. Sometimes it's right to take the advance save and give the opponents an immediate problem. I rejected this approach since I figured it might not be obvious to the opponents to bid a slam. Meckstroth talks in his book about how their philosophy is to go plus on high-level deals when it's close, reasoning there are lots of ways that +680 can win you IMPs, but it's tough to win anything when you're -100 and it's your hand. It seemed like a good chance to see that philosophy into action, and I thought if they bid a slam voluntarily I could probably save in comfort. Still, I didn't think it made sense to give them too much room (I hear these guys are pretty good bidders), so I bid a gentle 5

The auction continues:

North
10954
6
AJ85
9532
W
N
E
S
4
X
5
6
P
P
?

Even if partner has KQJxxxx and out, we can still take 6 clubs, 1 diamond, and presumably a ruff in hearts for -1100 and really he should have more than that. -800 seems like a reasonable expectation, but -800 isn't a good score if we're beating 6. The most likely way to do that would be for partner to have a singleton diamond, which seems like it has to be against the odds. If 6 is making, -800 gains almost as much as it loses if it's a phantom, and I thought it was odds-on that they were making. The only other consideration was whether or not we'd push them into a making grand, but holding a side ace I really wasn't so worried about it.

All in all, I felt like it had to be right to take out some insurance, so I bid 7. The next part of this is timed, so be ready to think quickly - you have about 10 seconds after you read the next sentence. Over 7, Meckstroth (your screenmate, East) bids a prompt 7. Do you plan to double to try to direct the lead?

North
10954
6
AJ85
9532
W
N
E
S
4
X
5
6
P
P
7
7
P
P
?

Since I was in passout seat and the only bidder on my side of the screen, it would be clear I was doing the thinking to partner. Whether you double or pass, partner will know you were thinking about the other - you aren't allowed to bid 8 so what else could you possibly be thinking about? A slow pass indicates to partner you think you have a trick; a slow double isn't as bad, although arguably there's still some UI depending on what you think double means exactly.

At the table, the tray came back quite quickly with two passes, and I figured I only had a few seconds. During that time, I had something like the following thought sequence careening around my brain:

  • If a club is the normal lead then presumably double just says "I have a trick outside clubs, try to find it" on the theory that a 50-50 chance is better than nothing if partner was going to lead a club. If this is true, then I should definitely double so that partner doesn't just lead a club trying to cash our Ace in case Meckstroth is playing poker.
  • Is a club even the normal lead, though? It's probably "safe" but it seems pretty unlikely that a passive lead is going to set the grand slam our multiple-time World Champion opponent just shoved. It seemed like he's pretty sure he'll be able to find 13 tricks so arguably partner should be trying to find our trick no matter what I do.
  • Other things being equal I thought a diamond was the indicated non-club lead since the double of 4 was more likely to have better/longer spades than diamonds (Noble agreed with this). If double asks for an unusual lead, surely a spade is the most unusual of the leads I could want, so double is a huge loser if it turns partner's diamond lead into a spade lead.
  • If I'm reasonably likely to get a diamond lead anyway, I don't need to double if it risks causing partner to do something else

Considering I had to make what seemed like a huge decision quickly, I'm pretty happy with all that. I didn't think of it at the time, but arguably partner *should* be trying to find my trick, since if I didn't have one I probably shouldn't have been saving when it might push them into a making grand. I'm honestly unsure if I agree with my past decision or not (I think I do), but it's hard not to be biased by the table result:

West
KQ7
A1053
KQ74
K4
North
10954
6
AJ85
9532
East
AJ863
KQJ9872
6
South
2
4
109632
AQJ1087
W
N
E
S
4
X
5
6
P
P
7
7
P
P
P
D
7 East
NS: 0 EW: 0

At the table, I passed, Noble led the A, and Meckstroth claimed down 1 almost instantly. I wasn't even sure which Ace he was giving us at the time, but I didn't really care, down 1 seemed like a good result!

Noble said he'd have led a diamond except that 1) he had several more diamonds than expected, and 2) he had 2 fewer clubs than expected. I suppose in theory Meckstroth might have been looking at 3 clubs and figuring Rodwell had to be void or maybe we'd lead something else. I'm not sure that either of us did the "right" thing, but I'm sure that today a club lead was about 30 IMPs better than a diamond!

For the record, I really like partner's 4 opening at favorable. We would both preempt 3 at favorable with the same suit and no outside shape, so bumping an extra level seems reasonable. Sometimes with both minors it's better to pass and show both suits, but with such a glaring suit-quality disparity I like putting the pressure on immediately. The other table did preempt in clubs as well (although only 3), and over X 5 6, this hand saved in 7. Our West naturally doubled this and they collected the maximum +1100 to send 15 IMPs our way. 

One final thought. As North, I control the movement of the tray, and after seeing my screenmate's bid of 7, I know I'm likely to face a time-sensitive decision at my next turn.  Am I entitled to delay the passing of the tray now, before it comes back to me in a situation where I really have no time to think?

After 3 more pushes, we had a small pickup when Noble swung to the other end of the preempt aggressiveness spectrum and Rodwell's 2NT overcall bought poorly:

West
AJ86
KJ
Q932
A108
North
Q7
62
AJ84
KQ532
East
K94
Q9
K106
J9764
South
10532
A1087543
75
W
N
E
S
2
2NT
P
3NT
P
P
P
D
3NT West
NS: 0 EW: 0

I didn't get cute on opening lead (I thought a heart was clear, actually) and partner was able to run the hearts for +300. This gained us 3 IMPs when our teammates failed by two tricks in 4 after a 3 opening and a takeout double.

After the opponents picked up an overtrick IMP in a making game, partner had a slam-level decision in a strong-club auction on board 9:

South
AJ752
A985
KQ32
W
N
E
S
1
3
3
P
3NT
P
?

Partner's 1 is normally 16+ or 17+ if balanced. Now what?

South
AJ752
A985
KQ32
W
N
E
S
1
3
3
P
3NT
P
?

It's not too hard to construct hands where you have a cold grand slam, but after the heavy interference, and without a way to find out about a minor-suit fit and make some sort of ace-asking bid, it seems like you aren't going to be sure enough. Noble chose a practical pick-a-slam 5NT bid, and I like his choice.

As it happens, grand was a pretty good proposition:

West
1096
7
J104
J87654
North
K
AJ863
KQ732
A9
East
Q843
KQ109542
6
10
South
AJ752
A985
KQ32
W
N
E
S
1
3
3
P
3NT
P
5NT
P
6
P
P
P
D
6 North
NS: 0 EW: 0

I had a good hand in context for slam, given that I could have held 2434 with slow heart values, but bidding grand seemed like a bad idea. The unfavorable preempt was a harbinger of bad breaks, and I'd have to find a parking spot for quite a few heart losers while fending off possible overruffs. Heck, if partner was 51(43) there could even be a ruff on the opening lead!

As it turns out, the other table settled in 6, also without trying for grand, for an exciting push. Then on Board 10, I had another decision:

North
2
A1098765
9
J765
W
N
E
S
P
1
2
?

It seems like this would be an easy one playing 2 as a negative free bid, but unfortunately we were playing 2 as invitational or better and 3 as a mixed raise. 4 seems like a bit much, so you can really bid 2, pass, or double (planning to correct bids to hearts at a minimum level). Which will it be?

North
2
A1098765
9
J765
W
N
E
S
P
1
2
?

I was pretty much between double and pass, and I hate passing when bidding is reasonable. Our side could have a game with me holding all of this playing strength, and it seemed like partner might be passing out 2 if I passed since I held the short diamonds. I figured if partner passed the double, I had a trick at least so maybe it wouldn't be a total disaster - I probably would have passed holding KQ109xxx instead.

Well, the tray came back startlingly quickly without any bids on the other side (gulp!), but partner had the absolute nuts for his pass:

West
Q94
KQ
K108763
A4
North
2
A1098765
9
J765
East
J865
432
4
KQ932
South
AK1073
J
AQJ52
108
W
N
E
S
P
1
2
X
P
P
P
D
2X West
NS: 0 EW: 0

We slipped a trick in the defense to get only +500. This could have been lose 7 on a bad day, but at the other table the South hand was opened a systemic 2 showing a limited hand with spades and diamonds. This warned our teammate against getting involved, and on top of that, our counterparts had a misunderstanding to get to 4-3, so the missed undertrick barely cost. Meanwhile, we chalked up another 13 IMPs in the plus column.

The next board (rotated for convenience), we had a relay auction to avoid a touch-and-go slam:

Meckstroth
J98
A1043
932
Q102
Declarer
AQ103
Q95
AKQJ85
Rodwell
K64
76
10764
J765
Dummy
752
KJ82
AK9843
W
N
E
S
1
P
1NT
P
2
P
2
P
2
P
3NT
P
P
P
D
3NT South
NS: 0 EW: 0

Bids above 3NT would have shown 3406 shape with 4+ controls and 12+ HCP, so 3NT was any hand less than that. Conceivably I could have held the K and AKJ, which would have made for a cold slam, but the odds heavily favored me holding wastage in clubs and/or a minimum. Noble played the odds and was rewarded when I held some extra values but lots of club wastage.

In 3NT Meckstroth led the 9, which was possibly from this holding so I stuck in the 10. Rodwell won the K and found the nice shift to the J, which could have been necessary if Meckstroth held my A. This time, I just had too much and scored up making 5.

In the other room, they also had a relay auction to reveal my shape and 8-11 or 15+ HCP.  The strong club opener decided to make a slam try and my hand accepted, since he held extras for 8-11. Playing in 6 from the North, the spotlight was on our East teammate's opening lead. She found a trump lead. With the K offside all lines were doomed to failure, putting another 11 IMPs in our growing pile.

The slam fun was still not done as Board 13 was a very good grand slam:

Dummy
2
KJ862
A2
A9873
Declarer
AKQ1086
AQ97
8
QJ
W
N
E
S
1
P
1NT
P
2
P
2
P
2
P
2
P
2NT
P
3
P
3
P
3
P
3
P
4
P
4
P
5
X
7
P
P
P

Once partner turned up with the K and minor suit Aces, I knew I would likely be able to make 5 spades, 5 hearts, two aces, and a diamond ruff in grand, with the club finesse in reserve. The double of 5 made it even better, since i knew I wouldn't be getting a club lead to force me to commit at trick 1. 

Meckstroth leads the Q and you win the A while Rodwell follows with the 4 UDCA. When you play a trump to the Ace, Rodwell discards the 10. Now what?

Dummy
2
KJ862
A2
A9873
Declarer
AKQ1086
AQ97
8
QJ

The 4-0 break means you can no longer take a diamond ruff and enjoy the spade suit with the help of a ruff, since you have no late entry back. Basically, you now need either spades to run or the club finesse. The 4-0 break certainly increases the chances that the J is onside, so finessing the 10 is worthy of consideration when it wasn't before. Is it percentage though?

I concluded at the table (and still believe) it's not. The clearest way to see that is to compare the cases where it gains or loses. The finesse only gains against exactly Jxxx onside (since you can't ruff the suit and get back after drawing trumps on a 5-1 break) and then only when the K is offside. It loses to Jx or Jxx offside irrespective of the location of the K. There are 10 cases of Jxxx onside, set against 5 of Jx offside and 10 Jxx offside. Even though the early play has made a 2-4 spade break more likely, only computers would know exactly how likely.  But a simple estimation can make computers unnecessary: take the 10 winning cases for the finesse and halve them to account for the times the K is onside. These 5 winning cases would then be equivalent to the 5 losing cases of Jx offside, because both of these combinations break 2-4. This means the drop is superior to the finesse by 10 whole 3-3 cases, making it a significantly superior choice.  (Yes, the K is not onside exactly half the time, but it's a good enough approximation.)

At the table, I didn't math it out, but I thought the parlay of Jxxx onside and the K was too small a target. I just played spades from the top, hoping for the suit to run. When Meckstroth ruffed the Q, I set up spades, took my diamond ruff, and took a losing club finesse for down 1:

West
43
10543
QJ763
42
Dummy
2
KJ862
A2
A9873
East
J975
K10954
K1065
Declarer
AKQ1086
AQ97
8
QJ
D

The other table also got there while relaying out the 6-4 majors hand instead. This wrongsided the contract, and after a spade lead declarer had essentially no chance to go right. 

We dropped 2 IMPs on Board 14 when partner made an unsuccessful lead from Kx against a normal game contract, then pushed the last board in a making game to close out a 42-3 set to start the match! When you're the underdog, you definitely want some action, and boy did we get it, with 5 slams in the first 15 boards. We were definitely still running pretty well, as all of our close decisions seemed to work out. Hopefully that luck would continue through the rest of the match.

To be continued...

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