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"Why did they win?" Slawomir Zawislak on the Italian team in 2006
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This is my translation of a piece that appeared in the Polish magazine Brydż in 2006. It stops just shy of accusing the Italian team of cheating on defense but the message, I think, is clear.  Considering the recent findings about Fantoni - Nunes I thought this piece is worth revealing to the international audience.

The author is one of the Polish stronger players, he was on one occasion a member of the Polish national team.

 

Why did they win?

by Sławomir Zawiślak

translation by: Konrad Ciborowski

(from Brydż January 2006)

Going over the hand records of previous events can be an interesting experience from which a lot of lessons can be learnt. It is a way to study your own game as well that of your opponents. Analysis of mistakes made can identify areas where the room for improvement is the biggest. It is no accident that bridge is called a game of errors. Yes, players do make spectacular, winning plays but as analysis shows the ratio of IMPs gained by such plays compared to IMPs earned thanks to errors committed by the opponents is around 1 to 10.

It is equally enlightening to follow matches played by top players of the world. Understanding why a given event was won by a given team can also reveal which element is decisive in modern, professional bridge. The finals of the last Bermuda Bowl between USA and Italy (the two best teams of the world in recent times) were a treat for analysts. The final match was also the second time the very same players met. This surely demonstrates their undeniable supremacy in the early years of the 21st century.

In the last issue of Brydż I gave a fairly detailed account of the proceedings but here I would like to give it a second look based on numbers. I divided mistakes made into three categories: bidding, declarer’s play & defense. I further split each category into regular errors and egregious errors; the latter being mistakes of the caliber way below the general performance level of the players involved. In the bidding I paid attention to losses caused a pair’s bidding system when the opponents took advantage of its shortcomings. This will mainly apply to American strong club based systems that the Italians seem to know how to handle. Another element I paid close attention to was lucky decisions on defense in the mid-game. These are the plays that were made slightly against the odds (or were equivalent to percentage plays) but resulted in a gain. The definition of unlucky plays is analogous.

 

A few examples will let the reader better understand the way I approached the analysis. Let’s start with an inconspicuous board that otherwise might easily have slipped through the cracks:

Segment III:

Versace
J1072
QJ1095
AK
96
Hamman
KQ95
K872
Q5
AQ10
Lauria
A6
A43
J1086
J753
Soloway
843
6
97432
K842
W
N
E
S
1
1NT
X
XX
P
2
2
P
P
P
D
4
2 West
NS: 0 EW: 0

 

Rodwell
J1072
QJ1095
AK
96
Fantoni
KQ95
K872
Q5
AQ10
Meckstroth
A6
A43
J1086
J753
Nunes
843
6
97432
K842
W
N
E
S
1
1NT
X
2
P
2
2
P
P
P
D
4
2 West
NS: 0 EW: 0

 

This is a very surprising pair of judgment decisions by Lauria and Meckstroth. Holding two aces and four cards in the opponents’ suit none of them chose to double the run-out to 2. True, they had a fit in hearts but their partners, having passed on the second round, couldn’t have an unbalanced weak hand or else they would have bid something in front of them. Consequently instead of collecting 500 (even 800 was available in 2 doubled) they settled for a mere 140. In the analysis this deal has been recorded as an egregious bidding error costing 8 IMPs charged to both pairs: Lauria – Versace & Meckstroth – Rodwell.

In contemporary bridge competitive bidding is the biggest source of errors. Here is an example of how hard the Italians had to work in order to donate 12 IMPs to their opponents:

Segment III:

 

Versace
AK932
A842
10754
Hamman
J64
Q3
62
QJ10963
Lauria
85
1097
J93
AK874
Soloway
Q107
KJ65
AKQ8
52
W
N
E
S
P
1NT
2
P
2
X
2
3
P
P
P
D
10
3 North
NS: 0 EW: 0

Rodwell
AK932
A842
10754
Fantoni
J64
Q3
62
QJ10963
Meckstroth
85
1097
J93
AK874
Nunes
Q107
KJ65
AKQ8
52
W
N
E
S
P
1
1
P
P
1NT
2
3
X
P
P
P
D
10
3X South
NS: 0 EW: 0

 

This is a textbook example of how not to bid at IMPs. At one table Versace fails to punish Hamman for sticking his neck out and, having a telephone number for the taking, elects to pass. It is hard to grasp what he was afraid of. Not that 3♣ would make, that’s for sure. Partner overcalled when vulnerable so this had to be a hand that offered prospects of a plus score and not a purely destructive intervention. There was no danger of the double pushing the opponents to a makeable contract, either. On the bidding partner looked to be void in clubs so he had to have the other three suits covered.

At the other table it was Nunes who did himself in. His partner couldn’t indeed tell if Nunes ‘s opening bid was based on a balanced hand or long clubs but was clarifying the matter at all cost part of the Italian system? This gratuitous information cost the Italians 800. Nunes obviously should have passed and 1NT must show a much stronger hand.

In the analysis both Italian pairs have been charged with 12 IMPs even though they lost only 12 IMPs as a team.

 

Another category I analyzed was winning decisions in the bidding. Sample boards were provided in my coverage of the finals (deals 5/VII, 8/VII or 7/VIII) so I won’t repeat them here. For every such non-standard winning decision I awarded as many IMPs to a pair as it gained compared to the perceived result a standard decision would have yielded.

System losses were also a significant part of the equation. Typically these were losses resulting from the strong club opener of the Americans. I already showed last month how the Italians learnt to take advantage of the weaknesses of this opening. Here is a different example of a system loss from a pair that, system-wise, supposedly has all the bases covered:

 

Segment VII

Nickell
9
AJ85
962
A10983
Bocchi
AJ5
K109762
87
54
Freeman
K1083
Q43
K4
QJ72
Duboin
Q7642
AQJ1053
K6
W
N
E
S
2
P
P
P
D
9
2 North
NS: 0 EW: 0

Nunes
9
AJ85
962
A10983
Meckstroth
AJ5
K109762
87
54
Fantoni
K1083
Q43
K4
QJ72
Rodwell
Q7642
AQJ1053
K6
W
N
E
S
2
P
P
3
P
3NT
P
P
P
D
9
3NT East
NS: 0 EW: 0

The system played by Bocchi – Duboin contains no fewer than 3 strong opening bids: 2♣, 2♦ and 2NT. This forces them to play natural pre-empts. Such openings have long since been abandoned as too revealing and too easy to double. This deal revealed another drawback of them: they make it extremely hard for responder to stop in a partscore in his own suit. This is due to the fact that a new suit by responder must be forcing (no other solution makes sense in the long run). 2♦ multi, on the other hand, allows responder to either bid his suit with a long major of his own (and then rebid it after partner’s expected correction) or to pass with long diamonds. The Americans exercised the second option on this occasion. A loophole in Fantoni – Nunes agreements was also exposed here. Any re-opening action in this position ought to promise specific values or else partner will face a lot of guessing. It happened to cost only 2 IMPs this time as the Americans didn’t double and 3♣ was already too high but one can see that the potential loss could be much higher. A system loss of 6 IMPs by Bocchi – Duboin and 2 IMPs by Fantoni – Nunes.

 

The next category under consideration is defensive errors. They impacted the most the outcome of the match. In this element alone the Americans lost 78 IMPs while the Italians as few as 7 IMPs. That’s an all-out blowout. Here’s a typical example:

Segment IV:

Soloway
10763
QJ32
J85
72
Bocchi
Q94
K9876
104
KJ5
Hamman
AK2
A105
AK
A10863
Duboin
J85
4
Q97632
Q94
W
N
E
S
P
P
1
P
1
P
2NT
P
3
P
3
P
3NT
P
P
P
D
12
3NT East
NS: 0 EW: 0

Versace
10763
QJ32
J85
72
Rodwell
Q94
K9876
104
KJ5
Lauria
AK2
A105
AK
A10863
Meckstroth
J85
4
Q97632
Q94
W
N
E
S
P
P
2
P
2
P
2NT
P
3
P
3
P
3NT
P
P
P
D
12
3NT East
NS: 0 EW: 0

At both tables the ♦6 was lead (fourth best). The declarers took their ♦K I played the ♥10. Bocchi took the trick with his king & returned a diamond. This rather natural play beats the contract as long as one jettisons the ♠Q on declarer’s ♠AK. Bocchi obviously had no trouble finding the unblocking play. Rodwell, at the other table, returned the ♣J in trick three, probably judging that the contract could only be beaten by immediately cashing 4 club tricks if partner had the hoped-for ♣A108x. This layout was possible if the diamond opening lead was made from a bunch of small cards. This was surely an option but the best course of action was to duck a heart first (which ruined declarer’s communication) & then watch partner’s subsequent discards that would clarify the situation. This is exactly how Bocchi should have defended, too, but he played as if he didn’t have any doubts about what to do when in with the ♥K.

It’s the kind of truly unexplainable plays that the Italians make. They simply know everything about the hand before partner is able to make critical discards.Let’s look at another deal where a simple mistake was made though it wasn’t that hard to foresee its consequences:

 

Segment IV:

Soloway
10
Q8743
K109542
4
Bocchi
K84
KJ96
A
AQ1087
Hamman
A97532
2
87
KJ63
Duboin
QJ6
A105
QJ63
952
W
N
E
S
 
1
1
1N
X
P
2
P
P
X
P
2N
P
3N
P
P
P
D
13
3NT South
NS: 0 EW: 0

Versace
10
Q8743
K109542
4
Rodwell
K84
KJ96
A
AQ1087
Lauria
A97532
2
87
KJ63
Meckstroth
QJ6
A105
QJ63
952
W
N
E
S
1
1
1NT
P
2
P
2
P
3NT
P
P
P
D
13
3NT South
NS: 0 EW: 0

Meckstroth received a lead of the ♦2 so his line of play was simple. He returned to hand with the ♠J in order to finesse the ♣10. Lauria took the ♣J to clear spades. Declarer took his second spade trick in hand (having unblocked the ♠K on the ♠A), knocked out the ♦K and finished by successfully picking up the heart suit.

Duboin’s task was easier, at least in theory. Soloway’s double combined with Hamman’s overcall seemed to have given away the whole layout. Soloway was bound to have a big distribution as he couldn’t have more than 6 points. His negative double promised hearts & his second suit had to be diamonds as he couldn’t have too many clubs. Thus, having faced the opening lead of the ♠10, the proper technique was to go up with the ♠K in order to use the spade entries together with the ♥A to set up the diamonds & make a heart finesse.

Duboin, however, misread the layout as he won the spade in hand & finessed the ♣10. Hamman grabbed the trick and set up his spades. Unfortunately instead of discarding the fifth heart Soloway pitched a diamond to this trick thereby indirectly letting the contract through. Let’s see what happened. Duboin had yet to unblock the ♦A so he was facing communication problems. He took the second spade in hand and stuck to his guns by attacking the club suit once more. At this point Soloway should have discarded another heart. Declarer won the ♣A, cashed the ♦A, crossed back to hand with the ♥A and knocked out the ♦K. If Soloway had discarded two hearts before then now he could have taken the ♦K and simply play his ♥Q. Declarer would be stuck: if he cashes his hearts ending in hand he will surrender two more diamonds tricks in the end. If he takes all 4 hearts he will be in dummy and will have to let Hamman take two tricks.

Now Soloway’s mistake becomes clear: in the real ending he was one diamond short so playing the ♥Q would no longer work: declarer would cash 3 hearts ending in hand & then endplay him with a diamond. The last trick would be taken by the fourth heart in dummy because the defender had failed to part with a loser in that suit earlier.

A beautiful deal unfortunately ruined by a top player, a world championship runner-up, anyway you look at it.

Defensively I was also looking at winning plays in judgment situations ie. plays that weren’t errors but choices between statistically equivalent (or nearly equivalent) options. Again – the Italians didn’t make any unlucky plays, they did make some lucky ones while the Americans ended up with –15 IMPs in this category. I demonstrated such hands in my former article; good examples are deals 2/I, 14/VIII or 12/IV (the latter described above).

The last category of errors consists of poor plays made when declaring. Both teams lost around 30 IMPs here and this element had no impact on the final score. Here is the most costly mistake of the category committed by Fulvio Fantoni.

 

Segment II:

Freeman
A1098652
96
K753
Lauria
A874
KJ7
852
864
Nickell
KQ102
Q3
A1043
J109
Versace
J9653
4
KQJ7
AQ2
W
N
E
S
1
1
2
2NT
P
4
P
P
X
P
P
P
D
14
4X South
NS: 0 EW: 0

Nunes
A1098652
96
K753
Rodwell
A874
KJ7
852
864
Fantoni
KQ102
Q3
A1043
J109
Meckstroth
J9653
4
KQJ7
AQ2
W
N
E
S
1NT
2
4
P
4
P
P
P
D
14
4 East
NS: 0 EW: 0

Over 4♥ the Italians sacrificed in 4♠. After the unlucky opening lead of the ♥A Versace played the hand well and was able to escape for down one thanks to an endplay in trumps (he didn’t touch trumps but ruffed the fourth diamond & a club instead).

The decision to sacrifice wasn’t too reasonable but it looked that it would prove lucrative. Fantoni was in 4♥. He ducked the obvious lead of the ♦K but won the continuation and ran the ♣J. When it held he made a mistake. He knew that he needed clubs 3 – 3 or else the opponents would soon engineer a setting ruff in that suit. That’s why he should have continued the suit before playing on trumps. Fantoni, however, failed to see the danger. He ruffed a spade and played a trump to the queen. Rodwell did the right thing by going up with the king and playing a third diamond. Declarer ruffed but now he was forced to cross to hand with the ♥Q and play another club. Meckstroth was there with the ♣A to set up a trump promotion with his last diamond.

The deal was a 12 IMP swing that went against the Italians.

Time to look at detailed stats:

Meckstroth - Rodwell

Played 128 boards (the entire match), score 230:268

Bidding errors: -59 IMPs (including -18 IMPs for egregious errors)

Winning non-standard decisions in the bidding: +21 IMPs

System losses in the bidding: -15 IMPs

Defensive errors: -20 IMPs (including 10 IMPs for serious errors)

Unlucky defensive plays: -20 IMPs

Lucky defensive plays: +7 IMPs

Defensive plays resulting in declarer going wrong: +5 IMPs

Errors in declarer’s play: -14 IMPs

Total: -95 IMPs, -0.74 IMPs/board

Hamman - Soloway

Played 80 hands; score 147:163

Bidding errors: -63 IMPs (-19 egregious errors)

System losses in the bidding: -l3 IMPs

Defensive errors: -24 IMPs (-l0 egregious errors)

Unlucky defensive plays: -8 IMPs

Lucky defensive plays: +6 IMPs

Errors in declarer’s play: -11 IMPs

Total: -113 IMPs, -1.41 IMP/board

Freeman - Nickell

Played 48 boards; score 83:l05

Bidding errors:-51 IMPs (-6 egregious errors)

Winning non-standard decisions in the bidding: +21 IMPs

System losses in the bidding: -2 IMPs

Defensive errors: -34 IMPs (-12 egregious errors)

Errors in declarer’s play: -5 IMPs

Total: -71 IMPS, -1.48 IMP/board

The entire USA team

Bidding errors: -173 IMPs (-43 egregious errors)

Winning non-standard decisions in the bidding: +42 IMPs

System losses in the bidding: -30 IMPs

Defensive errors: -78 IMPs (-32 egregious errors)

Unlucky defensive plays: -28 IMPs

Lucky defensive plays: +13 IMPs

Defensive plays resulting in declarer going wrong: +5 IMPs

Errors in declarer’s play: -30 IMPs

Total: -279 IMPs, 1.09 IMP/board

Lauria – Versace

Played 96 boards; score 196:184

Bidding errors: -96 IMPs (-25 egregious errors)

Winning non-standard decisions in the bidding: +7 IMPs

System losses in the bidding: -15 IMPs

Defensive errors: -7 IMPs

Lucky defensive plays: +35 IMPs

Total: -76 IMPs, -0.79 1.09 IMP/board

 

Fantoni – Nunes

Played 96 boards; score 206:163

Bidding errors: -63 IMPs

Winning non-standard decisions in the bidding: +24 IMPs

Lucky defensive plays: +6 IMPs

Errors in declarer’s play: -28 IMPs

Total: -61 IMPs, -0.64 IMPs/board

 

Bocchi - Duboin

 

Played 64 boards score 134:113

Bidding errors: -22 IMPs

Winning non-standard decisions in the bidding: +4 imps

System losses in the bidding: -6 IMPs

Lucky defensive plays: +16 IMPs

Total: -8 IMPs, 0.13 IMPs/board

 

 

The entire Italian team

Bidding errors: -181 IMPs (-25 egregious errors)

Winning non-standard decisions in the bidding: +35 IMPs

System losses in the bidding: -21 IMPs

Defensive errors: -7 IMPs

Lucky defensive plays: +59 IMPs

Errors in declarer’s play: -28 IMPs

Total: -145 IMPs, 0.57 IMPs/board

 

The results of this analysis are mind-boggling. The main conclusion which can be seen for miles out is that the Americans lost this match by being beaten in just one element – the defense. The difference between the two teams in this area is massive. The Italians actually managed to beat an error-free performance by 52 IMPs although this is somewhat judgmental since it’s based on the assumptions that in some ambiguous situations the Italians might have made less effective plays. Even if one ignores potential gains for lucky plays & only looks at errors leading to lost IMPs one will find out that the entire Italian team gave away as few as 7 IMPs while the American defensive errors cost them 106 IMPs!

One can't help but wonder why this part of the Italian game is so little talked about.

Certainly a lot of bridge players, including professionals, would like to know how such outstanding proficiency can be achieved. And this match is no accident. When I went through all matches of the Italian team played in Malmö I discovered that the IMPs lost due to defensive errors & unlucky plays totaled to a shocking number of zero!

 

So the answer to the question asked in the title of this article is simple: because they defend better. The problem is how they are able to do this. This is purely my personal feeling but I do believe that the Buratti – Lanzarotti case from the European Championships in Tenerife may turn out to be a tip of the iceberg. Are the Powers That Be of the world bridge unable to see it? Or perhaps they are waiting for the Titanic to sink?

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