Great BBO Vugraph Deals #2

Marc Smith visits the Round of 32 at the 2019 Spingold

Various incarnations of the NICKELL squad have dominated major U.S. team events for more than a quarter of a century. Since their first Spingold victory in 1993, they have won the event nine times. They also have four victories in the Vanderbilt and seven in the Reisinger, in addition to four wins representing the USA in the Bermuda Bowl. Nor do they show signs of the ageing process that seems to afflict everyone else: they have reached the final of the Vanderbilts in each of the last three years. Their progress through the various knockout rounds is not always without drama, though, as we discovered in the Round of 32 at this year’s Spingold.

Each week in this column, we pick out a handful of key deals. Sometimes players earn a swing with excellent play and sometimes you just have to get lucky. As I often tell my students, though, bridge is a game of mistakes, even at the highest level. Learn from mistakes, whether yours or someone else’s. Cut out at least some of them, and your results will improve immeasurably.

NICKELL (Nick Nickell/Ralph Katz, Bobby Levin/Steve Weinstein and Eric/Rodwell/Jeff Meckstroth) were the #2 seeds this year. Their Round of 32 opponents, LEONG (Eric Leong/Peter Gill and Ulf Nilsson/Owen Lien), the original #34 seeds, includes two Americans (one a member of the USA Junior team in Istanbul as recently as 2014), an established Swedish international and an Australian who played in the Bermuda Bowl just a couple of years ago.

The final 15-board stanza began with LEONG ahead by 5 IMPs (99-94), and it was not long before they extended that advantage:

E/W Game – Dealer South

Students frequently ask me to teach them how to make winning decisions in high-level competitive auctions. I’m sorry to say, though, that there is no magic bullet, and even the very best players get these decisions wrong relatively often. Here, East makes a responsive double after his partner has overcalled in hearts, and the decision now falls to South. How many spades should he bid?

Levin opted to compete with Three Spades, perhaps hoping to buy the contract there. He got past Gill, but Leong had enough to back in again. Gill now pulled to Four Hearts, which came back to Levin in the South seat. Has he done enough already or should he take one more bid?

What are the chances of beating Four Hearts? With such sterile 6232 shape, might a save be relatively expensive? Might bidding Four Spades just be offering the opponents fielder’s choice? These are all questions that a player has to consider. In the end Levin passed. It was too much to expect Weinstein to find the ♣10 opening lead that would probably have beaten Four Hearts (♣Q, ♣A, club ruff and a top spade, assuming declarer misguesses at trick one). On the low spade lead, declarer was able to claim eleven tricks as soon as the red suits behaved. N/S -650.

It now fell to Meckwell to flatten the deal at the other table.

West – Meckstroth;       North – Lien; East – Rodwell;      SouthNilsson

After the same start, Ulf Nilsson opted to take an advanced save in Four Spades at his second turn. Could either of the multiple World Champions find a bid in one of the red suits at the five-level? No, and players at all levels should take comfort from seeing that even the very best in the world often find the winning decisions at high levels too difficult.

Meckstroth led a top heart to the ace and Rodwell switched accurately to a trump in order to prevent declarer scoring a diamond ruff in dummy. Now declarer had to guess well. He led the ♣Q and ran it to the king, and back came a second trump. Who has the ♣J? Declarer correctly played a club to the ace and led the §10 from dummy. Rodwell covered (if he doesn’t declarer throws a heart) and declarer could now ruff, cross to dummy with the ♠Q, drawing Rodwell’s last trump, and pitch a red-suit loser on the established ♣9. Two down: N/S -300 and 8 IMPs to LEONG, pushing the lead into double figures.

N/S Game – Dealer North

Owen Lien opened a possibly-short One Club and Rodwell pre-empted with a weak jump in his anaemic spade suit. Nilsson bid his suit twice over the interference in spades, and now Lien took over: Four Diamonds was RKC with the spade shortage assumed. When South showed two key cards without the ♣Q, Lien decided that was good enough — the exuberance of youth, perhaps. Yes, South might have been void in spades and, yes, the clubs might have come in for no loser, but the odds were surely even worse than they would normally be with East likely to hold a six-card spade suit.

In fact, even if the trumps do behave, the contract probably also needs either diamonds 3-3. You may also make if the same defender holds four or more diamonds and the K (assuming that the defense is kind enough to cash their ♠A to rectify the count for you, rather than leading a heart through the queen at trick one). Rodwell duly cashed his spade and Meckstroth waited for his trump trick: N/S -100.

West Gill; North – Weinstein; East – Leong; SouthLevin

Weinstein opened a 15-17 One Notrump and East here also overcalled Two Spades (no one ever seems to pass these days). Bobby Levin bid 2NT, which was alerted and described as Lebensohl. However, their convention card says ‘Transfer Lebensohl’ and the subsequent auction strongly suggests that North knew he was facing a club suit. Note the advantage of this method (whether you call it Transfer Lebensohl or Rubensohl). Playing traditional Lebensohl, South’s double of Three Spades would, presumably, also be consistent with a balanced hand (one that intended either to cue-bid or bid 3NT next if West had passed and partner had completed the relay to Three Clubs?

Here, Weinstein knew that he was facing long clubs, and thus he could make a sensible choice between passing, bidding Three Notrump, or agreeing clubs. Facing a 15-17 notrump, Levin had no interest in slam, and so he just raised to game. Leong cashed the ♠A and then switched to a heart at trick two. No problem, though: Weinstein cashed the two top clubs and then played on diamonds. With the suit splitting 3-3, he was able to pitch dummy’s heart loser on the thirteenth diamond as West ruffed with his master trump. N/S +600 and 12 IMPs to NICKELL, who now trailed by just 2 IMPs.

My fellow VuGraph commentator, David Bird, often makes the point that we like to see justice served, with good play rewarded and poor play punished. He therefore thought it quite right that diamonds should split evenly here, meaning that North/South received full value for stopping in game, rather than just an extra 100 for going one down while slam was two down.

With the tension growing, we did not have to wait long for the next massive firework:

E/W Game – Dealer East

Rodwell started with a Strong Club and Meckstroth’s double of the One Heart overcall showed semi-positive values (6-7 HCP). Rodwell had no game interest opposite less than a positive response, so One Notrump was a possible place to play. Perhaps crucially, though, they had not uncovered the big spade fit. South’s jump to Three Diamonds put paid to that, but when he then raised himself to game Meckstroth thought he had enough to express an opinion. Nilsson begged to differ and produced a dark blue redouble card: Game On!

Meckstroth led his singleton heart and dummy probably put down his hand without realizing the importance of the 8. Declarer captured East’s Q with the ace and immediately played the ace and queen of trumps. Meckstroth won with the K and switched to a club, but declarer was in control. He won in dummy, drew West’s last trump and played a heart to dummy’s eight. Rodwell could make the K, but dummy’s third club disappeared on declarer’s heart winners and the club ruff in dummy was declarer’s eleventh trick. A spectacular N/S +800.

If you look at a large number of deals involving Meckwell, you will notice that their ultra-aggressive style means that they do offer the opponents opportunities for good boards. Since you often have little idea what is going on, though, those chances are very hard to take. Lien/Nilsson certainly capitalized on this deal, but doing so time after time when you are constantly under pressure is another thing.

Could Levin/Weinstein do anything to nullify LEONG’s excellent board?

West – Gill;      North – Weinstein;   East – Leong;      SouthLevin

Eric Leong opened One Heart, which meant that North/South found their fit immediately. Two bids later they were in slam and West led his singleton heart. Needing to avoid a trump loser, Levin could not afford to play the suit from hand, so he returned a heart to dummy’s eight at trick two. This gave Gill the chance to turn +200 into +500, by ruffing with a low trump. (East will still score his K later.) Letting a vulnerable, doubled undertrick get away would usually be a costly mistake, but with +800 from the other table it merely meant they gained 14 IMPs rather than 16.

A couple of partscore swings padded LEONG’s lead and with five deals remaining they were ahead by 23 (131-108). Thousands watched enthralled on BBO VuGraph as it seemed the NICKELL team was headed for an uncharacteristically early exit. Pressure is often a factor in sport, though. We surely all remember Greg Norman’s six-shot lead at the 1996 Masters turning into a 5-shot win for Nick Faldo. Or Frenchman Jean van der Velde’s triple bogey on the eighteenth at the 1999 Open, having led by two shots on the final tee. Here there were still five deals for LEONG to negotiate, and the Great Dealer was not inclined to make it easy for them:

Both Vulnerable – Dealer East

Meckstroth opened a Strong Club after two passes, and then all hell broke loose. Lien and Nilsson could both have significantly improved their result on this deal but, as I mentioned earlier, the chances you get against superstars like Meckwell are never easy ones. Would you have fared any better than the players at the table?

Sure, Nilsson could have passed out Five Spades, but he was right in that Six Clubs was cheap, only -500. Similarly, he could have ignored his partner’s double of Six Spades and saved in Seven Clubs at his next turn: only -800. Instead, Nilsson gave his partner the chance to be the hero, but can anyone out there honestly say they would have found the trump lead against Meckstroth’s slam?

Lien led the ‘obvious’ high club. Meckstroth ruffed with the ♠8 (more of that later) and played his diamond. Lien hopped in with the K and switched desperately to the 10, but it was all too late. The heart was covered all round, and Meckstroth led the ♠J, overtaken with dummy’s queen. With trumps breaking 1-1, declarer had two more trump entries to dummy, allowing him to ruff out both the ace and ten of diamonds. Away went declarer’s heart losers: a spectacular N/S -1660.

West – Gill;         North – Weinstein;   East  – Leong;        SouthLevin

Perhaps Peter Gill was bidding the slam irrespective of whether South bid over Five Spades: we’ll never know. Certainly it never occurred to Levin to take the seven-level save, and who can blame him with those defensive red-suit holdings? Weinstein also led a top club, and declarer was in the ballgame.

At trick one, Gill ruffed with the ♠3, which was okay in itself, although it did prompt a discussion of good general technique amongst the VuGraph commentators. At trick two, Gill continued correctly with his diamond, and at this table North ducked and South captured dummy’s queen with his A. Levin, normally a fairly quick player, took more than five minutes to consider his return, before eventually exiting with the ♠2. As quick as a flash, Gill followed with the ♠4 from his hand. North perforce played the nine and declarer won with dummy’s ♠Q, but the contract could no longer be made as declarer had kept only one trump lower than dummy’s ♠7-6. He ruffed down North’s K and used his last entry to cash the J for one heart discard. With the 10 still out, declarer could take the heart finesse but was still stuck with a loser at the end. N/S +200 and a massive 18 IMPs to NICKELL, now right back within touching distance, just 5 IMPs behind with four deals left.

For those of you out there trying to learn this very difficult game, I offer one snippet that I try to drum into all of my students. When playing in a big trump fit, always play the suit in a way that retains flexibility, so that you can overtake in either direction later in the hand. By doing so, even if you haven’t noticed that you will need entries to one hand or the other later in the deal, you will be able to overtake in either direction if you need to do so. Ruffing with a middle trump at trick one, as Meckstroth did, is just good technique and an excellent habit to get into. I am sure he had noticed that he might need three trump entries to dummy but, even if he hadn’t, ruffing with the eight guaranteed that option would be available later in the deal. It’s a small thing, but notice what a huge difference it made here. Of course, Gill should have noticed that he needed to unblock by playing the eight, ten or jack on the second round, but that is what pressure does: it addles the brain.

Note that an opening trump lead defeats the slam as it removes an entry to dummy prematurely, (i.e. before declarer has led the first diamond from his hand). Hardly the obvious choice, though!

Despite this disaster, LEONG still had their noses in front. The teams exchanged small swings on the next two deals, so the 5-IMP advantage was still intact when the penultimate deal was placed on the table. And what an innocuous deal it seemed to be. Remember that word, though: PRESSURE.

Both Vulnerable  Dealer North

With clubs breaking 4-3, this is the sort of deal that could be played a thousand times at local clubs and just about everyone and their grandmother would bid and make Three Notrump. Perhaps some would make an overtrick or two (as Meckstroth did when he was graced with the ♠10 lead), but it would essentially be one of those rare things, an effectively flat board at IMPs. N/S -460 and perhaps the lead would be down to 3 IMPs going into the final deal.

What could possibly happen to overturn a 5-IMP lead? Well, a funny thing happened on the way to the forum. Funny, that is, unless you are a member of the LEONG team.

West – Gill;         North – Weinstein;   East  – Leong;        SouthLevin

If you gave this East hand to a hundred players of varying standards and asked what they would bid when partner opens One Diamond, you would probably get a selection of answers ranging from One Notrump, through Two Diamonds (inverted or not, perhaps) to Three Diamonds (pre-emptive or limit). Whilst you will probably disagree with two out of those three suggestions, they all work just fine: partner bids Three Notrump next, you pass, and you knock NICKELL out of the Spingold.

I’m sure Eric Leong had a reason for choosing to bid One Heart. (Perhaps the explanation is as simple as that he just mis-sorted his hand.) And I can tell you exactly why he did it – pressure. Just as a snooker player who has potted hundreds of blacks off the spot over the course of a tournament misses the one he needs to secure the winning frame, or the golfer who has hit the fairway repeatedly for 71 holes drives into the water off the eighteenth tee, so a bridge player who has stood toe-to-toe with some of the best players on the planet for a whole match suddenly does something unexplainable as the prospect of causing a huge upset looms.

Of course, on most days Four Hearts would make easily enough and no damage would be done. As seems often to happen, though, when you step even marginally out of line at a crucial moment, the game turns around bites you where it hurts. On this occasion, South had a natural club lead, the diamond finesse (and the spade finesse) fails and the trumps split 5-1. N/S -100 and 13 IMPs to NICKELL from nowhere. The perennial winners have somehow found a way to survive yet again. .

What a fantastic match for the thousands watching on BBO VuGraph. Believe it or not, the very next day in the Round of 16, the NICKELL team were involved in yet another nail biting finish. Perhaps we’ll get to see the action from that match in a future episode of “Great BBO Vugraph Deals”…