Great BBO Vugraph Deals #3

Marc Smith visits the 2019 European Open Championship

Excellent bidding or play can gain a vital swing for your team. Sometimes, you just need to get lucky. Bridge, though, is primarily a game of mistakes, and it is heartening for us mere mortals to see that even the top players are capable of erring. Watching the world’s best play on BBO VuGraph enables us to both revel in their brilliancy and learn from their mistakes.

Each week in this column, we pick out a handful of key deals from a nail-biting match that was viewed on BBO VuGraph. Today we travel to Istanbul in Turkey, for the European Open Championships. Without doubt, the closest match of the entire championship was the final of the Womens Teams.

Twenty-six teams lined up for the Womens Teams competition, with a two-day qualifying round advancing the leading eight teams into the knockout stage. POLAND led the field at the end of the first round, with APPLE PIE qualifying in third place. Both teams scored comfortable quarter-final wins. In their semi-final, POLAND saw off the strong NETHERLANDS BLUE team led by Carla Arnolds, whilst APPLE PIE overcame Sally Brock’s English DESADMA team (who had finished second in the qualifying stage).

One of five single-nation teams to reach the quarter-finals, the POLAND team comprises Cathy Baldysz/Sophia Baldysz, Danuta Kazmucha/Anna Sarniak and Grazyna Brewiak/Marta Sikotra, with Miroslaw Cichocki as npc. The first two pairs were members (along with the Polish contingent of APPLE PIE) of the Polish team that won the Womens Teams at the 2018 European Championships in Ostend, so they are no strangers to the final stages of major events.

APPLE PIE are a transnational team featuring star partnerships from three countries, Catherine D’Ovidio/Sylvie Willard (France), Tatiana Ponomareva/Tatiana Dikhnova (Russia) and Katarzyna Dufrat/Justyna Zmuda (Poland). The Poles and the French are all currently ranked in the top 15 amongst all European women players, and they begin this final with a wealth of titles under their belts.

The final was contested over 56 deals divided into four 14-board sets. After one set, APPLE PIE led by 18 (46-28), but at the halfway point the scores were tied at 61-61. We join the action for the first deal of the third set…

None Vulnerable – Dealer North

The auction was the same at both tables, and both Easts led the ♠J.

West – Dufrat; North – Kazmucha; East – Zmuda; South – Sarniak

The South players have, perhaps, taken aggressive approaches, as the contract would be no better than the diamond finesse even if partner held an eight-card suit headed by the A-Q-J. Opposite the actual North hand, it seems that declarer has little chance: there seems to be an inescapable heart loser in addition to the two minor-suit aces, even with the favorable diamond position.

Both declarers won trick one with the ♠A, but then the lines of play diverged. For APPLE PIE, D’Ovidio led the ♣K, East winning with the ace perforce. With her partner having failed to find the opening heart lead at trick one, Cathy Baldysz had one last chance to beat the contract: would she find the heart switch? No, she continued with the ♠K. Declarer ruffed, drew the last trump, and advanced the J. It mattered not whether East covered, as dummy’s K-10-8 was guaranteed to produce a parking place for declarer’s heart loser: N/S +550.

Bridge is one of those games where poor play can often go unpunished thanks to the lie of the cards. My regular BBO co-commentator, David Bird, always likes to see justice done, with good play rewarded and poor play punished on the scoreboard. You can argue whether either of the Polish defenders should have led or switched to a heart, but neither failure can be classed as a clear error. I am sure that David would think it fitting that the Polish defenders’ did not salvage the efforts of their teammate on this deal, though.

Having won with the sxA at trick one, Kazmucha called for a low diamond from dummy. Perhaps she just assumed that both the ace and queen of diamonds would be offside after West’s five-level double, and she was hoping to set up a discard for her heart loser to get out for just one down. That seems like a fairly pessimistic view to me. Here, of course, it meant that East won trick two with the Q and switched to a heart, defeating the contract by two. N/S -300 and 13 IMPs to APPLE PIE, breaking the tie.

The very next board produced another large swing:

N/S Game – Dealer East

Willard began with a 15-17 One Notrump and although I cannot explain exactly what the early part of the auction means, it seems clear that diamonds were agreed and North cue-bid in both rounded suits. The partnership seemed well on its way to bidding the slam that requires no more than avoiding a trump loser missing Q-x-x. But somehow the auction died at the five-level. West led her ace and declarer quickly claimed twelve tricks: a disappointing N/S +620 for the multiple World champion French pair.

Could the Poles immediately reverse the damage suffered on the previous deal?

West – Dufrat; North – Kazmucha; East – Zmuda; South – Sarniak

European pairs tend to be much more aggressive with their two-level openings than their American counterparts, and Zmuda was not willing to give her compatriots an easy ride at favorable vulnerability. The opening bid showed five hearts and a four-card or longer minor, with 5-9 HCP.

Sarniak’s Two Notrump overcall looks normal enough and, presumably, Three Diamonds was natural and forcing rather than a transfer into the opponents’ suit. With such good diamonds, only one heart stop and questionable clubs (presumably East’s second suit), perhaps Sarniak would have been better advised to raise diamonds. After all, if Three Notrump is making, is Five Diamonds not also likely to be safe?

Kazmucha had no reason to bid again and Sarniak must have been horrified by the sight of dummy. Even worse, Katarzyna Dufrat had also worked out that her partner’s second suit was clubs, and led the ♣J. The defenders quickly cashed the first six tricks: N/S -200 and rather than redressing the damage done on the first board of the set, POLAND now found themselves 26 IMPs behind.

It was not long before the bidding of the respective North/South pairs would be tested again:

Both Vulnerable – Dealer South

Just a couple of boards earlier, Willard opened a balanced 16-count with One Notrump, so quite why this South hand did not qualify for the same treatment I cannot guess, but that is not where the wheel came off. At her second turn, Willard doubled to show three-card heart support and it seems clear that D’Ovidio’s Four Club was a cue-bid with hearts agreed. Quite why Willard did not then cue-bid her A remains a mystery.

Despite her massive hand, D’Ovidio’s pass of Four Hearts seems routine since she expects the opponents to be able to cash two top diamonds. Of course, there were 13 top tricks in either hearts or notrumps, so N/S +710 was a shocking result for the French pair. This was surely akin to a tap-in for a struggling striker, so would the Polish North/South blast the ball over the bar from two feet out?

West – Dufrat; North – Kazmucha; East – Zmuda; South – Sarniak

I’m not sure that I understand North’s bidding here at all. East’s double of the transfer helped the Poles, as it allowed South to show three-card heart support. Is it not clear to now bid something like Three Spades, which would presumably be a cue-bid agreeing hearts and showing slam interest? This lets partner in on the secret of exactly what is going on. Instead, Kazmucha chose this nebulous Three Diamond bid: is that a game try in hearts or asking for a stop for notrumps, or something else?

Assuming that the meaning of Three Diamonds was clear to them, they would then know the implications of South’s jump to Four Hearts. Whatever Four Hearts means, though, surely North can underwrite a five-level contract with a 17-count facing a 15-17 notrump. The meek pass of Four Hearts seems like watching the ball dribble across in front of you without even attempting to steer it goalwards. An embarrassing flat board for both North/South pairs.

The Poles did finally bid a slam in the set, but it wasn’t a great one and the cards also lay poorly for declarer. What this meant was that approaching the end of the third set the margin had grown to 38 IMPs (7-45 on the set). Then came:

None Vulnerable Dealer South

The auction seems reasonable and the contract was decent, particularly once West failed to find the tough lead to beat it legitimately (a heart), choosing instead the ♠K. Willard ruffed in dummy and correctly played three rounds of clubs, ruffing in hand when East pitched a heart. She then played a trump to dummy and led a fourth round of clubs, ruffing with her last trump when East threw a spade. Declarer now cashed her major-suit aces and exited with a heart, won by West. So far so good. This was the four-card ending:

Cathy Baldysz exited with the ♠Q. The winning play is to ruff high in dummy and exit with a club. East, down to only trumps, would have to ruff and lead into dummy’s trump tenace at trick twelve. Instead, Willard ruffed with the 10. East overruffed, forced dummy with the Q, and then had to make another trump at the end to set the contract by a trick. N/S -50.

Should declarer make this one? East’s black-suit shape is known, so she must have either one heart and three trumps left or two cards in each red suit. There is one possible clue to the actual shape: with a trump holding such as 9-x-x, would East perhaps not have ruffed the third or fourth round of clubs with the 9 in front of declarer?

West – Dufrat; North – Kazmucha; East Zmuda; South Sarniak

Danuta Kazmucha opted for a Two Diamond overcall rather than showing both of her suits immediately. Here, too, a heart lead would have been fatal for declarer, but the ♠K was the obvious choice. Sarniak pitched a heart from dummy and grabbed the trick with the ♠A. Two rounds of diamonds revealed the bad news in that suit, but declarer had a second string to her bow: she now led a low club from dummy. East played low and declarer’s ♣10 lost to the queen.

Dufrat switched to the J now, but it was too late. Declarer ducked, won the heart continuation and played a club to the ace. When the ♣J fell from East, declarer could claim nine tricks. N/S +400 and a much-needed 10 IMPs to POLAND.

The Poles gained two more small swings on the final boards of the set, and with 14 boards remaining they had closed the gap to 21 (106-85). By midway through the final stanza, though, the APPLE PIE lead was back up to 33 (131-98). Then began the Polish fightback:

None Vulnerable Dealer West

D’Ovidio opened a 2+ One Club in third seat, which might have caused problems for South had she not had a natural Two Club overcall available. As it was, the Poles breezed into game in hearts. The defence can score a club ruff to go with their two aces, but the contract was never in danger. D’Ovidio led diamonds and continued the suit when in with her ace of trumps, so the club ruff got away: N/S +450.

The Polish East/West did not go so quietly into the night:

West C Baldysz; North Zmuda; East S Baldysz; South Dufrat

Cathy Baldysz opened Two Spades (5♠ /4+minor, ostensibly 5-9 HCP), and her partner advanced with Three Hearts, an artificial game try in spades. This meant that Dufrat had to enter the fray at the four-level, and Justyna Zmuda did remarkably well to steer her side into the only making game contract.

Although her partner had rejected her game try, Sophia Baldysz was having none of it, and quite reasonably carried on to Four Spades anyway. With a singleton ♠K under the opening bidder and three-card heart fit, South’s decision to bid on rather than defend was quite understandable, but 300 from Four Spades-Doubled was the last North/South plus score available. Offered the choice with 4NT (showing two places to play), North opted for Five Clubs, making it that much easier for East to gild the lily by doubling.

The defense was not tested to collect their three defensive winners in a club contract: N/S -100 and 11 IMPs to POLAND, reducing the deficit to 22 IMPs with six deals left. Back in the days of Pope John Paul II, it was a standing joke in international bridge circles that although the Pope may be Polish, God was obviously an Italian. Times have evidently moved on, though, and with the Poles wanting anything but dull flat boards the Great Dealer produced exactly the sort of deal for which they might have prayed:

E/W GameDealer North

The auction began quietly enough, but then things took off. For a hand that could respond only One Notrump to partner’s opening spade bid, Sarniak certainly did a lot of bidding on the subsequent rounds of the auction. Indeed, quite what might have happened had she passed Five Hearts is far from clear, but when she raised to slam Willard had an obvious double.

D’Ovidio did well to lead a club, simplifying the defence. Willard ruffed at trick one and played a top diamond. Declarer ruffed but, with no quick route to dummy available, had little choice but to lay down the ace of trumps next. The French pair duly scored the K and ♠A to set the contract by two: N/S -300, and it was hard to tell what sort of result that might be.

West C Baldysz; North Zmuda; East S Baldysz; South Dufrat

Whereas Catharine D‘Ovidio had raised diamonds via a two-level cue-bid, Sophia Baldysz put the cat right amongst the pigeons with a full-blooded, vulnerable-against-not leap to the five-level. It is hard to be too critical of Dufrat for failing to sacrifice at the six-level: after all, partner had opened the bidding and she has a singleton in partner’s first suit, not to mention A-Q-J in the unbid suit.

Zmuda led the A, but it mattered not with the spade finesse working as expected. The defense could score only that one trick: N/S -1540 and a massive 15 IMPs to POLAND,

APPLE PIE gained an overtrick IMP over the next three deals, and thus led by 8 IMPs with two boards to play. This was the penultimate deal:

Both Vulnerable – Dealer North

This time, it was the Polish contingent of APPLE PIE using this two-suited Two Spade opening. Dufrat made an artificial game try in spades with Three Hearts and West attempted to get her side into the auction with a double. With a massive hand compared to some we’ve seen opened Two Spades in this match, Zmuda jumped happily to game, and there matters rested.

East led the 9 to the king and ace. West returned a heart and declarer set about drawing trumps, unbothered by the 4-1 break. By the time that was done, it was clear which way to play clubs, so that was 11 tricks: N/S +650 and what looked like an excellent board for APPLE PIE, since East/West have a cheap save in Five Diamonds. Indeed, with an intra-finesse in hearts, declarer might even be able to come to eleven tricks. What scope could there be for POLAND to recover any of the deficit on this deal?

West Willard; North Kazmucha; East D’Ovidio; South Sarniak

The auction began in exactly the same way as it had done at the other table, but here Willard decided that she was worth one more go when Four Spades came back to her. (Personally, I think the first double is marginal, and the second just far too much). Had D’Ovidio taken the double out to Five Diamonds (but see how disastrous that would have been if you switch partner’s minors), the match would have been all over bar the shouting. When she elected to pass, though, it all came down to her opening lead.

A club would allow Willard to ruff and then score her aces to hold the contract to ten tricks. A diamond would bring the 4-1 trump split into play and thus prevent declarer from scoring a heart trick to go along with the A and her nine black-suit tricks. Much to the excitement of the hundreds watching on BBO VuGraph, and in particular the large contingent of Polish members, D’Ovidio fished out a trump. All the defense could now score were its two aces: N/S +990 and 8 IMPs to POLAND, remarkably tying the match at 132-132 with one deal left.

The final deal was a flat board, so the players and the hundreds of spectators watching on BBO convened for an extra four-board shoot-out. Sadly for the Poles, the huge comeback all proved to be for naught: APPLE PIE won 11-4 over the additional boards, so the gallant Poles had to settle for silver medals despite the heroics. Oh, if they could only have found just one extra overtrick somewhere during the original 56 boards.

The final result takes nothing away from both the performances by the players from both teams and the excitement they provided to the mass of kibitzers enjoying the match worldwide on BBO. Next week, we’ll be somewhere else in the world, bringing you the big deals from another exciting match. Not only are these matches entertaining, but we all get to see both the brilliancies and the blunders of top players performing under pressure. That there are plenty of the latter only serves to remind us not to be too hard on either ourselves or our partners when those inevitable mistakes creep into our own games.