Great BBO Vugraph Deals #14

Marc Smith visits the 2019 World Championships in China

One of the best things about watching bridge on BBO VuGraph is the opportunity to see many of the world’s great players in action. Some of those players may be in the twilight years of their bridge careers, but the growth of Senior’s events provides us with the chance to enjoy watching some of the biggest names in the game’s history. The type of match I have in mind featured FRANCE and USA in the round robin stage of the 2019 World Championships in Wuhan. Two of the pre-tournament favourites, both teams were packed with stars. Hundreds of kibitzers tuned in, presumably expecting a closely-contested match. Let’s see how things panned out.

My students often ask me to teach them how to solve high-level bidding problems. Alas, there is no silver bullet, but we can all take heart from the reality that such decisions are often too difficult even for the world’s best players:

N/S Vulnerable – Dealer East

Phillippe Soulet won the Olympiad in 1980 and the Rosenblum Cup in 1982. The French team arrived in China as the current European Senior’s champions, having won the title in Ostend in 2018. Soulet faced the first high-level decision, after Alan Sontag made a pre-emptive raise to Four Spades. As you can see from looking at all four hands, the decision to bid on to Five Hearts is technically the wrong one, as the defenders can make one club and two diamonds to set that contract by a trick. 

“The five-level belongs to the opponents,” is a well-known mantra, and you ignore it at your peril. Winner of the Transnational Teams at the 2013 World Championships and a member of the Senior’s world champion team from Lyon in 2017, David Berkowitz chose to do so here, though. When his Five Spade bid came back to Soulet, he had an easy double. 

Michel Lebel led a club. Declarer chose to win in dummy and play a spade, won perforce with the ace. Soulet now returned his lowest club for his partner to ruff. Michel Lebel duly acknowledged his partner’s suit preference signal by switching to diamonds, permitting Soulet to deliver a second club ruff to defeat the contract by two tricks: N/S +300.

West – Levy North – Rosenberg East – Abecassis SouthLair

Mark Lair first became a world champions as a member of the USA team that won the Senior’s title at the 2015 championships in Chennai. He is also a member of the current Senior’s world champion team after winning in Orlando in 2018. Faced with the same problem, he made the technically correct choice by doubling Four Spades. 

Michael Rosenberg also led his club, but the French declarer won in hand with the ♣10 and played a trump to dummy’s queen. Lair won with the ♠A but, instead of delivering his partner’s club ruff, he tried to cash a high heart. Now, even though declarer had mis-guessed trumps at this table, he had ten tricks, losing just two spades and the A. N/S -590 and 13 IMPs to FRANCE.

French players have long held a reputation for sound bidding: none of the frivolities that are a regular feature of the style adopted by top players from many other European countries. Curiously, though, the scoring in this match was heavily influenced by a number of 11-HCP hands held by the East players. Routine opening bids for many, but surely not the French…

N/S GameDealer North

Sontag duly passed the East hand and Berkowitz opened in fourth seat. Although the American East subsequently made a game try, it is surely clear for Berkowitz to decline the invitation with a square 13-count facing a passed hand. The cards lie well for declarer and Berkowitz made ten tricks on a less-than testing defense. E/W +180.

West – Levy North – Rosenberg East – Abecassis SouthLair

Michel Abecassis won the 1991 European Pairs (playing with Jean-Christophe Quantin) and was also a member of the French team that won the 2018 European Senior’s title. He apparently had no qualms about opening this less-than robust East hand. Levy made an inverted raise in clubs and although Abecassis showed a minimum, balanced hand there was no question of Levy stopping out of game with a 13-count facing an opening bid.

Declarer begins with four top tricks and three more that can easily be developed in clubs. South’s opening heart lead ensured declarer a second trick in that suit. When declarer played on spades, an honour appeared from North, enabling Abecassis to easily establish his ninth trick in that suit. Indeed, with the diamond finesse onside, he could have made ten tricks had he needed to. E/W +400 and 6 IMPs to FRANCE.

You might like to take the East cards for the next deal:

Both GameDealer North

How would you react when partner raises your One Spade opening bid to the two-level? About half of those playing in the World Championship in China passed Two Spades and duly scored either +140 or +170. Abecassis decided that his hand was worth a game try. When his partner showed some sort of non-minimum, he jumped to game in his second suit. With this major-suit shape, Alain Levy was happy to put down dummy right there.

The opening club lead went to North’s nine and declarer’s ace, and Abecassis immediately played ace and a second trump. In again, the spotlight fell on Mark Lair. Had he exited with a second round of clubs, declarer would have needed to take an anti-percentage view in spades in order to bring home his game. When, instead, Lair switched to a diamond, declarer could afford to lose two spades, which he duly did (leading to the queen on the first round of the suit). Even so, that was E/W +620.

West – Berkowitz North – Lebel East – Sontag SouthSoulet

At the other table East was Alan Sontag, author of “The Bridge Bum” and numerous other fine books. Sontag won the first of his eight world championship titles playing with Peter Weichsel at the 1983 Bermuda Bowl in Stockholm. He took an even more straightforward route to the best spot on this deal. For some reason, though, Berkowitz converted back to spades. 

Again, the defenders led clubs. When declarer now took the losing spade finesse, though, the defense was never in danger, as North could beat the contract by returning either minor. In fact, he returned a second club, meaning that declarer eventually ran out of trumps. South scored the ♦K as the fourth defensive trick at the end: E/W -100 and another 12 IMPs to FRANCE.

Since you’re sitting East already, why don’t you take Alan Sontag’s cards on the next board. With no one vulnerable and your partner the dealer, your hand is:

West – Berkowitz North – Lebel Eastv – Sontag SouthSoulet

Surprise, surprise: it’s another 11-count.Do you bid or pass?

Before we look at the full deal, let’s see the auction at the other table.

West – Levy North – Rosenberg East – Abecassis SouthLair

Levy’s Two Heart rebid slowed the tempo of the auction, and now Abecassis had a fairly routine 2NT bid at his second turn. This was the layout:

None GameDealer West

Sontag was not unduly tested in Three Clubs. Five trumps, a trick in each side suit and a spade ruff in dummy added up to nine: E/W +110.

The play in 3NT is more challenging, but Abecassis found a neat solution. North won the opening spade lead and returned a low spade to dummy’s queen at trick two. Declarer now cashed two rounds of clubs ending in dummy and then played a diamond to his king. Abecassis now played a heart to dummy’s ten: although this lost to the J, it also endplayed North in three suits. Voila! Whether Rosenberg played a spade, a heart or a diamond, he would hand declarer his ninth trick in that suit. Nicely played: E/W +400 and another 7 IMPs to FRANCE.

Our final deal from this match features (yes, you’ve guessed it) another 11-count for East. Once again, the tempo of the auction worked in favour of the French. 

None GameDealer East

Missing a cashing ace and queen to five trumps, the Americans accurately assessed that slam was against the odds and stopped safely in game. With the trumps lying favourably for declarer, of course twelve tricks were easily made: E/W +420.

West – Levy North – Rosenberg East – Abecassis SouthLair

Michael Rosenberg’s intervention forced Abescassis to either rebid his suit at the three-level or to pass at his second turn. Abecassis’s decision to bid perhaps suggested a better than minimum opening. When he then subsequently continued with Four Clubs over 3NT, Levy understandably took control and Blackwooded the partnership into slam.

Needing a 3-2 break and the queen onside (or singleton queen), the contract is a little less than 40%. No problem for the French today, though: E/W +920 and yet another 11 IMPs to FRANCE.

This day was certainly one on which fortune was destined to favour the brave. On the three hands above where East was dealt an 11-count, the French player took the aggressive action, and on all three occasions it was the winning decision. Of course, three deals is hardly a representative sample, so you should not expect to gain IMPs every time you look fondly upon an 11-point hand.

Any spectators who turned up to watch this match expecting a close contest would have been disappointed. Those supporting France, though, would have been delighted as their team ran out winners by an astonishing 60-4. With 23 matches in the Round Robin, though, there was still a long way to go. With both teams packed with so many stars, it was not a surprised that both of these teams qualified comfortably for the knockout stages, USA topping the round robin and the French in third place. Perhaps more surprising, though, is that neither survived the quarter-final round. The USA lost to the Netherlands and France by just a single IMP (in a match reported elsewhere in this column) to the eventual winners, Denmark.