Marc Smith returns to the round robin at the first Major Alt Invitational
Last week, we began our visit to the first Major Alt Invitational, featuring 36 invited teams packed with the world’s top players. The format was a 10-match Swiss teams with the top eight teams qualifying for the knockout stage. We left things at the midway point of the Swiss, with NICKELL, BIANCHI, DE BOTTON, GOLDBERG, GUPTA, SELIGMAN, DONNER and STREET occupying the qualifying places. With 70 deals still to be played before the knockout stage, there was plenty of scope for the chasing pack to catch up.
As usual, we begin with some problems for you to consider. First, an opening bid. With neither side vulnerable, you hold as East:
What do you open?
Next, again with no one vulnerable, your hand as West is:
Do you take any action?
If you passed, then:
What action, if any, do you now take?
While you mull those over, let’s take a look at the action in match 6. For a change this deal, which generated swings in more than half of the matches including both of the top two tables, was mostly about the play. Although a few pairs (all but one of them unsuccessfully) tried their luck in a major-suit game, most played in 3NT from the West seat.
N/S Vul – Dealer West
Alfredo Versace opened 1NT and Giovanni Donati jumped to Three Diamonds, showing at least invitational with five spades and four or more hearts. Versace’s Three Spades showed any minimum and Four Diamonds then promised at least 5-5 in the majors. Versace guessed spades and Eric Rodwell led a club. Jeff Meckstroth won with the §A and switched to a diamond, Rodwell taking his ace and playing a second round of clubs. Declarer still had to lose a heart and two trumps: E/W -100.
West – Hampson North – Cima East – Moss South – Bianchi
Geoff Hampson opened a 14-16 1NT and Brad Moss started with a transfer to spades. His Three Diamond continuation then showed a game forcing hand with at least 5-5 in the majors, which gave Hampson the option of choosing the notrump game, which he duly took.
Leonardo Cima led the ♦ 3 to dummy’s queen and Hampson immediately played a club from dummy. Reno Bianchi played low and, having stolen a club trick, Hampson now turned his attention to the heart suit. When he made the correct technical play of cashing the ace and leading to dummy’s queen, dropping South’s jack, he had nine tricks by driving out the ♥ K. E/W +400 and 11 IMPs to NICKELL.
It was surprising how many players in this strong field misplayed the heart suit on this deal. If the suit breaks 3-3 it is a guess which defender has the king and which the jack. If you play low to the ten, losing to South’s doubleton king does not help you, as you will still have to lose a second heart trick to North’s remaining J-x. Playing low to the queen, though, picks up four tricks in the suit when South holds a doubleton jack, as he does here.
BIANCHI won the match 30-22, virtually closing the gap between the two teams. A big win for GOLDBERG, over DE BOTTON, enabled them to jump to the top of the table, though. French team SOLUET also won big to move into the top five, and LAVAZZA crept ominously closer to the qualifying places: up into ninth place now.
In Round 7, GOLDBERG beat NICKELL to consolidate their hold on first place, and GUPTA defeated BIANCHI to move into second spot. The big result was a 55-16 win for STREET against LAVAZZA, which moved the Americans up into the top four and relegated the Italians all the way to 19th place with three matches remaining. Board 8 was flat in only one of the 18 matches, and it was the choice of opening bid (the first of this week’s problem hands above) that was often the key to how well you fared:
None Vul – Dealer West
What do you open on this East hand after two passes?
Some, including Jeff Meckstroth for NICKELL, Alex Hydes for DE BOTTON, Francois Combescure for ROMBAUT and Eric Saelensminde for GILLIS, opted for One Spade with mixed results. IN NICKELL vs GOLDBERG:
West – Rodwell North – Koistinen East – Meckstroth South – Fagerlund
The defense dropped a trick and allowed declarer to make eight tricks: E/W +110 but 1 IMP to GOLDBERG. And in GILLIS vs DALTONS:
West – Gillis North – Thiele East – Saelen’de South – Verdegaal
Here, West’s Two Clubs showed both minors, which silenced North. Again, the defense permitted declarer to make eight tricks: E/W +110 but 9 IMPs to GILLIS.
The action on this deal in the key match between STREET and LAVAZZA sums up what happened at many tables:
West – Patchmann North – Bilde East – Zatorski South – Madala
Three Spades is the Goldilocks bid: not too high and not too low. South is virtually obliged to make a takeout double and North can do little other than bid his diamonds. It is then just a question of whether West finds the red double card at the end of the auction. Ron Patchmann didn’t.
Piotr Zatorski led the ♠Q, ducked to West’s ace. Patchmann returned a low club and, when declarer tried the jack, he was then booked for three down. E/W +150.
West – Bocchi North – L’Ecuyer – East Sementa South – Street
Unlike when your suit is hearts, pre-empting to Four Spades is much more likely to attract a double that ends the auction, as it did here. The general rule for North is that he is expected to takeout the double only if he expects to make a contract at the five-level, on the basis that taking four tricks on defense may be easier than taking eleven on offense. Of course, sometimes you will concede -590, but on others the alternative will be -800 or more. Indeed, in one match, DONNER vs SWISS TEAM, North was faced with exactly this problem at both tables. Sjoert Brink passed (N/S +500) whilst Joe Grue tried his luck in Five Diamonds (N/S -500) and a 14-IMP swing to SWISS TEAM.
At our table, Paul Street led the ♥ K against Four Spades-Doubled. Declarer ducked and Street switched to the ♥ 9. Declarer ruffed a diamond to hand and drove out the high trump, but the defenders just exited quietly with a diamond. Declarer ruffed, drew trumps, and played a heart to the nine and North’s ten (which he quite rightly hadn’t wasted signaling at trick one). The defenders still had two more tricks to come in each of the rounded suits: E/W -500 and 12 IMPs to STREET, enroute to a huge 55-16 win.
In Round 8, GOLDBERG held on to the top spot with a win against GUPTA. Meanwhile NICKELL, after five wins to start the competition, suffered their third consecutive loss, to STREET, dropping them out of the top eight. LAVAZZA beat DALTONS, but only by 7 IMPs, and moved up to 17th, still 9 VPS behind the eighth-placed team. The big win in this round went to SWISS TEAM, who moved up into third place.
The first deal of the match caused chaos all around the room:
None Vul – Dealer North
This deal is essentially a slam on a finesse into the pre-empter, so probably an odds on bet. For many teams, though, simply getting to their nine-card fit was a problem. So it proved in the big match at table four between the all stars of SWISS TEAM and the Israeli CHOCOLATA:
West – Barel North – Martens East – Zeck South – Zimmermann
Declarer had only one chance on the obvious spade lead, and when North’s ¨K failed to drop doubleton Yaniv Zack was three down: E/W -150. After a similar start:
West – Klukowski North – Baraket East – Gawrys South – Lengy
Essentially in the same position, Michal Klukowski decided to remove to his weak six-card major. E/W +480 was worth 12 IMPs to SWISS TEAM.
In a number of other matches, though, the Poles would have found themselves conceding a similar number of IMPs for +480. The Swedish contingent in the DONNER team were one of five pairs to reach the top spot:
West – Cullin North – Upmark East – Michielsen South – Nystrom
Per-Olaf Cullin took action on the first round, transferring to hearts immediately over South’s pre-emptive Three Spades. Upmark did what he could be upping the pre-empt, but there was no stopping Marion Michielsen: E/W +980.
The biggest story of Round 9 was the emergence of IRELAND. A loss to SWISS TEAM in match 5 had dropped them down into 24th place, but three consecutive victories had seen them rise to eighth. In this round they were up against the strong French team, SOULET, at table four.
Board 6 was most unusual, in that East/West could make exactly 12 tricks in ANY of the five denominations. No one tried the 4-2 spade fit, but all four others slams were bid and made. Not everyone climbed high enough, though, and there were swings in two of the top four matches:
E/W Vul – Dealer East
Although the majority reached some slam or other on this deal, it is worthwhile looking at when one of the best pairs in the world stops short. Bas Drijver’s One Club could have been short but his One Spade rebid then confirmed possession of both black suits. Sjoert Brink forced the game with a fourth-suit Two Diamonds, and Drijver patterned out, showing three hearts.
I can only suggest that the explanation for Brink bidding only an invitational 4NT is due to the rapidly diminishing values shown by opening bids these days. Indeed, despite responder holding a 21-count, slam is not exactly cast iron. 6NT has only ten top tricks and declarer needs some luck in one of the minors to make twelve tricks. As the defensive cards lie here, the diamonds come in for five winners and, if needed, the correct play in the club suit (see our earlier discussion) will produce four tricks in that suit. E/W +490.
West – Gandoglia North – Zimmermann East – Giubilo South – Martens
After a similar start, Alessandro Gandoglia advanced with a Two Club relay, and Valerio Giubilo’s Two Diamonds showed ‘minimum, balanced or mildly unbalanced’. Two Hearts asked again and Three Clubs guaranteed a fifth card in that suit. With a grand slam now out of the picture, Gandoglia decided that he had heard enough, and jumped to slam in notrumps.
West led a heart, and declarer won in hand to lead a low club to the queen. With a second club trick in the bag, declarer cashed the ♦A, came to hand in spades, and played the top diamonds. When the ♦J came down, declarer had the rest: E/W +1020 and 11 IMPs to BIANCHI against SWISS TEAM at table two.
In IRELAND vs SOULET at table four:
West – McGann North – Chottin East – Hanlon South – Harari
Tom Hanlon’s Two Diamond opening showed 11-16 HCP and a three-suited hand with short diamonds. Hugh McGann relayed and found that his partner was minimum (Three Clubs) and had only three hearts (and thus 4-3-1-5 shape). In a similar position to the Italians at the previous table, he also settled on the most likely contract.
McGann won the spade lead in hand and played a low club towards dummy, but he put in the ten when North followed with a low card. This is much more of a straight guess, since you only need to steal one club trick, assuming that diamonds will then produce four tricks. When the ♣A then failed to drop the king, though, declarer had few options other than relying on the ♦J to come down in three rounds with seven missing. Perhaps a somewhat fortunate E/W +990 at this table.
West – Soulet North – Fitzgibbon East – Vinciguerra South – Mesbur
Few other players passed this East hand, but the French are perhaps more disciplined than the rest of us. Over his partner’s 2NT, Herve Vinciguerra transferred to show four or more spade and then asked about clubs. When he then invited with a quantitative 4NT. Phillipe Soulet decided he didn’t like his hand in light of partner’s interest in the black suits, so he passed. E/W +490 and 11 IMPs to the surging IRELAND.
Going into the final match, GOLDBERG, BIANCHI, GUPTA and STREET looked like sure bets for the knockout stages. Behind them came IRELAND (108.08 VPs), who had won four matches in a row, the all-stars of SWISS TEAM (105.41), the mighty NICKELL (104.80) and SELIGMAN (101.30) in the pole positions, but IRELAND would be playing NICKELL and SELIGMAN were up against SWISS TEAM in Round 10. Just outside the bubble and looking in, LAVAZZA (101.08) would play ROLL from Israel (98.61) at table five and NETHERLANDS (97.98) would take on SOULET (96.57) at table six.
Board 12 caused carnage throughout the field, generating double-digit swings in 15 of the 18 matches. This was the layout:
N/S Vul – Dealer West
Eric Rodwell opened a 19-20 2NT. Jeff Meckstroth started with a transfer, showing at least four hearts, then continued with Three Spades, showing both majors, 5-4 either way round or 5-5. Four Clubs asked and Four Hearts showed only mild slam interest with exactly 4-5 in the majors. With so much of his hand in the minors, Rodwell saw no reason to bid on. E/W +450 could be a big swing in either direction, as the Irish did not waste much time on the bidding:
West – McGann North – Levin East – Hanlon South – Weinstein
Steve Weinstein led his partner’s suit and Tom Hanlon won in hand with the ♠A. Declarer now cashed the ♥A, dropping North’s queen, and played a heart to the nine. Although he had a trump loser, declarer was still in the game, until he played the ♠K. South ruffed and exited with a club. Declarer could ruff a diamond and draw South’s last trump, but he now no longer had the entries to squeeze North in the pointed suits. E/W -50 meant 11 IMPs to NICKELL, who won the match 40-23 to confirm their place in the knockout stages.
This pair of results was duplicated in the other key match too. For SELIGMAN, Sauvola/Seligman scored +450 in Four Hearts. Klukowski/Gawrys bid to Six Hearts from the short side in an uncontested auction, but that contract was quickly sunk. North led the ♦Q, on which declarer pitched a spade from dummy. The ♥K was cashed, and now declarer tried to ruff his remaining spade loser in his hand. South ruffed the ♠A and he still had a trump trick to come with his jack: 11 IMPs to SELIGMAN.
Some East/West pairs got rich without having to display excellent declarer play.
West – Ja Hackett North – Lebowitz East – Hydes South – A.Grossack
Jason Hackett’s Two Heart rebid was a Kokish variation, showing either hearts or 20-21 balanced. Larry Lebowitz’s decision to intervene with a Michaels bid atthis vulnerability can perhaps best be described as mistimed. Adam Grossack bid a pass-or-correct Four Clubs and Lebowitz duly showed his diamonds, Deciding that the opponents had finished bidding, Alex Hydes duly lowered the boom. Declarer managed a paltry three tricks: E/W +2000. This was the largest penalty collected on the deal, but three other declarers conceded four-digit scores at the three-level. With their North/South pair collecting +50 defending Six Hearts, that was 19 IMPs to DE BOTTON.
Four declarers did manage to bring home a slam. Kamel Fergani made 6NT when South failed to realize the importance of keeping the ♦9 and thus his partner was subsequently squeezed. One declarer needed no help from the defense:
West – I.Herbst North – B.Comb’re East – O.Herbst South – F.Comb’re
Ilan Herbst won the diamond lead in hand, pitching a spade from dummy. He then played a heart to the queen and ace, and a second round of trumps to the nine in his hand. A diamond ruff was then followed by a spade to the king and a second diamond ruff. Herbst now played a club to the ace and advanced the ♦K, pitching a low club from dummy. South could ruff and return a club (a trump is no better), but declarer won with the ♣K in dummy, drew the last trump, and cashed the ♣Q, squeezing North in spades and diamonds. A magnificent twelve tricks: E/W +980 and 14 IMPs to CHOCOLATA when declarer went one down in the same contract at the other table.
After the final match of the Swiss, the top four teams were unchanged:
Three consecutive wins just lifted LAVAZZA into a qualifying place. Remarkably, it was the first time they had been in the top eight. Excellent timing. At the other end of the scale, consecutive losses in which they collected a total of 5.81/40VPs saw the all-star SWISS TEAM plummet from third place after round 8. Wins for both NETHERLANDS and DE BOTTON in their final matches left both of those teams just tantalizingly short.
So, the matchups for the first round of the knockout stage were set. GOLDBERG selected SELIGMAN as their quarter-final opponents, and they will start with a 10.1-IMP carry-forward advantage. BIANCHI chose to play IRELAND and they start with a 6.1-IMP lead. GUPTA opted to take on NICKELL with a lead of 3.1 IMPs, which left STREET to play LAVAZZA with a 0.1-IMP head start.
We will be back next week with the best of the action from those quarter-final matches.