December BBO Prime Tournament. Deal analysis. Happy New Year!

Thank you for joining December’s BBO Prime Tournament. We hope you enjoyed it!

There were 10 deals in this tournament and 6 of them were taken from a real life event, featured on BBO vugraph. Want to know which deals were “cooked” and see how they were played originally?

The “surprise” deals were boards 1, 3, 4, 6, 7 and 9 in December’s BBO Prime Tournament.

Read below BBO star player and bridge writer extraordinaire Marc Smith’s analysis, along with the context in which the hands were played in real life.

The rapid aging of the bridge-playing population around the world is a major concern for the future of the game. It was, therefore, heartening to see so many teams of young players descending on Atlanta, Georgia for the Michael Seamon Junior United States Bridge Championships. Two teams in each category would earn the right to represent the USA at the 2020 World Junior Championships, to be held in Salsomaggiore, Italy in the summer. Players competed in four categories, Under-16, Under-21, Under-26 Open and Under-26 Girls.

In this week’s article, we begin our coverage of the final stages with the Under-21 event. Four teams qualified from a round robin to contest the semi-finals, and the favorites in each match turned in dominating performances to claim their place in the final. Having earned the number two seeds by finishing second in the round robin, KOLESNIK (Finn Kolesnik-Michael Xu, Sarah Youngquist-Harrison Luba), defeated the team captained by Zhoafeng Wang by 106 IMPs (179-73) in their 60-board semi-final. Meanwhile, the top seeds, XIAO (Brent Xiao-Richard Jeng, Michael Hu-Arthur Zhou, Cornelius Duffie-Stella ‘Qinqin’ Wan), saw off the challenge of Kunal Vohra’s team by 113 IMPs (210-97). 

As usual, we begin with some bidding problems for you to consider. We will find out later how your choices would have turned out.

With neither side vulnerable, you hold as East:

North’s Two Diamond opening is a natural weak two. What action, if any, do you take now?

Next, with only the opponents vulnerable, your hand as West is:

What action do you take now? What is your plan?

Finally, with just the opponents vulnerable you are East with this hand:

Partner’s 3NT rebid shows 18-19 balanced. What action, if any, do you take?

While you mull those over, let’s take a look at the early action. KOLESNIK began explosively, scoring 23 unanswered IMPs on the opening four deals of the match. We start with Board 5, a real firecracker from The Great Dealer on which those watching on BBO VuGraph saw some excellent bidding judgement by a number of players.

N/S VulnerableDealer North

Juniors tend to pre-empt more often than they should, so it was perhaps surprising to see Richard Jeng pass this East hand at favorable vulnerability when even most players in an Open event would opt to start with Two or Three Diamonds. Sarah Youngquist then demonstrated an understanding of bidding by opening One Club, planning to bid her shape out accurately rather than starting with her five-card major.

Brent Xiao now quite sensibly injected some pace into the auction. When his pre-emptive Three Spades came back to Youngquist, she completed a fairly accurate description of her shape and strength with a Four Heart bid. One might have thought that would end matters, but Jeng was still there. His decision to compete to Four Spades despite holding only two low trumps was an excellent one, and deserved a better outcome. Indeed, note that North must lead a diamond for his partner to ruff, and that South must then underlead her A to put partner in for a second ruff in order to stop declarer making ten tricks in a spade contract.

When Four Spades came back to Harrison Luba, he had a fairly clear Five Heart bid. If either of the East/West players could have found one more bid, North would have been really tested but bidding five-over-five on these cards proved just too difficult. 

Brent Xiao made a valiant effort, leading an obvious suit-preference ♠5 against Five Hearts, hoping partner could win and deliver a club ruff. It was not to be, though. Youngquist won, drew trumps ending in dummy, and took the club finesse. A fourth round of trumps put her back in dummy for a second successful finesse, and she could then claim eleven tricks by conceding a club. N/S +650.

West – Kolesnik North – Zhou East – Xu SouthHu

The first round of the auction duplicated that from the other table, but then Arthur Zhou thought the North hand worthy of a negative double. This seems just too much for me on an effective 7-count, and I cannot blame Michael Hu for carrying the partnership too high.

With North as declarer, a Lightner double from Finn Kolesnik ensured nothing could go wrong with the defense. Michael Xu duly did as he was asked and led a club. Kolesnik ruffed and cashed his ace for one down: N/S +200 and 13 IMPs to KOLESNIK, ahead 38-0 after just five deals.

XIAO at last got on the board, and as the set drew to a close one of their pairs got to demonstrate their bidding methods:

N/S VulnerableDealer West

Although there are 13 virtually top tricks, bidding this combination proved not to be so easy for natural methods. One could argue, perhaps, whether the most important feature of the West hand is the diamond shortage or the potential source of tricks in hearts. When Kolesnik opted to show the shortage, you can hardly blame East for deciding his hand was now (sub-)minimum, hence the space-consuming jump to game. Should West make one more try before settling for the small slam? Maybe, but is he really going to find out enough starting at this level? Probably not, I suspect. E/W +1010.

The Strong Club methods being used at the other table were just what the doctor ordered:

West – Xiao North – Luba East – Jeng SouthYoungquist

Xiao opened with a Strong Club. Jeng’s One Heart response was game-forcing with at least four spades, and Xiao now initiated a relay sequence with One Spade. Two Clubs showed at least four diamonds, and Three Diamonds specified 5-3-4-1 shape. 3NT limited the East hand to 11-12 HCP or 13+ but with less than four Neapolitan controls (ace=2, king=1), and Four Hearts confirmed exactly three controls. Five Diamonds showed either the ace or the king of both spades and diamonds, and we then got down to queens: Five Spades denied the Q and Six Diamonds showed the Q. Xiao now decided that he had heard enough. An impressive demonstration of their methods, for sure: E/W +1510 and 11 IMPs to XIAO, who trailed 34-49 at the end of the first stanza.

Perhaps what makes this auction all the more remarkable is that these two players do not often get to play together face-to-face. Brent Xiao is a senior at the Georgia Institute of Technology, whilst Richard Jeng (who was a member of the USA Under-21 team at the 2018 Youth World Championships) is a sophomore at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

XIAO reduced the deficit to just 5 IMPs on the first deal of the second set. Then came:

None VulnerableDealer North

You will recognize this East hand from the problems posed at the start of this article. We start at the other table, though, where North passed as Dealer. Put under pressure by South’s pre-empt, Harrison Luba stuck to the old adage of aiming for the best result possible rather than the best possible result. Yes, you might have a slam, or clubs might be better, but the singleton in partner’s suit is not an asset and so a simple Four Hearts is surely the best practical bid.

Having opened the bidding, Sarah Youngquist had no reason to do anything other than pass her partner’s competitive Four Hearts. A club lead would have held declarer to ten tricks, but North had no reason not to lead his partner’s suit, and there went the entry for South’s ruff: E/W +450.

At the World Championships in Wuhan, we saw an amazing number of boards on which pre-empting produced good results. Certainly, if you have a natural weak Two Diamonds available, I can see no reason not to open it on this North hand, and nor could Finn Kolesnik

West – Hu North – Kolesnik East – Zhou SouthXu

North’s opening bid should not have particularly inconvenienced East/West here. Indeed, it would seem that South’s Three Spade overcall at the other table would be more obstructive. For some reason, though, Zhou was persuaded that his side was being talked out of something when, in fact, the knowledge that partner was almost certainly short in diamonds should have had the opposite effect. 

Had East advanced with a diamond cue-bid, perhaps they would have stopped at the five-level and escaped with a flat board when North couldn’t find a club lead. The use of Blackwood, though, was truly ill-conceived here, since the Five Spade response carried the partnership beyond even that relative safety level and left East having to bid the slam knowing that two key cards were missing. The defenders made their two aces: E/W -100 and a rather unexpected 11 IMPs landed in the laps of KOLESNIK, back ahead by 16.

KOLESNIK won a close second set 40-31 to lead by 24 (89-65) at the midway point of the match. Could the #1 seeds turn the match around before things got out of hand?

XIAO got off to a good start in the third set, and our next exhibit helped their cause considerably. One has to think that the KOLESNIK team contributed to their own downfall, though:

N/S VulnerableDealer North

You will recognize this hand as the second of the problems presented earlier. Brent Xiao started with what I consider the obvious bid, a forcing Three Clubs. 

As an aside, it is worth looking at North’s actions on this deal, which seem somewhat misguided. The general rule in competitive auctions is that you decide the level to which you are prepared to bid and then bid to that level immediately. By bidding Three Spades and then Four Spades, North gave West the chance to describe his hand fairly accurately: if 4NT here offered a choice of strains, then West has been able to show very good clubs and moderate heart support. The double of 4NT is also somewhat fatuous, as it not only allows East to decline making a choice, but also permits him to show extra values via a redouble. A double of a bid that is never going to end the auction needs to tell partner something particularly useful, as it will often provide numerous extra options for the opponents.

Here, though, I suspect that 4NT was RKCB for clubs as the redouble is annotated as “!”, which is, I suspect, a misprint for “1”. Having found what he assumed was either the A or ♣K opposite, Xiao now took a shot at slam in his long suit. North led a diamond and declarer was soon claiming an overtrick: E/W +940.

Now back to that West hand:

West – Kolesnik North – Wan East – Xu SouthDuffie

Finn Kolesnik chose to show a spade shortage with heart support at his first turn. A point worth remembering is that if partner holds good hearts then they will be equally useful in a club contract. Agreeing hearts immediately on this hand, and ignoring the club suit, is a dangerous thing to do indeed. And so it proved. 

North bid Four Spades and East doubled to suggest unsuitability for a high-level heart contract. Now West, belatedly, tried to get his clubs into the auction, but expecting partner to pass Six Clubs with exactly the trump holding you want (singleton King) is asking far too much after this start to the auction.

South led a diamond against Six Hearts and it was really only a matter of how many undertricks. Declarer won in hand to play a trump to the king and ace. South ruffed the diamond return and forced dummy with a spade. When declarer then misguessed, taking a losing finesse to the J, South was able to cash a spade to set the contract by three: E/W -300 and 14 IMPs to XIAO.

XIAO won the third stanza 41-18, leaving the match score tied at 106-106 going into the final 15 deals. All to play for! 

3NT contracts are often a race between the defenders and declarer to see who can set up their length tricks first. It can turn out, though, that the tortoise still sometimes beats the hare. Here the defenders who got off to the best start were not the ones who beat the contract. There are a couple of worthwhile technical points to the defense too:

Both VulnerableDealer South

Each of the opponents has shown one of the majors, but neither minor-suit holding looks like an ideal opening lead either. Cornelius Duffie hit upon the 4, which looks like the best start for the defense. Declarer ducked the first round and won the second in hand with the K to lead a club to dummy’s ten. It would have been better for North to duck the ace, if for no other reason than to force declarer to use an entry to hand. There is the additional reason that you do not really want to be on lead: what do you do next? A club return is actually okay but, having taken her ♣A, Wan opted for a diamond switch. (Although declarer can make only three diamond tricks on his own, he can make four on this layout if either defender opens the suit and declarer reads the position.)

North chose a deceptive 9, and might have gotten away with that. However, when declarer won in hand, played a second club (to queen and king) and then led the ♠10, North failed to cover. This in itself would have allowed declarer to score a second, and otherwise unattainable, second spade trick. However, when declarer next cashed his winners in hearts and clubs, North found herself squeezed in the pointed suits. She threw a diamond, so declarer did not have to risk the second spade finesse anyway. E/W +600.

West – Xiao North – Luba East – Jeng SouthYoungquist

Although the notrump range was slightly lower here, the auction was effectively the same and here Youngquist chose the J as her opening lead. With the 6 potentially being squashed, declarer can now make four diamond tricks by winning the first round with the queen and leading twice from dummy, forcing North to cover. The 5 will eventually be promoted. However, declarer won the diamond in hand to lead a club.

At this table, North did duck the first round of clubs and Jeng now needed a route back to his hand. He tried a heart from dummy, ducking when North followed the queen. It is far from clear that just continuing hearts is best, so North played another diamond, choosing a rather clever 9 (more on this later). Declarer won in dummy with the Q, crossed to the K, and repeated the club finesse. North won and continued with her low diamond. Unsurprisingly, declarer did not guess the position, quite reasonably playing the opening leader for an original holding of J-10-6.  Declarer was just about out of options now. Two hearts, three diamonds, two clubs and one spade added up to only eight: E/W -100 and 12 IMPs to KOLESNIK, forging ahead again.

Earlier in this report, we saw the scientific bidding of Xiao-Jeng in action. On our final deal, they proved that they could also get the job done with judgement.

N/S VulnerableDealer West

Although they were playing a 15-17 1NT, Kolesnik opened the West hand with One Spade and then rebid 3NT over the Two Diamond response. Personally, with such a concentration of points in the short suits, I’d be more inclined to downgrade this hand rather than upgrade it. Whether West has shown 15-17 or 18-19, though, the question is what action East should take, if any. 

I think Michael Xu’s pass is rather conservative: surely game in diamonds will be safe. The problem is, are you going to find out anything useful if you do bid something like Four Diamonds? West will be able to cue-bid in hearts, but is that enough for you to then bid slam? North led a heart against 3NT and declarer quickly claimed his 12 tricks: E/W +490.

West – Xiao North – Luba East – Jeng SouthYoungquist

When the auction began with a Strong Club and a 1NT positive response (showing at least four hearts) from Jeng, the VuGraph audience settled in for another long, precision auction. It would seem, though, that Sarah Youngquist’s gentle Two Club intervention entirely derailed East/West’s relay system. West’s pass presumably showed a minimum balanced hand, probably denying four-card heart support, and now it was all up to Richard Jeng’s judgement. His leap to Six Diamonds demonstrated that this aspect of his game was as robust as the scientific approach the partnership had demonstrated so capably earlier. South cashed her ace and declarer quickly claimed: E/W +920 and 10 IMPs to XIAO.

It proved to be too little too late for the number one seeds, though. KOLESNIK won the final stanza by 15 IMPs and the match by the same margin, 146-131. Congratulations, though, are due to both of these teams. Their win in the final established the KOLESNIK team as USA-1 for the World Championships in Italy in the summer. The XIAO team later won the playoff against the VOHRA team by 202-130 to become USA-2.

The overall standard was encouraging in this Under-21 event, which can only be good news for the future of the game we all love. Over the next couple of weeks, we’ll see more action from these championships, with the latter stages of the other age groups.