Bridge with the Billionaires

My partner Christine and I decided to check out the Nebraska Regional bridge tournament this year (August 2019) because we had heard good things about it.

Here are three reasons why it’s such a unique tournament. First, the tournament is actually held in Iowa, in Council Bluffs across the Missouri River from Omaha, so it’s kind of curious that the event isn’t held in the state whose name is attached to it. (Apparently years ago it was actually in Omaha, but they found a cheaper venue at the Mid-America Center in Iowa next to the gigantic Horseshoe Casino run by Caesars.)

Second, the tournament has very decent hospitality with free lunches every day and ice cream at night — plus a daily drawing for a free shipment of the famous Omaha Steaks.

But the real reason the Nebraska Regional has a certain renown is that two of the world’s most famous billionaires, Warren Buffett, now 88, who lives in Omaha, and his friend Bill Gates, 64, used to play there every year. They stopped coming about four years ago when they got tired of all the bridge paparazzi who endlessly pestered them to have selfies taken with them.

This year, someone convinced them to come again. And – wouldn’t you know it? – when we got hooked up at the partnership desk with Gail from Canada and Grace from the U.S. East Coast for a bracketed knockout event on Friday, we were placed in the top bracket along with the team of Gates and Buffett and several other pro teams. (Gail and Grace had almost double the points we have.)

Stranger still was the fact that we actually survived the first round, while the Gates/Buffett team was eliminated, along with another top pro team headed by the young buck from Melbourne, Florida, Kevin Dwyer.

In the second round of the knockout event, we came up against yet another pro team headed by Billy Miller, the columnist from the Bulletin, the official organ of the American Contract Bridge League (ACBL), and we held our own in the first round of the match.

That’s when Miller dismissed the paying client he’d been partnering with – and had been criticizing mercilessly – and replaced him with a young Canadian pro named Grainger, and they proceeded to kill us, and dismiss us in the end with a formulaic “Nice match!”

We got 3.15 Red MasterPoints for our efforts in the top knockout bracket, on top of the 1.50 Red points we earned in an earlier side game the evening we arrived with a decent 57% score.

We also tried our luck an a double-session Open Pairs game on Saturday, but we were able to break 50% only in the evening session and finished out of the money. The Nebraska Regional has a unique format for Open Pairs they call “Choice Pairs” in which you choose two out of three sessions, morning, afternoon and/or evening.

On one board in the “choice pairs” we got to try out a new bidding gadget Christine and I have adopted, called modified Michaels. Traditional Michaels only allows you to show a 5-5 distribution in the majors over a 1 Club or 1 Diamond opening bid, but in modified Michaels, 2 Clubs means Spades and Diamonds, 2 Diamonds means both majors and 2 No-Trump means the two lowest unbid suits, meaning Hearts and Diamonds.

We promptly got a good board on it (79%) when our opponents were so discombobulated by our unfamiliar bidding that they missed a Slam – they didn’t even bid Game.

The South opponent who stopped short of Game will be my column’s anti-hero, Flustered Flo, in this episode of the adventures of the Bridge Burglar, while Christine will be her nemesis, Smug Sam, with the West hand that made the original modified Michaels bid. I’m Sam’s (Christine’s) East partner, Shy Shem, and Flo is playing with her usual North partner, Loyal Larry.

East dealer, North-South vulnerabl

Q 9 6
A J 8 6 4 2
J 5 2
West East
A 8 7 5 4 K J 3 2
10 7 5 Q 9 3
Q 10 8 7 2 J 9 5
  — 8 7 3
A 6 4 3
A K Q 10 9 6 4

The Bidding:

East South West North
(Shy Shem) (Flustered Flo) (Smug Sam) (Loyal Larry)
Pass 1 2 2
2 3 Pass 3
3 4 All Pass


Opening lead: Ace of Spades

When her nemesis, Smug Sam, launched a new bidding gadget at her at a recent Regional bridge tournament they both attended, Flustered Flo wasn’t quite prepared for it.

Flo, sitting South on the diagrammed hand, opened a Club and when Sam in the West seat bid 2 Clubs, she assumed that he was 5-5 in the majors, which didn’t surprise her, since she had singletons in both suits.

But when her own North partner, Loyal Larry, bid 2 Hearts, she was confused, so she asked Shy Shem, Sam’s East partner, what Sam’s 2 Clubs bid had meant.

“It’s modified Michaels,” Shem replied. “He has Spades and Diamonds.”

“Oh,” said Flo, rather taken aback.

The opponents kept bidding Spades and Flo kept bidding Clubs, and after she got to 4 Clubs, everyone passed.

Sam got the first trick with his Ace of Spades, but from that point on, Flo had all the tricks.

She ruffed the second Spade, cashed the King of Hearts, crossed to dummy with the King of Diamonds and sloughed a Diamond from her hand on the Ace of Hearts. Then she ruffed a Spade in her hand, trumped a Diamond in dummy, came to her hand ruffing a Heart, and ruffed her last Diamond loser in dummy. At that point she claimed with all trumps in her hand.

Flo knew that her plus-170 score, not even bidding Game when a Small Slam was cold, would not be a good score and she was right – she and Larry got only 21% on the board, and Sam and Shem scored 79%.

“I’m sorry I missed that Slam and didn’t even bid Game, partner,” said Flo. “I guess I should have kept bidding.”

“Don’t worry, partner,” said Larry who’s always very loyal to Flo. “I know it’s hard to go on when we had an apparent misfit and they had a double fit.”

“Your partner is too kind to you,” said Sam, butting in. “Your hand was so powerful with two singletons and a huge Club suit that there was no way you should have stopped short of a Slam try or at least Game.”

“But with you guys having a double fit in Spades and Diamonds, I was afraid I had three Diamond losers,” said Flo.

“That’s like thinking the glass is half-empty when in reality it’s half-full,” said Sam, smug as always. “If we had a fit in Diamonds and you had four of them, then there was a high likelihood that your partner would be very short in that suit – which he was.”

“I guess I’ve run out of excuses as to why I didn’t bid more with my hand,” said Flo. “The truth of the matter is that I was very confused by that new twist on the Michaels convention you sprang on me. What’s that all about?”

“You know a lot of modern bidding conventions use one bid to indicate two different things,” Sam explained. “But in classic Michaels, you can only indicate a 5-5 distribution in Spades and Hearts. This is just a way to show 5-5 combinations in other suits as well.”

“Does it come up very often?” Flo asked.

“It came up today and it worked,” said Sam. “That’s all that matters now.”

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