It’s a tough time for the pros

Playing against a professional usually gives us mere mortal club players just a bit of an adrenaline rush. We don’t want to be embarrassed and maybe we try a little harder to beat them – and if and when we do, we might tend to gloat just a little.

My partner Christine and I once in a while play online on the BBO platform with the All-for-One alliance of New York-area clubs based around Honors, the Cavendish and Hartes in suburban Westchester County because sometimes they offer games at times often more convenient to us – our home club, the Vero Beach (FL) Bridge Center, only offers open games in the early afternoon. Also, usually some pros hang out at the alliance to play with clients and we like to measure ourselves against them.

Although two seasoned pros playing with each other will usually still pulverize us, professional bridge players playing with so-so clients don’t really scare us. The pairing is usually only as strong as the weakest link. We’ve played against Jeff Meckstroth, Eric Rodwell and a host of other pros at Regionals and even some Sectionals, and we’ve often held our own in the boards against them.

Last week, playing in a Fastball 12-board game hosted by the alliance, we came up against a pro whose BBO profile rather arrogantly proclaimed him to be a “professional bridge player, teacher and director available for play and online lessons.” We understand that the pandemic has made life rather tough on bridge professionals, limiting their chances to earn a buck, and perhaps they have to advertise their availability anywhere and anyhow they can, but that self-promotion struck us as rather inelegant.

Well, to make a long story short, Christine and I came in first in our direction with a 64% game, earning 1.20 MasterPoints (one-quarter of them Gold because it was one of those “Stardust” weeks sponsored by the ACBL), while the pro and his partner finished out of the money at 48%.

The professional had apparently not been able to teach his client even the most basic lessons, because he let her play several contracts. She proceeded to promptly make beginners’ mistakes that cost them boards.

We did well on the two boards we played against the pair and on one of them the pro let his partner play a part-score One No-Trump contract, which she made on the nose. However, the hand records later showed that they could have bid and made Game in 3 No-Trump on the deal. For holding them to just 90 points on the 1NT contract, we got an 83% score, which was a tie for second place.

(Top our way went to another pair that benefited from their opponents unwisely going to 4 Clubs, which went Down Two vulnerable to give them a plus-200. There always seems to be one outlier score that you can’t do anything about.)

The deal holds an important lesson about holding up Aces in No-Trump contracts, so we’ll turn it into another episode of the adventures of the Bridge Burglar. Our South opponent who became the Declarer will play the role of my column’s anti-hero, Flustered Flo. Since her usual partner Loyal Larry wasn’t available – he was getting his second Covid vaccination shot and Flo agreed that was important – Flo had for once hired a pro, Harry the Hustler. She was trying to take advantage of the fact that all games during the week offered some gold points under a special ACBL promotion.

I’ll be Flo’s perennial nemesis, Smug Sam, with the East hand, and Christine will play the West hand as my (Sam’s) partner, Shy Shem.

West Dealer; North-South vulnerable

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

The Bidding:

West North East South
(Shy Shem) (Harry the Hustler) (Smug Sam) (Flustered Flo)
Pass 1 Pass 1
Pass 1 Pass 1 No Trump
All Pass

Opening lead: 4 of Diamonds

Bridge has lots of so-called “rules” with numbers attached to them. The Long Island-based pro, author and teacher, Mel Colchamiro, has a bunch of rules, such as Mel’s Rule of 2, or his rule of 9, but there is another rule, the Rule of 7, which is not one of Mel’s, but still very handy to know.

As with everything else in bridge, these “rules” are only suggestions for what will work in most cases, not necessarily all the time, since everything in bridge in situational. But nevertheless, after botching a No-Trump contract on the diagrammed deal at a recent online club game, Flustered Flo wished she’d been more familiar with the Rule of 7.

On the opening trick, Flo thought – wrongly, as it turned out – that her left-hand opponent, Shy Shem, was probably not under-leading a King, so she decided to rise with dummy’s Ace of Diamonds and attack her strongest suit, the Clubs, right away.

She led a small Club off dummy to her Ace and then let her 10 ride for a losing finesse against Smug Sam’s Queen. When Sam led his last Diamond, Flo inserted her 10 and Shem took the trick with his Jack, also taking the next trick with the Diamond King as Flo sloughed a Spade from dummy and Sam got rid of a now useless Club.

Shem put Flo back in her hand with a Diamond as both North and East pitched Hearts. Flo then ran three Club tricks and took the Ace of Hearts, but that was the last trick she took, as Shem got in next with the Ace of Spades and took a good Diamond and led a Heart to his partner’s King.

Flo had barely made her 1 NT contract, taking 4 Club tricks, 2 Diamonds and the Ace of Hearts, and it was not a good result. As a matter of fact, it was the second-worst score on the board, beating only one pair that had gone Down Two in 4 Clubs. Bidding 1 or 2 NT and making 3 was about average on the board, and a tie for top went to 2 pairs that actually bid 3 NT and made an overtrick.

At the Zoom meeting after the game hosted by the club to discuss some of the more interesting hands, Flo had been hoping to hear from her pro, Harry the Hustler, about what had gone so terribly wrong on the hand, but Harry hadn’t stuck around – apparently he was off hustling up another client. Evidently he’d forgotten all about the promise he’d made to Flo to give her a lesson as well as play with her to help her get Gold points. Since that hadn’t happened, either, Flo wasn’t too surprised.

In Harry’s absence, Flo turned to her nemesis, Smug Sam, for advice. “Why is everyone else making overtricks, when I could barely make One No on that hand?” Flo asked him.

“Ever hear of the Rule of 7?” asked Sam. “I see you hired a pro today – didn’t he teach you that?”

“I thought you weren’t much for had-and-fast rules in bridge,” said Flo. “But I’ll bite – what is it?”

“The rule of 7 says that when you have the Ace in the suit that your opponents lead, you’re supposed to hold it up and not play it right away,” Sam explained, smug as always. “You count up the number of cards you have in the suit, subtract it from 7, and that’s the number of times you hold up your Ace. In this case, you had a total of 6 Diamonds, so you subtract 6 from 7 and get one, so you have to hold up your Ace once. It’s a matter of common sense. That way you cut communication between your opponents and if I get in again, I can’t lead another Diamond to my partner.”

“I guess the whole hand gets played differently after that,” said Flo.

“That’s right,” said Sam. “But I really feel sorry for you, Flo. Usually, pros playing with clients make sure that they get to play the tricky No-Trump contracts, not their clients. I don’t know why Harry the Hustler didn’t say One No-Trump on his rebid. Then you can make an invitational raise to 2 No-Trump, and, relying on his no-doubt superior playing skill, he can confidently go to Game and make it. Your pro really left you in the lurch this time making you play it.”

“Can he make 3 No-Trump even against the best defense?” Flo asked.

“Yes,” said Sam. “I’d lead a Heart, but again, using the Rule of 7, he ducks the Ace once, take it on the second trick and then calmly lead a small Spade. He knows I can’t have the Ace because then I’d have enough points to overcall a Heart. And if and when my partner takes his Spade Ace, he can’t come back in Hearts. Then your pro finesses the Queen of Clubs the other way because I’m the dangerous opponent with my Hearts, and he makes 5 Clubs, two red Aces and two Spade tricks for a total of 9.”

“I think I’ve learned a new bridge rule,” said Flo. “Never trust a pro who lets his client play a No-Trump contract.”

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