Mexican Adventures

Playing in the San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, Regional was a bit of a schizophrenic experience.

Here we were, my partner Christine and I, in the heart of Mexico, on the Central Highlands plateau, in a beautiful Mexican town with well-preserved Spanish colonial architecture and cobblestone streets, but the convention center where the bridge tournament was held was full of Americans (and some Canadians, plus a smattering of Europeans).

The two directors were American, from as far away as Seattle. You could pay your card fees in either U.S. dollars ($13 per person per session) or in Mexican pesos (250). Judging by the stacks of money in the directors’ hands at the start of each session, the currency preference seemed to be about equal.

So why does this Mexican town that’s a little hard to reach host a Regional? You can fly into Mexico City and then brave a 3 ½ hour road trip by bus or rent-a-car, or you can (as we did) fly direct from several U.S. hubs into the new international airport at Queretaro, an hour away. You can also use the Leon international airport, about two hours away to the west in the same Mexican state of Guanajuato.

Since it’s hard to get to, the tournament is mostly for the benefit of the locals. San Miguel is known in Mexico as “gringo ghetto,” where a lot of retired Americans (and some Canadians) have settled because of the mild climate often described as “eternal springtime,” the congenial artsy surroundings and great restaurants. What many of those retired “norteamericanos” do is play bridge – a lot of it. There are at least two local duplicate clubs and you can find a game any day of the week.

Mexico (along with Canada and Bermuda) is part of the American Contract Bridge League, and the country actually hosts two ACBL Regionals every year. The other is held in the West Coast beach resort of Puerto Vallarta, and principally serves the other American retiree enclave in Mexico on the shores of Lake Chapala near Guadalajara. It remains a mystery why so few Mexicans play bridge and most players in Mexico are U.S. expats – no one, even the few Mexicans, seemed to have an answer for that question.

The coronavirus panic hadn’t hit Mexico yet with full force. Attendance wasn’t down, although people generally refrained from shaking hands. The wait staff at the hotel wore masks the first couple of days – then they ran out of masks, and we could finally see their faces.

Not many pros usually in evidence at Regionals made it to San Miguel, but we faced stiff competition from the local expats – after all, they have little else to do but play bridge every day of the week.

Christine and I came away with 5 MasterPoints from 2 ½ days of play, most of them Gold. We struck out in a knockout competition when the very nice couple from Santa Fe, NM, that we were paired with apologized to us for having had a bad morning – it may have had something to do with the fact that they were worried about a sick son they couldn’t get hold of back home.

But we came in first in the Bs in the second half of a two-session open pairs game, and first in our direction with 54% in another half open pairs game we were allowed to enter after taking a morning off.

Our most interesting hand was from the first day we played. I failed to make a 5 Clubs contract, and even after we got the hand records and could see all four hands, it took me quite a while to figure out how I could have made it. For failing to make the contract, I’ll turn myself into my column’s anti-hero, Flustered Flo, as the South Declarer, while my West opponent who set me will become Flo’s nemesis, Smug Sam. Sam is playing with his usual East partner, Shy Shem, while my partner Christine becomes my North partner, Loyal Larry.

East Dealer; neither side vulnerable

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

The Bidding:

East South West North
(Shy Shem) (Flustered Flo) (Smug Sam) (Loyal Larry)
Pass 1 Pass 1 NT
Pass 3 Pass 5
All Pass

Opening lead: 6 of Hearts

You can get a good score on any board either because of your own brilliant bidding and/or play, or because of your opponents’ mistakes.

In most cases, it’s probably easier to get those good results with the help of your opponents’ miscues.

That’s what Flustered Flo found out with the South hand on the diagrammed deal played at a recent Regional tournament in Mexico. Between Flo and her North partner, Loyal Larry, they had enough high-card points for Game – 25 – but because of her singleton Heart, Flo declined her partner’s invitation to play the contract in No-Trump, opting for a Game in Clubs instead.

That turned out to be a bad decision, because even though theoretically, the hand can make 5 Clubs and only 2 No-Trump, it was extraordinarily difficult to make 5 Clubs, while apparently it was easier to provoke a defensive mistake and make 3 No-Trump, no matter what the hand records said.

That’s how Flo and Larry ended up with a 13% score on the board for going Down One in 5 Clubs and getting a minus-50 score, while the top North-South pairs actually bid and made 3 No-Trump for plus-400 when the defenders failed to find the setting Heart lead. Thus the old adage was proven right again – it’s easier to get your opponents to make a mistake than to rely on your own brilliance.

Flo took the first trick with dummy’s Ace of Hearts and drew two rounds of trump ending in dummy. When trumps didn’t break 2-2, she decided she’d better set up the Diamonds first. Playing for split honors, she led the 10 and let it ride to Sam’s Jack. Sam next led the King of Hearts, which Flo ruffed.

She led the Ace of Spades and put Sam back in the lead with the King of Spades. Another Heart lead put Flo back in her hand with a ruff and she was then able to ruff a Spade in dummy for another Diamond finesse. Alas, that finesse failed, too, and Flo was Down One. She had lost three tricks, a Spade and two Diamonds.

“Bad luck, partner,” said her partner Larry, who’s always very loyal to Flo. “You should be able to count on split honors in the Diamonds, but in this case, both missing honors were off-side. You were right to stay away from No-Trump, though – we have only one Heart stopper.”

“All of that may be true,” said Sam, who’s not as reluctant as Loyal Larry to criticize Flo’s play, “but there was actually a way for you to make your Game in 5 Clubs, even against the best defense.”

“I don’t believe it,” said Flo. “As long as both missing Diamond honors are off-side, there’s no way.”

“Yes, there is,” said Sam, smug as always. “After taking the Ace of Hearts, you come to your hand with the Spade Ace and lead a small Spade to put me back on lead with the King. I lead another Heart, which you ruff in your hand, and then you ruff a Spade from your hand in dummy. I could ruff, too, but that’s just throwing away a trump, so I can dump one Diamond. You come back to your hand ruffing dummy’s last Heart and you ruff your hand’s last Spade in dummy. That forces me to pitch a Heart. Now you draw three rounds of trump ending up in your hand, and lead a small Diamond. I can take the trick with the Jack, but all I have left then is Diamonds and I have to give you a free finesse in an endplay.”

“That’s pretty clever,” said Flo, “and I’m sorry I didn’t find that line of play at the table, relying instead on one of the two Diamonds finesses working. But I think the best defense can still trip me up.”

“What do you mean?” asked Sam.

“When I play my Ace of Spades, you should throw your King under it,” said Flo, very proud of having found this new wrinkle. “Then, when your partner gets in with the Queen on the second Spade trick, he can lead a Diamond right through me.”

“That won’t work, either,” said Sam, “because you can strip away my trumps first, and then, when I get in with the Jack of Diamonds, I either have to give you the same free finesse in the Diamonds end-play, or I have to lead my last Heart, giving up a ruff-and-slough. Either way, you make the 5 Clubs contract.”

“I guess it would have been easier to make 3 No-Trump anyway,” Flo moaned. “As long as you would lead a Diamond against me, the by-the-book lead of fourth-best from longest and strongest, you would give me the one extra trick I’d need.”

“But I would never lead a Diamond against you, Flo,” said Sam. “I’d always lead a Heart. Just because I don’t do anything by the book.”

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