From the cornfield to the concrete jungle

READING, PA and MANHATTAN, NYC – Talk about contrasts! At the beginning of the past weekend my partner Christine Matus and I played in a Sectional bridge tournament in the cornfields in rural Pennsylvania, and at the end of the weekend we tried our luck in a club game in Manhattan among the skyscrapers of the Upper East Side.

(Those were the bridge bookends to our weekend. In between, we managed to run a 30-feet sailing vessel aground in the Chesapeake Bay and attend the Eagles’ exciting 19-17 win over the New York Giants in my company’s Superbox Sunday night – the latter was just as suspenseful as the former; a tiny boat with a small outboard engine managed to pull us out of the mud.)

Bridge players in Reading, PA, have been nomads for several years since they lost their locale in the Reading Eagle newspaper building. They’ve tried a couple of Jewish centers and later this month they’re moving into a Catholic church (what a conversion!) but in the meantime they were stuck  at the Greth Homebuilding company across from a cornfield on the outskirts of town.

For the Berks County Fall Sectional tournament this past weekend, they had to put a bunch of tables in a warehouse among piles of lumber, hardhats, ladders and even kitchen sinks – it was one of the strangest environments I ever played bridge in.

We threw everything including that kitchen sink at our opponents, and lumbered to a 47.4% finish while hammering out a performance that earned us a second place in the “C” category of the open pairs game against some pretty tough competition, which was worth another .75 MasterPoints to each of us.

At the end of the weekend we decided to check out the very different scene in New York City. As we learned, there are three main duplicate bridge clubs there, a sort of hardscrabble gathering on the West Side, a rather snobbish club named Honors just south of Central Park where the card fees are $28 per person, and the Cavendish Club on the Upper East Side on 87th Street named after a famous British player of yesteryear.

Cavendish is owned and run by the Fallenius couple (Bjorn from Sweden, a former world-class player, and his American wife Kathy) and it charges $20 a head but that includes lunch. It also has some outstanding players but has the reputation as the friendliest club in Manhattan, so for all of the above reasons that’s where we decided to play.

We had a couple of bad boards when our opponents doubled us in partial contracts (the double cards fly through the air there like Frisbees in Central Park), but we also had some good boards on defense. I made an overtrick in a weak 2 Spades stealing bid that I shouldn’t have made by snookering a very experienced player with a falsecarding play (throwing my Queen under his Ace), and we bid and made a Slam that more than half the pairs did not find.

That all added up to a third-place finish overall with a 54.14% game worth another .84 MasterPoints, not bad for a tough game in the Big Apple.

Probably the most interesting hand we played in either place was in the cornfield in Reading when my partner opened with a weak 2 Hearts bid but wound up playing a 3 Clubs contract, which was the best we could have done on the board and gave us a top score. I had a good hand but was I void in Hearts (my partner’s long suit), so I took matters into my own hand and decided NOT to play in that suit.

The hand is worthy of a column because it shows you don’t always have to assume that you’ll play the contract in the long suit of the weak 2 opener. I really played the board as East, but to make play easier to follow, I’ll become North and my partner Christine will become South. I was the one who arrived at the correct Clubs contract using the Ogust convention.

The hand

East Dealer; neither side vulnerable

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

The bidding

East South West North
Pass 2 Pass 2 No-Trump
Pass 3 All pass

Opening lead: 5

How Flustered Flo played it

Flustered Flo has always assumed that when one partner opens with a weak 2 bid, the contract would be played in that suit – perhaps with the exception of a very unusual case in which the partner of the weak 2 opener would have an even longer suit with seven or more.

That assumption got Flo into trouble when she played North on the diagrammed deal with her South partner, Loyal Larry, at a recent Sectional tournament near her home club. When her partner opened with a weak 2 Hearts bid, it was the last thing Flo wanted to hear from her because she was void in that suit.

Flo used the standard 2 No-Trump reply bid with her strong hand to ask Larry if he had any side feature apart from his long Hearts suit, but when Larry repeated his Hearts at the 3 level, indicating he had no such feature, she felt she was forced to pass (she’d been hoping for a Spade stopper in her partner’s hand to bid 3 No-Trump).

Larry took the finesse on the Diamond King on the opening trick and was happy when the Queen held. He led the Diamond Ace and got to his hand with a Diamond ruff. He then set about to get the trump out, leading his Ace and a small one to East’s Queen. East also collected his trump King before exiting with a small Club, which allowed Larry to capture West’s King with dummy’s Ace. He couldn’t lead his good Diamonds from dummy as long as trumps were still out, so he continued with dummy’s Club Queen and another Club to put East back in the lead with the Jack. Now East led another Club to give his West partner a ruff, and the West opponent then collected the Spade Ace for Down One – two trump tricks, a Club , a Spade and an extra ruff.

“Sorry, partner,” Larry told Flo. “I just couldn’t make it. But you had such a good hand that you had to explore going further by asking for a feature.  I just didn’t have anything besides my Hearts so I had to repeat them and by then we were already too high.”

“I understand, partner,” Flo said. “Don’t worry. Everyone else is bound to do the same, so it’ll be a flat board.”

Flo turned out to be very wrong in that prediction. She was flabbergasted – and, well, flustered, too – to discover at the end of the game that her perennial nemesis, Smug Sam, had scored tops on the board by bidding 3 Clubs and making 4 for a plus-130 score, the only positive score for her side.

“How come you played that hand in Clubs and not in Hearts?” Flo asked Sam when she found him among the people looking at the final scores that had just been posted on the bulletin board. “If you were playing North like me, didn’t you also bid 2 No-Trump like I did to ask for a side feature?”

“I did bid 2 No-Trump,” Sam admitted, “but we don’t play feature. We play the Ogust convention.”

“Run that one by me again?” Flo asked.

“With a low point count for a weak 2 bid, 5 to 8 points, the openers rebid 3 Cubs or 3 Diamonds depending on whether they have just one or more honors in their trump suit. With a hand at the top of the point range, with 9, 10, or 11 points, they rebid 3 Hearts, 3 Spades or 3 No-Trump depending on whether they have one, two or all three of the top honors in the trump suit. My partner bid 3 Clubs, meaning weak hand and weak trump suit. Then I didn’t have much stomach for letting him play it in Hearts, so I passed his 3 Cubs artificial reply.”

“He must have freaked out at first, but then he made that contract with an overtrick?” Flo asked.

“Yes on both accounts — it was the right contract,” said Sam, smug as always. “All the finesses worked, but my partner Shy Shem had only one entry to his hand. West led a Diamond to give him a free finesse; there is no better lead anyway. After collecting the Diamond Queen and Ace, my partner ruffed a Diamond. Then he cashed the Heart Ace, dumping a Spade, and took the finesse on the trump King, dropping it under dummy’s Ace on the second trump round. Eventually the opponents got their trump Jack and two Spade tricks because my partner had to lead from dummy’s King, but that was all.”

“So you don’t always play the contract in the long suit of the weak 2 opener?” Flo asked.

“Not if I don’t like the suit and I think I have something better,” Sam replied.

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