Up or Down

As they move up through the American Contract Bridge League (ACBL) ranks, regular duplicate players face a choice. Do you play “down,” looking for weaker competition to beat up to gain MasterPoints more quickly, or do you play “up,” measuring yourself against tougher players in a field where it may be harder to come by points?

It’s a classic risk-and-reward scenario – the larger the risk, the greater the reward. Sure, it’s harder to win points in a tough field and you risk getting shut out. But if you do well, you’ll also get more points.

This past week (12/14-12/20/2015), my partner Christine and I played a couple of days at the Florida Winter Regional at the new location that will also host the Fort Lauderdale Unit’s Southeastern Spring Regional from now on. The move from the beachfront Bahia Mar hotel, where the air-conditioning gave out last year and had us all sweating copiously in 100-degree heat, to the new Marriott convention center in the Lauderdale suburb of Coral Springs was a huge positive – and table count was way up.

One of the two days Christine and I played Swiss teams with Ada Klein from Boca Raton, whom we’d played with once before in Naples, and Marcia, who was in charge of the caddies at the Regional. And instead of playing in the “Senior Swiss” competition, where all players have to be over 55, we entered the “Open Swiss” game open to all comers, including the young pros making a living at the game. Open Swiss is tougher than Senior Swiss because you get about double the points per match won. We might have aspired to one of the top spots in the B classification in the Senior Swiss game, but we were content with our 3-3 record in the Open game, which got us 1.26 Red MasterPoints, .42 per match won.

Then when we played pairs another day, we entered the A/X/Y game, where most players were As with more than 5,000 points and even the Ys went up to 2,000 points. We were just about the lowest-ranked Y pair, with Christine having half that amount and me trailing another 200 points behind. Still, we did okay in the morning session (the afternoon was rather forgettable), coming in first among the Ys with a game just under 50% that earned us 1.14 Gold MasterPoints.

All in all, we’ve decided we prefer to play “up.” We may get beaten up once in a while, but we don’t believe we’ll learn much anymore playing against lower-ranked competition. When we do get better, the points will come anyway – and they’ll come in bigger bunches.

One hand we played in Open Swiss earned me the respect and the admiration from our opponents, who called me “St. Genius” for the vision to bid – and make – a Small Slam in Hearts on a combined 23 points between myself and my partner. I was wearing a T-shirt given to me by my daughter that said “St. Obnoxious” on the front and had a funny but scatological saying about beer in German on the back.

“You’re not just St. Obnoxious,” said our opponent who was in awe of our bidding, “you’re St. Genius.”

That makes the hand good enough for a Bridge Burglar blog entry. Our West opponent who had two Aces but was powerless to stop the Slam will become Flustered Flo, while I’ll be Flo’s nemesis, Smug Sam, with the South Declarer hand. Christine will be my North partner, Shy Shem, who barely supported my 1 Heart opening bid and was as surprised as anyone to hear me go to Slam. The hand is a textbook case for the so-called Voidwood (or Exclusion Blackwood) bidding convention.

North Dealer; North-South vulnerable

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

The bidding:

North East South West
Pass Pass 1 Pass
2 Pass 4 * Pass
4 ** Pass 6 All Pass

*Voidwood convention, asking for keycards (Aces and trump King) excluding Diamond Ace
**Voidwood response, indicating one keycard

Opening lead: 6 of Spades

To determine whether Slam is even a possibility, often it’s not enough to know how many Aces a partner has – you need to know exactly which Ace he or she has. You may not need a particular Ace because you’re void in that suit and thus you have first- and second-round control in the suit anyway.

There’s a convention to cover just that eventuality. It’s called Voidwood or Exclusion Blackwood. After the trump suit has been determined, one partner jumps in a side suit that has not been bid before as a natural bid. That’s a Slam try asking for keycards (Aces and the King of the trump suit) but excluding the Ace of the suit that’s just been bid – the bidder is void in it. That will usually allow the Declarer to figure out exactly which Ace his or her partner has – and bid a Slam with confidence, even though the partnership may be missing as many as two Aces.

On the diagrammed deal at a recent Regional duplicate tournament Swiss team match in her home state, Flustered Flo had the West hand with two Aces. She never expected her nemesis, Smug Sam, who sat South, to proceed to bid a Slam, but that’s exactly what he did.

Before making a decision whether or not to double, Flo thought she’d better ask Sam’s North partner, Shy Shem, whether Sam’s skip bid to 4 Diamonds had been a natural bid.

“No,” said Shem, rather shyly.

With that, Flo decided not to double, and not to lead either one of her Aces – there was too great a risk that her Ace would get ruffed because of a void and set up a King for the opposition somewhere.

Since she didn’t want to make the most passive lead of a trump, that left Spades, but dummy’s Jack held on the opening trick. Sam proceeded to draw trumps in three rounds, collected the Spade Ace, came to his hand by ruffing a Diamond, ran the rest of the Spades and eventually gave up only one trick to Flo’s Ace of Clubs to make his Slam.

Flo’s teammates at the other table stopped at 4 Hearts making 6, and the difference of 13 International Match Points (IMPs) for the 750-point difference on the hand swung the match to Sam’s team.

“How on earth did you dare bid Slam on just 23 high-card points between you?” Flo asked Sam after the scores had been compared and the result had been turned into the director. “Which book or what guru tells you to do that? I’ve never heard of such a thing. You shouldn’t even have had a Game.”

“You’re not listening to the right guru, Flo,” said Sam, smug as always. “You’ve got to listen to your inner voice. My gut told me the Slam could be there. Points don’t matter on a distributional hand like that. It was a textbook case for the Voidwood convention. If my partner had the Ace of Spades, I knew the Slam could be there. If he didn’t and if he’d answered 4 Hearts for zero key cards, I’d play 4 Hearts and make it. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. I might as well try for the Slam.”

“Weren’t you lucky that Spades broke 3-3?” Flo asked.

“I could have set them up by ruffing a Spade in dummy,” said Sam. “The Slam was solid.”

“Well, at least my inner voice told me not to double and not to lead my Ace of Diamonds,” said Flo, trying to salvage some honor for herself.

“I might have redoubled,” said Sam, “just to rack up the points. But as for leading one of your Aces, that didn’t matter. I ruff any Diamond lead and you can collect your Ace of Clubs any time you feel like it.”

“So nice of you to give me that,” said Flo, her voice dripping with sarcasm.

“You’re welcome,” said Sam, ignoring the sarcasm and looking for a next victim in the ensuing round.

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