Virus hits Bridge, too

The coronavirus pandemic has altered life as we know it for the foreseeable future and the bridge world is no exception.

The biggest blow to the top of the game is the cancelation of the Spring Nationals, the North American Bridge Championships (NABC) later this week in Columbus, OH, that will probably cost the American Contract Bridge League hundreds of thousands of dollars. My partner Christine and I had been scheduled to compete in the North American Pairs event as B qualifiers from Florida (District 9). We got a credit for future airline travel and the hotel refunded our deposit, and at this point no one knows if the NAPs will be rescheduled for a later NABC, like during the summer Nationals in Montreal.

We also canceled a trip to the World Village of Golf near St. Augustine for the latest Florida Regional, which ended two days early. Most Regionals and Sectionals seem likely to be canceled in the next few weeks, either because the host city or state have banned gatherings of more than 100 or 250 people, or the organizers know that there’s no point in having the event with so few people showing up.

We get messages every day about bridge clubs closing their doors until further notice, from Paris, France, to Boston and Satellite Beach. Others have canceled only classes but try to keep the doors open for those of us who can’t live without our bridge fix. In Melbourne, FL, at first they announced that East-West players would have to carry their bidding boxes from table to table so only they touch the bidding cards, but then the club closed altogether.

Carrying bidding boxes from table to table is not really an option for our home club, the Vero Beach Bridge Center, where the boxes are embedded into the tables; we own our building and don’t have to set up and break down for every game. But the club has assured members that all table surfaces are getting extra cleaning. Nevertheless, attendance seemed to have shrunk to about half.

“My children have told me they don’t want me to go to bridge anymore,” said one elderly female member. “My husband will not want me to go and play bridge after the first case in the county has been diagnosed,” said a volunteer cashier who was playing with gloves.

Is the panic getting to all of us and are we over-reacting? It’s probably wise to be cautious, since the average age of our bridge club is close to 80 and all of us are therefore among the population groups most vulnerable to not only catch the virus, but be seriously affected by it.

One of the last times we may have played at our club on 3/14/2020, Christine and I reverted to one of our old bad habits, the so-called “pajama game,” where every board seemed to be either a top or a bottom. Out of the 28 boards we played, we had no fewer than seven tops or ties for tops, but an equal number of bottoms or ties for bottoms. All in all, that gave us only a 48% game and we were next to last in our direction – certainly not a way to go out on top.

Still, one of the tops was pretty satisfying. Our unnamed opponents could have had their choice of two different Slams – 6 No-Trump or 7 Hearts – but we set them by two tricks in 3 No-Trump. That represented a swing of six tricks and 1,610 points and as such is worthy of an episode in the adventures of the Bridge Burglar. We managed the feat by a combination of smart defense, involving lead-directing doubles and unblocking, and inept offense. The unnamed South Declarer who misplayed the hand will assume the role of my column’s ant-hero, Flustered Flo, while Christine will be her nemesis, Smug Sam, with the East hand. I’ll be Christine’s (Sam’s) West partner, Shy Shem, while Flo plays with her usual North partner, Loyal Larry.

South Dealer; East-West vulnerable

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

The Bidding:

South West North East
(Flustered Flo) (Shy Shem) (Loyal Larry) (Smug Sam)
2 NT Pass 3 * Pass
3 ** Double *** 3 NT All Pass

*Stayman convention, asking for a four-card major
**denies a four-card major
***lead-directing double

Opening lead: King of Diamonds

Knowing when and how to unblock your hand is one of the most important skills for any bridge player, whether on offense or defense. It may seem counter-intuitive to deliberately throw away a high card in a suit, but that’s what’s often necessary to be able to get pack to your partner and let him or her run a long suit.

On the diagrammed hand played at a recent club game, Flustered Flo suffered a horrible bottom score with the big South hand when she went down two in an easy 3 No-Trump contract. Her opponents, her nemesis Smug Sam in the East seat and his partner, Shy Shem, played the best possible defense with a lead-directing double and an unblocking play, but Flo contributed to her own demise by taking an ill-advised finesse, and taking it too early.

The board really hurt Flo because the hand records showed she could have made two different Slams, 6 No-Trump or 7 Hearts, for a maximum of 1,510 points for her side. Instead, she gave away 100 points for Down Two, a swing of more than 1,600 points.

Flo let the first Diamond go, but when Shem led the Queen of Diamonds next, Flo was forced to take the trick with her Ace. She should have noticed that Sam had thrown her Jack under her Ace and his partner’s Queen, a give-away that she was probably saving another Diamond to get back to her partner. That should have tipped Flo off to the fact that Sam in the East seat had now become the dangerous opponent – she could ill afford to let him on lead.

Flo knew she could have made her contract because she had 9 sure tricks, 4 Spades, Ace-King in Hearts and Clubs and the Ace of Diamonds, but she also knew that most North-South pairs would make a number of overtricks and they’d be important in match play. That’s why she looked for the most likely finesse to succeed. Since she had a total of 8 Hearts and only 7 Clubs, she went for the Heart finesse.

Alas, the finesse failed when Sam came up with the Queen to take dummy’s Jack, and when Sam led his last Diamond and Shem cashed four Diamond tricks, Flo was Down Two.

“I’m sorry, partner,” Flo said to Larry. “I could have made the contract, but to get a good score I went for overtricks and now we got a bottom. And I see now that I could have made 6 No-Trump if I hadn’t taken the finesse and gone for the drop of the Queen. I really screwed this up.”

“No problem, partner,” said Larry, who’s always very loyal to Flo. “I like your aggressive attitude. You’ve got to go for the extra tricks. Sometimes you win and sometimes you lose.”

Smug Sam wasn’t quite as charitable to Flo as Larry had been during the post-mortem on the hand.

“Well, Flo,” said Sam, smug as always, “I agree with being aggressive, but not with being stupid, pardon my French. There are several reasons you should never have taken that finesse. First of all, I was the dangerous opponent so you could never let me in.”

“But when you dropped the Jack of Diamonds, I thought that it was your last Diamond so you wouldn’t be able to get back to your partner,” said Flo.

“Come on, Flo, I wasn’t born yesterday,” said Sam. “Then I would have thrown the Jack under my partner’s King on the first trick. But furthermore, before you attempt any finesse, you have the perfect way to get a little more information about the distribution of the cards by running your Spades. My partner will be forced to pitch his small Hearts, and if you can count to 13, you’d know that I have Queen-doubleton in Hearts.”

“In retrospect, I wish my partner would have transferred me to Hearts instead of doing Stayman with a 4-5 distribution in the majors,” said Flo. “Then Shem couldn’t have doubled the artificial Diamond bid.”

“Shame on you for throwing your partner under the bus,” said Sam. “His bid was perfectly reasonable and you should have made 6 No-Trump if you’d just kept a cool head and used the information available to you.”

“It’s tough to keep a cool head and think rationally with this coronavirus panic,” said Flo.

“Not very original, Flo,” said Sam. “I don’t think you’re the first to use that excuse for lousy play.”

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