January 2nd 2019
It is always a pleasure to play bridge with the very best experts, as I am able to do from time to time. Last week I played in the EBU’s annual End of Year festival in London with Robert Sheehan, one of the most technically proficient of all the great players of the last few decades and a stalwart of the England bridge team for many years from the 1970s onwards. On this hand from the Open Pairs event he benefited from a daring manoeuvre with what was by far the worst hand at the table.
This was the deal, with NS (our side) not vulnerable against vulnerable opponents. These are often the best conditions in which to attempt tactical manouevres. In duplicate events of this kind, your score is determined solely by how many other pairs playing the same cards you are able to outscore. Every trick and overtrick therefore is crucial. Unlike in rubber bridge, you can bid and make a small slam but still score nothing if everyone else with your hand has bid and made a grand slam.
Robert was sitting South with a miserable zero points. As dealer I opened a pre-emptive 4H, following the old “rule of 2 and 3”. This suggests that when considering a pre-emptive call to make life difficult for the opponents, a good guideline for determining the level of your pre-empt is to assume that you can afford to go down two down doubled if vulnerable (-500) and three down doubled (-500) if not. This five-loser hand more than qualifies; some might open 1H as a result.
As it was East overcalled with 4S and Robert pitched in with 5H, “raising to the level of the fit” (11 trumps = bid up to the 5 level). Now East, Espen Erichsen, an experienced professional who had won another event at the EBU festival just the previous day, jumped to 6S. With at best half a defensive trick I passed as North and now Robert bid on to 7H. He later added “I know one is not meant to do this”, What he meant was that normally, if you are going to make a sacrifice bid, you are best served doing so at the first opportunity, giving the opposition as little room as possible to decide what to do.
Here however, with his miserable hand, a void in trumps and no reason to expect more than one trick (at most) from his partner, he was taking advantage of the favourable vulnerability to put more pressure on the opponents. As 6S, a vulnerable major suit slam, rated to score 1430 or 1460, he knew that we could afford to go at least six down doubled (-1400) and still make a profit. The risk of course was that EW would bid on to 7S which if it made would have been worth 2210, comfortably beating all those who bid up to the 6 level and stayed there.
Knowing the odds just as well, all Espen could do was grimace and guess which of the two courses – doubling or bidding on the 7S would produce the best score. Eventually he bid 7S, acknowledging once he had done so that thanks to Robert’s bold bid it was a guess. Robert led the 10C and when the dummy went down, it looked at first as if Espen had made the right call. On normal distributions there seemed to be 13 top tricks by means of six spades, five clubs and two red suit Aces.
Declarer certainly thought so and put his cards down to claim all 13 tricks, but Robert was having none of it, pointing out that the clubs were not breaking and even if declarer drew trumps and took two discards on his winning club tricks there would still be a diamond loser at the end. (I am sure that the risk of bad breaks was one reason why he took the risk of bidding on to 7H). So 7S was one down for an excellent score for us, helping us to an eventual fourth place finish (out of 68 pairs).
A review of what had happened at the other tables showed that nine other EW pairs had been pushed into bidding 7S, all but one also going down (best not to enquire how it was made). Eight others were allowed to play in 7H doubled and the remainder included several stopping tamely in 5S. 7S-1 earned an 89% score on the board while 7Hx down three tricks was still worth an above average 56%. Allowing EW to play in 6S would have scored just 13%.
One other technical point (for the very keen) may be worth making. Once the declarer discovers that the clubs are not breaking, he should play off all his cards in spades and hearts. If his left hand opponent turns out to have both the five clubs and the KQ of diamonds, he will be squeezed and the grand slam will still make. It is not at all likely but when a contract looks doomed, it is still worth trying for an improbable outcome, just in case this is your day.
Bridge tales recount hands that I have come across or played myself recently and which I think contain an important instructional point or two. If you spot an error in the analysis, which sometimes happens, despite my best efforts, please let me know…..Some hands are difficult, others of more interest to early stage learners.