Friday, March 7, 2014

Adventures in card play

One of my favorite bridge authors is the former Scottish international Hugh Kelsey (1926-1995) – I have several excellent books of his. I know much less about Hungarian Géza Ottlik (1912-1990) although he was well-known outside the bridge world, especially for his contributions to literature.

Their best known collaboration is Adventures in Card Play, which has the distinction of being perhaps the most challenging bridge book ever written. It's invariably in the top ten of experts' favorite books as it opens one's eyes to aspects of bridge, especially declarer play, to which one may not have given much thought. The best known subject introduced in the book is the "backwash squeeze," although it's the name, not the method, that's well known. I doubt if there are many people out there who could easily describe the workings of that play!

Much of the book is in the form of a conversation between the writer and "Alec," the owner of a yawl called The Cormorant. [If, like me, you're not too sure what a yawl is, then here is the Wikipedia entry]

My own recent adventures in card play arose sitting across the table from a different Alexander, Frieden in this case, and one of the younger bridge players in our area. Alexander, hereinafter referred to as "A", is a junior at Brookline high school and an enthusiastic player. I was quite amazed after playing several sessions with him to discover that he's only been playing for six months! But, like me, he is an avid bridge reader and (he) has learned, and assimilated, many advanced concepts and techniques.

After a couple of practice sessions, we showed up for the flight A knockouts in Cromwell, CT. Our teammates were Jori Grossack and Joyce Pearson. In the first round we found ourselves in a three-way, against the 3/4th placed team (Applebaum) and Rivers including Lloyd Arvedon and Chris Compton, the 2013 Barry Crane Top 500 winner. We were crushed by Rivers, but lost to Applebaum by only 10 imps. I blame myself for that loss as I went down in a major suit game when I neglected to finesse with nine trumps missing the king and queen.

Our system is an unusual one. We don't play 2/1 game force, but our 2/1 bids and continuations are well-discussed and have several nuanced treatments. We have several potentially dangerous agreements too, such as 2NT – 3NT showing a hand with five spades and four hearts. When this came up (after 2♣ – 2 – 2NT), I was seriously concerned that A had forgotten (my hand was ♠AT962 AK4 K5 ♣AKJ) – but I trusted him (of course!), knowing that he has an excellent memory for this sort of thing, ending up in 6♠, thus earning 10 out of 11 matchpoints. We are also using a variation on the 2♣ follow-ups which I described in my last blog and, of course, my system of doubles. A is very amenable to unusual and (hopefully) sensible treatments, although he doesn't always accept them as is! He loves to tinker with stuff.

Like a lot of bridge players with more book learning than experience, A has a tendency to treat each board as yet another opportunity to get a top. That's not necessarily the best way to win events – the idea is to get average or average plus on every board and wait for the gifts. And like many younger players, he loves to punish the opponents when they step out of line. We were a little too enthusiastic in this area and suffered quite a few bottom boards. One of the lessons that A learned in this context was that, however tempting it may be to nail the opponents due to your good holding in their suit, it probably won't work well if you also have a fit for partner.

On one hand, A made a "routine" endplay to make his contract. But how routine is such a play for someone who's been playing only six months? I can think of many players who couldn't pull that off even after six years of bridge. But I think it's his defense which probably should earn highest praise. He even made my defense look good!

I'm looking forward to more adventures with A. I think he's going to develop into a fine player.

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