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Point of No Return
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As a plane accelerates towards takeoff, at some point it reaches its "decision speed". Below that speed there is enough runway to stop. Above that speed the point of no return has been reached: the remaining runway is insufficient for the plane to stop safely. Even if one of the engines has exploded and is now spewing smoke and flames, the pilot maintains full power to the other engine in an attempt to get the plane in the air. It may or may not fly, but there is no alternative.

Four years ago I learned the basics of how to play bridge and shortly afterwards, crazy as it sounds, decided to make a serious effort to learn to play competitively at a high level. I now find myself unrecognizably far from my starting point and yet still nowhere close to my destination. As I write this article, the naive new player who began describing that journey two years ago is gone, but an expert has not yet emerged to take his place. I don't know when - or if - I will acquire the skills and consistency I need to succeed in top-level events, but I know there is no returning to the blissful ignorance I once enjoyed. This article is more about that loss of ignorance than the results along the way.

The whole bottle

"You take the blue pill—the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill—you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes. Remember, all I am offering is the truth. Nothing more."

- Morpheus, to Neo in The Matrix

About 3 years ago, I started taking lessons with Debbie Rosenberg. From the beginning, working with Debbie has been like swallowing a whole bottle of red pills. She did something which made it very hard to "wake up in my bed and believe what I wanted to believe": she asked me why I made certain plays.

The longer I played with Debbie, the further it felt like I was from answering her questions.

At first it would go something like

"Why did you play that low spade?"

"I thought maybe I could give you a ruff".

Then I would hear back something like:

"Even if I somehow had a doubleton spade, why is it better for me to ruff your low spade than for you to cash your high spade?"

As I made progress the followups evolved, so I might hear:

"So you thought I led the deuce from my doubleton spade holding, and declarer opened a diamond rather than a spade with 4 diamonds and 5 spades?"

Or:

"But wouldn't it be better to get to me with the queen of diamonds that you know I have so that I can pull dummy's last trump and we can cash our other diamonds before declarer can set up dummy's hearts?"

Over and over again, I got things wrong. Not just a little bit wrong, but terribly wrong; I made so many plays that could never gain on any realistic layout of the cards. And over and over again I heard about it. I heard about the clue that I missed, or how I had not considered which tricks really gained, or failed to give one of the players a whole hand. In retrospect I am certain that the vast bulk of my errors went unreported, but seeing even some of the truth about my own play was hard. But I knew it was worth it; I couldn't improve if I didn't know what I was doing wrong. 

Orlando

This fall I played in the World Championships in Orlando, without Debbie to drag me to better results than my skills deserve. It was humbling but not surprising for me to struggle to break average, which on most days I managed only once out of three sessions. Above-average days were rare, and above-average events were non-existent, even in the consolation rounds. My partner in Orlando, Lynn Shannon, certainly played well enough that we should have been above average much more often than we were, and deserved better than I played that week. I have a long way to go. 

But a funny thing happened. In the course of over a week of high-level bridge without Debbie, I realized that even if I couldn't yet compete successfully without a "ringer" partner, I was more than capable of seeing my own mistakes - the questions Debbie had asked for so long were so thoroughly ingrained in my thought process that in fact I couldn't help but seeing my mistakes.  I lost the ability to enjoy the illusory "success" of lucky plays, but in return I gained a much deeper satisfaction in knowing that I can - at least sometimes - see the truth about a hand.

My attempts to play at a high level do sometimes look like a plane spewing flames from one engine while struggling to get airborne on the other engine's power. I don't know if the plane will take flight, but I know it can't taxi back to where it started. 

The truth hurts

In the spirit of seeing the truth about my play, this article will contain no hands that I got right. You will see only hands where I missed something significant. You will see a mix of epic blunders, reasonable lines that may have worked but were inferior, and a few cool situations hidden in the cards that escaped me at the table. You will see some of the errors that I saw.

Let's go back to the hand from from Orlando that made me realize my days of blissful ignorance were gone.

Lynn
Kx
986
AQxxx
AQJ
Max
AQ10xxx
K7x
x
Kxx
W
N
E
S
1
P
2
P
2
P
3
P
4
P
P
P

Here I was playing a normal 4 contract, but got the helpful lead of the A. RHO contributed the queen, and I played small. LHO continued with the 4 and RHO's honor drove out my king.

Now I played a spade to the king and a spade to my hand and RHO pitched a small diamond, playing upside down. Take a moment to think about what you would have done next...

Lynn
9
AQxxx
AQJ
Max
Q10xx
7
x
Kxx
W
N
E
S
1
P
2
P
2
P
3
P
4
P
P
P

I decided that diamond rated to be an honest card and that I would attempt to squeeze RHO in the red suits (later I felt that the diamond pitch was an error but I didn't see that yet). I played Q and a spade, pitching a diamond and dummy's last heart. Now if LHO plays a diamond the squeeze is broken up, so I would have to fall back on trying to ruff out the diamonds.   

LHO played a club. I breathed a sigh of relief because I couldn't ruff out 5-2 diamonds. I cashed the clubs and ran my trumps, pitching two more diamonds, and RHO eventually gave up hearts so I cashed my 7, played a diamond to the ace, and watched the king fall on my right on trick 13 as expected. 

It's always satisfying to score an extra trick on a squeeze, especially when the finesse is off.  But there is no squeeze if my LHO had simply played the diamond through as his partner had asked for.

Well done by me, and a lesson in defense for the other side?

Not at all.

What should I have done?

My squeeze line was inferior; I should play to ruff out the diamonds. 

I need only draw three rounds of trump, leaving the jack out. I can then start working on the diamonds, using clubs to reenter dummy. As long as my read that LHO started with a doubleton heart is right (nobody would lead the A from Axx here), I will be able to ruff out the diamonds (except if they are 6-1). At some point LHO can ruff in with his high trump. If he overruffs the fourth diamond trick with the jack, I will be out of trump and he will be on lead, but he will have nothing left in his hand but clubs, so he can't do anything to hurt me and I will get to enjoy the diamond.

Playing the way I did, if somehow LHO had the K and RHO had kept a heart, I would have had to guess the diamonds at the end and I would almost surely have gotten it wrong. But even worse, if LHO was 4=2=2=5 and returned a diamond to break up the squeeze, I would have been unable to ruff out the diamonds. I let my opponent choose my line for me, giving me the squeeze when it's losing and taking it away when it is necessary.

At the table I didn't see that it was safe to leave the J out and potentially ruff three rounds of diamonds, so my worry at the time about playing to ruff out the diamonds was that I would fail to pick up a starting position of K-fifth of diamonds on my right, which seemed at least like a very realistic possibility (to me at the time it seemed perhaps a likelihood, given my oversight of the correct line and thus my belief that the diamond pitch only cost from four). Thus, seeing nothing better I thought it better to pay off to the K on my left to gain the chance of picking up K-fifth of diamonds on my right if LHO doesn't switch to a diamond.

What about the defense? Should LHO break up the squeeze by playing the diamond their partner asked for?

What is right for the defense at trick 7

LHO had started out 4=2=3=4. If he believes his partner's diamond pitch, I must have the K to have an opening bid. If I have 4 clubs I have the rest. If I have fewer than 3 clubs I have no squeeze because I have no way back to my hand to run my trumps after cashing the clubs, and the squeeze card must be played from my hand (otherwise no entry to the heart threat). So the only time it can be relevant to try to break up the squeeze is if I have exactly 3 clubs and also a stiff diamond. But on that layout (the actual one as it turns out), playing a diamond forces me to try to ruff them out, which will work.  

It seems that a diamond was never going to gain. Could it lose?  

If I am 6=4=1=2 (not likely on the auction, but might as well protect against this since the diamond never gains) I have no squeeze. But can I ruff out the diamonds? If that is the layout, on a diamond return I can play A, ruff a diamond, cross in clubs, ruff another diamond, and the king will come down. I can cross in clubs to enjoy the diamond. But on a club return I don't have the entries to enjoy the diamond after ruffing them out.   Thus, the diamond return can never gain, and can sometimes (even if rarely) cost. 

It looks like LHO was wise to not blindly follow his partner's signalling, even if it didn't matter on the actual layout. The diamond can never break up a squeeze that actually gains a trick, but the club could possibly gain by breaking up my transportation to ruff out the diamond.

The reality was 180 degrees opposite my initial view. My squeeze was clearly inferior to ruffing out the diamonds, and my LHO had no reason to break it up and instead made the correct club shift. 

Playing the hand in the bidding

Next I will show you an auction. At the table it seemed ordinary, but later I realized there was much more going on than first meets the eye. In fact, the auction presented an interesting play problem. At a club game my auction would have been a near top; in a world championship it was average-plus.

But should I have done better?

South
AQ2
AJ10943
9
K98
W
N
E
S
1
2
3
P
3
P
3NT
P
4
P
4NT
P
5
P
5
P
6
P
7
P
P
P

6 heart tricks, 4 top tricks in the minors, the A and I expect the K to be right, and, unless partner has 3 spades, a spade ruff in dummy. 13 tricks. What more could I have done?

Why am I just settling for 7?

Is it possible that we have 13 tricks at notrump? Either minor suit queen would make 7NT the better contract. Of course sometimes partner will have a jack and 7NT will be on a finesse or better. But what if partner doesn't have anything extra? At first glance it seems that without something extra from partner or a very lucky lie 7NT would have almost no play. But is that really true?

Turning lemons into lemonade and losers into tricks

Over the summer I discovered compound squeezes. They seemed like a miracle to me: take one isolated threat, a couple "shared threats" (known outside squeeze literature as "losers"!), plenty of transportation, read the end position correctly and presto, an extra trick. Looking just at my hand and the auction, these ingredients seemed likely to be present here:

If partner simply has two or three spades, or RHO started with seven, RHO has sole guard of spades.

Say they lead a spade, giving me the spade finesse that I expected to be winning anyway, and I take the first two spade tricks then run my hearts. LHO will have to come down to 5 cards and hence give up one of the minors. Now RHO will be squeezed in spades and whichever minor LHO gave up. If LHO gave up clubs it will look something like this:

West
Qxx
Qx
North
AKx
Ax
East
J
J
Jxx
South
x
x
Kxx
D

I have RHO squeezed in clubs and spades. I cash two top diamonds and watch his discard on the second diamond, pitching the spade if it hasn't become good, but then my third club will be a winner.

If LHO gives up diamonds, it will look something like this:

West
Qx
Qxx
North
AKx
Ax
East
J
Jxx
J
South
x
x
Kxx
D

Now RHO is squeezed in spades and diamonds. I play a club to dummy and a club back to my hand; at this point if my spade isn't good dummy's third diamond will be. 

The challenge is knowing which situation is which. Against many players you can count on their last discard being the painful one, but that's not always true of good defenders, and sometimes a pitch from Jxxx looks painful to a defender, and Txx when dummy has a doubleton doesn't look so bad. How often would you expect to be able to correctly read the position? How often would you expect to be able to discard in a way that makes it hard for declarer? Right now I fear that I would be not much better than a coin toss against good defenders, but only rarely able to make it hard for a good declarer.

What if dummy has a stiff spade, which seems possible, perhaps even likely, given her aggressive drive towards slam? When I cash two spades and run my hearts, will LHO really keep a third spade? If they defend just right it is possible that nobody will get squeezed, but it seems so tempting when partner has preempted in spades to try to guard the minors and leave the spades to your partner. Would you get this defense right? Would you expect a world-class pair to get this right?

In retrospect it seems clear to me that I should have made a try for 7NT, and signed off if partner rejected my try. Realizing that at the table might actually improve my game a tiny bit on the margin. But what I had completely wrong was the idea that if partner had no extras 7NT was extremely thin; in reality it is a double-dummy make and no worse than a coin toss single-dummy on a non-diamond lead opposite a doubleton spade and the promised cards. Even at matchpoints 7NT is aggressive - but it is unlikely to have no play.

My quick 7 missed so much of what was going on. It turns out that playing the hand in the bidding to try to count 13 tricks for a grand isn't quite as simple as it first appears! But I find it much more satisfying to see what I missed in that auction than to congratulate myself for finding the obvious 7.

Now, on to Honolulu. I arrived Monday to play the Blue Ribbon Pairs Tuesday. The Blue Ribbons will always be a special event for me, since 3 years ago it was the first serious event I entered and the first Platinum points I won, and the following year, the first national event in which I survived to day 3. What would this year have in store?

Surprising events

I will admit that I was extra nervous when I sat down to play the first session. Why?

Since having been convinced by Debbie that it was reasonable to request seeding, I am used to a long wait for a table assignment. First they assign the best pairs table 5. Then the next-best pairs get table 9. Then after that they assign the group of third-best pairs table 13. And on and on it goes, until towards the end of the seeding process we finally get our table. But this time our wait was cut short as we were assigned to table 13. 

When you are used to being the underdog, it is hard to be the favorite. I didn't feel comfortable in that role, and worried that my play would not live up to our seeding.

Sure enough, in the first session I perpetrated a misdefense so awful that it would have been shocking anywhere more serious than a club game, not just in the Blue Ribbons and certainly not just at a seeded table.

We were playing against Sabine Auken and Roy Welland. After one "ordinary" zero against them, here is how I earned another one quite dramatically:

Debbie
A976542
52
865
8
Auken
103
AQ98
KQ932
53
Max
KQJ8
KJ6
AJ104
QJ
Welland
10743
7
AK1097642
W
N
E
S
 
3
P
P
X
P
4
P
P
X
P
4N
X
P
P
5
X
P
P
P
D
5X South
NS: 0 EW: 0

Roy and Sabine had already earned a good board with their auction, but we could salvage some matchpoints by defending reasonably.

Debbie led the 5; Roy won the A and drew trump, then I got in with the A on the first round of diamonds with Debbie's 8 clearly readable as showing an odd number of diamonds. I saw that we might have tricks in both spades and hearts.

Like a bad player at the club, in that moment I thought only about the here and now, and I thought the heart was more likely to cash than the spade. With an irrational aversion to losing a trick now, I played the K, which as expected, held. When my spade was ruffed, Roy no longer had a heart loser.

I hate that thought process. I never want to think about just the current trick without thinking about the whole hand. The right question is not what will be ruffed now, but what can potentially cost.

Our first session was rocky but with a strong second session we qualified comfortably. On day two we had a strong first session (despite what felt like far too many poorly-played boards) and an above-average second session, so we qualified for day 3 by more than two boards.

How can this be average on day three?

We were dealt a great game. Three zeros or near zeros in the first session, along with a memorable blunder that turned a good board into a below average one was still good for a 55% game, which was beginning to feel like our typical result. At this point we were sitting 12th. Obviously for us this day it took more than a few blunders to be average.

Now on to our final session, which was our lowest-scoring of the event, a full board below average. That took an incredible six zeros or near zeroes. 

Some of our bad boards on day three were ordinary poor results, but many were quite spectacular. I thought about writing a whole article on just my Blue Ribbon blunders, but for this article I decided to cover "only" the six (three of them in abbreviated form, and all rotated to make S declarer) that I personally found most memorable, five of which were costly. While these might be some of the more spectacular-looking mistakes, at least in these hands I had something in mind that I was playing for, even if it was an impossible layout. I still have too many mistakes where I can't really explain a senseless play at all, so as bad as these look, they are not the worst of my thought process. 

System mixup

Tchamitch
A753
J52
K9
K643
Max
Q6
843
A532
10972
Hampson
K84
KQ
10864
AQJ5
Debbie
J1092
A10976
QJ7
8
W
N
E
S
P
1NT
2
X
P
P
P
D
2X South
NS: 0 EW: 0

I think this was my only major system mixup of the event, but it was a good one: Debbie bid 2 (majors) over Geoff Hampson's 1NT, and Haig Tchaimich doubled, which was explained to me as clearly being Stayman even when 2 shows majors. I thought we might do better if I awaited developments - how would my LHO on the other side of the screen respond to Stayman? Bad idea when we have a clear agreement that pass is to play in 2-X. It turns out that even if Geoff Hampson doesn't have a four card major, he does still have a brain and is not required to let us off the hook with a 2 call when he holds AQJx of clubs! I had put Debbie in an awful contract where she took 3 tricks for -1100. If I had bid the normal 2, we likely would have reached a normal contract. My confused pass turned what might have been a normal board into a disaster.

Hallucination

Max
987
K5
K10964
A109
M Rosenberg
AKJ43
7
J732
742
Debbie
Q105
109432
5
KQJ5
Gecht
62
AQJ86
AQ8
863
W
N
E
S
P
1
P
1
P
1NT
P
P
P
D
1NT South
NS: 0 EW: 0

Debbie and I played this one against Michael Rosenberg and Guy Gecht. Guy was declaring 1NT. When Debbie played the K and continued with the J, I imagined that the K Debbie had played was in Guy's hand (as if Debbie had played the Q) and failed to overtake. At that point the damage was done, but to add insult to injury this made me certain that Debbie had the A. My confusion in the club suit gave them an overtrick which cost us a third of a board. 

Awful tempo

Debbie
KQ642
Q74
J7
KJ5
Hinze
J5
K9
KQ432
Q863
East
973
J8652
965
104
Grainger
A108
A103
A108
A972
W
N
E
S
1NT
P
3NT
P
P
P
D
3NT South
NS: 0 EW: 0

We scored quite well on this board but I am as upset with myself with this as anything I did in the tournament, so I feel compelled to include it with my blunders. I think it was our only director call of the event. David Grainger led a club towards his hand and I got lost in space and didn't play in tempo from 10x. David then misguessed the clubs. I had absolutely no bridge reason to hesitate here; the human reason was that I was tired and lost in space. I was so spaced out I didn't even realize I had done it. I would have had no problem at all if they changed the result, but the directors ruled that the table result stood. Sorry again David.

It is easy to see how Debbie came within half a board of winning the LM pairs with Justin Lall since she would have been 8th playing with the version of me that could have manged to get normal results on 4 of the 9 day three boards where we had zeros. "Only" five zeros on day three to go with all my other blunders doesn't seem like too much to ask, but it was too much for me to deliver that day. Sorry Debbie.

What about the spectacular blunder I mentioned in the first session of day 3? In one of my many Forrest Gump moments, if I had only been able to play normally, thousands of angry posts on BW might have been avoided... Yes, the Levin-Grue appeal might not have swung the event had I not lost my mind during this defense. Perhaps even more than my play against Roy on day one, it was shocking.

Spade suit mixup

Debbie
10842
J64
8
AQ832
Compton
KJ53
K10975
7
964
Max
Q76
AQ83
Q54
KJ10
Ginnosar
A9
2
AKJ109632
75
W
N
E
S
P
1
1
1
P
2
4
P
P
P
D
4 South
NS: 0 EW: 0

First of all I think I deserved a bad board for my 2 rebid, but I got one for a very different reason. Debbie led the 8.  With known length in spades from the auction, my hand and the dummy told me that the 8 must be from a bad suit. Since it seems declarer must have the A as well as another card higher than the 8, it seemed that even if the queen drove out the ace we wouldn't be accomplishing anything other than helping declarer unblock the suit, so I played low. To my surprise, the 8 drove out the A. But I shouldn't have been surprised; declarer needs to unblock the suit holding A9, which must be his exact holding if I had thought about the auction, the lead, and looked around the table. I should have kept my card face-up until I understood the suit but I was lazy, didn't fully process that surprise, and moved on. The foundation for error was laid.

Eldad cashed two top trumps; Debbie showed out on the second, giving Eldad 8 diamonds. After Eldad continued the J and I got in with the Q, we cashed two clubs and Eldad was back in with a club ruff. Now knowing Eldad's minor suit shape and that he had only two cards remaining in the majors, I thought back to the spade play and concluded that Eldad being 1=2=8=2 "explained" his failure to win the opening lead cheaply (even if that shape was actually impossible since Debbie would not have led the 8 from 1098xx). If this was the case I could just sit back and wait for my two hearts. But I foresaw having to commit to my read of the hand on Eldad's penultimate trump: if at trick 10 he came down to KJ of spades and the stiff K of hearts in dummy, with two hearts and a trump in hand, then:

  - if I think he has a heart, spade and a trump, if I stiff my Q he can cross to the king, dropping my stiff queen, cash his spade jack pitching his heart, and ruff dummy's heart king. If that is the layout I have to stiff my A to guarantee any tricks in the ending.

  - but if I stiff my A when he holds two hearts and no spades, when he plays a heart I have to give him dummy's stranded K and we only get down one when we can get down two if I give up spades.

Eldad played a diamond and I pitched a small heart. Now at trick 9 I had another easy heart pitch, but since I was planning to play Eldad for having the stiff ace of spades, why delay pitching the Q? 

Voluntarily pitching the Q made the blunder all the more spectacular to watch, but given my state of mind about the spades, Eldad was always going to make it. That board was one of many great boards that put Compton-Ginossar in the position that their fate hung on appeal of a board at another table. Of course anything earlier in the event affects decisions pairs make later in the event, so its possible that if I had gotten this right, Chris and Eldad would have done something differently elsewhere and perhaps gotten more matchpoints. I should add that the fact that my blunder was one small part of Chris and Eldad's stellar event in no way reduces their accomplishment; almost every strong performance is aided by at least a few opponents. I am honored to be roadkill along the way to a great game by great players, as I was here.

Of course the errors that cause big swings on day 3 are costly, but the hand that stuck with me the most from this event is from day two. It felt like I was dealt a textbook hand for the decision I had to make, and I thought about the right issues for a moment... then I allowed the correct thinking to slip away and eventually made my incorrect decision for completely irrelevant reasons. There is no credit in bridge for "almost", but I know I will think about this one correctly next time.

I was declaring 5 against Ari Greenberg and Tom Carmichael. It felt like a hand where people might end up in 4, 5, 6, or defending a spade sacrifice (as turned out to be the case when I looked at the results). 

Greenberg
AJ10865
7
10762
105
Debbie
Q92
KQ10
43
Q9874
Carmichael
K73
9632
K95
J32
Max
4
AJ854
AQJ8
AK6
W
N
E
S
1
2
3
3
4
4
5
P
5
P
P
P
D
5 South
NS: 0 EW: 0

Ari led the A and continued the jack. Here it seems he can't have the king and it is normal to play low. But I thought a little bit more. I saw that keeping the Q in dummy would set up a spade-diamond squeeze against RHO, and playing it would transfer the spade guard to LHO, thus making him the squeeze victim if instead he held the K. Based on LHO's spade preempt, it seemed that RHO was a favorite to hold the K, but if he did it was finessable anyway. Thus neither squeeze seemed particularly important and I decided evaluating which was potentially more useful was too complicated for me, so I wasn't going to decide what to do on that basis and I moved on.

So, with no conclusion about the squeezes possible at the table, how to decide? It seemed impossible on the lead, carding, and common sense that the Q would hold, but it was IMPOSSIBLE under the rules of bridge that I could win the trick without expending a trump if I played small, so I put in the Q which of course drove out the K, ruffed. I now looked down at the four remaining trumps in my hand and that moment - half a trick late - woke up to how I should have been thinking about the spade play.

I was on the right track thinking about spade-diamond squeezes but I had missed something. My hand was now down to four trumps, and if they were not 3-2 (as they often aren't when someone preempts) then I couldn't take the diamond finesse without risking the contract. Oh, how I now wished I had played for the show-up squeeze against my RHO, just half a trick later with no new information. I tried trumps and as I feared they were 1-4. Now when I ran my clubs I reached a decision point at trick 12. Do I finesse or not? Once the spades were 6-3, the hearts were 1-4, and the clubs 2-3, the diamonds were 4-3 so vacant spaces were actually in favor of LHO holding the K. It is really hard to say how the K might have affected the bidding but, even if my thinking about why wasn't totally clear, the vacant spaces weren't quite enough for me to place the K with the spade preemptor. Even leaning towards the diamond being right, it felt like the matchpoint odds did not favor risking the contract, especially when dropping the K on my left was likely to yield a top, whereas taking a successful finesse would still lose to the pairs in slam. Thinking that on a call that close, the die had been cast when I covered the spade jack, I played a diamond to the ace and the king did not drop.

In retrospect the decision on covering the spade jack was complex. I think against these opponents it was wrong to cover, because I am going to be unable to take the normal and probably slightly favorable finesse when trumps don't break, but I think against weaker opponents, covering is a big winner because I will often be able to read who has the K based on LHO's pain level on his pitch at trick 11. If he looks like the small diamond he is parting with is more valuable than his firstborn child or his kidney, drop the diamond; otherwise the finesse is a big favorite against many players.

Next time I will be that much closer to understanding how to think about covering the J. I may or may not get it right, but I will be thinking about the right thing at the right time. 

Thinking about the right thing at the right time is a challenge for me. At the table I often feel like I am overwhelmed by a torrent of information about the hand and possible options in different situations that might arise. I sometimes observe the key point of the hand - as I did here - and fail to understand its importance, or in the case of many of my blunders, draw an incorrect conclusion from a partial or incorrect analysis of the hand.

Back at home

What was I to make of all this? So many awful mistakes, and yet my best finish to date. 

Can I really be so confused so often and still hang with strong fields in the trials, and in the LM pairs, and in the Blue Ribbons? It seems that one player can't have that much good luck, and an amazing partner can only drag me so far in these fields, so how were all these results possible?

Debbie said to me after my first Blue Ribbons three years ago - where by some miracle we made day 2 but finished 155th of 156 after failing to break 40% either session on day 2 - that while I had made a lot of mistakes, there were lots more mistakes I might have made and didn't. At the time it felt like an earnest attempt by an honest but also compassionate person to find anything kind to say to a beginner who had been far out of his depth.

It may have been that, but at the same time it was also a wise statement about bridge.

When playing a hand it is often hard to figure out what is going on. As you have seen, my attempts to do so often fail spectacularly. But sometimes they don't, and a lot of the time I make normal plays. They aren't much to write about, but string together enough of them and you do OK. 

So, my conclusion is that a combination of three things are responsible for our good results:

- I have improved enough that while I am much weaker than most of the day 3 field, despite my frequent and jarring errors I am getting enough right that the gap is not nearly as big as one might imagine.

- Debbie and I don't play a lot of system, but we have few mixups. This lack of partnership errors partially offsets my excess of individual errors relative to the field.

- Debbie is not just good, but really really really good. She isn't always perfect and occasionally has bad sessions, but I think most of the time she significantly outplays the field wherever we play. If she didn't, despite my progress it would simply be impossible for us to do as well as we do.

One more event

In District 21, our Flight A NAP qualifier is very strong. It is a four-session event and day two easily feels like a national event. Top three is very hard. We weren't close this year, having almost no carryover from an awful day one and two slightly above-average sessions day two. Again, I won't share any hands that I got right. But one of my errors here feels like the perfect hand to cap off this article and the year.

L Stansby
1098
Q
AQ942
Q863
Debbie
A7
J653
J10873
J9
J Stansby
KJ542
10872
5
A102
Max
Q63
AK94
K6
K754
W
N
E
S
 
P
1N
P
P
2
P
2
X
P
3
P
3
P
3
P
P
P
D
3 South
NS: 0 EW: 0

JoAnna Stansby was on my right and Lew was on my left -- I did say it was a tough field!  I felt a little nervous correcting to the suit JoAnna had shown (especially vulnerable), but it didn't make sense that Debbie would double without a flexible hand so without any agreement about this specific auction I expected - or at least hoped - to catch my partner with hearts. 

Lew led a spade which went to JoAnna's K. As I studied the dummy and the trump suit I had been worried about I saw something interesting. My trumps were not Jxxx opposite AK9x, but specific spots. I did what Debbie taught me to do and saw that I was missing the QT872. Unless the Q or 2 was in Lew's hand, leading the J would pin the stiff T, 8, or 7 in Lew's hand and with sufficient entries the 2 in JoAnna's hand would eventually lose to my 4 and I could pick up the suit. Without the 4 in my hand the only way to pick up the trump suit is to bang down the A or K and hope to drop a stiff Q in Lew's hand. What a difference the 4 can make.

But on this hand I clearly didn't have enough entries, and anyway I had clubs to worry about so there was more going on than the trump suit. But just as I had reached that conclusion, JoAnna played the 2. A bell rang in my head and I realized that one of the two layouts my line failed to pick up was no longer possible, and even more importantly I had the entries to give my hoped-for plan in hearts a try! I could run the heart around to dummy's jack and play a low one towards my hand, then safely re-enter dummy with the A to finesse again. Yes, the clubs were awkward, but how can I pass up such a great opportunity to pick up the trump suit? I played small.

Lew produced the queen, and I realized that I should have expected him to have that card when JoAnna led into the jack.

Lew came back a club to JoAnna's ace, and I won the club continuation, played a spade to the ace, finessed in trumps, ruffed a third club with the jack, drew JoAnna's two remaining trumps pitching a diamond from dummy, cashed the spade queen pitching another diamond from dummy, and exited a club to Lew to score my K... but all of this was for down one and a bad board having misplayed the trumps. 

Is this the whole story? At the table in retrospect it seemed obvious that JoAnna can't have held the Q. Then, as is my way, I thought about it a little more.

On the whole hand I think that's right. But...

Let's say the hand was a little different and I had the dummy entries to pick up the suit, and the hand was such that it was all about this suit. All JoAnna has to worry about are heart tricks. And to keep the analysis simple, that lets stipulate that she can be sure that I have at least two heart honors to suggest a trump suit she has shown when it's unclear whether Debbie really has support for me. And as silly as it sounds, lets say JoAnna expects me to get card combinations right in isolation :)

Now she leads the 2. Should I expect her to have the Q?

Say she holds 10872. She knows that if I have AKQ, her side is getting no trump tricks. When Lew has the A they are always getting one trump trick. If I am missing the K or Q, left to my own devices I will run the J to pin a stiff 10, 8 or 7. That will lose to Lew's stiff K or Q. Thus in the cases where the outcome is uncertain, she knows they will get a trick anyway in the natural course of things and they can never get two tricks. But sometimes even if I am good enough to play the card combination correctly myself, I might at the table incorrectly decide she would be unlikely to lead away from the Q and put up the A dropping Lew's Q. Since leading from the 10872 can never gain in this situation, and can lose in real life against a player that is good but not perfect, she should not play the 2 from 10872.

What about other holdings she might have? Say she is looking at Q1072. Then she can reason that I must have AK (having stipulated that A9 or K9 are not enough to bid the suit here) and her partner might have a stiff 9, 8, or 4. How will I play left to my own devices? On all these layouts she knows that I can figure out that it is better to run the jack than to bang down the ace. Left to my own devices she knows I will pick up the suit. Here she has nothing to lose by playing the 2 herself since I was otherwise always going to pick up her Q10.  It seems that on this layout her opponent, who is in a position to pick up the suit, is probably more likely to err when she leads it herself - again perhaps incorrectly reasoning that she wouldn't lead from the queen. So holding Q1072 as one example, it seems to me to be at least reasonable and probably winning to lead the 2.

Thus, while on the actual hand I still think I should not expect JoAnna to lead from the Q, if I change the rest of the hand just a little bit, things reverse 180 degrees and it should be clear to me that my world-class opponent can't be leading away from the ten, but might be leading away from the queen! 

Wow.

It seems like nearly every hand that I examine closely contains depth and complexity far beyond what appears on the surface. The more I learn, the more mind-blowingly awesome bridge is. 

I love this game. Engine on fire or not, I have the throttle wide open and I am determined to get this plane in the air.

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