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Deja Vu at the 1995 CNTC Final
By: Fred Gitelman

Originally Published in Canadian Master Point, July, 1995


The 1995 Canadian National Teams Championships (CNTC) was held June 6-11 at the Sheraton Parkway in Toronto. Twenty teams from across the country competed for the right to represent Canada in the 1996 Olympiad in Rhodes, Greece.

As a member of the defending championship team (Irving Litvack NPC, George Mittelman-Fred Gitelman, Eric Kokish-Joey Silver, Mark Molson-Boris Baran), I had high hopes. Things did not start as expected when our team lost the first four matches of the round-robin (this was quite a contrast to last year when we won something like the first 18 matches!). Our losses were relatively small however, and after two good wins we were right back in the thick of things.

On the third and last day of the round-robin I picked up:

I wrote a note to kibitzer Ben Zeidenberg, "I held this hand yesterday but I had the 10 instead of the 9". He looked at me as if I was crazy. The dummy in 3NT:

was not only disappointing (the contract made on a lucky lie of the cards) but also very familiar. At the end of the session, Ben looked up the hand records from the day before and found that I had been right. A deal from the previous day was:

 

In addition, the defenders' hands were very similar in both deals and the diamond suits in both deals were identical around the table. At the time I just thought this was an extreme statistical curiosity. After the session there was the usual discussion of hands and several players started to notice other pairs of deals containing similar layouts (particularly in the diamond suit). By the start of the next session we had come up with five pairs of deals with striking similarities (though none were as obvious as the first example). There was obviously something wrong with the computer program that was creating these "randomly dealt" hands.

I brought the matter to the attention of Directors Henry Cukoff and Karen Cooper (who ran a very smooth tournament) and Tournament Chairman Steve Cooper (who did an excellent job with the hospitality and organization). After carefully reviewing the hand records of the event, they discovered that the problem was quite widespread. In fact, every deal that was played in the round- robin had at least one counterpart - another deal with around 40 of the cards (and usually all of the diamonds) being dealt to the same players!

You are probably wondering why it took three days for a group of 100 or so of Canada's best bridge players to notice this problem. There are a few reasons:

1. The deals were not exactly the same. In most cases enough differences existed so that the likely bidding and final contract could be completely different.

2. The first deals to "re-appear" did not do so until the third day.

3. Some players do not always sit the same direction. It is much easier to notice this sort of thing if the same person gets a similar hand twice.

4. Most of the teams had more than four players.

In any case, the discovery was disturbing (to put it mildly). Henry Cukoff, Karen Cooper, and Steve Cooper deserve credit for handling this problem quickly and professionally. The boards were shuffled in the quarter-finals. New hand records were ordered for the semi-finals and finals (from a different source) and all of the boards were re-duplicated. This situation and other recent embarrassments lead me to believe that the ACBL must review their procedures for the production, approval, and distribution of computer dealt hands. It is a shame when the integrity of an event as important as the CNTC final is compromised by programming and administrative incompetence.

In past CNTC finals, only four teams emerged from the round-robin for semi-finals and finals. This year eight teams qualified and a quarter-final round was added. I got the impression that everybody liked this new format. The top teams were under less pressure to perform well in the round-robin. The lesser teams had a much better chance to qualify. The top eight were:

  1. Litvack NPC (Montreal-Toronto)
  2. Lesage (Ottawa)
  3. Balcombe (Toronto area)
  4. Gartaganis (Calgary + Toronto Junior Darren Wolpert filling in because of an emergency)
  5. Fraser (Montreal-Toronto)
  6. Presse (Halifax)
  7. Altay (Toronto)
  8. Thorpe NPC (Toronto)

As the winner of the round-robin, we were given the right to choose our quarter-final opponent from the 5th through 8th placed finishers. This was not an enviable choice as these were all good teams. We eventually chose to play Thorpe and almost came to regret this decision. The Thorpe team led by 20 at the half and lost by just 14 IMPs. Michael Roche and Jim Green (of the Thorpe team) deserve special credit for their excellent play during this close match. Other winners in the quarter-finals were Lesage (over Presse by 7), Balcombe (over Altay by 7), and Fraser (over Gartaganis by 58).

Deja vu extended beyond the computer hand problem at this tournament. Our semi-final match against the strong Fraser Team (Doug Fraser-Nader Hanna, Peter Schwartz-Marty Caley) was a replay of last year's final. Last year's final was a relatively low scoring affair with our team pulling away at the end to win by 50 or so. The first two quarters of our semi-final against Fraser this year were also close. Fraser led by 6 after 16 boards and trailed by 3 after 32. The match was effectively decided in the third quarter as Litvack won most of the swings in a wild set of boards. Litvack led by 57 going into the final set and tacked on another 47 IMPs to win easily by 104 IMPs.

The Lesage-Balcombe semi-final was close all the way. Lesage (Richard Lesage-Denis Lesage, John Valliant-Dave Willis, Jurek Czyzowicz-Waldemar Frukacz) won by 25 IMPs and would face Litvack in the 1995 CNTC final. Once again their was a sense of deja vu as these two teams had met in the semi-finals last year.

The first quarter of the final saw the Litvack take a commanding 49 IMP lead. To the credit of the Lesage team, they made it a contest until the last board. The second quarter resulted in a huge number of swings to both teams. These swings completely balanced out, however, and the margin remained 49. The third quarter saw Lesage cut the lead to 34 after a strong performance by the Lesage brothers. Litvack added another 14 IMPs in the fourth quarter to win the match by 48 IMPs. From my point of view, the fourth quarter was a personal nightmare. Each hand seemed to contain the potential for disaster and when the match was over, I thought it was quite likely our team had blown our large lead. Molson and Baran were close to perfect at the other table, however, and the match was never really in doubt. Team Litvack won the CNTC for the second year in a row (to the best of my knowledge, this has happened only once before, Kehela-Murray, Kokish-Nagy, and Mittelman-Graves won the CNTC for two years running in the early 1980's).

There were several interesting hands throughout the tournament. Here is one of my favourites (from our quarter-final match vs. Thorpe):

  • 1NT was 15-17.
  • 2 showed any one-suited hand.
  • 2 asked.
  • 3 showed a good hand with hearts.

George led the 2 (third and fifth) to my Q and declarer's K. South cashed a top heart and played the K to West's A. West got out the 2 (still third and fifth). Declarer played small from the dummy. How do you defend? (Yes, I know you can see all of the hands).

My problem came too late on this hand. I won the K and then thought about what to do. I quickly realized that it was too late - there was nothing I could do. No matter how I played, declarer could get to dummy to pick up my Q and make the contract.

Look what happens if I duck(!) the club trick. Declarer wins and must exit in a minor. I cash my three minor suit winners and play a spade (a diamond also works). Declarer is now down to all trumps and must ruff their own entry. Declarer has no way to avoid losing a trick to my Q, thus going down one. Notice that declarer could have made the hand against any defense by playing a club honour from dummy on this trick. Also notice that George's defense of a club return was needed to give declarer a chance to go wrong.

I really like this hand because it shows how such an obvious looking play like winning the K can be completely wrong (the same can be said of declarer's obvious looking low club play from dummy). I did not give one second's thought to this trick. If I had, I am certain I would have come up with the right answer. I wonder how many plays like this club duck are missed every day because bridge players think some plays are so obvious as to not warrant re-consideration.

Despite the fiasco with the computer hands, there were many positive things about the 1995 CNTC final. The Litvack team will now have the chance to play in two World Championships (1995 in Beijing and 1996 in Rhodes). I am hoping that we are able to take advantage of these great opportunities and represent our country with distinction in these events. I also hope that the only element of deja vu in the 1996 CNTC final is the results.

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