The 1997 Macallan International Bridge Pairs Championship
By: Fred Gitelman
Originally Published in Canadian Bridge Canadien, Spring,
The Macallan is about history. The tournament was first held
as The Sunday Times Invitational Pairs in London, England in 1963.
It was a sad day for bridge when the Sunday Times discontinued its sponsorship
at the 1981 edition of the tournament. Thanks to the efforts of Macallan,
Helen Schapiro, and Paul Mendelson this event was reborn
in 1990 as The Macallan International Bridge Pairs Championship. Since
that time, The Macallan has become firmly established as one of the toughest
and most prestigious events on the international bridge calender.
The tournament still maintains its association with The Sunday Times
and The Times but Macallan has become the main sponsor. Let me assure you
that the players appreciate Macallan's interest in bridge. Not only did
Macallan sponsorship make the tournament possible in the first place, their
generous supply of the finest malt whiskey was an excellent remedy for
what I call "bridge on the brain" - the inability of bridge players
to sleep at night after a day of challenging (and often too challenging)
As a player in the 1996 Macallan I was pleased to find that this year's
event would be held in the same venue - London's White House Hotel. The
White House is an ideal setting for this type of event and the staff are
always eager to make the players feel at home. My partner, George Mittelman,
and I had done very well in the 1996 Macallan, finishing 4th out of 16
pairs. My goal for 1997 was to improve our standing - an ambitious goal
since once again the field was very strong.
The organizers of the 1997 Macallan took a bold initiative this year
in that only natural systems were allowed. There were to be no strong club
systems, multi-type opening 2 bids, artificial jump shifts by responder
to the 2 level, and no complex carding argreements. The idea was to make
the bridge more understandable to a mass audience. As George and I play
a natural system we were not really affected by this change. For some of
the pairs (including American's Jeff Meckstroth and Eric Rodwell,
winners of the 1995 and 1996 Macallan) the systems restriction had a greater
impact. Meckstroth and Rodwell normally play a complex strong club method
of their own devising. It remains to be seen how much the systems restrictions
will increase the popularity of this tournament. Most of the players and
spectators seemed quite positive about this change. I think that the tournament
organizers and Macallan should be applauded for having the courage to make
this controversial change. They have recognized the importance of promoting
our game to the public and they believe that natural systems are a necessary
first step. Since we will all benefit if the general public embraces bridge,
let's hope the organizers are on to something!
What follows are some of the more interesting deals that I was involved
in during the 1997 Macallan:
Opening lead: 2
In this deal Meckstroth and Rodwell have an excellent (mostly) natural
auction to a reasonable slam. 1
showed 5 or more spades. 2 was forcing
to game. Rodwell used good judgement in supporting clubs at his third turn.
When Meckstroth went above 3NT, Rodwell confirmed slam interest by cue
bidding 4. George made a vital
(but dangerous) decision now to double for a diamond lead. When Meckstroth
passed the double around to his partner, Rodwell's 4
asked for keycards. Meckstoth's 5
showed 2 keycards without the trump queen and Rodwell placed the contract
I led the 2 (3rd and 5th)
to dummy's A. Meckstroth made
the reasonable play of starting hearts immediately. When I was able to
uppercut with the 8 on the third
round of hearts, Meckstroth knew he was in trouble. He overruffed with
the K and tried spades from the
top. When George ruffed the third spade with the Q,
Meckstroth pitched his diamond loser and ended up one down.
A few points of interest. The first is that if Meckstroth and Rodwell
were playing their normal methods, Rodwell would have opened 1
(strong) instead of 1 on the South
hand. The final contract almost certainly would have been 6
by South. With Rodwell's diamonds protected from the opening lead, you
have to admit that this is the contract of choice.
Also, imagine if Meckstroth had judged to start spades immediately.
On the 3rd round of spades George would face a difficult problem. If George
discards, North can discard a diamond and ruff a spade in hand. The A,
K, and the last spade would allow
declarer to succeed by pitching his heart loser as George ruffed. If, instead,
George ruffs the third spade with the Q
or J, North pitches his diamond
loser. North can later play 3 rounds of hearts. When I uppercut with the
8 on the third round, declarer can
overruff and finesse against George's other club honour for the contract.
So will 6 always make if declarer
guesses to start spades first? England's Andy Robson thought of
a brilliant counter by the defense. West must ruff with the 9!
This leaves declarer in a bind. Whether he overruffs with the 10
or discards his diamond loser, a subsequent uppercut with the 8
on the 3rd round of hearts will spell defeat for declarer. The only way
to succeed after West ruffs with the 9
is to overruff and duck a diamond to West!
The winners of the 1997 Macallan were Lorenzo Lauria and Alfredo
Versace of Italy. Lauria-Versace (who also prefer to play an artificial
system) demonstrated that even using natural methods they are one of the
strongest pairs in the world. Lauria and Versace had one of the biggest
scores in the history of the Macallan, leading the event from start to
finish. Here is a an interesting deal the Italians played against us:
Opening lead: J
This bidding is of some interest. Note first George's decision to balance
on his marginal hand. In my opinion this sort of auction is a good example
of how to win at bridge in the 1990s. You are simply making life too easy
for the opponents if you let them play at the 1 level. There is very little
danger that a pair of the calibre of Lauria and Versace will have missed
a game (that a balance might push them into) by passing an opening bid.
Lauria made a nice decision to rebid 2
instead of redoubling (the action that was taken by several North's in
this position). Despite his 18 high card points, Lauria knew that game
was a long shot after Versace passed 1.
Lauria correctly decided that the preemptive value of 2
would be more important than showing strength with a redouble. If Lauria
had redoubled we would have been able to stop in 2
via either a jump to that contract or a cue bid by me. After 2,
I was forced to go to the 3 level to express the value of my hand. 3
was dangerously high and accurate defense (and a slight misplay) resulted
in a plus score for the Italians.
Versace led the J which Lauria
won in order to continue the suit. After winning the K
I tried a diamond to dummy's J
and Lauria's Q. Lauria played
a 3rd round of hearts and my Q
was ruffed by Versace and overruffed in the dummy. I desperately tried
another diamond and Lauria reasonably went up with his A.
After cashing the A and receiving
a negative signal from Versace, Lauria played a 4th round of hearts. I
had to guess the distribution now and decided (for no good reason) that
Lauria was short in clubs, not spades. I discarded a club from hand and
ruffed in the dummy as Versace pitched his last diamond. I played a spade,
covered by the K and A.
A spade to the dummy revealed my fate. Versace's 9
was promoted into the setting trick. Yes, the odds favor my taking the
ruff and discard in my hand, but Lauria-Versace deserve credit for giving
me a chance to go wrong. Lauria is a veteran of the Italian Blue Team and
a former partner of Garozzo's. Versace is only 27 and appears to have a
very bright future.
Sabine Auken and Daniela von Arnim of Germany are perhaps
the strongest women's partnership in the world. They have consistently
shown that the best women players can more than hold their own against
the men. Auken-von Arnim have performed well at various invitational pairs
events over the last couple of years. Although they were not very successful
at the Macallan this year, they were involved in some interesting deals
against George and myself:
Opening lead: 6
What is the correct tactical bid with the West hand after your partner
opens 2 (weak) with nobody vulnerable
and RHO overcalls 2? I tried 4,
hoping that LHO would be content with 4.
This did not work very well as I made it easier for Auken to visualize
diamond shortness in her partner's hand and Blackwood into slam.
Von Arnim played it nicely. After winning the A
and drawing 2 rounds of trump, declarer eliminated the spades and diamonds
and played a low club from the dummy. If George had followed small, von
Arnim would have duck this trick to me. Even if I held 4 clubs to the Q,
J, and 10,
I would be endplayed into giving von Arnim the contract. When George produced
a club honour, von Arnim could either duck this trick or win the K
and duck the next round of clubs. Once trumps proved to be 2-2, von Arnim's
line would succeed no matter how the clubs were divided. George and I got
some measure of revenge on the next board:
Opening lead: 8
My 1NT was 15-17. Auken mixed things up a bit with her 3
preempt and George judged well to place the contract in 3NT. Auken's 4th
best diamond lead was won with dummy's 10.
I tried a heart and, when von Arnim ducked, my Q
won the trick as Auken discarded. I thought it was likely that Auken had
at least 7 diamonds and both black kings since she had bid at the 3 level
at unfavorable vulnerability facing a passed partner. Thus, my continuation
was clear - a low spade toward dummy. I would need an extra trick in spades
or clubs to make my contract and this play gave me a chance beyond the
club finesse. It was important to play spades before continuing hearts
to knock out the entry to the dangerous hand. Auken went up with the K
to continue diamonds. I knocked out the A
and when von Arnim could not produce a third diamond (as expected) I was
home. I went up with the A on the
club return and had 10 tricks.
It would have done von Arnim no good to go up with the A
on the first round of the suit (a difficult play that could be very wrong).
As long as I played Auken for both black kings (and guessed the distribution)
I would be OK. After winning the A
and running the hearts, Auken would have to keep both black kings guarded.
I could then cash the Ace of one black suit and continue that suit, throwing
Auken in. Auken would be able to cash 2 diamond tricks but would have to
lead away from her other black King at the end to give me my ninth trick.
Well George and I did not succeed in improving on our 4th place showing
in the 1996 Macallan. We had (our usual) terrible start and we were close
to last place after 5 matches. I am happy to say that we won the remaining
10 matches of the event to finish a respectable 8th. Our win-loss record
was 11 and 4 but our losses were so ugly that we were never above average
until after the last match! George and I were slightly disappointed to
be just out of the money but it was still satisfying to rise in the standings
to the extent that we did.
The top finishers:
Helen Schapiro, Paul Mendelson, and The Macallan deserve a great deal
of credit for their tireless efforts in organizing the 1997 Macallan International
Bridge Pairs Championship. From all points of view, this tournament was
an unqualified success. Macallan's exciting announcement that their sponsorship
of this event will continue gives bridge players something to look forward
to each January. Perhaps Andy Robson said it best at the awards ceremony:
"This is what bridge was meant to be like."