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1996 Macallan Pairs Championship Diary
By: Fred Gitelman

Originally Published in Canadian Bridge Canadien, 1996


The Sunday Times Invitational Pairs Tournament was first held in London in 1963. This event quickly became established as one of the toughest and most prestigious bridge tournaments on the international circuit until 1981 when it was discontinued. The event was reborn in 1990, with Macallan as the main sponsor. The Times and Sunday Times are still associated with the tournament and provided extensive coverage.

Having Macallan as a sponsor had some nice benefits for the players in the event. Not only did Macallan provide excellent accommodation and meals (in London's White House Hotel) and generous prizes for the high finishers, the players were also treated to a seemingly unlimited supply of Macallan's finest 18 year old scotch whisky. As I discovered, a Macallan or two is a perfect way to unwind after an evening of intense bridge!

George Mittelman and I were among 16 pairs fortunate enough to be invited to the 1996 Macallan (January 24-26). Each pair played a 9 board match against each other pair. Each board was IMPed against a datum - the average of the results at other tables with the high and low scores thrown out. There were 60 Victory Points (VPs) available in each match. Each pair started each match with 30 VPs. Each IMP won was worth one VP (to a maximum of +30 IMPs or 60 VPs). Each IMP lost resulted in losing a VP (to a maximum of -30 IMPs or 0 VP).

George and I had spent the previous week playing in the Cap Volmac Invitational in The Hague, a similar event also with a very strong field. We had not been very successful there, finishing 12 out of 16 pairs. The Macallan was a chance to redeem ourselves. However, the tournament started poorly for us.

In the first match we faced Paul Chemla and Michel Perron, France's top pair, and lost convincingly. It got even harder in the second match when we faced Meckstroth and Rodwell - in my opinion the best pair on earth. We lost by 6 IMPs but we were not totally unhappy in getting 24 VPs from this pair. In the third match we faced Sabine Auken (formerly Zenkel) and Daniela von Arnim from Germany, recent winners of The Venice Cup Women's World Championships. Our match was on vugraph and we were doing fine until George (who had obviously been studying his system notes) remembered an obscure agreement that we have. Unfortunately, I forgot our system and we played a hand in 3NT with 6 laydown and 7 makable. We were the only pair not to get to a slam and deservedly lost 12 IMPs. As a result, we lost our third match in a row, this time by 3 IMPs.

Despite our poor record, we were not playing that badly. We seemed to be having 1 bad board every match and almost no really great boards. The problem was that our opponents were not making very many mistakes. Also, it seemed like every time we did something good, most of the pairs in our direction were doing the same thing.

After losing our first 3 matches we were in 12th place out of the 16 pairs, exactly where we finished in The Hague. It was getting depressing. Our final match of the first day was against the legendary Pietro Forquet of the Italian Blue Team playing with Antonio Sementa, a reigning European Champion and one of Italy's bright young stars. On one board I held:

 

George opened a vulnerable 15-17 1NT and responded 2 to my Stayman inquiry. I chose to bid an aggressive 3NT (as opposed to inviting with 2NT). However, bidding a close vulnerable game at IMPs with a declarer of George's skill is a winning tactic. George, with an ordinary 15 count, backed up my evaluation. He played and guessed the hand nicely and came to 9 tricks. Half the field was not in game and some of those who were went down. We won 7 IMPS. Then the Italian's had a Blackwood mixup and played a laydown vulnerable grand slam at the 6 level - 9 more IMPs to us. Finally we bid this combination to a close slam:

 

Once again George played and guessed well to make 6. Only one other pair bid and made 6 so our +1370 was worth 11 IMPs. Notice how lucky we were with the vulnerability in each of these 3 big results. The Italians got slightly the better of us on the other boards but the damage had been done. We won by 23 IMPs - 53 VPs.

At the end of the first day we were dead average and sitting in 10th place. Not so great, but it was the first time we had been average in 5 days of bridge (1 in London and 4 in The Hague). At last we had a reason to smile.

We remained exactly average after the 5th match, an exact tie against England's Irving Rose and Chris Convery of South Africa. We managed to move up to 8th place, however, in the process. In match 7 we faced Hamman and Wolff, winners of umpteen World Championships including the 1995 Bermuda Bowl against team Canada. George and I played well and won by 8 IMPs (38 VPs) to move into 7th place. Match 8 brought a mild setback when we lost by 6 IMPs (24 VPs) to England's Boris Schapiro and Irving Gordon.

In matches 9 and 10 we had 2 healthy wins beating Ghose-Shivdasani of India and then the Hackett twins from England. The tournament organizers deserve special credit for recognizing the accomplishments of Jason and Justin Hackett, World Junior Champions, and the best young pair in the world. As I was a junior player not that long ago, I can really appreciate the great experience an event like the Macallan is for a young player.

The wind was coming out of our sails, however, and we lost the last two matches of the second day. The first of these was to Zia playing with Omar Sharif. Omar once again showed that he can more than hold his own against the world's best. Also, his tremendous charm and sense of humour are always a delight for the spectators and local media. Watch how Omar and Zia combined to create a huge board out of thin air against George and me:

 

3NT is the best contract for East-West but Zia and Omar gave us no chance to bid it. Zia's semi-psychic strong no trump opener was a good start. When Omar bounced to the 3 level over my penalty double, George and I had little room for exploration. We found our 5-3 spade fit but the hands fit badly. Omar expressed his opinion with a penalty double and Zia wisely stood his ground. After cashing his top clubs and the A, a third round of clubs doomed the contract to down 2 and -500 for George and me. Zia and Omar really earned the 12 IMPs they won on this board. We got slightly the better of the other boards but lost the match by 9 IMPs - 21 VPs.

In the final match of the second day we played Nick Nickell and Dick Freeman, yet another pair from the American team that beat us in the recent Bermuda Bowl (the other pairs were Meckstroth-Rodwell and Hamman-Wolff who we had already played in the Macallan). Once again Nick and Dick showed us how well they can play (and what good guys they are). We lost by 14 IMPs but the 16 VPs we won were just enough to keep us in 6th place.

With 4 matches to go Meckstroth and Rodwell were starting to pull ahead of the field. First place was almost out of reach but we were fortunate that several of the pairs we still had to play were close to us in the standings. Our first match of the third day was against Americans Michael Rosenberg and Seymon Deutsch. We recorded our biggest win of the tournament - 28 IMPs and 58 of the 60 available VPs. We had moved up to 4th place and our next match was against local favourites Tony Forrester and Andy Robson, sitting third. This hand was good for our cause:

 

George and I always bypass 4 card majors as opener to rebid 1NT with balanced hands. Tony started with the K and Andy had to play the 10 to discourage. I followed with the J so that I could have an eventual heart entry to the dummy. Tony shifted to a spade in order to try to knock out an entry to the long diamonds. I could have made my contract legitimately by winning the A here, but the position was not clear. I ducked and Andy won his K. Andy now had to shift to a club to defeat 3NT, but he reasonably played back a heart, hoping that Tony started with 4 hearts to the AK. With that holding Tony could duck the second heart and when Andy won the A the defense would take two heart tricks to beat 3NT. On the actual lie of the cards, Andy's heart return allowed me to claim my contract. Somewhat surprisingly half the field bid and made 3NT with our cards so we won only 4 IMPs on the board. We went on to win the match by 7 IMPs for 37 VPs, not enough to pass Forrester and Robson, but the gap was closing.

In the second last match we played Nicola Smith and Pat Davies, a top Women's pair from England and former World Champions. Nicola and Pat had been very consistent this tournament and were currently lying 5th, just 12 VPs behind George and me. In fact both pairs of women (Auken-von Arnim were the others) did well in the Macallan, demonstrating once again that women are capable of competing with men at the very highest levels in bridge.

Of the matches George and I were involved in, our match against Nicola and Pat was the best played. Neither pair gave up anything and all nine boards were bid accurately to making contracts. Since the boards were more difficult in our direction and other pairs faltered, we ended up winning by 15 IMPs for 45 VPs. We were still in 4th place and, with one match to go, 2nd and 3rd were still within reach.

Our last match was against Lorenzo Lauria and Alfredo Versace, Italy's most formidable pair. We had played this pair twice in the Bermuda Bowl and had beaten them soundly both times. We needed to win by 17 IMPs in order to come at least third.

The first board was a good start. Lauria-Versace bid to a slightly aggressive 3NT, found a horrible lie of the cards, and went down 4 vulnerable. After this hand, Alfredo said to us, "This is not Beijing!" George replied, "If it were Beijing, you would have been doubled!" This result was not as good as it sounds (we won 4 IMPs) as everyone went minus the other way. Hamman and Wolff outbid the field on this board, stopping in 1NT (with 24 HCP), but even that contract was not makable.

Unfortunately the rest of the match was nothing like Beijing. A few boards later I held:

With the opponents vulnerable, Alfredo on my right opened 1. I passed and Lorenzo jumped to 4. George and Alfredo passed. It seems absurd to even consider bidding with these cards but instinct told me to double(!). George and I had discussed the concept of double showing a hand like this, but with no defense I was really afraid that George might not pull. I went against my instincts and passed, trying to play "down the middle" after our good early result.

Double would have been a big winner as George held:

4 was cold for them as was 5 for us. In fact 6 was makable by guessing the J. It did not feel very good to be defending 4 making into our own slam but this seemed like a very hard deal. In fact the exact same auction happened at 3 other tables! Even Meckstroth and Rodwell had the same foolish looking result as us.

The next board was another nightmare:

I played 6 from the short side after a transfer sequence. The J was led to dummy's A. I played 3 rounds of trumps, unblocking the Q on which the defenders signalled that the A was offside. This did not mean that it actually was offside and I decided not to let the defense talk me out of my best technical chance. I tested the clubs and when the 10 did not fall (LHO had J10xx), I pitched a heart from dummy. I played A and ruffed a heart to lead a diamond towards my K. The defense was signalling accurately, however, and I had to lose 2 diamond tricks. Again, this board was not as horrible (we lost 4 IMPs) as it looked. Most of the field bid 6 and nobody made the contract. I was somewhat frustrated, however, because if I believed the defenders' signals I would have made the slam. I had to finesse early in hearts (the K was onside), cash the A, and run all my trumps. LHO would be forced to come down to a stiff A and 3 clubs. I could then exit with the K and take the last three club tricks. Instinct told me to play for the strip squeeze but I knew it was not the percentage play. Once again I played down the middle when going with my instincts would have resulted in a big winning position.

Just when things seemed like they couldn't get any worse, George picked up in 4th seat with our side vulnerable:

Not an easy hand to bid at the best of times. How about when LHO opens 4 in 3rd chair? George doubled and corrected my 4 response to 5. I kept bidding hearts and George kept bidding diamonds. We ended up in 6 with me holding:

Down 2, -200. We lost a little more on this disaster, 7 IMPs, as several pairs also went minus on our cards. Lauria had a legitimate 4 preempt and 4 was the limit with our cards. In another match Robson overcalled 4 with 4NT (natural) holding George's cards. He played it there and was held to 6 tricks for - 400!

When this match mercifully ended George and I felt pretty sick. We were sure we had been blitzed and slipped from the 4th spot that we had fought so hard to achieve. We started to feel better as other tables finished play and just about every pair sitting our direction thought they got blitzed! We ended up losing by just 14 IMPs and the 16 VPs we received were more than enough to maintain our position in the standings.

The final results:

  1. Meckstroth-Rodwell USA 602
  2. Versace-Lauria ITA 562
  3. Forrester-Robson GB 544
  4. Gitelman-Mittelman CAN 501
  5. Auken-Von Arnim GER 488
  6. Forquet-Sementa ITA 479
  7. Chemla-Perron FRA 475
  8. Smith-Davies GB 472
  9. Sharif-Zia EGY-PAK 446
  10. Nickell-Freeman USA 430
  11. Hamman-Wolff USA 417
  12. Shivdasani-Ghose IND 409
  13. Rosenberg-Deutsch USA 370
  14. Hackett-Hackett GB 359
  15. Schapiro-Gordon GB 355
  16. Convery-Rose RSA-GB 291

So in the 25th running of this tournament, Meckstroth-Rodwell, become the first pair to win the event two years in a row. As their victories pile up, it looks more and more like this pair is in a class by themselves. I was quite happy to finish fourth, particularly considering our result in the Cap Volmac and the start we had in the Macallan.

It is a real honour just to be invited to a tournament with the prestige and history of the Macallan. A quick look through past winners of the event reads like a who's who of bridge in the modern era. Tournament organizers, Helen Schapiro and Paul Mendelson, deserve a special thanks for this year's event. Every aspect of the 1996 Macallan was superbly arranged. Paul, Helen, and Macallan have made certain that their tournament will continue to be a highlight on the international bridge calender.

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