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The 1997 Macallan International Bridge Pairs Championship
By: Fred Gitelman

Originally Published in Canadian Bridge Canadien, Spring, 1997

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) bridge deals.

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 in 6.

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:

1. Lauria-Versace Italy 620
2. Auken-Blakset Denmark 548
3. Hamman-Wolff USA 532
4. Forrester-Robson Great Britain 529
5. Sharif-Mari Egypt-France 503
6. Helgemo-Helness Norway 478
7. Nickell-Freeman USA 467

Note that Omar Sharif, perhaps the world's most famous bridge player, finished 5th (with French Olympiad Champion Christian Mari as his partner). Omar's presence and charm are always one of the highlights of the Macallan. This year he showed the world that he is more than a pretty face - the man knows how to play! Omar is a passionate ambassador for our game and the media attention he attracts makes bridge appear to be an interesting and prestigious activity

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."

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