Thursday, January 2, 2014

The Completeness of the Cross-Country Skier

Traveling in Europe for 5 weeks, I discover one day that I miss bridge. It is the first time I feel that way. Analyzing what I feel (I am not a bridge player for nothing), I identify that I do not miss the game itself, but the way I feel when I play bridge. I then experience a well-known phenomenon among long distance runners or cross-country skiers (skating technique): after the first 2 or 3 kilometers, the skier access a rhythm, a level (also known as second wind) where he doesn't feel the effort anymore, where he could ski forever without ever feeling fatigue.

The skis skating in tempo, arms pushing with the poles in perfect synchronism, you attain this eurhythmy that you don't want to leave: left, right, left, right, on a flat surface, you pace yourself to avoid becoming winded and you access eventually nirvana, you just float.

If you have never experience this sensation, you have no idea of paradise, you have never tasted eternity. We now know this sensation comes from a drug called endorphin, secreted by the hypothalamus, which has analgesic properties, suppressing the pain. At bridge also, this sensation exists. After the first efforts, your mind sometimes access this state of keen awareness and you become extra lucid.

Before the match, you feel this nervousness caused by the anticipation of pleasure, and also by a slight fear of mistakes which lies deep under this confidence you have acquired in all those years. You are capable, you know you are capable, but stage fright is always present, like before 20 kilometers at ski: you feel this little weakness in your knees, you apprehend the start, you wonder if your body will react properly, if the wax is the right one and if your triceps will respond with energy.

At bridge, after the first 2 or 3 boards, you sometimes access this second wind and the most obvious sign is a lucidity, a clearness of your thoughts which gives you, even right after the lead, the complete count of the hand.

Sometimes, you need to climb a hill and you have to be careful not to push: keep the rhythm, that is the most important thing. If not, you will be out of energy at the top. When you arrive at the top of the hill and start the descent, you have to refrain yourself also. Conserve energy till the last 2 kilometers, then you can go all out, pushing to the maximum in order to glide the fastest you can and intoxicate yourself with these few instants robbed to you own mortality.

At bridge, often, the ascent is tough because, at the beginning of the hand, you have only a few clues. You need then to take more time, think, pace yourself in order to count, imagine, visualize. After 4 or 5 cards, you access this plateau where you know all the elements, the count is clear and you just have to glide. But you cannot go all out, a mistake is always possible if you play too fast. When there are only 2 or 3 cards left, then you can press, you know if you will succeed or fail.

In 4th seat, you have: ♠J962 xx AKx ♣AK9x. LHO passes, partner passes, RHO opens 1. You overcall 1NT. Partner, after transferring to hearts, bids 3NT. LHO leads the 4 of spades.

First, count your tricks: 3 clubs, 3 diamonds, that's all. Well, the snow is good, and your wax is perfect, so don't rush, pace yourself, it is an uphill climb and don't exhaust yourself right away. First some warm-up exercises (to avoid tendinitis of the brain), analyze the lead: if it is 4th best, the rule of 11 tells you there are 7 cards above that 4 of spades. RHO then has 2 cards higher than the 4. Does he have AQ stiff? Possible. Or he has Ax or Qx. Anyway, you don't have to play the king from dummy. You call a small spade from dummy, RHO plays the Queen and plays back a spade. You play small, LHO plays the 3, confirming 5 cards. The King wins and... catch your breath.

Analyze now RHO's opening bid. What does he have? He has the spade Queen, the Jack of diamonds and the Jack of clubs. That's only 4 points; he needs to have then AK of hearts. He has opened in 3rd seat to make some noise, but you can analyze that noise and use it to your advantage. You need 9 tricks. You already have 1 spade trick, plus 3 in diamonds, that's 4 tricks, plus 3 in clubs: 7 tricks. You are missing 2 tricks and the position of AK of hearts tells you you won't make a trick in that suit.

Is the hill too steep today? Have you spent all your energy already? But, the weather is ideal, the wax is perfect, your legs are strong.

Analyze again. Do you see where to start? Pace your breathing, slow down in order to keep control.

Count again. You need 9 tricks: you have 1 spade, 3 diamonds and 3 clubs, 7 tricks. You absolutely need 4 club tricks to attain 8 tricks... Suddenly, you feel you have regain control, your breathing is normal again, all those hours of practice were fruitful. If you make 4 club tricks, it means clubs are 3-3. So RHO has 3 clubs, and you know he has 2 spades. Your mind sees now clearly: RHO has opened 1, he has to have at least one more diamond than clubs. How many diamonds does he have? Control your breathing, don't rush. RHO has most probably 4 Hearts and 4 Diamonds.

The 4 hands are then:


Analyze one more time: you need 9 tricks. You have 1 Spade, 3 Diamonds and 4 Clubs, 8 tricks. You need one more and the position of AK of Hearts means you can't make a heart trick. Still, you need ABSOLUTELY to make one trick in Hearts. Impossible, but it is the only way. The sphinx enigma, the Gordian knot, squaring the circle, a four-leaf clover, understanding women (and playing with your wife), all those impossibilities are spinning in your head. But, at the same time, you feel you are in control, you are calm. This feeling indicates you sense there is a solution.

As you cannot play hearts, cash your 4 club tricks. On the 4th club, LHO discards a diamond, you discard a heart in dummy, RHO hesitates, thinks, and finally throws the 9 of Hearts. THINK, breathe and visualize! If RHO has the 2nd hand:

All you have to do is play a heart and duck in dummy. East's Ace or the King will catch air, he will have to play back a diamond, you will win in hand and duck a 2nd heart, establishing 2 heart tricks in dummy for +430.

The 35 km sign appears in the distance, you breathe a bit more heavily, you are going to fast, control yourself. You know the 35 km sign is deceitful: at the top of a ascent, it seems to signify the end of the uphill, but it is an illusion. When you will attain kilometer 35, you will still have another kilometer of climbing before reaching Kilometer 34, the start of the real downhill. Don't rush, think again: is East really down to only AK of hearts? He would then give you the contract? No. So his hand has to be:

This heart discard from East shows he has 4 hearts, thus 4 diamonds. So all you have to do is cash AKQ of diamonds, then play a heart to the Queen: East will cash AK of hearts, then one diamond, but he will have to play a heart to the Jack in dummy for your 9th trick. A magical +400.

This stepping-stone play gives you a shot of adrenaline (enemy number One of the bridge player, but at this moment, you can afford it), and you push even harder on your skis and poles. What a rush!!!

Kilometer 34 sign appears and the descent starts till km 32. You have saved some energy for those last minutes of pure joy. At the moment you feel you are starting to go downhill, when your legs tell you that you are not going uphill any longer, when you don't fell anymore this burning in your thighs, you know you have succeeded, you know you will literally access heaven, you will get drunk with speed (skating technique allows speeds reaching 40/50 km/h).

The skiers in classical technique that you see going uphill are like phantoms passing by on your right and your left (skaters occupy the center of the trail), you are literally flying, on cloud nine.

You have conquered gravity, you have defeated your own weakness, your penchant to give up because it is too tough, you have vanquished your own imperfection, you live the completeness of the cross-country skier

The hand:

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