Sunday, February 9, 2014

Man about universe (II)

In 1996, I had entitled this way an article that won the prestigious Bols Bridge Press Award (Man about universe). The year before, I had made the final with The Apple, the Law and the Principle that was also published in BBO News.

A man about universe is penetrating, profound, contrary to the man about town who is superficial. The man about universe bridge player sees through appearances, like a poet, very different from the man about town bridge player who takes the 1st finesse he can and... goes down.

The following hand was played by Nicolas L'Ecuyer in the finals of the Canadian Championships, against Eric Kokish, Number One bridge coach in the world.

Your partner opens 1♣, Kokish on your right bids 1 and you have:

As the finals of a National Championships are not for timid souls, you jump to 3NT and all pass.

George Mittelman, Canadian Champion and World Mixed Pairs Champion, leads the 4 of spades (attitude lead). Kokish wins the Ace and plays back the 7, showing probably 3 cards. You win the King and... you have to make the rest, the spades being established.

You have 8 sure tricks: 1 spade, 4 hearts (your heart spots are not enough to make 5 tricks), and 3 clubs. You can find the missing 9th trick in clubs if they break 3-2. Even if they split 4-1, if you find J or 10 stiff on your right, you will make 4 tricks. Do you play clubs right away? All the men about town would, and complain after, if they go down, of their bad luck.

Nicolas, like all champions, hates to go down in cold contracts and hates even more to play without thinking, without trying all he can to avoid being forced to guess. The top players never guess, they count. And if ever they guess, it is because they are forced to, the events force them to guess. At the crucial moment, when they absolutely have to guess, they then transport themselves into another dimension, the 4th dimension, reserved to really exceptional players, brilliant, men about universe.

After winning the 2nd trick with the King of spades, Nicolas cashed his 4 heart tricks, watching intently Mittelman's discards: 3 diamonds (8, 9 and 10), then the 9 of spades. Nicolas knew at that moment that Mittelman had 5 spades, and most probably 4 diamonds and 4 clubs. With 5 diamonds, he could have led that suit. As he led spades, it should be his 5 card suit.

The more Nicolas cashed his heart tricks, the more Mittelman was finding the situation difficult, if not unbearable.

Finally Nicolas played his 2 of clubs and Mittelman followed with the 5, in tempo. Well maybe a tiny too much in tempo, with that forced relaxed way that wants to show: No problem here. Nicolas knew at that moment Mittelman had 4 clubs and he asked himself why he didn't discard one.

Follow closely: Nicolas knew that Mittelman knew that Nicolas could play small club to the Ace, then club to his King, finding the 4-1 break and pinning the Jack or the 10 stiff with Kokish, if ever that was the case.

Why didn't he discard a club? Nicolas was asking himself. To put yourself in the other player's position is one of the top qualities of a champion. So Nicolas put himself in Mittelman's shoes.

When he played the 2 of clubs, he knew he was missing J10854 in the suit. He knew also Mittelman had 4 clubs and Kokish only one. When Mittelman put the 5 of clubs on the table, Nicolas knew this was a true card, the lowest (Kokish-Mittelman play udca), and thus, Kokish could have only the... 4. If the 5 is the lowest, then Mittelman's clubs have to be J1085.

Nicolas called for the 9, making 4 tricks in the suit and eventually claiming the Canadian Championship.

Would you say Nicolas was lucky? No, luck doesn't exist at bridge. Nicolas would tell you that playing the 9 of clubs was a 100% play, that he was taking no risk.

I told you: great players don't guess, they count. However, in this arithmetic enter not only the cards, but also all the information floating around the table: the hand count for sure, but also the way the players stay still or move, their twitches, their tempo, their will to play in tempo, their determination not to have twitches, not to hesitate. And, in case of really superior players, we have to add, I think, this other power, indescribable, non measurable, that we can almost associate with the instinct of an animal who "smells" the cards.

Only a man about universe can access this supernatural arithmetic, and has enough confidence in himself, enough courage to play the way Nicolas played.

The kibitzers, and maybe Mittelman himself, must have thought Nicolas had seen the cards. When a player makes a play that prodigious, we first are shocked. Then we might become a bit irritated, telling ourselves that play was impossible, that he really saw the cards.

Then, after being forced to admit everything happened correctly and ethically, that nobody peaked, we feel, I think, a bit of jealousy in front of that amount of intelligence. And finally, if we are honest, if we can put aside all our mistrustfulness, we cannot help feeling a profound admiration for the infinitely superior player, and marvel once again about this magnificent game we play, that gives us sometimes the chance to equal the gods.

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