Sunday, July 13, 2014

Ascoli Satriano

Alas! You will never travel to Ascoli Satriano.

It is not your fault, you say, but I am not sure about that you were born in Canada, not in Italy, and you think it is a good reason. In addition, you don't travel. Or, if you travel, for exoticism you say, you rely only on travel agents, on sure things: you take packages with guides to Rome, Florence, Venice. In winter, you go to Cuba or Florida, always all included, because it is less trouble. You don't like trouble. In fact, when you travel, you do it "accidentally", like if you were staying at home. You look for Holiday Inns and eat steak, like at home.

If you decided to go to Ascoli Satriano, you would have to take a map, to establish a plan, to leave the main roads and travel into the unknown. You don't like the unknown, you prefer freeways, or the reassuring comfort of your house.
All in all, you are a bit (a lot) coward, you don't have the guts to go and see elsewhere, you prefer to stay home and repeat that travelling costs too much. But, deep down, you nevertheless envy those who travel.

In 4th position, you have:

Oh, you just love it when you have big hands! You feel secure with those Aces and Kings. LHO passes, partner passes and RHO shatters your bliss with a 3 ♠ opening bid.

Do you really want to travel, like you say you would if you could? I am giving you here the opportunity. Or are you fearful? If you feel fear, you will pass and hope that partner will double, in order to "get" them. You like it so much when you "get" them, those players who bid, too much to your liking, those players who jump into life with gusto (in fact, you are a bit jealous; you feel it is not permitted to love life like this, and to enjoy it so much). When you get them, you are so happy. When you don't get them, well, it is not your fault, you're not lucky, you didn't have a bid, partner did not double, etc. It is "so you": you want everything, but you want to stay home, in front of your TV set.

You are daydreaming, of course, partner will never double (he is more afraid than you are), you will get a bad score and you will complain about your bad luck, or about those opponents who never let you play bridge.

Or you can dare, you can pull all the stops and bid 3NT, and you will feel like when the plane starts on the runway: this irresistible thrust, that inebriates you each time, this void deep down your stomach that confirms that you are leaving, that you are airborne, that you are flying, that you are "living" at last.

Your belt fastened, you decide to listen to me, to get in there, to jump in there, and che sera sera: you take a deep breath and pull out the 3NT card. Nobody doubles and you already feel better.

LHO leads a small spade.

The sight of dummy makes you already regret your audacity: where are you going to find tricks? You were so secure, you should have passed, shouldn't you? All those small cards in dummy give you the creeps. What you like at bridge are those Aces and Kings, those sure things that nobody can take away from you, like Rome, Florence, Venice. Lower than the Queen, you don't like bridge so much any more.

You don't know what to do with those 6's, and those 7's, or 8's, or 9's. They are like those unknown destinations on road maps, where nobody goes, like Ascoli Satriano, and all those mysterious names: Bitonto, Corato, Canosa, Cerignola ... Maybe we'll get lost ...

You are breathing heavily: you really don't know what to do with this dummy. You feel anguish down your stomach and panic is creeping into you. Don't panic, count!! To count at bridge is the best antidote to panic: count, count, count. Count what? Your tricks, obviously. You have 1 trick in spades, 2 in diamonds, and ... well, don't panic. The Diamond Queen could be doubleton?

That's it, start to dream again. Count, I told you, don't dream, don't feel sorry for yourself, don't take it out on me, you dove in, you're in it now, that's life, real life. You are the master of your destiny.

Let's count something else then: RHO has probably 7 spades, that's at least a useful information. He has then 6 cards in the 3 other suits. See, we are making progress.

You can probably develop 3 tricks in clubs, if you guess them properly, obviously. Do you feel better? No? Let's go anyway.

RHO plays the spade Queen, you win the Ace and play a club; LHO plays small and it is up to you: don't play the Jack. Do you really believe clubs are breaking 3-3 on this auction? Let's be serious.

In addition, at bridge, you must try to get the opponents to play their big cards on your small cards. The 9, that card that you never look at, becomes suddenly interesting, and you play it: RHO plays the Ace!! Do you feel better now? I hope so. For my part, I am breathing a little easier. RHO plays back the 10 of diamonds, showing probably a doubleton.

You take your Ace, play a small club to the Jack, then KQ of clubs, RHO sluffing spades on the last 2 clubs. His hand should be:

See how much progress we made with nothing. All you have to do is count. West probably has a 1444 hand. If he had had a 5-card suit, maybe he would have led it. His hand should then be:

Count again: you have 1 trick in spades (eventually 2, but you have to count only sure tricks), 3 in clubs, 2 in diamonds, 6 tricks in all. Better than what we had at the start, no? You need 3 more tricks, and the location of the Ace of hearts means you won't make a trick with your King. Don't give up, don't feel discouraged, think and count, it is the only way: count, count, count. This is the position:

You are sitting on the edge of your seat, fully awake now, concentrated at 100%, that's real life (thank me now for having forced you to overcome your fear). Do you see the solution? LHO has only Hearts and Diamonds ...

You begin to see the light at the end of the tunnel: if you play the King of hearts, LHO will take it and won't be able to play diamonds, for he will give you 3 tricks. He will have to play back a heart and, if RHO doesn't have the Queen, you will be in dummy. Can RHO have the heart Queen? Maybe. Maybe she is singleton.

If she is doubleton, what will happen? LHO will win you King, play back a heart to RHO's Queen, who will cash his spade and get out with a diamond, leaving you a trick short: 3 spades, 2 diamonds and 3 clubs. This solution has therefore to be rejected. At this point in your contract, you have to root for the position that will permit you to succeed. LHO must have AQ of hearts if you want to make 9 tricks.

You don't really see clearly the rest (like when you take the road for Ascoli Satriano), but you decide to sacrifice this heart King. West takes it with the Ace, East following, and comes back a heart.

You are at the crossroads: which card do you play from dummy? Verifying once again in your mind your hypothesis of necessity, you finally play the Jack in dummy and East produces the ... 10. You heart skips a beat.

The position is now:

You are almost home. You're in dummy; count your tricks once again: you have 1 spade (eventually 2), 1 heart, 2 diamonds and 3 clubs. You can make another heart trick with the 9 8 combination in dummy. Incredible, isn't it?
You see the rest now very clearly. If you play the 9 of hearts, you will pitch a small spade, West will be in hand again with the 3rd trick for the defence.

If he comes back diamond, you will play the Jack, making 3 tricks in the suit. You will then cash the 8 of hearts. You will come back to your hand with the King of diamonds, stripping East of his last diamond and you will exit with the Jack of spades.

East will take his King, 4th trick for the defence, but will have to give you a spade for your 9th trick.
If West comes back a heart, you will make the 8 in dummy, pitching your diamond, come in hand with the King of diamonds and the rest is easy. Fascinating, isn't it?

Those 8, 9, 10 and Jacks, how they appear suddenly under a new light. In fact, you have made almost half of your tricks with these cards you don't really look at generally: J9 in hearts, J9 of clubs, and you will make the Jack of diamonds or the 10 of spades.

While you are floating, your opponents get impatient (like those people in a hurry who want to arrive in big cities very quickly and don't care for small villages). You let them huff and puff, and enjoy.

Ascoli Satriano appears on horizon, amidst the green plains and the golden pasture of Italy's heartland. High on its pinnacle, it looks like those J98xx of hearts in dummy, apparently without interest, in the middle of nowhere, out of reach.

But there was a way, all you had to do was to search for it, and you found it.

You play the 9 of hearts, pitching a small spade. West wins and comes back a heart. You win the 8 in dummy, pitching your small diamond. You play diamond to your King, and place the spade Jack on the table. East wins and comes back a spade, you win the 10 : 9 tricks and this sensation of floating, of soaring, of living, that you never felt.

At bridge, every card counts and, to succeed in a contract, you cannot afford to be snob, in a hurry or negligent: every card is important, and sometimes you have to s acrifice Rome, Florence and Venice if you want to discover the real pleasure of travelling, the real intoxication, the real world, these 8's, 9's and 10's that nobody talks about in travel guides.

If you go one day to Ascoli Satriano, you'll see, nothing has changed. You enter the village on the right, by the only street. The house of Arturo's grand-parents is just there, the third on the right, with this veranda on top on the second story that he remembers so well, even if he went there only once, 70 years ago. A little further, you arrive on the plaza. You stop at the bar and Arturo asks if the village still has some people called Rolla, his surname. The barman says: "Certainly, the mayor is a Rolla."

I told you : nothing has changed.

Sadly, it is not really the truth, one thing has changed. If you go to Ascoli Satriano, it will never be at the same time as my friend Arturo, and you will never hear him tell you how, when he was a little boy, the farmers would walk the streets of his village, in the morning, and stop at each door in order to milk the goats for the housewives.

Have a nice trip, dear friend*.

*In memory of my beloved friend Arturo Rolla, from Trieste (Italy), lover of life, who died the 28 of September 1997.

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