Starting on Thursday was the premier event of the Toronto Regional, the Percy Sheardown Knockouts (Percy was a legendary Canadian player). I had the good fortune to be playing with Darren Wolpert as my partner, and David Grainger and Joel Wooldridge as our teammates. (David is my partner for the CNTC coming up in June, and Darren is one of our teammates. Joel, unfortunately, lives in Buffalo).
Unlike most regional knockouts nowadays, this knockout was seeded, and despite our team's youth we managed to draw the #1 seed (I suspect one of the directors may have fudged the numbers a little bit as we were probably the #2 seed by masterpoints).
We drew a 3-way match in the first round, and beat one team 45-0 over 14 boards, and beat the other team 50-32 to advance. Here was a hand in the closer match that won us 11 IMPs:
West led a fourth best spade and I tried the sJ from dummy, not overly pleased to see the queen from East. I needed the cK onside to have any chance at the contract, and that pretty much marked the dK offside with my left hand opponent. Accordingly, the right play is to win the first spade with the Ace, for an obscure reason I'll show you a bit later. I crossed to dummy's hA to run four rounds of clubs ending in my hand with the aid of the finesse. I judged West to be 6-3-3-1 from her discards (1 early diamond pitch, then a spade and a fumbled heart). I cashed the hK, stripping West's last heart, and played a spade, claiming the last two tricks as she had to lead from the Kx of diamonds at trick 12.
Do you see why winning the first spade is the correct play? Because you don't have a high heart honour in your hand, if there is no spade in dummy it becomes impossible to strip West's last heart and then lead a spade next unless there is one in dummy to lead! So, if West discards the way she did, she will beat you unless you win the first trick.
In the second round we found ourselves in another 3-way match. This one didn't go so well -- we found ourselves +6 at the half in one match, and -45 at the half in the other!! If the second half didn't go better, we might find ourselves out of the event.
Happily, our team regained its form in the second half, not giving up a single IMP. Against the team we were +6, we picked up 34 more, and against the other team we got 39 of those IMPs back! In fact, on the only board we pushed, both tables went +150 in 1NT when they might have stolen a vulnerable 3NT were they in it. If Joel and David had bid it, we would have picked up 49 IMPs and won the set by 4!
Darren and I were swinging a bit in this set, as we knew we were down a ton and needed to create some swings. There is an art to swinging, and it does not involve blatant psyching. Instead, you should look for ways to create different situations at each table. You might open a shaky preempt you know your counterpart won't; you might upgrade a 13 point hand with a good suit to a strong notrump; you might open 1D on KJx instead of 1C on Axxx; you might open a chunky 4 card major in first seat; you might overcall at the 1-level instead of making a weak jump, or make a "weak" jump overcall instead of a simple 1-level overcall to shake things up.
Here was a hand where we swung successfully:
Darren, as North, made a simple raise of diamonds a diamond light, but he felt he had the high card points to compensate. I bid 2S over East's double which was pretty normal (OK, I was a little light HCP-wise, but I had good shape). When Darren doubled 3C for penalties, I decided to take a piece of 3H. Even despite the match score, I really didn't think Darren would be doubling here with "just clubs," as he would hate to push them out of clubs back into a heart contract we could not beat. So I decided we were probably killing this contract, and Darren would almost never lead a diamond -- he would either start with club ruffs, or with a spade. In fact, he led a spade, and declarer lost the first 8 tricks for +800 and 12 IMPs to us.
In the quarterfinals, we played a solid team of locals. The cards were running against us at our table, but the beauty of a team game is that your teammates encounter the same situations as your opponents. Our card didn't look wonderful, but David and Joel had a solid set and we found ourselves +13 at the half. The second half was all us at both tables and we picked up 37 IMPs.
In the semi-finals, we faced the same team we had narrowly lost to in the 2nd 3-way match, as they had inherited the #4 seed. Time for some revenge -- we hoped!
We set the tone on the very first board, where Darren doubled a 4H contract where trumps were breaking 5-0. We beat it two tricks for +500 and a 7 IMP pickup (our teammates were two down undoubled, one level lower, not warned of the bad breaks).
Another big pickup from the first half:
Lacking a good lead, I tried a low diamond from the West hand and it went to the Q, K, and Ace. Declarer next played a low club from dummy. I decided to rise with the cT to lead the d8, which held the trick, as partner played the d7. I was now quite certain that diamonds were 4333 around the table, so I couldn't afford to cash another round now. I was pretty confident that declarer had at least 5 clubs to the AK and usually 6 to go after them in this manner. In the auction, he had denied as many as 3 hearts, so I thought his only possible shapes were 2236, 3136, and 3235, with both spade honours. So, I switched to the hK, intending to give declarer a communications problem. He won the hA, dropping the hJ from hand, and led a spade to the King and my Ace.
I cashed the dJ, severing declarer from dummy, and exited with the cQ. Declarer could cash all his black winners but I had to score the sJ at the end. It wouldn't have helped him to cash the hQ before dislodging the sA because we would then have the setting tricks to cash in the heart suit. At the other table, the defense never led hearts, and David scored 9 tricks via a late heart finesse.
When the smoke cleared, we had won 45 IMPs in each half to win by 90.
In the final, we faced the original #2 seed, John Carruthers - Eric Murray, Nader Hanna - Jim Green, John Gowdy - Vince Oddy.
Darren and I had a good set against Eric Murray and J.C. in the first half, doing nothing wrong. Well, almost nothing. I had to find a lead from this hand:
Clearly, a heart is the only logical choice, but which heart? The heart Ten would be best if dummy hit with Kx, or declarer had KJx (KJxx doesn't help us); a higher heart would be necessary if dummy had a doubleton or singleton jack. I judged the latter to be a more likely scenario, and I decided to try the Ace of hearts, which as you can see was a major disaster. Perhaps I was being too much of a genius. But opening leads are hard. Jim Green did not open my cards, and in the midgame found a low heart switch. -600 was worth 13 IMPs away.
Fortunately, those were the only IMPs we lost in the half, and we found ourselves +13 IMPs overall. Here was a hand that was a swing to us:
J.C. led the h4 and I won the queen in dummy. This contract was a really bad one, but if I could find a lucky club position I still might make it. I led a club to the queen, and J.C. won the king. He switched to a diamond, which Eric Murray won to return a heart. I won the Ace and took stock. It seemed incredibly unlikely that a player as seasoned as John would win the first round of clubs from an original holding of KJx, so when I led a club toward the dummy and he played the c9 I was not tempted to finesse. The fall of the cJ meant +400 and 8 IMPs to us instead of 5 IMPs away. Yes, the defenders should let me win the first round of clubs. But anyone can make a mistake in the heat of the battle, and he was a bit unlucky that I was awake enough to take advantage.
In the second half both tables were very solid. Here was another 3NT I declared (some days, all the good play problems fall to one seat):
Vince led the cT which I covered with dummy's jack as John Gowdy won the queen. He switched to a spade, which I rode to dummy's queen. I played another spade, which he won to clear spades. At this point, I knew that he had 4 spades and at least 5 clubs (probably exactly 5). Vince's diamond discard made it clear to me that he had 5 or 6 diamonds, and thus 3 or 4 hearts. In fact, RHO's most likely distribution was 4=2=2=5, and if so, I was going to make this hand on an endplay.
I cashed the dA and led the hT. If Vince covered, I would have simply taken two deep heart finesses, but when he played low smoothly I rose hA, cashed the dK, and ducked a heart to John's queen. He cashed his spade, but with only clubs left in his hand he had to give me the c9 and cA, and a heart finesse was marked for my ninth trick. This was worth 10 IMPs when the other declarer failed on a diamond lead (on a less informative auction).
When all was said and done we picked up another 16 IMPs in the second half to win the match by 29 IMPs. Our opponents played very well, but on this day our team was firing on all cylinders and it was very hard to beat us.
Playing with David and Joel was a pleasure, as they are both great teammates, great players, and fun guys to hang out with. Partnering Darren was a treat; he is a very supportive partner and really makes you feel confident. Darren and I are playing in the "mini" Cavendish pairs in Las Vegas in May (we'd play in the big one but don't want to pony up the $15K!).
Tomorrow I fly out to Winnipeg to play at the regional with Jonathan. Stay posted for updates.