By John Carruthers, Kingsville, Ontario, Canada
In late 2013, I received a telephone call from my longtime friend, Alan Sontag, who asked me if I’d be interested in coaching the Mark Gordon team, which had just won the Transnational Teams in Bali. Of course I would be, I replied.
Alan asked me to submit a proposal detailing what I could do for the team, which I did. Early in 2014, Mark telephoned me to offer me the job on a trial basis. For this year, it would mean, at a minimum, all the NABCs, the USBF Trials, the World Championships in Sanya and a couple of training/practice weeks. I am thrilled about this new challenge in my life; it will make me busier than ever.
My goals as a coach are simple: to improve each of my pairs’ performance and for the team to be successful. The first time we were together (in Dallas), I conducted a planning and goal-setting session to ensure that we are all striving toward the same goals. The list of goals the team identified was quite lengthy, but the major goal was, of course, to win big championships.
I like to joke that they had to hire me as coach because I am the only person they could find who could spell and pronounce all their names! Mark Gordon/Pratap Rajadhyaksha, Alan Sontag/David Berkowitz and Jacek Pszczoła/Michał Kwiecień. Mark is the sponsor of the team and he is a wonderful man, a first-class gentleman.
He and Pratap work very hard at their system. Pratap has previously won a USBF Trials and a bronze medal in the Bermuda Bowl. The Poles have won the rarest prize in bridge and the most difficult event of all to win, the World Open Pairs, in 1998 in Lille, France.
Coincidentally, David (with Larry Cohen) came second to Pepsi and Michał in Lille after leading most of the way.
David also has a bronze medal from the Team Olympiad in 2000 in Maastricht. Alan has an incredible bridge résumé; as well as being a great player, he is also a top writer, having authored one of the best-loved bridge books of all time, The Bridge Bum. Alan has reached the final of seven World Championships and has won all seven of them. In some events, such as the USBF Trials, for which Michał Kwiecień is not eligible, Michael Seamon joins the team. Michael played with Pepsi when the team won the Transnationals in Bali last year.
Our first foray together was in the Vanderbilt. We were in the group seeded 9-12 (those four teams are shuffled for seeding position) and drew seed number 11, which meant that, should we last that long, we would play no. 6, Cayne (with Michael Seamon!), in the Round of 16; no. 3, Fireman (from the original no. 3 seed, Diamond), with a couple of my ex-Juniors (with more of my ex-Juniors in the Diamond team), in the quarterfinals; and no. 2 Nickell (coached by my good friend and fellow Canadian Eric Kokish) in the semifinals. Is it my imagination, or do things seem to work out with great regularity in this fashion, with ex-teammates, ex-partners, spouses and friends playing against each other?
We had some tough matches along the way, but the bracket gods smiled upon us and eventually we faced Nickell in the semifinal. In my mind, it was Koach versus Coach. As it happened, Nickell built an early lead and kept that lead until the end. The following deal was early in the match and had a few interesting points as well as some key decisions for the players to make:
Board 7. Dealer South. Both Vul.
| 10 8 3
10 9 6 4
J 5 3 2
| A K J 7 2
J 7 5
8 3 2
| Q 9 6
A Q 8
K J 10 7
K Q 6
| 5 4
K 3 2
Q 9 5 4
A 9 7 4
The first big decision was Sontag’s. Should he pass three notrump or convert to four spades? If you can tell me, looking only at the East/West cards, which of three notrump or four spades is the superior contract, you’re a better man than I, Gunga Din. On a different lie of the cards, it is easy to imagine receiving a club lead to the ace, then either guessing diamonds, taking a winning heart finesse, or discarding two hearts from the dummy on a club and a diamond for your contract.
We can see that that’s not what was going to happen. In practice, Ralph Katz led a diamond to Nick Nickell’s ace and the diamond return was won by Alan’s king. Alan drew trumps, South discarding a diamond, and led a club to the king and ace; Ralph took his queen of diamonds and got out with a club to the ten, jack and queen. Alan eventually lost the heart finesse for one down.
Have you noticed the missed opportunities, one each by the defense and declarer? The first was Ralph’s when he discarded the nine of diamonds on the third round of trumps – that was a crucial exit card. The second missed opportunity was Alan’s and came immediately after the diamond discard, when he played a club to the king. Had he played a diamond instead, Ralph would have had to win it with the now-bare queen and would have been endplayed. With declarer having a diamond ready for a discard from dummy and with no diamond exit, South would have had to lead a heart or a club, allowing declarer to rid himself of the fourth loser. Of course, if the cards had been distributed a little differently, with North having either the club ace or the diamond queen (or both), Alan’s play would have been successful. Nevertheless, Ralph had led the five of diamonds and had followed with the four and nine, so it was a good bet that he’d started with four to the queen in the suit.
At the other table, Bobby Levin passed three notrump. Similarly here, on another construction, it is easy to imagine a club lead, a mis-guess from dummy and the opponents later taking the ace of diamonds and four club tricks. Again, we can see that that’s not what happened. Pratap followed normal expert practice with hands of this type when he chose his opening lead, the four of diamonds. With similar suits, but one headed by the queen and the other by the ace, most experts lead the four-to-the-queen suit, reasoning that, if the suit is successfully set up by the defense, the ace of the other suit will be an entry, whereas the queen may never take a trick if the ace suit is led. Anyway, a diamond to the ace and another to the jack and queen left Levin with eight top tricks. After winning the third diamond, when he led a heart to the jack and a club to the queen and ace, he had taken ten tricks in all, winning 12 IMPs.
I’m already plotting my revenge!