I was delighted to see a Cambridge pair - albeit a university pair from forty years ago - win the Harold Poster cup this year. John Reardon and Richard Butland - against whom I played against very occasionally in my youth - had stayed in contention throughout and won their last match, seizing the title from the illustrious hands of Allfrey and Robson.
Although it is invidious to select one particular deal as deciding the event, the swing on this innocuous looking set of cards from the final set accounted for more than the margin of victory. How would you have coped?
At my table, the auction was a simple one. Playing a weak no trump and with no opposition bidding, I opened the East hand with 1♠, my partner responded 1NT and that ended matters. North led ♦2 - how would you plan the play as West?
This being pairs, the first question that declarer should ask himself is: how reasonable is the contract relative to other tables?
Thinking first of our table, the opening bid and response seem reasonable, but East's decision to pass 1NT is marginal. He might have raised to 2NT with his 16 points and five card suit, which might in turn have been raised to 3NT. 3NT is not a promising contract - even if North has led away from ♦KQ, there are still only seven top tricks. The opponents might duck one round of spades but the second round of spades is going to come from the table and is certain to be won by the opponents with their ♠A. It is now a very big ask to expect the opponents not to switch to clubs, or for the clubs to be blocked (perhaps one defender holds precisely ♣AK10).
In 3NT at teams, you would just hope for all your Christmas presents to arrive at once, but the ♦2 looks a normal lead against that contract too and the most likely outcome for any declarer in 3NT (other than Zia Mahmood) is at least two off.
What are the other likely contracts? Although the two hands have eight hearts between them, they also have a combined 24 points, which might well be enough to push any strong no-trumpers too high. Following a transfer to hearts and a game try by West, a bid of 4♥ by East would seem automatic. Indeed, switch one of East's small clubs for the club ace (in place of the diamond ace) and this contract would have chances.
Finally what about those pairs playing a Strong Club system. East will open 1♣, West will respond 1♥ and an unfortunate game forcing situation will again have been reached.
Did you and your partner stop in hearts below game level? Pretty difficult, I would have thought - but at both table 1 & 2, East/West managed just that, scored +140, and earned themselves 117 out of 126 matchpoints - giving both Allfrey & Robson and the Scottish pairing of Morgan & Stephens a near bottom on the board.
Reverting to those tables playing in 1NT: you opt to play low from dummy on the diamond lead, South wins with the king and, say, plays back a diamond to dummy's ace. Should you now play a top spade, hoping that the opponents duck and that you have stolen a seventh trick, and/or that the opponents take their ♠A but fail to switch to clubs?
Time for a reality check: you are never going to beat those pairs playing in a heart part-score. That ship has already left. Your mind should be focused on equalling or bettering those pairs in a heart game as well as those who have gone overboard in 3NT.
The conclusion from this is that you should just take your five heart tricks before leading a spade, expecting to concede -50.
Time now to see the full deal
If you try for a seventh trick at trick three, the defence will win, cash five rounds of clubs and their second diamond winner. You are now two off. Your matchpoint score is a measly 21/126 or 17%. True, +90 would have been almost as good a matchpoint score as 3♥ - but, of course, not one pair in the top section managed this feat. So you are effectively gambling a top against a 20% score, based on the clubs being 4-4 or an unlikely blockage. Unless you are desperate to catch up in a short match, playing to steal a spade trick is not winning bridge in the long-term.
Although it might not seem a great score, -50 would have earned you 58/126 matchpoints, only just below 50%.
1NT was however not the contract reached at the table where Butland and Reardon played Kay Preddy and Norman Selway – more opponents from my childhood, although I hasten to add that Kay is younger than me - also in contention for one of the top spots. At their table, Kay and Norman reached the doomed 4♥ via an unknown auction. North led ♣A. What outcome would you expect?
Well, I wasn't there but it would seem from Deep Finesse's analysis that nine tricks are always available to E/W in hearts - and from what I have written above, you might very well think that declarer should have focused on achieving that result. You can play through the hand yourself, but, superficially, West can always manage a diamond ruff or establish the fifth spade to go with his other eight obvious tricks. Perhaps declarer played for a miracle distribution, or an unlikely misdefence, in an attempt to make ten tricks. If so, this was unwise; Butland & Reardon took the contract two off, contributing handily to their victory point match result of 17-3 - which proved just enough to pip Allfrey & Robson (who only won their final match 13-7) to the top spot.