Bob Mackinnon

The Anatomy of a Collapse

With regard to playing Teams, a point of interest is to what extent one should be influenced by what one imagines may be happening at the other table. Zia has suggested that at the highest levels players should be informed of the current state of the match so they can adopt accordingly board-by-board without having to guess. The utopian view is that the beauty of bridge lies in revelation not competition, so each deal should be played on its own merits to achieve the par result regardless of the order of play. Reality lies somewhere between these two extreme views, as players always have a feel for how the match is proceeding and can hardly resist the temptation to compensate accordingly.

It is perhaps ironic that the Nickell team is known for its great comebacks, but that its leading member, Bob Hamman, is known for his unflappability, meaning that in the face of adversity he continues to play each hand on its own merits. Yet he participates in comebacks time and time again. That’s a clue that collapses may be due to psychological factors that affect teams that are leading. Do they bid too much, or too little? Does losing represent a weakness of character, and winning, a strength of resolve, or is it mostly randomness at work? In the recent WBF round of 16 the leading Martens team lost to Nickell by dropping 47 IMPs on the last 8 boards of a 56 board match. Do the events point to an optimum strategy that may help us avoid a similar collapse? Let’s see.

Gitelman Bids a Grand Slam

Before we consider the Martens-Nickell match, here is an amusing board from the WBF Open Teams final that illustrates the dangers of guessing what may be happening at the other table. The Diamond team had a healthy lead in the final stages of the match, so Fred Gitelman might well have imagined that Zia-Hamman at the other table would be swinging to pick up IMPs. The rest is speculation on my part, but the action illustrates the dangers of guessing what might have happened, even when seeing all 4 hands.


Dealer: West

Vul: Both


Q J 4 2

8 3

Q 8 7 6 5

9 8


K 8

A 10 7 6 5 4

J 9

A 7 5


A 6 3


A K 4 2

K 4 3 2


10 9 7 5

Q 9 2

10 3

Q J 10 6


Zia opened the bidding with 1 and the auction proceeded along natural lines as follows:

1 – 2 ; 2 – 2NT; 3 – 3 ; 4 – 6 ; all pass

Notable is Hamman’s restraint with his control-rich hand. There does not appear to be any attempt to swing a favorable result. The famously unrestrained Zia may have thought that the swinging result was to pass, his reputation for flair having preceded him. His play of the hand would have pleased his British fans in particular as he never led trumps but after the lead of the Q played along elimination lines, ruffing 2 diamonds and 2 spades in hand before exiting a low club to South leaving himself with AT7 and dummy with KJ 4, thus avoiding a guess in the trump suit, making 6 the Utopian way. Some with long memories could recall the great Belladonna once did the same thing, many years ago.

South had made the slight error earlier (pointed out by Mike Passell on BBO) of discarding a club rather than ruffing a diamond deceptively with the 9.

At the other table Fred Gitelman bid the bad grand slam that left the onlookers shaking their heads.


Moss Rodwell Gitelman Meckstroth
1 Pass 2NT Pass
3 * Pass 3 Pass
4 Pass 4NT Pass
5 Pass 5 Pass
5NT Pass 7 ! All Pass


Gitelman may have thought Moss held better hearts, but his decision is nonetheless surprising opposite a partner who showed no slam ambitions. Maybe he felt that Zia might well bid 7 , so that he was taking out insurance against a possible swinging action. The amusing aspect of the hand is that Rodwell accepted Gitelman’s evaluation and led a trump, eliminating the trump guess Zia worked so hard to avoid. Now Moss made 13 tricks on a squeeze with the 4 a threat card against Rodwell and the 7 a threat card against Meckstroth, neither opponent being able to keep a guard in spades.

This hand shows once again that the bidding of a grand slam is not to be nervously avoided – there is always the chance of a favorable trump lead. If you are going to bid a risky contract, at least do it with confidence and the opponents may believe you and act make your assessment valid a posteriori. Laughter is a useful weapon. Also note that squeezing to get an extra trick is more profitable that doing all that’s possible to avoid a loser. The latter is an insurance policy, the former a speculative investment. One doesn’t get rich through buying insurance, which leads us to the aforementioned collapse.

Martens vs Nickell

The round of 16 in the WBF was played over 4 sessions of 14 boards each. At the end of the first session Martens led by 27 IMPs, and managed thereafter to maintain a lead. Session 3 was a bit of a chore, as the Nickell team gained 2 IMPs on 6 different boards, which must have been somewhat annoying. The young Czech player, Michal Kopecky, made an insightful play in 5 that gained 10 IMPs against the same contract played by Bob Hamman. Still, the Europeans knew they were being outplayed on most hands. The fourth session began with 4 game hands with no exchange of IMPs, so Martens still led by 17 IMPs, and they were about to gain 23 IMPs on the next 2 boards. Here is the scoreboard for the last 10 deals.


NS: Zia – Hamman NS: Kopecky -Kurka
EW: Martens – Jassem EW: Meckstroth -Rodwell
Bd 20 NS 3 + 1 170 NS 4 620 (+10 IMPs)
Bd 21 NS 3NT – 2 -200 NS 4 620 (+13 IMPs)
Bd 22 NS 3 140 NS 4 x – 2 -300 (-10 IMPs)
Bd 23 EW 5 600 EW 5 600
Bd 24 NS 6 + 1 1010 NS 6 + 1 1010
Bd 25 EW 4 + 1 150 EW 3NT + 1 630 (-10 IMPs)
Bd 26 NS 4 620 NS 3 + 1 170 (-10 IMPs)
Bd 27 NS 4 – 1 50 NS 3NT – 2 -100 (-2 IMPs)
Bd 28 EW 3 + 3 170 EW 5 x + 1 650 (-10 IMPs)
Bd 29 NS 2 110 NS 2 – 1 50 (-5 IMPs)


Superior card play was not a factor in the swings; it was all about bidding. The declaring side was the same in both rooms for all the boards, so there was no stealing involved. The large swings were due to the choice of level, the winning decision in 4 hands being to bid game rather than stop short in a partial. The lone exception was Bd 22 where the swing went to Zia-Hamman for staying out of game. First let’s examine whether system differences produced a swings on Boards 28 where the bidding was quite different.


Jassem Martens Jassem Martens
2 9874 1 1
AJ732 K5 3 Pass
AK96432 J107 Making 12 tricks


The Krzysztofs, Jassem and Martens, are scholarly experts, the former having written a fine book on the Polish Club System, which contains the option of opening a limited Precision 2 with a 6 clubs and a 5-card major of poor quality. Rather than emphasizing the fine club suit, Jassem opted to start with a limited bid in his major suit, a common approach at matchpoints. Yes, a major suit game requires only 10 tricks, but here Jassem had a 4-loser hand and should have had higher ambitions. He showed a lack of foresight as well, for what might happen if the opposition competed strongly in spades? He ended up playing in clubs anyway, but at 3 levels too low when Martens sensibly passed 3 .

In the other room Rodwell opened the hand with a more descriptive Precision 2 , and the auction became competitive immediately when Kopecky doubled where Hamman had passed. Meckstroth could give a feeble raise to 3 , and with just that modicum of encouragement Rodwell bid 5 over 4 with some confidence. He was not unhappy about missing slam which makes because the Q was dealt singleton in the North hand.

Board 25 was a costly 10 IMP loss when Jassem-Martens again pulled up short, playing in a club partial, but this time they missed a vulnerable game. As we discussed in a previous blog on the mathematics of bidding vulnerable games, one should bid them on the slightest excuse. Of course, Jassem knows that, but circumstances are different if one takes into account that the opponents may double the contract if one steps too far out of line. On the previous set Zia-Hamman had doubled Jasem-Martens 3 times, twice in part-scores, so a speculative penalty double was a live possibility. Zia, especially, has been known to compete deceptively then go for the throat. Here are the EW hands.


Jassem Martens Jassem Hamman Martens Zia
K8 A96 1 1 1
62 A8543 2 2 3 Pass
K65 2 3 Pass 4 All Pass
K96432 AQJ5 Making 11 tricks


This was a first-class disaster as game is available in 3NT or 5 . At the time the Poles were aware that Board 21 had produced a great result when Zia had erred badly by choosing to play in a hopeless 3NT rather than an easy 4 . They must have felt well ahead at this point. This is not the time to let up, but the time to press on aggressively. The cuebid has become somewhat nebulous, showing general strength, so Jassem was hesitant to commit to 3NT on the expectation of quick tricks in his mediocre suit. He hedged with a nebulous 3 which must have puzzled Martens, who might have bid 3 , more nebulosity leaving 3NT an open possibility, as the status of a diamond stopper was still in question. Instead he bid 4 to show strength in the suit, but Jassem passed.

It is difficult to generate any sympathy for the Poles, who, after this exhibition of inhibition, well deserving of their loss. Here’s the action in the other room.


Rodwell Kopecky Meck Kurka
K8 A96 1NT Dbl 2
62 A8543 3NT All Pass
K65 2 Making 10 tricks
K96432 AQJ5 Gaining 10 IMPs


It looks easy, doesn’t it? Rodwell had no guarantee of a club fit, but he was willing to bet he could make 3NT holding at least one side entry. Clubs never came into the picture, so the purist might argue that this was bad bidding on his part. Still, when one is behind in a match, one takes chances, and if you are Rodwell and Meckstroth you take chances regardless, a factor that Jassem, in particular, might have acted upon. If it is to be done, ‘tis better it be done quickly, not so?

Another point concerning this hand is the opening bid. Kopecky chose 1NT when holding a 6-card minor, often thought to be a clever maneuver by those who like to bid for effect rather than for information. I was glad to see that it backfired, as it so often does when the opponents are not so easily cowed. Meckstroth’s double is good on points, bad on shape, but one has to start somehow. Kurka’s 2 bid didn’t strike fear into valiant hearts, but served only to increase the chance of club values in the doubler’s hand. Without the fear of a long diamond suit in the North hand, Rodwell simply bid what he hoped to make.

In competition, simple is best. Trying too hard can lead to big mistakes, such as happened to Kopecy-Kurka on Board 22. When they picked up their hands the Czechs had a 40 IMP lead with 8 boards to play. Could they have been aware of their sizable lead? From their perspective the deals had progressed normally. On Board 21 Kopecky had taken 12 tricks in a 4 contract gaining 13 IMPs, but he was unaware of the favorable turn of events. One can’t be entirely happy with taking 12 tricks in a game contract, but there was no need to over-react, as slam was not likely to be bid at the other table.

Board 22

Dealer: East

Vul: EW


A Q 9 4

A 10 8 7

A 5

Q 9 7



K 5 3 2

Q J 10 2

A K 5 2


K 10 4

Q J 6 4

K 9 8 3

J 10


J 7 6 3 2


7 6 4

8 6 4 3


Rodwell Kopecky Meckstroth Kurka
Pass Pass
1* Dbl Rdbl 1
2* 3 4 Pass
Pass Dbl Pass 4
Pass Pass Dbl All Pass


Rodwell had shown a good limited bid and Meckstroth had shown values with his initial redouble. With 16 HCP of his own Michal Kopecky could expect his partner, Josef Kurka, to hold zilch. He was correct to double 4 for penalty insofar as that contract was doomed to be down 1, vulnerable. The question is this: was he wise to do so? Increasing the score from +100 to +200 doesn’t amount to much in terms of IMPs. Early in a match a fierce double might be an attempt to intimidate, but late in a match the psychological boundaries have been pissed upon already. When taking a risk it is the effect on partner one has to be most concerned about. In this case the pressure was too much to withstand, as Kurka made the fatal move of removing the double, thus changing +200 to -300, losing 10 IMPs for no particular good reason. Note that Kopecky might have overcalled the Precision 1 with 1NT. Now if he were to double 4 , Kurka could in good conscience pass. This, then, is another example of how making a simple descriptive bid can prove beneficial in a competitive auction.

So at last we come to consider Board 26, yet another 10 IMP loss for the Martens team. The approach of the popular historian is to make winning decisions appear rational, we’d all sleep better if that were so, but I believe in luck because I never win without it. The problem facing Hamman and Kopecky was this: both vulnerable, your partner opens 3 in second seat. Do you raise to game on Q6 A4 KT63 AT762? Find reasons.

Traditionally, second seat vulnerable preempts were expected to deliver a good suit, so holding the A points to being able to score 7 tricks in that suit. The A brings the total to 8, and a diamond lead would produce the required 9, so if one were considering a swinging action, 3NT would be a possibility. The silence of the lambs indicates partner may hold 3 spades to an honor, but one shouldn’t expect help in the minors. Otherwise, it is simply a matter of counting losers and deciding whether or not to bid 4 . If one places partner with 7 hearts and 3 spades, he is most likely to hold 2 diamonds and 1 club. On that reasoning game may depend solely on finding the •A with West. Here is the deal.


Dealer: East

Vul: Both


Q 6

A 4

K 10 6 3

A 10 7 6 2


J 10 8 4 2

10 7

A 9 7 5

K 8


A 9 7 3

9 6

Q 4

Q J 9 5 4


K 5

K Q J 8 5 3 2

J 8 2



The old guy, Hamman, bid game, the young guy, Kopecky, didn’t. As one can see the opener has 2=7=3=1 shape, with the welcome presence of the J. The game depends on holding the diamond losers to 2. An underlead of the A would be brilliant, the kind of which nightmares are made. I am mentally prepared to submit to brilliance, but only after the occurrence, not before. At both tables the lead was the mundane J, and 10 tricks were easily harvested. A shame to have missed this one at the table.

Why didn’t Kopecky bid game? The reason may lie in his expectation of what constitutes a vulnerable 3 opening bid in second seat. The partnership style may be purely destructive so that by custom the South hand is too good for a preempt. Ha! Nevertheless, there should be various chances for a 10th trick, and to bid a vulnerable game, one is justified in clutching at straws, especially on a simple, noncompetitive auction.


How Not to Collapse: Stay calm. Keep it simple. Bid your vulnerable games. Expect what is normal. Put pressure on the opponents where it belongs, not on your partner.


MichaelNovember 2nd, 2010 at 11:53 pm

Excellent article, enjoyed reading it.

Bob MNovember 3rd, 2010 at 6:00 am



I been there, done that

Ed JudyNovember 5th, 2010 at 6:11 pm

Awesome piece. Many thanks.

SartajNovember 9th, 2010 at 4:15 pm

Enjoyed reading it

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