Bob Mackinnon

Woolsey and Stewart’s Cavendish Win

This year the Cavendish Invitational IMP Pairs was won by Fred Stewart and Kit Woolsey, playing Precision, in the classic come-from-behind fashion. There were entered 36 pairs, each playing 4 boards against the other contestants in random order for a total of 140 boards over 5 sessions. The score on each board was an IMP score totaled against all the other scores obtained in the same direction. One could score very well if an opponent made a gross error and let you make a high scoring contract.

The main thrust of the bidding was aggressive, a logical approach that some commentators in the early going found objectionable. To reach a game that might be made on less than optimal defence is a way to score very well on the board without it costing much. This accounts for the tendency to bid speculative games (especially 3NT) without giving away information. On Board 3 Jacek Kalita was criticized for his alpha-male tendencies when, nonvul vs vul he bid 4♠ on this auction:











All Pass

Kalita held: ♠ KQJT8642 K76 — ♣ Q2. The point being made was that Kalita could have bid a safe 3♠, making 140. That is true enough, if the opponents would not bid to 4 despite his efforts to divert them. If they had, 4 would make, so Kalita would have to bid 4♠ or concede a vulnerable game. If he belated bid 4♠ he could be doubled, and incur a bad score in that way if 4 was going down. So Kalita’s ‘aggressive’ bid was actually a largely defensive move – a preempt that might actually end up making 10 tricks. If Kalita were really brave he would do as the commentator suggested, bid 3♠, then bid 4♠ over 4 , daring NS to double him. Brave, but foolish. If one makes the opponents guess, it is wrong to think subsequently that they have guessed right. That gives the opponents 2 chances to be right, first, by bidding 4 , if that makes, and second, by doubling 4♠ for a good score even if 4 makes but is not bid in the other tables. In other words, the opponents can hardly go wrong against that approach.

The field was full of famous names, so the contestants couldn’t sit back and expect gifts due to faulty play. Gifts from the bidding were a different matter, as many of the pairs represented infrequent partnerships, and many of those were ‘rubber bridge’ players whose methods tended to be psychological rather than scientific. They won’t win many bidding contests. It would be important to score well in the first round before such partnerships got their rhythm, and in the last round when mental fatigue and disappointment may become factors for those who relied on inspiration and deceit hand after hand.

Commentators are there primarily to guide the viewers with regard to the play on a hand-by-hand basis. Similarly, in books readers are presented with a number of deals with which to sharpen their bidding or play. The emphasis is on developing a sound technique. Less attention is given to an overall strategy, the idea being that if one plays each hand in a theoretically optimum fashion, one is bound to come out a winner. Technique helps immensely, of course, but in practice a bit more is needed. Some would say the rest is ‘luck’, but in this world one often makes one’s own luck. At bridge the best way to become lucky is to overbid.

Here is a list of the top 7 finishers with their final scores and average per session.




Final Score


Woolsey – Stewart

W – S

Veteran Precisionists



Levin- Weinstein

L – W

Favorites to Win




C – S




Seamon – Cohler

S – C

Famous Names



Meckstroth- Johnson

M – J

Master Precisionists



Hurd – Wooldridge

H – W

The Young Guys



Pierarek – Smirnov

P – S

German Scientists



One can see that if one wishes to be in contention one needs to score over 350 IMPs per session. If one bid and made a slam when half the field played in a vulnerable game, one would score 117 IMPs on that board. If on defence one beat a vulnerable game that half the field made, you would score 108 IMPs. The scores are close, but which is easier to achieve? Reaching a close slam is easier because one may develop the necessary skills beforehand and it may not depend on what the opponents are doing. Out-defending the field is harder, as it requires specific, unpredictable circumstances that include the uncontrollable actions of the opponents. Through the development of a solid bidding structure a partnership controls what is controllable.

Winning requires consistency. As noted in previous blogs, the best strategy in a marathon is to get off to a good start, stay in a bunch close to the front runner, and sprint at the end. This is easier than getting ahead and staying there to the finish. This tournament provides us a perfect example of how this works at bridge. Here is a table of the scores over the 5 sessions for the 7 top finishers. The average score of the leading pair is given on the right.


W – S

L – W

C – S

S – C

M – J

H – W

P – S

Lead Average














































The numbers tell the tale. The German Scientists got off to a good start and led the field after 2 rounds. Thereafter they faded to average results and finished a far seventh. The seasoned pro pairs who finished 3rd through 5th started poorly over the first two sessions, put on a big rally in the third session, averaged over 400 IMPs over the last 2 sessions, but fell short coming from behind. Hurd and Wooldridge produced steady results improving with time and were in second place after 4 sessions. 690 IMPs behind the leaders, Bobby Levin and Steve Weinstein. With youth on their side, one might have expected they would have maintained their pace and consolidated their ranking, but it was not to be – the last session was a big disappointment.

Levin and Weinstein had produced a terrific score over 4 sessions, averaging 645 IMPs per session and many thought the game was over, the race was run. They would be worthy winners, highly respected for their adherence to their well-practiced bidding system and their skill as declarers and defenders to see through the cards. If the game had been just 2 boards shorter (or 2 boards longer?) they would have held on to win for the 4th time in 5 years. Lurking behind in 4th place behind Billy Cohen and Ron Smith were the veteran pair, Kit Woolsey and Fred Stewart, who had won the Cavendish between them a total of 5 times, but in other partnerships. They knew what it was like to win. The light preemptive style for which they are known had done them no damage on this occasion as they produced the sequence of good sessions one might expect from a disciplined precision pair who were bidding aggressively and keeping their noses clean. Here from the 3rd session is an example of their Wabash Cannonball style where Woolsey stokes the boiler and Stewart strives mightily to keep the train running on the tracks.

Stewart          Woolsey

♠ 2                ♠ KQ93             1♣*           2

AT83         —                3♣            3♠

A9             QJT764          3NT          4♣

♣ AKQ643     ♣ J85                 4 4

4 losers         6 losers              6♣            Pass

After the Big Club opening bid the auction proceeds along natural lines with each player able to show a long minor. Woolsey provides the shape and Stewart provides the controls along with an excellent 6-card suit. 3NT appears a bit limp, but after Woolsey completes his picture with the 4 bid, Stewart bids a descriptive 6♣ leaving it to partner to carry on if he holds better controls. Purists may ask what would have happened on a trump lead. Answer: it goes off 1. So is this a 0% slam? Not at all. As in many cases, even when the players bid descriptively, the killing lead does not materialize. Here the opening lead from a ‘rubber bridge expert’ was the tricky ♠4 from ♠A54. Needless to say, Stewart was not tempted to put in the ♠9. The deal provides contrary evidence to those who would devalue the jack in a high card point scheme. (I am joshing, as usual. Jacks are important attendant cards, that is, when attached to higher honors in their suit. Their value is relativistic, not absolute.)

Probability calculations should take into account the various options that arise during the play. On a cursory look at the 2 hands in isolation, one might conclude that 6♣ depends on the diamond finesse and a 2-2 club split, whereas neither conditions materialized. When declarer is playing in a 9-card fit with the top trumps, the cards often allow for a variety of plays, such as eliminate-and-throw-in, that reduce the number of losers by one. Add to that the possibility that the defence may not be perfect and one sees that bidding up with distribution and a good trump suit comes with its own share of good luck.

When in the later stages of a pairs tournament one is having a good game, in order to win it is especially important to score well against a pair who is having a bad game. One cannot avoid to score averages against them and fall behind the rest of the field. It would be bad strategy to go against the grain and attempt to swing points against them, after all the card probabilities don’t change and the opponents are no fools, but if an opportunity arises one should be resolved to make full use of it. I think this is what accounts for Fred Stewart’s strange double on the following deal from the later stages, which also serves to illustrate the Woolsey –Stewart normal competitive style.

Dlr: East


NS Vul ♠ QT64
Woolsey Stewart
J98 2
J98642 AKQ
T72 AK63







1 *

1 *


2 *






All Pass

1♣ was strong and Woolsey’s initial pass showed he held at most 4 HCP. Players are keen on interfering with a Precision 1♣ auction, on the assumption that the auction will be more efficient than one normally expects against ‘natural’ bidders. This tendency to interfere works best when the Big Clubbers hold the balance of power, so the normal advice is to interfere on bad hands and pass with good ones, planning to come in later. The 1 overcall seems to have been deliberately ambiguous, possibly showing 2 suits of the same rank (CRASH). Woolsey was temporarily silenced, and North’s 2♣ showed clubs and a major. Stewart passed. South showed he held the majors, choosing the lower ranking suit, not the longer suit, to allow for a pass from his partner. Armed with the knowledge that his partner knew he didn’t have anything, Woolsey now took advantage of his limited bid structure by bidding his fine 6-card suit, headed by the jack, please note. The opponents’ bidding had revealed that he was sure to find a fit in that suit.

North knew his side had a double fit in the majors, so it was quite normal to bid 3 . Now comes the strange part – Stewart doubled this, even though the opponents had a better fit in spades to which they could have escaped. He knew they had a better fit, but he gambled that they wouldn’t find it. Going for the maximum, he was not content to leave them in a failing contract undoubled. So it came to pass that NS gave up 500 in a part score deal.

This shows the great advantage afforded to a Precision pair when the opponents are overly eager to confuse the auction. To some this result may inspire the addition of a Reverse-Flannery to their overcall scheme, however, if South could have been content to follow the simple procedure of overcalling 1♠ planning to follow up with a 2 bid, none of this would have happened. Vulnerable versus not, he was too good to overcall ambiguously when it appeared that the Big Clubbers could not make a game their way.

Finally, we come to the next-to-the-last hand that put Woolsey and Stewart in front. This time it was played against the German Scientists who had done well at the start, but who were struggling at the end. Again it demonstrates the readiness of Stewart to risk an abnormal action in order to achieve a good result. In fact, it was a most extra-ordinary action in today’s bridge environment.

Dlr: South


None Vul KQ9653
Smirnov Piekarek
4 AT7
KJ97642 AQ
K832 Q97
3 AT652











All Pass

Today the emphasis is upon stealing from the opponents. Smirnov would have been more descriptive if he had contented himself with a bid of 3 , but he was hoping to destroy the opponents’ auction. The damage such bids do often accrues from a growing suspicion on the part of at least one opponent that his partner must necessarily hold the perfect hand.

One might think of it as ‘the stampede effect’. The more aggressive the opponents, the more likely they will fall for it. We prefer the assumption that an opponent’s undisciplined preempt doesn’t necessarily improve one’s chances to make a game or slam.

Fred Stewart would agree. To many BBO commentators there was no question but that a call of 4♠ was the normal action by North. Stewart is made of sterner stuff, besides which he has the fearless Woolsey there in the pass-out position to balance if required when holding 4 spades (giving a total of 10 trumps for each side.)

Now the bridge gods rewarded Stewart for his courageous pass. Piekarek saw his hand represented slam potential. The preempt without the AQ of trumps left open the possibility Smirnov had some help in the diamond suit, and he did, but not enough – the J would have been nice. (Further evidence of just how valuable those jacks can be.) Just how Pierkarek planned to find out about the J has not been disclosed, but he felt an exploratory move might lead to a good guess later. He got underway with a cuebid of the ♠A. It may seem strange to some that for a pair whose system is full of artificial bids, one of them would think 4♠ was natural.

Even a young genius will find it impossible to make 4♠ on a 3-1 fit missing the KQJ, but this was not the time to double with vicious intent. Stewart by passing throughout had generated a swing of 12 IMPs against every pair that reached a normal heart game making 450, even those who were pushed to the 5-level.

The summary by Andrew Robson on BBO was interesting – ‘Shame, not really bridge….but that’s the game.’ We know what he is getting at, but is it a shame, or is it just part of the game? Would we say that it is a shame that Beckham shot one over an open net or that Mickelson hooked one into the drink? No, we would realize that mistakes are an integral part of the game, as they are with human activity in all spheres of endeavor. This week I have to live with the fact that in a team match I lost my concentration, drew an extra round of trumps ‘just to be safe’, and went down in a cold 7 . I may resolve never to do that again, but it is probable that I shall. We move on and try to keep the flagrant mistakes to a minimum. We do not conclude, ‘I’ll never bid another Grand Slam when the opponents are resting in 3NT, making 6.’ That is the stuff of which pessimism is made. The proper conclusion is: never let concerns about safety overrule the primary need to make the contract, and, if circumstances demand, to bid it in the first place.


Ross TaylorMay 16th, 2011 at 4:44 pm

Great article thanks !

James McLarenMay 17th, 2011 at 7:47 am

Yes. Another great article.

I think of you as an articling student.

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