Bob Mackinnon

Grand Slams in the USBC Finals

The 2011 USBC was won in impressive fashion by the Bathurst team, six young men in their 20’s and 30’s. For years the ACBL has decried the lack of popularity of our game among American youth, so is this the advent of the renewal that they have been hoping for? I somehow doubt that, because bridge as we know it is contrary to the post-Woodstock culture of ego-based superficiality within the context of an extremely short attention span. One must be careful of what one prays for in case one’s prayers are answered. To the ACBL, which runs its operations as a welfare state where masterpoints serve as entitlements, an influx of youthful enthusiasts would be like unto an invasion of rowdy collegians into an old folks’ home. If Youth were to prevail, rules and playing conditions would change drastically, much to the annoyance of Old Age.

This is not all hypothetical as there is a history to guide us. Some thirty years ago Marty Bergen introduced a style that so greatly upset the Establishment that border fences were created to guard against creativity and vigor. The USBF was one fallout, ACBL senior events, another. Bergen has left the table, but most of his innovative ideas have prevailed, as evidenced by the actions of the younger players in this year’s premier events where his ‘Points-Schmoints’ philosophy is prominently invoked.

Be that as it may, we want to look at the results of the 2011 Finals to see what we can learn something about the way bridge is being played today at the highest levels. Youthfulness is a side issue; cards are cards no matter what. We start with the easiest situation to analyze – slam bidding. In their small slams the Bathurst team gained hugely (61 IMPs) over the Diamond team which had 2 pairs playing Precision. When a grand slam was bid, the advantage swung greatly (52 IMPs) in the other direction. This contrast between small slams and grand slams is the subject of our first investigation.

The Need for Information Accurate slam bidding requires information that is both reliable and relevant. This is in contrast to what is desirable in competitive auctions where bashing works as uncertainty can be played upon advantageously. In slam bidding one’s fate often depends on what partner reveals. His input must be gauged on its usefulness, and sometimes one wishes to gain information on a particular aspect of his holding. Here is a very simple, but instructive, example, that illustrates that ‘Bridge is an Easy Game’ when you follow basic principles and get it right.

Lall Grue
♠ A8653 ♠ 9
AJ5 T76












First, consider the 2 hands if Lall, playing Precision, were allowed to open 1♣. Grue would respond 1 (0-7 HCP), and Lall would have to make a second forcing bid in order to elicit more information. Possibly 1♠ would be forcing and they would be able to proceed slowly towards slam. Let’s see how Greco’s light opening bid changes that. In fact, it helps, because Lall is able to make a forcing bid that identifies an area of particular interest to which information is to be directed, which an opening bid of 1♣ does not do. Grue’s 2NT shows ‘values’ in the context of a minor suit contract. This was enough encouragement for Lall who simply jumped to 6♣, a fine demonstration of the Bash Brothers’ style. We will not criticize him for missing a Grand Slam when 13 tricks materialized on a cross ruff which set up a long spade trick on a 4-3 split.

At the other table 1 was opened and Gitelman, the oldest participant at 46 years of age, overcalled 1♠. If he had been able to open 1♠, his partner would have made a response on even less than he held, and there would have been no story to tell, however, the fact that a 1♠ overcall is nonforcing and often of the garbage variety meant that Moss was no longer obliged to protect a partner who held unlimited power. He passed, and away went 15 IMPs on Board 4. The problem was that in terms of spades alone, his hand was not that promising. This shows how a simple, light opening bid can destroy the ability to communicate meaningfully. The old solution of doubling with a good hand and making it up later doesn’t work that well; partner is confused and the information he transmits may not be directed towards the most important area. Perhaps we need to define 1NT as ‘semi-forcing’ in response to a vulnerable major suit overcall, or is that too restrictive on those who would overcall on garbage?

Here is a hand where the concept of ‘values’ was not well enough defined for Greco and Hampson to reach a slam bid and made at the other table. Even though Hampson had detailed information on the distribution, his knowledge of strength was vague.

Greco Hampson
♠ AJ32 ♠ 6 2* 2NT*
Q743 AK62 3NT* 4♣→4
KT9542 4 4

KJ Pass

2 was a Precision 3-suiter, 2NT asked for shape and size, and 3NT revealed 4=4=0=5 shape with a ‘maximum’, which usually requires 14-15 HCP. A relay to 4 followed by 4 indicated general slam ambitions without the resources needed to take action through RKCB. This sequence shifted the captaincy to Greco who made the final decision.

One may say that Greco was right to pass as he had less than might be expected for a ‘maximum’ reply. Instead of 3NT he could have responded 3♣ to 2NT to indicate a non-maximum, which in my opinion, apart from the distribution, is what he held. To qualify as a maximum, he should be rich in controls with good secondaries in the majors and 2 of the top 3 honors in clubs: ♠ AJT6 QJ93 — ♣ AQT86, just 14 HCP with 4 controls, so not a total maximum, but flexible enough to withstand game tries with only 12 HCP opposite. So when Greco was asked for his opinion concerning 6, understandably he decided, ‘no’, although 13 tricks were readily available. Lose12 IMPs on this one.

The problem was that there was no working definition of what constitutes a maximum. If Hampson could rely on the characterization to resemble what I think is appropriate, he could have bid 6 over 3NT without further consultation. After all, he made 13 tricks opposite a hand that wasn’t really a maximum. So in his approach he definitely showed a lack of resolve. It is often a mistake to give partner too much leeway. In the previous hand Lall assumed that 2NT showing non-specific ‘values’ meant something good was going to happen. On this hand the designation of ‘maximum’ should have engendered the same, if not more, enthusiasm. With little space remaining for exploration below game, one should act with optimism in the face of uncertainty: partner may have his bid.

Of course, if one can obtain the relevant information even from a reluctant partner, one should do so. Here is an example of an enthusiastic Precisionist on the Bathurst team who failed to see far enough ahead to ask the right questions.

Lall Grue
♠ KQJT987 ♠ A4
A T76
KT2 A9864



















Justin Lall opened a Big Club with high expectations of playing in a spade slam. Hampson showed a club suit and partner, Joe Grue, admitted to long diamonds within a game forcing context. If at this point Lall had to guess, he might well have bid 6♠, as he needed little in the way of spade support. The key to higher things was the diamond suit. Even though Lall had little thought of playing in a diamond contract, it doesn’t hurt to ask, when one is in a position of being able to force the final decision. So his first move should be to determine the quality of the diamond suit opposite. Let’s say he bids 4NT over 2♠ as RKCB in diamonds and receives the reply of 5 . Now he bids 6♠ and Grue should feel obliged to pass. By showing spades and evoking RKCB in spades, Lall doesn’t get the relevant information needed and makes a wrong guess, losing 11 IMPs. To make matters worse in theory, but better in practice, Gitelman and Moss don’t go beyond 4♠ on a 2/1 auction that goes as follows: 1♠ (2♣) 2♠ (Pass); 4♠ all pass. Again, a seemingly harmless action caused great damage to an auction when the player with the strong hand didn’t extract useful information concerning a side suit. Jumping to 4♠ put the emphasis on description rather than on inquiry, leaving it to the holder of the weaker hand to make the final (wrong) decision on the basis of inadequate information.

Youth likes its freedoms and has difficulty adhering to the principle of captaincy. There are 2 primary elements involved: the Captain and the Crew. It is wrong not to assume the captaincy when it is appropriate to do so. We have seen where Gitelman failed in this regard on 2 slam hands, partly because he was disinclined to take charge, a reluctance tempered by past experiences, no doubt. The more common failing lies in the mutiny of the Crew. The Diamond team was in deep water when Wooldridge threw them a rope on Board 74. He held: ♠ Q9765 AKJ72 — ♣ A63, and saw partner open 1♠. The ensuing auction allowed him 7 descriptive bids, but when Hurd, after an RKCB enquiry, signed off in 6♠, Wooldridge mutinied and bid 7♠ on the basis of his diamond void. Greco and Hampson held 11 diamonds between them, but had wisely remained silent throughout the auction, otherwise Wooldridge might have recognized clubs as the weakness with ♣ J875 opposite his ♣ A63, not diamonds with A4 opposite his void.

It wasn’t until the players got to Board 118 that a pair was able to bid a Grand Slam in a decent manner. Before that one could conclude on the evidence it would have been best to put Grand Slams out of their minds altogether. Grand Slams allow for little margin of error, a margin often exceeded with a bashing style. This is a sad commentary to make on teams that are near the top in the world, nonetheless, Greco and Hampson in desperation managed too late to put it all together on the following combination.

Greco Hampson


♠ — ♠ KQT985 1♣* 1♠ (GF)
AK9764 2 2♠
KT A53 3♣ 4♣

A652 4 5
7♣ Pass

The largely natural auction shown above is a stripped-down version of their highly artificial sequence. Sometimes artificiality serves only to cloud the issue. A natural approach works here because the controls in opener’s hand are well placed in his long suits. It is a matter of establishing a fit, finding the supportive aces and taking the plunge. Greco was well placed to assume the captaincy and set the final contract. By the way, I understand from my reading that Greco’s hand would not qualify as a forcing club bid under British rules as it contains a mere 15 HCP. Evidence of stultification and decay, this reveals a pathetic reliance on point count to define strength.

The auction at the other table was interesting as it showed the disruptive power of a ‘noisy’ bid. Gitelman opened a weak 2, and Wooldridge, holding Greco’s cards, made a Leaping Michaels bid of 4♣. Hurd, holding Hampson’s cards, boldly jumped to 6♣ without attempting to find out more about partner’s holding, which is understandable as 4♣ didn’t promise the world. As noted, Wooldridge’s hand qualifies for a forcing bid that establishes the captaincy, and the aim should be to extract information from partner before making the final decision. Let’s suppose that over a weak 2 an overcall of 2 were to be considered as forcing. We suggest the following route is a live possibility:

2 (F) – 2♠(F); 3♣(F) – 3(GF); 4♣ – 4; 5 – 5♠; 5NT – 7♣.

Over a preempt new suits should be treated as forcing, removing the need to go jumping about in the subsequent exchange. The cue bid of 3 sets trumps, and information on suit controls is exchanged in a cooperative mode. 5NT asks for extras, and advancer is able to bid the Grand on the basis that the ♣A must be what partner seeks. However, the bidding would be the same up to 5NT if advancer held the ♠AKT985 and ♣ JT65, and it would not be clear that he should stop in 6♣.

Natural bidding sequences contain ambiguities that are hard to resolve especially when both hands encompass shortage in partner’s long suit. It becomes difficult to gauge the value of secondary honors in the long suits as support cards in a better-fitting, mutually agreed trump suit. Neither side likes to cuebid their shortage lest it be misinterpreted as showing an honor card. Greco was able to use 5♠ as Exclusion Blackwood to obtain a precise description from Hampson, who simply jumped to 7♣ – a very good guess.

Without specificity bidding to a grand slam is hazardous. That argues for specificity, doesn’t it? Natural bids are often chosen in the context of the hand taken as a whole. The information contained is broadly based. For example, one may bid a major before a longer minor or avoid bidding a bad suit in a good hand. We may think of an asking bid as a device that filters out general information while letting through exact information with regard to a small area of interest. Exclusion Blackwood is a filter that focuses on specific controls by excluding a designated suit concerning which any information is largely irrelevant. We show how ‘narrow-band’ filtering works in a Precision auction with asking bids on an infamous deal from the 2011 Vanderbilt Final in which both teams using 2/1 methods reached an impossible 7 through a misunderstanding regarding a key card asking bid. The losing team would have won if they had stopped in 3NT!

West East


Asking Bids
♠ AKQ75 ♠ — 1♣* (16+HCP) 1NT (5+’s)
K5 AQ95 2 (honors?) 2NT (2 of 3 top)
J654 KQ873 3♣ (controls?) 3♠ (4 controls)

KQ63 3NT 6NT

The asking bid structure here is a crude filter, as at the end there is much about the East hand that West does not know, and vice versa. West initially is the captain and up to a certain point East merely answers questions. When East shows a long diamond suit, West should realize that the conditions within this 9-card fit are of primary importance regardless of the final contract. (Opening a natural and unlimited 1♠ gets the partnership off on the wrong foot.) West checks the quality of the diamond suit. He finds 2 of the 3 top honors, so the suit is not solid. He then asks for the total number of controls held. There is no need to exclude spades from consideration, as West can see that East cannot hold a control in the spade suit. From his holding in clubs and hearts, West can deduce that East’s 4 controls consist of either A – A, or A – K – ♣K, or A-K and ♣K. In any case one certainly doesn’t want to be in 7. He signs off in a general strength 3NT yielding the captaincy to his partner. East has enough undisclosed extras (♣Q and Q) to bid 6NT opposite a hand holding at least 16 HCP and diamond support, despite the void in spades – another case of don’t ask and don’t tell. East doesn’t know everything, but he certainly knows enough to get to the best contract.

When someone asks me at the table, ‘how could I have bid the slam?’ I often answer, ‘Just go ahead and bid it – you can never guarantee success.’ Contrary to current practice, if you can maintain your composure, exchange exact, useful information, and get the easy ones right, you can go a long way.


Fred GitelmanJune 1st, 2011 at 4:52 pm

While in general I enjoy your writing and while I do agree with some of the points you make in this post, your analysis of the first three hands you discuss is way of the mark in my view.

1. The hand where Brad and I played in 1S instead of the laydown 6C

To me, the main lesson of this hand is that the Michaels Cuebid can be a very useful convention. Brad and I do not play that convention – if we did then obviously I would have used it on the hand in question and I strongly suspect that we would have got to 6C without breathing hard.

I am certainly not claiming that my 1S was a “good bid” or even that it was the “best available bid”, but since we were not playing Michaels, neither 1S nor any of remaining options were especially attractive.

2. The hand where Hampson-Greco played 4H instead of 6H

First, your comments about “13 tricks” (intentionally or not) leave the reader with the impression that even 7H would be a reasonable contract (and that playing in only 4H was rather pathetic). As it turns out, even 6H is hardly a wonderful slam – try playing it on a spade lead and perhaps you will reconsider your criticism of Hampson and Greco’s judgment.

Second, your comments about the sort of hand you would be showing when describing a “maximum” 2D opening are highly superficial. You ignore the fact that the primary use of the 2NT asking bid is to find out opener’s exact shape and approximate strength for the purposes of deciding between partscore and game and for finding the best strain.

It might be nice, both for these purposes and for (much less common) slam-related purposes, if it were possible for opener to show 3 ranges of hands in response to 2NT. However, there is only enough room to show 2 ranges of hands. Using these 2 ranges to say “minimum” or “maximum” clearly has more utility than using them to say “super-maximum” or “not-super-maximum” as you seem to be suggesting.

To me, the main lesson of this hand is that sometimes different systems lead to different contracts without anyone doing anything especially good or bad. It is luck that tends to decide which team wins the IMP swing when that happens.

3. The hand where Brad and I played 4S, Lall-Grue played 7S, and 6S was where you want to be

You said:

“Jumping to 4♠ put the emphasis on description rather than on inquiry,”

That is not correct – 4♠ is not a descriptive bid. 4♠ describes nothing more than willingness to try to win 10 tricks with spades as trump.

The reason I bid 4♠ was tactical. I thought that the chances of us being able to bid a good slam with any degree of confidence were less than the chances that a slow auction would allow the opponents to push us to the 5-level. If you reflect on the fact that the only reason that slam happened to be playable was because Brad happened to hold Jxx in the overcaller’s suit (not to mention 2 Aces and a 5-card suit that fit with my K10x), perhaps you will see what I mean about the futility of even thinking about slam from my point of view.

Of course it is your right to disagree with my judgment, but to me it appears that once again your analysis failed to take into account that there is more to life than slams.

You then said:

“leaving it to the holder of the weaker hand to make the final (wrong) decision on the basis of inadequate information.”

That is also incorrect. I was the one who made the final (wrong) decision. 4♠ was a complete and total signoff so my partner was not left with any decision to make.

I am not sure what the main lesson of this hand is, but it probably has something to do with the risks of playing partner for the perfect hand. I chose not to do that for what I thought were sound reasons but, as it turned out, partner actually had the perfect hand for once. At the other table Lall did play Grue for the perfect hand (perhaps reasonably as it might have been a “5 or 7” situation) and ended up being disappointed.

Just in case some of the above reads like sour grapes, let me state for the record that the Bathurst Team thoroughly deserved to win the 2011 USBC and that I am thrilled that such a young and classy team will be representing the USA in the Bermuda Bowl.

Fred Gitelman

Bob MJune 6th, 2011 at 1:49 am

Thanks, Fred:

I think it is very helpful for top players to give us learners their thinking on crucial hands. We are merely guessing what goes on behind the cards, and BBO info is often incomplete. So, you do us a great service when you give away secrets you might otherwise prefer to keep to yourself.

Having said that, I was wrong concerning the non-use of Michaels, but I still think we need a forcing bid when we have the super-hand to take action against a weak opening bid. If not Michaels, what?

Concerning max and super-max, we’ll have more to say on that. Greco’s hand was not a max or even a mini-max. Controls is where it’s at.

Again, many thanks. I’m going back and think about this more, and if some readers are inspired to do the same, I will have felt I am doing my job as a critic.

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