Bob Mackinnon

Two Gentlemen of Victoria

It was a thrill for me to watch on BBO two gentlemen of Victoria, Canada, outplay the several times the world champions from Italy in the qualifying round of this year’s world championships being held in Philadelphia. Based on their performance over 14 boards one would have to rank them amongst the world’s best partnerships. I know them very well, as we have played against them at the local clubs for over 3 decades, and can say that they are a great credit to their city, country, and to the game of bridge. They deserve whatever recognition that may come their way. Of course, playing over several days at the highest level may prove to be beyond their current capacity limited by a lack of training, but that does not detract from their accomplishment which must be the culmination of many years of devotion to one of the hardest games to master.

Critics have often found the organization of Canadian bridge to be lacking with regard to producing teams that can complete consistently for the world championship. That is true enough, but Canadian bridge is not about that. The top players are scattered about the country, and even in small bridge hotbeds like Victoria, the players are not inclined to get organized on a regular basis. As a result in any given year many teams have a chance to win the right to represent their country in international competition. It is not always the same players year after year. That is good for bridge, I believe. It’s democratic. Everyone can be inspired by talented amateurs like Mike and Jim, not even full-time partners, who can rise from relative obscurity to enjoy their brief time in the spotlight without turning themselves into full-time card sharks. Bridge is their game, not their life.

I can testify that both players are necessarily intense competitors who never fail to perform as gentlemen at the bridge table. I never resent a top they score against me because it is always well deserved. Any lucky tops I have scored against them have been gracefully accepted. A friendly but disciplined tone for Victoria players was set by the highly regarded ACBL director, Matt Smith, and is maintained by the top players and current club owners Debbie Wastle and her brother, Bill. The players are largely self-policing, and hair-splitting legal protests are not given much consideration. Over the years Jim on occasion has offered during play, when ‘I played too quickly’, to let me take my card back, saying, ‘surely you drew the wrong card, Bob, take it back’. That looks bad, but it is just Jim’s sense of humor at work. One of these years I shall say, ‘thanks, Jim, these cheap drugstore eyeglasses are murder’, just to see the look on his face.

Love blossoms at the bridge table which is a good reason as any for young and old to take up the game. Both Mike and Jim met their charming and accomplished wives, Debbie and Connie, at the bridge table. Mike, the more intense, a lawyer, puts great store in following the system to the letter, whereas Jim, a charted accountant, tends to more liberal interpretations on a case-by-case basis as circumstances allow. Both are firmly committed to a cooperative effort, and it is a lack of egotistic flights of fancy that preserves the strength of their partnership, no matter the opposition. Being amateurs they play only for the love of the game and the challenges it presents. They promote bridge and teach by example. This is not in any way an apology. I think they represent non-professional North American bridge at its best.

So onto the match against the Lavazza stars. BBO commentators tend to be either (1) dark and gloomy, or (2) bright and cheerful. Maybe it has to do with their time zones, the former being largely confined to GMT. Initially our heroes were not favorably accepted, but as the match progressed and it became evident that Jim and Mike were really putting it to the favorites, the realization dawned that this was not to be Italy’s day. At the end it was recognized the Canadians fully deserved their huge margin of victory, 71-19 IMPs. Now let’s look at some hands to see what they tell us about improving our own game.


Bocchi Ferrarro
K A 9 7 4 3
Q 10 K 9 6 4
Q J 9 7 2 10 4
A K 9 5 3 10 2
15 HCP 7 HCP


Board 4: Both Vulnerable


Bocchi Ferraro
1 (2NT) Pass (3 ) All Pass

Result: down 1, -100

Early in the match Noberto Bocchi took what is considered normal action these days, a hyperactive vulnerable overcall. Where this might lead was a mystery at the time he overcalled, but it no longer remains so: it led nowhere. It is hard to fight the majors with the minors, so Bocchi was probably hoping for more action, but unluckily his partner had the majors and 7 HCP, just enough to silence our pair. The division of sides was 6=6=7=7, so it was a deal where the winners are those who don’t declare the hand.

The Victorians operate in a more conservative mode. They have a philosophy reminiscent of the best French teams of the recent past. They are not so keen on competing for the part scores on minimal values, preferring instead to maintain partnership trust by ‘always having their bid’. So initially Hargreaves took no action over 1 and later also passed the correction to 2 , for which he was soundly criticized by all BBO commentators. The bidding had gone: 1 – 1NT; 2 – 2 ; Pass. I think it is pretty obvious that on the auction the deal is a misfit, and that there is not a great deal of merit in competing to 3 opposite a partner who hasn’t much to contribute offensively. He knows he is not missing a game. Let’s not conclude that Hargreaves is chicken-hearted. It takes courage to pass when those around you are bidding. Result: Italians down 100 at both tables.

The next deal demonstrates that Art is making the difficult appear simple, not in making the easy appear hard.

Board 3

Dealer: South

Vul: EW


A Q 8 6 4

A K Q J 8 3




K J 3

9 4

J 10 8 4 3 2

Q 4


10 7 5 2


Q 6

K 10 9 8 7 2



10 7 6 2

A K 9 5

A J 5 3


McAvoy Duboin Hargreaves Sementa
1 Pass 1 Pass
2 Pass 2 Pass
4 Pass 4 * Pass
5 * Pass 7 All Pass


The commentators began with a criticism of McAvoy’s opening bid, which appears quite normal to me – 7 losers and 5 controls are enough. What to bid if partner bids 1 may be a problem, but that is resolved routinely by any serious partnership. When Hargreaves reverses, McAvoy signs off in game with a minimum. 4 is RKC asking and Jim shows his 2 aces. They have reached the same point as Bocchi and Ferraro at the other table and the commentators note that, although 13 tricks are available, there seems to be no way to bid it. Then Mike bids 7 . Why did he do that when the Italians stopped in 6 ?

As we discussed in a previous blog, bidding a grand slam when the opponents are sure to be in six, at least, is not a big gamble. There is a lot of uncertainty; sometimes something good happens, sometimes something bad. As Alan Truscott advised, bid the grand if at worst it depends on a finesse. Mike follows this advice. The finesse would have worked, but was not needed, as 13 tricks were obtained on a cross-ruff. Part of the reason he could bid the grand was that he could trust his partner not to have opened on a load of garbage, as is so often the case these days. This promotes an optimistic atmosphere.

Once Hargreaves has bid 7 and routinely wrapped it up, the commentators now shifted tack and began to wonder how many would not reach 7 . Surely world champions would not miss this opportunity. But the observers were wrong, as most pairs stopped short. Could it be they were following a false doctrine with regard to grand slams?

It is often said that system doesn’t matter, but this is wrong. One flaw in the Italian methods is that they use an opening bid of 2to show a strong, balanced hand not good enough to bid 2NT, something like this: AQ84 KQ63 92 AK9. It is a rare bid that fills a gap in their other constructive sequences. How would you like it if partner passes your 2 bid? Well, how do you like losing 9 IMPs for no particularly good reason? Bidding Gap Fillers is bad when they make a hand, especially a strong hand, harder to bid than otherwise it would be. A second flaw in the Italian system is that it favors self-preemption. Their 1 bid is nebulous and potentially strong, so it is doubly bad for responder to jump because his hand is weak with a long suit. Ferraro made such a weak jump that cost 11 IMPs. (They repeated the error on the next day, so this was no accident.) I think that if one is going to preempt, one should take care that it is not partner who is being preempted. Avoiding self-generated disasters is becoming a lost Art. Let’s concentrate on the positive aspect of the following deal where the Victorians got it right.

Board 12

Dealer: North

Vul: NS


A K J 7 5


K J 6 5 3 2



9 8


A 10 8 4

Q J 8 7 5 3


10 4

10 9 7 6

Q 7

A K 10 9 2


Q 6 3 2

Q J 8 5 4 3 2




Duboin Hargreaves Sementa McAvoy
1 Pass 1
2 2 5 5 All Pass


In the other room Bocchi opened his nebulous 1 . Ferraro preempted to 3 and played there for +140, accurate bidding as far as the hearts were concerned. The cards didn’t cooperate as partner held the unbid suits. As noted, Mike prefers the correct bid, so he opened in his longer suit, a minor, which had the effect of allowing McAvoy to show his heart suit at the 1-level without instant and irrevocable commitment to that strain. Duboin started a campaign against a possible vulnerable game in spades with a tentative 2-level overcall and Sementa pitched in enthusiastically to force a decision at the 5-level.

Under the circumstances most would find the 5 bid automatic. There is no problem because NS took care not to create problems for themselves. Because of their solid approach, McAvoy can assume that Hargreaves has full values for his reverse, so, once more, what might have been difficult now appears routine. Sementa leads the A, looks at the dummy, thinks, and leads the K, giving an immediate ruff and sluff. That doesn’t strike me as the best alternative. Mike ruffs in hand, ruffs some diamonds, in the end giving up a trick to the A and claiming the rest. Well done, guys.

Post Script: Well, it didn’t last as our heroes were dropped out by Swedes in the round of 32. Lest the reader thinks I have been converted away from Precision, I admit I wavered overnight. Then I witnessed this unprovoked instability by US experts against Lavazza.


AQ10965 8 1 1NT forcing, automatic these days
5 KJ102 2NT 3 very sophisticated along here
AK32 10974 3 3 somewhat adrift
KQ 7532 3 5 weak hand decides, maybe
6 Pass down 300 undoubled!


Mike HargreavesOctober 14th, 2010 at 12:29 pm

thanks for the kind words, Bob. Beating Lavazza was a high point for us. We lost in the round of 32 to a very strong professional team from Sweden who gave very little away.

I thought I might clarify the 7H hand:

Jim opened 1D and raised my 1H response to 2H, and I was looking at AQxxx AKQJxx x x. My 2S bid was ostensibly a help suit game try in spades and by agreement, he would only bid game if he held a high spade honour or shortness. Thus when he bid 4H I could play him for either the spade K or shortness, with 4 trump. In either case, grand appeared to depend on the minor Aces and my 4S was keycard in hearts (had I wanted to cue bid the spade A, I would bid 4N).

Bob MOctober 15th, 2010 at 5:20 am

Thanks for the info, Mike.

Typically for you, there was method involved as well as judgement, all due to that great start with that 1 diamond bid. Zia would do the same.

MichaelOctober 15th, 2010 at 1:03 pm

Good blog Bob. Nice seeing you at the sectional.

congratulations to the Rayner team for a great run. It was very exciting watching them from the side line.

Bob MOctober 15th, 2010 at 5:53 pm

Thanks Michael for your helpful comments about the dense undergrowth of mathematics that sometimes takes over my blog.

As Canadians we have to remind ourselves occasionally that it is not whether you win or lose but how you play the game. But dammit, we still like to win!

MichaelOctober 16th, 2010 at 12:27 pm

Just a friendly suggestion, may be Three Gentlemen of Victoria 🙂

Bob MOctober 17th, 2010 at 3:47 pm

Just one more and we’ll have enough for a friendly bridge game.

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