The city of Houston last week proved its claim to be the bridge capital of the U.S. In the course of two tournaments there, I saw ample demonstration of what my old Texas friends John Gerber, Paul Hodge and Ben Fain have long been telling me: that the country's best bridge is played in that state.
Houston's eight-man team beat Los Angeles in the 80-deal Intercity Challenge Match for the SPORTS ILLUSTRATED trophy, 159 to 130 International Match Points. But even before that event had begun, Houston had placed two playing members, G. Robert Nail and Mervin Key, on the U.S. 1962 International Team, as a result of the five-day, 15-match trials. As a final honor, the non-playing captaincy of that team went to the 54-year-old Gerber, whose table skill and player judgment had been clearly established when he starred as a member of the U.S. group that finished second to World Champion Italy in the international competition in Buenos Aires this spring (SI, May 1).
In the intercity match, Los Angeles was represented by Internationalist Lew Mathe and five holdovers from the powerhouse that had defeated New York's best last year: Oliver Adams, Ivan Erdos, Harold Guiver, Edwin Kantar and Morris Portugal. In addition, nonplaying Captain Kelsey Petterson had bolstered his squad with Marshall Miles, 1961 Life Masters Pair champion, and Erik Paulsen. Hodge, the Houston captain, had Gerber, Key, Nail, Fain, Jerome Levy, Colonel Tim Willis and a pair of nearby experts, Curtis Smith of Austin and Robert Wolff of San Antonio. (In Texas, nearby means anything within a few hundred miles.)
Houston trailed through the first 15 deals of the match, then took the lead. However, even in the highly partisan audience following the proceedings in the Shamrock Hilton Hotel, the feeling grew that Los Angeles would soon unleash its blitz. When it finally came, the blitz was too late. Los Angeles gained 19 IMPs in the last two deals, but this served only to cut Houston's lead to a still thoroughly convincing 29.
The deal (hand A) that produced the biggest swing of the match, 14 points, appropriately starred one of Houston's favorite sons, Ben Fain, who was making his tournament bridge comeback after a two-year absence. Ben had slipped in the bathtub, broken his back and been partially paralyzed for some time. In this match he still required help in pulling his cards but this did not affect the skillfulness of his play one bit.
Fain, South, bid one no trump, and Gerber, North, jumped to three. When the Los Angeles team played the hand, the contract was the same, though arrived at differently. Probably neither team should have been in game since they lacked the customary 26 points, but both reached it and both received an opening lead of the 3 of diamonds.
East won with the ace. Against Los Angeles, the Texas defender returned a low heart. L.A.'s Kantar ducked, losing to the jack. West shifted to a spade, North played low and East's queen forced the king. That put declarer in his hand and made the comfortable way to play clubs the lead of the jack and a finesse against West for the queen. It lost and the hand exploded. East won the club trick, knocked out dummy's spade stopper, and all declarer could do was cash his top tricks. Kantar played with technical accuracy but pragmatically evil results. He ended down two.
Against Fain, L.A.'s Mathe shifted to the spade 5 after winning the first diamond. Declarer's 8 forced the jack and the trick was won by the ace. It was now logical and convenient to play a club from dummy and finesse the jack, which won. Next came ace, king and a small heart, forcing out East's 10. On the spade continuation, South's 10 held. Fain cashed the good heart, the spade king and three more clubs to make four no trump and score 630. The swing of 830 was worth 14 IMPs to Texas.
As was to be expected in such high-level competition, many other deals were bid and played superbly. In hand B, both teams stopped discreetly short of slam, then played with the necessary skill to bring home a contract that all players hate to reach voluntarily.
In the contract bridge trade, a voluntary bid of five in a major is sometimes called a "demi-slam." Since it carries with it no slam bonus and puts the game in jeopardy, it is a contract popular only with the opponents. Yet it is sometimes necessary, as in this deal, to bid to that level to let partner know you are interested in a slam. Had South held the king of hearts, he would have been able to bid a slam over North's five-heart bid but would have passed a mere four-heart bid, so North's move to five hearts is well justified.