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In most sports it is considered the duty of the columnist who writes as an expert to give a frank opinion of the needs and weaknesses of the home team. In bridge, however, there seems to be considerable reluctance about criticizing the makeup of an American team once it has been selected to represent us in the World Bridge Championship.
I refuse to join this conspiracy of silence. I am certainly going to be rooting for our team when they play in Buenos Aires this month against Italy, Great Britain and Argentina but, frankly, our prospects for bringing back victory are not very bright.
Perhaps there was no actual dancing in the streets of Rome and London when the result of our Team Trials in Dallas became known late last year, but no one was unhappy. The team that will represent us is a fair one—it would have to be when its pairs finished one, two, three in a grueling competition—but it is not the best we could muster. I do not see how it can hope to defeat either Italy or Britain, so I fear that for the first time in World Bridge Championship play we will finish no better than third.
In theory, the Trials by which we select our international teams are a fine idea. The pairs who take part are those that have fared best in the major events of the preceding year. Each pair plays a match against every other pair in the field. The three who finish on top become the American team. It's fair. It's democratic. It sounds as if it should work. The only trouble is, it has yet to produce a team that comes close to being the best we can muster.
The pair that finished first in the Trials, Howard Schenken and Peter Leventritt, qualified for the third time in five years. They were on the team that won the Vanderbilt Cup in 1964. The other two pairs, Ivan Erdos-Kelsey Petterson and B. Jay Becker-Mrs. Dorothy Hayden, were on the team they defeated in the Vanderbilt. Is there any reason to believe that this mixture of winners and losers is better than a team of Vanderbilt winners? And what about such missing stars as Robert Jordan and Arthur Robinson, who played so well in the World Championship events of 1963 and 1964? True, they did not appear to be playing in their best form during the International Team Trials. Nevertheless, in the Trials they defeated all three of the pairs that made the team: 35-25 against Schenken-Leventritt; 37-23 against Erdos-Petterson; 39-21 to win over Becker-Mrs. Hayden. Although they finished 12th, they won only one match less than the three pairs that succeeded. What is more, instead of piling up the score against the weaker opposition, they won the tough ones. And in World Championship play, you meet only the tough ones.
Fearing that the opponents could make a slam in hearts, Jordan not only stuck out his neck with his vulnerable bid of three spades, he dared to cue-bid his partner's club suit, figuring that a club opening and continuation might be the only way to defeat six hearts. Jordan's double of that contract was Robinson's cue to just that defense.
Petterson had an easy bid over five clubs; he did not care whether North read this as showing one ace or diamond support. But Robinson's five-spade bid put Erdos under heavy pressure. If he passed, Petterson was sure to double; yet the singleton spade and the favorable position of North's clubs seemed to warrant bidding the slam.
Would six hearts have made if Jordan hadn't steered the defense? The slam can be defeated without the club opening if West defends perfectly. Even if South guesses the king of trumps, West can win two club tricks by ducking the first club lead. But at one table, where 12 tricks were made at hearts, after declarer dropped East's heart king he came back to his hand with a second round of trumps and led the 4 of clubs. West didn't read his partner for two singletons; he went up with the ace and later lost the queen to a finesse. The point was that Jordan's bidding left nothing to chance.
A lucky result for Jordan-Robinson? Perhaps. But in World Championship play, timid tactics don't win. And it is in this sort of competition that the Philadelphians are at their best. I think our 1965 team will miss them.