By beating a squad of young Precision System experts led by Joel Stuart in the semifinal of the U.S. team playoffs in New York last month, Lew Mathe's team avenged an earlier defeat and moved a step closer to a repeat appearance in world title competition. The victory entitles Mathe, Don Krauss, Edgar Kaplan and Norman Kay to meet the world champion Aces Oct. 22-24 in New Orleans, the winner to be the U.S. representative in the 1972 World Team Olympiad.
While the triumph was gratifying, it did not come easily. The match was as close and hard-fought as the final of the Spingold Team Championship just three months before (SI, Aug. 9), in which the Mathe foursome suffered a narrow, seven-international-match-point defeat at the hands of these same youthful opponents—Stuart, Steve Alt-man, Peter Weichsel, Gene Neiger and Tom Smith. The semifinal playoff, however, was to be a 144-deal affair, as opposed to the 72 boards played in the Spingold, and Kaplan confidently offered his assessment of the older team's chances over the longer run. "Experience gives us the edge," he said just before the match began. "If we can get off to a flying start, we'll win by 200 I MPs or more. But if the kids get a big early lead, there's no certainty they'll be able to hold it."
As things turned out, one had to wonder whether Kaplan possessed a crystal ball. At the end of the first 36 deals, played Friday night, the "kids" led by a whopping 73 IMPs in spite of a three-IMP penalty assessed for slow play. The penalty was largely chargeable to Alt-man, whose customary glacial pace at times made even the deliberate Kay appear swift. But three I MPs were only pebbles in such a gigantic landslide. The keyed-up young leaders didn't get much sleep that night, while the veterans could only swallow their pride and their tranquilizers and prepare for the next day.
Kaplan and Kay had performed well during the first session (as they would continue to do throughout the playoff), while Mathe and Krauss had been off form. But when Mathe-Krauss found themselves on Saturday afternoon, the Vu-Graph audience at the session was treated to one of the more remarkable turnabouts in tournament bridge history. Where the first-quarter score had been 108-35, Stuart, the second-quarter tally read 103-39, Mathe. The Precision lead was now down to nine IMPS and the images that had appeared in Kaplan's crystal ball were beginning to take shape at the tables.
To its credit, the Stuart team held on through the third quarter, scoring 69 IMPS to Mathe's 69 and maintaining its precarious lead. But with the score this close and only 36 deals remaining to be played on Sunday afternoon, that three-point slow-play penalty began to loom very large indeed. What if it turned out to be the deciding factor in the match? How would the players—and the onlookers—react? It may be that the tournament officials tossed more restlessly than the players that night, and with good cause: at the halfway point of the final session on Sunday the Mathe team not only had gained the lead but was holding it by exactly three IMPs.
The crisis was short-lived. On the remaining 18 deals, Mathe's squad gradually increased its lead and, after staving off a last-minute rally by the Precisioners, eventually won by 11 IMPs.
The turning point in the match came on the 114th deal and put Mathe into the lead for the first time since the very early going. This was the layout:
North-South vulnerable North dealer
[8 of Spades]
[7 of Spades]
[6 of Spades]
[Queen of Hearts]
[7 of Hearts]
[2 of Hearts]
[Jack of Diamonds]
[10 of Diamonds]
[7 of Diamonds]
[6 of Diamonds]
[5 of Diamonds]
[4 of Diamonds]
[5 of Clubs]