Most of today's contract bridge pair tournaments are measured by the size of the field rather than by the quality of the participants. But not the London Sunday Times Pairs, held annually in January. Participation in this event is strictly by invitation, and the invitations are limited to the world's bridge leaders. In 1973 the London entry was grudgingly increased to 22 pairs, up by only six from 1957, the last year in which an American partnership—the late Helen Sobel Smith and I—won.
Perhaps the best-known names in the 1973 field, which included stars from Italy, France, Poland, Israel, Scotland, England and the U.S., were those of Giorgio Belladonna, Benito Garozzo and Omar Sharif. When the competition was over, however, the champions were once again Americans—Steve Altman and Alan Sontag, who won by 3� victory points over two other members of the U.S. Precision Team, Peter Weichsel and T. McAdoo (Tom) Smith. Belladonna and Renato Mondolfo repeated their 1972 third-place finish. Scotland's Willie Coyle and Victor Silverstone were fourth.
As it turned out, nine of the top 10 players—all but Mondolfo—were practitioners of some form of the Precision System; that is, with 16 points or more they opened the bidding with one club, and with fewer than eight high-card points they responded one diamond. Well, at least they were supposed to. But experts of this caliber seem to know when to make an exception to their basic methods. Consider this deal, in which Altman-Sontag faced Poland's Lukasz Lebioda and Andrejz Wilkosz, the 1972 winners.
Altman's one-spade response to the artificial club opening showed at least a five-card suit and eight or more high-card points. Given the same hand, rigid Precision players would have responded one diamond, denying eight high-card points, but Altman was relying upon control-showing bids to apply the brakes later.
Sontag's two-diamond rebid was natural and Altman's two-heart response both denied diamond support and announced that his earlier positive response was of the weakest variety. Thereafter, the bidding was normal. Sontag's club rebid showed a real suit; Altman revealed his six-card spade length, then stated his club support and his distaste for a no-trump contract. Sontag's jump to the club slam turned out, thanks to his careful play, to be entirely accurate—and rewarding.
After winning the first trick with the ace of spades, Sontag led the king of diamonds. If this had lost, he was prepared to take a later ruffing finesse against the diamond queen, virtually ensuring the contract if West held either missing diamond honor. But West covered with the ace on the first diamond lead. Sontag ruffed, cashed dummy's queen of clubs and led a club to his king. If the club suit had not split, Sontag would have had to take a finesse against the diamond queen, but when both opponents followed to the second club lead, he led a low diamond and ruffed in dummy. Sontag next discarded his queen of hearts on dummy's king of spades, returned to his hand with the ace of hearts, drew the last opposing trump with his ace of clubs and conceded a trick by leading the jack of diamonds to East's queen. Declarer still had a trump with which to get back in and cash his established diamonds for the slam and a score worth 10 international match points.