One of the high moments of tournament bridge occurs when precise defense is pitted against a declarer's exquisite play, as when the winners of the four big national team championships—the Vanderbilt, Spingold, Reisinger and Grand National—met in Washington, D.C. recently to decide which would represent North America in January at the world team matches in Bermuda.
The playoff itself went pretty much according to form. The Vanderbilt and Spingold champions, both dark-horse qualifiers, were unable to produce any more miracles and lost in the first round. The final came down to the Reisinger titleholders against he Californians who had won the Grand National (SI, July 29). The latter—Eddie Kantar, Bill Eisenberg, Paul Soloway and John Swanson, plus a new pair, Larry Mandel and Ira Cohen—were the victors.
Missing from this team were Larry Cohen and Dr. Richard Katz. They had played previously on the Reisinger winner with A.E. (Bud) Reinhold, Alan Sontag and Peter Weichsel and, obviously, they could not be on both teams in the playoffs. As it turned out, they backed the wrong horse, electing to stay with Reinhold, who added Ace Bobby Wolff as his partner and Aces founder Ira Corn as his nonplaying captain. The remaining Grand National team members selected Alfred Sheinwold as their nonplaying captain and Mandel and Ira Cohen, an up-and-coming but essentially untried pair of fellow Californians, as their third partnership.
Kantar, Eisenberg, Soloway and Swanson have all previously faced the team they are going to have to beat, the seemingly invincible Italian Blues. Swanson played in the 1971 world championship. Soloway topped the rankings of-North American players in both 1968 and 1969; he also played in the 1972 World Team Olympiad as a member of the Aces and in the world championship for the Bermuda Bowl in 1973. Eisenberg has played in three world team championships, including the two won by the Aces in 1970 and 1971. Kantar, the dean of the team at 42, about the age when a bridge expert reaches his peak, is a bridge teacher and writer and has had wide international tournament experience as a coach and player.
In this hand from the final Kantar demonstrated his skill: share his problem by covering the East-West cards. Weichsel and Sontag, who distinguished themselves in a losing cause, conducted a flawless attack against Kantar's contract of three no trump.
Kantar's difficulties began with the very first trick. In which hand should he win the opening heart lead? He was properly unwilling to take it with his king, the only sure entry to his hand, even though that would have allowed him to lead a spade for a finesse. (Had he won with the king, the defenders could have maneuvered to isolate the lead in dummy and eventually collect five tricks.) So the heart lead was taken by dummy's queen and a low spade was led to South's jack and West's queen.
West shifted to the 10 of diamonds and when dummy's 7 was played, East won with the king and returned the 2 of clubs. Kantar agonized over the problem you may now share. Wouldn't East have returned either a diamond or a heart if he held the king of clubs? Or did East have the king and make the shift in hopes that West held the queen-10 or queen-jack? Is there a clue to the right play? Could West's "top of nothing" lead of the 10 of diamonds, indicating that he did not want a diamond returned, imply that he was prepared for a club shift?
Eventually Kantar played low and when West put in the 10 of clubs, he let West hold the trick. The defense was now helpless. West could not continue clubs without giving declarer two tricks in that suit, which, with three hearts, three diamonds and a spade, would come to nine tricks, while any other return would allow Kantar to establish the spade suit by surrendering a spade to East. In the end the defense could collect only two spades, one club and one diamond. Had Kantar put up the queen of clubs or won the first club lead with dummy's ace, the contract would have been defeated. And by making three no trump, he largely offset the result at the other table, where West had made the imaginative but highly unsuccessful lead of the king of clubs, after which South for the Reisinger team romped home with three no trump plus an overtrick.
During the first three-quarters of the match, Sheinwold kept his four California regulars in the lineup and they rewarded him by building up a 94-IMP lead over 96 boards. He then brought in Cohen and Mandel, resting Kantar and Eisenberg. Alas, the Reinhold team immediately began the kind of rally that is becoming its trademark, cutting the lead by 33 IMPs in the next 16 deals. It was generally agreed that little, if any, of this loss could be charged to Cohen and Mandel, but Sheinwold was taking no chances. He brought back Kantar and Eisenberg for the last 16 deals. Even that didn't stop Reinhold's team, which gained another 39 IMPs to narrow the final margin of victory to only 22.
Because Cohen and Mandel played less than three-eighths of the match, they did not automatically qualify for the North American team. In their place, Sheinwold has asked the American Contract Bridge League to appoint Wolff and Bob Hamman of the Aces, who probably rank as today's top U.S. pair. The board meets in November. Until then, the exact makeup of our team will not be known, but it is starting off with a strong nucleus.