The world championship in Bermuda two weeks ago was my second. I had played in Rio de Janeiro in 1969, when we finished third, the first time in history the U.S. had not been first or second. That's the story of my life.
But after six days of preliminaries in Bermuda, we were close to victory. We had managed to defeat the French in the semifinals, and in the finals had built a surprising halftime lead of 73 International Match Points against the perennial champions, the Italians. That is like leading the Pittsburgh Steelers 21-0. With only 48 hands left to be played, in segments of 16 each, spirits were soaring. We had a good team, and even though the Italians were capable of playing superb bridge, it would be quite difficult for us to blow this one if we didn't go completely to pot. Could it be? Was I really going to be a world champion?
I had been playing bridge regularly since I learned the game from my best friend's father at the age of 12-30 years ago. Seldom does a day pass that I don't either teach a bridge class, write a bridge column or a bridge article, read about the game, think about the game, dream about the game, bid hands with my partner, deal out hands, or simply play. Was I—that good-for-nothing cardplayer, gambler, bum—finally going to make my worried relatives proud?
So we played 16 hands and dropped 27 of our precious 73-IMP lead, but we went to bed with 46 IMPs still tucked under our pillows. That's a lot. Then 16 more boards the following afternoon and 22 more IMPs disappeared, leaving us 24 IMPs ahead with 16 hands remaining. The Italians had started to play extremely well, better than at any other time during the tournament. Luck, which had been ours, switched sides. Nobody on our team could do anything right.
As I sat down for the last 16 boards I began to reflect upon my errors earlier in the match. I had managed to go down in a vulnerable four spades that I should have made. That blew 17 IMPs. On another hand I thought my partner, Billy Eisenberg, had raised my opening one-club bid to two clubs over an adverse one-diamond overcall, so I had cleverly leaped to five clubs to shut out the opponents' spade fit.
They doubled and set me three tricks when it turned out my right-hand opponent and not Billy had bid the two clubs. Not only that, but Billy had six spades, so they had no makeable game. Our other pair, in the meantime, holding the adverse cards, wound up playing three no trump, down three. And finally there was my brilliant underlead of the ace-king of hearts over to Billy's queen to get a club ruff. Only Billy didn't have the queen, he had the nine. Expletives resounded.
Our opponents for those last 16 boards on vu-graph (where everyone can witness your atrocities) were those giants of the game, Benito Garozzo and Giorgio Belladonna. This was probably the first time they had ever been down this much going into the last few boards and it didn't amuse them.
Even though Billy and I (especially Billy) were now doing rather well, we felt they had the edge on us—but not 24 IMPs worth. And then it happened: Board 92 (see page 54), a hand that looked as if it might change my life.
After Billy passed, Belladonna opened two clubs, which in the Italians' super-precision system showed a long club suit, fewer than 17 high-card points and possibly an outside four-card suit. Garozzo responded two diamonds, a relay, asking for more information, and Belladonna duly bid two spades to show his four-card suit. Garozzo now tried a natural bid of three hearts and Belladonna retreated to three no trump.
Garozzo was far from through; in fact, he was just beginning. He showed his club support by bidding four clubs and Belladonna cue-bid four diamonds, showing either first- or second-round diamond control.