If you don't know
anything about bridge at the world-championship level, the first thing I'd
better explain is that the Italians always win, especially when Benito Garozzo
and Giorgio Belladonna are in the lineup. It's like a rule: Aces take kings,
kings take queens—and the Italians win. That's because Garozzo and Belladonna
are the Ruth and Gehrig of the game. Between 1957 and 1969 the Italian Blue
Team, on which Garozzo and Belladonna were the stars, won 12 of 13 world
titles. When, as a member of the Aces, the U.S. team, I won my first two
championships in 1970 and 1971, Garozzo and Belladonna were in semiretirement
back in Rome. When they reappeared in 1972, they won again. Que ser�, ser�.
From Oct. 6 to
Oct. 8, my partner, Bobby Wolff, and I, along with four other members of the
latest version of the Aces, found ourselves up against Belladonna, Garozzo and
four of their countrymen at the world championship in Stockholm.
There were other
teams in Stockholm, of course, 10 in all, but after the semifinals were over,
only Italy and the Aces were left. Ahead of us were 176 boards—hands of bridge,
if you will—randomly dealt. If Wolff and I held the North-South cards in one
room, two Italians would hold the same cards in another room against another
pair of Americans, either Peter Weichsel and Alan Sontag or Mike Becker and Ron
Rubin. Compare the results from the two rooms, and you get a score that is
translated into international match points (IMPs).
If Las Vegas
carried odds on the finals, we probably would have been 2-to-1 favorites. I
know, I just said that Italy always wins, but Belladonna is now 60 and Garozzo
is 56. Furthermore, the Italians had narrowly survived a few preliminary
rounds. Except for history, there was little to suggest that the two teams
belonged at the same card table.
At least, that's
how we felt when Captain Joe Musumeci chose our lineup for the opening session
of the finals—four members of a team play while two rest—and sent Wolff and me
into the room with Belladonna and Garozzo. Six boards into the match we trailed
by 41 IMPs. So much for Vegas odds. But we fought back, and by the end of the
session, which was the first of 11, we were down only eight IMPs. Translated to
football, that's like being behind 3-0 after six minutes of the first quarter.
Over the next
nine sessions, consuming the better part of three days and nights, neither team
led by more than 20 IMPs at the end of any session. With the final 16 boards to
go, Italy led by nine IMPs, not an insurmountable margin. In that final, Wolff
and I went up against Lorenzo Lauria and Carlo Mosca in the closed room—meaning
that no one but officials could watch—while Sontag and Weichsel faced
Belladonna and Garozzo in the open room, where the action usually lags behind
that in the closed room. The players in one room had no idea what was happening
in the other—and wouldn't until the session was over. Sealed off from the other
half of the action, all you can do is try to judge how well you and your
partner are doing during a session. If you blow a hand, you can be almost
certain the opponents will not, and thus you will lose heavily on that
playing of those final 16 boards, Wolff and I felt we had the better of it
until Lauria and Mosca bid and made a marginal slam in diamonds on the third
hand from the end. There was nothing we could do about that, except hope our
teammates would reach the same contract. The final two hands were fiat: that
is, there was no apparent chance that anyone would do anything abnormal one way
or the other.
When Wolff and I
came tumbling out of the room and into the huge auditorium where the audience
was watching our teammates play, a desperate-sounding Musumeci asked, "How
did you do on the last three hands?" After adding our results to those in
the open room, where there were still four hands to be played, he told us that
the Aces had a fragile lead of two IMPs. We told him that everything depended
on Sontag and Weichsel bidding the diamond slam on Board 174.
As that board
began, Sontag studied his hand, then reached into the box containing bidding
cards and produced the card indicating one diamond. (At the world-championship
level, players are separated from their partners by a screen, and bids are
made, not orally but by special cards that are then read aloud by an official.
Both of these procedures are attempts to eliminate cheating, which raises its
ugly head from time to time.) Weichsel responded with one spade, and Sontag
went to one no-trump. Weichsel jumped to three diamonds, a hopeful sign that
they were on their way to six. Sontag bid three hearts, Weichsel four diamonds,
Sontag four spades—then nothing. Weichsel studied his cards. The longer he
hesitated, the more the palms of my hands began to sweat. Finally, he reached
into his bidding box and to our horror produced the big green pass card. The
contract was four spades, not the small slam in diamonds, and the swing to
Italy was a monstrous 10 IMPs. We were now eight IMPs behind, and with only
those two flat hands left, we had no hope of winning. All the Italians had to
do was fall on the ball.
When Wolff and I
played the next-to-last hand (see illustration on page 80), we stopped at five
spades after discovering we lacked two aces. Five is cold, so the only hope we
had was for the Italians to bid six spades and then fail to make the contract.
Belladonna's two-no-trump bid showed a strong hand with support for opener's
suit. Garozzo's three-spade bid revealed that his opening had been a weak one
and that he had no slam interest. Belladonna continued with four no-trump,
apparently the Blackwood convention, checking on the number of aces in
Garozzo's hand. Garozzo bid five diamonds, meaning one ace. And then there was
a pause, and with it, a glimmer of hope for the Aces. Something had gone wrong.
Instead of pulling the five-spade card promptly from the bidding box,
Belladonna was deep in thought. Had the two weeks of intense competition taken
its toll on the old warrior, or was there some confusion about the meaning of
four no-trump? After what seemed like an eternity, Belladonna reached down and
produced—glory be!—the bid of six spades. We had apparently just won the world