A grand slam for a new star

April 07, 1958

On the first day of spring a clammy blizzard of wet snow knocked out all power and light in Atlantic City, N.J., where the Vanderbilt Team bridge championship (the Spring Nationals) was scheduled to begin. But it did not stop the bridge players.

At 7 p.m. frantic engineers restored emergency power service to the Hotel Traymore, and the first round of play got under way. By midnight the starting field of 48 teams was trimmed down to 32 and the second-round matches were begun. By 3 a.m. half of the second-round matches had been played and the weary gladiators staggered off to get caught up with their sleep, reassembling at 11 a.m. to get the tournament caught up on its schedule. By 3 p.m. Friday the third round was in progress as planned, and then the only thing that stopped the teams was a knockout defeat.

Lee Hazen of the winning team missed the last three sessions because of business. So the brunt fell upon Harry Fishbein, Sam Fry Jr. and Len Harmon of New York and Ivar Stakgold of Washington; the latter pair carried off top laurels when they also won the second most important title, the Open Pair championship. The Men's Pair was won by Sidney Silodor and Norman Kay.

Earlier in this 1958 Spring National Championship meeting of the American Contract Bridge League a new star was born. Mrs. M. J. Novak, a Shreveport, La. bridge buff who had never before played in a national tournament, came to Atlantic City in quest of partners and experience. Just before the Women's Pair event she was introduced to Mrs. G. R. Nail, wife of the Houston Life Master, and they formed a last-minute pickup entry. Result: they won.

Next day another Houstonian, John Gerber, creator of the ace-showing convention, made a last-minute decision to enter the Mixed Pair championship if he could find a partner. Mrs. Novak was available. At the halfway mark John asked me when I planned to write up his partner. My answer was: "When she pitches another no-hitter." Then Gerber and Mrs. Novak won!

Result: I am now writing up Mrs. M. J. Novak, the Shreveport, La. housewife who, playing with partners she had never met before, won the first two national championships she ever entered.

The difficulty of winning a national tournament with an unfamiliar partner is emphasized by the oddity that, since Mrs. Novak had never played the Gerber convention, the inventor of the four-club ace-showing call agreed to play the Blackwood four no trump. This is the bridge equivalent of Henry Ford agreeing to drive a Chevrolet, but it worked out very well in getting the Mixed Pair winners to a grand slam on this deal:

Both vulnerable East deals

NORTH

[Queen of Spades]
[10 of Spades]
[7 of Spades]
[3 of Spades]
[Ace of Hearts]
[King of Hearts]
[Jack of Hearts]
[9 of Hearts]
[5 of Hearts]
[2 of Clubs]
[King of Diamonds]
[10 of Diamonds]
[3 of Diamonds]

WEST

[Ace of Spades]
[Jack of Spades]
[9 of Spades]
[6 of Spades]
[7 of Hearts]
[6 of Hearts]
[King of Clubs]
[9 of Clubs]
[8 of Clubs]
[7 of Clubs]
[9 of Diamonds]
[5 of Diamonds]
[4 of Diamonds]

SOUTH

[10 of Hearts]
[8 of Hearts]
[4 of Hearts]
[3 of Hearts]
[2 of Hearts]
[Ace of Clubs]
[Jack of Clubs]
[10 of Clubs]
[6 of Clubs]
[3 of Clubs]
[Ace of Diamonds]
[Queen of Diamonds]
[6 of Diamonds]

EAST

[King of Spades]
[8 of Spades]
[5 of Spades]
[4 of Spades]
[2 of Spades]
[Queen of Hearts]
[Queen of Clubs]
[5 of Clubs]
[4 of Clubs]
[Jack of Diamonds]
[8 of Diamonds]
[7 of Diamonds]
[2 of Diamonds]

EAST
(Mrs. Nail)

PASS
3 [Spade]
PASS
PASS

SOUTH
(Mrs. Novak)

1 [Heart]
4 [Heart]
6 [Heart]
PASS

WEST
(Nail)

1 [Spade]
PASS
PASS
PASS

NORTH
(Gerber)

3 [Heart]
4 NO TRUMP
7 [Heart]

A peculiarity about this situation was that Mrs. Novak found herself up against Mr. and Mrs. Nail—the latter her recent partner in triumph.

Under the Gerber convention, a four-club bid by South would have been a call for aces—but this was a bid Mrs. Novak was not strong enough to make in any case. North, however, was strong enough to inquire and the Blackwood four-no-trump bid enabled him to do so. South's leap directly to six hearts announced two aces and a void. It was no problem for Gerber to deduce that the void must be in spades and, knowing that his partner held the minor suit aces and at least five hearts, he bid the grand slam. Trumping three clubs in dummy established South's fifth club as a winner and made the 13 tricks a laydown.

In the climax event, the team championship, power house lineups pursued two of bridgedom's most coveted prizes simultaneously: the majestic Vanderbilt Cup and the right to represent the U.S. in next year's World Championship. The choice will lie between the victors in this Vanderbilt and the winners of the Masters Team event in the National Championships to be played at Miami this summer.

The Vanderbilt play introduced an innovation in team championship competition. Hitherto, one defeat was enough to eliminate a team; this year, no team was eliminated until it had lost twice. But the winners sailed through eight matches without a defeat and went into the final match against the Kaplan team with a bisque they never needed.

The best the Kaplan team could hope for was a win that would force a playoff. Instead, they were defeated for the second time. But it was close right down to the wire, the winning team picking up six of its 15 International Match Point margin by fine play by Sam Fry Jr. on the very last hand. These were the cards:

None vulnerable North dealer

NORTH

[9 of Spades]
[8 of Spades]
[Ace of Hearts]
[8 of Hearts]
[7 of Hearts]
[3 of Hearts]
[2 of Hearts]
[Ace of Diamonds]
[King of Diamonds]
[9 of Clubs]
[8 of Clubs]
[3 of Clubs]
[2 of Clubs]

WEST

[Ace of Spades]
[4 of Spades]
[3 of Spades]
[6 of Hearts]
[Queen of Diamonds]
[Jack of Diamonds]
[10 of Diamonds]
[8 of Diamonds]
[7 of Diamonds]
[6 of Diamonds]
[4 of Diamonds]
[7 of Clubs]
[4 of Clubs]

SOUTH

[King of Spades]
[7 of Spades]
[6 of Spades]
[5 of Spades]
[2 of Spades]
[King of Hearts]
[Jack of Hearts]
[5 of Diamonds]
[3 of Diamonds]
[Ace of Clubs]
[King of Clubs]
[Jack of Clubs]
[6 of Clubs]

EAST

[Queen of Spades]
[Jack of Spades]
[10 of Spades]
[Queen of Hearts]
[10 of Hearts]
[9 of Hearts]
[5 of Hearts]
[4 of Hearts]
[9 of Diamonds]
[2 of Diamonds]
[Queen of Clubs]
[10 of Clubs]
[5 of Clubs]

NORTH
(Fishbein)

1 [Heart]
PASS
4 [Spade]

EAST
(Hirshberg)

PASS
PASS
PASS

SOUTH
(Fry)

1 [Spade]
4 [Club]
PASS

WEST
(Kaplan)

3 [Diamond]
PASS
PASS

In the other room the first two rounds of bidding were the same, but North then elected to raise the clubs to five. A singleton heart lead made declarer fear a cross-ruff. He tried to drop the queen of clubs; then played for East to hold the ace of spades. When neither of these hopes came through, he went down two for a loss of 100 points.

Fishbein elected to bid four spades, keeping up a week-long record of being right even when, according to customary bidding methods, he was "wrong." But it took good play by Fry to justify the bid.

The heart opening was won by South, who immediately led a low trump out of his hand. East false-carded by winning the trick with the queen, returning a heart which West ruffed. Dummy won the diamond return and East continued the obfuscation by playing the jack on the spade lead from dummy. But Fry ducked, the ace fell and with the aid of a successful club finesse declarer won the rest of the tricks, adding another 420 points' profit to the winners' swing.

Earlier in the match Fishbein's magic touch was put to the test on defense against a vulnerable game:

Both vulnerable South dealer

NORTH

[10 of Spades]
[5 of Spades]
[4 of Spades]
[8 of Hearts]
[4 of Hearts]
[2 of Hearts]
[Jack of Diamonds]
[10 of Diamonds]
[8 of Diamonds]
[7 of Diamonds]
[2 of Diamonds]
[Queen of Clubs]
[3 of Clubs]

WEST

[Ace of Spades]
[7 of Spades]
[6 of Spades]
[3 of Spades]
[Hearts] none
[9 of Diamonds]
[5 of Diamonds]
[3 of Diamonds]
[Ace of Clubs]
[King of Clubs]
[9 of Clubs]
[7 of Clubs]
[6 of Clubs]
[4 of Clubs]

SOUTH

[Queen of Spades]
[Jack of Spades]
[9 of Spades]
[Ace of Hearts]
[King of Hearts]
[Queen of Hearts]
[10 of Hearts]
[9 of Hearts]
[7 of Hearts]
[Ace of Diamonds]
[King of Diamonds]
[Queen of Diamonds]
[8 of Clubs]

EAST

[King of Spades]
[8 of Spades]
[2 of Spades]
[Jack of Hearts]
[6 of Hearts]
[5 of Hearts]
[3 of Hearts]
[6 of Diamonds]
[4 of Diamonds]
[Jack of Clubs]
[10 of Clubs]
[5 of Clubs]
[2 of Clubs]

SOUTH
(Kaplan)

2 [Club]
3 [Heart]
PASS

WEST
(Fishbein)

3 [Club]
PASS
PASS

NORTH
(Hirshberg)

PASS
4 [Heart]

EAST
(Fry)

PASS
PASS

Fishbein opened the king of clubs and continued with the ace, which declarer ruffed. When West showed out on the lead of the ace of hearts, declarer led the queen of spades, taken by East's king. South won the diamond return and led the jack of spades, and West had reached the moment of fatal decision. If he won this trick, declarer would gain entry to dummy with the 10 of spades for the needful finesse against East's jack of trumps. But the stars had decreed that this was Fishbein's week. He let South's jack win and declarer had no way to evade the loss of a trump trick as well as the two top spades and the trick in clubs.

PHOTO PHOTO WINNERS: Ivar Stakgold, left, and Len Harmon, next to him, who also took OpenPair title; Harry Fishbein, in lucky tartan beret, and Sam FryJr. ILLUSTRATION

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)