Showdown for kibitzers

Two great U.S. bridge teams—the Rothleins and the Fishbeins—must have it out for a crack at the world title
October 19, 1958

Only three teams were left in the Masters' Knockout Team Championship at Miami Beach last August. Each had been defeated once. One more defeat meant curtains. Robert Rothlein's team had won the bye and was sitting it out while Alvin Roth's and Harry Fishbein's teams battled to see which would survive. Each of the two tables, remote at opposite ends of the Americana's Floridian Room, was ringed three deep with craning kibitzers.

In this tense situation, while defending against a doubled contract, Harry Fishbein reneged! If detected before either he or his partner, Sam Fry Jr., played to the next trick, the revoke could have been corrected. At least half of the gallery were ardent Fishbein rooters. Yet, to the everlasting credit of all members of that oft-maligned breed, the kibitzer, there wasn't a gasp or a murmur or a rustle of surprise that might have called attention to the error. The penalty for the revoke—two tricks—was just enough to let declarer make his doubled contract.

Next weekend, these exemplary kibitzers receive their reward—an opportunity to watch the playoff between the Vanderbilt Cup-winning Fishbein team and its two-time conquerors in the Masters' Knockout event, the Rothlein team. The match will decide which team will represent America (including Canada, Mexico, Bermuda and the U.S.) in the February world championship meeting with Italy's European champions and the champions of South America, as yet undecided. The dates: Saturday and Sunday, October 25 and 26. The place: the Gold Ballroom of the Hotel Statler Hilton in New York City. The starting times: 1:30 each afternoon and 8:30 each evening. The best reward of all: the match can be viewed under conditions which impose no strain on the kibitzer's eyes or self-control. Indeed, he may cheer if he likes. He'll be able to hear the players, but they won't be able to hear him.

Two problems have stood in the way of making bridge a spectator sport: how to let a large audience actually see everything that goes on, and how to keep the players from being influenced by the reactions of the spectators. Thus far, the simplest and most easily followed technique is to show the hands in the kind of diagram familiar to bridge-column readers, to tune in on the playing room for the bidding and play, and to show the play by x-ing out the cards on the diagram, thrown on a large screen. This method, used successfully in the telecast of the world championship in 1957, will be used again to show the playoff.

With the players separated from the audience by a soundproof wall, kibitzers can indulge the luxury of cheering, groaning, speculating on the proper play, criticizing mistakes and listening to commentary by a group of experts, among them your reporter. The price of all this is a mere $1.50 per session.

It is exciting to think that 500 people, instead of only 15 or 20, may watch hands like this one, played in the final match at Miami.

Both Wests opened the king of diamonds. Both declarers won with dummy's ace, successfully finessed in spades and returned to dummy's king of hearts for another spade lead. The appearance of East's king was disappointing, but after a headachey analysis both expert declarers decided against cashing the ace of hearts. (Without going into the complex considerations involved, that decision would appear to be correct but for the six-two division in diamonds and the singleton honor in clubs.) Each South elected to cash the remaining high spade, discard dummy's diamond and hope that East would be the defender with three trumps. East ruffed the spade with the seven of hearts.

Thus far the play had been the same at both tables, but now came the parting of the ways. With Robert Rothlein and Cyrus Neuman of Miami defending, Neuman led back a low club. Rothlein won with the king and returned a spade, ruffed in dummy and overruffed by East's queen. A second club lead made it impossible for declarer to shut out West's heart jack.

At the other table, the Rothlein team had the North-South hands, with William Hanna of Los Angeles playing North and Paul Allinger of Alameda, Calif. South. Instead of leading back a low club after ruffing the third spade, East cashed the club ace. The fall of West's king alerted Allinger to his danger. If West could overruff the second club another spade play would doom the contract. In this difficult situation, Allinger guessed right. He trumped the second club with the ace and played a low trump, dropping the jack and queen together. Dummy's trumps and good clubs took care of South's remaining losers.

Both the Rothlein and the Fishbein entries are five-man teams. The Rothlein player you have not met thus far is Sidney Lazard of New Orleans, who distinguished himself as West in defense against this slam hand.

Details of the bidding are no longer recalled. Both teams bid to six no trump and both got the same opening lead of the heart 10.

Looking at all four hands, it is obvious that the slam can be made. Before deciding what to discard on North's fourth spade, declarer leads a diamond toward his king-queen. When West takes the ace, South's best hope of a 12th trick is the club finesse. It wins, and the slam comes home—exactly as happened when Rothlein's team held the North-South hands.

The difference when the Fishbein team held the slam hand was that Lazard saw no reason to force declarer to adopt the winning line of play. Thinking right along with declarer, he foresaw the diamond lead and played the deuce under the king without the slightest huddle or hesitation. Now, would you take the unproved club finesse or repeat the "successful" diamond lead from dummy? Declarer elected to play East for the ace of diamonds and Lazard cashed in on one of bridge's oldest axioms: If nothing else will serve, give the opponents a chance to make a mistake.

If I seem to be dwelling upon Rothlein successes and Fishbein failures, it is with good reason. I have already recorded here some of the brilliant exploits which enabled Lee Hazen, Len Harmon and Ivar Stakgold, along with Fry and Fishbein, to roll undefeated through every match to win the Vanderbilt championship last March. They continued that winning streak in the Masters' Knockout event until they had rolled up a string of 14 consecutive victories. Upset by Rothlein in their 15th match, they rallied to defeat Roth in the semifinal, only to bow to Rothlein again in the final.

To a considerable measure, this was due to partnership misunderstandings such as occurred in the following deal.

Hazen intended his two no-trump bid as "unusual"—that is, a conventional call for a minor suit. Fishbein read it as possibly a good club suit and a heart stopper.

All would still have been well if Rothlein had led a fourth-best heart. But after toying with that card several times he finally chose to lead the king. Result: down three at no trump with game ice-cold at either clubs or diamonds.

Does the one-sidedness of this report mean that I am picking Rothlein to win? The answer must be no. Because the team members live so far apart, they must suffer from unpracticed partnership among three of their five players.

The greater length of this playoff match gives the Fishbein veterans an advantage. So does the fact that four of them will be playing before a hometown audience, while their opponents will have traveled far. In the kind of close match I figure this to be, such matters can be decisive.

As the referee would say, may the better team win. And best of viewing to the kibitzers!

PHOTO PHOTOROTHLEIN TEAM smiles after winning Masters' Knockout. They are (from left) Paul Allinger, Cyrus Neuman, Captain Robert Rothlein, Sidney Lazard, William Hanna.

Both sides vulnerable North dealer

NORTH

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

WEST

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

SOUTH

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

EAST

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

Similar bidding at both tables got South to a contract of four hearts:

NORTH

PASS
2 [Club]
4 [Heart]

EAST

PASS
PASS
PASS

SOUTH

1 [Spade]
2 [Heart]
PASS

WEST

PASS
PASS
PASS

Neither side vulnerable North dealer

NORTH

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

WEST

[6 of Spades]
[4 of Spades]
[10 of Hearts]
[3 of Hearts]
[Ace of Diamonds]
[10 of Diamonds]
[9 of Diamonds]
[6 of Diamonds]
[2 of Diamonds]
[King of Clubs]
[10 of Clubs]
[9 of Clubs]
[8 of Clubs]

SOUTH

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

EAST

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

Opening lead: heart 10

East-West vulnerable West dealer

NORTH

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

WEST

[Ace of Spades]
[10 of Spades]
[3 of Spades]
[2 of Spades]
[Ace of Hearts]
[Kings of Hearts]
[8 of Hearts]
[7 of Hearts]
[6 of Hearts]
[5 of Hearts]
[3 of Diamonds]
[2 of Diamonds]
[9 of Clubs]

SOUTH

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

EAST

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

WEST
(Rothlein)

1 [Heart]
PASS
PASS

NORTH
(Fishbein)

PASS
3 N.T.

EAST
(Neuman)

PASS
PASS

SOUTH
(Hazen)

2 N.T.
PASS

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)