Who is the best player in the world? is a question that people never tire of asking me. In the past it was easy for me to answer, "A beautiful woman," referring, of course, to my favorite partner, Helen Sobel (now Helen Smith). Although Helen rarely plays nowadays, I still make the same answer. But when I say it now I say it in Italian—Belladonna. If Giorgio Belladonna isn't today's best player he comes close enough so that nobody can give me any serious argument.
Some will propose Giorgio's teammate Pietro Forquet, long a virtually errorless machine. Others will nominate Forquet's partner, Benito Garozzo, whose brilliance sometimes overshadows Pietro's vaunted precision. But the biggest point winner for Italy is the dashing, daring Giorgio, who often sticks out his neck but somehow still manages to retain his head and also land on his feet, if you don't mind my hashing up some images. He so rarely makes a mistake and so often has his stratagems acclaimed that he never minds when someone tells about one that went wrong. At last year's European Championships, in a match on Bridge-O-Rama between Italy and Germany, it was eagle-eyed analyst Terence Reese who caught Giorgio dozing. As Reese pointed out, the great defensive play Belladonna failed to make would have given the opponents a trick. But it would also have set the contract.
The contract of four spades was reached at both tables. The defenders could have taken four top tricks in the minors plus a diamond ruff, but the heart opening gave both declarers the chance to discard two diamonds from dummy. When Giuseppe Messina was playing South for Italy he took the ace and queen of hearts, pitching diamonds, and continued by leading a diamond. East won and returned a heart to shorten dummy's trumps, leaving declarer no chance to establish and use dummy's clubs for discards, since West could force dummy again later by returning a diamond. Nor could South ruff all of his remaining diamonds without setting up a trump trick for the defense, so he eventually went down one.
At the other table, where Belladonna was West and Renato Mondolfo was East, the declarer, Fritz Chodziesner of Germany, won two hearts, discarding two diamonds, and then played the queen of clubs at the third trick. Belladonna won and led a diamond to East's king. East's heart return forced dummy to ruff. With the lead in dummy, this was the situation:
December 9, 1968
[Spade] K J 10
[Club] J 8 7 5 4
[Spade] 9 5
[Heart] J 8 6
[Club] A 6
[Spade] 8 6 4
[Diamond] A 4 3
[Spade] A Q 7 2
[Diamond] 10 9 7
A low club was led, and East's 10 was high. Belladonna studied for some time before letting the 10 of clubs hold, but when he did the defense was helpless. East tried to kill dummy's clubs by leading the ace of diamonds and forcing dummy's ruff, but this didn't help. South was able to draw trumps and his two remaining diamonds were high.
Commentator Reese pointed out that what Belladonna was thinking about—overtaking partner's 10 of clubs with the ace in order to lead a diamond—would have sparked the winning defense. Dummy would be forced to ruff. Declarer would then lead dummy's good jack of clubs, and East would have to cooperate in the defense by refusing to ruff. Otherwise, declarer could overruff and draw the remaining trumps, ending in dummy.
The free diamond discard would not be enough to help South. If he next drew trumps he would lose a diamond trick in the end. And if he tried to negotiate a diamond ruff, the need to lead clubs twice more from dummy, combined with the presence of the nine of spades in the West hand, would cost him a trump trick. What a great defense that would have been! But it isn't news when Belladonna makes such plays; it's news when he doesn't.
Neither side vulnerable South dealer
Opening lead: 6 of hearts