Mathe, moxie and stamina turned the trick

December 14, 1970

A Los Angeles foursome of Lew Mathe, Don Krauss, Richard Walsh and John Swanson overcame an almost insurmountable deficit of 83 international match points to defeat a favored New York quartet headed by Phil Feldesman in the final North American zone playoff in New York last month and win their way to Taiwan as the No. 2 team to represent this continent in the World Championship next May.

After 73 deals of the 160-board match, the Californians trailed the Feldesman team 109-192. At that point Feldesman, Bill Grieve, Ira Rubin and Jeff Westheimer were rolling in high gear and looked unbeatable. But the New Yorkers were pitted against three youngsters with both nerve and stamina and an old campaigner, Lew Mathe, one of the veteran battlers in all bridge. Mathe first played for America in a world championship in 1954, before the oldest of his present teammates, 35-year-old John Swanson, had even begun his tournament career. Instead of crumbling in a mass of desperation tactics, which so often happens when there is a need to overcome such a disadvantage, the Californians played on steadily and often brilliantly, first stemming the tide, then nibbling away at the lead, and finally tearing off huge chunks of it. When the fifth and final 32-deal session began, they found themselves only eight I MPs behind. And at the conclusion of that session, one of the most exciting ever played, the Californians were the winners by 12 IMPs, 356-344.

The Mathe team emerged from the playing rooms for a brief victory celebration, then met again behind closed doors with nonplaying Captain Lee Hazen to discuss the selection of a third pair to supplement their team at the World Championship. Although a four-man team is adequate for a relatively short tournament, experience has shown that even the youngest and strongest of players can become fatigued by the demands of day-in and day-out world title competition.

While the victors were caucusing, the stunned losers remained closeted in another room, going over their scores and trying to figure out what had happened. Of one thing they were certain: neither of their pairs would be chosen to join the winners. Mathe's long feud with both Rubin and Feldesman, dating back to the 1966 World Championship, precluded any chance that Mathe would consider playing on a team that included either one of them. In the end the choice fell upon Edgar Kaplan of New York and Norman Kay of Philadelphia, who played together in two previous world championships. The Canadian duo, Eric Murray and Sammy Kehela, whom I had predicted as the likely selection (SI, Oct. 12), was named as the alternate pair.

Strangely enough, neither the Mathe nor the Feldesman team had won the major qualifying events for the playoffs, the 1970 Vanderbilt and Spingold team championships. The Vanderbilt winners, who included Kaplan-Kay and Murray-Kehela, lost to the Californians in the semifinal playoffs held in New York in September. At the same time, the Feldesman foursome eliminated the team of young New York area experts that had gained national attention by beating the Dallas Aces in the final match of the Spingold.

But there is no doubt that America will be well represented in Taiwan. The Dallas Aces have qualified automatically, being defending world champions. And all but two (Swanson and Walsh) of this second team to which North America is entitled this year are experienced world championship contenders. So America has two shots at the title.

During the recent playoff, considerable attention was paid to what is called a three-way two bid. This invention by Ira Rubin, who is a computer expert as well as a bridge master, played an important role throughout the match. Ely Culbertson, the early genius of contract bridge, had always been thwarted in his quest for a special bid that would upset opponents. At one time he tried a two-way three bid—it could be either strong or weak—but this proved unwieldy. Rubin has evolved his even more complex three-way two bid by using a transfer principle not yet thought of in Culbertson's day. A Rubin opening bid of two in any suit may mean: 1) a reasonably strong hand containing the suit named; 2) a powerhouse no-trump hand; or 3) a weak, preemptive-type hand with length in the suit ranking just above the suit named. Early in the match the bid gained 10 IMPs for the New York team on the deal shown.

In the closed room, Swanson opened the North hand with three hearts, and everyone else passed. He did not try the heart finesse, conceding a trick to West's queen in order to prevent a possible fatal ruff in diamonds, and just made his contract.

When Rubin opened the North hand with two diamonds, the audience watching the open-room play via Vu-Graph immediately recognized the bid as Ira's pet. Both Krauss, who overcalled with three clubs, and Westheimer, who made the otherwise mysterious bid of three hearts, interpreted Rubin's opening bid as showing a weak preemptive-type hand with length in hearts. Mat he raised his partner's club bid to four, whereupon Rubin confirmed the diagnosis by continuing to the heart game, which Mathe doubled. Since Westheimer had been the first to name the heart suit, he was the declarer.

East look his ace and king of clubs and shifted to a diamond, won by West with the king when South finessed his queen. Declarer won the spade return and finessed his 8 of hearts—a play that would have been technically correct even if West had not doubled and revealed the location of the trumps. (Mathematically, the odds are greater that West holds four hearts including the queen than that East holds the queen alone, which would be the only case where cashing a high heart before finessing would gain against an immediate finesse.) When the 8 held the trick, Westheimer finessed again and had no trouble making the rest of the tricks and his contract. The New Yorkers scored a net gain of 450 points.

Later in the match—in fact, only 11 deals Horn the finish—Rubin's three-way two bid cropped up again, this time lowing a strong hand in the suit bid. It was a deal that was destined to provide the Californians with the 12 IMPs that in the end would represent their exact margin of victory, though it was the aggressive bidding of the Californians rather than any flaw in the New Yorker's two-bid that made the difference in the result.

At first glance it would seem that a club lead could defeat the contract; East could win with the ace, give his partner an immediate club ruff, and later the defenders could collect either the heart king or the queen of clubs, or both. But if declarer is careful to finesse his jack on the second club lead, he can limit the opponents to just two tricks. Declarer can win a heart shift with his ace, fell West's spade jack on the first trump lead and enter dummy with the 10 of spades to take the now proven club finesse. Dummy's remaining heart can then be discarded on the club king, after which declarer's heart loser can be ruffed with dummy's last trump.

When Swanson selected the heart king rather than his club as his opening, he made the lead that could set the contract. Westheimer won with the ace, drew trumps in two rounds and cashed the ace of diamonds. He then led a heart to West's queen, giving the defenders a chance to go wrong by leading two rounds of clubs. Instead, Swanson exited with a diamond, dummy's jack forcing East's king. Declarer ruffed, entered dummy with the spade 10 and discarded a club on the good diamond queen. But it was of no avail. On the club lead from dummy, East could afford to duck—or go up with the ace and exit with a heart. Either way, South was forced to give up two club trick for minus 100.

At the other table, Krauss had opened the South hand with two clubs, the conventional forcing bid on a strong hand Feldesman-Grieve, sitting East-West competed to four hearts, then allowed South to play at four spades. Krauss won the opening lead of the heart king drew trumps and eventually made his contract, losing two clubs and one heart. The combined loss for the New Yorkers was 720 points and that, as it turned out, was the match.

The question that now arises is what will happen in Taiwan? The French have won the European Championship and will be strong contenders for the world title. The Australians, who will be competing in the World Championship for the first time, finished first in the Far Eastern Championship and will also be a threat, But America has two teams, each of them powerful enough to be considered the favorite. Hopefully one of them will bring home the Bermuda Bowl.

ILLUSTRATION

East-West vulnerable West dealer

NORTH

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

WEST

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

SOUTH

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

EAST

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

WEST
(Mathe)

PASS
4 [Club]
DBL.

NORTH
(Rubin)

2 [Diamond]
4 [Heart]
PASS

EAST
(Krauss)

3 [Club]
PASS
PASS

SOUTH
(Westheimer)

3 [Heart]
PASS
PASS

Opening lead: 2 of clubs

North-South vulnerable North dealer

NORTH

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

WEST

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

SOUTH

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

EAST

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

NORTH
(Rubin)

PASS
PASS
5 [Spade]

EAST
(Walsh)

PASS
4 [Heart]
PASS

SOUTH
(Westheimer)

2 [Spade]
4 [Spade]
PASS

WEST
(Swanson)

3 [Heart]
5 [Heart]
PASS

Opening lead: king of hearts

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)