After a hard trip and a long line, at last the customs inspector called me. He had a nasty-looking face. I promptly showed him my documents: passport, boarding pass, tourist visa, and customs forms. After looking at my passport photo for many seconds, he asked:
“Are you bringing any food or have you been recently on a farm?”
“Are you bringing more than ten thousand dollars?”
“I never saw so much money in my whole life. I have two or three thousand dollars.”
My attempt at flippancy failed. He gazed at me stonily and said:
“How much really do you have, two thousand or three?”
“I don’t know exactly, but my best guess is three thousand.”
He made a discreet signal to a supervisor sitting behind another counter and commanded dryly:
“Take the red line!”
A bad start! There were three lines: red, yellow and green.
In the red one, checking was tightest. A kindlier supervisor began this interview:
“What is the purpose of your visit to U.S.?”
“I’m going to play in a bridge championship, the Fall Nationals at San Francisco.”
“Oh, so you are a bridge pro?”
“Not a professional, but I travel a lot around the world playing bridge. You can see on my passport that . . . ”
“So, Mr. Branco, you are a top-level player?”
“Well, people say that.”
He struck something on his computer keyboard and asked:
“What is Stayman?”
“A convention to ask about major suits when partner opens one notrump.”
“Right! What do you bid with this hand?”
He swiveled the computer’s monitor so that I could see:
A K Q J 10 8 3 A 5 A Q J 6 8.
“I would open two clubs.”
He looked at me suspiciously and announced:
“The computer says that you should open two spades, showing a very strong hand and a good spade suit. Why did you open two clubs with a singleton?”
“Well, bidding two spades would have been done many, many, years ago. Nowadays, that opening shows a weak hand. Modern methods use a two-club opening bid as the unique way to show a very strong hand. Probably the computer’s system is very old-fashioned.”
That was another mistake. Indignantly, he snapped: “Are you saying that my computer is old-fashioned? It’s a Pentium 4 processor with a 4 gigahertz clock, dual-core with hyperthreading technology, 2 GB RAM, Windows Vista Business, and HD.”
“Take it easy, I was talking about the installed bridge software, which needs an update.”
He calmed down and scanned the screen. “Maybe you are right. There is an option for Modern Bridge.” He clicked the mouse, the computer made some noise, and in a few seconds it displayed a blood-red background with MODERN BRIDGE in black, gothic letters.
“Okay,” he resumed, “What do you bid with this hand?” The computer showed:
9 Q 8 4 2 J 9 7 6 3 2 9 2.
“Vulnerable or not?”
“The computer doesn’t say. Are you fooling around?”
“Forget it, I pass.”
“Wrong again! The computer recommends a three-diamond opening bid. It says that recently a very good player from your country used this opening bid with great success. It seems that his name is Villas-Boas—a hard name to say; too many vowels.”
Immediately, I recognized the deal. I had overcalled that three-diamond opening with four clubs on:
A K x x x x x K Q J x x x.
Partner’s four-heart bid ended the auction. The contract went down one with three notrump cold. We lost 11 imps on the board; now, I had been bitten twice by this crazy opening bid. I said:
“Sometimes I’m aggressive, but not that much.”
“What? You are aggressive? Are you threatening me?”
“Aggressive in bridge style.”
He had almost lost his temper. “Mr.Branco, I offer you one last chance. How do you open this hand?” I saw:
Q 2 K J 3 K Q 4 3 2 Q J 2.
A piece of cake, I thought. I can’t go wrong. “One diamond,” I said, loud and clear.
“Wrong yet again! The software says that the same player opened one notrump. As far as I can see, your knowledge about this game is very narrow.”
Good gosh! Another fond memory. Against one notrump — three notrump, I had had to lead from:
10 x x x x x x x x A K 9 x
Trying to avoid giving away a trick, I led a heart. Dummy had ace-queen fourth, ace-third in the red suits, so declarer took nine tricks when we could have taken at least the first seven in the black suits. A little frightened, I asked:
“Well, what will happen to me?”
“There is nothing I can do for you. You’ll be directed to the Bridge Sector. Since 9/11 we need to be very careful, you know. Eric and Jeff, the best bridge partnership among customs officials in the entire country, are in charge of this new branch. They are the right people to evaluate your bridge expertise.
“Eric Rodwell and Jeff Meckstroth?”
“No, I’m talking about Eric Meckinthroat and Jeff Stickwell, known informally as Stickinthroat. They make a very tough pair to play against.”
I was escorted to a quiet room. Soon, a tall guy dressed in jeans and a white T-shirt, came in. “Hi, I’m Jeff,” he said.
“Eric will interview you separately. It’s my job to squeeze you, Mr. Branco.”
After some routine questions about Michaels, Roman Blackwood, Landy, DONT, Cappelletti, and a few obscure conventions, he got around to something that seemed to pique his interest.
South dealer East-West vulnerable
Q 4 2
K J 10 5 3 2
A K 10 9 3
K 10 2
A K 7 5 3
“Eric should have bid three hearts over three diamonds,” he explained, “and I would have bid three notrump, but sometimes he does these things.”
“But four spades looks very likely to make,” I offered.
“Wait! West led the heart jack to East’s ace and ruffed the return. He shifted to the diamond jack, and East ruffed!”
“Unbelievable!” I said.
“On the third heart, West ruffed and dummy overruffed. Assuming that East has the ace of clubs for his vulnerable overcall, there are two ways of making the contract. If East also held the club queen, there was a double ruffingfinesse: club king, ace, ruff; spade to dummy; club jack, queen, ruff; draw trumps; back to dummy with the queen of diamonds to cash a club. But if West held the queen of clubs, I could play club king, ace, ruff; then high trumps to reach:
J 10 5
10 9 8 6
A K 7 5
“The last trump would complete the transfer squeeze. Of course, I played for the squeeze, but it didn’t work because East had the queen of clubs. Now Eric is picking on me, saying it was obvious that East had the queen for his overcall, and that I’m always showing off, trying to do something fancy on every deal.
He can be a very bad guy. Don’t you think it was merely a guess?”
Skating on thin ice, I said: “Well, you told me that you like to squeeze people, but why not play the club ten or jack of clubs first. It would be very hard for East to play low with ace-queen.”
With a jolt, he realized the value of this tactic. Staring at me and shaking, he begged: “Please don’t say a word to Eric! I’ll get your entry visa cleared.”
A few minutes after Jeff left, a man with a thin moustache, a serious face, and a wary look entered. “Hi,” he said; “I’m Eric. This is the second part of the examination.”
He started with questions about some elementary card combinations. As the ice was broken, he relaxed; like any bridge player, he, too, was soon complaining about his partner. Jeff’s ears were probably burning.
“Jeff pushes too much,” he said.
“The very worst is when I go down in some crazy contract he bid or induced me to bid; then he says that I didn’t play well, that I’m a weak card-player. Sometimes, he is very rude. Look at this deal we played yesterday:
East dealer Neither side vulnerable
4 3 2
J 8 4 2
A K 5 3
K Q 10 9 8 7
K J 5 3
“West’s double showed hearts, so two hearts was a strong spade raise. Imagine my astonishment when I saw the dummy: weak in high cards and weak in trumps. West led the ace and another spade; East dropped the jack, then pitched a club.
I needed two tricks from hearts, from either high cards or a ruff. The bidding marked East with the ace of hearts. My choices were to play East for the ace-queen of hearts by leading through him twice, or to play East for ace-doubleton or tripleton of hearts and keep West off lead until I had ruffed a heart in dummy.
“I crossed to dummy’s club ace and played a heart to East’s ten and my king. I crossed to dummy again in clubs and led another heart. East played the six, I played the jack, and West took the queen to play a third round of trumps: down one.
“What was the exact heart distribution?” I asked.
“East had ace-ten-six.”
“The defense was brilliant; it was the only chance to defeat the contract. Who are these guys?”
“Our regular teammates, Paul Samman and Bob Holiday. Sam means surface-to-air missile, and man needs no explanation; if you relax against him, you are immediately shot down.
Holiday plays so effortlessly that he seems always to be on vacation. But against this defense I cannot make the contract, right?
Thoughtfully, I said: “If you had followed low when East played the ten, . . .” I began. Very quickly, he grasped the implications of that approach.
“Stop! Please, say nothing to Jeff!
Let me process your green card immediately.”
Very soon, I had my documents back, all stamped in the appropriate places. I ran across the tarmac, barely catching my connecting flight to San Francisco, off to meet the real Eric and Jeff, and many other bridge friends, knowing that the story there could be quite different.
Marcelo Castello Branco (born 1945) is a Brazilian bridge player from Rio de Janeiro. Among other successes, he was the winner of World Team Olympiad in Monte Carlo 1976, Bermuda Bowl in Perth 1989, and World Open Pairs Championship in New Orleans 1978 and Geneva 1990. He is one of 10 players to achieve the Triple Crown of Bridge and the only player to have won the World Pairs twice – in Geneva with his most frequent partner Gabriel Chagas and in New Orleans with Gabino Cintra.