Not so long ago, just before the pandemic, when bridge guys enjoy meeting face-to-face and playing and discussing together…
“Would you like to join me in the tournament tomorrow?”
Well, he asked her, finally. All in one breath, taking advantage of the fact that they were watching side by side, head up, the results of the tournament just ended projected on the giant screen. With his nose in the air, he didn’t have to look at her face. He couldn’t have done otherwise, to overcome that damned shyness, which paralyzed him every time he had the intention to ask her.
“I’m sorry, I can’t,” she replied, without even taking a look at him, as if she were speaking to the light board, which mercilessly reported results, as far as he was concerned, certainly not brilliant.
He had to expect it. After all, the next day was a special date, February 14, Valentine’s Day. And to say that precisely for this reason he had taken courage and asked her. But what did he hope? Probably for that day she was certainly already engaged, even if from what he had known asking around, with much circumspection, she did not have any stable sentimental bond, at least unofficial.
He was so immersed in these thoughts, between the bewildered and the disappointed, that he almost jumped when she continued, always looking at the board in front of her, “Tomorrow afternoon I have an appointment. With a girlfriend of mine” almost she wanted to clarify. Then, she turned and looked at him straight in his eyes, “If you want, we can have the tournament tomorrow night.” He was dumbfounded, so much so that she hurried to add, “But if you can’t, never mind, it will be for another time.” He quickly mumbled something at the billboard address, about the results, he apologized, he didn’t quite understand.
When he emerged from the confused state, he realized that they had already settled for the next evening. Then, she had to run away and there was no time to talk about anything else.
Wait and hope
The evening tournament the next day was about to begin, and he, sitting at the table, looked alternately at the entrance of the room and his cell’s dial, a bit to check the time and a bit in the hope
that it rang. “But did they exchange the phone numbers?” Now that he was thinking about it, it seemed not to.
While the boards and the scores were being distributed, he had lost all hope and had come to the conclusion that maybe he had misunderstood their arrangements, or she had some sudden impediment or, even if painful to recognize that, she had just stood him up.
Hang on, ye of little faith!
She suddenly appeared down the hall. He almost didn’t recognize her, accustomed to seeing her always in jeans and T-shirt with her hair up. She was gorgeous: a red dress just tight, maybe a little too light for that stiff February, and a cascade of blond hair that framed her face and big black eyes, and fell a little messy on her shoulders. He felt guilty, a little for not having had confidence, a little because he had not really thought about it, to wear something elegant, all taken from that appointment too long desired.
At the table
She quickly reached him at the table, apologizing for arriving so late, but he had spent all afternoon with her friend and had barely had time to have a snack and change clothes.
“What do we play?” they wondered almost in unison. He quickly filled out the convention card, waiting, as he went along, for her approval or some suggestion. In the end they transcribed the usual system that played almost all at their Club: five-card majors, four-card Diamonds, Short Clubs, also with only 2 cards and strong Notrump, strong 2 level openings and 2 Clubs forcing manche and ace asking.
A bit “old-fashioned” but it was fine, with the usual conventions for Aces and Kings and a standard Stayman. Everything else “spontaneously” natural, they said laughing.
Destiny favored them, leaving her in South and him in North, to look for each other with the looks and to exchange those few jokes allowed by the short breaks during the board changes.
For the first half of the tournament the boards passed without infamy and praise. Supposedly average hands alternated with some good results and someone else not exciting. She proved to be technically more skilled, but to tell the truth, while trying to keep maximum attention to the game, both were not at all interested in the results. A kind of indecipherable understanding had been established between them, which gradually increased and seemed to become deeper with each hand.
The fateful Board n.14
At their table had arrived a couple who regularly attended the Club and who knew well. He, a very good old-fashioned player, a bit harsh but never arrogant and always willing to give advice and explanations, and she, also an excellent player, his usual partner.
After the ritual pleasantries, just to break the ice he commented: “Here is the board of Valentine’s Day” and looked into her eyes, as if to emphasize.
Love all, it was up to East, the expert, who passed.
She opened 1 Club, alerted, but no one asked for explanations, and he held up:
AKJ AJ7 AQ542 74
There was a smell of Slam and perhaps not only a Small Slam.
It was silly to jump, cutting levels, so he preferred to announce 1, waiting for developments. 2 she replied.
At this point he really did not know which way to turn. Jump to 6 Notrump? Ask for aces? What he needed was more detailed information about the fit between the two hands for a possible Grand. He decided to make a forcing bid, which did not compromise anything and bid 2 He got an unexpected 3.
He tried to imagine her hand: long Clubs (they had been repeated), no fit in Diamonds (2 cards?), no stopper in Spades, a good support to Hearts, but not 4 cards because she could have announced them at level one.
“Well, let’s cut the head off the snake, without so many ruffles.” he said in his mind. He knew that he could close directly in 6NT, like probably the rest of the field, but it was the best contract? There could also have been 6 Clubs or 6 Diamonds and not 6NT, or even a Grand Slam. He didn’t want to miss the chance to make a good impression. And then he liked to prolong that bidding duet.
There should have been at least 32-33 HCP and 2 five-card suits suitable for development, enough for a slam, and first or second round controls in all suits. It was just a question of whether there was the Small or the Grand Slam. But where?
Then he began, almost like an automatism, to ask the Aces, even if not very convinced that it was the right way.
On his 4 NT he received the discounted answer of 5 Diamonds, one ace. Could he still straighten things out with some impromptu bid? He saw no way out. Resigned asked the number of King with 5 NT. He didn’t know what he was expecting, but the answer was rather disappointing: 6 Hearts, two kings. Of course, an opening with only AK-K seemed a bit light also when not vulnerable. But even if the Kings had been three, he realized he had no grounds to decide for a Grand Slam. In fact, on second thought, maybe it was better that there were only two kings. There could be six clubs more or less solid and the king and queen of Hearts, but even so the Grand depended on too many favorable factors, such as the complete autonomy of Clubs, or a 3-3 split, and a finesse, to be guessed in Diamonds or Spades, to reach 13 tricks.
However, the No trump Small Slam should have had a good chance of success.
They had to settle.
What may go wrong?
That’s when the little bridge devil had a hand in it. Maybe he had thought too much, maybe he was too excited and not only for the Slam, the fact was that without realizing it, as hypnotized, he drew and deposited before him, instead of the 6NT bidding card… that of 7!
The left opponent quickly passed, and he watched the other pass green cards go down, as in slow motion, in front of his partner and his right opponent.
He held his breath, waiting for the opening lead that would have decreed his debacle.
This was South’s hand: 32 KQ10 987 AK653
After East’s Pass, she had decided to open with 1, although her hand was a bit light. She had a five-card suit easy to establish and 2 or 3 defensive tricks. She hoped for a quick contract in NT. But she had underestimated the difficulties of a rebid.
On the reply of 1, because of the absence of a four-card major and no stopper in Spades, since Diamonds could even be only four cards, she found nothing better than to repeat her Clubs.
She received a 2, forcing reverse, which further complicated her life.
Partner’s Diamonds could still be four and her support of 3 spots really too poor. To bid NT without a stopper in Spades was excluded. To repeat again Clubs would have been excessive with only 5 cards, even if headed by Ace and King. She could have bid 2, fourth suit forcing, but the purpose was vague to her. It was obvious that he was investigating to get more information about her hand and maybe it was better to support Harts, showing where she had points, sure not to fool him on their 4-card length already denied on the first turn.
She proceeded answering diligently the asking for Aces and Kings, and was somewhat surprised to see her partner’s 7. She was rather expecting a conclusion in NT.
She remained for few moments perplexed and undecided, but she could not think too much about it, even to avoid giving rise to suspicions of looking for some illicit help. She quickly recapitulated the bidding and was convinced that they were probably playing in a 4-3 fit, of which his teammate was well-aware, and that he wanted to exploit in some way the possibilities of ruffing. All she had to do was pass.
The expert on his left, after an imperceptible hesitation, leaned in front of him the opening lead, properly face down, and after the “go ahead” from his partner, turned it face up.
It was… the Queen of Clubs.
A desperate plan
As she showed her cards, he could barely thank, resuming breathing.
These were the two hands:
Dealer East. Neither Vul
|A K J
A J 7
A Q 5 4 2
K Q 10
9 8 7
A K 6 5 3
He tried to impose a calm that he did not possess, avoiding looking directly into her face. She had an expression between the content and the question. Maybe, she perceived that something was wrong. Maybe, it was not a pure lay down contract.
Having recovered some cold blood, he did not give up and tried to set up in some way a possible plan.
There were only 8 top tricks, 2 Spades, 3 Hearts, 1 Diamond and 2 Clubs. If Diamonds and Spades finesses had worked, he would get to ten. Where to find 3 more tricks? To establish the diamond suit was impossible without giving up a trick, while to establish the Club suit, assuming they split 3-3, on the one hand offered only 2 extra tricks, on the other was useless because they would sooner or later be ruffed by the opponents.
In fact, drawing trumps was not really the case, the opponents had more.
But a glimmer of hope made its way into the fog.
The only viable alternative was to cash all top tricks in side suits, a total of 7 trick including finesses, and realize separately 6 trumps, for a total of 13 tricks.
However, it was necessary to respect the right timing, because the entries to dummy, outside the Hearts, were only two, Ace and King of Clubs, one for finessing in Diamonds and the other for finessing in Spades.
He took in dummy with the Ace of Clubs and immediately finessed in Diamonds. The Queen happily held, so he returned to dummy with the King of Clubs, finessed the Queen of Spades and collected the other two top honors of Spades to discard the third Diamond of the dummy.
We have reached this final, with North on lead:
A J 7
5 4 2
K Q 10
6 5 3
The continuation was quite automatic. He ruffed a Diamond in dummy and presented a Club on the table. West was powerless. Whether she responded (Clubs 3-3) or ruffed with the 8 or 9 of Hearts the declarer would overruffed, would return to dummy ruffing another Diamond and played another Club, proposing the same theme of overruffing.
This was the full deal:
|K Q 10
K 6 4
K 10 6 4
10 8 2
|Q 10 6
9 8 5 4 3
K J 6
|9 8 7 5 4
Q J 10 9
K Q 10
9 8 7
A K 6 5 3
A lot of things had to work – suits’ split, finesses – and so it had been. Only a trump lead would inexorably condemned the Grand Slam, while any other opening lead would allow gaining it, with the same line of play. Twelve tricks were unbeatable, in addition to Hearts, also in Diamonds or Notrump, but only at Hearts you could make 13 tricks, with an opening lead other than a trump.
Things go as they should
While she was transcribing the result, under a column full of 6 Notrump, he could not forget her amazed and admired look at the same time. The satisfaction of having made that Grand Slam was, however, not even remotely comparable to the emotion that her big black eyes had aroused.
The expert went away, while his partner made some comments about the opening leads, the trumps, the “Grand Slam of Valentine’s Day“.
At the end of the tournament, they didn’t stop to wait for the results. It didn’t matter, however it went, they had already won meeting each other.
The tournament director blocked the expert before he left and asked him about that Grand Slam in Hearts. Why had he not led a trump? It was not like him to make a mistake in those circumstances, although the opening lead he had made was certainly not open to criticism.
The expert looked at her sly with a half-smile between the accomplice and the culprit,”On Valentine’s Day things always go as they should” he answered enigmatic, buttoning his coat and going out with his partner.
And our two heroes?
We find them in the pizzeria just outside the Club. Crowded even at that hour by couples of young and not so young guys intent on swallowing pizzas of all kinds and gobbling beer jars in the uncertain light of romantic candles. Two tables further on were also the expert and his companion, who addressed them a nod of greeting, reciprocated, with the glasses just filled with beer.
Few years have passed since that evening, quite a few, but every February 14 there is always a tournament in which they participate, and then a pizza and a beer by candlelight. Inevitably they come to talk about that hand and the unexpected help, convinced by now that it was not a “mistake” that had allowed them to achieve their extraordinary, unforgettable “Grand Slam of Valentine’s Day”.
Ah, I forgot, I didn’t tell you their names: Valentina and Valentino, of course.
If I had told you at the beginning, you wouldn’t have taken me seriously.
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