Thursday, June 16, 2011

Placing at Saratoga

Monday and Tuesday of this week I was in Saratoga Springs NY, noted for its healing waters, fast horses, and a revolutionary war battle—alliteratively encapsulated in city promotional guides as "health, history, and horses."

This quaint town (pop 26,000 and change) is about 35 miles north of Albany and hosts an annual regional bridge tournament, which was the real reason I was there. (I know that lots of people love horse racing, but I just never saw the appeal of watching animals—or cars for that matter—run around in a circle.)

Over the span of 27 hours, I got to play 96 hands of cards with an old friend, Cecil Scheib, who also happens to be one of my favorite bridge partners. What a terrific way to while away the days between my consulting gig in Berlin MA and my participation at this weekend's national cohousing conference in DC.

The only glitch in this otherwise idyllic plan was the need to roar back to the Big Apple after the last hand was played Tuesday night, so that Cecil could sleep in his own bed and be ready to go for a 9 am meeting at New York University (where he is the Director of Sustainability). Because of the logistical shenanigans involved with a rented car that needed to be turned back to Avis in New Jersey, we had to negotiate not-one-but-two commuter trains at 2 am to get within walking distance of Cecil's 5th St efficiency in the East Village. (I'm telling you, this sustainability business is not suited for those who are squeamish about public transportation.)

By the time we (finally) entered his apartment, made up the air mattress, split the last cold beer in his refrigerator, and talked ourselves down enough to be able to go to sleep, it was 3:30 am. Ufda. So we were both operating Wednesday on short rations of sleep.

It seemed to me the alarm went off only an instant after I had set sail for the Land of Nod. After abbreviated morning ablutions, we hugged goodbye on the sidewalk outside the apartment and Cecil headed west for his morning meeting while I headed east to start my trek to DC. I retraced my steps to the subway stop, bought a Metra card, caught the northbound F train to 34th St, schlepped one block to Penn Station, grabbed a cup of coffee, took Amtrak's northeast regional train to DC, caught the Red Line for Silver Spring, walked the last mile to my digs in DC, and took a nap. Whew. Vacations at that pace that can flat take the starch out of a fella.

• • •
Trial by Cards
Still, it was worth it. It had been two years since I'd played in a bridge tournament (and more than four since I'd played with Cecil), and it was great getting back on the bicycle.

We had a choice of playing in a pairs game or trying to pick up partners for a bracketed knockout game that would run for four sessions. Rolling the dice, we opted for the knockouts and filled out a card at the partnership table (where the organizers try to match you with players in the same ballpark regarding masterpoints). Ten minutes before the opening bell, we were paired with Loretta and Elaine from the nearby area.

As none of us were that accomplished, we were placed in the bracket with the least masterpoints and away we went. The format is fairly straight forward. There are 16 teams in a bracket and you play 24 hands head-to-head against another team. If you lose, you get knocked out (hence the clever name); if you win, you advance to the next round. After four rounds of this, there is only one team left standing and they earn a boatload of masterpoints (which have no value whatsoever in this Vale of Tears, excepting the prestige you garner in the arcane world of duplicate bridge—as my father was wont to say, all those masterpoints and $3 will buy you a good cup of coffee).

We started off rather rocky, as Cecil and I scraped some rust off our game. Halfway through our opening contest we were down 28 points, and were thus facing a steep hill to overcome in the next 12 boards, or suffer the ignominy of being knocked out in the opening round (which, of course, half the teams were going to be—but surely it wouldn't happen to us, would it?)

Fortunately, our opponents had a bidding accident and botched an easy slam that our partners converted, and we roared back in the second half with 41 points to overcome our deficit and advance to Round Two.

The next morning we were at it again, and once more we fell into an early hole—though not so deep this time. Were down a modest three points at the halfway break. And once again, it was slam management in the second half that spelled the difference. We picked the right strain on a vulnerable diamond slam and they missed a lay-down heart slam that our partners didn't. Those two boards produced a 29-point swing and we won by a comfortable 22.

That got us into the semi-finals which guaranteed us gold points (each person needs 25 gold as part of the 300 points necessary to achieve Life Master status and only the only way to earn gold is by placing well in regional and national tournaments. In knockout events, only the four teams reaching the semi-finals earn gold. Thus we'd already had a successful tournament and and there were still two rounds in front of us!

Of course, by this time, the competition was getting stiffer as well. In the afternoon session we played against Tonette and Glady. Unlike the prior two rounds, we had a solid opening half this time, and would have had a commanding lead if I hadn't overreached on a club slam and dropped 10 points on the final hand. Oh well, we still led by 12 points at half, and then salted away the victory in the second half by miraculously converting a heart slam off three aces. Cecil referred to this gem as our Mr McGoo hand. Here's how it went.

I have:
spades: K x
hearts: K Q J x x x
diamonds: K J x x x
clubs: void

Cecil has:
spades: x
hearts: A x x
diamonds: Q x x
clubs: K Q J x x x

We got excited about our heart fit, and I started thinking slam. When I asked for aces using Roman Key Card Blackwood, Cecil indicated he had one or four key cards. Since I'm aceless, I figured he had four and I bid six hearts. Of course, as it turned out, we were missing three aces and things didn't not look so good, excepting that the opening lead was providentially the ace of clubs. I neatly ducked this, roughed it in hand, drew trump in three rounds ending on the board, and all the clubs in the Western Hemisphere came raining down upon the heads of the frustrated defense. I only lose the ace of diamonds and it was 13 more points our way. Sometimes, the stars are just aligned right.

In the final, we ran out of magic and lost by 25 points to a solid quartet from the local area. They clearly outplayed us and deserved to win, yet it was still a great run, and Loretta & Elaine were thrilled to each get 3.95 gold points.

Cecil and I are already scheming about where to find the next alignment of our schedules, such that we both have a free weekend, and are conveniently near to both each other and a bridge tournament. Next time, we don't want to just have a good showing, or to merely place; we want to win!

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