by Michael Arnowitt
In March of 1996 I decided to drop by the Philadelphia Nationals for two days. I had a music conference on Beethoven to go to in New York City, and since Philadelphia is relatively close by and I had never been to a national before, I thought I'd play bridge for one day and kibitz some of the stars for the other day.
Those of you who follow bridge personalities are no doubt familiar with the name Zia. That's right -- just Zia, everyone refers to him by one name, like "Cher" or "Odetta" or other one-name superstars of the entertainment world. And in many ways, Zia styles himself as a performer, an entertainer. He loves the spotlight and he loves the game -- and his undeniable charisma generates some excitement every time he sits down at a bridge table.
Obviously I wanted to kibitz Zia, and even better was the fact that he had been playing on a very strong and successful team that included Michael Rosenberg (originally from Scotland, now in the New York area) and Chip Martel of California, currently my favorite bridge player.
Zia grew up in Pakistan, but now lives in New York. He plays bridge in a very eccentric manner -- my friend Steve Bean told me that Zia and his partner never alert any bids because everyone knows that Zia may not have what he says on any bid. Zia is also fond of leading Q from Qxx against slams and all sorts of other naughty things that you’re not supposed to do. He has a tremendous imagination -- where bridge experts usually win by avoiding mistakes, Zia makes things happen (for better or worse).
The major event at the Spring Nationals (although to call early March in Philadelphia "spring" was certainly pushing it) is called the Vanderbilt. Vanderbilt was the man who invented the scoring system for contract bridge back in the twenties, and even invented a bidding system way back then using 1 Club as a strong and artificial bid.
The Vanderbilt is a marathon "knockout" event that goes on for days, structured like a tennis tournament. Each team of 4-6 players (Zia’s team had 5) plays another team in an extended match. If you win, you move on to the next round; if you lose, you’re knocked out of the Vanderbilt.
The day I kibitzed was the second day of the Vanderbilt, so we were still fairly near the beginning stages of the event, where the top teams get easier opponents (just as in a tennis tournament, they try to set it up so the best teams face each other in the final rounds for maximum drama). Zia sat out the first quarter so I sat behind Michael Rosenberg as he partnered Seymon Deutsch.
As I pulled up a chair, I heard Rosenberg lecture Deutsch, "now remember, 1 NT - pass - 2C (Stayman) - you double, that’s a good hand, not clubs! Just a good hand!" Deutsch, a very impassive man, doesn’t say much as Rosenberg goes over a few other points at the last minute while everyone's shuffling cards.
This is bridge at the top? They're trying to add conventions and understandings 30 seconds before they start to play? Hey, I know this scene -- just like any old club in Vermont five minutes before game time! Of course, I’d never heard of doubling a Stayman bid as showing general values (high cards) instead of lead-directing. Maybe it's a good idea, especially against a weak 1 NT.
Not much happens in the first quarter. These folks claim a lot, and nobody makes a big deal if you don't spell out your claims. On one hand Deutsch rebids a club suit and ends up in a club slam. He just claims after about 5 tricks by spreading his hand on the table, not saying a word. Rosenberg's upset, though -- "you need six clubs to rebid the suit, six!" He's right, but you'd think he would be happy to make a slam.
The teacher-pupil relationship continues. Rosenberg leads back a low diamond for Deutsch to ruff, but Deutsch doesn't return a club back. Wow. So Rosenberg lectures Deutsch about suit-preference signals. This is the famous Vanderbilt? Rosenberg has to admit, though, that Deutsch's return worked out better than what he had signalled for.
Deutsch is a big Texan and just sits there and takes it. Well, Michael Rosenberg is considered one of the very best bridge players in the world. Anyway, it's an interesting dynamic, and revealing -- Rosenberg didn't care about getting a good result on a particular board: it's partnership understandings that count. That's how you win in the long run.
My big moment as a kibitzer comes when Rosenberg, who is dummy, leaves the table and I am called into service to turn dummy's cards. Steve Bean mentioned to me this might happen and I am prepared. It's not so exciting, really.
On the second quarter Zia is back (maybe he likes to stay out late and needed to sleep in?) and is partnering Chip Martel for this quarter. Being a five-person team, they switch off partnerships a bit, although normally Zia plays with Rosenberg and Chip Martel plays with Lew Stansby. Martel has written that the quarters where he partners Zia have often been "dangerous" for the team. We'll see.
Chip comes into the room first and sits down in the seat in front of mine, which is fine by me (as I said, he’s my favorite player) but when Zia comes into the room he kicks Chip over to the other side of the table, so I'll be kibitzing Zia after all. He gives Chip no explanation as to why, but I suspect it's that I'm the only kibitzer at the moment and Zia, as I said before, likes the attention.
I expect them to tell their opponents the bit about not alerting any bids because Zia psyches so much, but they don’t. I guess Zia's reputation is so great it's common knowledge.
The very first board out of the box illustrates the possibly explosive nature of their partnership.
I'm looking over Zia's hand, which is: Qxxxx xx AKxx Qx
They concoct the following auction, with lots of hesitations:
| Chip ||Zia|
| 2 NT||3|
| 3||4 NT|
The opponents are looking truly bewildered by now, and that makes five of us. Apparently, as Zia explained later, they play a convention where his 3C rebid forces 3D (I think this is called Wolff, after Bobby Wolff), and then if Zia had followed with 3 NT it would show five spades and given Chip a choice of games. So he made up on the spot this new idea: bid 3C, forcing 3D, and then bid 4 NT, saying: I've got five spades and a quantitative slam invitation.
Well, this is pretty confusing, especially since I thought in his book Zia says he always plays 4 NT as Blackwood (though maybe not with this particular partner). Chip's 5C response might be some sort of key-card response to Blackwood (but what’s the suit?) and after Zia's strange 5H bid Chip goes into a huddle, as well he might.
I can feel everyone thinking around the table -- is Zia trying to get out at 5 NT? There is a very old and discarded idea that if you bid a new suit suddenly at the 5-level, you're ordering your partner to bid 5 NT, which you will pass. Experts don't need such escape maneuvers. So what was 5H? Sounds like some sort of cue-bid but I guess he meant it as "keeping the ball rolling, pard" and allowing for all possible final contracts.
Clearly it was a nutty bid and Martel put the ball squarely back in Zia's court by responding 6C. Now it was Zia's turn to "tank" and after much time has gone by he finally gives up and passes!
This is amazing -- how can he pass with just Qx trump support! Might they not have had a colossal mix-up, Chip thinking Zia's 3C bid showed club support way back when?
The opening lead is the Ace of hearts and Zia tables his modest dummy, explaining his brainstorm to Chip. Chip has the sort of pleasant attitude that people nicknamed "Chip" often have. Like certain scientists I've met (or think of Sherlock Holmes), he seems to get an intellectual kick out of the game; his personality lights up on an challenging hand, something new and interesting.
So despite the wandering, crazed auction he doesn't seem down (or maybe he's used to Zia by now). The lead of the ace of hearts has made his king good, which is nice, and he upon taking the lead plays Zia's queen of trump and then the little one back to his A and K. Trumps split 3-2, which means all Chip's club bids were natural (he had six) and Zia remarks after Chip plays the K of trump, "so it's not such an inhumane contract..."
Finally, near the end of the hand Chip leads the Q of spades off the dummy and when it isn't covered he goes up with his A and wins his twelfth trick with some smallish heart. There’s some conversation between Chip and the defenders, confirming that the opening leader was the victim of a triple squeeze. Nicely done.
Zia is relieved, of course, and the match continues. Obviously after a confused auction like that one deserves a bad board, and Zia knows it, but these guys are just too good -- like cats, they can often land on their feet even after slipping and falling.
Most of us have by now run into bid-boxes, and after about five or six goes at it, we learn to take all the bid cards up to the one we want and make a pile on our left, and then overlap the subsequent bids in similar piles to the right, so that when the auction's done they can all be collapsed in one swift motion and put back in the box. Not Zia! He just takes out each individual bid card from the box and puts it on the table, so when he's done he has to individually fit each bid-card back into the box in the proper location...
Another strange Zia quirk: in the middle of one of the hands Chip mentions to Zia that he has his last turned-over trick oriented the wrong way (a comment that someone in Vermont once told me was illegal to make, but bridge on this exalted level is surprisingly informal), to which Zia says, "I don't do much 'pointing.'" And it's true -- he kind of throws the cards over randomly in front of him.
Halfway through the quarter Zia starts taking out the "Daily Bulletin" when he's dummy. The "Daily Bulletin" is a little tabloid newspaper the ACBL produces for each day of the nationals, full of who won what the day before and the obligatory profiles of personalities past and present ... the sort of thing we plebes might read, but you just sort of assume famous people like Zia wouldn't bother with it. It also seems rude to the opponents to start reading at the table in the middle of a hand, but later Chip starts to glance at it a little when he's dummy and Zia even starts to do a little reading when he's on defense and Chip's thinking about his next play! Well, it is an early round of the Vanderbilt...
It's not long before the Daily Bulletin has been gone through and Zia focuses a little more on the bridge. They make a nice defense against a 4S contract. Apparently Chip makes a suit-preference signal while following suit and Zia switches to the Q from Qxx of hearts, through dummy’s Kxx, to Chip's AJ10. The lead of the Q (rather than a normal low one) ensures three quick tricks in that suit and the declarer compliments them on the defense.
I notice that unlike us down here at the lower levels, Chip didn't say "you did take my 8 as a suit-preference for hearts, right?" as it's obvious Zia got the signal. No further words need be spoken. When we say comments like my hypothetical one above, it only indicates our ego: "I" was responsible for the magnificent defense because of "my" signal. No, defense is a partnership endeavor and at the expert level these folks know all this stuff, so they don't have to say anything after the hand.
The Zia team ends up winning the match by over 100 IMPs, a huge margin. I have to admit from what I kibitzed I did not realize they were winning by that much -- shows you how much I know about bridge -- but I was struck by how patient they were. They didn't try to push and bid every vaguely possible game, as I thought was the norm in expert team games. Maybe because they were the favorites they didn't want to, but in general they just played their cards well and without doing anything particularly brilliant to my eye they kept piling up the IMPs.
Many days later, well after I returned to Vermont, Zia's team emerged victorious, the winners of the Vanderbilt. I do highly recommend kibitzing the top players if you get a chance at some tournament -- try to predict what bid they will make next or what card they will play. It's interesting and fun.
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