Ray Lee

Here’s one for Fred

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Fred is one of my oldest friends, in both senses. He was best man at my wedding forty-two years ago, and we have played bridge together many, many times over the years – as partners, as team-mates, and even as opponents.  Like me, he remembers the golden days of Toronto bridge – at least for us, that’s what they were.

When I arrived from England in 1969, I soon started playing at Kate Buckman’s Bridge Studio – or just ‘Kate’s’ as we all called it.  The characters there were many and varied, as was their bridge ability. Many of them had curious nicknames – the Moo Cow, the Jolly Green Giant, the Shoe, the Owl, the Bambino, the Fish, the Fowl, Black Cloud and so forth.  Many of us were, like me, very young, with an inflated idea of our own ability.  We loved to mess around with new bidding ideas, and play in silly ways just to prove that we could do things like use ‘No Peek’ (a system where you couldn’t look at your cards during the auction), or bid 3NT on every hand, and still win.

We weren’t as good as we thought we were, of course, but we were enough better than many of our opponents to get away with it. Eventually, of course, we encountered players who really could play the game, and most of us mended our ways, becoming interested in playing ‘properly’ and winning in legitimate ways against good opposition.  Several of our coterie back then were talented enough that they went on to play at the world level for Canada.

Bridge on a ShoestringFred was part of that scene forty-plus years ago, which is why he’s going to like Michael Schoenborn’s book, Bridge on a Shoestring. In this, Mike tells of his own adventures at Kate’s and the other bridge clubs in Toronto, and of his eventual epiphany and conversion to ‘proper bridge’.  In the end, he does achieve his goal of playing in the Bermuda Bowl, but you’ll have to read the book to see how that turned out.

The story is told in the third person by the Shoe’s favorite kibitzer, Bungalow Bill Miller.  Here’s an extract that will give you the flavor of it:

The Shoe was a superb natural card player, and like many in his circle, he had little use for textbook bids and plays. The objective was to win, and have fun doing it, rather than to slavishly follow well-trodden paths. Shoe’s inclinations prompted him to reinvent the game, rather than seeking assistance from experts. He particularly disdained the percentage play, reasoning that 52% for the drop against 50% for the finesse paid off one time in fifty, whereas any really good player, himself automatically included, could induce the opponents to make a mistake at least half the time. His goal was fittingly immodest: one day he would play in the Bermuda Bowl. What better place to begin such a journey than at the Hart House Bridge Club?

The first bridge hand that the Shoe ever submitted to The Kibitzer was rejected by its then editor, Sami Kehela, one of the few players who could legitimately lay claim to being possibly even better than Shorty. We have to presume that he considered the story too improbable to publish, or perhaps just not instructive. I can vouch for the hand because I watched it. Justice did not necessarily triumph. Shoe was directing the Hart House game sitting at his usual spot, South at Table 1. He claimed that he had learned from the newspaper bridge columns that South always got the good hands. He picked up, at favorable colors:

8 6   —   4   J 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2

The Shoe’s RHO opened four spades, and Shoe so desperately wanted to bid five clubs that he actually hesitated more than the required ten seconds before passing. His partner on this occasion had been introduced to me as Eric the Half Bee, and I had to wonder how he had ever met up with the Shoe. The Half Bee was an older, silver haired gentleman in a blue suit. Later, it transpired he was a successful engineer whose only shortcoming was a fanatic love of bridge. His success in life and intelligence had not, so far, been transferable to duplicate bridge.

The Half Bee would be bound to assume that a five club bid showed more than a jack. Worse than that from the Shoe’s point of view, if a five club bid proved unsuccessful, the Half Bee would be sure to win the post-mortem discussion. He’d have enough opportunity to do that when he treated the Shoe to another dinner. Reluctantly, the Shoe passed, as did LHO. The Half Bee doubled, RHO passed, and Shoe contributed a modest five clubs, confident that any blame had now safely been transferred to the Half Bee. The five club bid seemed to bring the table to life: LHO bid five diamonds, the Half Bee five hearts, RHO five spades. This was surely what bidding up the line was all about! Once again, the Shoe wanted to bid on, but even he could see no way to justify it. After a pass by LHO, the Half Bee came to the rescue with a bid of five notrump. This was all the excuse Shoe needed: he could win any argument that might possibly ensue. If the heart bid had not promised club tolerance, surely the five notrump bid did? Anyway, holding all the low clubs, where was his hand entry? Accordingly, six clubs by the Shoe, double by LHO, all pass.

Half Bee

 After the opening lead of the Q, Shoe was in a position to make the hand regardless of the location of the A: two rounds of diamonds pitching a spade, followed by a club lead, putting West in a position of yielding a heart trick or a ruff and discard at Trick 4! In case anyone had overlooked the beauty of this hand, the Shoe expressed disappointment with the other two +1090 scores, which probably only occurred because he had the misfortune to find the A with RHO. Shoe persisted with further analysis: even on a diamond lead, declarer in 6 would lose only four tricks for minus 800. Furthermore, 6 would not make from the Half Bee’s hand, as the A could be cashed. As far as I know, this was the first occasion when the Shoe noted that the hand would play at least a trick better from his side, an observation codified in Shoe’s Second Rule of Bridge.

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