Those judges who recently declared bridge not to be a sport hadn’t a clue. It’s a veritable pentathlon, beginning with the slalom down the stairs because there are only two lifts for 200 people who can’t all use them at once (it is a well-known fact that if breakfast finishes at n o’clock, bridge players regardless of race, age or gender arrive at n minus thirty seconds and then moan about the hotel). The 400 metres dash to the playing area (or the 1200 metres dash if when you get there you’ve forgotten your badge) is conducted in 35-degree heat and a thousand per cent humidity. Once inside the narrow entrance a new event, the 10-metre shove to reach the playing area, requires teamwork and determination of which the Pontypool front row would be proud. The steeplechase, involving leaping over carts of boards to reach your table, is made more difficult because the obstacles are actually moving around. And finally, you have to play some bridge.
The England under-26 women started against China, where bridge is a major sport and who hold the Venice Cup. The opening exchanges were even, but the host nation won the first big swing when an increasingly common problem nowadays reared its head: how do you bid clubs?
Your hand, in second position at favourable vulnerability, is 2 AK52 A10 KJ10972 and dealer to your right opens 1C, which may be a doubleton. What plan of action do you make?
Of course, you could overcall 2C if you play that way. If you don’t and you pass, so does LHO and partner, as partners will, protects not with double but with 1S. Pass on the right. Now what?
You don’t still play 2C as a cuebid, do you? If you do, you’ll never bid clubs. Besides, you don’t need 2C as a cuebid – use 2D or 2H instead. Those bids can’t be natural, since you didn’t bid over 1C, so they can be used to show spade support while 2C can be reserved for the otherwise impossible task of showing… you’ve guessed it, clubs.
England made a complete Horlicks of the auction, reaching five spades on a 5-1 fit and going four down against 3NT with overtricks at the other table. Losing a dozen silly IMPs early in a match against a strong team, on your world championship debut, can be a pretty unnerving experience for a young pair. But to their considerable credit that young pair regained the swing with interest on the next board by playing in a superior game contract, then put together a near-faultless run of scores for the rest of the match. There weren’t many swings, because the standard was high, but those there were left England winners by 8 IMPs – a fine start.
Indonesia is another country where bridge is a serious sport. Their women won a silver medal in the Venice Cup in 2011, eliminating England at the semi-final stage, and their junior pairs were playing some heavy-duty stuff in the system department. But England struck the first big blow on the second board by making a tricky vulnerable game, and the second bigger blow a few deals later when South, who had a balanced 25-count, heard her opponents bid first to 3NT which she doubled and then to 4H which she doubled more loudly. The resulting 1700 penalty won 16 IMPs against 3NT by the side that could make it at the other table, and though Indonesia fought back as one expects a good team to do, England won by 10 IMPs – an even finer start.
Chinese Taipei were our final opponents for the day – they had not amassed many VPs in their first two matches, but in the corridor after the second match one of their captains was administering one of the finest boll… er, harangues I have ever witnessed to his hapless players. Only the fact that I was close to the actual playing area (a gymnasium floor – bridge is a sport) prevented me from filming it on the mobile for playing to our team if they ever think Sally and I are getting a bit uppity. The treatment may have met with limited success, because the Chinese Taipei team improved its average against us – but not by much, and a 22-IMP win rounded off a successful day.