Well what an exciting year it's been! So many things have happened to the poorbridge.com team over 2006 that I can't possibly fit them all into this article. It's just as well that I was only asked to write about the interesting stuff, or else my job would have been impossible — and this article would note that Rob has eaten Cornflakes for 78 breakfasts, all up until June, after which it seems he moved on to eating Shredded Wheat in the mornings. Anyway, I'll flag up the most interesting events of our lives so that next time you see us at a congress, or in a road-side cafe, you'll have something to start the conversation with. Unless you're from Bishop Auckland, in which case you can just smack me in the face, or something.
First up, I really have to say a big congratulations to Steve on getting hitched, and clear up some of those rumours that have been going around. She is for real, and there are reasons why very few people have ever seen her. Let me relate the happy events.
A small gathering of friends and family were at Steve's wedding to Bertha. It was a quick courtship, to be sure, and the wedding was the first time any of us had seen her. Sadly, as she had a severe throat infection on the wedding day I haven't had a chance to actually talk to her, but she was more than capable of nodding her head all the way through the church service, and at the appropriate time; I'm sure she is the most excellent of company. Certainly, a mother figure for Fiona and Ann to look up to as they reach their teenage years will be massively influential.
Married life, of course, is never easy, and with Steve now taking over the provision of accommodation of a person under section 7 of the 1978 Mental Health Act, he hasn't had all that much time for playing bridge. As Bertha requires secure accommodation around the clock, even when Steve has made it out he sadly hasn't been able to take his lady with him. The company of Jane, his daughters' teenage governess, has had to suffice on most occasions. Now I understand that this has led to some confusion and tongue wagging in equal measure, but let me be clear: Steve is very much in love with his wife and any public shows of doting on Jane are only possible because he has such a strong and healthy marriage. In any event, I understand that Jane has gone travelling over the past couple of months without keeping in touch, and I know that Steve is more than a little put out, but that's loyalty in the modern age for you. It's especially a pity as Steve had become reliant on her talents and excellent personality over the summer, and could have done with her help after the fire that gutted the family home in late November.
For those of us less lucky in love, we must turn our attention to our glorious editor-in-chief, Michael! Given all the romantic opportunities that must daily present themselves to an officer of the English Bridge Union, it is a mystery to all (except the modest man himself) that he remains single, without even a hint of picking up one of those female thingies. Well, I can reveal to the whole world (ok, the hundred or so folk who read this site) that Michael has been very busy this past year, both at the card table and on the social circuit of Aylesbury!
Michael can tell quite an anecdote after dinner, especially with a glass of '67 vintage port in hand. My favourite story of the year, as Michael tells it, involves a low stakes rubber bridge game (less than a pound a hundred at any rate), where something called Clark's Rule was devised. This is a very specific rule that only applies when both sides have 60 below the line and it runs something along the lines of this:
"When you reach any contract that is worth 40 points, simply pass, and realise that opponents will NEVER let you play there as they might make game with any bid. You may then take a huge penalty."
On the hand in question, Mr. Clark was playing with The General — a retired army man who never held the rank of general — against a fairly sober-looking former student who had the nickname Drunkan for his virtuoso performances over the years at the bar, and the middle aged man only ever referred to as Captain Mammoth. The deal looked like this:
And the auction looked like this:
Michael opened an off shape 1NT, because it was game, and his partner decided to try for a major via Stayman. It was at this point that Michael discovered his rule. Instead of doing what most would consider to be the sensible thing, he decided to pass 2 and await developments. One bent bid deserves another, after all! Drunkan couldn't see past the notion that the general had a garbage stayman hand and Michael held five or six clubs, so felt that a 2 bid had massive merit — it might well make, it might be a great save against the game call. Alas, things were not as they seemed, and when The General made a flexible double (read: no-one had a clue what it was supposed to be), -800 was only a straightforward defence away. And so Clark's rule was born.
Rob, Xebon and the Double Header
The most interesting bridge-related adventure that Rob had in the past year is somewhat overshadowed by the fact that it is really a Xebon story. Sometimes we must settle for reflected glory and I'm sure that if Xebon and I were still talking he would be more than happy for me to tell you the story from Rob's point of view. It was the first round of the Gold Cup and the game was to be played in match rooms at the local club. Xebon turned up fashionably late, 7:15 for a 7:00 start, and apologised for not being able to get away sooner. It seemed that he had spent quite a while thinking about a bridge hand and had lost track of the time.
On the first board, Rob opened a spade and Xebon made a routine raise to 2 before excusing himself from the table, holding:
|K J 7 4 2|
|Q J 10 4 3|
It took Rob quite a while to recognise the Bacon Torpedo position, and was quite annoyed with Xebon for making the bid. Anyway, as the lead was a diamond round to Rob's Ace followed by a diamond ruff, he scrambled eight tricks with no games making, for a 1 IMP shift out. Xebon reappeared as Rob was finishing the play, quite distracted, and asked how anyone could possibly fail to overcall with a 14 count. The second board was gathered, RHO opened 1NT (14-16) and Xebon inserted 2 (both majors) holding:
|J 10 9|
|K Q 6 3|
|A 8 7 4|
The bidding proceeded:
Xebon apologised, but insisted that he had to make an urgent phone call, and left the table. Rob toiled to seven tricks, but fortunately the -100 gained 1 IMP against the +120 for 1NT+1 at the other table.
On the third hand, Xebon passed and LHO opened a precision 1 and Rob inserted the obligatory 2 with J x x x x. RHO doubled, and Xebon raised to 4, holding:
|K 8 6 2|
|Q 8 6 3|
|J 7 6 5|
During the enormous tank that opener went into, Xebon slipped out 'for a coffee' and returned to find precisely 5 waiting to be passed out. It drifted one off on the 4-1 trump break when 4X would have gone for 1100. Inspite of the likely 10 IMP pick up Xebon, rather irritated that declarer had not given up for one off after the trump break had been discovered, suggested that the table was behind time and should play more quickly. Rob bid 1NT (12-14) at favourable and, with only a cursory look at his cards, Xebon tried 3NT which ended the auction. After the lead was faced, he claimed he couldn't bear to watch partner play the hand and scurried off, tabling the following:
|8 4 3 2|
|9 7 5 3|
|J 7 6|
Rob took the three tricks that were due to his side declaring or defending and conceded -300 when an easy -630 was available. Xebon came back with a big smile on his face and said "the slam made! I think that should do it!", much to the confusion of everyone else at the table. It was only at the end of the stanza that it became apparent what had happened. Xebon had been playing a NICKO match in the afternoon at the same venue and the game had gone into extra time, clashing with the start of the evening's match! He decided to simply play the two games at the same time, resolving to make sure he was dummy on every hand. In the Gold Cup game the tactic picked up 18 IMPS and this turned out to be the winning margin. The NICKO game was also won, but that was really just due to Xebon punting a slam that required a 3-3 trump break and two finesses.
Mentioned in Dispatches
Luke, our silent supporting cinder, has had another busy year, we are sure, but he was on the toilet when I phoned him to ask if he had any amusing anecdotes from the year, so all I know is that (i) accounting exams are quite hard, (ii) being drunk at the bridge table might cause you to lead the Jack of Spades whenever you have it, with hilarious consequences (but being drunk, it's difficult to recall what these might be) and (iii) I could make up something about Gerber being a rubbish convention to fill up some space. Well, thank you Luke! Similarly, Paul Huggins wouldn't tell me anything that wasn't a lead problem, and while they are kinda interesting, they ain't really all that amusing. So that only leaves my year. Well, I did virtually nothing at all that would interest any of you.
Or is it...?
[Phil's a shy lad really. Honestly, claiming he did nothing of interest when 2006 was truly the King of Years in the life of Philip S. Smith! He won't forgive me for revealing what really happened, but the world deserves to know. —Ed]
2006 didn't start too well for Phil. He spent the first two months finishing off his great novel, Watership Down, but no publisher would touch it as it had already been written. The two-word rejection letter he received from one was, in hindsight, the icing on the cake that broke the camel's back. He had spent the best part of a year pouring his soul into his art and it had exploded in a disgusting mess all over his apartment floor. Phil left England and turned his back on the world.
Nobody knows what happened next, and my advice is that you never approach the subject when you see him — I wouldn't recommend to anyone the look I got as I started to ask. Phil came back onto our radar in June, battered and torn, cradling an infant and bleeding half to death on my doorstep. I was about to head off to bridge, but when I got home later that night I bandaged his wounds, fed the child and allowed Phil to sleep — seemingly for the first time in weeks.
Speculation ran rife in establishment circles as to the child's identity. It was a male and approximately one year old. Was he Phil's own child, born out of some secret marriage? Was he a foundling? Did he kidnap the boy from a Flemish Queen? Was he tasked with fathering it as the last request of a dying soldier on the battlefield? Did he win it in a poker game? There were far more preposterous suggestions doing the rounds but I don't believe anyone will ever know, save perhaps the child when he comes of age.
Phil stayed with me for a few weeks but eventually had to go. I had grown fond of young Forrester (for that was how he came to be called) and was sorry to see the pair leave. Phil found a job at the local zoo, training the chimpanzees to help out in the woefully understaffed administrative department. He moved into a bedsit; it was small and rude, but it was tidy and it was home. The landlord lived upstairs and a juggling troupe lived downstairs.
Sadly, and all good stories require a personal decline before a dramatic reversal of fortune, Phil fell into debt, depression, destitution and dessert — the latter when he got into a fight with the staff at a Little Chef over the quality of his cherry and almond pie. His job didn't begin to cover the costs of raising a son, his savings had gone, replaced by crippling loans whose interest he was borrowing more money to repay. And, worst of all, he had begun to run out of hope.
I happened to be visiting him one weekend in October. I needed someone to help me choose the colour of my new towel. Phil, though his world was collapsing around him, refused to be downbeat in front of the baby. So he laid him on a bed of newspaper and talked to me in the hallway. He said he had a plan and he wanted to borrow £7.00. I said I could only lend him £4.50. We eventually settled on £5.50. He also asked me if I could take Forrester for a week as he had to go see about a girl. I said I could only take him for two days. We eventually settled on five.
The girl Phil had to see was actually the Louisa May Card Club and Bicycle Repair Shop in Wendover. He walked in, staked his £5.50 and sat down at the 5p/100 game of rubber bridge. Thirteen hours, a lucky string of cards and frequent uses of Clark's rule later and he had ground his initial stake up to £12.80. Phil slept for an hour and moved on. He headed straight for Lucky Mo's Chinese Casino on Whippersnapper Avenue. He started with the Pai Gow, where a losing streak saw his bankroll drop to £2.30 before it blossomed up to a healthy £22.10. Then started the longest session of Baccarat that I've ever heard of. Three and a half days it lasted. Phil started off at the small stakes but as he won he moved up in stakes and as he moved up he won more until he had well exceeded his welcome and was getting some threatening looks from the management.
Some have postulated that for every random event that occurs, a set of parallel universes branches off, each identical apart from the outcome of the random event. If that is true then there are countless thousands of parallel universes where Phil Smith left that casino a broke and broken man without any hope in the world. But in this universe, he left it with four thousand pounds in his pocket and a definite spring in his step.
Phil didn't want to stop there, though. He felt it. He knew that he could win again and change his life for ever. There was only one place to go — Johnny Mushroom's Poker Palace, between the bowling alley and the tobacconists' museum. Phil sat down at a no limit Holdem table. The first few hours were very dull. He dropped a bit, won a bit, dropped a bit, won a bit, won a bit more and by the time he took a short break he had approximately £6000 on the table. He ordered a fresh bottle of absinthe, took a breath of fresh air, and headed back into the throng. The next hand dealt him was Q Q. The tiniest rush of adrenalin trickled through his system but he had it under control and nobody had sensed it. A Loose Aggressive raised to £200 under the gun and it was passed to a shrewd player in the cutoff who made it £800 to play. Phil, on the button, just called; he was partly hoping for an overcall from the LAG and partly trying to save himself some money in case one of the players was strong. The LAG did call, the flop brought down A 3 Q and Phil remained as calm as he could, trying to look like someone whose JJ had just missed again. The LAG checked, the shrewd player bet £1000 and Phil, silently rejoicing, called. He didn't expect to get much more money from this but was grateful for the bag of sand that he had just been donated. The LAG knew enough to quit and it was heads up.
It was at this point that I walked in, carrying Forrester. I had heard (from a wandering fortune cookie seller) that Phil's prospects were changing and had come to tell him to quit while he was ahead and reclaim my £5.50. I was aghast to see him sat in the big game, a giant pot brewing in front of him. If he lost this it would destroy him. The turn was the Q and I could see Phil minutely stiffen — I had played enough home games with him at University to recognise a man with made quads. I relaxed, fully knowing that this hand was safe at least. The man with a mouse's face, Phil's only adversary in the pot, bet £2000. Phil dwelled on it for all of five seconds before shoving in his entire stack. Mouse man called instantly and I jumped for joy, nearly throwing the baby on the floor. Forrester was getting restless, so I put him down to play at my feet with his toy broom and stood up to see the dealer dealing the A. Surely not, I thought? But the reaction of Phil's opponent gave the game away. He triumphantly showed his pair of Aces and threw them into the sky, grasping at the £15k pot as if he had just won an £11k pot. Phil sank into his chair, clutching his heart and desperately trying to breathe. The manager came out to congratulate Phil's opponent on winning the high hand prize for that month — a £30k sports car. Phil buried his head in his lap and wished he hadn't said no to that cyanide salesman last month.
Then, from out of the crowd a woman shouted. "Look at the baby!" she cried. I immediately looked down; Forrester was missing. I looked at where everybody was pointing and there he was. He had somehow climbed onto the poker table, clutching the two black Aces that the mouse-faced man had thrown into the air. I must confess it took me a while to register what was going on, but there they were — the Ace of Clubs and the Ace of Spades. The Ace of Clubs. The same card that the dealer had dealt on the river. The crowd were silent. The mouse man, his smile suddenly having deserted him, turned to leave with his winnings. As he did so, however, something caught my eye. I grabbed his arm tightly, twisted it in front of me and showed the manager the innocent and innocuous K tucked away in the sleeve. The man had cheated! Phil had won! He had also fainted.
What happened next? Well, the mouse-faced man got his fingers crushed in a vice. Phil went home and slept. He paid off his debts, wallpapered his flat and started work on a new novel. He's thinking of calling it The Last of the Mohicans. Christmas went pleasantly and he went to a friend's party for New Year's Eve. There he met a sexy 19-year old shoe repair girl called Wendy. I'd love to go into great detail about what exactly he got up to at about five past midnight in the cupboard under the stairs, but this is a review of 2006 so you'll have to wait until next year.
He never paid back my £5.50. Bastard.