Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Bridge in South Africa: Beyond Expectations
by Jim Kaplan

If it’s Thursday, it must be South Africa. So here we were, my wife and I, visiting Holyoke friends Cathy and Sandy Shapleigh at Makuti Lodge in the Cape Town suburb of Hout Bay. We trooped off to lip-smacking lunch at the Buitenverwachting (Beyond Expectations) Estate winery, took a cable car up Table Mountain, toured the bright-colored houses in Cape Town’s predominantly Muslim Bo-Kaap neighborhood and gaped at the wind-blown Cape of Good Hope. “There may be countries with better mountains, better vineyards, better vegetation and animals, or better seafronts, but no place has the combination of all four,” Cathy says. And she’s right.

Of course, we knew that the key to understanding this rapidly changing nation, like all others, was to visit the local bridge club.

We arrived at Musgrove Park, a subsidized senior citizen’s complex, for the 7:30 p.m. game. There were 12 ½ tables, par for the course in the South African summer, in a well-lighted room with good acoustics. Not that everything was familiar to the visiting bridge players. The bid boxes had to be fitted between two pieces of plastic in some kind of Rube Goldberg contraption and the score sheets squeezed into a hole maybe half an inch wide.

My wife and I were stationed North-South at Table Five, while the Shapleighs rotated with the other East-West pairs. Apartheid may be dead, but social segregation lives. The people who came to our table for two boards apiece were uniformly white, English, alert, sensible and reserved. Oh, there might have been a “Here on vacation?” directed our way, but they were focused on bridge. I found myself humming lines from The Kinks’ hit “A Well Respected Man”:

And he’s oh, so good,
And he’s oh, so fine,
And he’s oh, so healthy,
In his body and his mind.
He’s a well respected man about town,
Doing the best things so conservatively.

The only break in the action was a 9 p.m. timeout for “tea and bits,” which meant caffeinated tea or coffee and butter cookies. Back to the tables, people!

It would be nice to report that we showed them furriners a thing or two about bridge, but they baffled us with their diamond/club system, strong 1C/1D, average 2C opener and other practices we never quite grasped. Nonetheless, benefiting from what they call “silly-bonkers” bridge by their North-South opponents, Cathy and Sandy finished second among East-West pairs with a 58.65 percent game.
Cathy bids like the Charge of the Light Brigade. Sitting West, with North dealing and East-West vulnerable, she held these cards against us:

S A Q J 6 5
H 4
D 7
C A K 10 8 5 3

The bidding proceeded as follows:

North East South West
1H Pass 2D 4S
DBL All Pass

Cathy didn’t make the expected takeout double to show her two suits, because Sandy might have passed it with a diamond stack. Nor did she bid the “unusual” 2NT to show clubs and spades, because they don’t use that convention. She went down three for -800, then realized that she could have saved in a makable 5C. In fact, 6C might make.

“I could kick myself all night for not bidding 5C, which had been my plan in the event of a double, and then Sandy would give preference,” she said. “And if I had bid it, you’d have a splendid column to write about YOUR double, namely, ‘Why didn’t I pass her 4S’?”

Why couldn’t our East-West opponents be silly-bonkers? My wife and I finished dead last among North-South pairs at 40.87 percent.

There was a moment of grace, though, on one board. Sitting South and dealing, with East-West vulnerable, I held:

S A J 10 8 4 3
H A
D K 7 6 5
C 4 3

I opened 1S and partner raised to 2S with the opponents passing. What would you do now?

Other Norths bid 4S. Fools! In a rare moment of clairvoyance, I counted six losers in my hand and realized that North’s simple raise probably wouldn’t supply more than two tricks. (At most, I could make a marginal game try of 3S, which would be passed.) I made nine and earned +140 for my pass.

You should never pass up the chance to visit South Africa.

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