Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Culbertson's Valuation by Visualization

Ely Culbertson was one of the great geniuses of contract bridge. Ely was born with dual citizenship in Russia to an American father. His family lost everything in the Russian revolution so he came to this country in early adulthood with the only asset he had, an ability to earn a living playing cards. He married a bridge teacher from New York, and with his wife, Josephine, became a major force in auction bridge. When Commodore Vanderbilt invented contract bridge in 1929, Ely quickly grasped its commercial potential, grabbed the game by the throat and took it from the card room at the Cavendish Club to every kitchen in America. Soon he was publishing a magazine (The Bridge World), writing a bridge column, writing the seminal work on Contract Bridge in 1930 (The Blue Book of Contract Bridge), hosting a weekly radio cast featuring a bridge challenge match, forming and operating about 600 bridge teaching studios around United States and partnered with Josephine, playing high stakes bridge marathons against other pretenders to his throne. To give you an idea of his impact on the game, in 1939, when United States was still in the depths of the 30’s depression he made more than $1,000,000 from bridge related revenues.

He was a player’s player with marvelous instincts for the game. Jeff Rubens, the current editor of the Bridge World, said that Ely was known as a brilliant theoretician, yet he literally had dozens of rules relating to all phases of the game which he relied upon to make decisions about his own play. One of these rules was “Valuation by Visualization”.

To paraphrase this rule, it says that in making decisions about whether to make a game try or slam try, you should do so only if “a perfect minimum hand for partner will make the contract a lay down.” You first decide the minimum strength partner can have for his bid, and within that limitation you can logically place specific cards in partner's hand. It must now be a laydown and not be finesse dependent. If you read Frank Stewart’s Bridge column, you often see him employ this technique to justify a bid by saying “partner could hold….” and then giving him a minimum hand.

There is a story about a little known bridge blog author playing in his 2nd National tournament in Atlanta with even a lesser known bridge director. The game was a knockout and IMP scoring was in effect. Toward the end of the 4th set of boards the author picked up:

Void, Kx, Axx, KQxxxxxx.

Across the table he hears director open 1 heart. The match is close and author really didn’t want this on his shoulders, but he bid 2 clubs (not 2/1 game force). Author’s LHO now overcalls 2 spades! Director, for his opening bid, held:

Jxx, AQxxx, xx, Axx (with 2 1/2 quick tricks it meets minimum opening standards for this pair).

Director goes into the tank a minute and finally lays down the 3 club card. (This director administers the rules but doesn’t always follow them). After a pass by the other opponent, author takes a pause in the action. First, to silently thank LHO for his useless overcall in spades, and second to put on his superman suit. Trying to visualize director’s hand, either he psyched and then raised, or he has significant values in the heart suit at least 5 deep and the Ace of clubs. Author, determined to bury partner if he is mucking around at this level, asks for key cards. Director bids 5 hearts (2 without the Q). Now, assigning director a minimum number of points for his opening bid (11) author starts to place key cards in his hand. Author gives him the AQ of hearts and the Ace of Clubs. Based on the bidding the Ace of Spades seems very likely to be with LHO for his 2 level vulnerable overcall. The opposing pair at the other table will surely get to 6 clubs, and it now or never to put this match out of reach, or alternatively look for a new team.

The rest is history recorded with the ACBL. Author quietly slid down the 7 club card, and only after LHO led the Ace of spades did he realize that he had to play it. Fortunately, the hand meets Ely Culbertson’s other criteria, it is a lay down when director tables his hand. It was not until after all the smoke cleared and the “high fiving” ended that director pointed out that author had just bid a Grand Slam at a National Knockout with only 23 combined high card points and "off" one Ace.

If it were not such a good example of valuation by visualization, I would probably tell this story sooner or later anyway. That’s what you get for owning the blog!

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