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Minnesota Miracle

By: Peggy Kaplan

Minnesota is known for 10,000+ lakes, frosty winters and the largest mall in America. But elite bridge players?

Our state seems to be the state from which bridge stars originate. Eddie Kantar. Russ Arnold. Howie Weinstein and Steve Garner and Joe Grue. Champions all; and champions from Minnesota.

Zia-like luminaries from Minneapolis, Mankato or Duluth? No. But for ten days in D.C., the Land of Loons proved its mettle. Here is the North Star state’s story!

The excitement began Day One when our Open GNT team faced last round Swiss qualifying challengers. We waited for opponents until almost all the matches had begun. Then, the two-time defending champions: Meckwell and Berkowitz-Cohen sat down. Irrespective of the outcome, our team couldn’t fail to qualify. But where we qualified mattered. A decent round against this team would put us in the top four – meaning that we would be able to select our opponents from the bottom qualifiers. Even with an average round, we still might be a selector! But a poor showing? Then we would be a “pickee”.

On one hand, slam was a lively possibility in two potential suits. Indeed; slam makes in hearts. Clubs? A bad break kills it. And yes, you guessed it; my partner and I bid slam in clubs.

When aggressive Meckwell rested in game, instead of winning 13 IMPS, we lost the same. Now our team found ourselves where we had been in last year’s GNT: ripe for the pickin’. The team of Spector, Becker, Berkowitz, Cohen, Meckstroth and Rodwell? They were second to select.

Strangely, I stood by the list of victims, uh, I mean teams, as their team viewed available choices. “We’re not choosing Joe Grue. We won’t pick Dan Morse.” Who could blame them?

I tried to be helpful. “Look at that team,” I commented, poking a finger at six names. “Surely you should select them over us!” Last year, we played the defending Spector team in the Round of 16. It wasn’t pretty, and I far preferred to meet their powerhouse later in the festivities.

The Spector squad huddled privately for a few minutes. Larry Cohen then walked the Green Mile to where I was standing to deliver the grim news. “We picked you, Peggy. Sorry.”

Sigh. What could we do? We would just have to hunker down and try to beat them.

And – that is exactly what we did!

Our first set was a modest loss. The next set saw a decided improvement, as we moved into the lead. We gave back a bit in the third quarter, our lead shriveling to a mighty one IMP. Who on our team would play two of the strongest partnerships in bridge the last set?

Bill Kent and I love to play. Yet, our other two partnerships, Cindy Balderson and Carole Miner, plus Bob Balderson and Paul Meerschaert had been hot. So, our two unmixed pairs sat down to face Meckwell and Berk and Cohen.

It wasn’t close. But – this time, the IMPS flowed primarily in our favor! When the smoke cleared, our teammates had scored 50 to 9. Spector would not defend in 2009.

In the Round of 8, we faced a player our team has known since he was in grade school: Joe Grue. The grown up Joe, along with a fine New York squad, were awesome. We succumbed to their excellent play. Nevertheless, besting such a tough team the day prior was a thrill that nothing could squelch.

The Minnesota bridge world shared our team’s happiness. Little did we realize, however, that the Minnesota successes were only beginning!

Peter Litchfield, a physics professor, and Paul Gutterman, who teaches tax law, also came to D.C. to represent District 14 in GNT FlightB. But, when the Minneapolis residents got KO’d, they decided to enter the Young LM 0-1500 pairs. Good decision; this duo won the event! With a two board margin to spare, their victory was not close. More cheering from the folks at home for Peter and Paul’s first national win!

Meanwhile, another team of Twin City residents began the long road toward victory. Eric Hendrickson, Andy Caranicas, Jason Bribitzer-Stull and Matthew Bribitzer Stull entered the Mini Spingold II, 0-1500. At the 2006 Chicago NABC, almost this same squad just missed the winners’ circle in Mini II, ending up second. Would three years later be the charm?

In the end, the answer was: yes! Still, achieving their win was not without tense moments, disasters for their side - and plenty of grit.

On day three of their match, Jason and Matthew recounted to me, “the worst disaster” ever in their partnership. On a partscore hand, the duo had a misunderstanding about a bid. After a third seat 1 spade opener and a Drury fit response, opener bid hearts. Matthew thought his double showed hearts. Jason thought Matthew was doubling for takeout. Instead of either getting a small plus or giving up a few IMPS, they played in a non-existent fit – doubled. The damages ended up being severe: down 5, for minus 1400 and 15 IMPS to the bad guys.

For some partnerships, this would be the beginning of the end. But, Jason and Matthew collected themselves, regrouped – and their team went on to win the match.

It would not be the last time they had to do so in this event.

During their final match I was competing myself. Dashing in to see how the Twin City team was doing wasn’t possible. A friend delivered a report, though – and I hoped against hope it was wrong. Down 65 to 1!? Ugh. While it wouldn’t be impossible to come back from such a deficit, clearly this was dismal news. The guys would need to play their best, get some breaks, and hang tough.

They did. And then some!

At the half, that enormous lead had been cut to a mere 18 IMPS. When the final hand had been quitted – Eric, Andy, Jason and Matthew won convincingly: 140-104! Now Minnesota had a national team win, a national pair win, and a “giant killer” match under their collective belts.

Yet – the Land of Loons had one more conquest left.

Yours truly, the “Roaming Reporter,” was pooped. Having played every day in D.C. since the start of the GNT, I felt I couldn’t handle another day of afternoon to late-night bridge. Partner Dick Bruno and I thus made the executive decision to try out the “Fast Pairs.” With a mere 11 minutes per two-board round, we would be done by early evening. A few extra hours to relax and rest sounded good to me; “fast” we would be!

Dick and I got our bonus evening hours off. We also were the recipients of a basket full of gifts, without managing to give too terribly much of it back. When we finished nice and early Friday evening, friends told us that the burners showed our partnership in the lead!

Playing super-fast can lead to bonehead errors, and I had committed some in the evening session. Would they cost us a win?

Fortunately, we had enough anyway to claim victory. Dick – a long time friend and partner back in the days when I was so green, few others would sit across the table from me - grabbed his first national title. Minnesota earned its second in one day .

States like New York, Florida, Texas, Illinois and California glitter with ultra-elite bridge stars. Minnesota seems only to birth ‘em. Yet, for one week in July, just like our beautiful snowflakes, Minnesota had a special sparkle all its own!