BRIDGE; Error by Italy Helps U.S. Win Bermuda Bowl


Published: November 17, 2003


In a come-from-behind finish that bridge aficionados will debate for generations, the United States capitalized on brilliant play and an opponent's blunder to defeat archrival Italy on Saturday in the biennial world contract bridge championships known as the Bermuda Bowl.


''This match will go down in history as one of the most dramatic, exciting and controversial bridge championships of all time,'' said Fred Gitelman, a gold medalist with Canada's national bridge team for many years, who organized an online videostream that allowed a global audience to monitor the action.


At the end of two grueling weeks of play that had whittled 22 teams down to the Americans and the favored Italians, the championship match -- 128 deals over three days -- moved toward its climax like racehorses pounding to a photo finish, with the Italians surging, falling behind and catching up again.


It all came down to one card. In the hushed setting of a hotel overlooking the Mediterranean and the belle epoque facades of Monte Carlo, Lorenzo Lauria of Italy, one of the world's top bridge players, reached across the table to select that card from the dummy hand that his partner had left face up.


Hundreds of spectators watching on monitors and thousands more on the Internet held their breath. They could see that all Lauria had to do, for the Italians to secure a tie, was select the queen of spades from the dummy hand. It was a play any bridge enthusiast could make routinely.


But, inexplicably, Lauria touched the seven of spades. A moment later, he realized his mistake and tried to replace the seven with the queen. But it was too late.


A pandemonium of jeers and shouts, anger and dismay, erupted among the largely European hotel audience, which had supported the Italians. Around the world, spectators online gawked in disbelief. Had it been a mechanical error? A mental lapse by an exhausted player after weeks of tense competition?


Summoned to arbitrate, the tournament director ruled against the Italians, and was upheld by an appeals committee. The result: the United States, 304; Italy, 303.


''The U.S.A. and the Italians have dominated bridge forever,'' Mr. Gitelman said in a telephone interview from Las Vegas. ''The rivalry goes back to the 1950's. The outcome of this match is truly historic.''


In the rarefied world of competitive bridge, where ferocious brains lurk behind mild eyes and unreadable faces, where blindlike screens divide the playing tables diagonally above and below to prevent partners from seeing, touching or illegally signaling one another, Americans and Italians have long dominated the Bermuda Bowl, named for the island where it was founded in 1950.


It has been held every two years or so in exotic venues like Buenos Aires, Manila, Stockholm and Jamaica. This year's competition began on Nov. 2 in Monaco, the little principality on the southeast coast of France, with 22 teams from 21 countries (two from the United States).


When the smoke finally cleared, two six-member teams were left -- the Americans Nick Nickell, Richard Freeman, Bob Hamman, Paul Soloway, Jeff Meckstroth and Eric Rodwell, and the Italians Norberto Bocchi, Giorgio Duboin, Lorenzo Lauria, Alfredo Versace, Fulvio Fantoni and Claudio Nunes.


The American-Italian contest unfolded in simultaneous play at two tables in separate rooms, the ''closed room'' and the ''open room.'' Under the rules, players in one room do not know what is happening in the other. Moreover, identical hands are dealt in the same order in each room, so that at the end of a match all have competed equally.


The spectators watched on monitors that displayed the hands, the bidding and the play of the cards as it unfolded in both rooms. Thus, they could know more about what was happening, and had opportunities to analyze the nuances that the players themselves did not have.


The Italians began strongly, surging ahead early. But after 103 of a scheduled 128 deals, the Americans -- somewhat to everyone's surprise -- were ahead by 62 international match points. The Italians struggled back and, with only two deals remaining, were ahead by 21 international match points.


On the next to last deal, the Italians in the closed room overbid to a contract of five hearts, while the Americans in the open room stopped accurately at four hearts, gaining 10 international match points and cutting the Italian lead to 11.


On the final deal, Rodwell and Meckstroth in the closed room defended well against an Italian contract, so that now the match rested on play in the open room, where Hamman and Soloway faced Lauria and Versace. Unlike the spectators, the players were aware only that the match was close, though they did not know how close. The Italians bid five diamonds, and the Americans doubled. The move would concede the match if the Italians fulfilled their contract, but would let the Americans tie if they beat the contract by one trick, or win if they beat it by two tricks.


With only a few cards left to play, Soloway could have played the ten of hearts and won the match. But the position was apparently not clear to him. Instead, he lead the four of spades. Now, all Lauria had to do was play the queen of spades from the dummy's hand, which he would have known was the winner.


But he apparently was so sure that Soloway had played his high heart that he reached across the table and touched what he thought would be an inconsequential card, the seven of spades. Now Hamman topped that with the ten, ensuring that the Americans would win the match.