It is not widely known, but the much publicized Culbertson-Lenz match—the Bridge Battle of the Century—had its roots in an earlier challenge match that Culbertson lost. Challenger George Reith picked as his partner a young unknown named Howard Schenken, and they handed Culbertson a beating that received little notice except on the bulletin board of the old Knickerbocker Whist Club. That was 40 years ago. Less than 10 years later, Schenken was generally considered to be the top man on a team that beat Culbertson and just about everybody else in the game: the Four Aces. Twenty years ago a poll conducted by a national magazine asked all the top-ranked players of that day to choose the partner they would prefer to sit opposite in a match for money or their lives. The biggest vote went to Schenken. Ten years ago Schenken won the most coveted team trophy in bridge, the Vanderbilt Cup, for the ninth time. And in the past decade his successes have included, in addition to a 10th Vanderbilt championship, three national team-of-four victories, which I have been honored to share as one of his teammates.
Late last year, playing with his wife, Bee, Schenken finished second in a $20,000 rubber-bridge tournament in Las Vegas, and this month, with Peter Leventritt as his partner and Lew Mathe-Bob Hamman as his teammates, he won the Riviera Masters Knockout Team Championship, also in Las Vegas, for the second consecutive time.
Like Ol' Man River, brilliant 63-year-old Howard Schenken just keeps rolling along. The phrase is apt, because Schenken's game flows. His style is smooth and imperturbable. He is far from being a conservative player, but his composure never suggests the risks he takes. He manages to be that "impossible" combination—an easy partner and an extremely tough opponent.
This is one of the deals that helped Schenken's team defeat a California-Canadian foursome led by Ron Von Der Porten of San Francisco in the final round of the Las Vegas team event.
North made a good choice when he elected to raise to two diamonds rather than respond with one spade. And Schenken made an equally good decision when he elected not to come into the bidding with so much length and strength in the opponents' suit. It was obvious that West must be very short in diamonds, yet he had taken no immediate action after South's opening, so his hand figured to be quite weak.
Leventritt admits that he was far from pleased to hear his partner pass his rather weak takeout double. "I was wondering," he said, "how to explain to Howard why I had reopened the bidding on a hand with one ace and one queen." As it turned out, there was no explaining necessary.
East won the first trick with the spade ace and promptly returned a trump. Declarer won in the closed hand and led a heart to dummy's jack. East's ace won and back came another trump. Declarer again won in his hand, cashed two hearts, discarding a club from dummy, and led a low club to dummy's jack and East's queen.
Schenken now came up with a third diamond lead, which put declarer in his hand with a chance of making the contract if the spades were divided 3-2. If such were the case, South could score his spade king and concede a trick to West's queen. This would give East a choice of losing plays. If he ruffed to return a trump, dummy's spades would be high. And if he let West hold the spade queen, declarer would be certain to make dummy's diamond ace and his own diamond queen separately for his seventh and eighth tricks.
But having nurtured in South's mind the hope of success, Schenken now hit him for the important two-trick set. He ruffed the king of spades and returned his last trump. This marooned the lead in dummy while West got rid of his last low club. The enforced spade lead from dummy gave West the rest of the tricks. It might have seemed that every time Schenken led a trump it cost him a trick, but in fact only the shrewdly calculated repetition of the trump leads set up the situation for a 500-point penalty.
Opening lead: 2 of spades