Aces on Bridge — Daily Columns

The Aces on Bridge: Thursday, February 6th, 2014

When I’m playful, I…drag the Atlantic Ocean for whales.

Mark Twain

South North
North-South ♠ Q 7 3
 A 8 5
 A Q 2
♣ K 8 6 5
West East
♠ K 8 5 4
 9 7 4 3
 9 6
♣ 10 9 4
♠ A 10 9 6 2
 J 2
 10 8 3
♣ Q J 2
♠ J
 K Q 10 6
 K J 7 5 4
♣ A 7 3
South West North East
1 Pass 3 NT Pass
4 Pass 4 Pass
4♠ Pass 6 All pass


Ken Barbour of Arizona had already represented Great Britain at bridge at the age of 25 before coming to the United States and retiring from the game. Happily, after a 20-year hiatus, Barbour took up the game seriously again. Playing with another expatriate, Alan Truscott, he perpetrated the following coup at the Miami Nationals in 1996. Put yourself in the East seat to appreciate the full beauty of it.

Barbour and Truscott had followed an optimistic sequence (slightly edited here) to arrive at six diamonds, which we will charitably attribute to a fit of youthful enthusiasm. This was particularly the case since three no-trump was a likely final resting spot at the other table, so there was perhaps no need to go looking for slams.

With a blind opening lead, West tried the club 10, and, perhaps without giving the matter sufficient thought, East followed with his small card, which systemically encouraged the lead. This was the natural thing to do — but it might well have been better to overtake the trick, though the reason for that was hardly obvious.

However, Barbour now played for his only chance by ducking the first trick — setting West an almost impossible problem. It was natural for him to continue with a second club. Now Barbour could win in hand, draw trump, then throw away his spade loser on the fourth round of clubs. When the heart jack cooperated by putting in a timely appearance, another impossible contract had come home.

Your partner, who has denied a four-card major, has bid three spades to indicate spade values. (He is either worried about hearts for no-trump or is about to cue-bid in support of diamonds.) You should bid three no-trump now, since if he is angling for three no-trump, you have the danger suit under control, but do not have enough to head to slam until you find a fit.


♠ J
 K Q 10 6
 K J 7 5 4
♣ A 7 3
South West North East
1 NT Pass
2♣ Pass 2 Pass
3 Pass 3♠ Pass

For details of Bobby Wolff’s autobiography, The Lone Wolff, contact If you would like to contact Bobby Wolff, please leave a comment at this blog. Reproduced with permission of United Feature Syndicate, Inc., Copyright 2014. If you are interested in reprinting The Aces on Bridge column, contact


ArunFebruary 20th, 2014 at 12:07 pm

One can only gasp in admiration

jim2February 20th, 2014 at 1:23 pm

After South’s 4S cuebid, West knew that East did not have the AS. Heck, the reason that the opening lead was not overtaken was probably that EAST believed it as well.

bobby wolffFebruary 20th, 2014 at 3:21 pm

Hi Arun,

Yes, some of the best declarer’s plays must be made instantaneously and with super quick wit.

This certainly was one of them and validates Damon Runyon’s (gambler-sports writer type) famous quote, “The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, but that is the way to bet”.

Ken Barbour’s quick thinking saved the slam and thus the day.

bobby wolffFebruary 20th, 2014 at 3:38 pm

Hi Jim2,

East was merely following suit and did not feel the need to overtake, but since bridge itself is always the master (with unusual quirks and new thoughts never far away), this time East’s gaffe (and that description is too tough on East, since plays happen fast and everyone of them do not, nor probably should not, materially slow down the game, if for no other reason, the controversial bridge ethics involved) this time turned out to be mega costly.

Another anomaly is that the alternate contract 3NT would no doubt go set with a normal 4th best spade lead (or the ten) from East. 3NT from South would no doubt make unless West would decide to lead his king of spades, and indeed if he (or she) did, it would and should produce a recorder slip suggesting EW were either cheating or West had defended this very same hand several rounds earlier.

jim2February 20th, 2014 at 4:03 pm

I know you “slightly edited” the bidding, but why shouldn’t the 4S bid have been a first round control?

bobby wolffFebruary 20th, 2014 at 5:02 pm

Hi Jim2,

A good question which demands an up-to-date answer.

Many times (or, at least, more often than one might suspect) a less than super hand, such as South, above (but probably worth what he has bid up to now), would want to show at least a 2nd round control, rather than bypassing that suit to bid 5 clubs a 1st round control. If he does bypass the spade control, North, having little or nothing in spades, will only be able to return to 5 diamonds, almost regardless of what else he had, since he would fear two quick spade losers. That fact would automatically make it almost impossible for South to then bid on, therefore South should foresee that problem, show a 2nd round control now, in order for the partnership to perform with effectiveness.

In order to clarify the whole procedure (always from a very high-level position) bridge is neither an exact science, nor is it immune to bridge bidding sequences which become crowded as to exchanging critical information in order to bid good slams and stay out of bad ones.

Once South determines that he is only going to show 1st round controls in sequence, he limits the partnership’s ability to assure his partner that they are not going to lose the first two tricks in any non-trump suit.

A perfect solution? No, not even close, but probably the best available, considering the alternatives. There are a number of factors involved with hoped for accurate slam bidding:

1. Good enough combined trump suit, so that 6NT needs not to be bid, because of being able to score trump tricks rather than just top tricks and running solid long suits.

2. Control in all side suits so that 2 tricks are not immediately available to the defense.

3. A source of tricks outside of trumps which add up to at least 12.

4. On certain specific hands, not allowing a likely ruff by a defender (for the setting trick), the possibility of which may be indicated during the bidding.

5. Playing the hand from the right side to assure against the defense being able to lead through an unsupported king in the dummy in case the defensive ace lurks in the 3rd seat defender’s hand.

Is it realistic to be able to guard against all of the above, plus the possibility of running into bad breaks which might occur, scuttling the effort? Again, certainly not always, especially not this paragraph, nor 4 or 5, but none of this rhetoric begins to suggest that some chances need not to be taken, otherwise feint heart will not win fair contract or even a bad contract which occasionally still makes due to good luck or opponent’s sloth.

The game of bridge, like so many other popular TV sports, needs plenty of playing luck to win, especially when relative equals play against each other, but in spite of this fact, the winner usually gravitates to the side who makes fewer mistakes (obvious and sometimes not so) and that fact, if true, is inviolate and at least IMO cannot be circumvented.

If you come up with a better mousetrap, in this case, slam bidding, please advance and be recognized, but until someone does, we are in the year 2014 and perhaps if bridge playing lasts that long, bidding will continue to improve to perhaps 2400AD. I, even if it lasts those hundreds of years, from what I suspect, will never allow bridge bidding to come even close to near perfection since there is just not enough room in the auctions, especially when wily opponents crowd them further, to achieve nirvana.

bobby wolffFebruary 20th, 2014 at 5:35 pm

Hi again Jim2,

As usual, I left out what an inquiring mind, certainly like yours, will immediately grasp.

Many of the current top-level partnerships, once the partnership has passed the game level, cue bids have now been used, and is seriously considering bidding a slam, in order to facilitate more room, use 4NT not as an ace or key card ask, but rather a DI (declarative- interrogative) bid which saves room in the bidding to exchange necessary information, eg in today’s hand after a 4 spade 2nd round control (although not apparent when made) to save room for the opening bidding now to bid 5 clubs which also shows either 1st or 2nd round control.

Every partnership which has high-level aspirations must consider adding DI into their slam bidding repertoire. Both Jim Jacoby and Bob Hamman and I played DI for at least 30 years and I can heartily recommend it as a decided improvement on those hands which we have been talking about, but the subject is too long and complicated enough for me to not discuss them here.