Aces on Bridge — Daily Columns

The Aces on Bridge: Wednesday June 29th, 2011

Vulnerable: North-South

Dealer: West


K 6

A K Q J 8 5 4


A Q 2


Q 4 2


A Q 9 8 6 4 3

9 3


A J 10 9 5 3

9 7 3

10 7

J 4


8 7

10 6

K 5 2

K 10 8 7 6 5


South West North East
3 Dbl. Pass
3 NT Pass 5 NT Pass
6 Pass 6 Pass
6 NT All pass

Opening Lead: ??

“Where the good and the bad and the worst and the best

Have gone to their eternal rest.”

— Edgar Allan Poe

What would you consider to be the most unsuccessful opening lead of all time? I’m sure there are many possible candidates for that title, but it would be hard to argue that today’s deal doesn’t deserve a place on the short list.

It took place at the North American Fall Congress held in Honolulu and would command a prominent place in anyone’s collection of bridge curios because the opening lead determined a swing of a huge number of tricks. My thanks for the hand goes to Brent Manley, editor of the Daily Bulletins in Hawaii, where it first appeared.

Two top-class pairs were in action: World Champions Fulvio Fantoni and Claudio Nunes of Italy were pitted against Larry Cohen and David Berkowitz of the United States. North guessed to drive to slam facing the three-no-trump response, and his call of five no-trump offered a choice of slams. Trying to protect his diamond king, Cohen eventually opted for no-trump.

It is reported that West took a full five minutes before choosing his opening lead: a heart. Cohen then took considerably less time to wrap up all 13 tricks: seven hearts and six clubs.

Had West hit upon a spade lead and East returned the diamond 10, then so long as West immediately unblocked the spade queen, the defenders could have come to all 13 tricks: seven diamonds and six spades. A grand total of 26 tricks hung on that opening lead!


South holds:

8 7
10 6
K 5 2
K 10 8 7 6 5


South West North East
1 Pass
1 NT Pass 2 NT Pass
ANSWER: Your partner has suggested a balanced 17-19, and you have a hand that makes it extremely unlikely you will take nine tricks in no-trump. (You probably won’t be able to set up clubs and reach them before the defenders clear spades or diamonds.) Therefore, the best action here is to retreat to three clubs, which is natural and nonforcing.


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 2011. If you are interested in reprinting The Aces on Bridge column, contact


John Howard GibsonJuly 13th, 2011 at 4:30 pm

HBJ’s thoughts on the matter :

First off, we know South must have the diamonds guarded to the King. Secondly, North’s bid of 6H must show one helluva suit, so a lead in that suit is out of the question. Finally South’s 6C must also be flagging up his suit.

Finally, South must be weak and if that is the case not in possession of the spade Ace ? Hence a lead of a the spade queen seems a reasonable bet.

But I don’t understand the 5NT bid as it cuts out so much bidding space to discover what’s in each other’s hands. Moreover no suit has been announced until they arrive at 6 level ? In essence any slam they were in was doomed.

Obviously my game is at a more basic level.

jim2July 13th, 2011 at 5:28 pm

Pre-empts work.

North felt too strong to settle for a safe 4H and decided not to guess the right number of hearts, and so doubled.

South “knew” North’s bid was mostly major suit focused and had a tough response to make, especially as the natural bid was beyond 3N.

Next, North felt too strong, still, to pull to 4H, as that would be sure to be passed out, but had few forcing bids in the tool box at that point. I have to conclude that 4C would not have been ace-asking, otherwise that would seem to be the obvious call. Maybe our esteemed host might weigh in on how one might ask for aces in this auction.

As for other choices, 4D/5D would have been forcing, but I have no clue what either would have meant.

I would guess 4N would have been a quantitative notrump slam invitation, but not forcing.

I would have interpreted 5N to mean what the column said but, in anything but matchpoints, I would have simply bid 6H if I had made the decision that the hand would be olayed in a slam. Partner’s failure to bid 4D would have ended any thoughts of a grand, so I would have bid what appeared to be the safest small slam, especially as partner had shown at least a doubleton with 3N. Only in matchpoints, might I have considered 5N, and I would still probably have bid 6H.

Bobby WolffJuly 13th, 2011 at 5:32 pm


Let me give what I hope to be a clinical review of West’s dilemma on lead.

Usually, especially when playing against a highly rated pair (Berkowitz-Cohen) when one leads against a slam (especially 6NT), the last thing to expect (or almost) is that the opponents could be off two aces.

Only one thing can the opening leader be sure of and that is, the declarer certainly possesses the king of diamonds, since without it, he would never consider 6NT as the final contract. Most other truths or even inferences are scarce with the declarer possibly being both weak and balanced (possibly being 3-3-3-4 and having only a smattering of high card points). The dummy should be expected to be robust in playing tricks and high card points, forcing to a slam (5NT is forcing) opposite a possibly very weak partner. The problem for North is that his partner, instead of being weak could have up to 14 or 15 high card points and still opt for 3NT as his first response, since to go beyond would be perhaps too optimistic.

No doubt North took the high road and just decided that partner could well have the Ace of spades and together with what else, NS could easily have 12 tricks considering that North could provide 7 heart tricks plus the AQx of clubs and the King of spades.

Is North’s bid correct? How would I know, but I can understand his optimism and sometimes the difference between daring and foolhearty is whether or not his venture worked. This time it possibly should not have, but in reality it did, so we shall call it daring.

To cut to the chase of the question, the opening lead, West’s selection of a heart was an attempt to defend and not give the possible 12th trick away to declarer, always thinking that it is very unlikely that all those tricks were available to be immediately cashed.

And so it goes, but again bridge, in all of its glory, often offers countless surprises in its results.

In conclusion, my assessment is that North’s daring experiment actually was successful and West’s opening lead was unlucky, although if you were sitting West, the shoe, not to mention the all important result, would have been on the other foot.

Thanks always for your, from the heart, opinion and as a reminder of both that, 1. Heart attacks are to be avoided, and 2. Sometimes long thought processes (5 minutes in this case) do not help.

jim2July 13th, 2011 at 5:34 pm


I was not making a bull-fighting joke, I swear! It’s just that the “o” is one key away from the “p.”