Aces on Bridge — Daily Columns

The Aces on Bridge: Tuesday July 26th, 2011

Vulnerable: North-South

Dealer: East


A K 7

J 4 3

K Q J 5

J 4 2


9 8 6 4

9 2

A 3 2

10 8 5 3



A K Q 7 6

9 8 7 6

Q 7 6


Q J 10 5 2

10 8 5

10 4

A K 9


South West North East
1 Pass 2 Pass
2 Pass 3 All pass

Opening Lead: Heart nine

“Readers, be ruled by me; and make

Here a well-placed and wise mistake.

You must transpose the picture quite,

And spell it wrong to read it right.”

— Richard Crashaw

Everyone knows that bridge is an easy game (at least on paper). In real life, it’s not so easy. Consider this deal from the second qualifying session of last summer’s Von Zedtwitz Life Master Pairs.

North had already earned his side a good score by stopping in three spades. Let’s go through the play — you can add your comments.

West led the heart nine to East’s king. East cashed the heart queen, then the ace, suggesting mild suit-preference for clubs. West pitched an encouraging diamond, so East shifted to a diamond to the ace. West returned a club, and declarer claimed. Who goofed?

West “knew” declarer had five spades, two club winners and two diamonds. How to keep declarer from scoring the diamonds? West must win the diamond and return the suit. Now declarer has no entries to diamonds outside the trump suit when spades turn out to be 4-1. A double finesse in clubs doesn’t work, so declarer is down.

Note that at trick four if East avoids the fatal club shift, but plays a trump instead, declarer can succeed by force. Declarer plays three rounds of trump, ending in dummy after getting the bad news. Next he plays the club jack, covered by the queen and ace, then pulls West’s last trump and leads a diamond. West must duck, but is endplayed on the second round of diamonds, forced to lead a diamond, or a club into declarer’s K-9.


South holds:

A K 7
J 4 3
K Q J 5
J 4 2


South West North East
Pass Pass
ANSWER: There is a case to be made for opening one diamond,in third seat to get your partner off to the right lead and to avoid setting yourself up for a penalty. Then again, you may miss a game if you treat your hand as a balanced minimum, and equally you let the opponents into the auction far more comfortably. I could take either side of this argument!


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


Jeff SAugust 9th, 2011 at 6:41 pm

I thought the answer was going to be East goofed by signaling a club preference when there was really no reason for him to want his partner to lead a club. I guess West had the last chance to get it right by overruling his partner and leading a diamond, but I don’t really understand East’s signal. It doesn’t seem like there are many ways that a club lead by West can end well for the defense. At least, looking at the East cards, I see no advantage over leaving clubs for declarer to venture.

David WarheitAugust 10th, 2011 at 1:04 am

“West pitched an encouraging diamond”. If east can read the 3 of diamonds as encouraging, I want him for my partner.

If east shifts to a trump at trick four, south has two lines of play which will work: the one you suggest and: run 4 spades and play diamonds. West must duck the first one and win the second, but now what? He only has clubs, so he leads one. Dummy plays small and east’s queen is toast. Of course, if west hadn’t pitched a diamond, a diamond lead would make things even simpler.

Amnon HarelAugust 10th, 2011 at 8:42 am

Hi David,

It just depends on signaling methods. With standard carding, it’s hard this are particularly unlucky spots for someone wishing to encourage, since the high spot, the 3, isn’t the lowest possible. But for upside down carding, the 2 is the most encouraging card – no problem. For Italian discards (normally dumbed-down and/or misrepresented as odd-even in the US), the 3 is the most encouraging card – no problem.


Bobby WolffAugust 10th, 2011 at 1:32 pm

Hi Jeff,

Thanks for your comment, especially keeping in mind that many who would feel the way that you do, would not either take the time to query nor to risk being less than 100% correct.

In the area of legal signals the doctrine of “Within the Context of the entire Bidding and Play up to Now” (WCBPN and coined right here) comes directly into play. The word used, “mild” is meant to mean exactly that (If East had won the Queen and then followed by the King and finally the Ace, that, of course, would be the strongest club signal with then the order of the Ace, King and then Queen the weakest one). Perhaps on this particular hand if West holds the King of Clubs he might prefer to know that partner would likely hold the queen, but whether it is important or not on this hand, this discussion is meant to delve deeper into the language of signals in bridge while engaged in defense.

As an aside, please keep in mind that the enemy (especially excellent players), are also listening to the conversation, so never forget to be wary of these wire taps.

Also it should be now pointed out that in our game, unlike war, it is unethical for a partnership to have private understandings about signals or, for that matter, anything else, which are not known to the opponents.

Finally, while on defense both partner’s need to constantly reconstruct declarer’s probable holding for his bidding and then follow up partner’s involvement always considering his bidding (or lack of it) and his defense up to then. If partner had the ace of clubs on this hand (or the King Queen) it is very doubtful that he would be returning a diamond since he would know

that declarer not you, his partner, held the ace of diamonds.

Whether one wants to or not, playing good bridge REQUIRES constantly being aware of everything going on around that particular hand and keeping a totally open mind to the changes in circumstances.

“Move over Sherlock, I’m your new Watson”.

Bobby WolffAugust 10th, 2011 at 1:49 pm

Hi David,

You are right about West’s 3 of diamonds discard, but what is a fella to do when he was dealt A32 and thought he might need to keep his 10xxx of clubs intact as well, of course to reduce himself to only 2 diamonds and together with his 4 trumps find a way to triumph. Also West needs to realize that his partner is a big boy and is also interested in defeating the contract, which was then done effectively.

Thanks for writing.

Bobby WolffAugust 10th, 2011 at 2:16 pm

Hi Amnon,

Yes upside down attitude signals work well when one possesses A32, but what about 1098, when in the other case of not wanting to encourage, the proposed signal might be harder to decipher.

In the case of odd-even signals there is NOT a question in my mind that when only trying to communicate with partner, that the dual signal possible with that method of, first encouraging and discouraging and then if discouraging also suit preference to partner to lead either the higher or lower of the other two suits by the size of the even card, e.g. the 10 asking for the higher ranking but the 2 asking for the lower ranking is the very best way to do it.

HOWEVER, in order for bridge administrators to be effective they MUST consider all aspects of what is going on. Until human beings either become ethical robots or are hit with an epiphany of the possibility of tempo (when playing odd-even) giving partner unauthorized information as to the feelings of the signal giver thereby allowing the signal receiver to calibrate, depending on his own holding, of EXACTLY what to do and usually deciding right in almost all cases (at least in the high-level game) it would be derelict for the lawmakers to allow such a thing to happen.

In all competitive sports the home office often faces the dilemma of such trade-offs and sometimes the solution requires mature judgment which translates into not going the route of a possible majority.

My advice for getting what you obviously would love to see happen, is to force unseen (at least up to now) ACTIVE ETHICS on all players (particularly at the top) sending out the extremely positive message of “Our game is great enough to require all who aspire to play it, to do so, in the most ethical way”!

“No problem” you say, but just perhaps, there is one.

Good luck

Amnon HarelAugust 10th, 2011 at 7:05 pm

Dear Bobby,

I never understood why the “dual message” part is supposed to be a problem at high bridge. Certainly, if you’ve seen it happen, you’ve seen it happen, and who am I to argue with your experience? But perhaps this was due to an unethical way of using Italian discards, rather than to the method itself. Maybe this is naive of me, but with my partners we simply play that the suit preference meaning only enters when one is known (through play and bid) to have a long suit or many even cards. E.g. when you hold 874 in a suit you didn’t bid and partner leads the A, the 8 is simply a neutral card, not a “discouraging+switch to a high suit”. If experts play this as “a fast 8 is neutral, but a slow 8 is discouragin+switch” that’s bad ethics (at best), unrelated to the methods in play. Even second rate amateurs like me can play Italian carding without such ethics violations.

And why doesn’t anyone mention the times Italian signals prevent ethical problems? E.g. when partner leads a suit you wish to discourage when you don’t like the obvious switch for non-obvious reasons. Playing standard, you have to go into the tack to figure out a) what is the obvious switch from partner’s point of view, b) will he know enough to override your encouraging card and make the non-obvious switch. Partner of course, will have a ton of unauthorized information. Playing Italian and holding lots of cards, you can just signal what you like, with no unauthorized information. There was an example hand like that a while back on bridgewinners, where the experts were thoroughly divided on what to do, and presented deep analysis that require way too long at the table, and mentioned the UI that results. It was bizarre to see no one mention how Italian signals simplify the bridge problem and thus eliminate the ethics problems.

Sorry for the long rant.

Bobby WolffAugust 11th, 2011 at 12:07 am

Hi Amnon,

If only what you say was true, and you, no doubt, believe that it is, I would do a jig for the queen and I haven’t danced since I was a teenager over 100 years ago.

You are 100% right that unauthorized information (UI) can be transmitted in many different ways and playing whatever convention or non-convention you can think of, but with odd even (as you call it Italian signals) it is sometimes difficult, even for some who religiously believe in Active Ethics in bridge, to do so in tempo mainly because of the dual message that the convention requires. Even your example mentioned (874) when one, of course, wants to discourage, but does not have the proper card to signal suit preference, might, if preferring a higher ranking switch play it fast and in a happy tempo, but if the lower suit is wanted, to play it with a body language which so symbolizes the problem.

For clarity, a huge percentage of high level players want to play the game ethically, but at the same time, they should not be tempted to stray.

We have all seen many popular big money sports, where various players break the rules hoping not to be caught, because winning has become so important. So it has become in bridge, and the administrators have to always keep that in mind in establishing rules of engagement, to make sure that equity is always present and bad guys (even sometimes not wannabes) do not always appear to have an edge.

We could both go on much longer, but my 60+ years of playing bridge at many levels, has convinced me that it is a very dangerous action to not take what we are talking about here very seriously.

Please keep your optimistic viewpoint always, but, at the same time, be aware of what could happen if our wonderful games guard, is let down.

Amnon HarelAugust 11th, 2011 at 12:39 pm

Hi Bobby,

I completely agree that a convention that “requires” “a dual message”

can not be played ethically. But “Italian signals”, as I learned them 20 something years ago, RARELY allow a dual message. The dual message is only there with 4 or more spot cards.

BTW: thanks for pushing me on this, I wouldn’t have realized the line is quite that sharp and simple without it.

I don’t think anything else can be remotely playable by ethical players. Because with 2 or 3 spots, and ignoring UI, random suit preferences would be given constantly, and an ethical partnership would naturally learn to ignore it. Yes, I insist that with 3 spots there can be no dual message, since the need for a “neutral” card is too common, and so it will emerge in an improvised manner, probably with UI attached.

This is what is called “Italian signals” where I learned to play (Haifa, Israel). Perhaps in the USA it needs another name. A legacy of the cheaters on the Blue Team, and the black-magic of Italian cue-bids?