Aces on Bridge — Daily Columns

The Aces on Bridge: Monday, March 19th, 2012

The best laid schemes o' mice an' men
Gang aft a-gley.

Robert Burns

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


The partnership between two of the world's greats, Zia Mahmood and Bob Hamman, will be coming to an end later this year, after a seven-year run in which they won a Bermuda Bowl and several national titles. Both players are capable of extremely inventive card-play, and though they may not have gelled perfectly as a pair in the bidding, they will leave behind a treasure trove of deals for the journalists.

Take the following deal from the 2011 Spingold, when they came from behind to defeat the O’Rourke team. Check out the full hand, and tell me which side you would fancy if you knew one table had played in five spades and the other in six spades.

Here’s the full story: In the other room, where Hamman’s teammates sat North-South, Eddie Wold (West) opened one heart and Roger Bates (East) raised to two hearts when South doubled. Now North-South reached five spades in competition, but were never close to the slam.

In the other room the auction was as shown. Hamman led the heart ace against six spades … and Zia dropped the king! Now when Hamman continued with a second heart, can you blame declarer for ruffing high, expecting hearts to be 8-1 and hoping trumps were not 3-0? This was the only way to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, but I might have done the same thing myself. And all credit to Zia for finding the false-card that tipped the scales in his favor.

The opponents have had a limited auction in which suits do not appear to be lying well for them, so my instincts are to try to produce a passive defense. With no particular confidence I'd lead the heart nine, expecting that while it might give declarer a tempo, it is relatively unlikely to finesse partner out of an intermediate honor. My second choice would be a spade rather than a club.


♠ Q 9 4 3
 9 5
 J 7 5
♣ A 10 8 2
South West North East
1 Pass 1♠
Pass 2 Pass 2 NT
All 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 2012. If you are interested in reprinting The Aces on Bridge column, contact


Iain ClimieApril 2nd, 2012 at 11:23 am

Dear Mr. Wolff,
Zia’s play is brilliant but isn’t declarer still struggling after any card but the club Ace from West at trick 2 if Zia plays low? A double-dummy diamond at trick 1 also leaves south stuck – or am I missing something?


Iain Climie

Iain ClimieApril 2nd, 2012 at 1:05 pm

This is a “Grosvenor coup” – if declarer (impossibly) reads Zia for HKx he runs the H to the Q10 and ruffs a diamond after drawing trumps. When declarer realises what has been done to him, he’ll probably be very Unnerved – Zia’s mind games claim another victim?

jim2April 2nd, 2012 at 1:46 pm

My question is about the same as Iain Climie’s, who also beat me to the “Grosvenor Gambit” reference. Grrrr! 🙂

(And I had been waiting two weeks for it!)

Furthermore, I think Hamman would presume that South’s sequence (given what Hamman could see in his own hand) showed a club void. Even if he were unsure on that point, however, there is no club discard possible for the closed hand and no way to dicard five clubs from dummy. Thus, if declarer has a club loser, it would not go anywhere. So, whatever Hamman would lead at Trick 2, I think the AC can be ruled out.

So, was Zia deliberately pulling a Grosvenor? Perhaps, but Zia may have simply feared a layout such as the actual one but with declarer’s soft red strength replaced by the AC. In such a layout, Zia’s KC would be unable to stop the run of the club suit.

bobby wolffApril 2nd, 2012 at 1:47 pm

Hi Iain,

Yes, you are right on both counts and this particular AOB is a flawed presentation.

Perhaps we got carried away with the intended defensive coup (which worked and should have, since all the declarer needed by ruffing up in dummy was now a 2-1 trump break).

However because of the layout and with the defense discarding correctly (West holding on to all his diamonds and eventually discarding the club ace) the slam could always be defeated unless declarer read Zia’s mind and let the heart continuation run around to him (but what sane declarer would choose that play?) or, of course, if Zia would have kept the heart king and then, as you so correctly suggest, down would go the slam.

Iain ClimieApril 2nd, 2012 at 2:12 pm

Many thanks for this and my commiserations to jim2 – the unfair advantage of being 5 or 6 hrs ahead (in Britain) is hard to overcome. I was Grosvenored the other week by a much weaker player if it cheers him up.

bobby wolffApril 2nd, 2012 at 2:13 pm

Hi Jim2,

Yes, Hamman would not have switched to the club ace, had Zia merely followed like a mere mortal with his low heart and furthermore he would have held on to his 4 diamonds since Zia would have signalled his club length and therefore holding the king with it.

Regarding Zia’s reason for his heart gambit falsecard, no defender has time to reason what to play at trick one, not that is, if he intended to throw up the intelligent falsecard that he chose.

The lesson to be learned here is that all
ethical advantages pass to the declarer rather than the defense, since for Zia to hesitate before finally playing the singleton heart king would not be considered ethical (and IMO I agree). At least at the high-level in bridge the ethics of the game are taken as seriously as very necessary, otherwise bridge would become like poker, only with poker since there is no partnership cooperation ever required, it can and should be allowed, but in bridge that aspect of the game is always present and no raionalization, no matter how convincing, should ever allow a TD or later, a committee, to back off in enforcing it.

Too many have tried, but allowing even one to succeed, would be a major failure for the game itself.

Thanks always for writing and I, for one, will give both you and Iain credit for spotting a Grosvenor, e.g. usually a defensive play, which upon review, cannot win, but nevertheless accomplishes the same defeat for the declarer, which in addition to the good result obtained adds fuel to add to the declarer’s disappointment.

bobby wolffApril 2nd, 2012 at 3:24 pm

Hi Richard (Schmalbeck),

Finally, the original March 19th column has appeared and I am happy to inform you (as you might have already read from the above comments), that you are 100% correct in your analysis.

The only way the hand could possibly be made is (without the jettison of the king of hearts) if either West (Bob Hamman) tries to cash the ace of clubs (I can assure you he would not have done that) or instead, as you mentioned, West throw away a diamond and keep the ace of clubs when declarer runs off his trumps coming down to only 3 cards (all diamonds held by declarer). Zia would have high lowed (or whatever particular distributional signals that partnership plays) to signal 4 clubs and Bob would have held on to his 4 diamonds, throwing away his ace of clubs.

True, as you might have read above, Zia’s play was a Grosvenor, but in spite of that it might win the defensive play of the year award, a contradiction in terms but nevertheless, considering the blind play at trick one with no where near enough evidence to decide, merely choosing to bamboozle declarer into trying to keep from going set at trick two, and needing only a 2-1 trump division to avoid it.

This hand symbolizes high-level bridge as it really is, with many times only educated guesses being made because of the closed hand nature of the game, and just the bidding plus the opening plays to guide one.

I hope the above was worth the wait, but once again thanks for your superior analysis.

Alex AlonApril 2nd, 2012 at 4:20 pm

What always ignite my imagination is how fast those players like Zia and our host are thinking. After all if the tempo of the play does not fit to a tempo of a singelton the declarer will spot it most of the time. Interesting to know was it a “prepared” move by Zia? After all from the bidding it is clear that partner has the Ace H and probably the Q also so no harm in discarding the K…
Or upon the opening lead the declarer took his time ( as he should) in order to plan the play and during this time Zia had planned his move?

Jeff SApril 2nd, 2012 at 4:21 pm

Even if South was 95% convinced by the false card, couldn’t he have protected himself by simply discarding a diamond from the board at trick 2? He has the high heart and even if East (as expected) trumps in, isn’t the contract now completely safe no matter what is returned? Or am I missing something.


Jeff SApril 2nd, 2012 at 4:23 pm

Dang. Just flashed that off and realized it was the 6S hand, not the 5S. Sorry!

Jeff SApril 2nd, 2012 at 5:26 pm

That really is a diabolical falsecard. Even if you suspect (and with such a brilliant player, how could you not suspect?), it is so tempting to hope against hope that the spades are 2-1 so it won’t matter. And it hardly matters that the hand was otherwise set – how could Zia know that?

I have a little story that might help make up for my earlier carelessness (see above).

Lurking in a Bridgebase room a couple of months ago, I saw a similar motif – in the sense that a hand was set, but the defender didn’t know it, tried a brilliancy that could have failed, but succeeded.

West had a handful of clubs including the top six(!), but had to give up to the opps slam bid. Figuring declarer had a singleton club at best, he led the two! His hope was that his partner had the eight and could work out to give him a diamond ruff. Dummy had the eight and three and East had the 76. Declarer had the four.

Declarer reflexively played the trey from the board and East was stunned to find himself on lead when his seven held. He took a long time, but successfully worked out that his partner MUST have all the top clubs and from there that his partner must have a void. The duece filled in the rest of the story for him and he led a diamond back to set the contract.

bobby wolffApril 2nd, 2012 at 5:46 pm

Hi Jeff S,

Thanks for your from the heart analysis and your opinions.

The Zias, Hammans, and other top stars around the world, would very likely rise with the 8 of clubs in dummy, thus foiling the opening leaders master plan for the defense.

They would do so, not strictly out of brilliance, but because of total focus on the hand in general. The opening leader undoubtedly had bid clubs during the auction and yet led the deuce, which would (should) become a major flashpoint to the declarer.

There are no gods at bridge, only guides to doing what works. And going further, that is what makes experience or its synonym, total focus, more important than sheer talent, numeracy or anything else, at the very top level.

jim2April 2nd, 2012 at 6:42 pm

Note that, from Zia’s point of view, declarer might have held something like:


Jeff SApril 2nd, 2012 at 8:11 pm

Oh, it definitely should not have worked, but it was a fun hand to watch. Opening leader had no way of knowing there was both a club and diamond trick available in the natural course of things, so it was a wonderful attempt to foil the slam by finding his partner with the eight. It was, as you say, just a temporary loss of focus that allowed it to work out after all even though the eight wasn’t where he hoped.

It seems that any game at the top level (or even a less-advanced level) requires that total focus to the task at hand. I know from experience that at chess, a momentary loss of focus can undo several hours of work in a single stroke.

bobby wolffApril 2nd, 2012 at 8:16 pm

Hi Jim2,

Yes, Zia could have immediately thought about the hand you mention as one South had but, that would then mean that declarer if he ruffed high would be playing for the 4 heart bidder (West) to have 9 hearts, discounting East from having the KQ doubleton and not leaving as much room for a singleton spade in the opening leaders hand making his ruff with a high spade a close but certainly not standout choice. I’ll save you the time it takes to check the bidding to see if East had a chance to bid a competitive 5 hearts and the practical answer is that he did not and by the time he was next to speak the bidding was at 6 spades.

All the above pales to the proposition that Zia can reason all this out at the speed of light so that he can falsecard his king in tempo. Unfortunately for him and for humanity he is only human.

PS. And the rest of the story is that some very high-level players (who shall remain nameless) might claim that being 3rd seat and at trick 1 have the right to study (more or less indefinitely) before playing to the 1st trick even while holding a singleton.

Does the above sound a bit self serving to the benefit of East? If so, it is because IMO it surely is.

The more we talk, the richer the talk becomes, the more is learned and by everyone involved.

Iain ClimieApril 2nd, 2012 at 9:23 pm

As an afterthought, can I suggest that this AOB should not be seen as “flawed” given all the above contributions and insights. Mr. Wolff is being far too hard on himself on a great hand and column..

Ted BartunekApril 3rd, 2012 at 7:49 pm

I’ve habitually hesitated in 3rd seat at trick 1 to study dummy and tentatively plan my defense. With a singleton I would consider it unethical to instead play immediately to trick 1, since it would indicate to my partner, that I had no reason to think before playing to that trick.

bobby wolffApril 3rd, 2012 at 11:43 pm

Hi Ted,

You are probably the exception to the rule, perhaps in my estimation 10% (1 in 10) who maintain their strict ethicality on every hand you play. Do you also alert the opponents that 3rd seat in your partnership always studies before playing to trick one and, of course, your partner, I assume, does the same thing without fail?

If you or your partner fails to hesitate will one of the two of you then call the TD calling attention to an ethical violation by your partnership. And finally do you realize that by so committing to such a practice you deprive the declarer of his normal right to glean whatever he can surmise from the 3rd seat tempo as long as the declarer does not intentionally and unethically fast play the dummy?

Another way of understanding what I am saying is that methinks that the players who choose to take advantage of what is allowed in the rules (hesitation before playing to trick one as a 3rd seat defender) is usually (90% by my guess) trying to gain an advantage they have not earned.

I am pleased and honored to know that you, Ted, are part of the 10%.

Ted BartunekApril 4th, 2012 at 4:26 am

I have to say honestly, that alerting this had never crossed my mind. I’d always though of it as good fundamental bridge — as declarer, you stop and plan before playing to trick 1, it seemed you should do the same on defense.

As I’ve considered this a little more, if declarer has in fact stopped to plan, I’ll use that same time as well, and may in fact be ready to play by the time dummy plays.

Perhaps I misunderstood, or have been unwittedly doing something improper, but my intent in play, is after that initial thinking, to maintain as consistant a tempo as possible. Playing a singleton out of tempo by fast playing it I’ve thought had almost the same ethical concern as slow playing it.

I much appreciate your thoughts on this.

bobby wolffApril 4th, 2012 at 1:43 pm

Hi Ted,

It is obvious to me that your intentions are definitely in the best interest of bridge.

The laws give the 3rd hand defender the right to do what you originally suggested, that even though you may have an obvious play, including only a singleton, you have the right to consider the whole hand before you play so that, as you say, other plays can always be in tempo, theoretically not giving any extra information to either partner, nor to the opponents.

In practice, though among the few (at least the ones I’ve run into) that behavior turns out to be controversial at best, since 1. The declarer is not used to it, 2. the 3rd seat defender, by his tempo and especially his body language, often results in a tell to partner. 3. Also, sometimes for no particular reason the 3rd chair then forgets his obligation to study and plays quickly which, in turn, imparts UI to partner. Sadly, an unsuspecting declarer (especially in the failure to be alerted) will never have knowledge of the likely UI and although most times it will not matter, sometimes it is critical for the future defense.

If all players had your positive attitude toward your bridge responsbility the game would be better off, but unfortunately there are some very good players who for whatever reason, seem to thrive on their uneven behavior, resulting in no reason to change.