Aces on Bridge — Daily Columns

The Aces on Bridge: Wednesday, May 2nd, 2012

Quarry mine, blessed am I
In the luck of the chase.
Comes the deer to my singing.

Navajo hunting song

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


South claimed that he had been desperately unlucky to run into a lie of the cards that led to his defeat in today's deal. But you, the jury, will get to decide his case. Was he unlucky or careless?

What happened at the table would probably be mirrored at many tables in even a top-level duplicate field. Against four hearts West led three rounds of spades. Declarer ruffed the third one, cashed the heart ace and king, and was discomfited to see West with the length. He switched his attention to clubs, and when two rounds of the suit stood up, he played a third. West ruffed and exited with the heart jack to leave declarer with a diamond loser.

South was at fault for not taking the diamond finesse after two rounds of clubs, but as the cards lie, that would not have helped.

However, a better approach would be to ruff the spade at trick three, then play the heart ace and follow up with the heart 10. If West wins and plays another spade, you can ruff in dummy, then cross back to hand with the diamond ace, and draw trump. If East wins and leads a diamond through, you simply rise with the ace and run the clubs after extracting the remaining trump.

Almost but not quite as good is to draw one trump, then cross to dummy with a club to play a heart toward your hand, intending to finesse. However, you might conceivably run into a club ruff by following this line.

This is a difficult hand to evaluate. You have enough to commit the hand to game in spades, but if you believe you have enough to make a mild slam-try (which is aggressive but certainly not unreasonable), then you should bid four hearts now. This has nothing to do with presence or absence of a heart control, but simply shows opening-bid values in a raise to at least four spades.


♠ J 10 6
 8 6 2
 Q J
♣ A K Q J 6
South West North East
1♠ 3

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


jim2May 16th, 2012 at 1:11 pm

The column text (especially the phrase “even a top level duplicate field”) seems odd.

The column hand line does not seem indicated for matchpoints or Board a Match. If hearts split or are 1-4 (JH onside), declarer scores up the spade ruff, four more hearts, five clubs, and the AD for 11 tricks w/o breaking a sweat. Adopting the column line makes precisely 10 tricks almost every time (11 when JH is singleton, just as the “normal” line).

The odds of a 4-1 split are about 28%, so the column lines gains in one-half of those cases, or about 14% of the time.

The odds of a 3-2 split are about 68%. Together with 4-1 onside, that means the column lines loses at matchpoints or Board a Match about 82% of the time.

(I am neglecting JH singletons because it does not change the math much and because my head might start hurting again.)

At IMPs or rubber bridge, the column line makes much more sense but, at duplicate, the column line seems to be shooting for an unlikely top against the field.

bobbywolffMay 16th, 2012 at 2:34 pm

Hi Jim2,

You are correct in your analysis. The column does state (or at least implies) that even in a high-level duplicate field, most declarers will go down, not catering to the low percentage (as you pointed out) layout which demanded a safety play to make the hand.

Perhaps, my not so secret love for the game of bridge itself (and duplicate is a bastardized version), prompts me to color the correct, but this time failing, line of play as poor strategy, which it undoubtedly is.

Somehow, somewhere, others will feel the same way I do, but I do confess to not treating matchpoint lovers (not that you are necessarily one of those) with the proper respect that they deserve. In any event, I pledge to reconsider my coloring book and, although grudgingly, tend to regard the games of matchpoints and B-A-M as separate entities and accord them the attention they probably deserve.

With a final plea, I would like to point out that with the 8 million bridge players estimated as still playing bridge often in the USA (down from 35 million in the l950’s) only about 150,000 of them play tournament bridge, most of which involve matchpoints.

Thanks for your well considered and important viewpoint.

jim2May 16th, 2012 at 3:00 pm

I learned to play bridge in 1959 ….

Iain ClimieMay 16th, 2012 at 4:18 pm

Hi Mr. Wolff and Jim2,

It strikes me that the trump strength is part of the problem – with AKJ10x or even (rather less easily) AKQxx the safety play is more apparent.

Maybe one shouldn’t trust tens – with Qx in dummy opposite Ax(x) and a lead from the left, you have no real choice in the play. Give dummy Q10 and now you have a problem. Less flippantly, choice is not always good – there is an example dilemma (due to Buridan) of an ass starving as it cannot decide which of 2 piles of hay to eat from first. Shades of the Grosvenor coup, perhaps?



bobbywolffMay 16th, 2012 at 7:17 pm

Hi Jim2,

If the estimates of how many bridge players there were in the 1950’s as opposed to now than it was even more important to write principly to and for rubber bridge players, not tournament players, since I believe that the entire ACBL, then constituting the USA, Canada, Bermuda and Mexico, never had more than 200,000, making the ratio something like ,0057 to 1 in favor of plain bridge players.

One beauty of our game is the necessity for players at the top to often play to insure (or almost) the contract by sometimes taking out the playing insurance to make that more likely to happen.

Granted there are some players who love the intrigue and difficulty of adding to the above by giving a significant premium (in matchpoints) to those who successfully sometimes gamble and achieve the best results.

I am not in that camp since bridge without it (in the form of rubber bridge, IMPs or even the gone out of style total points) is more of an intellectual challenge since matchpoint tactics add a form of luck and subtract a form of important skill (attempt at safeguarding the contract) making the word gambling come to mind.

Bridge’s grandfather, Whist, had incorporated a much more difficult set of rules, making the playing of it well, almost an impossible task resulting in the interim game of Auction bridge which greatly discounted many of the impossible decisions necessary to be successful at Whist, but did so in an unintelligent manner marking the basic game as it is now of Contract bridge, invented in 1927, the game of choice which served to make the bridge porridge just about right.

Matchpoints or better known as duplicate bridge is an offshoot of contract bridge but the frequency of being right becomes more important than the amount of gain by being right serving to create a different emphasis which is arguably not as challenging (but certainly more luck and tactics involved, especially involved with what can affectionately be called “palooka killing”.

No harm in anyone liking one rather than the other, but my choice is the same as the ones who helped change Auction bridge to Contract bridge without the (what I consider) match point challenge.

bobbywolffMay 16th, 2012 at 7:33 pm

Hi Iain,

When one of us is right, we want it to be as difficult as possble, winding our way through successful guesses, imaginative choices, and coup like endings, but in reality the fewer guesses one has to make, the more likely he is to be a hero.

It always tickles me to say that such and such never misguesses a queen or always seems to know where every important card lies. The usual truth is that he (or she) got lucky but someone decided to print up that hand for all to see and revere.

The best players and for many years are the most consistent ones who are talented, great partners, tough minded, love the competition and can devote full concentration to the game itself and probably hope for as few guesses as possible in the bidding, declarer’s play, on opening lead and in the overall defense.

Thanks for giving your side of what the philosophical side of the game is all about.

jim2May 16th, 2012 at 8:20 pm

Ah, you did not mention the great debates over Total Points.

IIRC, the problems with Total Points scoring included that part score hands became essentially meaningless in long contests. Even NV games were of minor importance, with most contests being decided by slam hands.

Since very few hands produce slam, team games became quite boring for most deals. I seem to recall one historical writer complaining that one could essentially throw in the cards once it became clear that neither side had a shot at game.

The solution became what is now called IMPs, but many were the curmudgeons who tsked and harrumphed for years.

bobbywolffMay 16th, 2012 at 11:49 pm

Hi Jim2,

Again you are historically correct, at least I agree with your summations.

Total points catered both to slams and to vulnerable action, where both bonuses and sets (especially doubled) took on massive importance.

Europe was ahead of us in developing the first IMP scale sometime in the relatively early 1950’s. However, after the USA fell into similar thinking about the advantage of IMPs over total points, the USA offered a scale in I believe 1958 which was more aggressive than the first European scale with a maximum of 24 instead of peaking at 15. If memory serves during those interim years the WC’s played on American soil were scored at total points instead of the European IMP scale which was used everywhere else.

Since those sensitive years the scale has not changed even though once in a while someone submits what he thinks is an improvement. Up to now no dice, but no one of us can forecast the future. One thing for certain is that the IMP scale is a mighty improvement over total points since it downplays huge swings, but even after all these years, most knowing players and administrators are reasonably happy with the current numbers, but during the late 1950’s there was pro can con thinking on this side of the Atlantic, until reason finally triumphed.

David WarheitMay 17th, 2012 at 12:22 am

Jim: You are right in stating that the suggested line would not be good at duplicate, but I believe that Mr. Wolff’s alternate line would be the best line at duplicate, namely ruff the 3d spade, cash the heart ace, lead a club to dummy and lead a heart, intending to finesse the ten. Compared with banging down 2 rounds of hearts, this line gains when west has jack fourth (making 4 instead of going down), and loses when west has jack doubleton or third (making 4 instead of 5; yes, this line goes down if west has jack doubleton and 4 clubs, but what’s the chances of that?). All other possibilities come out even. While it is true that west is more likely to have jack doubleton or third than jack fourth (about 34% to about 11%), the question you need to ask yourself is: how much do I like my contract? Well, I like it quite a bit and so I am willing to take this safety play. Final point: did west need the jack of hearts to open the bidding? No, he has shown AKQ of spades & he must have the king of diamonds and 2 more spades, so that’s enough to open.

jim2May 17th, 2012 at 2:27 am

David –

I feel a stronger argument for any safety play line involves shapes. That is, West is known 5 or 6 spades (to East’s 3 or 2) and also the KD. IOW, East rates to have more hearts than West, though the perils of such reasoning are evident in the actual hand!

Nonetheless, I think the odds of West having Jx or Jxx are sufficiently greater than East holding Jxxx that I would seldom take that line unless I were shooting for an unlikely top.