Aces on Bridge — Daily Columns

The Aces on Bridge: Saturday, May 26th, 2012

There are two paths for human feet —
One bordered by a duty plain,
And one by phantoms cursed, yet sweet,
Bewildering heart and maddening brain.

Henry Herbert

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


When today's deal was played at the Dyspeptics Club, South was at the reins in his favorite contract of three no-trump. West led the heart 10, dummy contributed the queen, and East the king. South gave very little thought to ducking the trick — he tried it once and didn't like it. Instead he won with his ace and took a losing club finesse. East cleared hearts, and declarer held up his jack (for no particular reason), won the next heart, and finessed in spades. West won and cashed out the hearts for down one, while South was mournfully complaining about a gypsy's curse that he claimed had doomed every finesse he would ever take for the rest of his life.

North, noting that both diamond honors were also badly located, asked if South would be prepared to bet against the fate of the contract in the hands of a competent declarer. South agreed to the bet, but what had North seen that South had missed?

Say declarer ducks the first trick, wins the heart return, and plays the spade queen from hand next. The defense is now powerless, since West’s entry card has been dislodged. Declarer can win the return and go after clubs, secure in the knowledge that if the finesse loses, the nondanger hand, East, will have no way to reach West for his good hearts.

This example of attacking the entry to the danger hand first is especially hard to spot because the spades have to be led from hand.

You have a splendid hand on the auction, more than enough to bid four hearts. But just in case partner is interested in slam, you should bid four clubs to give your partner an additional option if a 4-4 club fit is best for slam. That could easily be right if your partner has a doubleton spade ace or king and five hearts, along with four or five clubs.


♠ 6 5 2
 Q J 5
 10 9 6
♣ A Q 10 3
South West North East
1 Pass
2 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 2012. If you are interested in reprinting The Aces on Bridge column, contact


Iain ClimieJune 9th, 2012 at 9:49 am

Dear Mr. Wolff,

It is an interesting hand, but could I point out one ghastly possibility. On the bidding, West is not guaranteed to have led from length in hearts – wouldn’t he prefer the H10 to a club from (say) Sxxx H109x DKQx C9xxx as North didn’t use Stayman? Now the seemingly reasonable line suggested misfires horribly as East wins an early spade trick he wasn’t expecting and clears hearts. The club finesse is then unexpectedly into the danger hand and the roof caves in – ouch!

To be fair, it is more likely that West has heart length but how much more likely? Declarer’s actual line may appear naive but works with either black King right. The suggested line fails regardless of the spade King’s position if the lead is from shortage and the club King is offside.

Any thoughts on this?


Iain Climie

Howard Bigot-JohnsonJune 9th, 2012 at 9:51 am

HBJ : A good lesson in presuming the worse and planning the play believing that both black kings are off side. For even if East pops up with the spade king to clear hearts , it matters not a jot who now has the club king………. for the contract is guaranteed.

jim2June 9th, 2012 at 11:00 am

What would West lead if dealt:


Iain ClimieJune 9th, 2012 at 11:40 am

Hi Gents,

The H10 on Jim2’s hand as from my earlier hand, Jim2’s hand without the CK or the hand West actually held. If the HQ wins at trick 1, then spade finesse followed by club finesse is the obvious line although being in dummy after T1 helps to some extent.

With Hearts 5-3 either way (4-4 is ok), and the King with the length, I’m not sure there is much better play than 1 of 2 finesses. Someone will doubtless correct my oversight.



jim2June 9th, 2012 at 1:45 pm

If West began with K1098x of hearts, then the KH will always be a third round entry because declarer’s AH is doubleton.

Perhaps a better Q for our Host is what line of play would he advocate if dummy’s honor held the first trick.

bobby wolffJune 9th, 2012 at 2:29 pm

Hi Iain, HBJ and Jim2,

Depending on the exact layout, of course, will result in the specific ending.

If the heart queen holds at trick one, it should be assumed that West holds the length in hearts (possibly 4-4) and the normal process begins with a spade finesse. If that loses (and after East has signaled an odd number of hearts at trick one, which in the USA is standard to be low from odd, high from even), then upon East continuing with another low heart, our contract will be relegated to a successful club finesse. If the spade finesse wins, it seems likely (and probably percentage) to now take the club finesse and when, and if, that loses (and, of course a heart is returned), then we are still relegated to another spade finesse for our contract. If East is brilliant enough to have ducked his Kx in spades the first time, all spoils go to him, but if he is so inclined to duck without being able to see the AQJ10 in declarer’s hand he deserves every award he will receive, What if declarer had: AQxx, Ax, Axx, Kxxx?

Of yes, it may be argued that with that hand declarer would not have immediately taken a spade finesse, but should we, as a defender, be expected to be such master psychologists to read declarer’s mind?

Again the game itself is our master, and to pull off such a defensive masterpiece, might we have to take time before declining to win the spade king, giving the show away, possibly even the set, on this hand?

To now answer Iain’s principle case of the opening lead being from 109x, instead of from length, yes it is indeed possible, but to again quote (almost) Damon Runyon, a gambler type, but a well known writer and poet, “The battle is not always to the strong, nor the race to the swift, but that is the way to bet”. You pay your money, you take your choice!

Iain ClimieJune 9th, 2012 at 2:41 pm

Good point on the extra question but I’ve still got concerns on the original hand and they seem to be growing by the minute. Suppose you take the HK with the Ace at T1, then play the SQ to East’s King. East plays the H8 back which you duck (this could be from K8x K87x or K87xx) but then a diamond comes through to the Queen and now West clears the hearts. At this stage, declarer has lost 3 tricks and doesn’t know for certain if the hearts are 4-4 or 5-3, while it is possible they are 5-3 the wrong way (whichever that is).

Declarer now can play either diamonds or clubs for 3 tricks provided he doesn’t finesse into the hand with one or more hearts left! I know this all seems a bit far-fetched (East with 5H and the CK would presumably just clear the suit, although then declarer can play on diamonds if he reads things right, hoping for an honour with East) but the original suggested line assumes that heart length is on the left – and that isn’t necessarily the case. I’m now at the bottom of a deep pit of scary possibilities, possibly of my own imagining – shades of Scooby Doo here, panicking at phantom terrors? I’ll stop digging at bridge and go back out to the garden where I’ll be less confused. I await enlightment from Mr. Wolff with interest.



jim2June 9th, 2012 at 2:44 pm

My spade Kx was just to be illustrative.

I think that if West has five hearts headed by the king, that declarer needs at least one black king to be onside.

Iain ClimieJune 9th, 2012 at 2:45 pm

Hi Mr. Wolff,

Our comments crossed in the ether – I think your last post answers most of my points, although the more I looked at the hand, the more I found.



bobby wolffJune 9th, 2012 at 4:12 pm

Hi Jim2 and Iain,

Got you about the King of spades as only an example of the monarch himself, not to be judged by his number of protective pawns. I also agree with your absolute of, with the opening leader having 5 hearts, one black king needs to be onside.

To Iain, your comments about the complications of this hand, (BTW, I loved your use of the word ether, which to me during my very early years was always used to symbolize the popular anaesthetic of the day, but now I, by consulting a dictionary, now know that it also could mean the upper regions of the air) lend themselves to what Jim2 refers as “his head begins hurting”.

Since I have been there more times than I could imagine, I am somewhat embarrassed to admit that when that occurs, I, rather than take forever, just decide to do one thing or the other and hope to get lucky. Tournament bridge is a timed event and I disagree with others who refuse to be pressured into making a play they might consider premature, without giving it up to 15+ minutes time.

To me, not keeping the table forever waiting, is an ethic of the game and should be respected, although I do have compassion for those who feel that once in a great while, the above should be relaxed to the point of non observance.

This particular hand, as documented so beautifully by you, might be one of the immediately above exceptions, but, if so, “signifying nothing” is what the Bard may have described it.

Iain ClimieJune 9th, 2012 at 5:32 pm

Hi Mr. Wolff,

Many thanks for your kind comments and I agree about the need for an acceptable speed of play. Analysing hands to death is rarely possible or desirable, but was it Victor Mollo who defined a theoretician as a player who can tell you the best bid or correct card 10 seconds after selecting something lse? Slower is not always better as the good results of many fine brisk players show, while my worst ever opening lead came after prolonged thought.

Any literacy on my path is an attempt to match up to the column, especially the quotes. Can I ask how you find such a good supply?



bobby wolffJune 9th, 2012 at 9:39 pm

Hi Iain,

Bartletts book of Quotations is a major source, but many readers send in their favorites. Actually there is no shortage of them and best of all, bridge lends itself to almost all philosophical, famous or not so.

Iain ClimieJune 9th, 2012 at 10:47 pm

Many thanks, sol can I recommend a quote from Daphne du Maurier’s “My Cousin Rachel”, chapter 1?

“There is no going back in life. There is no return. No second chance.”

Bleak but often true.

bobby wolffJune 10th, 2012 at 3:36 pm

Hi Iain,

Thanks for the wonderful quote which we will use since it often applies in bridge when either a declarer’s play or one by a defender commits the hand to the result so decided.

In retrospect, that particular quote probably applies in life many times, especially during a long lifetime, the results of which often with vast consequences, some super good and other times horrific.

Only last week in bridge I made a defensive play which allowed the declarer to play a hand magnificently, making a no play game, and causing us to lose a very close 1/4 final match, instead of winning and maintaining our chance to be the eventual champion, thus giving my team a ticket to represent the USA in the upcoming World Championship in Lille, France in the Senior competition.

Iain ClimieJune 11th, 2012 at 8:55 am

Ouch! Many commiserations but you’ll be back and probably more determined than ever.

RobJune 13th, 2012 at 6:35 pm

Alas, sorry to be late to the party on this one. But I am confused about something?

It looks like there is no difference between taking the ace on the first or second heart trick, as long as you (a) switch to a spade and (b) win the jack on the third round of hearts and no earlier.

Indeed, isn’t ducking the heart ace on the first round actually more dangerous than winning it? What if East switches to a diamond at trick 2? Then don’t the defenders get 5 tricks (all four kings plus the queen of diamonds)?

Thanks for the help — sorry if I’m missing something obvious (that’s usually the case!).

bobby wolffJune 15th, 2012 at 4:41 am

Hi Rob,

You are essentially correct, except, of course, by switching to a spade upon winning your first heart trick you will have to give up the finesse and lead them from your hand instead.

With the division of hearts as they are, it will make the hand, but if the spade finesse was on and East, not West had the length in hearts, (contra indicated by the lead, but still possible) this line would lead to defeat.

If the declarer ducks the first heart, East would have to be clairvoyant to immediately switch to diamonds instead of continuing hearts, but it all goes to show that declarers play can be looked upon differently by different people.

Thanks for writing and good luck.

RobJune 21st, 2012 at 11:36 pm

Thanks for the explanation! Yes I agree — if East switched to a diamond at trick 2, I’d check to make sure we weren’t playing with the transparent deck of cards on accident…