Aces on Bridge — Daily Columns

The Aces on Bridge: Thursday, October 4th, 2012

And after all what is a lie? 'Tis but
The truth in masquerade.

Lord Byron

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

* Slam try, short spades


Today's deal comes from a knockout match in a regional event where all the players were not only competent, but (as usual) had an appropriately high opinion of their own abilities.

When one East-West pair came back to score up, their teammates called out “minus 50” and the first pair announced that they had conceded 420. Nothing more was said for a few seconds, then East made the mistake of asking how South had gone down.

He was told that, against four hearts, West had led the club jack (denying a higher honor). Declarer won, cashed the heart ace and jack, and played a spade to dummy’s king and East’s ace. Can you see what the defense ought to do now?

In one room East made no mistake when he switched to the diamond queen. Just because East knew the contract would be cold if South covered, didn’t mean that HE knew that.

Look at the problem from declarer’s perspective. If East has the Q-J-9, he would be right to duck the queen. Even if he had covered and West had guessed to win and play a low diamond back, declarer would have been likely to go wrong.

When the unfortunate South retaliated by asking how the defense had gone in the other room, East (who had shifted to a low diamond at the critical moment) had little excuse but to say that the sun had got in his eyes at the critical moment.

In context you have a suitable hand for slam after your initial negative response. The only ways you could get your values across now (since you have nothing to cuebid) would be to jump to five hearts — which I would do if I had one fewer spade and one more heart — or to raise to four spades, in case partner has four trumps and would find there was a useful discard available in that strain.


♠ K Q 10 6
 Q 10 4
 10 8 5
♣ 7 5 2
South West North East
2♣ Pass
2 Pass 2 Pass
3 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


John Howard GibsonOctober 18th, 2012 at 9:31 am

HBJ : The cover of the queen is obligatory, but when returns a low diamond declarer certainly has a problem.
If East has J9 he’s fixed, and the board should be flat. But what if the J and the 9 are split.
If East has both declarer is home on the return of a low diamond ( by sticking in the 8 )
If East has the 9 declarer makes on the return of a low diamond ( again by playing the 8 )
However, if East has the Jack declarer has to guess as to which card to play from dummy, but here the 8 loses.
Therefore 2 out of 3 scenarios suggest playing the 8 is right. Unfortunately, on the above layout it happens to be wrong, but surely declarer is only playing with the odds.
A tough call to get it right.

Iain ClimieOctober 18th, 2012 at 10:03 am

Hi folks,

An interesting point here is how partner and team-mates react. I spent the last 13 months working away from home and playing at different sessions with 3 regular partners and some one-offs when I was club host or my regular partner for that night wasn’t available. In all that time, I had amazingly few cross words and huge amounts of fun.

I recently got a job close to home so started playing with my old regular partner; from 1979 to 85 we played a lot with fair tournament success. The other night we had a poor session (although 72 per cent the previous week) but every wrong view or error (he made some too) was treated with a tirade of abuse and my apologies or explanations were shouted down. I used to behave similarly (most embarrassing) but the EBU and ACBL do have guidelines for grown up behaviour now. I’ve therefore axed the partnership shortly after rebirth.

The lesson here is that things will go wrong, so be prepared for it, accept the apology and get on with the next hand. Blowing a gasket will mess up the next few boards as well, not improve matters. A further lesson is not to do what I did (stop playing for 25 yrs) but to get yourself a more bearable partner – life is too short to spend playing this great game but not enjoying it.


Iain Climie

jim2October 18th, 2012 at 12:34 pm

On BWTA, with 3S perhaps North was cue bidding the cheapest side suit ace above 3H.

If so, might not a bid of 4S show a holding much like South actually has?

Maybe North holds:

S A32
H AK9853

bobby wolffOctober 18th, 2012 at 1:21 pm


Your description is pretty close to right-on except for a more comprehensive discussion of an original choice of covering or not the queen of diamonds and later determining what to do with a small one coming back. When defending and then playing the queen from Q9x is truly the expert play and although you quite rightly (in this case) cover, if the defender holds the QJ9 (the holding he is trying to represent) instead of the Q9x it is, of course the wrong play to cover.
And then with a low one returned, read on.

The strict correct percentage play is related to Reese’s original discussion of “restricted choice”. Since the queen is the right play with queen, nine, small and either the queen or the jack is the correct play with queen, jack, nine, restricted choice suggests when one honor is played it is about 2 to 1 in favor of a superior defender (one who always, or almost, makes the right play) not having the other honor.

In actual play I have encountered declaring against this combination perhaps 3 or 4 times in my rather long career. Twice, both times while playing in the WC, in 1971 (in Taipet, Taiwan) and against Seres and Cummings of Australia and in 1973 declaring against Belladonna and Garozzo in Guaruja, Brazil, I played the percentages, covering the queen and rose with the ten when a low one was led back and, believe it or not, was right both times.

The only lesson I can impart is that, while playing against the world’s best, do not try and outguess the percentages and simply follow them, since trying to outguess what they may be doing (and at the same time going against those percentages) will, in the long run, be a losing proposition.

The so-called high level bridge game offers many thrills and those two episodes rank very high with me and as obvious, will be forever remembered and, of course, cherished.

jim2October 18th, 2012 at 1:49 pm

Ack! My “North” hand has 14 cards!

Sooo, THAT’s where the card went in my previous 12-card example!

Hmmm. Delete the QC, perhaps. Or, maybe the KD.

bobby wolffOctober 18th, 2012 at 1:49 pm

Hi Iain,

Your story reeks from the emotional truth and is not unusual, probably as we speak and around the world very good players and potentially high-level partnerships are suffering from one player or the other just being too hard on his partner.

The above is, at least to me, the very reason, that, in my experience over the last 60+ years of trying to climb the ladder to bridge success, that not one player ever, (in my considered opinion and any that I have heard about) has made it close to the top level if he had not started playing with a very good playing partner (as a mentor) while he, the relative beginner, was not young (say 16-25).

The reason being is that in order to rise in ability one has to make the mistakes every young person makes while attempting to learn the illusory great game of competitive bridge. And, to then add the human element, most mentors do not have the patience which is required to constantly have to remind their pupil of how awful it is to not progress quickly in a straight line to the skies and to continue to work hard first, and not be at all sensitive to (what he considers) constructive criticism second.

In truth, when one gets older he becomes more sensitive to public ridicule and is less likely to continue suffering the indignities which go with. Obviously every successful venture in learning to a high-level is different, but it appears to me that in all cases, and in order to reach anywhere near the top, this difficult learning experience needs to constitute the right of passage.

I am not suggesting that all the above factors were present in your (at least to me) extremely interesting history, but it definitely reminded me of what I experienced. It got so that, at least for me, to be called a congenital idiot, was complimentary, compared to whatever else was flung at me.

I am sad that your experience caused you to give up our wonderful game for so many years, especially considering the considerable talent you have, no doubt, always possessed, but believe me, I understand why.

And my point is that at a tender age, one is more likely to be able to bounce back from the humiliation experienced. Perhaps when bridge begins to be taught world wide in schools we can do away with the above cruel learning experience and that is a major reason why I am so heartfelt in endorsing that to happen.

bobby wolffOctober 18th, 2012 at 2:07 pm

Hi Jim2,

The three choices of responses to the 3 spade cue bid would be 4 hearts (conservative, but not absurdly so, especially since I have already raised hearts), 4 spades which would show 2nd round spade control but does go past a safety level of 4 hearts, forcing us to at least the 5 level or just a jump to 5 hearts, which should deny 1st or 2nd round control in both minors (remember that when one hand is already announced to be much stronger than the other, as in this case, 2nd round controls, the king or a singleton, are not only permissible, but rather recommended, to be used as cue bids).

I would choose 5 hearts first, since a bid of 4 spades still could have 2nd round control in at least one of the minors, and since our minor suit holdings are so barren, at least to me a jump to 5 hearts might inferentially show our good spade holding (what else may cause that choice), justifying our raise past game probably along with a significant heart honor necessary for partner to complete his investigation for slam. It either is enough or it isn’t, depending on his specific hand.

All three actions are very close to one another, at least to my judgment.

Iain ClimieOctober 18th, 2012 at 2:11 pm

Hi Mr. Wolff,

Thanks for the kind comments but I’m still kicking myself – if I had wanted to go further in the game, I could have shown more self-discipline e.g. less beer and more application. Alternatively, I could have accepted that I’d hit a plateau but could still enjoy playing around that level but cut back on the bigger tournaments. Either would have been ok, or I could just have been honest and said “sorry, I don’t Enjoy partnering you – find someone else”. I wouldn’t even have minded more direct criticism – it was the prolonged whining and tantrums that ground me down.

What really annoys me is that I didn’t realise the problem, and just played the game less, enjoyed it even less and then stopped for no good reason instead of waking up. I don’t want anyone else to miss out on success, pleasure or both just through not biting the bullet!

Thanks again for the kind comments though, and does anyone near Andover (UK) want a game some time?


bobby wolffOctober 18th, 2012 at 2:18 pm

Hi Jim2,

Yes, even though your example hand has 14 cards it still gets your very well chosen point across.

To that I want to remind you, that while science in bridge, particularly in slam bidding, is very important, it still involves more art, and therefore more chance taking, in exactly how the particular hands match up and while it is easier to discuss from afar, when one is playing and at the table, dame fortune is in control and therefore sometimes science be damned, and Bob Hamman once reminded me that “please do not play me for a certain hand or distribution or more likely a certain card, since chances are I do not have it”. Very true words, leaving every partnership to have to consider not only the final contract, but sometimes not going beyond a safety level in order to insure not having a disaster.

There is just not enough language available in our bidding vocabulary to describe entire hands without having to hope or sometimes take chances.

David WarheitOctober 18th, 2012 at 4:51 pm

It’s interesting to note that east should realize the following: south has 3 club tricks & apparently 6 heart tricks. He has played one spade, & if he has another, he can have only 2 diamonds, meaning at most 2 more losers. He must therefore conclude, if he wishes to have any hope of defeating the contract, that south has 3 diamonds. Those 3 diamonds must not include the ace, but they must include the king, since partner did not lead a high diamond on opening lead. Ergo, the only hope to defeat the contract is to lead the diamond queen. So, what looks like a brilliant play is just a matter of fairly simple analysis. Note also that west, after winning the ace of diamonds exactly what his partner knows, so the return of a low diamond is his only chance to defeat the contract.

Iain ClimieOctober 18th, 2012 at 5:43 pm

Nice analysis from David but there is a small problem. If East has DQJ9 the switch to DQ is clearly automatic but some more thought is needed with the actual holding. If East is on his game (elementary my dear partner if you are DW) or works out the position quickly enough then he can play the DQ but with QJ9 the temptation may be lead the DJ for possible effect. Declarer could pick up on this – or talk himself out of the right line or even fail to work out how good RHO is. Maybe just playing the odds minimises grief!

bobby wolffOctober 18th, 2012 at 5:46 pm

Hi David,

Your explanation is nothing less than brilliant and concentrates on the teaching of what to think about and why.

Now, fast forward to what the really great bridge players have known for many years, so much of bridge thinking is what you have gone to great pains to carefully explain.

Being able to think the way you mention in a flash and then being able to camouflage the tempo of your plays so as to not give anything away, and to go even further, make it so that if a slightly less class player, although still a wary opponent, tries to take advantage, he will usually shoot himself in the foot. All of the preceding is part of the next step in the development process and serves to simply upgrade the competition of high-level bridge to be the greatest challenge (and therefore gives mountaintop type thrills) ever invented in games.

Bruce KarlsonOctober 18th, 2012 at 6:14 pm

From the cheap seats: Even me, with my 500 MPs would recognise that the D Queen is the ONLY hope. Ergo I would put it on the table with a minimum of thought and transfer the problem (if there is one) to declarer.

The expert thought is very enlightening and I have not a clue as to whether I would cover as declarer, although with the 10 in dummy I probably would duck. That hardly constitutes expert thought, which is quite appropriate…

Ted BartunekOctober 18th, 2012 at 7:59 pm

Hi Mr. Wolff,

On BWTA you commented to Jim2 that you did not prefer a 4 Spade bid, because you might still hold a control in a minor. My initial reaction to the problem was that since the minors had been by-passed, I was specifically denying a minor control. When should you by-pass the minor control and immediately go past game?

David WarheitOctober 18th, 2012 at 9:09 pm

The “really great bridge player” has one more weapon in his arsenal: if he does indeed have QJ9, he must hesitate, as though he has a problem, before leading to the next trick. And, behold, he does have a problem: whether to lead the queen or jack, a decision he makes first by an analysis of declarer and second by having an internal mechanism that operates as a random maker.

bobby wolffOctober 19th, 2012 at 2:06 am

Hi Ted,

One way and undoubtedly the most frequent way would be to jump to 5 hearts over partner’s cue bid of 3 spades, which would very likely deny a 2nd and certainly a 1st round control in the minors, placing your values in hearts and spades. The minus on this hand would be the two minor suits, both having no control, even 3rd round, which would almost certainly come into play if partner had a side AK (very likely) but also a loser in that suit. He might have 2 side AK(x).

We get back to thinking artful thoughts rather than expect only strict, successful scientific bidding to just appear. That is why returning to 4 hearts should certainly be under consideration, waiting for partner to still confirm his slam interest rather than to just pass. If we knew that partner had some length in spades with his ace, then we, of course are back in the slam zone.

Always understand that good feel is worth at least as much as a complicated system. Bridge at any level rarely lends itself to anywhere close to perfect slam bidding. Good probably, very good, maybe, but never perfect.

bobby wolffOctober 19th, 2012 at 4:04 am

Hi Bruce,

One thing is certain, and that is, unless you, as declarer, have a complete tell on your RHO, when he leads the queen at you, it is percentage to cover with the holding being discussed. If you duck, as sure as bridge is a great game, the next card you will see from RHO is a low diamond, so you are now down to a 50% guess as to whether or not you will make it. If you play the king the first time, you are 50/50 to win the trick and if not, you still figure to have chances the second time around when LHO continues with a low one.

As all of the realistic brain trust out there realize (or should) when you play against very good players and the combination of cards narrows down to what this one does, there will be no bad plays made, only the optimum chosen, so why not play the percentage, as you suspect it, and let the devil take the hindmost.

bobby wolffOctober 19th, 2012 at 4:11 am

Hi David,

While your description remains 100%, the ethics of any of these types of situations are loose enough so that any action taken, such as random studies are not to be denied. The time becomes unimportant and irrelevant whenever a defensive opponent decides to lead what he eventually chooses. All of the players at the table are allowed to fidget, play fast, play slowly or whatever. Time does not change anything so do not read anything into it and if you do, the risk is yours.

bobby wolffOctober 19th, 2012 at 4:19 am

Hi Iain,

Yes, the play (guess) now transcends the game itself and the psychology of poker takes over where bridge ethics are not involved, but rather mind games with each other become the order of the day.

As the late and great Vic Mitchell, a NY, Nathan Detroit type of figure (from the great musical Guys and Dolls) used to say, “I use to play bridge against a guy who was so good that I thought long and hard on some psychological guesses and waited until I had analyzed it to by best advantage and once I made that decision I always did just the opposite of what my instincts suggested and my luck turned out to be excellent with that approach”. To me, I always considered that to be the most respect anyone can have, facing a known opponent.