Aces on Bridge — Daily Columns

The Aces on Bridge: Thursday, November 22nd, 2012

Men are not hanged for stealing horses, but that horses may not be stolen.

George Savile

South North
Neither ♠ J 10 9 2
 A Q 10 8 3
 9 2
♣ 5 3
West East
♠ Q 8 7 5
 6 4
 J 8 7 5
♣ J 4 2
♠ K 6
 K 9 7 2
 Q 6 4
♣ 10 9 8 7
♠ A 4 3
 J 5
 A K 10 3
♣ A K Q 6
South West North East
2 NT Pass 3♣ Pass
3 Pass 3♠* Pass
3 NT All pass    

*Four spades and five hearts


John Armstrong, aged 56, died of a brain hemorrhage just days after returning from representing England in the 2008 European Championships. With his partner John Holland, John finished in second place in the Butler rankings (for average IMPs won) — quite an achievement for a pair from a team that finished in 12th place.

Armstrong was on the team that won the Silver Medal in the 1987 Bermuda Bowl World Championships — Britain’s best performance since taking Gold in 1955. And he was also on the teams that produced Britain’s most recent best Open results in European Championships — runner-up in 1987 and winner in 1991. (The British Open Team’s previous win was back in 1963.) Today’s hand is from that 1991 victory.

Armstrong, the declarer in three no-trump, could see eight tricks — he must come to at least two in hearts — but where to go for the ninth? Britain was on Vugraph at the time and the commentators made an assortment of erudite suggestions. But John’s solution was simple: he won the club lead and continued with ace and another spade. East won with the king and returned a club. John now ran the heart jack, which East could not afford to win. When the heart jack held, declarer played a third spade. West took the queen, but with the heart ace still in dummy, John could not be denied access to his established spade jack. Contract made.

Partner's action does not guarantee a great hand. With short hearts he is obliged to balance, even though he is not technically in balancing seat. To double for penalties, you would need the heart jack instead of the two, and you might still not beat it! Pass, and rely on your partner to bid again with a real hand.


♠ K 6
 K 9 7 2
 Q 6 4
♣ 10 9 8 7
South West North East
Pass 2 2♠ 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


Patrick CheuDecember 6th, 2012 at 9:28 am

Hi Bobby, a nice hand in timing, before giving up the third spade, the Jack of hearts finesse first and returning to the spade play whilst in control.If spades were J10xx and not J109x, the play would have been the same, relying on 3-3 break.Best Regards-Patrick.

scoldedjimDecember 6th, 2012 at 1:07 pm

Since declarer was leading towards the Board holding both times, I think J10xx would have won with either 3 – 3 or at least one spade honor in the West hand.

bobby wolffDecember 6th, 2012 at 2:26 pm

Hi Patrick and ScoldedJim,

Absolutely, an almost 100% caveat from Patrick, and an additional clarification from SJ. And how about a guessed KQ doubleton with East with only J10xx or a singleton guessed honor with East or the same singleton in either hand with the actual holding with no guessing necessary.

To some, these card combination tidbits are necessary, to others, fantastic, but to lesser aficionados, require too much thought and will leave it to those who are addicted to the game.

I, for one, appreciate the rounding off and heartily approve any comment which allows others to think about choices, which, like it or not, make our game what it is.

Iain ClimieDecember 6th, 2012 at 6:00 pm

Hi Mr. Wolff,

Is declarer’s problem almost a surfeit of high cards? With the SQ (instead of the SA or even SK) the play would be much more obvious.

On BWTA, there are some West players against whom I’d bid 3S as I’d probably get 4H which I can double. Sadly many of my partners would bid 4S first so another idea goes in the bin. Still, raising overcalls on Kx or similar (not just 3+ card support) is often useful, especially if it gets partner to lead the suit instead of shying away from AQ10xx(x) when it would work.



Bill CubleyDecember 6th, 2012 at 6:33 pm


Mr Armstrong was from Derbyshire where my ancestors were from. If you get a map which shows footpaths then you will find Great Cubley, about 7 miles west of Derby. Lots of cows, no pub. 😉

Iain ClimieDecember 6th, 2012 at 6:47 pm

Just an addendum to the thought about the SQ. Imagine you were East with the hand shown and declarer had played the SQ after winning T1. You might well duck here and also duck the HJ. Yet imagine what partner would say if declarer had started with SAQx HJx DAJ10x CAKQx and now cashed the SA. Still it is only an overtrick or two at IMPs.

The point from my ramblings though is that leading the middle card from AQx or AJx can be useful for both flexibility and disguise.

Ted BartunekDecember 6th, 2012 at 8:36 pm

Hi Mr. Wolff,

On BWTA if partner now balances with a Dbl, what would you bid? Does vulnerability or type of game change the answer?

bobby wolffDecember 6th, 2012 at 10:16 pm

Hi Bill,

First, I enjoyed meeting and talking with you in SF.

Second, John Armstrong was truly an actively ethical and superior player, at least to me, matching up very well against the finest in the world. I played against him a number of times, the most important in the World Championships, Jamaica, 1987, wherein he played what seemed to me, without error.

Lots of cows, livable, no Pub, not!

bobby wolffDecember 6th, 2012 at 10:28 pm

Hi Iain,

Yes, your description of the same play whether holding the queen or the ace contributes to what could be called the illusions of the game.

Your other worthwhile advice about supporting a spade overcall by partner with Kx and then being able, partner willing, to double the opponents in 4 hearts speaks to what I have always assumed to be the most important part of winning bridge (even more so than technical ability). psychological competitiveness and even heightened, as you deftly pointed out, by cheerfully directing the lead.

SHH! don’t give deceptive tactics away to some who someday may be your opponents, even if the then venue is replete with harps, or rather, possibly in my case, pitchforks.

bobby wolffDecember 6th, 2012 at 10:43 pm

Hi Ted,

The answer in all forms of bridge would be the same, pass!

My preference is to avoid these types of difficult decisions by not being dependent on defeating a hand on either the location of a card or two, or the distribution around the table, but when left with no other alternative choice, I will accept it and hope for the best.

At least to me, a secret of winning is not to be in this type of situation. The difference between the best possible result as opposed to the best result possible should never enter a winning player’s mind, but some very talented players disagree with me and invariably seem to go for the throat.

Good luck to them, but my advice to all up and comers, is in order to win, one needs to win lots of matches and therefore winning 4 out of 5 is not nearly good enough, so why contribute to being bait for unlucky distribution rather than to be conservative against losing big swings and directing the winning of any one match to only bidding, declarer’s play and partnership defense (as long as one is not just getting pushed around).

In other words play the law of averages and eliminate the chances for bad luck, that is, if one has the real confidence of being better than the other team.

bobby wolffDecember 6th, 2012 at 11:23 pm

While assuming a new role by putting forward a hypothesis rather than answering one, pertaining to the quote on today’s column, what about, “It is not about kicking someone out of bridge for life without any possibility of parole because of stealthy cheating, it is rather, to keep bridge players from doing that”.

Iain ClimieDecember 7th, 2012 at 10:01 am

I worked in Derby for a while and have good news. Great Cubley may be dry but there are lots of decent pubs in villages and small towns near Derby. Melbourne is quite nice and even Wilson (pop 250) has a pub – the Bull’s Head.