Aces on Bridge — Daily Columns

The Aces on Bridge: Monday, February 25th, 2013

A wise man will not leave the right to the mercy of chance, nor wish it to prevail through the power of the majority.

Henry David Thoreau

East North
Neither ♠ K J 8 6
 J 8 7 6
 A 10
♣ Q J 8
West East
♠ A 7 4 2
 K J 9 5 3 2
♣ 10 2
♠ Q 9 3
 Q 4 3
 Q 6
♣ K 9 7 6 4
♠ 10 5
 A K 10 9 2
 8 7 4
♣ A 5 3
South West North East
1 3 4 Pass
4 All pass    


When we read books or articles about suit combinations, they generally assume that the suit is in isolation — i.e., that the only consideration is the actual odds in the single combination. However, in real life there are often other things to take into account.

For example, here West leads the diamond six against four hearts. How would you plan the play?

The first decision is whether or not to win the first diamond, and that depends on whether you think West might have a seven-card diamond suit. The rule of 11 says no – but that is not the full story. You don’t want to duck the first diamond and run into a club shift that may help the defenders build a trick in that suit.

After you win the diamond ace, the percentage play in isolation in hearts is to start by cashing the ace. With no opposition bidding, you would then cash the king, but in the face of West’s pre-empt you may prefer to take a finesse against East’s queen. The problem is that you have no easy way back to dummy.

Even if you guess correctly in spades, the defenders may be able to take the spade ace and play two more rounds of diamonds, generating a trump loser for you. Now you will need something miraculous in the black suits to avoid a fourth loser.

After you win trick one, it is surely better to take a first-round heart finesse, playing East to have queen-third or queen-fourth of trumps from the outset.

It is an old wives' tale that one should always lead majors, not minors, against auctions of this sort. First you decide if you have an obvious lead from length; if not, you compare suits of equal attraction, and only then does a tie go to the major. Here your clubs offer a far more attractive lead than your spades. Lead a low club rather than an honor, though.


♠ K 5 4 2
 A 7
 J 9 3
♣ J 10 5 3
South West North East
1 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 2013. If you are interested in reprinting The Aces on Bridge column, contact


John Howard GibsonMarch 11th, 2013 at 10:12 am

HBJ : Yes West’s 3D usually suggests a shortage in hearts. Would West made such a bid otherwise ? With a certain or potential loser in each of other suits, the heart finesse has to be taken on, alongside getting the spades right.
Mind you, on a good day, with helpful defence, losers might be restricted to only 1D and 1S…. if the jack of spades can be set up ( and accessed to )…in order to discard that losing eight of clubs.
Hands like that are superb for creating a huge range of possible outcomes, with some N/S making 4H and 4H+1, while others enter up 4H-1 or 4H-2. Such is the great spectacle of this wonderful game.

Shantanu RastogiMarch 11th, 2013 at 11:07 am

Hello Mr Wolff & HBJ

When you know that if you make a pre-empt like with West cards against passed partner you are surely going to be played for shortness, wouldnt it make more sense to pre-empt with doubleton or singleton heart Q and pass otherwise ? The vul situation also doesnt make such a pre-empt a good choice. Such pre-empts do nothing better than making card play easier for declarer.

best regards

Shantanu Rastogi

bobbywolffMarch 11th, 2013 at 11:41 am


Yes, you have adeptly summed up the wide range of possibilities from 4 hearts making an overtrick to that same contract down as many as 2 tricks.

Like love in romance, consummate skill in bridge conquers all. The surprising reason in both enterprises is really not that much difference in procedure, only in romance (no expert, I) is attention to detail, another way of catering to partner’s specific needs and then performing when he or she needs them, while in bridge, planning ahead (here a first round trump finesse), not just following old wives tales (8 ever, 9 never) and the detective work (analyzing the bidding) to consider the whole hand, usually from the information already obtained, the opening lead and both dogs which barked and those who didn’t.

Quite often the difficulty begins with the genetic attribute of what can be called numeracy, which is NOT just aritmetically being able to add, subtract, multiply and divide, but rather the constant application of numbers in most all factors in bridge, which is born with some, but must be learned and then nurtured by others in order to rise above certain criteria necessary to eventually achieve extremely high-levels.

A real genius for bridge is very rare, but practicing and then obtaining excellent judgment is brought about by first keeping an open mind and then acquiring the experience to put it to effective use, and never fearing the occasional negative repercussions of being wrong.

bobbywolffMarch 11th, 2013 at 12:05 pm

Hi Shantanu,

You, of course, bring up an interesting caveat to consider and one, although debated for years, has no large percentage gain or loss to guide us to proven techniques.

First, my main mentor, early in my bridge life, the late and great Johnny Gerber from Houston, Texas was captain of many good teams in which I played and, when fairly significantly behind going into the 4th quarter, advised the whole team that in every close situation with the remaining boards, and believe me there are always many, either overcall or do not overcall, trying to do the opposite which will likely be done at the other table so that the result will be much more likely to result differently in order for our team to have a chance to catch up.

Johnny was saying basically what you are saying, but in a vacuum, preempts are designed to make it tougher for worthy opponents to have the bidding room to reach the right contract and sometimes a well-timed preempt (often for “lucky” reasons) causes a swing (such as a missed good slam) which would be unlikely missed without the pressure interruption the preempt might cause with the communication between your adversaries.

There are no hard and fast rules (to which I concur) which always or even almost always works, but the idea is when ahead to arrive at same contracts as your opponents at the other table, but when behind, seek out different ones.

In an isolated sense your advice is mostly accurate, but overall, never forget that bridge itself is the master, not you nor I, and funny things sometimes happen so, in the absence of unusual circumstances, and I hope being far behind is one of them, play it according to what your hand suggests (making preempts when they appear called for and perhaps the peer who has your hand at the other table will not preempt for fear of creating a large adverse number) and not worry about the small percentage possibilities of brilliantly being right. Leave that up to Hollywood to write scripts based on that magic, but in bridge it is real life and normal things usually do happen.

Shantanu RastogiMarch 12th, 2013 at 6:21 am

Hello Mr Wolff

Thanks for some very useful insights.Good Pre-empts according to me should serve three purposes – 1. They should make it harder for opponents to reach their optimum contracts 2. They should suggest good sacrifice
3. They shouldnt help declarer, which brings me this deal. Is 3 Diamonds in this deal a good pre-empt ? If you give all the points of East except Heart Q to South (South now has 18 points) , NS would now drive to 6 Heart and with the aid of 3 Diamond bid South would take finesse and make the contract which in absence of such a bid may fail. The same way 4 Heart could be made in the deal. If NS in other room are playing Precision South may open 1 Club and may just get 1 D overcall from West, now 6 H may again fail. If instead 3 spade had been the pre-empt NS may have found it difficult to reach 6 Hearts.

best regards

Shantanu Rastogi

bobbywolffMarch 12th, 2013 at 7:36 am

HI again Shantanu,

While I, nor perhaps anyone else can question your judgment as to the pluses and minuses of preempts, there are so many variables in what it sometimes takes to bid and make a slam, that offering the declarer a substantial clue as to where the trumps may be is not always a determining factor in allowing the opposition to make the slam. If the preemptor always produces a low singleton in the opponents long trump suit, partner may just have an impregnable trump trick. Then sometimes the preemptor is short in another suit instead and may even have QJx in trumps or another possibility is that the preemptors distribution just causes the hand not to make.

Your first assumptions of taking bidding space away from your worthy opponents and suggesting a possible sacrifice if partner has the right hand are both valuable assets and what I am really trying to emphasize is that no one who has ever played the game can possibly doubt that nothing yet invented has all pluses and no minuses, only that the above positive factors of preempting often gives partner a good lead as well as their partnership contributing to be tough opponents.

My advice is to not worry about possibly giving the opponents enough information to make a contract they might not otherwise make, but be glad that you have interrupted their free reign to bidding what might be a laydown slam. Also sometimes the preemptor is dealt Qx in trump and because of his bid might actually score up the setting trick.

DO NOT try and be a hero and do too much, but rest assured there is not a bridge player who has been born who has not been bloodied by their opponents getting the bidding up higher than they wanted them to and before enough information has been exchanged.

Rest your case on that and let the devil take the hindmost.