Aces on Bridge — Daily Columns

The Aces on Bridge: Tuesday, June 18th, 2013

Master of human destinies am I!
Fame, love, and fortune on my footsteps wait.

John Ingalls

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


These days Ely Culbertson is regarded with a somewhat jaundiced eye. Players remember the tales of his histrionics, but forget that he was both a trailblazer in the theory of the game and a fine card-player at a time when there were no textbooks to teach you technique. He was credited with defending today's deal.

The bidding may look strange to a modern eye, but the call of four no-trump showed rather than asked, while the response of five no-trump promised two aces.

The partnership had nonetheless reached a slam that appeared to hinge on the heart finesse, and the auction had made this somewhat unlikely to succeed. Against six diamonds, Ely (West) led the spade king. Declarer took this with dummy’s ace, then ran six rounds of trump, throwing a heart from the table. Next came the three top clubs. Culbertson is credited with discarding the heart eight, spade 10, his four clubs, then finally the spade queen and jack. Meanwhile East discarded his club first, then two hearts and next the spade six.

Accordingly, when declarer led the spade eight from his hand at trick 11, Culbertson was able to follow low. East could win the spade nine and exit with a heart through declarer, insuring that Culbertson scored his heart king at the end.

If Culbertson had not unblocked all of his spades when discarding, he would have been thrown in to win the second spade and thus have been forced to lead from his heart king into declarer’s heart tenace.

This is the sort of sequence where it is important to bid four spades with confidence, leaving it to the opponents to work out if you are bidding to make or are sacrificing. Yes, there are lies of the cards where you can beat four hearts if you get a diamond ruff. But against that, you rate to escape for no worse than two down in four spades. So unless the vulnerability is against you, take the save.


♠ K Q J 10 5
 K 8 7
♣ J 10 9 5
South West North East
1♠ 2 3♠ 4

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


bruce karlsonJuly 1st, 2013 at 11:39 am

If East plays the 6 at trick one, either as a false card or a new player simply using MUD, declarer might go wrong. It is possible that the overcaller had 6 spades and the J10 of clubs, giving partner 6,4 in spades. In that case the squeeze (?) will not work and the heart hook may seem like the only chance.

I know our host has no use for MUD, and ergo converted me. This appears to be an example, however, in which it inadvertently might help the defense.


Iain ClimieJuly 1st, 2013 at 11:40 am

Hi Bobby,

I take it 4N is the Culbertson 4/5 NT convention, once described as an adult weapon by S J Simon compared to Blackwood being a child’s toy. This is pre-RKCB of course, while I remember Byzantine BW in the early 80s as being very sophisticated. Whatever happened to that?

One minor nit-pick today is that the S8 is led from dummy at T11 but this doesn’t detract from the hand’s interest, Ely’s defence or even East keeping the S9. I’m just having a typical grouch Monday morning.



Iain ClimieJuly 1st, 2013 at 11:49 am

Hi Bruce,

Missed your comment while posting mine – sorry. If East has S64 only the contract is always makeable somehow with a view of all the hands. Either east has HK when finesse or West gets squeezed down to either 2 spades and stiff HK or one spade and HKx at trick 11. All (!) Declarer has to do is work out which. West might also have started with stiff HK of course.

The best hope is to play against oppo who overdo length signals and have very predictable overcalling styles.



Bobby WolffJuly 1st, 2013 at 12:11 pm

Hi Bruce,

First, the term MUD refers, as you know, to middle up down, but only to when the possible MUD player leads, not as a signal to partner.

Instead, if the partner of the opening leader would want to discourage a continuation and played a current rage, upside down attitude signals, (nothing important of value held) he might, in order to discourage spades, discard the precious 9 of spades at trick one which would paralyze a successful defense.

My guess, certainly not based on any fact which I know or would have privy to finding out, is that this is probably an apocryphal hand, since back in those early days of contract bridge, (probably early 1930’s), very few brilliant plays were ever executed (either unknown or beyond the ability of any of those players), consequently perhaps Ely’s publicist was given that hand in order to promote the Culbertson approach to playing the game better, a profitable enterprise for his business.

Also Iain’s comment to you was on target, with the hand turning on whether or not to play which opponent for the king of hearts. Nowadays, after 90+ years of progress the West player (spade overcaller) would probably discard down to the singleton heart king, only allowing the declarer to make the hand if he precisely played the ace of hearts, disdaining the finesse.

Not easy, but certainly a possible play, although having KQJ10x in spades is enough nowadays to overcall, even without the king of hearts.

Thanks for writing and for your continued support and enthusiasm for our game.

Bobby WolffJuly 1st, 2013 at 12:32 pm

Hi Iain,

Yes, of course, the spade 8 being in dummy, not in hand was just another proof reading error, which, in this case didn’t effect anything material, but merely added to my embarrassment for having it happen.

For whatever reason, usually just plain sloth, these errors detract from the presentation and are simply, inexcusable.

Your summary of the hand as such is, as usual, on target and I suspect that in today’s high-level bridge world, most every West would discard down to 2 spades (false carding along the way), and keeping the lonesome king of hearts, ready to claim down 2, if declarer finessed. Against many less than world class defenders, a good declarer will glean the anguish West may be going through and guess the end position correctly, but that is only conjecture, not fact.

Regarding your description of the evolution of ace asking, the Culbertson method had some features to recommend it over BW, but faded out, probably because of the requirements needed by the 4NT bidder to start the process. However let me make the aggressive comment that KCBW has several significant disadvantages which are hardly ever discussed and, although I did hear about Byzantine BW around the time you mentioned, I did not get involved enough to learn what it is.

Iain ClimieJuly 1st, 2013 at 12:42 pm

Hi Bobby,

Please don’t worry overly about typos (I’ve got out of the Monday morning madness now on this side of the Atlantic) but would be interested in RKCB’s flaws.

There is a Wikipedia entry for byzantine BW which reflects what I remember when I played it – hard work but very effective. It uses key suits and half key suits and I think it could be worth a look.



Bobby WolffJuly 1st, 2013 at 5:27 pm

Hi Iain,

A quick but immediate answer would recognize the following significant flaws with key card Blackwood (KCB).

1. The king of trumps does not measure up to an ace in the following scenarios, yet since KCB cannot distinguish it from an ace, it may present an insoluble problem.

A. When the bidding indicates the key king will be onside.

B. When 12 trumps between the declaring hands are held. (it happened with Bob Hamman & me once at a world championship and we duly reached a grand slam, missing the king).

C. When one opponent has preempted leaving much more room for his partner to hold the king of trumps

2. Having to account for 5 key cards instead of 4 aces restricts the bidding room available to disclose.

3. The defense is enabled by the opponents use of KCB in the following ways.

A. A trump can be led away from the J or, for that matter, even without the jack when the opponents have announced holding both the king and the queen, a lead which is often called for, but often not led for fear of giving the queen away.

B. Good sacrifices can more often be taken against a partnership which has guaranteed holding those key trump honors.

C. Bashing to slam sometimes is great strategy (check bidding contest hands and comments related to them) when forcing their opponents to guess as to whether to bid on (sacrifice) or not.*

*The strategy, in a contested auction where vulnerability suggests a cat and mouse game of saving or not places a great accent on putting pressure on the weaker holding opponents to either take the save or not as against a slam which is bid using KCB in a confident manner.

4. The accidents involving KCB are legendary in important bridge history (my team once probably lost a WC because of one of them) and they come up in sometimes unique ways because of the many more moving parts associated with them, particularly so in contested auctions where their opponents are able to put pressure on the strong hands.

5. While the high-level game is constantly trying to create lesser chances for key card disasters, it doesn’t seem likely that they will succeed to the extent necessary to make KCB anywhere near a must used convention.

Summing up, while KCB and other comfort zones such as 5 card majors, 2 over 1 forcing to game, strict rules about cue bidding and in what order, while sometimes creating confidence in what to expect in dummy, often is lacking in what bridge is now and has always been, a game where flair, intuition, and timing strategy in both the bidding and the play tend to make winners win and losers lose, more than any other factor.

Take the psychology and winning strategy out of our high-level game and what is left are the percentages and technical ability which, at least to me, is down the list compared to the former. Sure all the above is worthwhile, but the rank of importance determines the difference. Guessing where cards are, during the bidding and before the opening lead, are extremely important in determining the opening lead and later partnership defense.

The enemy is always listening, whether it be the bidding, the silence, the opening lead, or the tempo and the less they know, the better are the chances for success.

Thanks for the information on Byzantine BW, but hard work suggests having to remember details and therefore accident prone, not perfect for some of the players.

Iain ClimieJuly 1st, 2013 at 5:56 pm

Thanks for this and I’m glad I asked. The point about safe leading from Jx(x) is particularly interesting.