Aces on Bridge — Daily Columns

The Aces on Bridge: Monday, August 5th, 2013

Every advantage in the past is judged in the light of the final issue.


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


One of the most heartbreaking boards in the 1995 Marlboro Bermuda Bowl in Beijing occurred right at the end of the quarterfinal match between France and China. The Chinese had led narrowly throughout their match, until the penultimate hand came up.

In the closed room for the French, Philippe Cronier had raised a 16-18 no-trump to game, and on a spade lead Michel Lebel had wrapped up 10 tricks with the aid of the favorable club split, for plus 430.

By contrast, in our featured room, Shao for China opened a 15-17 no-trump, and rejected his partner(s invitation because of his sterile distribution. The largely Chinese audience gasped, but realized that on any normal lead declarer would finish up with 10 tricks. The loss would be only 6 IMPs, and the home team would still lead by 1 IMP.

However, that was not the way it worked out. Michel Perron for France led a devilish heart jack, and Shao won his king and considered his alternatives. If he took the club finesse and it lost, then the defense would certainly have at least six winners to cash. It looked much better to play on spades. All that was needed was an original 4-3 split in hearts.

Accordingly, declarer gave up a spade, and the defense cashed their four heart and two spade winners for one down, and a 10 IMP swing to France, who won the match by 3 IMPs. If the heart suit had divided evenly, the match would have been tied and would have gone to extra boards.

The lead of the heart queen may cost your side a trick in hearts, but when faced with a hand where there is no good practical alternative, settle for the simple choice. Bear in mind declarer may have a strong hand with a doubleton heart king and what he hopes for is a running minor — in which case he is about to be sorely disappointed.


♠ K 6 5 3
 Q 6
 Q 8 3
♣ J 9 5 2
South West North East
Pass 2 3 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


ArunAugust 19th, 2013 at 10:39 am

If I may venture to say – it was a very conservative pass of 2N by South.

Bobby WolffAugust 19th, 2013 at 12:10 pm

Hi Arun,

Yes, you may and it was.

However, by the mathematical standards of then and still today, it is not clear at all who, if anyone, could be considered wrong.

Philippe Cronier’s system 1NT was 16-18 instead of the more common 15-17 and with the optimistic nudge of holding a 5 card suit, took the plunge to game. However, the mathematical odds on NV games suggest that bidding 50-50 NT games is about even money to work, nothing more, nothing less and also taking into consideration that sometimes (often) the blind leading opponents do not get off to the right lead anywhere near 100% of the time.

And, as we can see, after a spade lead and then a heart back, where the ace of hearts is located will be the determining factor, and even if that works, this hand is dependent on the queen of clubs being in the right hand and, of course a normal 3-2 break. Add to that, what happened at the other table after a heart lead, the clubs need to be in their stall or else down we go, probably playing only 2NT as well, but then one less, which, with the closeness of that match, could also have been critical.

No doubt, all experienced good players have to contend with mind games regarding assessing the blame, with the competitive environment in which bridge is played. This particular match was determined by all the hands, not just this one, but like in so many sports, the one remembered is the critical happenings at the end.

A tough mentality is certainly required to deal with it, and we as reporters, should report the facts, allow the result to sink in and only then be objective in assessing the blame.

My opinion is simply the luck of the game usually determines who wins when the score is very close, and I recommend not too much emphasis be put on the final hand or hands, but human nature being what it is, it doesn’t always feel that way, particularly when one is in the eye of the storm himself or herself.

That, in no way, is contradictory to your opinion, since it is only meant to calibrate it.

Thanks for venturing forth and getting the discussion on the table.

jim2August 19th, 2013 at 1:33 pm

If one has decided to rely on balanced hearts and use the spade suit, it seems like normal technique would be to play diamonds first (since they will not be needed for club entries).

Here, the third round discard by East would come as a bit of a cautionary shock, especially when the card played would almost certainly be the 8S.

At this point, declarer may rethink the play, as West is now known to have five diamonds but led the JH anyway. Meanwhile, East’s choice of spade spot would provide its own distributional concerns.

With this data, declarer could well shift lines back to clubs for eight tricks. Curiously, should declarer choose to do that, there is no reason not to cash the fourth diamond first which (on this hand) would please East not at all.

Bobby WolffAugust 19th, 2013 at 3:02 pm

Hi Jim2,

Thanks for your high level analysis, complete with feeling, especially with your validation and description of declarer beginning diamonds early.

It is exactly in these types of psychologies where early on (when diamonds have begun to be run by declarer) that both top defenders will know exactly (or almost) what is held by declarer. In addition to 8 high cards in diamonds + likely the ten, declarer must be relying on the AJx in clubs, otherwise his play in 2NT does not make sense. True declarer may hold four clubs to the Ace or Ace Jack or ten, but if not, he is eschewing overtricks while attempting to just score up his 8 trick contract.

All the above is an integral part of the cat & mouse game of playing the hand, but one thing is 100% certain and that is by trick 3, 4, or the latest trick 5, both defenders know how to defend to their best advantage, and in this case, as it often is, to try and mislead declarer how to play the clubs (East hoping declarer has 4 clubs, but West hoping for only 3).

I have no further advice to add to Jim2’s post except to emphasize to the best and brightest of the younger aspiring bridge players, that the attempted discovery by the declarer will give away what he, himself, holds, allowing the defense the ability to hopefully obfuscate their distributions in the hopes of declarer then going wrong in clubs.

The above is, of course, restricted to play at a very high level and not recommended to rely on at a local duplicate. But, just something to think about (and while you are at it, to begin to see why the high-level game is such a wonderful challenge to all who participate).

Thanks for listening and to Jim2 to launch.

Wen TaoAugust 19th, 2013 at 9:15 pm

Hi Mr. Wolff,
Does this hand also show safety play sometimes backfire? Since the contract is 2NT, only one trick needs to be developed. So, spade is the percentage play (4-3 split vs. finesse). However, if the contract is 3NT, South has then no choice but to play clubs. Thanks for the interesting quotes and hands 6 days a week.

Bobby WolffAugust 19th, 2013 at 9:33 pm

Hi Wen Tao,

Safety plays almost always refer to playing the hand in the safest way to make it on the nose, disdaining possible overtricks, in order to have a better chance to make the contract.

Yes, when playing a nine trick contract, 3NT, the clubs need to come in, Qx, or Qxx onside and unless there is defensive blockage (very unlikely) no other line of play appeals,since playing West for specifically Qx is hardly a percentage play. As you suggest, if playing only 2NT there would be a different line, although with the hearts 5-2 and a heart lead or switch after a spade lead, it would not work on this layout.

I appreciate your very kind words about AOB and invite you to participate in the daily discussions, whenever it is convenient for you.

Wen TaoAugust 19th, 2013 at 11:07 pm

Hi Mr. Wolff,