Aces on Bridge — Daily Columns

The Aces on Bridge: Monday, April 28th, 2014

Creativity comes from looking for the unexpected and stepping outside your own experience.

Masaru Ibuka

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


At the table when this deal occurred West led the heart king and saw his partner follow with the nine to suggest a doubleton. The easy way to defeat the game was to lead two more rounds of hearts, hoping that his partner would have the spade jack. But declarer ruffed the third heart high in dummy and drew trump, losing just to the spade ace.

At the end of the deal (when East had searched declarer’s hand unsuccessfully for a diamond), he transferred his attention to his partner and pointed out accurately — if a little tardily — that the contract could have been defeated. Can you see how?

It does not do West any good to play ace and a second trump; declarer can simply run his trumps, then his clubs. But at the second trick, West can cover almost all his bases by shifting to a low spade. Even if declarer has the bare club ace, he cannot unscramble his club winners, since there is no entry to dummy. The best he can do is play on trumps, after which there are three heart losers, or go after clubs, when East can ruff in before declarer can dispose of his hearts.

The shift to a low trump from the doubleton ace is a useful tool to add to your kit; whenever dummy has just two trumps and a source of tricks in a long suit, it may be the winning move.

When in doubt, one could argue for a major-suit lead over a minor. Here though, with the spade builder in the form of the 10, spades are a more attractive lead. Switch the spades and the diamonds and this is really a toss-up as to what to do. I'd go for diamonds, I think.


♠ Q 10 7 5
 J 4 2
 K 9 5 2
♣ J 7
South West North East
Pass 1 NT
Pass 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 2014. If you are interested in reprinting The Aces on Bridge column, contact


Patrick CheuMay 12th, 2014 at 12:41 pm

Hi Bobby,This hand is easier for those of us who have read some good books on card play,as it is not obvious to shift to x trump on trick2,the likely temptation being to carry on with hearts.If ten of spades not in dummy,but the nine or eight,would West have been better to carry on with hearts?As the cards lie,low trump on trick2 would still work here.How ironic that East’s heart doubleton,crucial to defeating the contract may well distract West from finding the correct play on trick2,depending on dummy trump pips on some other hands.Concentration,again.Regards~Patrick.

Patrick CheuMay 12th, 2014 at 12:42 pm

Sorry about my typing,lack of concentration.:)

SlarMay 12th, 2014 at 1:06 pm

Why does east follow with an encouraging 9 on the first trick? He does not want west to continue. There is 0% chance that I as west would have found the correct shift after the misleading signal. At least with a discouraging signal it is within the realm of possibility.

Patrick CheuMay 12th, 2014 at 1:18 pm

Hi Slar and Bobby,over here,most people play the 9 from 9x unless they play reverse count then x n 9.Playing attitude,think the nine is still ok with 9x,West still has a chance to do the right thing here,as if East has 98xx there is not a lot of defence unless ace and king of diamonds are cashing.

Bobby WolffMay 12th, 2014 at 2:01 pm

Hi Pat rick,

My greeting is also a loss of concentration, unless I was giving you a middle name of rick (just joking).

Let us digress from this specific hand, pretend we are all alone on a desert island, with nothing to discuss but the brand new game of contract bridge, sometime in the mid 1920’s, before Harold Vanderbilt changed Auction Bridge to Contract.

When discussing the theory of signals one of us might have said that since partner’s distribution is often key to a successful defense, it is possibly more important to inform him of the count than to woodenly try to tell him more than we really can, since (at least on this hand) he needs to know East’s heart count to plan out his brilliant defense. True, declarer could have 7 spades, missing the jack, but on this hand he, himself, held the ace of spades, the king of diamonds (in case declarer was short in clubs and may be required to take a diamond finesse under certain circumstances which only he knows.

All I am saying is that when playing with a top level player, (not all or many of us are ever so blessed) I sincerely believe that all we can do is give partner the proper count and let him make the defensive decisions when he is in a position (as on this hand) of being more in control than I.

The sad thing to come out of this discussion can easily be the better understanding why top level talents sometimes choose the despicable choice of cheating, because of the very frustration which this defense represents. To that I say what I always believed, that cheating deserves a lifetime ban, which, even that, is not nearly severe enough to what those transgressors deserve.

My above discussions may create more problems with some than it allows solutions, but top level bridge sometimes is that difficult.

Bobby WolffMay 12th, 2014 at 2:07 pm

Hi Slar,

Welcome to the AOB blogging site. My immediately above answer to Patrick may give you my opinion to your intelligent question.

Nothing is perfect and our choices in defense should aspire to what is best with our partner at the time, so that one size does not fit all, and, although I cannot remedy that situation, I can only point out what I think is more likely to work.

Thanks for your participation and please do not be a stranger to us in the future.

Bobby WolffMay 12th, 2014 at 2:11 pm

Hi Patrick,

Just an acknowledgment to your latest comment, which was not there when I started my answer above.

Of course, many choose different count signals together with different legal emphasis. On that assumed desert island we would have taken a full month to decide what legal signalling method might be best and thankfully we are now off that island and do not have to worry about various differences.

SlarMay 12th, 2014 at 2:23 pm

Let’s put it this way. If east has Jx in trump, then getting the ruff is the easy solution. It turns out that playing the low trump at trick 2 works in nearly every scenario but it would take time to work that out. Maybe you experts know these things innately but for us mere mortals we need help from our partners to find the right path. The discouraging signal would get me to stop and think it through.

SlarMay 12th, 2014 at 2:41 pm

Interesting. So the experts largely abandon “attitude” signals, figuring that they should be able to figure out what to do based on count. And an expert would apparently know to play a low trump here. Fair enough. But it seems the pair defending this hand was not as good as they thought they were. Perhaps they should go back to attitude signals!

Nevertheless this was enlightening. The final sentence in the column is the key. No intermediate player would ever figure out the right play here but these are the kinds of things that I as an advancing player am trying to pick up.

Jane AMay 12th, 2014 at 3:07 pm

Knowing who the opponents are would help me decide whether to bid game on this hand or not. Seems to me south took a pretty aggressive stand when he had actually bid all his values the first time. He should know that north will have some of his points in diamonds, which really does him no good. East has a good hand to bid again with no help from his partner. Playing against a strong pair, I would be happy to buy the contract at three spades. This always makes no matter what. Switch the diamond void to a heart void or singleton, and I let the dogs out.

My mentor prefers count always. He wants to know how many I have and he can figure out what to do with the information. I am getting used to it. I can live without attitude on the opening lead, but do like a little encouragement on the first discard. Hit me over the head with a hammer. Sometimes that is what it takes.

David WarheitMay 12th, 2014 at 4:29 pm

Everyone seems to think that if partner has SJx you’ve blown it if, at trick 2, you shift to a low spade. No! What can declarer do? How can he get rid of his 3d H? He can’t, no matter what, even if partner plays the J at trick 2. And once you realize that, you realize how important it was for partner to give count, since a low S at trick 3 will now work no matter what.

Bobby WolffMay 12th, 2014 at 4:31 pm

Hi Slar & Jane A,

Some things in bridge tend to blend together like standard attitude and count signals. To talk about another specific “signal situation” please consider 3rd hand play while defending against NT contracts by the opponents.

When partner is leading his 4th highest (or 3rd & 5th, or attitude, lowest encouraging, but middle, not), partner, the 3rd seat player should give count when a card is played from dummy, which cannot be topped, so the expert advice is to tell your opening leader partner, whether you have an odd or even number (usually, but not always, 2 or 3). Then, your partner by the inferences gleaned, both from your count signal and why the declarer rose with whatever he rose in dummy with and add that knowledge to what he himself had led from and that information tends to go a long way (together with the bidding) to begin to illuminate declarer’s exact holding, which then begins creating the mental picture of declarers hand. When declarer then leads to trick two, it tends to disclose enough information for highly expert defenders to be able to almost call off declarer’s distribution, together with his likely high card content. Obviously there are exceptions and the best declarers can obfuscate their hands from the enemy better than can less than expert declarers. However, this above process is present on every defense and extremely valuable, enabling a very good pair to make very few significant errors, not only on what to do, but also how to combine with each other to sometime fool good declarers into miss guessing crucial cards.

The above sounds harder than it really is, and once learned, never forgotten, but one thing is for sure, it makes bridge the great game others think it should be, but have a hard time themselves taking advantage of the knowledge gleaned because of lack of confidence in both oneself and with partner. That must be overcome before a would be above average partnership can even begin to show their potential prowess.

All a top class player needs to do is overhear what his opponents are talking about and he (or she) should immediately know to what status those opponents belong and therefore what to expect their legal signals to mean.

The detective work necessary when playing against top partnerships (and so few of them belong) is always fraught with evidence from them (during the play) which is intended by them to mislead their opponents from guessing right. A lesser known player who is much better than thought to be is in a great position to read the hands of their opponents without them knowing what is happening.

All of the above is involved with the transition of a player as he rises, sometimes by bounds and leaps, toward stardom.

Bobby WolffMay 12th, 2014 at 4:47 pm

Hi David,

Thanks for adding your comment about today’s hand. Your advice is specific which always helps, while my comments are meant to be general about why count is so very important (almost always early in the defense of a hand), although occasionally only attitude is necessary.

Learning when each becomes the crucial factor begins with the experience gleaned when playing against very good players, always being advantaged oneself when one’s partner has at least, some talent, and is, along with you, dedicated to getting better.

As a constant commercial from me, the ACBL is NOT helping bridge to be known as the great game that it is, by concentrating on the “High card wins” set by not encouraging them to play against the better players even though they will not do as well, but what is life anyway, but a learning experience in everything we do from the womb to the tomb and if thought differently, bridge is probably not going to be the game for one to play anyway.


Mircea GiurgeuMay 13th, 2014 at 8:14 am

Mr. Wolff,

Fearing that I would be treated as a sinner, I must say that I enjoy your philosophical comments almost better than your bridge ones (please don’t read this the wrong way). How right you are.

Down to earth, one of the very good (though not high class expert) player at the local club claims that we aspiring intermediates would see better results on defence faster if we switch almost exclusively to the count signal and unless explicitly called for, do away with attitude and suit preference. Do you concur?

Bobby WolffMay 13th, 2014 at 12:28 pm

Hi Mircea,

In answer to your question, though I have no reason to disrespect your local club expert, all generalizations are incorrect, including the one I just made.

Yes, count is always the single most important concern for both the declarer and the defense, but there are a significant number of hands where either attitude or suit preference should rule.

The difficulty of the above can be worked out between partners, but both need to be determined to do so and possess enough talent to do it naturally. It requires partners to discuss bridge openly, showing each other respect and honesty in application. Neither partner should ever say he (or she) understands when he doesn’t.

To narrow it down to reality, in order to get going to a much higher bridge status one needs to develop the ability to totally concentrate when playing and/or discussing. Do the above and the results will follow, but do not kid oneself about the effort needed to succeed.

Yes, count is the most important but both attitude and suit preference needs to be communicated when given the chance to also do so. Every card can be important, but that, too, only works when both partners are tuned in to the particular hand being played.

The above is MUCH easier than likely thought to be, it is only the discipline necessary to achieve it must be developed before success begins to show.

Finally, concerning the hand in question, the 3rd seat defender needs to give count in spite of not being able to overruff the dummy. By doing so, you are giving partner the respect of allowing him (or her) to then choose the best defense. To do otherwise is unilateral and, especially in the long run, WILL NOT WORK!