Aces on Bridge — Daily Columns

The Aces on Bridge: Tuesday, January 20th, 2015

It was as true…as turnips is. It was as true…as taxes is. And nothing's truer than them.

Charles Dickens

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

*12-14 balanced


Everyone knows the maxim second hand plays low, and third hand plays high.

Like all old wives’ tales, there is a certain amount of truth to the maxim, but it needs to be applied with caution, and an equally sound philosophy is that one needs to take one’s aces before they get away. Equally, aces were made to take kings! With such conflicting philosophy how can a defender ever know what to do?

Take today’s deal, where after South has opened a weak no-trump, an invitational transfer sequence leads to him becoming declarer in four spades. When your partner leads the diamond king you immediately know that you have one or two tricks to come in that suit. Declarer takes a good 30 seconds to plan the play – during which time you should be thinking yourself. Then he ducks the opening lead and wins the continuation of the diamond jack to play a heart. If you aren’t ready to follow small, your best chance of defeating the contract, and to make the play in good tempo, you haven’t been using your thinking time. Declarer rates to have about 13 points with no honors in diamonds. Whether his heart suit is the king-queen, the queen-jack, or king-jack, you must surely be best off to duck the heart. Your soft club cards make it likely (though not guaranteed) that declarer will be able to set up the hearts to pitch his clubs if you take your ace.

Duck the heart ace and you get two club tricks instead of one heart trick. Result: happiness.

Your suit is not exactly gilt-edged but you should nonetheless overcall one heart, since your own hand strongly suggests that a heart lead is best for your side. It is less clear that you should overcall one heart over one diamond, since now your values in clubs would argue that a heart lead is less clearly best for you, and that the overcall might lead partner to do the wrong thing.


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

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 2015. If you are interested in reprinting The Aces on Bridge column, contact


Iain ClimieFebruary 3rd, 2015 at 11:20 am

Hi Bobby,

I take it that the final quote points to Mr. Micawber’s comment on income against expenditure resulting in happiness or misery dependent on which is greater. Have you any corresponding guidance for balancing prudence and speculation at bridge, especially for money or Imps (pairs is its own madhouse)? Does ” If in doubt, go plus” have merit, for example, or is it too dependent on the judgement of the doubter?



bobby wolffFebruary 3rd, 2015 at 2:46 pm

Hi Iain,

Your questions will truly test the integrity of the answers. Since you compare money or IMP games with the “madhouse” game of pairs, let us choose the former, if only because the latter is often just too difficult to judge.

First, it may be important to note, that by ducking the King of diamonds, declarer will immediately set himself up for a quick down, with a club shift and continuation. However, sometimes that duck, although risky, will set up the declarer timing in a healthier way when West will continue clubs at trick two when holding the jack or when East signals encouragement by his holding of that card.

However, and especially because of the actual defensive holding of the key cards, East needs to pause at trick one and look at the need for securing 4 tricks before the death, rather than each individual trick along the way.

This particular hand would be an excellent example of pinpointing what the Weak Notrumper held (very limited in getting him up to what he surely holds). By doing so at trick one East should be ready to duck the heart ace in proper tempo, and for the slam dunk reason, when declarer leads a heart from dummy early on. While East cannot be at all sure of declarer’s specific distribution, he should realize that rising with the ace of hearts CANNOT be the right play especially if defeating 4 spades is the idea.

Is ducking the heart a difficult play? Sure, because it is against the nature of most bridge players to endanger losing a certain trick like the ace. Most defensive players remember the lost tricks they could have secured but didn’t.

However, on this hand, all the elements are there defensively to make that play a standout choice. Are there automatic “tells” which should immediately awake East? No, not necessarily, especially when the whole goal of defeating the contract becomes secondary to the trick by trick nature of normal play.

Would I expect a relative youngster taking bridge in school to immediately “duck” the heart? Heavens no, unless he played the part of who Wolfgang Mozart became in music at a very young age, an incomparable musical genius.

However, learning in any field makes the next time much easier and this hand would be a fine example to study and therefore what to look for in defense (the hardest part of the game).

Iain, do you agree, and if so, will you lend other helpful advice?

Yes, of course, going plus at matchpoints tends to lead to higher scores, but since all generalizations are false, including this one, we need to delve deeper if excellence, down the winding road, is the goal.

Finally pairs is just too difficult a game to play at a necessary very high level to win consistently, especially when playing against peers rather than newbies.

Principally because of that, pairs sometimes resort to confusion in various forms, unusual systems (artificiality), herky jerky tempo, open intimidation and fast play, to mention a few tactics. Possibly legal, but, if so, marginal, making the game not so enjoyable for others.

All of the above is difficult to police fairly, but overall not a positive for most players to play against. The eventual games in heaven will be made up strictly of ethical players who are concerned with the enjoyment of all players, not just consumed with their own winning.

Finally, I am relatively sure that the greatest bridge player ever has not been born yet, but when he or she is, our game will have become and widely recognized as the greatest form of mind competition ever devised, never to be challenged.

Patrick CheuFebruary 3rd, 2015 at 4:23 pm

Hi Bobby,How does one stop in 3D or 4C(pairs,all V),on this hand? N AK7 7 AKQJ QJ1032 E 10842 AQ653 84 K6 S J96 KJ 97532 975 W Q53 109842 106 A84.S p W p N 1C(Acol) E p~S 1D W p N 2S E p~S 2N W p N 3N E p.-1 but shd be -2.Is pard right to bid 2N(5-7)?Or 3D?Does North make another effort after that?(4D makes unless..unlikely..)If East overcalls one heart the auction might have been easier. Regards~Patrick.

Iain ClimieFebruary 3rd, 2015 at 5:22 pm

Hi Bobby,

Many thanks and I certainly agree this is sound stuff. Perhaps a crucial piece of advice at any game involves pattern recognition – if you’ve seen it before, you can handle it now and in the future. Self-knowledge also helps.

It is worth looking at hand records to see what went right, what went wrong and if any recurring faults are apparent. Many years ago I studiously recorded hands where I’d erred (or pard thought I had) as a possible path to self-improvement. It was dispiriting, especially in the pre computer age as I realised I would need a bigger book!



bobby wolffFebruary 3rd, 2015 at 6:21 pm

Hi Patrick,

These types of hands hang on thin threads which not only determine results, but in the relatively early stages of bridge development which probably none, or at least very few of us are in, help become a wrongful influence in our bridge careers. Anyway, here goes with my suggestions:

N. .
1 club (natural and no 2nd choice) All Pass

N. E. S. W,
1 Club Pass 1 Diamond Pass
2 Spades P 3 Clubs P.
3 Diamonds P P! (Battlefield decision with only the KJ doubleton of unbid suit, nothing of value anywhere else, only minor suits playable and not a 3rd heart opposite short hearts for NT and last, but not least, no strong 2 bid opened by partner)

Other, a 1 heart overcall by East which would then be Pass by South, 3 preemptive hearts by West, Double by North and then probably 3NT by South, down 2. At least a 3 diamond contract by NS would make either 9 or 10 tricks.

What does it prove? Only the value of getting into the bidding by East since although East would probably go 2 down at 3 hearts, NS would buy the contract and instead go set themselves.

High-level bridge is determined by talent of the players, discipline, good bidding habits and experience.

To that the highest-level bridge is determined by the above plus consistently showing superior judgment determined by attention to detail, knowledge of one’s opponents tendencies and superior partnership (knowing when to reject old wives habits and be original).

Nothing earth shattering to learn, just to understand how inaccurate normal bidding can be, (with the limited language) and when to make exceptions. The 3rd heart in South’s hand (which is not there) is absolutely necessary to even consider NT in the uninterrupted NS sequence when partner is also going to be short.

The above requirement for success is not hard to recognize and therefore discuss. However for a new, even talented, potential partnership to discuss what is necessary, is an extremely sensitive proposition not often agreed on. You will find that all of us want to talk about what we do best at the table, excluding our weaknesses (which we all have somewhere) which stands in the way of any partnership achieving what they desire.

And so it goes, signifying what it does, nothing more, nothing less.

Please excuse the rant.

bobby wolffFebruary 3rd, 2015 at 6:27 pm

Hi Iain,

All good advice from you, even changing good to spectacular.

Together a talented (numeracy from both players, with at least some+) is necessary, plus the desire to go forward together, developing good social habits of admitting mistakes or misjudgments and concentrating on self-improvement, which in turn will get it done with each player concentrating on what he can do to improve the one person he can control, himself, or of course, herself.

Patrick CheuFebruary 3rd, 2015 at 10:28 pm

Hi Bobby,Thanks again for your advice(greatly appreciated here),sorry about my typing error of 3D bid in question.Best regards~Patrick.

Iain ClimieFebruary 3rd, 2015 at 10:48 pm

Can I add in the best advice for the game I can think of. Don’t try to be a good player; instead, try to play well, to help partner do the same and to both enjoy the game. If this seems overly laid back, look at the number of sportsmen and games players who have choked under pressure, sometimes self-inflicted.


bobby wolffFebruary 4th, 2015 at 12:36 pm

Hi Iain,

Wonderful advice.

Just playing well is its own reward. Trying to be a good player will always be subjective and therefore dependent on a full body of work, which in bridge is always many years and against excellent competition.

Also your mention of enjoying the game by being overly laid back will reduce pressure brought on by always trying to win.

As in war, battle hard and let the opponents give up and lose their bridge matches for their country, instead of you.