Aces on Bridge — Daily Columns

The Aces on Bridge: Thursday, April 30th, 2015

One has not only an ability to perceive the world but an ability to alter one’s perception of it; more simply, one can change things by the manner in which one looks at them.

Tom Robbins

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


John Armstrong’s death some six years ago robbed England of one of its finest players. He was in action on today’s hand demonstrating some neat inferential card reading.

The bidding in both rooms to three no-trump saw the lead was the lead of the club two, to the three, jack and king. The first declarer set up his clubs by conceding a trick to West’s 10.That player’s low heart switch went to the ace, and when South played low on the heart return, the defenders could set up hearts and cash the 13th heart when East got in with the spade ace.

In our second room Armstrong drew the right inference from the lead as to West’s distribution. Given that most defenders would prefer to lead a major when Stayman has not been employed, the lead from a broken four-card suit suggested that West might have no second four-card suit. Instead of continuing with clubs and setting up a winner there for the opponents, Armstrong played on diamonds at trick two.

West won the second diamond and shifted to the heart two. East took the ace and returned the three, but since West’s low heart two suggested that West might hold a heart honor, declarer rose with the king, blocking the hearts.

Next he dislodged the spade ace, and although East could play a heart to West’s queen, nothing could now stop declarer from regaining the lead. At that point he could take three clubs, three diamonds, two spades and one heart for his contract.

While you have a maximum for your initial call, you have no clear way forward, and it seems like a breach of the law of total tricks to advance to the three-level with only three-card support. A three-club call here would suggest six, and a hand suited to offense than this, but it may be the least lie. Double would be penalty here, by the way, and pass could easily work out here.


♠ J 5
 J 9 4
 Q 4 3
♣ A Q 7 5 3
South West North East
    1 Pass
2 Pass Pass 2 ♠

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


David WarheitMay 14th, 2015 at 10:24 am

You say that Armstrong played on D at trick 2, but you don’t say how. If he leads DJ, W ducking, and then a low D, I believe that declarer can prevail. It seems like, however, that he led a D to the Q and then a D back to his K or J. W wins, and if he returns a C (presumably the 10), E discards his last D, and the defense prevails, because now declarer, in dummy for the last time, must cash the remaining C winner and make either a S or a H discard from his own hand. Declarer must now either lead a S, in which case E wins when the J is played and continues by playing another S, guaranteeing 5 tricks for the defense, or he leads a H, E ducks, and S either plays the K, in which case the opponents now have 3 H tricks to cash, or he plays low, in which case the opponents now have 3 aces, the HQ, and a C.

ClarksburgMay 14th, 2015 at 10:28 am

Mr. Wolff,
In BWTA, could you kindly expand a bit on the underlying reason(s) why a Double here would be unambiguous Penalty (rather than “cards”, “optional” … Partner chooses whether to defend or bid on.)

jim2May 14th, 2015 at 1:04 pm

David Warheit —

I have been playing with that same question.

There are lots of twists, though, and I remain unsure.

For example, West’s intent might always have been to retain the AD until the board’s diamond entry (to the clubs) had been played. In that case, the AD would have been played on the third round, rather than the second. Thus, when West wins the third diamond and exits with 10C, the last club honor would force a East discard.

Additionally, suppose declarer had won the QD on the first round, but then played a small spade towards the closed hand before playing the second diamond. East must duck, I think, and the play gets further complicated.

Going back to the initial line, though, say declarer wins the 10C and plays out diamonds w/o touching clubs? Lots of variations there, also. The clubs may or may not be dead then, but they remain a threat. For example, say West pitches a spade. Declarer can now get home with 3 spades, 3 diamonds, two clubs and a heart. So, West must pitch a heart.

Declarer can now try to win two spades. one heart, three diamonds, and three clubs and the fight will be to get to the Board. With the defense no longer holding a long heart, declarer might well prevail, especially sonce the KH can always be played under the AH!

My head is starting to hurt again …

Iain ClimieMay 14th, 2015 at 2:35 pm

Hi Folks,

2NT on BWTA? Odd more than unusual, intending to pass 3C or 3H and to put 3D back to 3H. Just as long as,pard doesn’t think I’ve found extra high cards and spades….



David WarheitMay 14th, 2015 at 5:54 pm

Jim2: You think your head hurts! It took me the better part of an hour to write what I did. I think you have overlooked an important point. You note that the last club honor forces a discard from E, but it also forces a discard from declarer E should discard a H, and then the play goes as I outlined it.

Bobby WolffMay 14th, 2015 at 7:46 pm

Hi David,

Yes, in a careful accurate analysis of a real tournament hand, often critical results are obtained with all not being maximum results.

What that should tell us is what is present for everyone to see. Technical play is one of the characteristics of a world class player, to which there are all too few, even worldwide.

When the winning play is there to be made, especially with a close hand, the location of the defensive cards becomes critical, and when there is not enough evidence to determine where those cards may be, it is even more difficult to guess correctly. Here we can all see that if the heart queen is located with East, a full natural heart trick is gained by declarer (two out of three tricks instead of just one), but when it is not, it will take more doing, including blocking (or attempting to) the collection of three defensive heart tricks for the “bad guys”.

When both you and Jim2 are constantly stating that your head hurts, it rings true. And well it should, since merely attempting to analyze the play (with the queen of hearts badly placed for declarer) takes sound technique, talent for card combinations and their ramifications, card counting, examining evidence, and close to perfect execution. No small task, and I always sincerely appreciate all the help you two give our many readers, giving us all hope to never give up, even if the early returns in the play of the hand are less than hopeful.

Bobby WolffMay 14th, 2015 at 8:19 pm

Hi Clarksburg,

In the early years 1930’s-most of the 1950’s and before Al Roth basically invented the negative double, most doubles, other than doubling a low level contract at the defenders first opportunity (with, of course, a few exceptions) was meant with its face value, for penalties.

However, somewhat like radar and TV did to the 20th century, in bridge doubles became much more flexible, merely because it was so determined that they will have a greater use, therefore greater utility having them be basically for takeout and asking partner to DSI (translated into doing something intelligent). In other words a bid for all seasons, transferring the meaning from definitive (I prefer to try and set them) to subjective (I want my partner to now better define his hand, firmly keeping in mind the other bids, beside the double I decided on, I did not make. In other words, passing, bidding another suit, rebidding a suit I had bid before, supporting partner (and to what level), or bidding no trump.

The most glaring example of such a change (at least IMO and over the last large number of years) is that when one partner opens 1NT, followed by an overcall by RHO. double by the partner of the Nter is, because of frequency of occurrence better off played as TO, since with a very strong holding in the overcaller’s suit he can pass it for penalties. but, instead with a broken holding KJ97 instead of KQJ9 he can, possibly using better judgment, take it out

The double on today’s BWTA can be a trump stack or at least a very good defensive hand, so naturally that type of bidding should always assure that double means simply an old fashioned penalty double.

Obviously this subject can be expanded upon, but with your always inquiring mind, you may be able to lead that discussion.

Bobby WolffMay 14th, 2015 at 8:54 pm

Hi Iain,

How about, s. KJ108, h. J32, d. Q64, c. K93, which is certainly not impossible or even, if one thinks about even unlikely.

East is taking a gamble, and you are in a position to suggest that he is wrong.

So whatever the question, 1. should a double be for penalties? 2, is this the hand to do it and could a responder have a hand like this?

I think the answer is yes.

Mircea1May 15th, 2015 at 9:26 am

Hi Bobby

Not so long ago you summarized the situations when a low level double is for business in modern bidding. If my memory serves me well, there were 3 cases, one of them being when “we got them”. Another one was, I think, when they mess around with our 2/1 GF auction. What was the third?

ClarksburgMay 15th, 2015 at 12:18 pm

If you are an ACBL member and get the Bulletin, the 2012 issue had an article by Larry Cohen titled “How to tell when a one or two level Double is for Penalty”.
One of the scenarios (#5) was “We’ve bid and raised a suit”. The illustrative sequence was 1H P 2H 3C Dbl. Not exactly the same as the BWTA sequence 1H P 2H P P 2S where Opener’s subsequent Pass presumably has denied interest in pre-emptively competing to 3H.
Hopefully Mr Wolff will check in here again to answer your question.

ClarksburgMay 15th, 2015 at 12:19 pm

The 2012 NOV issue.

Bobby WolffMay 15th, 2015 at 3:58 pm

Hi Mircea1,

Since some large amount of water has flowed under the bridge since my previous description of defining penalty doubles, I will try another approach.

1. Usually when the overcaller is in front of a penalty doubler, making the doubler’s trump holding MUCH more valuable (and not subject to trump coups).

2. Not when the opponents have bid and raised a suit, since that fact usually does not lend itself to profitable penalty doubling, A. because it lends itself to more possible trump tricks for the declaring side (trumping losers in the shorter trump hand), B. on frequency not allowing for as many trump stacks, C. then freeing that double as language, usually of suggesting double as extras, but in different ways (1) having support, but not inclined to bidding a heretofore unbid suit, (2) partial support for partner, but not deemed good enough to actually just bid it, (3) 1/2 stops in the opponents suit for NT or even more likely holding the Ace or King, but better played from partner’s side, especially if he held the Queen, or even just the Jack or better Jack, Ten.

Further examples: North (dealer): 1 spade holding AQ10xx, H. KJ, d. xxxx, c. AQxx, East: 2 diamonds, South: s. x, H. AQxxxxx,d. x, c. KJxx, W. 3 diamonds, then double by North would tend to show the extras without the specifics, enabling South to get enthusiastic about both a possible heart and/or club slam. Also if North had an extra small spade and one less club the double would suggest a better than normal hand with some heart support, not just a spade suit which most would rebid holding then AQ10xxxx. Sometimes that relatively small difference can mean reaching a laydown heart slam instead of not.

Also when holding s. KQ10xx, h. x, d. AQx. c. KJ10x as North and once again being dealer and opening 1 spade and having it go 2 hearts by East, then a NF 2NT by South followed by 3 hearts by West. What to do?

How about double to leave open all options, whether it is belated spade support, 3NT, a possible 5 card minor suit by South or even a penalty pass, but nevertheless conveying extras which North certainly has and which, for example in a team game and after going back to teammates with plus some small number while defending 3 hearts instead of a game in either spades, NT or South’s longer minor have overcome what some partnerships would call a fix, but in reality only an excuse for not providing a vehicle to guard against what happened.

There are other fish to fry here but we first need to digest the problem before we can seek the best solution.

Bobby WolffMay 15th, 2015 at 5:00 pm

Hi Mircea1 and everyone else who was subjected to my errata.

On #2 above and 2nd paragraph, d. xxxx should, of course had been d. xx. Sorry for the major distraction which is caused by a combination of stupidity and impatient proof reading of which I am often too careless.

Mircea1May 16th, 2015 at 12:04 pm

Thank you very much Clarksburg for the pointer and Bobby for the detailed explanation.