Aces on Bridge — Daily Columns

The Aces on Bridge: Monday, November 30th, 2015

Success breeds complacency. Complacency breeds failure. Only the paranoid survive.

Andy Grove

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


Today’s deal came up at teams, where the focus is always on making or defeating the contract. It offers some interesting points of technique both at teams and pairs.

At the table, the club queen was led to the ace, against four spades. Declarer should calculate that he must try to hold his combined trump and diamond losers to two. Cashing the top spades will expose you to risk if East has all four trumps. So safest is to win the club and run the spade five if East follows with the three. Then take the top two spades, and next play the diamond king and a diamond to the nine. The two safety plays are necessary if the cards lie as in the diagram.

Incidentally, if East plays the spade eight on the first round of the suit, win the ace then lead a low spade to the seven and 10. You win the club return and lead the spade jack, neutralizing the spade queen.

However, I admit that at pairs I would cash the spade ace at trick two, and go down. One cannot afford to give up on the chances of an overtrick in a normal contract. Once you have two spade losers, you need to play diamonds for no loser. Best is to lead to the jack, rather than play the ace then finesse. This not only guards against singleton queen on the right, it also allows you to cash the king then take a later finesse. This holds your losses to one down if East has any small singleton.

There are some auctions where the suit you should lead to trick one stands out. This is one of them. You should lead a trump almost without reference to your hand, since dummy is almost sure to want to ruff a diamond or two on the board. It is quite close as to whether to lead a high or low trump; I go for low; my reasoning is that when partner has any doubleton honor, this lead rates to work out far better.


♠ Q J 6 2
 Q 7
 Q 6 2
♣ K 10 9 4
South West North East
    Pass 1
Pass 1 Pass 1 ♠
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 2015. If you are interested in reprinting The Aces on Bridge column, contact


Iain ClimieDecember 14th, 2015 at 2:10 pm

Hi Bobby,

Are there some extra chances form an elimination at pairs? Cash the SA and get the bad news at T2, then lead a heart. East returns a heart so ruff out the clubs and play a small spade to the 9. East might do something silly with D10x or Qx although he can just go semi-passive with a ruff and discard while even a trump exit could work.



slarDecember 14th, 2015 at 3:56 pm

How aggressive should you be at making safety plays in a team game? Last week I was in 4S (9 trump) missing only two top hearts and the SK. The opponents took their two top hearts and I ruffed the third heart. While I knew it was plausible that my LHO could have the SK and my RHO could have a void in a minor, it seemed so remote that I didn’t think it was worth the chance at the overtrick. Was this an error in judgment?

bobby wolffDecember 14th, 2015 at 4:12 pm

Hi Iain,

As one with enough natural bridge talent may learn, on the way up the staircase to success, there become other considerations learned.

When one bursts through different, but significant barriers, he or she also learns that, while declaring against worthwhile competition, and relatively early in the hand, on the average of say tricks 3 or 4 the defense can almost pinpoint declarer’s exact distribution, leaving only an occasional card or two, not totally known.

The detective work done is simply overcome by:

1. The bidding. (bids made and not made)

2. The specific opening lead to who they know was made by one of the good (cooperative) guys.

3. The play up to then and, sometimes just as important, the tempo of the declarer while considering what to do. Obviously the tempo of a partner, while on defense, is a form of unauthorized information, but one, in practicality, takes hard work to ignore, but yes in the cauldron of playing for high stakes (whether money or trophies) one soon learns who the super ethical players are (among the best) and who, instead, are merely interlopers.

In the other cases (my guess 99.99%) you are as right as can be, especially from both a special player like yourself, and your considerable practical experience with, (if you will excuse the expression) dealing with bridge players.

BTW, that experience of competing against the best (both talent wise and though sometimes ethically challenged, passing the test), is an out of body remarkable exercise of being privileged beyond belief.

I truly miss it!

bobby wolffDecember 14th, 2015 at 4:30 pm

Hi Slar,

Yes, of course, any loss of a possible trick won could be classified as an error in judgment.

From what I glean of the facts (your description) LHO could have given his partner a ruff (assuming there might have been one available) at trick three instead of continuing with a third heart.

Safety plays are simply that, but even at IMPs, matches have been known to be won by only one paltry IMP, and if the odds against that, especially the hand you describe, are infinitesimally small, I would not think kindly to a declarer who goes just too far (IMO) in not taking that very remote chance of that impending ruff.

However, even if it happens only once in a lifetime, allow it to, but kindly do not mention it to me.

Finally, let the other declarer claim he recognized that safety play and it came close to happening, but didn’t, while you won that very close match by not. I prefer your result.

Iain ClimieDecember 14th, 2015 at 6:08 pm

Hi Slar,

Hugh Kelsey addressed the point you make about garnering a few extra IMPs. While he noted that the strictly arithmetic argument could work in some cases (not all – clearly guarding a vulnerable game against a 28% 4-1 break at IMPs is money well spent), the 3 or 5 other teammates are most unlikely to see the funny side when you lose the 10 or more IMPs after decking a game. It needs an awful lot of 1 to 2 IMP gains before you get forgiven.

As one wag put it “When I’m right, nobody remembers; when I’m wrong, nobody forgets.” Within reason, I’d take the safety play although remember S J Simon’s comment about a known pessimistic (but good) player – he played the hand to cope with a 4-0 trump break; it would have worked nicely if trumps had been 4-0 but sadly they were 2-2 and he went off.


bobby wolffDecember 14th, 2015 at 6:30 pm

Hi Iain,

That wonderful Skippy Simon character was likely, Futile Willie (but it could, of course, may have been the forever nameless, Unlucky Expert).

No doubt in today’s bridge life, these fictional characters are real, though, of course not so severely stereotyped. However there is another name for someone who goes down with good trump breaks, while catering to bad ones. To just say, sort of an ugly moniker, would be understating it.

Recently, as a matter of fact today, I wrote about truly missing something. Add to that list, bridge authors who poked great fun about otherwise very interesting players who as Clint Eastwood would have surely said, “You made my day”.

jim2December 14th, 2015 at 6:53 pm

How many Easts will rise with the AH if declarer:

– KC
– AS
– AD
– 3H …?

bobby wolffDecember 14th, 2015 at 7:58 pm

Hi Jim2,

Many would, since the defensive strategies have progressed to such a significant level.

East will know his heart ace is the third defensive trick, assuming that South will not be able to play his diamonds without loss and the actual distribution of length in diamonds with South may be necessary for the defense to secure the setting trick. True, if declarer has three hearts to the king and only 3 diamonds, one diamond will be able to be discarded from dummy (on the then good heart king in hand) but still declarer will be likely to be left with one diamond loser. I guess declarer could have three clubs and only the king of hearts, with the KQx in diamonds, but then I would worry about eventually being end played in trumps.

In any event, my head is also starting to hurt at the possibilities, but at least to me, I think rising with the heart ace is a natural play, not likely to hurt, but I do not dispute you being able to state a layout where rising is fatal.

angelo romanoDecember 16th, 2015 at 1:52 pm

Hi slar/Iain/Bobby
I appreciate your reasoning about safety plays in a team game. About this hand:
– the chance of SQ fourth in East is 5%
– of those 5%, the chance of DQ singleton/second/third in East (you win anyway) is about 36%; the remaining is about 3,3%
– so the safety play wins about 10 IMP x 3,3 every 100 hands = 33 IMPs
– banging down spades AK wins 1 IMP with spades 2-2 or singleton Q, about 52%, so 52 IMPs every 100 hands. Also, if you don’t lose any atout, you don’t need to play safe in diamonds, so gaining some other IMP..

I understand the psychological aspect of the big loss, but we have to realize that the difference is not so small: more than 20 IMPs over 100 hands, I think

bobby wolffDecember 16th, 2015 at 3:59 pm

Hi Angelo,

Your learned mathematical comments resonate while discussing safety plays. It may even be possible that some players take safety plays only to enhance their reputations as knowledgeable.

Realistically, there is definitely a necessary reason for anyone with the aspirations to become a “great” player to know how to execute them, but like so many things in bridge as well as life, the proof of performance is what we all admire.

And, as you suggest by your percentages, moderation in choice, is the recommendation.