Aces on Bridge — Daily Columns

The Aces on Bridge: Monday, August 15th, 2016

It is better to remain silent than to speak the truth illhumoredly, and spoil an excellent dish by covering it with bad sauce.

St. Francis de Sales

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


With his best hand for months at the rubber bridge table, South criticized his partner’s bidding as soon as he saw dummy.

When South produced his second slam try and North jumped to slam, South could not bid on. But North should have bid six clubs over the five diamond cuebid. Had North done so, and then bid six hearts over six diamonds to show the third round control, his side might have reached the respectable grand slam.

After winning West’s diamond king lead in six spades, South played two top trumps to reveal the bad break. Suddenly there were problems in even the small slam, and declarer continued with heart ace and a heart to the queen. He would have been home if the jack had fallen, or had the suit had divided 3-3, or even if East had had to follow to the second heart. However, as the cards lay, East was able to ruff the heart queen and eventually the defenders came to another trick.

Declarer had mistimed the play badly. With two entries to the table, he should have tackled the hearts by first leading towards the queen. When the second round is led from dummy, it would not have helped East to ruff a loser. So he must discard, and now after winning in hand, South re-enters dummy with the club king for another heart play. Again, East cannot profitably ruff, and dummy still has a trump left to take care of the losing heart. East can overruff but declarer has the rest.

With a choice of four-card majors, which is the better honor to lead from? Imagine partner with a four- or five-card holding in one major or the other; wouldn’t you think it was easier to set up spades than hearts? I would. Conversely, if my spade king were the ace, I might lead a heart, relying on getting in with my side-suit ace, to try to cash out the hearts.


♠ K 10 7 2
 Q 9 7 6
♣ Q 8 3 2
South West North East
Pass 1 Pass 1 NT
Pass 2 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 2016. If you are interested in reprinting The Aces on Bridge column, contact


Mircea1August 29th, 2016 at 5:57 pm

Hi Bobby,

Is this a good grand slam to bid (at teams)?

Bobby WolffAugust 29th, 2016 at 7:12 pm

Hi Mircea1,

It is a terrible grand slam to bid, since you need a good spade break (3-2 about 68%) plus a heartbreak (3-3) or the jack one (either way) or jack fifth onside probably around or close to 60% plus a very small 1% addition because of a possible diamond heart squeeze vs. West in case he was dealt 6+ diamonds plus 4+ hearts to the jack, plus of course the possibility of West’s opening lead being low from J fourth or fifth. The above then adds up to about 68 X’s 60, total being just over a 40% grand slam.

Therefore for a vulnerable grand slam to be bid, without extraneous knowledge, one should be at least 65% to make it, making this one very poor to consider.

Obviously the bidding is over and the 26 cards disclosed before the truth settles in, but the more experience one gleans, (and he only gets it from playing against players of his equal or better) the more the above makes sense.

It is a long and troubled road to become a special bridge player with many glitches to overcome. Whether it is worth it to anyone, is strictly up to that individual, but instead, to just become exposed to the superior logic, understanding numbers and their significance, and the human psychology of being pitted against one another, becomes a wonderful and useful experience for everyone, not to emphasize the practical application available in leading a very productive life.

Aren’t you glad you asked? HA! HA!

Mircea1August 29th, 2016 at 7:29 pm

I’m very glad I asked, and I’m grateful to you for taking the time to answer. Your wisdom and knowledge are invaluable, and as I said before, I don’t think there is another bridge player of your stature who can rival you at helping and encouraging ordinary bridge players out.

I would just add Bill Gates’ words about bridge (from “I love Bridge. Bridge makes you think. It’s a game you can play your entire life and keep getting better and better. I think anybody who’s good at Bridge is going to be great at lots of things. So I really encourage people to get involved and I thank people who have taught bridge to juniors. They will thank you the rest of their life because Bridge is such a great sport”

Iain ClimieAugust 29th, 2016 at 7:39 pm

Hi Bobby,

I used to reckon that a 3-2 break was (just) on the side of the angels for a grand slam at teams but I wonder about tactics here. If a side is well behind in a Knockout competition, they might bid such a contract but what if the other side tries to flatten it by bidding the slam too? Can there be a case for not bidding the grand slam here on the basis that the oppo will flatten the board or will such attempts potentially misfire?

In similar vein, I recall David Greeenwood’s “The Pairs Game” many years ago where he suggested tactics when shooting for tops if you’ve had a bad set in a qualifying or think you are not close enough to winning but are reasonably placed. Underbidding will give a non-standard result, your luck could be in and the oppo may be less annoyed by such an approach than if you punt a really outrageously lucky contract.

HOw much are such ideas worth adopting or are they liable to misfire too often. years ago we managed to put a much stronger side (the holders) out of the UK’s Gold Cup by playing as solidly as possible on the basis that they were very freewheeling. We held the margin to 20 IMPs down hitting the last 8 boards (of 48) and they managed to bid the wrong Vil game, lost 8 IMPs when bidding one for the road Vulnerable on a part score (doubled and 2 off) then they hit a 3NT assuming that suits were breaking badly for our other pair. They were, but one of our guys had decided to settle for a safe game when he could have sniffed for a slam so the doubled overtrick came in very handy even NV. 29-1 did the trick nicely although they still managed to be polite after such a misfortune and a match ending at 1-45 am.



Bobby WolffAugust 29th, 2016 at 7:59 pm

Hi Mircea1,

Your extraordinary kind words only want me to work harder (if possible) to, at least, sniff in allowing the USA to teach bridge in their schools starting at some time in the future, but hopefully before it is too late.

And Bill Gates, with your quote as an example, is such a good promotion for our wonderful game that all of us should support his efforts in every practical way since he apparently has dedicated his life to helping others.

Thanks for your very kind post.

Bobby WolffAugust 29th, 2016 at 9:52 pm

Hi Iain,

Both your theoretical and then real strategy used in your thrilling comeback victory has much to recommend them, particularly the one which actually happened.

Various comeback plans come and go, merely emphasizing luck, both good and bad, since rarely is it predictable on an average of more than one hand a session which could be accurately predicted.

However I, alone, will now tell you what will work more than anyone could ever guess, much less know, its rate of success.

Play better earlier and thus never get behind to start with. Remember, you heard it here, first!

David WarheitAugust 30th, 2016 at 7:38 am

You suggest that the play in 7S should have declarer draw trumps (they being 3-2, of course) and then hoping hearts behave. I believe that there is a better line of play. Draw just 2 rounds of spades and then play hearts. Both lines work if hearts are 3-3 or 4-2 with a doubleton jack or 5-1 with a singleton jack or if the opening lead is a heart or if E has 5 hearts and 3 spades. Your line works and mine doesn’t if W has 6 diamonds and 4 hearts (a probability of well less than 1%; although mine would work if W was specifically 3-4-6-0) or if E has jack fifth of hearts and 2 spades; combined total around 5%. My line works and yours doesn’t if either opponent has length in hearts (including the jack) and three spades; combined total over 10%.

Bobby WolffAugust 30th, 2016 at 2:49 pm

Hi David,

While not attempting to necessarily win this debate using sheer percentages, the holding of five hearts to the jack with East and either opponent holding three spades (although yours would also work if East held the third spade, but very much against the percentages) is to me the second reason I suggested my line.

The first and foremost reason I preferred it, is that at the death I may prefer to finesse for the jack of hearts through East, if the entire play suggested it. Yes it is hard to exactly quantify that possibility, but it will be reasonably common and should not (at least IMO) thrown to the dogs when one assumes that it will be one of the most common combinations.

Your line will likely win the battle of following the correct percentage, but mine would satisfy, putting off that important bridge decision till the most was known (by count and by inference, some of which has to do with the tempo of the discards) which to me, has always been, at least I believe, more accurate with final results. And please in order to have such confidence hearts had never been mentioned by the declarer during the bidding as either a cue bid or even a suit, so when East has not discarded one holding three small (the alternate to an eventual finesse by declarer) that fact alone is enough to me for a better determination later.

You may have won the battle (especially with players of a scientific bent) and even the war, (with mathematicians) but sometimes bridge, like Tuesday’s quote (next day) about intuition implies, that beauty (and good bridge is certainly beautiful) is often tied to just that.

David WarheitAugust 30th, 2016 at 4:52 pm

Okay, following your line of play, and including let us say a 10% credit for your excellent table feel, W leads DK. S wins and draws 3 rounds of trump and one opponent discards a diamond. S now cashes 3 rounds of clubs, ending in dummy, and both opponents follow all 3 times. S now ruffs a diamond, both opponents following. S now cashes heart A and Q and leads a heart and…? a) E shows out. You lose and I win about 40% of the time (when E has 3 spades). b) E plays the J. We both win. c) E plays low and you finesse and lose, but I win. d) E plays low and you finesse and win, and I win about 40% of the time, i.e. when E also had 3 spades. There are hands where opponents’ discards may tell a lot; this hand is very unlikely to be one, since at the critical juncture there may only have been one discard, and it is certain to have been a diamond. And there are hands where table feel may tell a lot, and this hand certainly can be one, but by resorting to table feel, one must throw away a big advantage in straightforward play. This has two disadvantages: the extreme unlikelihood of table feel overcoming simple percentages and the pressure one must feel coming up with the feel of the table plus the agony when things go wrong. Of course, when you are right, there is the joy in having done so, although even that will be subdued in those cases where the straightforward line would have worked just as well.

Bobby WolffAugust 30th, 2016 at 6:36 pm

Hi David,

While your case is certainly both well made and well written, I do not think it close to 40% that East will have 3 spades (to West’s 2 when and if East has 4 hearts (and West then 2). Since there are two empty spaces in West’s hand to start with and three to end with (when East has 3 spades) it seems to me that the chances drop to about 20% (only estimating).

And if so that would change the mathematics entirely, while I was basically admitting mine not being the percentage line (although my secret hopes would be close to a tie or even a small win by me) however in any event that is how I feel about it.

Bridge is bridge, feelings are feelings, and for success, never the twain should meet. IOW’s I have hardly ever experienced a down period for being wrong (to which I have been often) but merely checking it off to doing my best (which, after all, that is all a mule could do). In any event I am writing this under time pressure to be somewhere else, but I will be available later today to answer your response.

I will accept concessions.

David WarheitAugust 30th, 2016 at 9:00 pm

One hand has 4 hearts and the other 2, and we are stipulating that one hand has 3 spades and the other 2; if otherwise then the contract is unmakeable. Therefore, one hand has 6 known cards and the other has 4. Which one has the missing spade? The odds are 9-7 it is with the doubleton heart, or 56.25%, not the 80% you estimate.

Bobby WolffAugust 31st, 2016 at 3:31 pm

Hi David,

For either real (my supposed feel) or voodoo reasons (what your percentages may be telling me about my feel) when a defensive hand seems to be breaking evenly, I tend to suspect even or close to breaks in key suits (assuming it matters).

Therefore my preference is, when given a choice, not to leave my fate with Dame Fortune, and prefer to rely on guessing right at the death, rather than chumming up with that unpredictable fickle lady and expect favors from her.

Your stated percentages of only 56%+ against only two spades with the only two hearts, confirms what I thought, but obviously to not such a lesser degree.

At least to me, there is usually (bordering on a stronger adjective) a better way to control one's fate while declaring, than having to just rely on mathematical formula.

However, while not denying that your line is what you say it is, not incorrect to seek lesser percentage lines in order to beard that beast.

If so, then what would you say is the better line if it was 100% assured that if arriving at either finessing for the Jxxx onside or playing for the drop of the Jxx offside the declarer became right 100% of the time, would you still remain convinced that your line would produce more winning results.

Your mathematical talent should allow you to have no problem with finding that answer.

And, just to set the record straight I am, in not any way, suggesting that I, nor anyone else, would be right 100% of the time

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