Aces on Bridge — Daily Columns

The Aces on Bridge: Tuesday, September 20th, 2016

You know my methods. Apply them.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

S North
None ♠ J 5 4
 8 7 6 5
♣ A J 8 6 2
West East
♠ K 10 3
 Q 10 7 5 4 2
♣ 10 9 5
♠ 9 8 7
 K J 9 4 3
 K J 8
♣ 7 4
♠ A Q 6 2
 A Q 10
 9 6 3
♣ K Q 3
South West North East
1 NT Pass 2 ♣ Pass
2 Pass 3 NT All pass


Zia Mahmood famously contributed a BOLS Bridge Tip entitled ‘When they don’t cover, they don’t have it’, Curiously though, he failed to use his own good advice on this deal from the 2010 Philadelphia world championships. Plan the play in three notrump on the lead of the diamond five. You play dummy’s ace and East encourages with the jack.

A simple analysis is that you have eight top winners and need one of the spade or heart finesses. But if you pick the wrong suit, the defenders will surely run the diamonds against you. If you trust your opponents to make helpful discards, you should run the clubs and see which if the major suits your LHO appears to be guarding.

(For the record, in situations of this sort, you should delay asking what discards your opponents play until they have both let go a card. There is no reason to tip them off if their discards might affect your play – they are more likely to be honest if they think you don’t care!)

But let’s assume you are playing against competent opponents, who may gauge the position and try to disguise their holdings in the majors.

How about winning the opening lead and advancing dummy’s spade jack? It may be very hard for East to follow low without a flicker – if he has the king and doesn’t cover he could easily have presented you with an unmakeable contract.

If East plays low without apparent discomfort, rise with the ace and later finesse against the heart king.

It is easy to construct hands where your side can make game in hearts? Does that mean you should bid on? Absolutely not! When you know your side rates to have at most 24 HCP and an eight-card or possibly even a seven-card trump fit, you should pass unhesitatingly here. At pairs the calculation is even easier, since you really want to protect your plus score if you can.


♠ J 5 4
 8 7 6 5
♣ A J 8 6 2
South West North East
  Pass 1 Pass
1 Pass 2 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


David WarheitOctober 4th, 2016 at 10:21 am

Seems to me that a competent E, holding the SK, would easily smell a rat if declarer advanced the SJ at trick 2. His thinking would go: either declarer wants me to cover or he has S10 and nothing I can do, so I’ll play small and see what happens. I think a very competent E could manage all of this thinking in a flash. The thinking, simply put, would be: why did he lead the SJ instead of a little one? Answer: because he wants me to cover. Therefore, don’t cover.

Also, what thinkest thou as to a) how do you rate the chances of 5C versus 3N, and b) how should NS get to 5C, assuming you prefer that contract?

I wish you and your family a very happy and peaceful New Year (today is Rosh Hashanah).

Iain ClimieOctober 4th, 2016 at 11:27 am

HI David, Bobby,

David’s comments are good but it is still tricky playing against Zia at the best of times given his speed. He could also have been trying a legitimate chance with SA108, weaker hearts and DQxx when covering could be right although the spade pips make this less likely. If East had SK73 he’d have to decide and fast, but might only have had seconds before making the decision. There is also the UI concern; I suspect I’d have got it wrong with SK73 and quite possibly with several other holdings. Would anyone honestly duck SK10x or K109 although perhaps we should smell a rat in the second case?

To quote Macbeth, “If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well
It were done quickly” although the action involved there was rather less moral.



Michael BeyroutiOctober 4th, 2016 at 3:43 pm

Hey Iain,
you of Gremlin fame…
have you noticed South’s two diamond reply to Stayman instead of two spades?
P.S. Does Zia’s BOLS tip have a corollary? Something like: If he wants you to cover… don’t.
Me too I would be interested in knowing how our Host would rate a club contract here.

Iain ClimieOctober 4th, 2016 at 3:46 pm

Nice one Michael! Ironically I was going to put S A108x in my post but then thought South had bid 2D, so didn’t look back at the column itself.

At least you’re awake!

Bobby WolffOctober 4th, 2016 at 3:56 pm

Hi David & Iain,

And to not quote anyone, “What is so rare as the poker element rising its head in bridge?”, “Not a thing, answers the parrot, since it more often than one realizes, simply occurs”.

And what if East had the king of spades, instead of the king of hearts and everything else about the same? Would he not cover and concede the game when he did not (declarer instead having the king of hearts instead of the ace) ? Or, if East held the ace of hearts and declarer led a heart (or even the jack from dummy if it was there) would he not rise and switch back to the snake, “diamondback” that is, in order to beat the hand before a clever declarer has, with his deadly fangs (and fast wit), stolen trick #9.

Call it what one will, “the game within the game”, “the acid test” or whatever one thinks more fitting, but we all learn and often painfully, that the declarer, unlike the defense, in view of all of his assets, and in the flick of his tongue, has a material advantage., Thus, being virtually impossible to thoroughly analyze correctly, a defender just reacts, but in doing so, my best advice is to try and counter the wily declarer’s strategy, particularly so if that adversary is fast witted (and all very good bridge declarer’s are).

We learn that once the battle is joined and fast things happen, the more suspicious they become, so it might follow (I think it does) that what declarer is trying to do is get the normally competent defense to act by rote, instead of knowledge, therefore perhaps doing the opposite to what normal instincts dictate.

At least to me, these battles, always being very challenging, are the essence of high-level bridge, similar to RHO switching to the Queen from Q9x when 108x is in dummy (on his right) and you the declarer holding Kxx. If you cover, certainly not clear (if RHO holds QJ9), LHO will win the ace and lead a low one back from AJxx, causing more consternation.

Those are the memories which allow me to sleep perhaps 40+ years later, when I remember many (and they are varied) psychological battles among the best players around.

No one will guess them all right, either on defense nor offense, but while others can rejoice with mere great technical bridge analysis, still, “give me these scintillating mind battles” (instead of non-human intellectual challenges like crosswords or I Pad word games) and I”ll pronounce them as being nectar from the bridge gods and worth their price in gold.

David & Iain, do you think I love this subject or not?

Bobby WolffOctober 4th, 2016 at 4:17 pm

Hi Michael,

Yes, first sorry for the response to Stayman, but these types of errors can be attributed to anyone or anything in the process, to the writer, proofreader, typesetter and/or someone or something in between (two venues, here and two weeks earlier), but in truth should never happen, but in fact does and much too often.

Since our posts crossed in cyberspace, please refer to the above for a discussion of Zia types and such.

As for reaching a club game, it would depend on having enough bidding room to realize our weakest suit diamonds held xxx opposite the singleton ace, and in my view the limitations of bidding (as least as we now know) would not allow this “key” holding to be known. And even if it would, how about then, our opponents always getting off to the right lead, because of it. There are many challenges in bidding, one of the more important ones is to keep our opponents from always defending perfectly.

Here if East and West would exchange diamond holdings, chances are that some other lead would make 3NT a “slam dunk” while 5 clubs still would not be cold.

Bobby WolffOctober 4th, 2016 at 4:21 pm

Hi Iain,

And what makes it so certain that our group is any more awake than you? We, in the bedroom, need our sleep also.

Yes, I know that it is our responsibility, not yours, so the above is only a pitifully weak admission of guilt