Aces on Bridge — Daily Columns

The Aces on Bridge: Monday, June 10th, 2019

A man who shaves and takes a train
And then rides back to shave again.

E. B. White

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


Sixty years ago, Terence Reese produced his seminal work, “The Expert Game,” published in the U.S. as “Master Play.” This book introduced a variety of plays that are now part of every top player’s armory. And the most important idea that the book promulgated was the Theory of Restricted Choice.

This theory borrows from William of Occam, who invented Occam’s Razor. This states that when faced with a choice of competing hypotheses, one should select the simpler option.

How does this apply in bridge terms? Consider today’s deal, where against your contract of five clubs, West leads the heart jack. East takes his ace and returns the suit, letting you ruff. How should you play the trump suit?

Clearly, East is more likely to be short in clubs than West, not only because East has the long hearts, but also because if East had three clubs, he might have been able to shift to a singleton in spades or diamonds at trick two. So lead out the club king; when East follows with the jack, you play a second trump, West following with two small cards, leaving you to decide whether to finesse or play for the drop.

The percentages here might be misleading: A singleton jack is less likely than the doubleton queen-jack, but if East had doubleton honors, he might have followed with either card. So the true percentages to compare are the singleton honor against half the percentage associated with Q-J doubleton. Playing for the finesse is therefore clearly right.

With every lead looking unattractive, especially a heart, you can use a pin to pick one. You might try to lead up to declarer’s weakness by trying a diamond (maybe a deceptive seven), but with that suit likely to set declarer up for some discards, I think I would try the spade five.


♠ Q 10 5
 J 9 6 3
 Q 7 6
♣ K 7 4
South West North East
      1 ♣
Pass 1 Pass 1
Pass 3 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 2019. If you are interested in reprinting The Aces on Bridge column, contact


Joe1June 24th, 2019 at 10:39 am

I have gone back and forth wondering how much the restricted choice phenomenon is purely logical and how much psychology, I think some of both. Maybe to sway skeptical readers, share with us the probabilities of Singleton J versus half of doubleton QJ. For the psychologists, how nonchalant was E as the J was played, and do you think he/she is a crafty player trying to pull something over on you? In practice, though a recovering skeptic, the principle works when it works, maybe 2/3 of the time, or thereabouts.

Iain ClimieJune 24th, 2019 at 11:52 am

Hi Bobby,

The famous Monty Hall question is very similar but can I ask your advice on a hand from Friday at a club pairs, and whether you would have adopted a different approach at Teams?

I opened 1N (12-14) on 5432 AKQx Kxx Qx and partner bid 2N on A108 Jxx xxx AKxx so 3N. Opening lead was S6 (4th highest in principle but look at the pips) so I have various options e.g. Play SA at T1 hoping RHO has (say) KJ, duck a spade at T1 take the second one and exit with a third hoping for a diamond switch, take SA and play an immediate D to the K, cash out first after taking the first or 2nd spade while hoping the DA is onside.

Any thoughts here?



PaulJune 24th, 2019 at 2:10 pm

I loved the reasoning of playing east for shortage.
Regards Paul

bobbywolffJune 24th, 2019 at 3:01 pm

Hi Joe1 & Paul,

Reasoning is reasoning, psychology is psychology, logical is logical, but winning is everything. And to do so, just follow the “Rule”.

After many years I can testify that IMO, it works, even more so than expected, when on a hand like today there are more cards accounted for when East has opened a weak two bid, usually showing six, allowing more room in West’s hand for, in this case, clubs.

Regarding psychology, yes and of course, it can be a tell sometimes, but remember, your RHO will also be attuned to that possible combination, so the battle may be joined and sometimes the declarer can underestimate both his RHO and the psychology.

Finally and no doubt, your last statement about 2/3 of the time is about on target, and by the time you get my age, my guess is that you will have lived those same odds.

bobbywolffJune 24th, 2019 at 3:31 pm

Hi Iain,

A classic hand, wherein while looking at 8 top tricks to take, we have contracted for nine, with theoretically the king of diamonds the only hope for the ninth. Yes, while playing against lightweights there is always a chance a defensive player will throw away a club, but here, he or she, would see those opposing four clubs in dummy, thus never even considering such a discard.

Therefore and against good competition I would select your option 2, and after taking the ace of spades at trick 1 boldly lead a diamond to the king, which has at least a 50% chance of being trick number nine with RHO holding the ace plus the chance, while playing against good opposition to have lefty duck the ace hoping I have KQ10 or, at the very least, KQx(x), a holding most would have with a diamond play so early in the hand. Whether I led a diamond quickly or relatively slowly would be determined by what I thought of my LHO and his or her ability to quickly size up what he would plan to do, if and when, I led a diamond to my hypothetical king right away.

However, no guarantees but first winning the 2nd spade, taking my seven tricks and then leading a spade can go down whenever the ace of diamonds is in the same hand with the winning defensive club, at least to me, reducing my chances to less than at least the 50% early diamond play had, without the psychological plus.

Thanks for bringing up a fairly common type declarer choice and its ramifications.

Sometimes the early con artist bird gets that crawling ninth trick worm.

Bruce KarlsonJune 24th, 2019 at 3:42 pm

As to nonchalance in dropping the J: one hopes that he or she would play the J in normal tempo with that card alone or paired up. Hesitation with one would be an offense against the game methinks. If there is hesitation with a stiff honor, the director could be called. I never call barring a revoke, etc. but would note and think less of the perp in the parlance of my NYC cop friends.

Iain ClimieJune 24th, 2019 at 3:45 pm

Hi Bobby,

Many thanks for that and the line you suggested was my first reaction but I talked myself into feeling the DA was offside. Expecting to go one off I played the SA (getting the 9) then cashed 4H, 3C and led a diamond off the table and got lucky. RHO holding DA and a club winner (plus SJ9 alone to start with) dozed off and the DK held. I wondered why most other players had made it without seeming bother, only to discover many LHOs had started with a D from KQ76 xx Q10xx xxx!

I think the line you suggest is sensible but basically bottled it. At teams, though, the D to the K is surely best – it was NV as well so what’s an extra undertrick or even two. Thanks for the advice, and I’ll be braver next time (and find West with AQ10 I expect when he’ll smell a rat).



jim2June 24th, 2019 at 4:07 pm

If East won the first trick and led the KS at the second, does that change anything?

Iain ClimieJune 24th, 2019 at 5:13 pm

Hi Jim2,

SK or SA? Probably means East hasn’t got CQJ now especially as West can have HKJ but not KQJ. Maybe West should lead the HK and East Aces it then leads a small one back, although the rule here is still valid.

Hi Bruce,

Agree with you although I know one prominent player this side of the pond would describe hesitating with a singleton (except at T1 where you can have a think) as cheating.



bobbywolffJune 24th, 2019 at 5:28 pm

Hi Bruce,

To arrive at the higher echelons of bridge, one needs to acquire excellent (not necessarily perfect nor almost) technique (eg intelligent opening leader by above average analysis of the bidding, practical choice of bidding system with conventions which suit that partnership’s personalities, serious attitude at the table, with no distractions, temperament to play through good and bad luck without being superstitious nor fee,ling sorry for oneself, doing the many things necessary to get that particular partner to perform at his (or her) best and above all find the intense concentration to be prepared for little surprises which change things, during the bidding, thinking before choosing the opening lead, and, of course, on track with always thinking why either the declarer or partner played the way he did.

None of the above answers your direct question but now we have arrived to do that.

While developing the above, you will get to know many of your opponent’s idiosyncrasies, and all of them, with the possible exceptions of rank beginners have them, Don’t despair, but rather be one step ahead of him and understand that he is trying to look like a person with a singleton jack when he has the QJ, but also the opposite when he does have
the doubleton QJ.

A player does not have the obligation of giving away his hand. That does not mean he is allowed to hesitate with a singleton, but it also doesn’t mean that he must play very quickly if he does have only a singleton, but perhaps even quicker if he does possess both honors.

IOW, use what his normal instincts have become, trying to not get the worst of it, by not being a readout, to which each individual (assuming this happened at the local club) has become in self defense, obviously with the intention of adding matchpoints to his score.

By understanding this popular psychology will allow you, the decision maker, a step up in “guessing” what he is doing and there are no rules to break, by taking full advantage.

After a while, the smarter players will catch on and make your chore more difficult, but until it does, by using his actions against him you will show a considerable profit.

Besides unless the hesitation with the singleton is very evident you will not win either the TD’s decision nor your appeal, which may follow, besides the exaggerated anger that your opponent may feign against you.

Stephen Potter said it best in his classic books, “Gamesmanship” and “Oneupsmanship” with both books worth a read although, if I remember correctly, bridge was not one of the games discussed.

Good luck and let me know what happens if you take my advice.

bobbywolffJune 24th, 2019 at 5:43 pm

Hi Jim2,

Oh most definitely, since now East looks like he certainly has the spade queen (possibly not if he is taking advantage of the rule of eleven, but still likely) and now dependent on, after you follow suit and the opening leader now follows up the line), a certainty unless the opponents have some understandings about what they do when leading a relative short suit. I would probably duck (and falsecard the 4 or 5) awaiting and hoping that East continues the queen rather than an intermediate diamond switch, but since Iain didn’t advertise my diamond spots, I would not like my chances that East had the ace of diamonds.

Notice, I ended this note before I found out how many I am going down. However I am not set as of this moment.

bobbywolffJune 24th, 2019 at 5:54 pm

Hi Iain,

Yes, I am, at least, slightly confused, thinking you were answering Jim2 concerning the problem you had while holding the 5432 of spades with the lead of the 6 through the A108. If so then it is probably you, not I, who is confused, but if it is not, it is definitely me.

David WarheitJune 25th, 2019 at 12:09 am

Iain: I would win SA and return a S. If E has doubleton KQ, KJ or QJ, he must now lead another suit. And he will likely win the second trick with other holdings, such as Kx. Maybe he’ll lead a D. If not, I can still lead a D towards the K, and I haven’t lost a thing by waiting.

Iain ClimieJune 25th, 2019 at 1:15 pm

HI David,

That works, especially as LHO will almost certainly switch to a diamond after overtaking the SJ and taking 3 tricks (RHO had J9) but my concern was the pairs aspect. At Teams I like both your line and Bobby’s but at pairs, if the DA is offside, running for home could be better than average. Needless to say, I’d found a way of decking a contract which was cold as the cards lay, but then got lucky.

If LHO does have the DA, of course, they’ll leave partner on lead and he/she shouldn’t be overly troubled to find the switch.



bobbywolffJune 25th, 2019 at 1:59 pm

Hi Iain,

No doubt, all true.

However, my excuse then turns to blasting matchpoints as a bastardized version of our great game, which, especially to matchpoint lovers, only draws a rebuttal of, (is that your excuse for never finishing above average?) forcing me to blush or instead, quickly change the subject.