Bob Mackinnon

Madame Nora’s Invisible Hand

James was happy to partner various older ladies who were willing to pay the table fees in return for a pleasant, sometimes rewarding, session. One of James’ frequent partners was Madame Nora Fanshaw, then long retired, one of those worthy Canadian performers who dot the musical landscapes in Northern climes: too emotional for the Germans, not hare-brained enough for the Italians, too intelligent for Americans, not intellectual enough for the French, so just right for London, one would think, ‘dependable, unassuming, and can sing comprehensibly in English.’ Her story went something like this:

‘I had hopes for the Metropolitan when Eddie Johnson took over in 1935, and we were invited to come to New York, but the war intervened, and I lost my chance. I had hesitated because Tauber wanted me for one of his productions, but he ran out of money before it was staged. During the War I stayed in the countryside on my late husband’s estate, learned bridge, and bore my dear daughter. One must never regret giving life to others, but by the time the War ended my operatic career was beyond recovery. Foolishly I had kept myself out of the picture, so I was condemned to oratorios in the Midlands.’

That was the story she told, but there were other versions, many including scandalous details. On the night of which we write, it was James and Nora’s good fortune to score 56.4 % which was sufficient to top the field East-West. Here was one board played on defence against the Reverend Reginald Forsythe, a pessimistic Presbyterian.

 
Both
South
N
Margaret
A10864
Q5
KQ1087
Y
 
W
Nora
7
KJ102
9642
AK92
 
E
James
KJ952
76
J53
753
 
S
Reginald
Q3
A9843
A
QJ864
 
W
Nora
N
Mergaret
E
James
S
Reginald
1
Pass
1
Pass
2
Pass
2
Pass
2NT
Pass
3NT
All Pass
 

Nora led the ♠7. James won his ♠K and pondered the significance of this lead. He could read it as a singleton. Thus their holdings in the majors were marked as being 6-6. There was a good possibility that the division of sides was 7-7-6-6 with Madame having the winning high cards otherwise given to the partnership. She might later be called upon to make a critical decision. It was matchpoints, not IMPs, so James thoughts were focused on how to protect his partner from a tough decision. That objective might best be served if he returned a heart, just in case she had a problem when a heart was led towards the dummy where the diamond tricks lay. An immediate heart might give declarer problems in communication, and without full knowledge of the distribution he might even be tempted later in a matchpoint context to take a losing club finesse himself rather than play safely for 9 tricks. Given the uncertainty of the situation he decided that to protect his partner from a later decision was the top priority, so he immediately returned the 7.

Nora could win the K and return a heart without giving away a trick in the suit with her winning clubs intact. Squirm as he might declarer could manage just 8 tricks. The timing was all wrong. ‘Why?’ he asked himself, ‘do women always give me problems. What have I ever done to deserve this?’ Of course he did not include his dear wife, Margaret, in the general condemnation – it was just his eternal misfortune.

Out of kindness James offered to escort the obviously delighted Madame Nora back to her rooms located in the vicinity of Albert Hall for a celebratory nightcap. Her living room was small, poorly lighted, but richly decorated. Prominently featured was a huge red velvet sofa facing a tapestry of an oriental theme with a dragon that looked out threateningly with smoke coming out of its nostrils. On an end table were framed black-and-white photographs of her in costume with legendary performers of the past.

Madame soon returned with two glasses of wine in her hands. She had changed to something more comfortable, a long, silk dressing gown embroidered with a floral design. It made her look much younger than her sixtysomething years.

‘Je viens celebrer la victorie,’ she trilled in a rich contralto as she handed James a glass of port before sinking softly beside him on the sofa. ‘Do you know that tune?’ she asked after sipping the vintage wine.

‘Yes, I believe it is from Samson and Delilah. My father had a record of that with Caruso, I believe.’

‘Marvelous. Delilah was a favourite role of mine. I sang it with Jobin in Montreal before the war. I wore a black body stocking in the first scene, quite the scandal at the time. Ebe Stignani had the voice, but I had the body and most of all, the temperament. I can only imagine her luring Samson into her tent with the words, ‘come and try my chicken soup’. Ha-ha. Raoul was a bit stiff, having been taught by Jesuits, but we sold out the house on every performance. Montrealers try so hard to be sophisticated, but really they love their hockey more than opera. Caruso was well before my time, but I did sing with the great Chaliapin when I was very young. Shall I tell you a naughty story about Feodor Ivanovich and myself?’

James nodded enthusiastically, realizing there would be no way to stop her short of walking out. The port was delicious.

‘In the days before radio I toured America in The Barber of Seville where I played a very young Berta and Chaliapin played Don Basilio. Although his was a small part, he was the main attraction and he ran the whole show. One night after a performance in Cleveland that went particularly well, he came up to me and suggested, more a command really, that we should rehearse next day. We had little to do together on stage, so I said, ‘I know my part backwards,’ and he said, ‘I assure you that won’t be necessary. I shall call on you shortly before noon.’ Of course the whole company knew what that meant, and they all urged me to keep the master in a good mood for the rest of the tour. I was easily persuaded, for in those days I was up for anything.

‘The next day before noon he appeared at my hotel room in this elaborately decorated dressing gown with the grey hairs on his chest peeking through and a dozen pink roses in his huge fist. By noon he was on top of me naked in bed making beautiful manly sounds.

‘You are as big as a horse,’ I commented over the noise meaning it as a compliment to his prodigious manhood. His English was poor and he misheard what I had said.

‘You tink I was a bit hoarse?’ he replied, stopping what he was doing. ‘I thought so, too. I fear I am getting a cold.’

‘What about me?’ I asked, startled, because every singer fears catching a cold on tour.

‘You? You are always flat.’

‘I’m flat certainly, just the way you like me,’ I replied, ‘flat on my back.’

He roared with laughter, and we instantly became great friends. The tour became a tour of love: the baritone loved the soprano, the soprano loved the conductor, the conductor loved the harpist, the harpist loved the first violin, the first violin loved the tenor, the tenor loved the audience and the audiences loved everybody. Of course, with Chaliapin even his wives knew you could never hope to be his one and only. He was a giant, certainly, but a baby as well, a baby who sucked on vile black cigarettes.‘

James laughed politely, a bit apprehensive about where this might be leading.

‘Indeed? I know you can still buy Chaliapin blend cigarettes in the Burlington Arcade,’ he observed lamely. ‘Well, as it is getting late maybe I should….’

“Yes, you should go as I still have what remains of my reputation to protect, and you must have some pretty young thing wondering what is taking you so long, but first let me ask you a question about one of the hands we played tonight. You will remember when I led a spade and you, dear, dear boy, returned a heart defeating Forsythe and his mousy wife in 3NT. Yes? Well, I must ask you why did you return a heart?’

James remembered his thought process, but he didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, so he replied evasively, ‘I can’t say actually, except it seemed a good move at the time. I was thinking about a spade, or maybe a club…’

‘Exactly! But you chose a heart. All the time you were thinking, I was saying to myself, without moving my lips, “heart, heart, heart…” and your brain received my brain waves. I do this quite often – I lead a card in a suit I don’t want returned and then I concentrate as hard as I can on the suit I want partner to lead back, and very often that’s the suit he or she returns. Of course, one must be playing with a compatible and sympathetic partner who is ready to receive such a message. It’s the same mental power that makes the Ouija Board work. Think about it, and tell me what you conclude, while I fetch a tiny goodnight glass of port.’

James did not protest. Foolishly he remained seated on the sofa waiting obediently almost against his will for what would come next. He would really prefer a cold lager as he was feeling quite warm facing the snorting dragon. Was it possible, he wondered, that his decisions were being guided subconsciously, like the movements of a planchette on a Ouija Board, by some Invisible Hand?

The Art of the Exit

For nearly two weeks in 1968 James had been living in a young man’s paradise: Chicago in the evenings with two lovely princesses, love making at night with the very same, and afternoons to rest while the young women went shopping (what stamina!) all at the expense of billionaire Howard Heinz, the father of Heidi and the sponsor of Betsy. There was one cloud on the horizon: James was supposed to be writing a newspaper feature on international women’s bridge, but he hadn’t yet had the time or the energy to produce even a single line. The idyll came to an abrupt end shortly after lunch at the Savoy Grill, where the girls received many admiring looks from the likes of Jimmy Stewart and Charlie Chaplin, who at 80 years of age still entertained romantic notions.

Howard Heinz and James had had a full lunch while Heidi and Betsy ate a light salad as was their wont. (How do they do it?) Howard rose from the table stating he felt a walk along The Embankment and a cigar would be good for his health. His young companions demurred saying they would best stay in the suite and work on the interview, which, they said, was near completion. Five minutes later Howard was on his way to Cleopatra’s Needle while the three young people were rolling around naked in Heidi’s huge bed.

Five minutes after that Howard was back in the suite, calling out, ‘Yoo-hoo, has anybody seen my cigar case?’

‘Good God! Daddy!’ exclaimed Heidi, who at that moment was on the top of the pile. It was a quick jump, hop, and skip within Olympic qualification time before she reached the bathroom just as Howard was turning the doorknob to her bedroom.

‘James! Princess! What do you think you are doing?’ asked Heinz purely rhetorically.

‘Hello, Sir, my apologies, we were feeling a bid fatigued after lunch, so we thought we would have a little rest, and, well, one thing led to another. ‘

‘I see you are not the English gentleman I thought you were, taking advantage of this young woman’s fragile state of mind. She’s not a party girl, she’s a princess. Your Highness, please gather your clothes and go to the bathroom while I finish this, because what I have to say may not be fit for your ears.’

Betsy did as she was told with as much dignity as her position allowed, but without a modesty one would normally expect.

‘Did I see a tattoo?’ asked Heinz as the bathroom door closed behind a finely decorated posterior.

‘I understand it is a depiction of the Rearing White Stallion, ancient emblem of the House of Saxony.’

‘I revere loyalty in its many guises,’ announced Heinz. ‘Poor Elizabeth, the Russians confiscated everything, but they couldn’t rob her of her sense of identity. That’s obvious. Now, where’s my daughter?’

‘Gone shopping for new shoes in Carnaby Street, I believe,‘ said James gambling this was the most believable lie.

‘That’s ridiculous! She has only two feet, but already she’s got shoes to match shoes. Thank heaven she was spared this…this… debaculousness. I am disappointed in you, Woolwich. Obviously you are a man of the world, but I see you are not even wearing protection. Get dressed while I call the maid to come and clean up this mess before Heidi gets back. I don’t want even a hint any of this to get out, so how much will it cost me to keep your article out of the papers? Here, take this £200, it’s all I have on me.’

‘Sir, no money, you have my word,’ replied James who had yet to produce a word.

‘I don’t trust a man who refuses money. How about £300? That’s my final offer.’

‘That would more than compensate for lost revenue,’ conceded James reluctantly.

‘Here, take this,’ Heinz said retrieving £100 notes from an inside pocket. ‘Now get dressed and get out. I don’t want to see you ever again. Remember I have friends who carry weapons.’

James was thus expelled from his Garden of Eden. £300 was manna from heaven, but James complained, Adam wasn’t sent off all by himself – he got to keep Eve. He eventually told the whole story to his Japanese flatmate and spiritual adviser, Hisashi-san.

‘Is there as lesson in all this, Sensei?’

‘Yes, James-san. What you experienced was Firefly Love (Hotaru-Koi). Geishas sing a song of a love that burns bright throughout one night before dying with the dawn. So sad, so beautiful, but now it is best to move on and look for wife. Man needs family and family needs wife.’

To relieve James’ melancholy, the priest proposed resuming their regular game of duplicate at the Southwark Lawn Bowling and Bridge Club. Before play began, James observed the faces gathered about the tables in the greenish light reflected from the walls of the underground playing area. Were others also experiencing private agonies behind their impassive faces? Of course, it was unlikely that any had just lost 2 lovers in the same afternoon, but might they not be also suffering behind the mask? Perhaps that old dear was hiding grief at the unexpected passing of a beloved canary. Perhaps behind that stern patriarchal façade lurked fear over a pain in the chest that had arisen after a favourite meal of bangers, mash, canned peas, and fried onions. Maybe for a few brief hours, bridge would temporarily dispel all hidden concerns. These weren’t Italians. Emotions wouldn’t be allowed to slop over and affect card play.

Luckily Hisashi got to declare most of the hands, including this one where the art of the exit was on full display.

 
N-S
West
N
James
A
J96
KQ52
AQ642
 
W
Wilson
63
1084
J1098
10987
 
E
MacGregor
KJ985
K754
1064
J
 
S
Hirashi
Q10742
AQ3
A3
K53
 
W
Wilson
N
James
E
MacGregor
S
Hirashi
1
1
3NT
Pass
4
Pass
4NT
Pass
5
Pass
5NT
All Pass
 
 
 

In theory Angus MacGregor was no racist, but he couldn’t help trying a bit harder when playing against former enemies. A dyed-in-the-wool conservative he stretched his normal limits to overcall where today such action would be considered automatic by most players. The way the evening had been progressing, Hisashi thought it best to keep things simple, so he bid game, but then found James with 5 losers looking for a slam in a minor.

John Wilson avoided responsibility for any ensuing disaster by leading his partner’s suit, and Hisashi took the time to form a plan. There is a saying conveying begrudging respect, ‘give a Japanese a lemon and he’ll make lemonade.’ Here declarer was thinking of ways to squeeze the lemon for 11 tricks. From his experience playing against MacGregor he could count on the heart finesse being right, but one more trick was needed.

Hoping for 5 tricks in clubs Hisashi began with the A from dummy and the K from hand, discovering a loser in that suit. Losing a club early would make the defender’s job easier, so he made a strange play, a passive exit of the Q from his hand, won by MacGregor with the K. The Scot considered cashing the J at this point, but that would give up a trick to declarer’s T. As it was obvious that this was what declarer was aiming at, MacGregor, being the stubborn, frugal sort for whom his countrymen are esteemed, exited with the 6 giving nothing away. (In Scotland toilet paper in a gas station lavatory came at a price. It was left to those in need to decide whether it was worth the extra expense. The Scots had learned to bring their own or do without – it was all part of the Scottish economic theory of how to increase goods for the rich by slashing services for the poor. Today’s airline executives wish they could fully implement that same principle.)

With the defender’s communications severed, it was safe for the priest to set up a fourth trick in clubs, ending in dummy in this ending:

 
N-S
West
N
James
J96
5
 
W
Wilson
1084
10
 
E
MacGregor
J
K75
 
S
Hirashi
10
AQ3
 

Select (you can triple-click it) and over-write this text below the diagram.

MacGregor, stingy to the end, would not give up his J on the play of the winning club, so declarer could discard his losing spade and finesse in hearts to gather 3 heart tricks raising his total to the required 11, making 4 clubs, 3 diamonds, 3 hearts and 1 spade.

Coming first at the local duplicate largely as a consequence of misplays by the opponents doesn’t compensate for losing two firefly lovers on the same day, but it helps immensely in easing the pain. A warm beer at a crowded pub provides further comfort. James had a question on the play of the hand.

‘Hisashi-san, what would have happened if MacGregor had taken his 2 spade tricks? Wouldn’t that prove awkward?’

‘No, James-san, if he cashes 2 spade tricks, no need to lose club as I have a spade trick to compensate. So MacGregor-san gets squeezed no matter what he does. He didn’t follow the advice of Sakamoto Ryoma, “Before entrance, plan exit,” but in the end neither did Sakamoto. He was assassinated in a hotel room with no back exit. That was careless. Believe in actions more than in words, James-san.’

A Double Dummy Unrestricted Choice

In a darkened bedroom James lay in a double bed looking at the ceiling and wondering what he had done to deserve his current state of bliss. When he was a schoolboy his mother had told him to do his homework, because, ‘in this world you only get what you deserve.’ He hadn’t believed it then and he didn’t believe it now. Millions in the Third World were starving while here he lay well nourished with his left hand on the bare bum of the beautiful brunette on his left and his right hand on the bare bum of an equally beautiful blonde on his right. Homework missed or completed had nothing to do with it.

His first encounter with a beautiful bare bum had been during a school excursion to Warwick Castle. While the other boys were in the Grand Gallery enthusiastically viewing swords and suits of armour, he had wandered past a closed door to a room containing a statue of a reclining nude in the naturalistic style of Lorenzo Bartolini (1777-1850), the original work (and the model herself) having once been in the possession of Napoleon III. Boyhood curiosity drew him near. The buttocks were smooth, but cold and hard to the touch. The buttocks he was now feeling were smooth, warm, and soft.

‘Betsy, are you awake?’ said a voice on his right, muffled by a pillow. ‘I just realized I could have made that damn 3NT if I had led a low club from dummy before cashing the ace.’

The person on the left turned over, put her hand on James’ stomach and replied, ‘Ja, it was obviously the only choice. Your Papa would always go up with the kink.’

‘I just wanted you to know that I know.’

‘OK, so now I know you know and I am wide awake. James is wide awake, too, because for the past 5 minutes he has been kneading my ass like it was a loaf of bread.’

‘Tee-hee, mine, too.’

‘So how about it, James? As we say in Chermany, “if you strike the match, you have to tend the fire.”’

It had begun a week earlier and all James did to deserve his good fortune was to write a letter pretending to be a journalist with an interest in women’s bridge. This led to an invitation to meet Heidi Heinz whose billionaire father was sponsoring a woman’s team in the upcoming 1968 Olympiad. That encounter led to a second invitation to their Savoy suite, this time to dine, and thereafter to complete the interview which actually he hadn’t even begun to write. The other dinner guest was to be the young German Princess Elizabeth von Stollenberg, a prospective member of Heidi’s team of women internationals who were to challenge men’s teams in a series of contests with cash prizes donated by Howard Heinz himself, albeit through one of his charities.

The previous evening he had been met at the door by the great man himself who ushered him into the sitting room where stood his gorgeous daughter, Heidi, and an equally gorgeous brunette. Their images cast in bronze would make superb bookends.

‘James Woolwich, may I introduce Princess Elizabeth von Stollenberg’ said his host inappropriately.

‘Is that with two double – u’s as in “Vow”?’ she said in a slightly German accent, offering her hand.

The woman thus introduced made an unforgettable first impression that blew James’ mind. She wore a sleeveless black dress, was slim and tall, but amply provisioned in the upper stories. Her face conveyed determination – a firm jaw line, glistening white teeth encircled by bright crimson lips. Her winsome smile and the steady, inquisitive gaze emanating from deep blue eyes gave the impression of a woman who not only knew what she wanted, but also, despite her young years, knew exactly where to get it.

‘She’s a descendent of Queen Victoria,’ informed Heidi with pride of possession.

‘I’ve got cousins who resemble Victoria closely, but, thanks to my vater I’ve got nice, long legs. He is tall and handsome – too tall to be a U-boat commander which is what he vanted always to be.’

‘I can see that would be a disappointment, your Highness, but perhaps it was rather lucky for us all he didn’t get his wish,’ commented James dryly.

‘Betsy, remember, call me Betsy. I was born on the wrong side of the Neisse, so you could say today I am Polish, but I vant to be an American champion like Dorothy Hayden and live in San Francisco with the Chinamen.’

‘The Chinese community keep pretty much to themselves,’ commented Heinz in a rare understatement. ‘We’re working on a visa, Princess. It takes time to heal old wounds.’

‘Ja, my father made a foolish mistake. In 1936 he joined the Nazi Party because he thought wrongly it would help him settle a land dispute. He was never political.’

‘Yes, land claims are tricky – it takes a lot of money and influence to get them right,’ noted Heinz. ‘Most Germans were in the same boat. They are a greatly misunderstood people. General John J. Pershing, like me a German-American, had a tank named after him, a great honour; President Eisenhower is Pennsylvanian German, Werner von Braun is pure German, now living in America, Marlene Dietrich, of course, she did great work during the war entertaining our GI’s, the von Trapp singers, a wonderful family and so melodious, …. I could go on.’

Heinz continued speaking superficially on a variety of subjects, the paragraphs arriving like waves pounding an unresisting beach. He didn’t realize that to please an audience, rather than telling them what you think they don’t know but might, it is better to embellish what you think they think they already know, but don’t. The tide peaked during dinner served in the suite by the hotel staff.

‘You know, James, the Germans and the Brits should never have fought each other in the first place. They are blood-related, although a big difference is that German roads are wide and straight while yours are narrow and crooked, so maybe that tells us something. The Krauts are working hard to rebuild their country, but look at the French. They act as if they won the war, but they are quitters who couldn’t even handle the Viet Cong. They’re too lazy to learn English. Ever try to buy an air-mail stamp in Paris? You can’t do business with the French.’

‘Be fair, Daddy,’ interjected Heidi. ‘Every woman I know would like to own at least one dress made in Paris, isn’t that so, Betsy? Your lovely dress, it’s a Chanel, is it not?’

‘Maybe so, I made it myself from a photo in a fashion magazine. This one was easy to do, except it’s a bit tight across the chest. I’ll show you how sometime, although I don’t think I could copy your beautiful dress with all its frills.’

‘You both look smashing,’ interjected James, to whose eyes the tightness across the chest represented the outstanding feature of an otherwise plain dress.

‘You men are so lucky, you look good in anything,’ said Betsy, and she meant it. ‘I vant to go to America and learn expert bridge, but I need a man to teach me.’

‘Come to New York, join my team, and we’ll have lots of men flocking around willing to teach us. We’ll go on tour and play against men’s teams. We’ve already made plans for Boston, St Louis, and Minneapolis,’ offered Heidi.

‘I am serious – only a man will do and he has to be a real man.’

‘Good luck on that one,’ blurted out Heidi, laughingly.

‘Heidi!’ admonished her father severely, ‘you shouldn’t talk about things about which you have no knowledge – it gives the wrong impression.’

That was rich. Based on his recent encounters with Heidi, James concluded that the daughter probably had more qualification in that regard than her father would like to think. On one topic at least Howard spoke with real qualification.

‘When I built Skyreach, everybody wanted a piece of the action: contractors, lawyers, union bosses, criminal organizations, police, politicians, and even judges. We spread it around, all part of the cost, and together we got the job done with no hard feelings. The project was a common cause in which everyone was invested. And what was the result? The people got a great building in the middle of Manhattan that wasn’t there before, and which will remain for their lifetimes and longer, if that matters to them. New Yorkers are the long-term benefactors and it didn’t cost them a dime – taxes get spent regardless. Think of the pyramids, hard work at the time, sure, poorly paid, sure, but a legacy still drawing revenue after thousands of years. We couldn’t afford to build them today, except maybe in a multi-purpose environment.’

James couldn’t help recalling the famous poem by Shelly about the works of Ozymandias, and was about to recite it, but he was saved from this indiscretion by the appearance of the master carver, a short but stout, moustachioed fellow dwarfed by his enormous toque blanche, summoned to gravely serve the roast lamb, during which ceremony the negative thoughts of the vegetarian dissenter were expunged completely from James’ brain as he struggled with the eternal dilemma – ‘rare or well-done?’

After the pudding Howard insisted they play Chicago and drink champagne, so they did in an atmosphere of increasingly good spirits. Unlike the wine the bridge was not of the highest quality. Here is the deal on which later Heidi regretted not making 3NT.

 
None
North
N
James
AJ1083
Q
K96
A864
 
W
Betsy
6
87432
J10854
J2
 
E
Howard
KQ754
K109
Q7
K105
 
S
Heidi
92
AJ65
A32
Q973
 
W
Betsy
N
James
E
Howard
S
Heidi
1
Pass
1NT1
Pass
2
Pass
2NT
Pass
3
Pass
3NT
All Pass
 
 
 
(1) Forcing

Heidi was a cautious bidder when playing against her domineering father. The fear of making a mistake acted as an inhibitor of initiative, thus causing mistakes of omission. James bid out his shape forcing a reluctant partner into a normal 3NT on 25 HCP on an 8-7-6-5 distribution of cards. Betsy took in the implications of the bidding and chose to lead the 3, covered by the Q-K-A. The 9 was run to the Q and the T was returned, ducked. The 9 followed, taken with the J. The principle of restricted choice held out the promise that a second spade finesse would succeed, so a losing spade finesse was duly repeated. A return of a spade to dummy was an embarrassment. Declarer had 8 tricks established but she couldn’t play off the spades without squeezing her own hand in the process. Hoping for an endplay, she created a pseudo-squeeze matrix by playing off the spades, discarding 2 clubs from her hand leaving 3 clubs and 2 diamonds in dummy. She cashed the A and followed with a small club to her father’s K. Howard could cash the T, setting the contract with a diamond still to come.

James could see that even this flawed approach would have worked if his partner had ducked the first heart and near the end played a low club off dummy keeping the club position flexible. Heidi hadn’t planned ahead, sometimes an endearing feature on a warm, starlight night in the Caribbean, but not at the bridge table. The spade suit gave a promise of 4 tricks, but, failing that, a club trick needed to be established and better sooner than later. Timing is everything.

On the last hand of the evening Betsy, a raw talent, showed her potential.

 
Both
West
N
Howard
J7532
2
A10975
QJ
 
W
Heidi
K85
KJ9
J4
K10732
 
E
Betsy
Q104
AQ106
Q83
A85
 
S
James
A9
87543
K62
964
 
W
Heidi
N
Howard
E
Betsy
S
James
1
1
3NT
All Pass

Howard had the strongly held belief that spades are like money: the pair that owns the most spades owns the hand. With the aggression for which her Prussian ancestors were famous, the Princess went directly to game with 3 queens and the ace in her partner’s presumed suit. James saw no better start than to attack with the ace of his host’s suit followed by the 9. As the club suit was key, Betsy was in no hurry to broach the suit. Instead she began by playing top hearts from the dummy, Howard playing his spades up-the-line, by way of a belated apology for his rash action. On the 2 from dummy he played what he hoped was a deceptive Q, but the princess read this correctly, playing off the AK dropping the J. This resulted in 11 tricks made on a deal where an unopposed 3NT might have been defeated on a diamond lead.

‘You should have finessed on the second round of clubs,’ advised the billionaire, annoyed by the turn of events, ‘Reese would tell you that the play of the queen allows the assumption I didn’t have the jack.’

‘Well, this Reese, whoever he is, is mad,’ asserted the princess. ‘If you have a doubleton club, you only play the queen when you have the jack behind it, so it’s just the opposite.’

‘But how did you know Daddy had a doubleton?’ asked Heidi.

‘Well, with 6-5-1-1, surely your father would have made a Roman jump overcall.’

‘I never heard of it,’ claimed Howard. ‘In America there is no way I can show spades and diamonds after 1, and I am certainly not going to overcall 1.’

With that Heinz took his leave, going off to get fleeced by Reese and his crowd, leaving James to complete his interviews with Heidi and Betsy. Little did James guess how much progress he would make that night, nevertheless, in the coming week even more extensive research would be needed before pen touched paper.

A Billionaire’s Blind Spot

Atypically on this particular morning in 1968 bright sunshine backlit the bedroom curtains of James Woolwich’s Lambeth flat where the young man lay in bed reading the Sunday papers, smoking a Turkish cigarette and drinking creamy Blue Mountain coffee. He was not alone, for in a far corner quietly sitting on a mat was a man with a shaved head wearing a black robe apparently doing nothing. We say apparently, but the man, James’ flatmate Hisashi-san, a Zen monk on leave in London to learn English, was hard at work trying to sweep from his mind the comments the other man was making concerning newspaper items he had found of interest. The frequent interruptions served as tests of the monk’s powers of mediation, and it was with some pride that the practitioner found that with time it was becoming easier and easier to forget what was being said and to return to a state of perfect indifference.

‘You know, Sensei, these American women are absolutely fabulous; I would like to get to know more of them.’

‘Maybe move to New York, James-san,’ suggested the Master.

‘No need, they are flocking here in droves this spring. Must be a migratory mating instinct of some sort.’

‘Be careful, happy woman stays at home.’

‘Look at this picture. The caption reads, “Miss Heidi Heinz, daughter of American billionaire real estate tycoon, Howard Heinz, arriving at Heathrow to join her father and promote women’s participation in the upcoming World Bridge Olympiad to be held in France where a strong representation from Great Britain is expected.”’

‘Belly interesting,’ acknowledged Sensei, successfully forgetting everything said.

James held up the newspaper for inspection. A photo showed a beautiful twentysomething woman descending the steps of a TWA Boeing 707 with her right hand raised behind her head to keep her broad brimmed hat from flying off her head at the same time revealing a nicely formed body clothed in a clinging white dress.

‘I wouldn’t mind meeting this one, in fact I think I shall.’

With a rare sense of purpose James sprang from his bed, put on his robe, went to his desk, and proceeded to write a letter. Thanks to a friendship with the Atticus columnist for the Sunday Times, James was a sometimes contributor to the social pages in matters of bridge. His contribution might be a caption reading: ‘The Hon. Leslie Townsend with Lady Rowenda Rowley who recently bid and made a grand slam at the Chelsea Bridge Charity Event.’ In his letter he requested an interview with Miss Heinz on the subject of the increasingly important role of women in the realm of international competition. He dropped in the name of Fritzi Gordon who he knew to be out of town.

Surprisingly his letter was answered in short order and he was invited to meet the lady at 8 pm on that same Wednesday in the suite at the Savoy where she and her father were staying.

‘Really, so soon,’ James remarked.

‘Not busy,’ observed Sensei.

James was met at the door by Howard Heinz himself, an after-dinner cigar protruding from between his lips. His hand shake was very firm, a test of some sort. James squeezed back. The great man was stocky of build with blue eyes and a full head of golden hair. James was reminded of Auric Goldfinger. He was best known as the owner of the Manhattan skyscraper known as The Heinz Skyreach whose tapered shape some snide critics likened to a ketchup bottle. This was unfair as they didn’t compare the Kellogg Building to a box of corn flakes. Howard was also known as a sponsor of professional bridge teams featuring himself as a playing member.

‘So you’re the bridge columnist. I expected someone more seasoned.’

‘Actually I appear on mainly on the social pages as my interests are mainly sociological.’

‘Are you a communist? You don’t look like a communist.’

‘Hardly! I’m a capitalist through and through. My South African mining shares are doing quite well, thank you, since the rioting has been stopped.’

‘Just kidding hyperbolically; you know ‘columnist’ and ‘communist’ sound the same and sometimes they are the same. Anyway, come on in. Here’s a tip: to become rich, and I mean really rich like me, you have to utilize other people’s money as well as your own. Makes sense, doesn’t it? Your letter mentioned Fritzi but she’s in Deauville with Martin Hoffman. It’s really great that these days Jews are allowed in everywhere. Don’t get me wrong, I love Jews. They’re great bridge players, really great some of them – the best. Oh, here comes my daughter. Isn’t she lovely?’

Indeed she was, much more beautiful than her photo had revealed. She was dressed in a white flowing silk pants suit featuring an unsuppressed floral design. The bright smile was as advertised, her hand, warm and soft. James had to resist the temptation to reach out to touch her long, blonde, luminous tresses that resembled a cascade of gold falling from the sky onto a multi-coloured garden filled with flowers. Her father’s monologue had carried them in to a sitting room decorated in Buckingham Palace style, strangely plush and drab at the same time. In the center was huge bridge table.

‘Isn’t that a beauty? Solid walnut – I had it brought in especially. You know, James, I admire you Brits immensely – Winston Churchill, Max Beaverbrook – they were great wartime leaders and great historians to boot. . I don’t think much of Anthony Eden. He let you down, in my opinion. What’s the point of having overwhelming military superiority if you’re caving in to Egyptians and the like? I plan someday to write the history of the United States myself starting with Andrew Jackson, a great general and a great president. You know, he was the last president to fully pay off the government’s debt and he did it without income tax.’

At that moment there appeared from the interior of the suite a quiet middle-aged man, sharp-eyed, but paunchy with unruly grey-streaked hair and stooped shoulders.

‘Mel, come in here and meet our guest, James Woolcroft. Meet the famous Mel Sanford, the greatest partner a man ever had. He could tell you some stories. We’re going off shortly to play against Reese and Flint at their club. Say, Mel, what say we take on these young kids as a sort of a warm-up rubber. How about it, James, a pound a point to make it interesting?’

Heidi protested.

‘Oh, Daddy, that’s not fair. We’ve never played together before. What if James can’t afford to play for high stakes?’

‘What do you say, James, make you nervous? If you can’t pay, we’ll take it out of my daughter’s clothing allowance.’

‘Sir, I’m sure that won’t be necessary. Even if I were to lose the rubber it would be well worth the price to have played against a world famous pair, such as yourself and Mr Sanford, not to say, to have partnered such a lovely lady as your daughter.’

‘Careful now, we don’t know you, but I can tell you’re trustworthy. Shake hands on it.’

Fortune somehow favours the bold especially those who have nothing to lose. Heidi made 3NT on the first hand after a favourable lead. As dummy James could sit and admire her frowning face at leisure. The next hand gave the opponents an opportunity to tie the rubber with a 3NT contract of their own.

 
E-W
East
N
Howard
K952
J10
KQJ52
73
 
W
Heidi
Q874
Q98652
A8
4
 
E
James
A63
K
109643
J1098
 
S
Mel
J10
A743
7
AKQ652
 
W
Heidi
N
Howard
E
James
S
Mel
Pass
1
Pass
1
Pass
1
Pass
1
Pass
2NT
Pass
3NT
All Pass
 

The auction began slowly with all four suits bid. Sanford resisted the temptation to jump to 3NT and 3 seemed inadequate. Experience had taught him that if final decisions were to be made it was best to let his employer make them, so he temporized with 2NT, assuring he would play the contract, regardless. Maybe a part score would pay off at rubber bridge by putting pressure on the vulnerable opponents to save the game. As it happened Howard had more than enough to raise to 3NT. Warned against a heart lead into declarer’s hand Heidi led a fourth highest spade through strength. When dummy came down, Sanford saw a possible 11 tricks.

From James’ side the lead of the 4 did not at first glance inspire confidence that the contract could be defeated, but closer inspection gave some hope which lay not in high card points but in distribution and timing. His long holdings in the minors would make establishment of tricks difficult there. It appeared that his partner had 6 hearts but didn’t lead them, hence they had gaps. She could have the A which would help neutralize the dummy. Putting it all together, and adding a reluctance to be left on lead later with his singleton K, James went up with the A and exited the K.

Sanford studied this card for a full minute, then folded his cards, conceding down 1.

‘What are you doing. Mel? Look at all the tricks sitting here.’

‘Good defence, Howard, there was nothing I could do,’ was all that the professional offered in explanation.

The next hand put an unexpected end to their brief rubber.

 
E-W
South
N
Howard
8654
A75
1096
AQ4
 
W
Lisa
J97
643
AK83
K63
 
E
James
AK103
J1092
Q2
J105
 
S
Mel
Q2
KQ8
J754
9872
 
W
Lisa
N
Howard
E
James
S
Mel
Pass
Pass
Pass
1
Pass
2
Dbl
All Pass
 

Expecting Howard to be well-supplied in the spade suit for his double, Mel led an informative Q, won by James with the A. A diamond to the K and a low trump to the jack gathered the Q from Mel who led a low spade expecting his partner to win the K and give him a ruff with the 8. It was not to be. James won the J in dummy and led a second heart. Howard could imagine an endplay where he would be trapped into leading a club, so he went up with the A and gave his partner a spade ruff with the high trump. A club was dutifully returned but the defence was limited to 2 clubs and 3 hearts, 2* making 2, game, set, and rubber.

‘Mel, I think my double called for a club lead,’ Howard claimed.

‘Yeah, I had a good sequence, 9-8-7. I’ll make a note of it.’ replied the professional.

‘And don’t we lead queen from king-queen doubleton?’ asked Howard.

‘Yes we do, but I had only queen-deuce. I sure wish I had had the king.’

‘Anyway, Lisa, good raise. Isn’t she wonderful; she’s learning to play like Rixi, maybe even better.’

‘Actually, Howard, it’s no tragedy if you don’t double,’ continued Mel who appeared to have had a few after dinner.

‘Mel, I gotta double.’

Heinz got out his chequebook and wrote down a large sum.

‘Well done, James…W-o-o-l-w-i-c-h… make sure I spelled it right – the oldest trick in the book. I added £10 for a taxi. Don’t stay up late, Princess, I’ll be back soon.’

Closing the door behind them, Heidi turned to James with a smile.

“Don’t believe Daddy, he’ll be out all night.’

‘Well, I guess I had better be going as well.’

‘James, what about our interview?’

‘I don’t think it’s proper for us to stay alone together in a hotel room, even if it’s in the respectable Savoy. Your father indicated as much’

 

‘Don’t I have a say?’

‘Your father thinks it could be dangerous for you.’

‘Maybe I like danger. And if I need it, the Savoy is known for its security… as well as its discretion. Let’s go into the kitchen and see if we can find some champagne. You drink champagne, don’t you? Do you have any other bad habits? Tell me about them.’

She took his hand and led him to the kitchen area where they found two empty Bollinger bottles in the tiny sink.

‘Oh, damn, Mel has drunk them both. There’s only Daddy’s beer left.’

‘We can order more.’

‘That will take time….can we wait?’

‘Maybe not.’

Heidi came to him and kissed him passionately.

‘I was thinking, I should give back this cheque.’

‘Are you kidding me? Daddy would suspect something for sure.’

‘I see what you mean,’ said James wondering where the bedrooms were located.

James, Women, and Bridge

Our story takes us to London in 1968, a the time when Harold Wilson was pulling down the shutters on the British Empire having realized that the Gnomes of Zurich had got it right all along: it is better to own a bank than to run a meat shoppe. The location is the infamous Hall of Inquiry which served as a place for officially sanctioned torture during the time of the Reformation. It is said that Thomas Cromwell’s father, a blacksmith from Putney, provided inmates with leg irons of exceptional quality: comfortable, cheap, and long-wearing. The location was taken over centuries later by The Southwark Lawn Bowling and Bridge Club. Within the seasick green walls of the cold, damp basement bridge players happily preserved the ancient traditions of accusation, inquisition, and insistence on a strict adherence to articles of faith. In the bright spectrum of first impression those of Abigail Abercrombie, an American tourist of middle age, tended more towards repugnance than delight, unaccustomed as she was to British taste in the interior decoration of public places. It was with some hope of improvement in her prospects that the widow spied a handsome young man in a blue Hardy Amies suit sitting alone at one of the tables.

Let us now introduce ourselves to this tall, lithe young man with a winning smile and an abundance of unruly sandy hair. He is James Woolwich, ‘Wooly’ to his former university chums, a regular player and a favourite of many of the old ladies of the club. A onetime student of philosophy, he was greatly influence by Aristotle, especially the wise man’s observation that nothing dulls the mind so much as regular employment. He decided that occasional studies in a variety of disciplines combined with bridge playing was a good way to develop his mind, in which pursuits he was aided and abetted by a rich uncle who allowed James to occupy his Lambeth flat while the old gentleman, reversing the current trend in immigration, pursued fulfilment in sunny Jamaica seeking something bright, brown, and beautiful….and finding it.

In his cooler, cloudier clime James was having less success with regards to fulfilment. His relationships usually got off to a good start, but petered out once the female component realized he was impervious to improvement. He looked to the Sunday newspapers for enlightenment especially with regard to curious observations such that in Cambodia the recent decrease in the water buffalo population had drastically increased the price of brides, putting them out of reach of many young framers, thereby causing an alarming rise in the rural crime rate. No mention of any bombing. It was his habit of remaining in bed on a Sunday morning drinking Blue Mountain coffee, smoking Turkish cigarettes, while going through the Sunday Times page by page seeking interesting items, un-heedful of the suggestion that it was a good time to finally tidy up (Jane), or to go for an overdue hike in the fresh air of the countryside (Alice), or make a long postponed visit to the BM (Cynthia). The girls just didn’t realize that for James this was the highlight of his week, surpassing all previous, more strenuous activities.

Then one day James went to a free, sparsely attended lecture by a Japanese Zen priest who gave out the promise of a better organized way of life. Much impressed by the monk’s quiet demeanour, James felt someone should ask a question from the floor.

‘What are your views on death, Sensei?’

‘End of cares and hardships. Death is Happy Hour with ancestors, who gather to celebrate many family duties performed… happy time for all.’

After the lecture James found Hisashi-san was staying for a year in a hostel at the end of the Northern Line learning English and perfecting his bridge playing skills. Perfect, thought James, and invited him to come stay in his Lambeth flat free of charge, lessons in English in return for lessons in Zen with a bit of housekeeping tossed in to create a balance. At a low point in that regard he committed to no female distractions for the duration, a promise he was later to regret. Hisashi bowed his appreciation of the offer. His expressionless face hid his extreme delight at the assignment of the cooking duties, for most English had never heard of seaweed and tofu soup and couldn’t even chop onions properly. There was much to learn and much to teach while gaining a regular bridge partner with qualification.

James looked up from his perusal of the yesterday’s game slips to see two women standing at the entrance, one middle aged, one not, wearing matching red outfits that would not be entirely out of place in a parade of Chelsea pensioners. The older woman was of uniform rotundity with a brightness of aspect typical of duplicate players throughout the world, whereas her stunning companion appeared be seen to be aloof and undulatory. Even at a fair distance James could assess the undulations as genuine, and the aloofness merely as a symptom of a short-sighted girl who refused to wear glasses in public – the so-called Myrna Loy look. In the twinkling of an eye James was at their side.

‘Pardon my intrusion, but you are Americans are you not?’

‘Thank God,’ replied the matron, ‘your intrusion is most welcome. I am Abigail Abercrombie from San Francisco this is my niece, Gloria. We have been we have been walking about enjoying the sights, but now my feet are killing me and I would like to sit down for a few hours and exercise the grey cells in a game a bridge. I am a Life Master, but Gloria is a novice. Do you think you could fit us in?’

“I am not the director, Heaven forbid, but I’m sure you’d be most welcome. In fact, a player of your accomplishment might consider playing with someone at your expert level. You see that man standing beside the notice board with his eyes closed – he is very good. Don’t be alarmed, he is not blind – he is probably imagining a tranquil pool with multi-coloured carp as a way of calming his mind for the upcoming contest.’

‘Oooo..I just adore short, bald men, they are so virile.’

‘Errr, well, I must warn you he is a monk on leave here in London learning to speak English.’

‘Better and better still. We learned in Italy that language is no barrier to having a good time. In these modern times everyone understands 5-card majors. But what about Gloria? She needs someone who is not too serious.’

‘Well, I have no game this evening, so I would be happy to fill in.’

‘Would you now? Wonderful. Be gentle, as she’s inexperienced.’

“Oh, Aunt Abbie, I’m no dummy, you know,’ said the niece with a most alluring pout.

James introduced them to Hisashi-san.

‘This is Mrs Abercromie from America. Like you she is a life master many times over, and I was wondering if you might be her partner for this evening. I would then play with her niece, Gloria.’

‘Ah, so’ replied the Master with a deep bow of understanding.

When the monk went to fetch convention cards, Abigail remarked that he looked extremely fit.

‘ Oh, yes, an integral part of his religious practice is to maintain himself at the peak of his mental and physical capabilities,‘ explained James, trying hard not to monitor Gloria’s rhythmic breathing. ‘Sensei has nerves of steel and muscles of iron.’

“I’ll drink to that,’ said Mrs Abercrombie cheerfully.

On the first hand Aunt Abigail reached 3NT. Gloria missed the killing lead, which would have been obvious from James’ hand, and later missed an even-more-obvious compensatory switch, so it appeared that it was going to be a long evening, not that the young man didn’t feel the longer it stretched, the better.

James found he was having difficulty getting his beautiful partner to warm to his attentions. This is often the way with goddesses – like cats they become immune to abject idolization. It was with some sense of satisfaction that James was able to lay before her as a token of his devotion a neat play on the third board of the evening.

 
Both
North
N
Gloria
KQ92
K4
A10
AQ972
 
W
Abigail
1076
J5
86532
843
 
E
Hisashi
83
Q8732
K976
106
 
S
James
AJ54
A1096
QJ
KJ5
 

Gloria had opened 1 to which James replied with as strong Baron 2NT, one of the foundations of the ACOL system. To the young goddess this signified a weak minor-suit orientated hand, 11-12 HCP, a popular treatment in Oyster Bay, Maine, whence she had emerged. Gloria signed off in 5, a puzzling development, but one fielded to perfection by the Englishman with a confident bid of 6NT. Mrs Abercrombie began the defence with a fourth highest 3 and James could see at a glance that he had missed an easy grand slam in spades, not that the crowd at the Tuesday Evening Charity Pairs would bid it lacking a 9+card fit, but the 12 tricks which were evident in a no trump contract would not suffice even for an average score.

When Americans refer to their country as The Land of the Free, they are speaking metaphorically. Generous as they may be at giving their opinions or even briefly lending their affections, they are unaccustomed to acting charitably at the bridge table, so James was disinclined to accept the offer of a free finesse. He went up with the A and ran off winners to reach a 2-card ending in dummy with 4 and T opposite AT in hand, the result being that Hisashi was happily squeezed between the red suits.

‘Golly, who would have thought it. You must have been potent,’ exclaimed Gloria. From the strange silence at the table she sensed she might become the subject of criticism.

‘He plays his cards very well, Dear. You are lucky to have him,’ explained her aunt.

Later in the game James again found himself in 6NT with 13 tricks available, this time in a diamond slam. Many played in 6 making an overtrick, but a few played in 6NT making 6 when West failed to find the killing club lead.

 
Both
East
N
Gloria
A10
AK1074
K1094
74
 
W
Snodgrass
K962
J85
8752
95
 
E
Botts
J754
Q932
J
J1083
 
S
James
Q83
6
AQ63
AKQ62
 
W
Snodgrass
N
Gloria
E
Botts
S
James
Pass
1
Pass
1
Pass
2
Pass
4
Pass
6NT

Most players can handle two rounds of bidding, but the third round brings trouble. On this auction a great deal of optimism was being expressed on both sides, so James took matters into hand with a 5-loser hand using the method of hand evaluation advocated by the great Maurice Harrison-Gray in a recent issue of Country Life.

The bearded Frederick Snodgrass led the 7 in the British style of third worst from four bad. After 2 rounds of diamonds James could see that a contract of 6 would result in 13 tricks if played probably. With shortness on his right and his club communication still intact, there might be some advantage to be had from running off the diamonds to put pressure on Howard Botts, a building inspector with whom he had often crossed swords, not always to James’ advantage. At present Botts was leering over his spectacles admiring the obviously sound structure of an oblivious Gloria. Perhaps the distraction would prove beneficial. After the diamonds were played off ending in hand, James ducked a heart to the 7.Winning the T return in hand, the young man found himself in a 7-card configuration of which he was only vaguely aware. There would be a great deal of satisfaction to be had from changing that leer to a frown, but how?

 
Both
East
N
Gloria
A10
AK104
7
 
W
Snodgrass
K962
J8
9
 
E
Botts
J
Q32
J83
 
S
James
Q83
AQ62
 

Botts had discarded 3 small spades in upward order giving an indication that Snodgrass held the guards in the spade suit, so a spade finesse in dummy might effect a squeeze in clubs, which could have been split 3-3 all along. Distrusting Botts disinterest in the spade suit James led the Q, covered by the K, pinning the J thus turning the T into a winner and the squeeze card to which Botts had no answer. Gloria was slow to realize 12 tricks in 6NT represented a very good score as many were playing in 6 making a lesser 1390 on 13 tricks.

The only West not leading a trump to cut down on the presumed ruffs in 6 was Mrs Abercrombie for whom leading trumps was an anathema. Her choice was a deceptive 9. The Reverend Forsythe, recently returned from Africa, was professionally obliged to assume that Man’s, and especially Woman’s, nature was in grievous need of restitution, but he did not, could not, accept this glum view, having been companioned for 35 years through innocence and health by the angelic Mrs Forsythe who was sitting North with a hopeful smile of encouragement on her lips. After calling for the A in dummy, he became alarmed when on the lead of a small diamond from dummy the J appeared from his fellow hierophant in the East. Without doubt this was an affliction, but afflictions are given us to be overcome. With an essential entry removed from dummy it would require a minor miracle to bring home this slam. With nothing apparently better the old fellow marked time by playing off the KQ, to get the count, cashing the AK pitching a club, and ruffing a heart to his hand to this 6-card ending.

 
Both
East
N
Margaret
10
107
K109
 
W
Abigail
K62
872
 
E
Hirashi
J74
Q
J10
 
S
Reginald
Q8
Q6
A6
 

On the play of the A Abigail had to ruff to prevent the discard of the T. Forsythe was well pleased with this development as he could overruff and lead towards his hand to promote the Q as his 12th trick. It was a great shock when the T was covered by the J, the Q and the K from the scarlet Jezebel on his left.

A trump return was won in dummy, but a heart ruff with the Q returned declarer to his hand. He played the 8, West following, and paused to reassess his chances. Could it be? Yes! His spade must have been promoted to a winning card, he was sure of it! So after passing the 8 he could take the last trick with his wife’s remaining top trump. Thank you, Lord, justice is served, thought the churchman, unaware that innocence being a condition, not a virtue, merits no reward. Scoring 1370 garnered a disappointingly meagre return given his brilliant recovery. Ah well, his experiences in Africa had taught him not to expect too much. Good health and a warm cocoa at bedtime were rewards aplenty in this world.

As a special concession to his American guests the director with rare good grace posted the scores soon after the finish. The names of A. Abercrombie and H. Hashimoto were listed at the top with a score of 68.3%. James and his friend had a few moments alone while their erstwhile partners retreated to the Ladies for emergency repairs. For James all dreams of romance had evaporated as he could not imagine himself making love to a woman, even a goddess, convulsing with hiccups.

‘Perhaps we can see the ladies to their hotel, then drop in on the way home at the Horns and Antlers for a lager and lime,’ he suggested.

‘So sorry, but Abbie-san has invited me to go to Ronnie Scott’s to listen to Ben Webster. His saasphone has rich sound like wet rice patty at planting time.’

I know what you mean, it’s earthy.’

‘ I admire her belly much – she has great Ka. You must look under the clothes to find the true person – remember that, James-san.’

‘Good point, Sensei,’ conceded James wistfully.

Slams – An Endangered Species

Once upon a time slams were regarded as being within the exclusive domain of the expert. Accuracy in slam bidding was the hallmark of good pair. It was said that the team that got the slams right were bound to win the contest. The Italian Blue Team were world champions year after year because of their superior slam bidding.

When the 2/1 system was evolving it was touted as the answer to the Big Club slam methodology. Imagine, enthused the advocates, after 1 – 2 being in a position to explore slam with the assurance that one can bid safely at least to the level of game. True enough, but things took a bad turn when the mood changed from exploration to exploitation. Partnerships acted like a drug company that values false advertisement over credible research. Players realized that slams were rare creatures, so there was more to gain in the long run by bidding deceptively to 3NT than by bidding accurately to a minor suit slam. Strong jump shifts were abandoned in favour of weak jump shifts featuring nothing but a long suit. Raises were almost meaningless, especially self-preemptive jump raises which promised nothing but 4-card support. The bidding of a minor side suit was avoided as it gave away too much information to the defenders when one ended up in a flawed 3NT whose success depended on not being punished with an informed defence. The information content of an auction was greatly diminished in the process.

Even I was surprised recently by how far the standards have fallen when I looked at the results from my local club with 15 tables in play. The field contained players who have represented Canada internationally. Most players have decades of experience and play some version of 2/1. First we show a slam that failed. Only 3 pairs avoided it.

W
West
Q4
AK86
QJ74
 
AKQ
 
 
E
East
K932
J1052
AK10
J9
J9
West
East
21 HCP
12 HCP
6 Controls
4 Controls
Precision
Auction
1
2NT
3
31
3
32
4
43
4NT?
Pass?
(1) ♥’s
(2) no Q
(3) AKK

It should be easy with any reasonable system to avoid slam with 2 flat hands on a 4-4 fit missing the queen of trumps and an outside ace. Of course, if all one does is count HCPs the bidding might go 2NT – 6NT with the perpetrators feeling hard put when going down on a combined 33 HCP. Surely some form of RKCB should be evoked along the way.

‘Don’t bid a slam on a finesse’ is common advice, but it that correct in this circumstance? A finesse with an a priori probability of 50% represents a state of maximum uncertainty. In the long run one’s average score will depend only the probability of the finesse failing, but at 50% it doesn’t matter in the long run if one bids slam or not. However, with everyone else bidding slam, one can go with the field to attain the same mean score in the long term while reducing the variability of results in the short term. So bidding a failing slam is the most cautious approach. On the other hand doing what most everyone is doing limits one to an average score. One might consider that to be an opportunity missed.

What information do we obtain in the Precision auction? Opener knows he faces a flat hand with 11-13 HCP. Transfer Stayman reveals responder has 4 hearts without the Queen. 4 asks for controls, and opener finds 4, so 2 controls are missing. This is enough information for opener to know to pull in his horns, but he also knows that the vast majority will be in slam. To stop in game would be the swinging action. He can stop in game or not depending on current needs.

Note that there is no way to wiggle around the finesse in 6. One has to draw trumps and the A is an unavoidable loser. This is a problem with flat hands. With long suits to play with some losers can be avoided. Here is an example where no one got to a good 6 on 30 combined HCP. Missing a king and two queens presented no problems.

W
West
K3
A63
AQ6
AK962
 
E
East
AJ1042
8
K543
Q74
West
East
20 HCP
10 HCP
8 Controls
3 Controls
Precision
Auction
1
1
2
3
3
41
4
5
6
Pass
(1) short

The shortage in hearts cancels the effect of missing the King-Queen. If responder had 4 clubs, a grand slam should be bid. In the actual deal clubs split 4-1 so 12 tricks were the limit. But why risk 13 tricks when eleven pairs stopped in 3NT? The top score went to the pair who bid and made 6 on a 3-3 split with the queen onside. That was wildly inaccurate, wishful thinking at best. Their aggression was admirable, but we have to blame the 2/1 system for their bad evaluation as it did not provide the information necessary to avoid an unnecessary risk.

Slam bidding has deteriorated to such a degree that the easiest way to pick up matchpoints or IMPs is to bid good slams based on distribution where hand evaluation depends on loser count, controls, and degree of fit. When the opening bidder holds 8 controls he has a terrific hand, a fact not given sufficient weight by the HCP total. (Even in the recent Vanderbilt we see experts not taking full cognizance of this.) Precision gives one the alternative of avoiding a slam-killing 2NT bid with 8 controls. Here is a slam missed in the same session where in 2/1 the bidding may well have gone 1 – 1; 3 – 4 with clubs being totally ignored. No one bid the grand slam, 12 pairs playing in 4, 4 in 3NT.

W
West
A108
AK63
A1054
K10
 
E
East
53
Q1085
6
AQJ752
West
East
18 HCP

9 HCP

8 Controls

2 Controls

Precision
Auction
1
2
2
21
3
3NT2
4
53
5NT
7
7
Pass
(1) ♥’s
(2) Q
(3) x

In the Precision auction responder is not obliged to show his 4-card heart suit first, rather he can show his fine 6-card club suit, surely the best feature of the hand. Opener next finds responder has 4 hearts to the Queen, so slam becomes an attractive goal. Responder can splinter to 4 showing slam interest primarily because of his fine club suit. 5NT is a grand slam try, and 7 is reached on 27 HCP. Although the auction starts with asking bids, it ends as a cooperative effort with responder making the final push. Of course, bidding a grand slam is only for artistic satisfaction as 6 is good enough to score a top.

The temptation is to bid slams that may be borderline 50%, as one is sure to maximize one’s score against a reluctant majority if the slam makes. Here is a refreshing example from a previous session that many would find unworthy, but slams that can’t be defeated by any lead seem worthwhile to bid, especially if good card technique can improve on the initial odds. As in many a risky but successful slam, a good trump suit and plentiful controls are the key ingredients.

W
John
103
AQ9732
A108
A5
 
E
Bob
AK65
K1054
J762
2
John
Bob
14 HCP
11 HCP
6 Controls
4 Controls
Precision
Auction
1
4
4
4
5
6
Pass
 

I held a minimum in HCP for my splinter and signed off in 4 after John cuebid his A. Despite this discouragement, John showed further slam interest by cuebidding the A at the 5-level. With a maximum of 15 HCP what could he have to justify this? It appeared his optimism must be based long hearts and a good diamond holding, as a wasted Q would not give rise to much excitement. At the time it appeared that my J might have a role to play in slam, so I accepted the invitation while wishing I had the Q instead. Note that each hand has a loser count of 6 supporting a move to slam.

As Shakespeare wrote, the play’s the thing, and John got the mechanics right after an unhelpful club lead. There doesn’t appear to be much hope with the poor diamond holdings, but what if one can eliminate the side suits completely before tackling the diamonds? The 10-card fit in trumps was essential in allowing declarer to eliminate the clubs and spades and end up in the dummy in this position:

W
John
97
A108
 
E
Bob
5
J1062

Slam now depended on the location of the 9, the curse of Scotland, but John is of English extraction, so it was onside for him. A diamond to the 8 served to endplay North and the slam was made. The 8 was a big card, for the endplay still operates if the 9 is played from the South. One final point on the play: there was another way to win. North started with K5, so could have been endplayed in the diagrammed position by playing A and out. In some cases alternative plays can be sussed out when a full count can be obtained (4=2=2=5) opposite (3=1=4=5) within a distribution of sides of 7=3=6=10. Such alternatives are not predictable ahead of time, but the increase in information can increase the probability of success during the play.

It is bad practice not to know the quality of one’s trumps below game level. The information exchanged in an auction should be selective in keeping with the objective in mind. If game is the limit of one’s ambition, less needs to be revealed in the run-up to game. The fewer bids the better. If slam is possible, the more relevant information available, the better the final decision. This is the dilemma everyone must face, expert or no expert. Having to go to 4NT RKCB in search of a trump queen is a major defect of 2/1 methods. It is no wonder that repressive 2/1 technique does so poorly in the slam zone.

Sherlock Holmes Plays Bridge

In My Fair Lady Professor Henry Higgins asks his companion, Colonel Pickering, ‘why can’t a woman be more like a man?’ The colonel doesn’t come up with a clear answer. In the 21st century we are facing the question turned around: ‘why can’t a man be more like a woman?’, and we are finding he can, although not yet reaching the status of an interchangeable piece in the post-industrial machinery. Some men still fall in love with their baby-sitter.

We can’t imagine Sherlock Holmes, back in the Victorian era, asking Watson the same question. Watson might reply, ‘Really, Holmes! Why this sudden interest?’ Previously his friend had shown no more interest in a woman than in a discarded cigar butt. Indeed, he had never written of a woman, ‘close examination can uncover many interesting details.’ Holmes is a realist and an admirer of Petrarch who famously noted, ‘rarely do great virtue and great beauty dwell together’. For some this provides an incentive for interaction, but for Holmes it is an excuse for not getting involved.

At one time clever Anglo-Saxon schoolboys made Sherlock Holmes their hero. When they were old enough to take up bridge seriously, they strove to adopt his analytic methodology to the play of the cards. The atmosphere at the table was in the Victorian model of civility and comportment. There are still remnants of that era about. Many fine (male) bridge players, like Sherlock Holmes, enjoy solving puzzles more than they value human companionship. Holmes does not hate Mankind, rather he views people, women in particular, as the necessary providers of problems. One cannot play bridge without a partner and opponents. His strong sense of justice is tempered by circumstances. In The Boscombe Valley Mystery he lets a murderer go free in order that a beautiful, blue-eyed daughter might have a better chance at happiness, happiness being defined as a marriage to a poor but handsome chap who had been living in sin with a disreputable barmaid. (Watson should check him over.) Perhaps in the mind of the great detective this was to be a punishment for her distractive beauty, not a reward.

Holmes brings his cold objectivity to the bridge table. Recently at my local club word was received that a club member had gone to the hospital seriously ill. A Get Well card was being circulated for signature. One of the players at the table, a Holmes-type, said, ‘He should have quit smoking years ago’. I thought, true enough, but you never write ‘I told you so’ on a sympathy card. This got me to thinking about other greeting cards on which a middle-aged misanthrope should refrain from putting his true feelings in writing.

A Misanthrope’s Greeting Cards

Have a Nice Trip! Beware of strangers offering assistance.

Congratulations on your Engagement! Honeymoons are short – so get a head-start.

It’s a Girl! Enjoy the next 12 years.

It’s a Boy! Boys will be boys. Hope he’s not the exception.

Congratulation on Your Promotion! A nice surprise!

Sorry! I would like to apologize, but facts remain facts.

I Heard of Your Divorce Only five years for manslaughter, but alimony for life.

Happy Retirement! Wise decision and none too soon.

Congratulations on your Re-Marriage It’s a good bet when you’ve nothing to lose.

Have a Nice Cruise! The Pyramids are beautiful in the moonlight, but don’t go there.

Get Well Soon Defy the odds! You always have against me.

Happy 70th I thought you were much older. Enjoy your overtime.

 

The Sudden End of a Rubber

Now we come to Dr Watson, who portrays himself as a conscientious mediocrity, but who carries a revolver and, if the need arises, is not averse to shooting someone overcome by strong passions. His life is devoted to completing tasks, whereas Holmes’ life is devoted to starting adventures. As Watson looks back he regrets he wasn’t more like his quixotic friend. The truth is, Holmes couldn’t have tolerated Watson if the doctor had shown more initiative. He had to be reliably predictable without disturbing the thought processes. There are bridge partnerships like that. Here they are at the bridge table, as described by Watson looking back in his old age.

One evening, while awaiting certain developments in the East End, Holmes and I dropped in at the Aurelian Club near the Moorgate Street Station (where it still stands) to pass the time with a few rubbers of bridge. He was not a favourite there, partly because of his aloof air of superiority, but largely for the inordinate time he spent making decisions during the play of part-scores that appeared to others to be of no great consequence. Yet these were the problems that most engaged his mind, with his cards face down on the table before him, eyes closed and fingers pressed tightly against his noble brow. On one occasion an impatient opponent was heard to mutter, ‘for God’s sake, Man’, for which transgression he was immediately expelled. Later Holmes had the man reinstated and he himself paid the membership fee, which, although befittingly modest, was a significant sum for the fellow who had come on hard times due to excessive drinking. It came to light later that he had helped Holmes in writing his memorandum on strong liquors, a task that may have contributed to his medical condition.

On the occasion of which I write our opponents were two gentlemen of quite varying aspect, South being a slim, nervous, young man with a thin charcoal pencil moustache on his upper lip, North, a red-faced, portly gentleman with mutton chops and an air of self-importance that often comes with successful middle age. It was getting late in the rubber after an inordinate number of part-scores when this hand finally brought the affair to its swift and satisfactory conclusion.

W
Watson
A9
J
QY976
A9864
 
E
Holmes
K864
KQ5
AKJ3
K2
Watson
Holmes
1
1
2
6
All Pass
 

The auction was brief, the play, quick. Holmes won the Q lead with the K in his hand, drew trumps in 3 rounds, took two rounds of clubs ending in dummy, and led the J. The beefy gentleman pounced on it with his ace like a hungry hound on a bloody bone. Holmes ruffed the Q return and claimed explaining he could ruff this club, and throw two clubs on the established KQ. The young man slumped dejectedly in his chair while the clergyman hurried to the exit without ever thinking of settling up.

The next morning over breakfast I questioned Holmes on his line of play.

‘I was wondering, Holmes, why you didn’t play on hearts immediately. It seems safer.’

‘Ah, Watson, you again demonstrate that at bridge even success has its critics. I admit I may have been too greatly influenced by our opponents’ behaviour.’

‘I noticed nothing untoward.’

The young bank clerk on my left hesitated briefly after our 1 – 1 start. He is the type who enters auctions cheaply without material justification. Did you notice the threadbare condition of his shirt cuffs? While he was considering such a rash move, his partner, an honest clergyman of Nonconformist persuasion, drew out his pocket watch, anxious not to be late for his evening prayer session scheduled to begin in 18 minutes time. That marked him with a flat hand of little interest. For such people, failure becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.’

‘This is unlike you, Holmes. You are always insisting on evidence based on facts.’

‘Very well, I shall explain. The division of sides of the opponent’s cards was 7=9=4=6. The lead indicted a robust spade suit. On the third round of trumps, South let go what appeared to him to be a worthless club. He felt he must keep guards in both majors. The rest was elementary. If he had the A and returned a safe spade to dummy’s A, I could ruff the clubs good and return to dummy to enjoy them.’

‘But I had opened light in first seat. How could you know you couldn’t make 13 tricks?’

‘I know your tendencies, Watson. Dinner time was upon us, nevertheless, I would expect no less than 2 aces and 9 minor suit cards. The young man’s hesitation pointed to potential bad breaks, so I decided to put an end to it, if for no other reason than not to inconvenience our clergyman’s parishioners.’

‘You might have done that by bidding 3NT and be done with it.’

‘That would be unsporting. No, at least slam presented me with a one-trick problem.’

‘It all depended on the clubs sitting 3-3. If they weren’t, holding up the ace would have presented difficulties. The opponents aren’t always so reliable.’

‘Well observed, old fellow. If our RHO were a Moriarity, he would be capable of withholding his ace in order to create a problem in communication, and I may have regretted not giving the situation more thought, especially after he had taken out his watch in such an obvious manner. However, if we can’t trust our bankers and our clergyman, where would we be? ‘

‘Quite so. Concerning that young gentleman…’

‘Watson, I am willing to wager we’ll not be seeing that particular young person again. Now let’s take up our instruments and try to give justice to a theme by Herr Pachebel.’

The Golden Rule at Matchpoints

Most play bridge for the fun it provides, and the most fun comes from the quick thrill of a lucky play. That’s a dangerous approach in the long run, so don’t say I didn’t warn you, but, hey, missed opportunities are just as bad, even though you don’t feel them as acutely at the table. To pursue immediate pleasure or to avoid future pain? As with many dilemmas of a philosophical nature, it’s your choice, no matter what Epicurus (341-270 BC) may have claimed. There is a third way, play with equanimity, free from anxiety, and always go with the percentages.

Parents set down rules for their kids, ‘brush your teeth after meals’, ‘ go to bed at nine’, etc. Parents don’t say to a 4-year old, ‘do what you think best’. (Although the trend appears to be in that direction.) Kids respect the rules, and the world might be a better place if everyone was home in bed at nine o’clock, but as time goes by kids learn from experience to make exceptions. A distraught mother may admonish a daughter not to scream in public, but if the daughter grows up to be an opera singer, the rule goes by the board. When the prima donna plays Tosca about to jump off the Papal parapet, her mother may urge, ‘scream as loud as you can, dear, the audience will love it.’ Whether it’s the opera house or the super market makes all the difference.

So it is when beginners are taught bridge. They are not told directly to do what they think best, rather they are taught rules, rules which will stand them in good stead in most situations, but rules that should be broken as the circumstances dictate. Beginner’s rules are for beginners. Take the finesse, for example. Students are shown how a declarer can create an extra trick by taking a finesse and are given numerous examples how this works. They are taught, ‘take your finesses and don’t fist-pump when the desperate ones succeed.’ Students are not told how to avoid a finesse by employing a strip-and-endplay, because that is a topic for the master class, and it may be hard to spot the possibility in any case. It’s easier for the average player to keep on finessing, regardless. Only advanced players can follow the golden rule: choose the path mostly to lead to success.

In order to judge whether a given bid or play is likely to be successful, one needs a working knowledge of the probabilities of the success of various options. At matchpoints especially one should not make a play that is against the odds. In many cases it is better to play for a plus rather that hope that a finesse will work when you feel it won’t. How can one expect to win by playing against the odds? Before one can think in these terms, one has to learn how to estimate the odds at the time of decision, which may be when the dummy first appears, or near the end when more knowledge has been gathered.

The knowledge one seeks is to what extent the current deal departs from normality. One has to gauge the state of affairs and decide what is most probable. Sometimes one has a rule that covers the situation and sometimes one may decide instinctively guided by previous experience on other hands of a similar nature, but often one has the clues available to make a decision based on the current probabilities.

The Golden Rule when Bidding

Differences due to system are most strongly felt in the bidding of slams. In a mixed field many players are content to end up in 3NT rather than in a minor suit slam simply because the field will not be confident enough in their methods to attempt the higher scoring contract. This approach feeds upon itself, as even superior players will play down to the field. Slams are becoming rare, whereas previously the bidding of slams was considered to be the keystone to good bidding practices. Now failing to bid a cold slam may result in only a small loss as the vast majority will be stuck in the same boat. Using Precision on the following hand I am ashamed to relate that I fell into the trap of bidding down to the level of the field.

W
Bob
AQ5
10
AJ10
AQ10852
 
E
John
K10876
K8432
3
K4
West
East
1
1
2
3
3
3
4
4
Pass
 

The initial response to the Precision 1 showed a game-forcing hand with 5 or more spades. Using a series of asking bids I was able to discover that partner held at least 5 spades to the king, 3 high-card controls, and second round control of the clubs. By bidding 5 I could find out whether the club control was a singleton or the K. If John held a singleton club I would stop in 5 with work to be done with the field stuck in game with 17 HCP opposite 9 HCP. If he held the K I would bid 6 with good chances of making 5 spade tricks, 6 club tricks and the A. Playing to minimize my loss if I were wrong, I stopped abruptly in game when it would have been better (although not optimal) to go directly to 6 over 4 because the odds were greatly in favour of finding the K opposite. In a field of 11 pairs, fully 10 pairs stopped in game so ostensibly I was not punished for my bad bidding. Nonetheless it was a mistake to defy the Golden Rule by rejecting an action that was more likely to be right than wrong.

Maximize the Gain or Minimize the Loss?

There are two common approaches to decision-making: minimize the loss if you guess wrong, or maximize the gain if you guess right. Let’s consider the scores one would receive by bidding for the higher score regardless of what the field is doing. Assume 11 tables with eight pairs in game, two in slam. Here are the splits in matchpoints resulting from the decision on whether to bid slam or stay in game.

Bid slam and it makes 9 Bid game and slam makes 4

Bid slam and it doesn’t make 1 Bid game and slam doesn’t 6

With 10 matchpoints available there is greater variability when one goes against the majority and bids the slam. There is less variability when choosing to bid with the majority, even if they are wrong. Say P represents the probability that the slam makes, M represents the number bidding slam and N, the number resting in game. The average score for bidding slam is (M+N) x P/2 and the expected score for bidding game is (1-P) x (M + N)/2. The average score for bidding slam will be greater than not bidding it, if P>1/2, regardless of how the field has split. This is the origin of the Golden Rule.

A probability of ½ represents a state of maximum uncertainty. It follows that if one has some reason to suspect slam will make one should bid it. Trust your instincts, especially when they are right. Clearly, I was wrong not to bid 6. I might excuse myself by saying that near the end of a successful run I was happy to minimize my potential loss knowing I would have lots of company in game. In the long run this thinking is bad. One is playing to surpass the good players in the field. It is to be expected that you will outscore the bad ones. How would my partner have felt if we had come in second overall by a couple of matchpoints? Not good.

The Matchpoint Anti-Finesse

The Golden Rule applies equally when making a play decision. Very often this reduces to fishing for a queen. Many feel they must take all the tricks available in a common contract, so will finesse at every opportunity. Play may degrade into a frenzy of finessing, declarers being unwilling to forego the extra trick obtained when the finesse happens to succeed. They are playing to maximize the number of tricks taken, and if the finesse fails it won’t cost that much with most playing in the same manner. However, one shouldn’t take a finesse that is more likely to fail than not. The following hand recently played at the local club represents a situation where declarer does best by taking an anti-finesse.

W
 
KQ
K543
J8
AKJ103
 
E
 
A843
87
A10543
52

Select (you can triple-click it) and over-write this text below the diagram.

West overcalled the opening bid of 1 with a call of 1NT, not everyone’s choice. Partner evoked Stayman then left him in 2NT. The opening lead was the T and questions were raised at the table as to why East didn’t raise to 3NT. However, it appears his caution was justified as 8 tricks may be the limit as the cards lie. South took his A and continued a low heart to the K, LHO following with the 9. At this point South had 3 heart tricks to take if and when he gets in again.

One of the main advantages for declarer is that upon seeing the dummy he immediately knows the division of sides. When the division of sides is 7-7-6-6 it often pays declarer to go passive and give up the obvious losers early rather than trying to create an additional winner by force. Sometimes pressure is applied in this manner. The active approach is to overtake the Q in dummy in order to take the club finesse. If it wins, continuing clubs will create 9 tricks provided the RHO holds Qx(x). If the finesse loses, there is still an excellent chance for taking 8 tricks, via 2 spades, 1 heart, 1 diamond and 4 clubs.

The question to ask is whether or not the club finesse is likely to succeed. By overtaking with the A the number of spade tricks is reduced from 3 to 2, so declarer has to make an extra trick in clubs to make up for the loss. What are the chances the finesse will succeed? For his first seat opening bid South needs the K and at least one minor suit queen. With 15 HCP he might have opened 1NT. North has 11 vacant places to South’s 7, so the chances of South holding the Q is less than 50%. That indicates declarer should avoid the finesse. Let’s look at the most likely division of suits.

The two main candidates are North 4=2=4=3 opposite 3=5=2=3 and North 4=2=3=4 opposite 3=5=3=2. If clubs are split 3-3, it is 50-50 whether the finesse succeeds or not. If the clubs split 4-2, the finesse will probably fail. As the shapes are equally likely, declarer is unlikely to maximize his score by taking the club finesse.

What is the alternative plan? Declarer can cash the KQ and play the J hoping that North must take the Q. If so, declarer has 9 tricks easily. North must duck the J if he holds four to the queen in order to destroy the communication with dummy and hold declarer to 8 tricks. But some might win at the first opportunity and exit ‘safely’. That is an edge that can be exploited. On the other hand if South has the Q, declarer is held to 8 tricks immediately. It would be a cause for general merriment at the table if South held a singleton Q, nonetheless 8 tricks would still be taken with declarer’s communications still intact.

What was the situation at the table? Not surprisingly North‘s shape was one of the two most likely candidates, 4=2=3=4, and he held the Q as expected in that situation. This is exactly what declarer might have expected at trick 2 following the suggested line of reasoning. By not taking a losing finesse West might still have scored 9 tricks on the extra chance of bad defence. It is hard to guess how many matchpoints the overtrick would be worth, but we do have the results for this occasion.

The 14 tables in play produced 8 different contracts and 9 different scores. Only 3 pairs played in 2NT, 2 making 120, one making 150. Making 9 tricks in 2NT instead of 8 would have added 5 matchpoints to the score raising the percentage from 42% to 80%. That shows one needn’t bid a close game to be successful at matchpoints, even if you would have made it if you had bid it. Two pairs were in 3NT, but both declarers failed, as they should have done, for a shared bottom, the highest EW scores were got by defending against a vulnerable 2*. The Law tells us it doesn’t pay to stretch on 13 total trumps, one of the most neglected rules in bridge.

Sometimes when the dummy first appears declarer realizes he is in a minority and is pretty sure that this is a very good contract or a very bad one. Don’t be too happy or too displeased when you find yourself in that situation. It’s silly to hope to gain matchpoints by playing against the odds. What little you may lose on the play in such situations could make a difference in the final standings.

A Brief Bridge Sermon

Here in Victoria, BC, every week men and women of many faiths and many races gather together in a church hall to play bridge in the spirit of fair and friendly competition under a policy of intolerance to rude and demeaning behaviour.

Faith, Hope, and Probability

Dear friends, as we gather here to embark upon a game of bridge, we should strive to keep foremost in our thoughts these three fundamentals:

Faith, that our bidding system can get us to the right contracts;

Hope, that our partner is going to have one of his better days;

Probability, that the cards will sit where we want them to sit.

And the greatest of these is Probability for it provides us with our best advantage during the play and our best excuse when we are called to account during the hereafters. Probability knows not Seasons. A player who hath Arithmetic but hath not Probability steers by the moon without benefit of the stars.

As for Charity – we look neither to give nor to receive undeservedly, although the law dictates we humbly and gratefully accept all gifts unwittingly given. Blessed is he who is niggardly by nature, for a man may hold great cards, but he who giveth away tricks will not profit thereby. He is like unto a caravan bereft of camels, cast into the wilderness without teammates, without partners, without masterpoints.

The Lesson – Evolution

My friends, evolution advances in mysterious ways not always to the end one would wish. Recall the 19th century missionaries who sailed to Hawaii and inadvertently promoted the expansion of the American textile industry by persuading the natives to wear clothes although the weather did not require them and the natives hadn’t the wherewithal to pay for them. The unforeseen consequences of their invasion are apparent to this day: the colourful Aloha shirt celebrating an overabundance of nature and the graceful Hula dance where the hands tell a story and the hips deliver the message.

In the beginning of bridge each partner naively bid what he or she had going up the ladder until they reached the right contract at the right level. There they rested. This was not always easily accomplished, but at least declarer could blame only himself if he couldn’t manage taking the required number of tricks he himself had committed to. Naturally bidding was on the cautious side. Overtricks were taken as a sign of good declarer play or of poor bidding. Let’s look at a hand and how it has been bid through the ages. First, in the early days just after WWII, when Tim, after surviving time sweating in the jungles with nothing to show for it but a Filipina bride and her baby, returns to the bridge table with his old chum, Sid, who is introducing him to duplicate.

W
Tim
AQ642
9
A754
KQ9
 
E
Sid
106
AKQJ84
KJ32
3
Tim
Sid
1
2
3
4
4NT
5
5NT
Pass

Their bidding was entirely natural. A club was led to the A and a spade returned to North’s K. Exactly 11 tricks were taken. No problem.

Tim: Pinpoint bidding, pal. We beat everyone of those suckers who stopped in 4NT.

Sid: well… actually, Tim, anyone who makes 11 tricks in 3NT, 4NT, or 5NT, scores the same. So under the new scoring it’s a tie for top.

Tim: You’re kidding! You’re telling me there is no advantage anymore for reaching the right contract? Man, that really cheapens the game.

Sid: I know, I know, but you got to appeal to the masses. Maybe in a few years when everybody gets to be a Life Master they’ll toughen up the scoring rules.

Tim stayed in the army and got to participate in the Korean War, spending 2 years as a PoW. Try as they might the Commies couldn’t brainwash Tim into believing that everyone should work hard for the common good. One of his Red Cross care packages was lined with a stained New York Times containing a bridge column devoted to the Blackwood Convention. Anxious to demonstrate his newfound toy, as soon as he returned home, Tim invited Sid, who now owned his own appliance repair shop, to another game of duplicate, during which a very similar hand arose. Upon discovering Sid had an ace and two kings, Tim bid slam – because he found he couldn’t stop in 5NT.

Tim
Sid
1
2
3
4
4NT
5
5NT
6
6NT
Pass

A club was led to the ace and a low spade returned. Tim won the A, ran the hearts pitching 4 spades and a diamond, returned to hand with the A and eventually took the winning diamond finesse for 12 tricks and a top.

Tim: Phew! If they’d led a heart I might have taken the wrong finesse. This Blackwood is a good idea, getting us to 6NT ahead of all the comrades in 6.

Sid: Errr.. well no one will be in 6. Blackwood is supposed to keep you out of bad slams, not get you into them. How many points did you have? I had 14.

Tim: Points? What’s points?

The years sped by and before they realized what was happening, Tim and Sid were greybeard Life Masters playing a 2/1 system that was designed to keep the bidding safely below 4NT. That required making bids that were forcing but not leading in any particular direction. The minor suits had become largely vestigial.

Tim
Sid
1
2
2
3
3NT
Pass

Tim: Tied for top, old chum – many will be in 4. Nice pass.

Sid: You know what they say, better to pass than to bid the same suit three times in a row.

The first lesson of evolution is this: as time goes by, entropy increases. This means that fewer bids must cover more ground, thus losing definition. The trend follows the second law of thermodynamics, which also predicts a further increase in the number of chaotic preempts and meaningless overcalls. So, although we must accept the laws of nature as scientific facts, that doesn’t mean we approve of them.

Thus endeth the lesson.

Jekyll and Hyde Bridge

There are some lessons that need to be learned over and over again. Here is one of them. In 4th seat, nonvulnerable against vulnerable, I opened 1NT on AJ75 AT2 K84 QJ2, right in the middle of my range of 14-16 HCP. The auction proceeded without opposition as follows: 1NT – 2; 2 – 2NT, alerted as invitational not promising 4 hearts. Should I accept the invitation at matchpoints where going plus takes precedence? A hand with 5 controls, 2 jacks and a ten looks promising despite the 4=3=3=3 shape, but I decided to pass against a pair that could be expected to play excellent defence. Our opponents were Matt Smith, the international director, and his brother, Duncan Smith, a leading Canadian player who has amassed over 12000 masterpoints. After the hand was over Matt asked why I hadn’t accepted the invitation as I was above the minimum for my range. I didn’t answer because I hate discussing the hands at the table – there are too many factors involved, some of them personal. Besides which, once the hand is over we should file it away for later. Here at last is my answer.

One aspect to keep in mind is what the field will be doing on a deal. One can expect the very same start. What will the majority decide? In the present case I am sharing with the field an auction that I hate. The closer the decision the better it is not to give away information that will benefit the defenders. Rather than invite with 9 HCP and no 4-card major, I would just as soon that partner would bid 3NT from the start. The diamonds are developable, and the 3 outside controls make this dummy better than invitational opposite a strong NT. Without this pointless rigmarole one is more likely to get a favourable lead. Here is the deal in its entirety:

 
N-S
South
N
 
Q10843
QJ85
107
K10
 
W
 
92
K72
Q985
A964
 
E
 
AJ75
A102
K64
QJ2
 
S
 
K6
943
AJ32
8763
 

When the dummy comes down some may ask themselves what The Field is doing, as if The Field were an individual. This is akin to saying, ‘I wonder what Dr Jekyll is doing this evening, as a scientist having a quiet dinner with his virginal fiancée (played unconvincingly in the 1941 movie by Lana Turner) or out on the town as a wildly popular figure among the dissolute London ladies of the night (represented unconvincingly by the wholesome, intelligent Ingrid Bergman. What was Hollywood thinking?) Myself, I have always wondered about the hidden resources of the former and her innermost thoughts behind the frozen smile concerning the dull doctor who only talks about his work. If it were at all possible, Jekyll and Hyde would have formed a formidable bridge partnership. Any attempt to emulate The Field is to put oneself in danger of acquiring a dissociative identity disorder.

The tendency of many is to play to justify the contract – if they are in 3NT they go all out to make 9 tricks, but if they are in 2NT they pull in their horns and are content with 8, the contract taking on the aspect of a self-fulfilling prophecy. The double dummy result is 1NT making 2, so it appears to make sense to play carefully to make the contract, but to achieve it South must first avoid leading his 4th highest from his longest and strongest after which 9 tricks are easy to come by. Duncan Smith, who gives due regard to an opponents’ bidding, sensibly chose to lead the 9 giving nothing away. This was the position with me on lead having won 2 tricks with good prospects of 3 tricks in clubs and 2 more in the majors:

W
John
K7
Q985
A94
 
E
Bob
J7
102
K64
Q2

If finessing the 9 results in 9 tricks being made there is no gain when the field is in 3NT making. In 2NT one subconsciously hopes the diamond play fails. A diamond to the queen safely fulfills the contract, whereas a diamond finesse losing to North’s minor honour puts 3NT in danger if North holds the A as well – he will set up his 5th spade with an entry intact. Consequently I led to the Q and claimed 8 safe tricks. Wrong at matchpoints! North’s holding AJ or AT was much against the odds (2 in 15).

So what were the results across the field of 14 tables? My assumption that most pairs would be in 3NT was far off the mark. Two pairs stopped in 1NT, 2 pairs played in 3NT, making, and 10, yes 10, pairs played in 2NT. Half of the multitude in 2NT made 9 tricks obtaining a 62% score, while the other half who, like myself, achieved the double dummy result, scored a lowly 27%. My supposed safety play proved costly.

While it is dangerous to guess the statistics of results on a single board, it is valid to generalize on the basis of a pair’s record of achievement over several sessions. If a pair is consistently below average, one can conclude safely they are not so good. We don’t play for averages against such a pair, because to achieve a good score overall one must score above average against them on the boards presented. On the other hand if one is facing a good pair, like the Smith brothers who score consistently above 60%, an average score will put you ahead of the field by 10% on that board. Logically it pays to take more chances against good players as you are risking less. On the above board if I had boldly bid 3NT and gone down 1, I would have scored a zero, but if I had succeeded, I would have scored 12 MPs. However, making 9 tricks in 2NT was worth 8 MPs, so bidding and making game would gain a mere 4 MPs while risking 8. In a field of non-aggressive players the chickens come home to roost in 2NT.

The very next deal gave me a chance at recovery. Having learned my lesson I put my faith in the diamond suit.

 
E-W
West
N
 
J1072
109
K42
8732
 
W
 
95
J62
Q7653
KQJ
 
E
 
KQ83
AK7
A9
A1054
 
S
 
A64
Q8543
J108
96
 

After the auction, 2NT – 3NT, I was sure I was in a contract shared by the field. The low heart lead appeared to be normal, the J winning in dummy. When against a strong hand a careful player makes a dangerous lead from a broken suit I expect him to have an outside entry, else he might have tried to set up tricks in his partner’s hand. Thus I was inclined to place the A with South. Nine tricks were assured by playing on spades, but what about an overtrick? As I was in a contract shared by most if not all the field it made sense to take a risk for a 10th trick. It would be somewhat dangerous to rely on spades for two tricks if I played to the K and South held up his presumed ace, a defence I would fully expect from this South. Eventually I would have to play on diamonds, so why not now, before the defenders got wind of what was happening?

The a priori percentage play in diamonds is A and Q, and I didn’t mind losing to North, the 9 and 8 represented some safety with respect to a spade switch. North took the Q with his K and returned his remaining heart, which caused little worry. With diamonds 3-3 I eventually made 10 tricks without scoring a spade trick. This time I got it right – every pair played in 3NT, but 4 were making less than 10 tricks. Over the two deals we scored near average which is what I hope for against superior opponents.

A Director Comes Calling

I am annoyed when a player opens a standard 1 and his partner announces, ‘could be short.’ To me it makes sense to open 1 on AQ 543, so what’s the big deal? Most of the time 1 is opened on 3 or more cards in the suit, even with 543 AQ, which to me is even more deceptive. The auction proceeded: 1 (Pass) 1 (2 by me). So what so you think my 2 bid signifies? At the table I was the only one who was sure of the meaning. Is that a matter for legal experts? Here is the full deal.

 
Both
South
N
 
984
104
A862
A872
 
W
 
Q1073
K85
KJ
QJ43
 
E
 
AK65
9732
10975
6
 
S
 
J2
AQJ6
Q43
K1095
 
W
West
N
North
E
East
S
South
1
Dbl
1
2
2
Pass
Pass
2
All Pass

Everyone cooperated in getting me to the right contract. South asked John what my 2 bid meant and he answered he didn’t know. He thought I might have clubs, or I might be asking him to bid his better major. The 3 was led, the A taking the J. A club was returned to the king. The club continuation and ruff set up the J as a winner in the dummy. Not the best start for the defenders. At this point the director was called. The complaint was that I had bid clubs when I didn’t have clubs. The Director asked me if John should have known what my bid meant, a question that puzzled me. My assertion was that ‘could be short’ doesn’t mean, ‘is short’. In fact ‘could be short’ most often acts as a smoke screen for hands that have many clubs.

Here 1 was called on a perfectly normal shape. It was the takeout double that was rather questionable, albeit effective, yet there was no howls of protest when dummy appeared without at least 3 cards in each unbid suit, not even 4×4 in the majors. Should I announce this double next time as ‘may be long in clubs’? As Charles Dickens might have written, ’if the law supposes that, the law is an ass.’ Most of the time one must rely on judgement when choosing bids and not to be required to give free lessons to the opponents. Of course, it is regrettable when one makes a bid so brilliant that even a partner can’t fathom it. Here I draw the veil. RIP Marshall Miles.

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