Bob Mackinnon

Michael, Me, and Information

Michael Rosenberg has always been known for his technical correctness and analytical capacity. For years he was the perfect partner for the glamorous Zia, well known for his immensely successful intuitive plays. The bridge world reveres the Stoics, but loves the Epicureans, so when his book came out, Michael’s title was chosen to be Bridge, Zia and Me, rather than Bridge, Me and Zia. Isn’t it rather ironic that in this year’s Reisinger Cup, the dour Scot got to play on a team with 3 charming ladies who all strike me as John Updike material, world champions Debbie Rosenberg, Sabine Auken and Daniela von Arnim, whereas Zia, the erstwhile ladies’ man, had to sit opposite a grim-faced Bob Hamman throughout, and endure post mortems with Coach Kokish and ‘the boys’. This year coming in third had more than its fair share of compensations.

I have been an admirer of Debbie Rosenberg ever since her appearance on BBO when she commented wisely and wittily on her husband’s bidding habits. Michael is a lucky man. Well, now that they play serious bridge as partners, I am looking forward to Debbie’s book.

Here is a hand they defended in the Reisinger Cup Final in which many felt Michael did less than was possible to help his partner in a tight defensive situation. The question is this: should one sometimes sacrifice technical correctness in an attempt to be helpfully informative to the partner you love and cherish?

Dealer: East

Vul: None

North: Casen  
West: Debbie East: Michael
KJ6 QT742
7 98
KQ96 JT53
KT762 J9
  South: Schwartz  


West North East South
Debbie Casen Michael Schwartz
    Pass 2NT
Pass 4* Pass 4
All Pass      

 Opening 2NT with a hand containing 9 controls is a good way to miss slam, but there was no problem this time as apparently NS is one of those partnerships where one player bids game and the other partner is expected to make it. The K was led, ducked, and diamonds continued. Declarer drew trumps, ruffed a diamond in dummy and led a spade from dummy. Obviously 2 club losers needed to be compressed into 1.

Some BBO commentators pondered the possibilities of an elimination of spades and diamonds with an endplay in clubs. Schwartz didn’t see the 8 as sufficient backup for such an attempt. Instead he decided to play immediately on the defenders’ uncertainty. When Michael played the 4, Schwartz covered with the 9, and there was Debbie on lead and facing a guess in the black suits. A return of the K defeats the contract, but she got it wrong when she played a fatal club. From her point of view, declarer might have been playing from the combination of AQ9, in which case his clubs would be skimpy. To sympathetic observers it was rather obvious that Michael hadn’t been of much help in the endgame.

David Burn, whose comments I find insightful, thought that Michael couldn’t risk playing the T on the lead from dummy as he would give away the show if Schwartz held KJ9. I wasn’t convinced this time, as it was quite possible that Schwartz would have played the 9 from that combination. Furthermore, is KJ9 the most likely holding one can attribute to declarer?

Experts aren’t all strong on signals. Rixi Markus once famously said to a younger, inexperienced partner, ‘Don’t signal, Dear, I know better than you what you’ve got’ (or words to that effect). Maybe she felt that her neophyte partner’s signals contain an element of outrageous condescension. I suppose someone like Zia could feel the same way. Although I hope it wasn’t so, I can imagine Michael saying to Debbie, ‘I think you should have been able to work it out.’ Who has the better excuse? I look at it from the point of view of who has the more relevant information. It is that partner who is under an obligation to share what he knows, even if that requires a play that in isolation may not be otherwise optimal. Here East holds key honors in the black suits, so is in a better position to place the cards. Here is a reasonable construction of the black suits from East’s point-of-view where declarer has an entry to dummy in trumps.

A86 QT42
KT6 J9

When East plays a low spade on the first lead from dummy, declarer can duck to West by playing the 9. Whether West wins with the Ace or not, it is game over. If instead East puts up the T, actually his worst choice, declarer certainly covers with the J, and the same result is achieved. The Q from East presents a problem. When declarer covers with the K, West can duck smoothly knowing partner doesn’t hold the J. On the next round of spades, declarer may be tempted into putting up the J and lose the endplay position. Being known as somewhat unreliable would help East here. Of course, there are other possibilities, so let’s concede without proof that Michael’s play was correct technically, but still condemn him for not putting up the informative Q.

It is acknowledged that a defender with a weak hand should signal, but I carry it a bit farther. If I am defending with a partner who can use a little help from time to time, I consciously make a play that should provide useful information especially when the endgame looms large. When defending a doubled contract I aim first to assure putting it down 1. Although as a result I sometimes take valid criticism, I have found that in the long run it works, especially on close doubles, because declarers these days by design or fault are not reliable bidders. Recently I was told by a partner, ‘why didn’t you lead a trump? I thought you wanted a ruff, but she was short in clubs, not you!’ What could I say? I was only trying to help. (Secretly I think he should have worked it out!)

Can we extend the principle of disclosure to lead-directing doubles? Not without reservations. Once the opponents have started cue bidding towards slam, any information provided without cost by the defenders is only going to help them make the right final decision. There are some examples of backfiring doubles in my upcoming book Bridge, Probability, and Information.


BOBBY WOLFFDecember 16th, 2008 at 5:12 pm

Though I respect his background and admire his delightful writing style, I was disappointed in Bob Mackinnon’s latest blog, blaming Michael Rosenberg for not helping his wife Debbie during the defense of Richie Schwartz’s 4H contract.

Any honor in spades which Michael would put up (Q or the 10) might assist declarer in guessing the suit and was unnecessary in trying to help his wife. Debbie, upon winning the Jack of Spades, had a quick King of Spades exit — not the VERY costly and unsophisticated club she did lead back.

When a decent+ declarer (a category into which Richie falls) reaches that part of a hand, he will almost always (and in the absence of extenuating circumstances), lead his weak holding trying to coax his LHO into an errant return (for which she did fall).  In the name of clarification  — if the spade and club holdings were reversed, Richie would have led a club first.   He succeeded in SPADES, although it was actually the much-wanted CLUB he got returned. While trying not to be provocative, there is even a stronger scientific reason for this critique — but to try to explain it at this juncture, would border on boring.

The one card Michael would surely have played was the Jack of Clubs when the declarer would eventually (after ruffing his losing spade in the dummy) lead a club toward his hand.  When declarer finesses the Club Queen, Debbie has no alternative but to win and hope Michael had the Yaz Menel.  (The J/9 combination is to Klabiash what the Spade Queen and Diamond Jack are to pinochle).  Michael would have obliged as any good partner should.

To blame Michael, not Debbie, is carrying the age of chivalry much too far (though a gallant attempt to assist a damsel in distress) — but clearly a substandard bridge analysis.

LindaDecember 17th, 2008 at 5:52 am

I think Bobby has put it very well. The best defenders need to visulaize declarer’s likely holding based on the way he played the hand.

In addition to deception …

Declarer could also actually have a hand where he has a good chance of an elimination and therefore has to play the weak suit first. Even on this hand there is a chance for a club elimination if for example. Michael had a small doubleton in clubs.

LindaDecember 17th, 2008 at 5:20 pm

One other point… what hearts did Michael play when declarer drew trump. In this situation I think a lot of experts would play trump suit preference signals. There is no other good use for the order of the heart suit play. If you are playing that then Michael would signal for spades.

Ercan CemDecember 24th, 2008 at 5:08 pm

I cannot help but think that both Mr MacKinnon and the BBO commentators were the victim of four-hands-seen syndrome. Imagine declarer’s hand being slightly altered and Micheal Rosenberg presents him the contract by playing spade Queen (or Ten for that matter). What would everybody say? I guess something like “… the unorthodox second-hand play by M.R. tipped the declarer…” etc. And probably nobody would mention “Yes, but look, if the deal had been this and that then this would be the correct play. What’s more M.R. play covers wider range of combination”, and all that.

Mr Wolff’s comment makes it clear that Mrs Rosenberg should have worked it out. I disagree. Right, declarer will “usually” play a spade from this spade/club combo, however if this is the case then with spade AQ9 declarer should “always” play a spade to his nine and expect his LHO return another spade after winning the nine with his J/T (and with the K when he is lucky).

I looked at the deal over and over again but simply couldn’t find a way to come up with the right answer; be it visualizing the whole deal at the critical point or the potential signals that each player could transmit to his partner (playing trumps upside down, etc as suit preference or whatever).

Mr. R could have played the Q/T or Mrs R could have returned the spade K back but nobody made a mistake. They had to make a decision and they didn’t have enough clues.

CarlosJanuary 7th, 2009 at 1:34 pm


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