Bob Mackinnon

On Being a Calf

Imagine what it would be like to play with Don Rickles for a session during which you were the doomed defenders on each and every hand. After your third miss in a row Don looks across the table and says, with a crooked smile,

‘I feel like a lamppost at a dog show. If you were any smarter you’d be a hockey puck. Why I am doing this when I could be having my prostrate examination? Even your mother won’t play with you, otherwise, why am I here? Hey, Director! Is it too late to change my name?’

If a game with Don appeals to you, I can recommend ‘Calf’ a book of 60 problems from the self-style professor of The University of Defence, Krzysztof Martens. ‘Without pain there is no gain’ is a philosophy of education that has all but died out in North America, but which apparently still holds sway in Poland. It is painful in the extreme to be constantly told one is a halfwit, but maybe the lesson sinks in eventually. I hope so.

The deals are clearly presented. The bidding is easily interpreted, the opening lead has been made, the reader is shown the dummy, and the question is simply, ‘how do you go about beating this contract?’  What more hints does one need? It is easier than a multiple choice, yet, if one is honest, time and time again one will go wrong out of habit. That makes you a calf, a player who follows the rules blindly without regard of the particular circumstances at hand. Of course, I was aware that some of my partners are calves, but until I did the quizzes in this book I never realized that I, too, am a creature of habit.

In the initial stages of the learning of how to play bridge, the novice is presented with a number of rules to get him over the rough spots. By adopting these rules he is able to play a respectable game. Here are some rules for defensive play that we live by:
– Return partner’s suit;

  • Give count when dummy wins a trick;
  • Cover an honour with an honour;
  • Second hand plays low;
  • Keep parity with dummy;
  • Switching suits costs tricks;

– Lead through strength.
The Professor observes that some players are interested in rules and some are interested in exceptions. Experts study the exceptions. Martens goes so far as to state emphatically, ‘thoughtlessness is the regular state for most defenders.’ He advocates active participation at all times, noting, ‘meekness and passivity are not the way to victory. There is no excuse for failing to think.’ One agrees, and yet, besides being hard to break, habits form the basis of modern civilization; traffic jams are clear evidence of our passive submission to the dictates of the mindless clock. Routine is the enemy of creativity. You can believe the skinny guy with the bald head when he tells you on TV that giving up bacon and eggs can improve your sex life, fine as far as it goes, but the next morning staring at your empty plate, you should ask yourself, shouldn’t I be looking for a better way?
 Probability plays little part in the decision making process when one must defeat the contract at all costs. Often we have to go against the probabilities. Here is a rare example where the reader can use probability to justify his decision.


EW have reached game in hearts via 1 – 1; 2 – 3; 4 – Pass. The lead is the Q. Declarer leads the 9 from dummy and South ducks, reading West for having started with 2 spades ( Kx) and 6 hearts. The question arises as to what is declarer’s distribution? Is it 2=6=3=2 or 2=6=2=3? The author states, ‘there is no evidence to suggest that one is more likely than the other.’ This is not so. South can see that the most likely distributions of the missing cards in the minors are the following:


West – North

West – North


3 – 2

2 – 3


2 – 4

3 – 3




This assumes all minor suit cards are equivalent, however, it is reasonable on the bidding to place the A with West in which case the remaining equivalent cards may have been dealt as follows.


West – North

West – North


2 – 2

1 – 3


2 – 4

3 – 3




It is 4:3 that West was dealt 2=6=3=2 rather than 2=6=2=3. If South accepts this assessment, he should go up on the first heart (breaking the second-hand-low rule) and play a club (leading towards strength), planning to repeat the play on the second trump lead, thereby cutting declarer’s communication with the dummy.

From Martens’ point-of-view the odds of 4:3 have little relevance to his recommendation as his is the unique series of plays will defeat the contract if the conditions are right. Under other conditions the defensive plays are irrelevant, so the choice is obvious. It is coincidental that the defender’s play is in accordance with the most likely splits.

The Justification for Being a Calf
General rules have validity in situations of maximum uncertainty. Like the Law of Total Tricks they are essentially statistical in nature and are subject to exceptions. Without a clear indication of the layout, players will normally follow the rules. Many players lack the confidence and/or ability to project beyond the horizon, so their decisions are largely based on what they can see in their hand and in the dummy. They continue to operate in a mental state of high uncertainty. In a local game there is the added uncertainty that declarers may not bid or play with accuracy. They may not be able to take full advantage when the contract is handed to them and will fail to find the winning endplay.

A better justification for doing the obvious is that defence most often depends on close cooperation with one’s partner. If one fails to follow the general rules, partners tend to misread the position. Plays transmit information, which is well and good if a partner recognizes the unusual actions and extracts the correct information from them, but more often they cause puzzlement. This is why, for example, brilliant leads often fail to produce the optimum results they deserve in theory. In Martens’ examples, partners play a lesser role, so individual flights-of-fancy will not cause short-term damage.

The commentators on BBO are told not to criticize a failed play merely because they can see all four hands. In this way players escape criticism for a near-sighted approach. On the other hand, in his book Martens criticizes defenders who do not place cards around the table in a way that will allow them to defeat of the contract. He expects a player with partial knowledge to project into the future and play as if he sees everything and anticipates the ending. It is not a sin to misplace the cards, but it is an error not to try. So it is part of the commentator’s task to point out how declarer might arrive at the double dummy solution based on the evidence he has at hand. This is a task Kit Woolsey, for one, is more than happy to take up. Usually there are inferences that point the way.

Protecting the Calf
The survival of organizations depends on its calves; it is the duty of organizations to protect them. In the long run calves will rise to the top. The ACBL Bulletin is aimed at the vast majority of players and continually pushes standard practices. Players who consistently come up with winning plays that go against the consensus rules are often subject to suspicion. This applies as well during the bidding phase. An example of this mentality occurred recently in the 2013 US Open Trials as reported by Kit Woolsey in the March 2014 issue of The Bridge World. Opener was blessed with this excellent 4=4=4=1 hand: AKQT AQ96 AK64 4, a 3-loser hand with 8 controls. Standard methods require one to open 1 . The bidding proceeded:  1 – 1 ; 4 – (double) – 4 ; 6 – Pass. Responder made 12 tricks but the opponents appealed on the basis that he, a notoriously thoughtful individual, took his time before bidding a cautious 4 over the asinine double. They win their appeal and the result is rolled back to 4 making 12 tricks. This ties the board as the opponents also started with 1 and without interference got no further than game. What do you think of that?

The 4-4-4-1 shape is not unusual. A bidding system that requires one to open 1 without having a suitable second bid available is seriously flawed. The informative splinter bid is not a good choice as it puts responder in charge of what follows. What can the opener expect from him? Even club players know partner will have reservations because his spades are so poor, so I am willing to believe that the opener was planning all along to bid 6 over 4 as a Grand Slam invitation, in other words, a second descriptive bid, which would allow responder to go the whole hog with hidden extras. Not a good approach, I would say, but one possibly dictated by temperament.

Cooperation is the key word for 2/1 methods, but with a dominant hand opposite limited resources that approach is futile and misguided, not that opening 2 is an improvement. Don’t even try to describe this rock-crusher. Spare the anguish, take charge, and use RKCB over 1 – at least partner will know what to bid next. (Fans, how about 3 for that purpose? For every 2/1 problem there is a patch.) Here are the hands followed by a suitable Precision 1 auction that employs routine asking bids at a lower level.

3 Losers
7 Losers





5+ clubs, 8+HCP

2 (ask)


4 spades

2 (ask)



3 (ask)


a king and an ace

4 (ask)


K or x

5 (ask)






There is no claim of perfection, but opener has enough information to bid slam with some confidence after the second response which shows that partner has at most 4 red cards. It is merely a question of 6 or 7 . Note that responder is just 1 HCP above the minimum for his bid. (In the event the anonymous Q was to play an important role.) Responder has no problem answering the asking bids, and need feel no guilt that his trumps aren’t more robust. Note also the strong hand gets to play it, protecting the AQ if necessary.

Doesn’t it seem unfair that the opposition can appeal after the fact rather than at the time of the hesitation? The rules are made for the convenience of the enforcers. If 6 had gone down, the result would stand, but when it makes, the appeal comes into effect at no cost. Crazy logic, isn’t it, unless the Appeals Committee feels its duty lies in protecting those who play by habit and bid without first taking the time to think it through.


Bill CubleyMarch 10th, 2014 at 3:33 pm

I was on a committee when 4 Gold LMs wanted us to throw out a slam by Silver LMs because they were not told of an ace asking sequence. In this case the GLMs missed a Gerber auction.

We ruled that most players with 100 career masterpoints would recognize a Gerber bid and answer. There was an infraction and no harm came from the infraction.

Incidentally, one of the GLMs consistently makes his alerts a full round late.

I gave my best in this ruling. I also knocked out my team from the last overall spot.

bob mMarch 10th, 2014 at 6:36 pm

When one accepts the role of a member of an Appeals Committee, one must do one’s best to abide by the rules that govern the appeals. I assume all members act accordingly in a fair manner. Is it right that they are asked to perform in this manner when their own results may be affected? The pressure to be ‘fair’ and not take advantage may cause a bias.
It reminds me of the Bob Marley song, “I Shot the Sheriff, not the Deputy’

JodyMarch 15th, 2014 at 10:38 pm

Gotta get this book, always enjoy your columns ; you have dry wit, one of life’s necessities

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