Bob Mackinnon

Ah, Sweet Mystery of Bridge

I remember as a boy listening on the radio to Jeannette MacDonald singing “Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life’. It was most embarrassing for a youngster to hear a middle-aged woman proclaim to the world at the top of her voice that at long last she had finally experienced deeply satisfying sex. Yes, even as a boy I knew she wasn’t referring to watching a glorious sunrise over frosty Kansas stubble fields. The mystery to me was that the females in my family were lapping it up, even my own mother. Right then I realized I was headed for trouble later in life.

Henry Kissinger once confessed that to be known as an expert one must tell the people what they already have been led to believe. I was reminded of that when I read for the first time the much praised book by Jeff Rubens entitled, ’The Secrets of Winning Bridge’.  It is chock full of commonsense, but has he uncovered any secrets?  As Fred Gitelman points out in the introduction of the latest edition, what Rubens does so well is put into words the ideas we already believe about playing bridge. That is no mean feat. Does the book advance our ideas beyond what is commonly held to be true? No, but being a good teacher is achievement enough.

Al Roth was Rubens’ ultra-conservative mentor, whose ideas may have been based on his experience that if a Manhattan millionaire wants to give you his money for the sport of it, you’d be a fool not to take it. And you must not give it back. He wrote of bidding as ‘painting a picture’. I think he was referring to the works of Impressionist School, where with a few deft strokes the artist may capture the essence of a subject, leaving it to the viewer to fill in the details from his own imagination. Presumably the artist then hurries off to Café Montmartre for a few quick one with his friends. The bidding tools available to the bridge player are necessarily crude instruments, so we paint with broad strokes and it becomes expedient that one captures the essence of one’s collection of cards within the limits of the inadequate tools at hand. This process goes beyond the bounds of systemic rules, and some creativity and imagination are required, especially in contested auctions, otherwise we are merely painting by numbers, numbers of high card points, that is.

Location, Location, Location
As he is addressing the average bridge player, Rubens is quick to point out that HCP  evaluation is accurate about 90% of the time when both partners hold flat hands. That is comfort for the masses, but he then points out that HCP evaluation is not perfect as there are cases where the expectation is far from reality. Here are two hands he uses to illustrate the shortcoming of relying solely on HCP totals.



Hand A

Hand B


















With Hands A and B the standard opening bid is 2NT. The responder has 12 HCP. The simple approach is for responder to bid 6NT on a combined HCP total of 33 HCP, yet with Hand B 10 tricks are the limit, whereas with Hand A 12 tricks are easy. What is wrong? As Rubens describes it, whereas the top cards remain in place, the movement of the apparently insignificant 2’s and the 3’s from one suit to another makes a big difference. The thought that insignificant cards are often crucial some may find disturbing. Are we therefore condemned to a bridge life governed by hidden factors?

The solution is rather simple: as with real estate, the value of controls depends on location, location, location. That means more than the locations within one’s own hand, but the locations with respect to the controls held in partner’s hand. One can discover the degree of fit through an honest exchange of information with one’s partner. Furthermore, it is not the weak responder who should be asking the questions and making the decisions, it is the stronger hand, as the holder of the most controls can better place the controls opposite and better evaluate the fit. Standard bidders don’t follow this principle; they want to preserve the right to decide no matter what, exercising what they call judgment.

There is a relay system that allows for better evaluation, the Viking Club, because the initial response structure is based largely on showing shape. Asking for controls follows later in the auction. So both Hand A and Hand B are opened 1 and the bidding proceeds to 3 with responder showing 12-14 HCP with 3=4=2=4 shape. With Hand B the opener soon discovers the existence of a mirrored distribution in a division of sides of  6=8=4=8, all even numbers. It is not difficult to avoid 6NT and stop in a heart game contract where declarer may play along elimination lines with the hope of avoiding 3 club losers. With Hand B opener uncovers a more likely distribution, 7=6=5=8, which provides 12 tricks of the top. (Note the odd numbered splits allow for the discarding of losers.) This division of sides is much more likely than the other which justifies bidding 6NT if one is making a blind guess. It is a question of probability based on partial knowledge. Gather more information about the division of sides and the probabilities change.

Late in life I have discovered the importance of the division of sides. I call it the sweet mystery of bridge. It is a mystery that can be explained, but most players don’t want to talk about it. Instead, they are eager to tell you how many points they held.

Yin and Yang Hand Types
Jeff Rubens is recognized as the man who put forward the Useful-Space Principle that states that in a constructive auction space should be assigned where it is most useful regardless of the natural or traditional meanings of the call. Transfer bids are a good example of such an assignment. Today overcallers realize that their job is to remove useful space when the deal belongs to the other side thereby undoing Rubens’ good work.
Overcalls are getting to be very light and the suit bid can be weak. In the face of interference the emphasis is clearly on showing support for partner’s suit, and authors have devised methods to distinguish the kind of support partner can expect. There is the other side of the coin: how much value exists in the overcaller’s suit. This aspect has been largely neglected. Obviously with the sides balanced in HCP, the more your side holds in their suit, the more points they are likely to hold in yours – a reason for caution.

It is best when painting a picture with your bids is to attempt to capture the essence of your holding by separating flat (Yin) hands from distributional (Yang) hands as early as possible, and among flat hands to distinguish hands that are well stocked in the opponents’ suit and those that are not. Suppose partner opens the bidding and your RHO overcalls. For flat hands the high card content is a major means of evaluation whereas for shapely hands losing trick count and controls come to the fore. Troubles occur when responder’s reaction can be a mix of the two categories. We are thinking here of the all encompassing negative double which can be made with a long suit and limited values or with a flat hand and scattered values. The long suit may never enter the consciousness of the opener, who will tend to use high card content as the default means of evaluation.

Flat hands have little potential for contributing significantly to the number of total trumps. The difference between the longest suit and the shortest suit sets the absolute limit. A 5-4-3-1 shape is excellent as it contributes 4 to the total trumps if there is a fit in the 5-card suit, 3 if the best fit is in the 4-card suit, and even 2 in the third worst candidate. Of course, you will not uncover the best fit unless you bid, sometimes incautiously. The one thing one should not do is press on aggressively when holding top honours in an opponent’s suit.

Information Reveals the Unusual
Bidding systems are based largely on the assumption of normal circumstances, and encounter difficulty when conditions are not normal. A bid is most informative when it reveals something unexpected. An overcaller normally has values in the suit he chooses to bid, and an advancer may also. So bidding a topless suit has a deceptive element that may work to one’s advantage. If the AKQ in a suit are missing, the chances are they are distributed around the table with no one player the wiser. If someone holds two of these cards, that player will know that something unusual is in the offing. So in competition, especially with a flat hand, one does best to keep partner informed of the abnormal state of affairs when the opponents are bidding a weak suit. Here is an extreme example from the 2005 Bermuda Bowl Final.



According to the analysis of Eric Kokish, Lauria and Versace are known for their aggressive style in competition which leads them to bid many a hopeless game. Furthermore, the Italian’s attitude towards doubling is less shape-restrictive than one expects (but doesn’t always get) from American players. Presumably with this cat-and-mouse style one has to rely on the opponents’ reactions more than is healthy in order to glean from the auction the necessary information on the lie of the cards, which leads to the dangerous condition of reliance on the opponents more than one’s partner.

The HCPs are divided 19 to NS who have a 9-card spade fit and 21 to EW who have an 8-card heart fit in addition to a supplemental 8-card fit in diamonds. The Law of Total Tricks if crudely applied leaves to the expectation of 17 total tricks in the play. Indeed, Meckwell could come to 9 tricks in a spade contract, but what about EW? With the expectation of only 8 tricks it appears rather too aggressive to bid even a vulnerable game, as the Italians are wont to do. As the cards lie, they should be held to 6 tricks, so the number of total tricks was 15, not a total one wants to encounter at the 4-level, or even the 3-level, as Hamman-Soloway discovered when they reached 3, unopposed and undoubled, off 300.

One can see on a double dummy basis that the problem is that EW are missing the AK in one red suit, and AQJ in the other. Versace took the final fatal step, however, the blame lies with Lauria who can see in his hand the AK of the suit introduced freely on his right, representing 7 of the 12 HCP he holds. Any bid by him at this stage will be altogether too encouraging. The warning signs are up. Leaving Meckwell to play in a spade partial making 9 tricks would give Italy 4 superfluous IMPs to add to their final winning total. Which proves what? Overall, aggression pays, but it should be exercised with discretion.

In a competitive auction one problem is how to best describe the hand, another, how best  inconvenience the opponents. Over 1 Lauria had 2 reasonable space-saving options: a responsive double or a pass. Of course, we are all reluctant to pass, Lauria more so than most, so a double would fit the bill, if it were defined to show this type of hand – an opening hand with nowhere to go linked with a willingness to go somewhere. He chose to be disruptive, which didn’t inconvenience Meckstroth one bit. It is safe enough to bid 9-card fits missing top honors. As for Verace’s 4 bid, well, sometimes one can be too clever – or should I say, too trusting, which is not the same thing.


NeillMay 13th, 2015 at 12:01 pm

“”With Hand B the opener soon discovers the existence of a mirrored distribution in a division of sides of 6=8=4=8, all even numbers. It is not difficult to avoid 6NT and stop in a heart game contract where declarer may play along elimination lines with the hope of avoiding 3 club losers””

It ought to be elementary for the elimination to be avoided, and there are 10 on top in NT, as should be preferred anyway with such a high combined count, despite the 4-4 heart fit.

bob mMay 13th, 2015 at 7:35 pm

The charm of bridge is that nothing is obvious until the hand has been played, and maybe not even then. The question at the table is always, ‘what do I know?’ Asking bids create an imbalance in the quality of the knowledge available, as the asker will usually gain an advantage. In the example in question knowing partner is 3=4=2=4 is more valuable to the Big Club opener than it is to the opening leader, who doesn’t know declarer’s shape or the number of high cards he holds.

In that sense, it is more fair if the opening bid is 2NT, in which case responder is almost certain to insist on playing in 6NT, with 4NT never being an option, and the defenders will have a better chance of getting the defence right.

Leave a comment

Your comment