Bob Mackinnon

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.

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.’


Paul WesseliusFebruary 24th, 2018 at 10:02 am

Dear mr MacKinnon,

I have read your book Bridge, Probability & Information with great pleasure. I would like to make a number of comments. Could you give me your e-mail address so that I can directly send them to you?

Greetings, Paul

Bib MacKinnnonFebruary 26th, 2018 at 9:09 am

Thanks, Paul.
We are always keen to have feedback Even suggestions for improvements are not dismissed out of hand.

Please send comments to me through the publisher. (We have no secrets)

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