Judy Kay-Wolff

Preventing Partner from Guessing Wrong

One habit to which I unconditionally plead guilty is that of being a Pack Rat.    The dictionary definition refers to compulsive hoarding and no doubt, I fit the bill because my aversion to discarding items of non-intrinsic value has gotten the best of me.   It is one thing to take pride in our home’s Trophy Room shared by both Norman and Bobby.   A quick occasional dusting coupled with a bottle of Wright’s Silver Polish comes in handy every few months (or when I am expecting company).   But, I have no excuse for the endless stacks of boxes of programs, articles, clippings,  ACBL bulletins, WBF briefcases, et al. with which I have trouble parting.   It wasn’t bad enough I dragged Norman’s from Philly to Dallas to Las Vegas, but how could I keep Norman’s memorabilia and discard Bobby’s?  No way!

One item responsible for much of the space consumption is the Annual World Bridge Federation Collection of hands.   Bobby’s stash goes back to 1970 and even when he did not participate in the event as a contestant, he attended in an administrative capacity … missing very few .. and his colorful stack seems to reach to the sky.  To  this day, he still savors the joy of going over some of the impressive brilliance of those who played — and reminisces of the lifelong friendships of yesteryear — often recalling to me special happenings or celebrations which will live within him forever.

The other day his 2009 WBF Sao Paulo Book arrived. Though he is ‘semi-officially retired’ except for his Aces on Bridge Column, he is totally consumed by the vast amount of pro bono work in which he enjoys participating — but of course I tear him away from his computer twice a week for our duplicate forays.  Sometimes, I wonder how he can pack so much into a day (especially nearing 78 and probably never playing better)  … but hold everything.   When the book arrived accompanied by a lovely note from WBF President, Jose Damiani, everything stopped as he began flipping the pages.   That night, half asleep, I heard a voice whisper, "Honey, are you up?"   "Well, if I wasn’t then — I certainly am now," I replied, humoring him.   Rousing me from la-la land, he beamed.   "Look at this hand!"   (Just what I wanted to see at 11:30 p.m.)  It appeared on page 206 (Set 3, Board 33) (semi-finals of the Bermuda Bowl Matchup between Italy and Bulgaria).

The auction actually began with a strong 1C bid by North, 2C (natural) by East; Double (negative) by South;  3C (support) by West; Double (takeout by the opener); 4C by East and eventually 4H by South which ended the auction.   The West defender (Versace) led a club which was won by Lauria (East).   Here is the entire hand:

      (Versace)                     (Lauria)
       A107                            6
       J86                               A7
       7643                            10952
       974                              AQJ1065

Lauria, looking at dummy, must have known that it was imperative for partner to have the spade ace for the hand to be beaten and most likely led his singleton instinctively and quickly.   However, he does have the moral and legal responsibility to lead all cards in tempo.                 

The problem is twofold:  (1)  Leading your singleton in a timely fashion; and (2)  Helping partner to know whether it is a singleton or doubleton (other than by tempo).  The fast return of the S6 was actually appealed** and the declaring side argued it was an obvious singleton and partner knew to win the SA and return it for the ruff.   If partner had the trump ace (which he needs to beat it anyway), it is important for Versace to know if it is a singleton (giving him the immediate ruff as he could never reach him again) or a doubleton (in which case he must keep communication by ducking and winning the return after partner hops up with the HA).   Still rubbing my eyes and listening with half an ear,  I conceded it was a tough problem and dove for the pillow but there was no peace for the weary, as he excitedly continued ..

Bobby said, "Don’t you see it"?  Moi?  Give me a break?    It was really a baby play for him (and yet not one of the analysts came up with Bobby’s solution which would have made life easy for the defense)!   CASH THE TRUMP ACE FIRST AND THEN LEAD YOUR SINGLETON; PARTNER WILL HAVE NO ALTERNATIVE BUT TO WIN IT AND GIVE YOU THE RUFF.  In retrospect, it sounds logical and easy — and yet until now that defense was never suggested.  With the actual return of the spade, Versace had to decide whether it was a singleton or doubleton – and he guessed right.  However, he should not have been placed in that unenviable position!

**What actually happened:   The Appeals Committee cut the baby in half, judging the Italians would defeat the contract only half of the time and the other half of the time it would make.   They must not have considered the right defense.  If they had — they would have denied the Italian claim because of the out of tempo spade return due to the inferior play of NOT cashing the HA first, but rather leading his spade prematurely.  The proper appeals ruling would have been 4 hearts bid and scored up to the Bulgarians because Versace should have ducked the initial spade return when partner did not cash the HA initially.   From Versace’s perspective, if Lauria had a DOUBLETON spade and, of course, the theoretical heart ace (which he needed to beat the contract), he WOULD NOT cash the HA first, but rather lead what appears to be his doubleton spade, which Versace should duck to preserve communication for the eventual spade ruff.   Then after declarer leads trumps, Lauria would win his trump ace and continue spades for the eventual setting trick of the spade ruff.  In the other room, 4S (not 4H) was bid and made.

I love playing with an eleven-time world champ and learning from him — but not at midnight.   However, If ever a hand justifies his world renowned reputation — this is the one!


ulvenMay 6th, 2010 at 2:04 am

It’s a well known theme and I’m sure Lauria has seen it before. The problem is that you also beat the contract when partner doesn’t have the ace of spades if he’s got KJ8 or better in hearts, trading the ace of spades for the K of hearts and a spot (he had the J).

If Lauria cashes the ace of hearts, he puts all his money on one horse, the ace of spades. With an immediate switch he sure risks partner going wrong with the ace but retains defensive chances when declarer has the ace. So it’s not a 100% as it always is in the text-books.

That being said, he still should’ve cashed the ace and played for the spade ace-ruff because that only requires one specific card in partners hand, while the alternative defence required a much more specific combination with Versace – significantly worse odds (especially considering the problem partner would have in deciding x vs xx).

Bobby WolffMay 6th, 2010 at 8:34 am

Hi Ulven,

I suspect it is of no great pleasure to you for me to agree that you are 100% correct.

While some may think otherwise, bridge, with its countless nuances, seems always to be the winner. As you suggest, it is only in well proofread books where hands are dealt to order, which stand up to the point under scrutiny.

For some unknown (at least to me) reason my mind often travels to what I think of as the Bridge Puppeteer who, perhaps because he would have loved Lauria (BTW a lovable besides honorable person) and dealt him a doubleton spade on this hand, when partner had the KJ8 of hearts instead of the ace of spades. That, in turn, and in accordance with the subject hand, might have, on another occasion allowed him not to relinquish the ace of hearts, but rather start the doubleton spade, instead of the ace of hearts, only to discover that all of a sudden his partnership would be the proud winner of three trump tricks.

Is bridge a wonderful game or what? Thanks for writing.

ulvenMay 6th, 2010 at 11:37 am

I only wanted to point out that the “mathematically correct” play (cashing the ace of H) could cost, i.e wasn’t always the winning play. To uphold the integrity it seems only fair to provide as a complete analysis of the situation as possible. Wouldn’t you agree?

“I suspect it is of no great pleasure to you for me to agree that you are 100% correct.”

I’m not sure where this is coming from.

I’m btw not totally oblivious to what you are hinting between the lines.

Judy Kay-WolffMay 6th, 2010 at 2:34 pm


I just read your comment which appears above. Bobby is not home at the moment but I assure you that he will respond immediately upon his return as your assumptions are way off base. He respected your remarks. You totally misinterpretted what he was saying. However, he’s a big boy and will answer himself.


Bobby WolffMay 6th, 2010 at 2:43 pm

Hi Ulven,

I meant nothing of consequence nor even to be discussed with my opening remark. Possibly only that you don’t need me to compliment you on what is obviously correct and your integrity to set the record straight.

Again, since I had nothing sinister in mind and only appreciative of your comments I have no idea what you are hinting that I was hinting.

Are these possible misunderstandings common in blogging or perhaps in cross-culture relationships (not that we represent cross-cultures)?

Obviously, I am bewildered.

Richard PavlicekMay 6th, 2010 at 10:46 pm

Why not return the CQ at trick two? If partner held H KJ8, declarer

will surely lead hearts from his hand, and nothing is lost. If declarer

instead leads a heart from dummy, you can logically grab the ace

and get your spade ruff.

ulvenMay 6th, 2010 at 10:58 pm

Hi Bobby,

I probably misunderstood (English not being my first language). No problem. Thanks for clarifying.

Bobby WolffMay 7th, 2010 at 5:28 am

Hi Richard,

May I say what my mother use to say when either my brother or I piped up, “Another Country heard from”. And, at least in this case, a wise and provocative one at that.

What you left unsaid is that if a spade was instead returned at trick 2, West must duck, playing his partner for a doubleton, and, of course, the ace of hearts. The danger inherent in this type of brilliant plan is that the “moving parts” involved need to be interpreted correctly by both partners in order to succeed. Combine these thoughts with the Appeals Committee’s musings and the merry-go-round keeps circling.

Then ponder as to whether or not humans are always capable of playing the game in an ethical tempo and we will likely conclude that we cannot which leaves only “Active Ethics” by all (especially the highest-level players) to guide us through these every now and then difficult situations. Since practicing Active Ethics is only its own reward, lots of luck to those who try and demand reciprocation.

It would then follow that the Browning’s famous quote about “How do I love thee?” could well have been (although less romantically) describing bridge.

Bobby WolffMay 7th, 2010 at 5:52 am

Hi again Ulven,

Thanks for responding and the enlightenment.

Forgetting bridge for the moment, could it be that with the world getting much smaller (the internet) but with many having the misfortune to not being able to converse in their first language that everyone (especially those who are not advantaged by having to communicate in someone else’s tongue) must have more patience for others and not always assume that we have lost our mutual wave length, probably especially so, when somewhat sophisticated innuendo and humor are attempted?

My guess is that “this too shall pass”, but it will take some time and with, no doubt along the way, some feathers being rumpled. How we stand now is that English speakers are greatly advantaged with convenience, a condition which should not be taken for granted by those, like me, who do.

Again, thanks for clarifying.

Danny KleinmanMay 9th, 2010 at 11:19 am

A Subtle Opening Lead Problem

Matchpoints, E-W vul

(a) You, South, hold S-K1083 H-AQ2 D-7 C-98754 (hypothetical)

(b) You, South, hold S-K1083 H-AQ2 D-74 C-9875 (actual)


… … pass pass

1♠ pass 1NT* pass *forcing

2NT pass 4♥ pass

pass pass

(a) Lead the ♦7, hoping that partner has the ♦A and can take it and lead another diamond for you to ruff with your ♥2. Then, if declarer has the ♥K as seems likely, your two natural trump tricks will beat the contract. What’s the problem?

(b) If you lead the ♦7, partner may read it as a singleton, in which case after winning the ♦A he will continue diamonds to try to give you a ruff. Alas, you will have to follow suit, and partner may not get in again to give you a ruff. Because you expect to get in twice, however, you can resolve the “singleton or doubleton” ambiguity by leading the ♣9. When you get in with your first trump trick and shift to the ♦7, partner will be able to infer that it is a doubleton, not a singleton, as you would have led a singleton on opening lead if you had one.

The above problem arose in the Western Conference STAC just this Tuesday night, May 4, 2010 (I do not remember which board, but if you played in it you may have the hand records). The comment is one I wrote (as is my wont) the next morning for the benefit of one of my students

Bobby WolffMay 10th, 2010 at 9:21 am

Hi Danny,

While greatly appreciating this topical subject of legally communicating with partner, in order to time a possible contract breaking ruff, it might be of benefit to many to discuss the specifics of what needs to be overcome, in order to succeed.

When one chooses an opening lead, it might be considered fairly standard practice to lead the nine from any number of that suit headed by the nine, eight. However, after the opening lead has been made and a defender is in with usually, but not always with a trump trick, then the leading of a suit, and in the context of the defense, often is designed, not only to search out tricks, but also to sometimes specifically suggest an immediate or not so, ruff. That fact alone, might rule out length (original number over two). Add that fact to the usual motive of originally leading a singleton in a side suit against a suit contract as a preferred opening lead and the overall strategy begins to take form and have critical relevance.

Is there a specific rule to follow? No, not that I am aware (and please, all readers of this, do not attempt to convey illegal unauthorized information to partner via slow or quick tempo), but one of the absolute beauties of high-level bridge (as you are well aware) is the changing circumstances of many defensive situations after dummy has come down and ALSO, AND TO BOTH DEFENDERS, how declarer begins to go about his task of playing the hand to his best advantage.

If I was asked to name what part of our wonderful game requires the most thought, subject to delicate error, but nevertheless the most rewarding aesthetically, my immediate answer, probably because of the degree of difficulty, would be the cooperation and expertise when partners collaborate to defeat a hand by finding a winning combination of defensive plays.

Thanks for your real life example and especially after the current publicity of the Sao Paulo World Championship Semi-Finals hand has brought this area of defense to our notice.

PegMay 10th, 2010 at 9:39 am

Bobby – I agree wholeheartedly with your comments about bending over backwards to not convey unauthorized information on hands. That being said – sometimes players are “damned if they do; damned if they don’t” in practice.

At a recent NABC, my team was playing a world class team in a national event. Our teammates listened carefully to the auction – then found the killing lead against 3NT (a major with honor third). Dummy played low, and third hand considered her play before sticking in a spot card. Our defenders were accurate from that point, immediately winning an ace and then taking that card and 4 in the major that was led.

Immediately, our WC opponents called the director. Their claim was that the “hesitation” by third hand allowed the opening leader to find the winning defense. Our side claimed that their very revealing auction and the cards in dummy allowed for it. Moreoever, they thought that third hand is not supposed to play rapidly, but have some pause.

Our side was ruled against.

The good news is that our team soundly beat this team, even with having this result turned against us. I couldn’t help wonder, however – why was our team penalized for doing something you really are supposed to do? (Think at trick one.) And – would we have lost the ruling against a non-WC team? I don’t know.

Bobby WolffMay 10th, 2010 at 1:08 pm

Hi Peg,

It is nice to hear from you as its been a while since we have blogged about a common interest.

From your description and subject to delving into, it appears that, at least on the surface, the decision made by the appeals committee was nothing short of outrageous. The opening lead itself apparently was the difficult choice, but once led, I cannot imagine that the opening leader, upon gaining the lead would not continue the original plan. I suppose upon hearing the entire hand, the bidding and the specific holdings in the original suit it could possibly change my mind, but I’ll just have to wait and see.

It really has little to do with third hand in this case, playing slowly, since surely the bidding, which helped dictate the opening lead, would also make it clear that taking 4 tricks in that suit were now the best (if not only) chance of defeating the contract.

Peg, the problem could be that, when you say that studying at trick one is recommended, at least as opposed to subsequently, it might have given the committee the incentive to rule against you. In many cases and because of the power of professionalism wherein many of the appeals committee members are directly associated with others who favor them in getting teammates or in the chain of making recommendations. Playing for pay has, at the very least, risked the bastardization of fair rulings by creating specific conflicts of interest which, in turn, tend to politicize many judgments.

Until you get more information to me, I would be presumptous in making my own decision. As to whether or not you would have lost the ruling against a non-WC team, it might depend on exactly who the players would be on that team. Until we get off our butts and deal with the real bridge world as it is, rather than what it should be, and because of the bodies snatched, we are likely in deep trouble.

Thanks for caring and bringing forth your case.

PegMay 10th, 2010 at 3:34 pm

Oh – PLEASE let me make one thing clear! There was NO committee! This was the ruling of one director. Since we won our match by a large margin, we had no need at all to go to committee about it. Obviously, since we skipped that part, no idea how any random committee would have ruled.

I think – but am not certain, as I was not in that set – that the holding was: Qxx in the opening leader’s hand, Jxx in dummy and A109xx in 3rd hand. Declarer had either shown specific distribution – or, enough so that 3rd hand knew that declarer had no singletons (opps playing a big club system).

I am an utterly awful reporter; my apologies. Hand was a year ago – and only going from memory of what my teammates told me. If you want more sleuthing, I could check with the teammates to see if I got it right.

PegMay 10th, 2010 at 3:35 pm

I will add one more thought. I know that some people are not too great about thinking at trick one. I try hard to be a “thinker” – even if what I want to do is totally obvious. That way, when I need to think, I feel as if I’m not “giving anything away” if I take a bit of time.

You can’t have it both ways (IMHO) – that is, state “it’s 1st trick so I can think” – and then not do it on hands where your actions are obvious.

Bobby WolffMay 10th, 2010 at 5:33 pm

Hi again,

It relieves me a bit to know that only a TD, not a whole (especially expert) committee ruled the way he did. However, let me try and restrict my opinions to what might be important. Please, Peg, keep in mind the inherent problems of the game itself and the notion that one size fits all for most judgments (which it decidedly does not).

In the hand in question, and assuming various relatively unimportant facts, e.g. exact bidding and tempo of the player who initiated NT, it is somewhat baffling (not really, but yes really) that the third seat player wouldn’t play an automatic nine on partner’s low spade lead, since any other choice is ridiculous. First, it would normally look to the 3rd seat player that the NT declarer would have two of the suit, but even if he doesn’t the 9 would always be the right play.

CAVEAT: One is never to play a slow card merely to illegally inform partner that he might have “finessed” him by not playing his highest card. Perhaps the TD thought that was what your 3d seat teammate was doing and that opinon was shared by your opponents. What other possible reason is there to study? Ignorance of the bridge situation is not a valid excuse, and so then when judgment is involved an arbiter has a right to exercise some judgment.

I’m not here to criticize poor bridge and/or expecting players to know more than they do. However, I could not consider teammates of yours not KNOWING that the nine is the correct play, which leaves only subterfuge as the reason. If so, it sets off a hissing contest between the combatants, whereup the World Class opponents declare war on your team.

At this point I have little or nothing more to say which could be considered constructive. Please understand that I know that this type of not-so-subtle slow play happens thousands of times every day at our duplicates across the country, and really there is no other answer but to demand ethical compliance among all. You show me a fairly experienced player who, in this situation and with whatever the bidding must have been, who would not know that the nine is the automatic play and I’ll show you a bridge (cross the water type) I would like you to buy.

Please do not get angry at me, even though I realize that I am probably more than just the messenger. Sometimes rhetoric or poor mouthing leads to a favorable ruling.

But here as far as the playing of our game by above-average players is concerned, they need to be much more forthcoming than they were when they played the slow nine and silently claimed difficult play.

As far as your particular strategy about playing to trick one. I have enough confidence in you that whatever you chose to do would be because of difficulty in making a choice and never to practice oneupsmanship at the table.

PegMay 10th, 2010 at 7:09 pm

I long ago had a very good friend and very good player who was one of my first teachers. He taught me to always pause at trick one – irrespective of how obvious it was to play my card. I guess that got ingrained in me. I would pause some, no matter what the play. (Oh, I suppose like all “always” statements – if I were defending a slam and had an AK to cash – you can bet I wouldn’t torture declarer and would do it quickly!) But – in seriousness, I do try to do that.

Perhaps my habit is not very common….

And then again – maybe I got the layout wrong. Very unfortunately, it would not be the first – or the 2nd or the 3rd, etc., etc, time!