Ray Lee

A sparkling aperitif

We’ve left Lille now that Canadian interest is no more, and have checked into a new hotel in Normandy for a few days sightseeing before heading home next Tuesday.  While killing time before going to dinner tonight, we logged into BBO and were lucky enough to catch this deal — the final one of today’s action.

All Pass

I had watched this board at a couple of other tables, and most pairs arrived safely in 6 .  One or two flirted with 7 , which gave rise to some discussion among the commentators as to the best line of play in that contract.  In the end, it comes down to guessing who has the K — you can either finesse in diamonds or pitch a diamond on a club and take the ruffing finesse — or taking a heart finesse followed by ruffing a heart in the short hand. There are some slight extra chances, but that’s basically it.

In the Italy-Poland match, however, Italy’s Duboin and Sementa were even more ambitious.  After a 2NT-4 (transfer) start, I don’t know precisely what their auction meant, since nothing was alerted or explained on BBO.  However, it seems to me that Sementa’s 7 was probably intended as a final transfer to 7. Duboin may have thought he was being asked to pick a final contract, or maybe he just thought they had plenty of tricks and notrump would be safer; but, whatever the reasoning, they came to rest not in 7 but in 7NT. 

North must have been looking for a safe lead, and was reluctant to lead a singleton spade, although I believe that Duboin had superaccepted spades, so leading one wasn’t likely to do much harm. On a spade lead, declarer really has no option but to finesse diamonds and hope for the best — which will not help him on this layout.  Even a diamond lead will probably do no harm — that’s only the twelfth trick, and declarer would surely never think North had led away from the king: he would just finesse in diamonds rather than in hearts.  However, this North chose an innocuous-looking, but ultimately fatal, heart.

Giorgio Duboin won this trick with the heart queen (South did not cover of course), and took stock: he now had twelve tricks, and options.  Time for some card-reading. It was easy to figure out that North probably had at least one club honor to protect, and after cashing the queen and king of spades, the singleton spade was revealed too.  Surely he had not underled the K, which gave rise to a ‘Restricted Choice’ inference that he could well have the K, else he might have led a diamond instead of a heart.  Other things being equal, North was roughly twice as likely to have the K as South.  

Perhaps North was unfortunate to be defending 7NT against one of the world’s best declarers.  In any event, Duboin read the position correctly, and proceeded to cash both red-suit aces — a double Vienna Coup — then run all the spades, executing a double squeeze with clubs as the central suit.  As one commentator remarked, God obviously gave East the ♦9 for a reason!

A pretty deal to end the session with.  We strolled across the road to a meal of Galettes Seguin followed by Crepes Normandie, washed down with local cider, and raised a glass to Signor Duboin for providing such a sparkling aperitif!





The Rodwell Files — an editor’s perspective

Linda has already written a blog about the soon-to-be-published ‘Rodwell Files’, and talked a little about its ancestry.  Back about 25 years ago, when Eric was living in Toronto, he put together a set of notes which summarized some of his ideas on card play.  Occasionally he included an example, but often there was nothing more than a sentence or two, simply an aide memoire to recall an concept to mind.  In digital form, this circulated amongst a very small group of people in the local bridge community under the name ‘The Rodwellian Files’.

I’m not sure where I got my copy – possibly from Fred Gitelman, or more probably Ron Bishop, but I realized quickly it was something unique.  When my son Colin started playing bridge seriously I shared it with him, and he tells me he used to read it over again as his final preparation before playing any major event.

After we had published Jeff Meckstroth’s book Win the Bermuda Bowl with Me, I tried to talk Eric into turning the Files into a book, but he wasn’t keen.  I remember a reader asking Jeff at a signing why a certain topic hadn’t been included in his book, and he growled, ‘I’m not ready to give away all my secrets yet.’  I think back then, Eric was of the same mind.

Over the years, I shared a copy of the Files with my old friend (and high school friend) Mark Horton, and we would talk wistfully about what a great book it could be.  We even had a notion as to how it could be done, with Mark’s incredible memory helping us supply examples from top-level play to illustrate Eric’s concepts.  Eventually, we decided to approach Eric again, and a couple of years ago at the Washington NABC the three of us got together and the project got under way.

We weren’t sure how much Eric’s playing schedule would allow him to get involved, so Mark and I got going: he started researching and I started my job, which was to organize 100-odd disjointed topics into some kind of coherent narrative.   Eric and I met at the next Nationals to discuss progress, and I pointed out to him that we needed some introductory chapters, otherwise what we’d have would be mostly a book of cardplay tactics.  ‘After all,’ I said to him, ‘No one’s interested in what Mark and I think about when the dummy comes down – they want to know what you think about.’  He liked the way the outline of the book was developing, and readily understood the need for the new material.

This was to be my first glimpse of Rodwell in action.  Within a couple of weeks of arriving home from the tournament, I had four new chapters in my email, chapters that became Part 1 of the final book.  They are a brilliant discussion of ‘what to think about when dummy comes down’, including a superb section on ‘defogging’ – what to do when your analysis is going nowhere.  I would venture to say that every bridge player, from intermediate to expert, can learn something from reading these chapters.

Eventually, I had the book organized as I wanted, Mark had supplied a couple of hundred or so deals, those had been folded in, and we were ready to send it to Eric for a first pass.  Now came my second look at how Eric works – he is intense, focussed, and his attention to detail is tremendous (seriously, he can have a job as proofreader any time).  He tore apart what we sent him, replacing examples he didn’t like, creating new examples where necessary, adding new concepts, and adding his own comments to deals from elsewhere that others had analyzed.  It helped that at least 50% of the deals Mark had found actually involved Eric and Jeff.

Now we had something that could at last be put into a normal production process, and we could start line editing, copyediting, and trying to wring the last few errors out.  We thought.  I had reckoned, though, without Eric’s enthusiasm for the project, and for the incredible amount of bridge he plays.  I started watching the tournament schedule with dread – every week, it seemed, more deals would arrive in my email (“Gotta get this in somewhere…  this great hand came up in Louisville…  look at this one Balicki played in Gatlinburg…’)  Eventually I had to say, ‘Eric, that’s it, no more… every time you play you’re going to find stuff that could be in here, but you have to let us publish the book!’

Now we got into page layout, and saw Eric’s amazing attention to detail in spades.  He was checking spot cards, auctions, names of players, everything.  He was finding things our professional proofreaders weren’t.  He was reanalyzing deals, and finding mistakes – his own, sometimes, as well as other people’s.  And did I mention that when I sent him a chapter, it invariably returned by the next day, and sometimes sooner?  As late as a week ago, he read through the entire 400 pages one last time, making small final changes.

In the end, I think we’ve produced a book we can all be proud of, and one that will make a serious contribution to bridge literature. Even expert players will learn from it, but at the same time, club players will find it helps their game too – although there will be some material that is beyond them at first reading.

The book goes to press today, and will available for sale in about 4 weeks.  (The e-book will be on sale earlier than that.)   It’s already been shortlisted for the IBPA Book of the Year award, and an extract from it will be available shortly for free download from www.ebooksbridge.com and www.masterpointpress.com.

Eric will be participating in at least one book-signing session at the Toronto NABC in July – what the Daily Bulletin for details as we have to work around his playing schedule, and may not know until fairly late when he is going to be available.  If you’re in town, don’t miss the chance to meet one of the world’s great players.

CWTC update

Our bloggers from Regina seem to be ignoring the ladies, so here’s a progress report.  At the end of the RR, the qualifiers were:

1. Francine Cimon, Linda Lee, Rhoda Habert, Sylvia Caley

2. Joan Eaton, Karen Cumpstone, Katrin Litwin, Sandra Fraser

3. Kathie McNab, Anne Mahoney, Diane Knowles, Maureen Barnes

4. Julie Smith, Susan Peters, Angela Fenton, Samantha Nystrom

As winners, Cimon got to pick their SF opponent, and will face McNab over 64 boards today, leaving Eaton to play Smith in the other SF.  Tomorrow’s final (72 boards) will be on BBO, starting at noon.

Master Point Rant

I’ve never been a big fan of master points, or indeed any kind of cumulative ranking system.  I grew up as a chess player, a game in which ratings are jealously guarded, but where each time you play you put your rating on the line: lose and it goes down, win and it goes up.  Lose to a bad player, and it goes down a lot.  Even in that arena, there’s been inflation — but only maybe 10-15% in the 40 years or so since I stopped playing seriously.

Master Points, by contrast, were a brilliant, simple concept that without a doubt contributed to the growth of the game in the USA, Canada and other countries.  But that was in the old days, when they were hard to get.  When you had to beat every top player in the city to win your 1 Master point in the once a week game in which they were awarded.  And when it was tough to accumulate those 300 points to become a Life Master.  When being a Life Master really meant something.

What do we have now?  Well, enter any Regional KO, win a couple of matches in a low bracket, and walk away with 25 points. (Forget the matchpoint events, they don’t pay nearly as well as the ubiquitous KO’s and Swiss games.)  They tried to curb galloping MP inflation by introducing a rainbow of pigmented points, but now you can win gold points playing in a club game, so that’s pretty much gone by the board too.  They’re finally raising the bar for LM to 500 (I think), and judging from the tone of the Letters to the ACBL Bulletin Editor, taking candy from a baby would be less offensive.

None of this is new, so readers might wonder what has occasioned this rant.  Well, I just read in the March Bulletin about some guy who this year won over 3000 points playing with himself — I mean, against robots.  Yes, against robots — I kid you not.  You can go online, and play in an ‘Individual’ tournament where the only players at your table are robots.  You then compare your score against other human players doing the same thing.  And Watson these things are not.  They’re not bad to practice against, but like any software they have their little quirks and it’s quite easy to manipulate them once you understand how the logic works.  And there’s another constraint, apparently — none of the robots is allowed to hold more HCP than you, so not only do you get to play a disproportionate number of the hands, but on every deal you have unauthorized information!  And ‘winning’ all these points this way is presented in the Bulletin as some kind of great achievement.

I lost interest in collecting MP’s for myself many years ago, recognizing that they measured very little beyond the amount of time and money you were prepared to give the ACBL.  But now it seems they really are officially toilet paper — or at least, computer printout.

More from 1978

A couple of weeks ago I posted the real story of the The Column that Never Was — my final column for the Toronto Star, which featured a wild deal from the 1978 World Championships involving Bill Milgram and Irving Litvack.  When I mentioned to Bill that I had tracked down the deal, he told me that I should really write up a much more interesting one from the same event, which had appeared in the Daily Bulletin.  Fortunately, Bill still had all his Bulletins, and was able to dig out the one he wanted.

This was the deal:

Dealer: South

Vul: NS





















West North East South
pass 1
pass 1NT pass 2
pass 3 pass 4
pass 4 pass 4
pass 4 pass 5NT
pass 7 all pass

The match was against the Italian team, which made what happened somewhat ironic.  The Canadians were playing a modified version of Blue Team Club: 1 was strong and artificial, and 1NT showed 4 controls. The next three bids were natural, and 4 (in the Italian style) showed first or second round control of the suit.  Two more cuebids were followed by 5NT GSF, with the response showing two of the top three honors.  Irving knew his partner might have only four clubs, in which case the diamond ruff in his hand would be a thirteenth trick not available in notrump — so he passed.  His partner’s 3 call had promised a ‘good’ suit, so in this context if he only had four of them, Irving was pretty confident the jack would be among them.

And so it proved — in practical terms, they had reached the only makeable grand.  At the other table, the Italians reached 7NT.  Owing to the incredibly fortuitous lie of the spot cards in diamonds, this can be made on a squeeze – East’s 5-4-3 tripleton means that West is the only player who can guard North’s 6.   Thus, double-dummy, declarer can cash the A and run all his black winners, squeezing West in the red suits.  In the real world, declarer took the diamond finesse and quietly went one down.

Bill’s still proud of that auction — and I don’t blame him!

The column that never was

Back in the 1970s, I wrote a weekly bridge column for the Toronto Star.  Since they were already paying for a daily syndicated column from the Goren organization, they wanted me to concentrate on local stuff, and preferably to write articles that had little or no bridge in them.  They wanted names, dates and places, basically.

Nevertheless, I managed to slip in the occasional deal of interest.  That, of course, was when the gremlins would strike.  I wasn’t allowed to write the headlines, which were made up by a non-bridge-player, who often misunderstood the article and put something completely inappropriate at the top of it.  They constantly screwed up the hand diagrams, on one famous occasion omitting the deal completely to save space, while retaining the narrative.

I’ve recently been retrieving all those articles from the Star archives, and some of them are actually still worth reading.  The last one I ever submitted was royally screwed up though, since they didn’t bother changing the hand diagram from the one that appeared the previous week (you can imagine the typesetters chortling about that one!).  As it was the last one, I never got the chance to correct it — until now.

The deal occurred at the 1978 World Championships in New Orleans, and involved four Canadians all of whom I know very well.  It came up in the ‘never-ending Swiss’ to which teams that lost early in the Rosenblum Cup were banished — after days and days of play, a small number made it back into the main event via a ‘repechage’.  While the player I asked couldn’t recall the details (although he did remember the incident), the deal was spectacular enough to have made it into the World Championship book, and I was able to find it last night.  I had been given the story by another of the participants, but when I saw the actual deal and read the write-up I came to the conclusion that he had given me the wrong layout, the wrong auction and the wrong opening lead.  The rest was fine 🙂

Anyway, 32 years later, here is the real story behind the Column that Never Was.

Dealer: East

Vul: Neither



















♣  542

West North East South

North was Bill Milgram, and South, Irving Litvack, a partnership that had a great deal of success in the mid-1970s.  Bill tried everything he could to get some kind of preference out of his partner, without success.  While you might argue that Irving could and should have bid hearts earlier, faced with a partner who was asking him to pick a major at the six-level, it is hard to blame him for bidding the grand.  Now West had a lead problem.  His clues included a partner who had doubled diamonds for the lead and raised clubs freely, suggesting at least four of them.  Unsuspecting, he decided on a diamond, and that was 1510.

At the other table, Roy Dalton and Roy Hughes sat East-West, and decided to sell out to Six Hearts rather than take the cheap save.  Perhaps they were nervous about being able to defeat the grand — correctly so.  The net was 11 IMPs to the Litvack team, which finished 11th in the event.

Rare press coverage for bridge success


Click on this link and you’ll get to the article Toronto’s Globe & Mail ran earlier this week about Fred Gitelman and Geoff Hampson’s success in the Rosenblum this month.  Don’t forget to read the comments too.

I spent about half an hour on the phone with the reporter, who knew literally nothing about bridge other than that it’s a card game, and the whole conversation came out as a one-liner in the article!  But perhaps I gave him useful background and perspective 🙂  He didn’t mention Geoff’s famous mother in the end, although I did tell him who she was…

I’m still not sure what put them on to the story — perhaps the WBF sent out some press releases, but if that was it, how did the Globe figure out that Fred and Geoff came from Toronto?  However, who cares?  Bridge gets very little media coverage, and we should welcome and encourage it when it does happen.  Not only that, it’s a good piece, well-written and interesting, and only shows the game in a good light.

Well done, the Globe!

Moral IMPs

Hearty congratulations to ex-Canadians Fred Gitelman, Geoff Hampson and their team for today’s Rosenblum win.  It did not come cheaply, as they defeated Lavazza earlier in the event, followed by Zimmerman in the semifinal and finally Nickell to take the trophy.  Linda and I were musing today about why other bridge mercenaries (like the Norwegians, for example) seem to be able to make a good living without transferring their allegiance to another country for WBF purposes — but that’s the subject of another blog. In this one I want to analyze the Rosenblum final from the point of view of ‘moral IMPs’ — a phrase a BBO commentator used when one team bid and made a poor slam in another match; ‘Lose 14 moral IMPs,’ she said,’ but win 13 real ones.’

The idea appealed to me immediately. Moral IMPs, in essence, quantify the element of luck in the game.  In a match as well played as this one, it’s perhaps inevitable that Lady Luck has a hand in the final outcome.  Nickell gave up fewer than 2 IMPs per board (usually good enough to beat most opponents), but remarkably could score barely more than 1 IMP per board themselves.  The final tally was 121 to 78 for Diamond over 64 deals.  Real IMPs, that is.  Just for fun, let’s look at the Moral IMPs on five big swing deals, and see what might have happened.

On Board 9, Gitelman-Hampson bid a slam that essentially depended on 3-2 trumps, which weren’t there unfortunately. They lost 10 RI’s, but I’ll award Diamond 11 MI’s.

Board 32 was a biggie.  Hampson-Greco pushed to a poor grand, needing either to drop the HQ missing five of them or a finesse and a squeeze; Rodwell misread the ending, made the wrong discard, and declarer got home when he should not have. There was some discussion about misinformation with the director, but no redress was forthcoming.  RI’s: 10 to Diamond: MI’s, 14 to Nickell.

Bd. 52   Gitelman and Hampson bid a grand with A10xxxx of trumps opposite KJ, and were favoured with a trump lead.  Lose 17 MI’s as far as I’m concerned, but Diamond won 13 RI’s.

Now we come to two boards that are harder to score morally.

Bd 31.  Katz-Nickell got to a makeable 6D, but Katz misplayed and went down.  10 RI’s to Diamond.  It’s not that great a contract, but once you’re there, it can and probably should come home.  Let’s leave the MI’s on this one for now, and move on to Bd 49.

Bd. 49.  Meckwell had two 9-card fits, spades and diamonds.  They were missing the DA and the SQ.  While their opponents reached only game, Meckwell played in the inferior slam in spades, where they needed avoid a diamond ruff as well as pick up trumps.  As the cards lay, there was no diamond ruff, but having no reason to take a trump finesse, declarer went one down.  11 RI’s to Diamond.

So these two somewhat murky boards could potentially award Nickell 23 MI’s, but I don’t feel comfortable giving them as much as that.  Let’s compromise and make it about half of 23: 11MI’s.

Where does that leave us?  On these five boards, Diamond won 47 (real) IMPs and Nickell 11, a difference slightly less than the margin of victory.  In fact, removing these IMPs, we have a total score of Diamond 74  Nickell 67 with five boards to be scored.  Now let’s look at the Moral IMPs, which total 42 to Nickell and 11 to Diamond, giving us a final Moral result of Nickell 109 Diamond 85.

Let me say again that this (I hope) entertaining analysis in no way detracts from the winning performance of the Diamond team against arguably the world’s best team over the last decade or two.  It just goes to show that bridge, like many other sports, does indeed have a luck element.  Any time two world-class teams face off, especially in a game of percentages, like bridge, the winner will almost always be the one to whom Luck has been a Lady — this time.

Bridge Jeopardy 2 — the answers

See Bridge Jeopardy by Ray Lee for quiz questions.

1.  Harold S. Vanderbilt

2.  Joseph B. Elwell.  Like Culbertson, Elwell had a bridge-playing wife, who was arguably the stronger player of the two.  Elwell’s wife may well have been the real author of most if not all of his books.

3.  Contract Bridge Blue Book.  He followed later with a Red Book and Gold Book, which also did well, but the Blue Book was far and away the most popular.

4.  The number of cards they held in the heart suit.

5.  The Smother Squeeze does not yet exist; the rest are real.

6.  George Burns.  Chico Marx was another comic who played bridge, and in fact appeared on Goren’s TV show.

7.  Bill Anderson.  (If you got that one right you are a real bridge history buff, and/or you live in Toronto.)

8.  Helen Sobel, who should be fondly remembered for this remark alone, never mind the dozens of great hands she played.

9.  The reference is from Lewis Carrol’s The Walrus and the Carpenter. ‘A pleasant walk, a pleasant talk, along the briny beach; we cannot do with more than four, to give a hand to each.’

10. This was a trick question — they ALL were!

Shades of Gray

I’ve stolen the title for this blog from a forthcoming MPP book, which just happens to be a novel revolving around cheating at bridge, the difficulty of proving it, and the conundrum of what to do with the culprit(s) when it is finally proven.  I wanted to comment on an incident in the New Orleans Spingold, which has already been the subject of much discussion and controversy on various bridge forums.

First, the deal in question:

You are playing the round of 64 in the Spingold against a much higher seed.  You start the second quarter about 40 behind, and this board comes up early on:

—  A x x  A Q x x   A K Q 7 x x

You are red against white, and RHO opens 3.  Your call.

No, this isn’t a quiz; that was just to give you a moment or two to think about how you might proceed.  What happened at the table was the holder of this hand, Howard Piltch (a professional player but not a top-ranked expert), bid 6 .  This was a dramatic winner when dummy hit with essentially king fourth of diamonds and out and both minors behaved well.

There’s a lot of to-ing and fro-ing on the forums, but let me try to distil it at least into what is undisputed in terms of further facts.

1) At no stage did Mr. Piltch claim that his bid had been a mechanical error or some other kind of accident.  His partner claims it was a ‘state of the match’ attempt to generate a swing.

2) The boards were dealt at the table, apparently with all four players present.  Mr. Piltch made only one board of the eight, which he remembers as being Board 8 (not the one in question).

3) The director was consulted at some stage by the opposing team, but did not change the table result.  The opposing team did not lodge an appeal (they won the match by more than 100 IMPs) but did express an intent to pursue the matter in a Conduct and Ethics hearing.

This, you will I’m sure recognize, leaves many questions unasked and a great deal of information ungathered, which makes the whole ‘Was he or wasn’t he?’ discussion somewhat academic.  So I’m not going to go into that at all.  However, there are some possibly new points that are perhaps worth making here.

First, since this was a dealt board, and had not yet been played at the other table, presumably the only direct cheating method available would be introducing a stacked deck.  Lest you feel this is unlikely, let me mention that there have been at least two well-proven cases of deck-substitution in the Toronto area alone.  One of the perpetrators, after being banned, later showed up playing on OkBridge – using two different user accounts and playing in partnership with himself, incognito, to improve his rating. Once a cheater…

Second, how much evidence is required to convict a player of cheating?  This is where bridge courts separate from real life.  Alan Truscott (in The Great Bridge Scandal) remarks that it’s very difficult to prove cheating from hand records, but that it is possible to prove the reverse.  Terence Reese, in his apologia Story of an Accusation, understandably argues that the hands tell the tale in either event.  Reese was of course famously acquitted after a judicial hearing presided over by a non-bridge-player, who applied the ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ standard to the case.  Allan Falk, an expert bridge player and also a prominent Michigan attorney, wrote a fascinating essay for the MPP edition of TGBS, in which he points out that nowhere except in criminal courts is this standard applied.  Elsewhere, in both sports tribunals and real life (and O.J. Simpson’s first two trials are a well-known example), the test is ‘preponderance of the evidence’.  So too it is (or should be) with bridge.

Third, and perhaps most interestingly, is the issue of whether Mr. Pitch’s past record should have any bearing upon people’s willingness to believe him guilty of some kind of wrongdoing in this instance.  The question of prior record is another where we needs must part company with criminal procedure.  The previous convictions of the accused are not revealed in court until a conviction has been recorded, and are taken into consideration only for the purposes of sentencing.  However, in bridge, one instance alone is rarely enough to convict.

Arthur Clarke once wrote that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.  So when the disparity in ability between players is great enough, the lesser mortals will find it difficult to understand how the experts get to the right spot, and make brilliant leads and plays, apparently ‘seeing through the backs of the cards’.  Eventually the experts may even be suspected of cheating.  ‘Strange’ bids too can attract accusations, yet bidding is far from an exact science (look at any magazine bidding panel, and you’ll see 30-odd experts all arguing vehemently that five different bids are each the only correct action).  So much is ‘style’, or even table feel.  It is when actions deemed ‘unusual’ work out a high percentage of the time, or when a player finds the brilliant lead on just too many occasions, that antennae start to quiver – and when probably something is indeed going on. Any single occurrence may mean nothing – a lucky guess, an opponent flashing his hand, a flight of fancy that happened to work, or some such.  It is the multiple, as these incidents repeat themselves, which begins to make the case – and since we so often play against different opponents, it takes a while for anyone to notice.

Thus we have the ‘Recorder’ system, and the ability to look at a player’s track record of unexplained incidents, a record that taken as a whole may add up to an unappetizing picture.  As one forum poster put it, “If I were a judge in a bridge matter and the facts as presented came before me to make a ruling without revealing the identity of the 6♦ bidder, I would be highly doubtful that there could be any innocent explanation of the events that unfolded.  And, if I was told that the person who bid 6♦ on this hand was the person who is being discussed above, that would end all doubt for me.”

In the words of Ian Fleming, ‘Once is happenstance; twice is coincidence, and three times is enemy action.’