Ray Lee

Three great bridge books you haven’t read -part 1

A pretentious title, you may think.  ‘How does he know I haven’t read them?’  Well, two them didn’t sell very many copies, and the third won’t be published until October — so while I can only be absolutely certain about that one, I’m pretty confident regarding the other two as well.

The first is Samurai Bridge, by Robert (Bob) MacKinnon, which MPP published seven years ago.  Cast your mind back to those wonderful old movies like The Seven Samurai and Rashomon — now imagine that all the major characters are bridge players…  So you get a sort of Oriental Wild West tale where the swordplay alternates with the cut and thrust of bridge play. Throw in a love story, a desperately unhappy ghost, haikus, woodcut illustrations, a fascinating account of bridge and politics at the Emperor’s court…  There is a large cast of intriguing characters: a heroic ronin (of course), an evil town magistrate (of course), a seductive ghost with her own plans for the ronin, a monk who has some difficulty renouncing earthly pleasures, a humble bath-house girl whose outward appearance masks something much more deadly, a notary whose father was a bridge professional at the court of the Emperor until he fell out of favor, an out-of-work actor who has unwillingly become involved in a complex masquerade, and many more — surely it adds up to the most unusual bridge book ever written.  Here’s the Prologue, which was Bob’s original submission to us — we read it, and signed the book, before ever seeing the rest of the manuscript.



Our story takes place in Japan in the month of August, 1837.  It was a time of civil unrest brought about by several consecutive years of poor rice crops.  Ineptitude of government officials in the face of the growing crisis was merely a surface manifestation of a system that professed commitment to the general welfare but that tolerated decreasing living standards for the common man and increasing corruption in high places — which, not coincidentally, promoted the interests of a few merchants who grew rich through speculations in the rice market.  For these wealthy few, their way of business made hunger a necessity and greed a virtue.

It was a time in Japan when many young, adventuresome, unemployed samurai, ronin, took to the roads in search of unknown adventure.

A half century before the turbulent year in which the violent events recorded in this story took place, a former bridge master in the court of the Emperor Sakuramachi (1720-1750) retired to a remote town lying halfway between Morioka and Sendai along the spine of northern Honshu.  There he took up his brush and put down on paper the knowledge he had garnered over a lifetime at the bridge table as follows.

Making the Cuckoo Sing


S 9 7

H A Q 9 5

D A 9 3 2

C Q 6 4


S K 8 2

H 7 6 2

D K Q 10

C A K 10 9

The student should consider how this hand is to be played in the contract of 3NT after the lead of the S3 to the 7, Q, and K.  The form of scoring is matchpoints, neither side vulnerable.  Before deciding on a line of play, the student should recall the story of ‘Making the Cuckoo Sing’.  Legend has it that the three great warriors, Nobunaga, Hideyoshi and Ieyasu, were asked, ‘What would you do if a cuckoo refused to sing for you?’  Each replied according to his character.  Nobunaga stated, ‘I would kill it.’  Hideyoshi replied, ‘I would persuade it to sing.’  Ieyosu answered, ‘I would wait for it to sing.’

The form of scoring being matchpoints, the goal in a normal contract is to maximize the number of tricks taken within judicious limits.  Nobunaga would try to take eleven tricks.  His method was: Attack!  Attack!  Attack! Since the maximum possible number of tricks will be taken only if the heart finesse is working, he would take that finesse immediately.  Even if the finesse loses, the opponent on his right may misjudge this bold action as indicating that continuation of spades is hopeless; he may even hold up his king, hoping to lay a trap for the unwary declarer.  Having won that finesse, Nobunaga would lead the CQ from dummy, expecting his right-hand opponent to give true count on this card.  he would play accordingly, and might, indeed, take eleven tricks for a top score.  His imp0etuous nature gave little value to measures of safety.

Hideyoshi would be more prudent.  His method was to try first one way then, if that failed, to try another.  First he would play off the club suit hoping to drop the jack in two rounds or find the suit split 3-3 against him.  Failing this, he would play off the top diamonds, with the same hope.  Only if both actions proved unfruitful would he resort to the heart finesse.  If the minor suits yielded eight tricks, he would avoid the heart finesse and be content with ten tricks since the opening lead had been favorable.  He knew the Nobunagas of the world might take more tricks in any given contract, but also that the seeds of their eventual destruction lie in their risky methods.

Ieyasu would note that he had only eight tricks in hand.  Only after assuring nine tricks and his contract would he venture to play for an overtrick.  Since the lead indicates that spades are split 4-4 in the defenders’ hands, Ieyasu would return a spade and let the opponents take their three tricks in the suit.  It may happen that they will make a mistake and give him his ninth trick.  One possibility for a mistake is to take the spade tricks in such a manner that the right-hand opponent remains on lead after the fourth round; now any card that opponent leads gives away a free finesse.  There are other possibilities for defensive errors; Ieyasu’s method was to avoid unnecessary risk and to give the opponents every chance to make a mistake and bring about their own destruction.

There are those who liken bridge to warfare.  How sweet victory can be!  There are those who pursue victory to the ends of the earth regardless of cost.  Oda Nobunaga was such a moan,  ‘Hooray to the victor!’ shout the crowds. Yet sweeter still are the rewards of inner peace, which one enjoys in silence and solitude in the knowledge that one has acted properly.  In the end Nobunaga and his heir were murdered by a retainer who had been insulted in public.  Let this be a lesson: never criticize your partner at the table for he wil surely later seek revenge.

Hidetada of Gifu (1787) 


Intrigued?  I hope so…  By the way, Bob MacKinnon is a retired mathematician who has recently completed a manuscript on probability and information theory as applied to bridge.  It’s fascinating stuff, surprisingly approachable, and we hope to publish it in the next year or so.  Stay tuned.

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