Ray Lee

And the nominees are…

The IBPA recently released details of the short list of six for this year’s Master Point Press Book of the Year Award, the winner of which will be announced later this year at the World Championships in Philadelphia.  This is a prestigious competition, and I don’t envy the international jury their task in selecting one book out of some excellent contenders.  Let me, however, while declaring my biases since we published three of the nominees, try to give you an appraisal of the six finalists.

1)  ‘Overcalls’ (Mike Lawrence).   This book’s been a classic since the day it first came out, 25 years or so ago.  Anyone who hasn’t read it, and aspires to being a decent bridge player, should go out and get a copy immediately.  Having said that, we recognized that competitive bidding is probably the area of the game that has seen the most changes in the last quarter century, and it was with that in mind that we asked Mike to update the book.  That he did, and thoroughly too (I don’t think he knows any other way to work).  So now, even if you did read the original, you should still get yourself a copy of the new edition, because everything, yes pretty much everything, has changed.  New ideas, new conventions, new uses for competitive doubles – the lot.

2) ‘A new classic’ is a description that also fits our second candidate, the new edition of Clyde E. Love’s tome on Squeezes.  We all remember reading this (or, to be more honest, trying to read it) in our bridge youth.  It was brilliant, but oh, what a struggle.  Love was a math professor, and it came through in his writing.  And, unfortunately, things that were obvious to him weren’t necessarily so to his readers.  Likewise, without the benefit of modern aids such as ‘Deep Finesse’, it’s not a surprise to find that the original book contained errors, especially in the later, more complex, discussions.  In the new edition, Linda Lee, with the able assistance of Julian Pottage, has revised Love heavily.   It’s more approachable, more explicit, and much less is left as an exercise to the reader.  The errors (we hope!) have been eliminated, and dozens of new squeeze types added (although both author/editors admit that despite its title, the book is still far from ‘Complete’).  This book took three months out of Linda’s life, but she really enjoyed working on it, as a supreme challenge to her skill at technical bridge analysis.

3) Larry Cohen’s ‘My Favorite 52’ was another Linda project, but only in the editorial sense.  Originally published by Larry as interactive software, this book takes the reader through 60+ of Larry’s favorite deals.  Never has the ‘over-the-shoulder’ style been exploited so well – you will really feel that you’ve had a peek into the thought processes of an expert, and begin to understand why the same guys end up the winner’s circle with such regularity.  The bridge deals themselves are fascinating, often spectacular, so the book is a whole lot of fun to read as well as being incredibly educational for players at any level.

4) Jeff Rubens’ ‘Expert Bridge Simplified’ gets my vote as the most misleading title of the bunch.  Don’t get me wrong – it’s a brilliant book.  It applies rigorous mathematics to bridge situations, and tries to come up with helpful ideas that anyone can use at the table.  But I’m afraid not many people are going to get past Chapter 1.  This is the book I (rightly or wrongly) persuaded Bob MacKinnon not to write, when he was working on the manuscript that eventually became ‘Bridge, Probability and Information’.  I wanted to publish a book that had a sound math basis, but kept it as far in the background as we could, so that we kept the bridge players interested until at least half way through the book.  Jeff isn’t concerned with that – the very first question at the end of the Introduction is, ‘Is the following an equiprobable set…?’  There’s great content here for those who are prepared to persevere, but I fear they will be many fewer than the value of the content deserves.

5) Krysztof Martens has won World Championship medals playing for his native Poland, including an Olympiad Gold in 1984, as well as several European titles.  His credentials are not in doubt, therefore.  His recent series of books, designed to complement his Bridge University online, have been receiving acclaim from expert-level players.  ‘Owl, Fox and Spider’ is, I think, a representative nominee for the entire oeuvre.  I couldn’t navigate through Martens’ site well enough to get my free chapter downloaded, so all I know about this book is that Martens often likes to use animal analogies in his writing, to get his point across.  In this case, a good declarer must be wise, sly and cunning by turns, to be successful.

6)  ‘The Romance of Bridge’ is mostly an anthology of material collected by Raman Jayaram, who writes passionately about bridge, and Ghassan Ghanem.  They formed an Indo-Jordanian collaboration to explore the connection between bridge and romance. They have combined exotic locales with interesting deals and escapades of master players from around the world.  Their obvious love of the game is infectious, but much of material will be familiar to readers from its fairly wide publication elsewhere (for example, there is an extensive rehash of the infamous ‘Losers Win’ Canada-Germany incident from the 1990 Rosenblum – as recently as 2008, Bobby Wolff wrote extensively about this in his autobiography, ‘The Lone Wolff’).

So there they are – the final six.  Which will win?  Who knows.  The three we published are all close to my heart, and any of them would be (IMHO) a worthy winner.  But they have stiff competition.  As I said at the beginning, I don’t envy the jury this year – it’s a tough decision.

Links for more information about the finalists:


Love on Squeezes

My Favorite 52

Owl, Fox and Spider

Expert Bridge Simplified

The Romance of Bridge

Steve and Me

Anyone who has been following Linda’s blog over the last few months knows that MPP is busy preparing to offer its books in digital form for e-readers.  Our titles are already available in PDF format from our own www.ebooksbridge.com site, but to reach a wider audience, we need to convert them to the ePub format, which is fast becoming the industry standard.  Bridge material offers some technical challenges in this regard,  but we’re getting there.  We are hoping to have an agreement with Sony in place in the near future, and similarly with Apple, for their new iBookstore.

We were, of course, very excited by the new Apple iPad, since new products like this from Apple tend to be game-changers. So it was with some disappointment that we heard the Canadian release date had been rolled back from mid-April to some indefinite time in the future, possibly May.  However, we were determined to take advanatge of our vacation in Florida last week to secure one of the new devices, and see what our books looked like on it.

Arriving at our rented apartment last Sunday evening, we located the nearest Apple store, and headed out to it on Monday morning.  We were told no iPads were in stock (we expected that), and we duly put our name down for one when they did come in.  They would email us, we were told, if and when one arrived.  Off to lunch we headed, and it was not unexpected when I picked up an email on my iPhone, confirming our reservation and assuring me that we would be told the instant our iPad was available.  If you’ve ever been to an Apple store, you would, as we did, have every confidence this would happen, but even we were surprised when not half an hour later we got another message saying our iPad was now ready for pickup!

Back we went, picked up our iPad, and headed home to play with it.  First impressions were favorable – it looks like a big iTouch,  a device to which Linda has been umbilically attached since acquiring one last year.   However, delight turned to dismay when we logged in to iTunes and attempted to get at some apps.  As Canadians, it turned out we were entitled to access only the Canadian iTunes store, which – guess what – wasn’t offering iPad apps yet.  Without an iTunes account backed by a credit card billed to a US address (which we don’t possess), we couldn’t download anything – even the iBooks application (which in my view should have come with it, since the iPad is being sold as an e-reader).  The nice folks at the Apple store were genuinely sympathetic, but couldn’t do anything to help.

More than annoyed, my thoughts at this time turned to an old Peter Cooks and Dudley Moore comedy routine we’d listened to on our drive down.  The key part went like this:

Peter:  Do you remember World War II?  Dreadful business, don’t you think?

Dudley:  Well, yes, I think we all were against it.

Peter:  Yes, well – I wrote a letter.

It occurred to me that I had seen somewhere on the net that Steve Jobs could actually be contacted by email fairly easily, and I decided to try.  An hour later, having found a couple of likely email adresses, I sent him the following:

Dear Mr. Jobs

As a dedicated Mac supporter for many, many years, I have been looking forward immensely to the iPad as a probable game-changing device for reading ebooks.

Let me elaborate:  I own a book publishing company in Canada, and we have been working on converting digital versions of our titles from PDF to ePub format prior to making arrangements to offer them for sale in the Apple iBookstore.  We were disappointed when the iPad release in Canada was rolled back, but I am currently vacationing in Florida, and took the occasion to purchase an iPad, so I could take it home and have my staff begin testing our files.

Imagine my dismay, and astonishment, when I found that not only did the iBooks app not come loaded on the iPad, but I could not download this app, since I do not possess an iTunes account backed by a US-based credit card. No date has yet been announced for the iPad release in Canada, and until that date, I am apparently now the proud owner of a big iTouch.

Apple is promoting the purchase of the iPad in large part as an ebook reader.  I can’t imagine any reason for not either supplying or allowing the download of such a fundamental app as iBooks from Apple — but the result is that the iPad is useless to us for our work indefinitely, and we feel seriously discriminated against. We can’t be the only people in the world with this problem — surely there are people in the US who have sent iPads as gifts to friends and relatives in other countries, only to have them find the devices essentially useless.

Will you help us, or at least give me some kind of rational explanation a situation that to me is completely incomprehensible?

I wait your reply with great interest.

Yours sincerely,

Ray Lee


Master Point Press

I was intrigued to find that less than an hour later, I had a reply:

From: “Steve Jobs” <sjobs@apple.com>

Sent: Tuesday, April 20, 2010 9:41pm

Subject: Re: Canadian ebook publisher needs your help

We have not yet launched in Canada yet.  I don’t think that is a secret.  Sorry.

Sent from my iPad

Now, I’m not so naïve as to think that my email really got through to the Man – I’m sure there’s a whole staff of people filtering Steve’s emails, and only passing on to him the ones deemed worthy.  On the other hand, the terse, rather snarky tone was suggestive… perhaps I really had got through.  So I thought it worth one more salvo:

“Yes, I know that”, I sent, “but that wasn’t my point.”

But answer came there none.  There it rests.  We still have no release date in Canada for the iPad, but when the iPad does arrive here, at least we won’t have to wait at the Apple store to buy our hardware.  Until then, Linda’s surfing and playing Sudoko on a much bigger screen.  Sigh.

An Olympic moment

It’s always interesting to compare bridge to other sports, and I was fascinated by an incident I watched last night during a women’s curling game at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver.

The match involved Canada’s Cheryl Barnard against one of the other top rinks, the Swiss skipped by Mirjam Ott.  The situation was tense — it was the 10th and final end, and the teams were tied.  Canada had last rock, so held a slight advantage, but were busy playing themselves into trouble.  A Swiss rock was closest to the button, buried behind guards.  Then the Canadian third made a potential game-saver — she threw a rock that took out two of the Swiss guards, driving one of them on to the shot rock and starting it on its way out of the rings.  That’s when things got complicated.

For those of you not familiar with curling, each team is allowed one person actually standing in the target rings (I’ll simplify this) whose job is to sweep rocks that are moving in the rings.  Usually that’s the skip, and Barnard was standing there for Canada.  Unfortunately, while her team was playing for the double takeout on the guards, she didn’t expect to get a piece of shot rock too, and when that started moving it tookher by surprise — and by the foot too.  So the Swiss rock stopped dead instead of continuing on towards the edge of the playing surface.

Now the rules in this situation are as follows.  The non-offending side has two options: they can put the rock back where it came from, or they can try to position it where they think it would have stopped without interference.  In this case, it represented a big advantage to the Swiss team to replace it as though it had never moved — and with only a couple of rocks each left, possibly even a winning advantage.

Mirjam Ott did not hesitate — she strode over to the rock and quickly pushed it out towards the edge of the rings, to where she estimated it would have ended up without the accidental Canadian interference.  Five minutes later, the game was over, and Canada had won it.

This is I suppose somewhat akin to the familiar ‘obligation to enforce the rules to protect the field’ debate we hear at bridge.  And yet it’s more than that.  Here’s a player in one of the most important competitions she’ll ever compete in, opting not to take an advantage she’s perfectly entitled to under the rules, instead simply electing to restore equity.   It was a magnificent moment of sportsmanship — yet the cynical part of me was wondering whether she would have done it in the Gold Medal game.

Perhaps not — but I can’t honestly look at myself in the mirror and claim that I would have done it at all.  Would you?

New from MPP Part 2

There’s much controversy in ACBL-land these days about the dreaded Multi.  At least, it must be dreaded by someone, since you don’t get to play it in many events.  Linda wasn’t allowed to use it last month in two National Championship events, since neither involved the requisite 6+ boards per round.  Brian Senior, also playing in San Diego, commented to me in his usual acerbic fashion that he thought it strange that when he was allowed to play Multi, he had to provide a written defense to it, even to opponents who played the convention themselves.  To me it seems odd that a convention that every LOL can deal comfortably with outside North America is so restricted here.  Especially odd when you are allowed to use a Multi defense to 1NT — a 2 overcall that shows an unspecified major suit.  I suspect my friend Bobby Wolff will take me to task for this comment as I know he believes that Multi is fraught with potential ethical issues, but if it is, why allow it as an overcall of 1NT?  In fact, why allow it at all?  I think the worry in the ACBL is ‘time to prepare a defense’ — which if the convention were more prevalent, wouldn’t really be an issue.  I suspect some ACBL Director got a bad board one time against it, and that put paid to that.

Surprisingly, for a convention so widely used (in the rest of the world at least), there’s very little written about it, and nothing at all in terms of modern ideas collected in one place.  Until March, of course.  That’s when The Mysterious Multi — how to play it, how to play against it by Mark Horton and Jan van Cleeff will be available.

Actually, this book is much more than it appears from the title.  Yes, it does cover the Multi (in all its various forms, not just the weak-two version), and suggests a number of modern methods for constructive auctions following on from the opening bid.  Which one you select will depend on how complicated you want your system to be, and how much memory work you are comfortable with.  The same is true of defenses to Multi, which are also covered in detail (there’s even an appendix which runs to 6 closely spaced pages — this is the defense Eric Kokish recommends to pairs he coaches who don’t want to do too much work!).

However, I’ve never personally been convinced that Multi in and of itself is terribly effective (as long as your defense includes natural two-level major-suit overcalls).  What I do like about Multi is that if you use it, it frees up other two-bids, and the book spends a great deal of its time discussing the options that become available for opening bids of 2 , 2 , and 2NT.  So we have a full treatment of Muiderberg twos, which are becoming very popular for good reason, as well as some less common approaches such as a three-suited 2 opening, and a weak two-suited 2NT.

The conventional Multi defense to 1NT (variously known as Multi-Landy and Woolsey) gets a whole chapter.  There’s no doubt that at an expert level, this is the majority pick for a defense to 1NT, so even if you don’t want to play it yourself, it’s important to become familiar with it and learn how to deal with it.  Finally there’s a fascinating chapter on some very modern Dutch bidding theory, which involves using a Multi 2 response to an opening bid in a minor.  The concept is similar — you can use the bid as a weak jump shift in an unspecified major suit, and free up the other two-bids for assignment eslewhere.

A book by two top journalists is bound to contain a host of deals from championship play, and this one is no exception.  It’s rounded out with a chapter entitled ‘Multi in Action’, which is just that.  Mark assured me they would be careful to be objective, and include deals where Multi didn’t work out so well in addition to ones where it paid off. Indeed, there are plenty of both types.

Perhaps I should send copies to the ACBL Board — do you think we could convince them that Multi isn’t so mysterious after all?

New from MPP Part 1

As we approach the holidays, this is one of the busiest times of the year for us at MPP, although probably not for the reasons you think.  We’re a publisher, not a bookseller, and people do insist on interrupting our real work to buy books from us.  Some of them even come to the office to pick them up for gifts!  Meanwhile, we’re trying to get three new books off to press, which is what I really want to write about here.

Anyone following Linda’s blog knows about the new edition of Love’s Bridge Squeezes Complete.  We ‘re all very proud of this one; sometimes you just have the feeling you’re working on something important, and this is one of those occasions.  I know Linda feels that way, and I suspect Julian Pottage (who helped enormously) does too.  Our second book on our Spring list, though, may also turn out to be a major contribution to the literature:  Bob MacKinnon’s Bridge, Probability and Information.

I constantly see people misuse numbers and statistics, which irritates me.  There’s an old saying about there being ‘lies, damned lies, and statistics’ (something ‘climate change’ fanatics might do well to remember), and it’s a pleasure to see a professional explain what conclusions you can and cannot legitimately reach from a particular collection of data.  There was an article published about 4 months ago in which statistics were relied upon to support some very dubious conclusions about the usefulness of the Multi two diamonds convention.   In a happy coincidence, Bob describes in the book the fallacies in the arguments that were used, using a different example, the Flannery two diamonds.

Bridge is not chess — it’s a game of inference rather than complete information, so whether we like it or not, there are certain basic mathematical concepts and numbers that we have to know in order to play it well.  I’ve been kicking around some of these ideas with Bob for a few years now, ever since he wrote Samurai Bridge for us.  And if you read Bob’s blog, you’ve had a glimpse of some of what he talks about in this book.  Bob is a retired mathematician who happens to be very literate, very well-read, and an excellent writer.  What I told him when we started the project was that it had to be aimed at bridge players, not mathematicians, and I think in the end he’s pulled it off.  When Stephen Hawking wrote A Brief History of Time, the story goes that his editor warned him he would lose 25% of his readers with every equation he put in the book.  In the end, he insisted on only one, e=mc2. I think Bob has managed to outdo Hawking, in that there isn’t a single equation in his book — the ideas are the thing.  What we have left, after all the heavy math was eliminated, is a fascinating and readable account of the ideas of probability and information theory, and a host of practical applications of them to bridge.

The book starts by tracing the history of the theory of probability, with the young Blaise Pascal throwing dice and pondering the results.  Quickly, though, we get to the bridge table, where after briefly looking at the kind of numbers that any bridge player knows (the 3-2 break is 68%, for example), we are gently blown out of the water.  Those simple numbers we all know and love, it seems, merely represent an approximation at the start of each deal, when we have little information.  As bids are made and cards are played, the amount of information we have changes — and so do the odds.  We may know this instinctively (for example, when someone preempts we tend to suspect that other suits may not be breaking well), but we don’t know how to apply it in any kind of quantitative sense.  But of course, the known splits in one suit do affect the probabilities of splits in another — and we all make the mistake of looking at these things in isolation, when we should not.

Once we get into the habit of looking at suit splits holistically, many interesting conclusions can be drawn, with obvious practical applications.  Let me give one example.   We’re looking to pick up trumps, missing four of them to the queen; normally we would play for the drop.  But what if RHO has preempted, so diamonds are likely to be 2-7, say.  That leaves LHO with 5 more vacant places in his hand for the queen.  So now, you say, the odds must favour a finesse.  True, but by how much?  At what point, in terms of an imbalance in Vacant Places, do we switch from playing for the drop to finessing?  Do you see what I mean by practical applications?

There’s much more in this book, though.  Having laid the groundwork, Bob goes on to discuss a host of (to me at least) fascinating bridge issues, these among them:

  • The idea of visualizing ‘sides’, the complete combined holdings of both defenders, and not just the splits in individual suits
  • How a known split in one suit affects the odds in another
  • Empirical rules to help make decisions when there is incomplete information or the situation is too complex to analyze accurately
  • How a priori probabilities (the ones with which we are all familiar) change with each card played
  • How an imbalance of vacant places in the defenders’ hands affects the odds – and when to change your line of play as a result
  • The ‘Monty Hall Problem’ and its bridge cousin, Restricted Choice
  • HCP distribution – what partner’s bidding tells you about where his high cards are
  • Information versus frequency: the trade-off in choosing conventions
  • Losing Trick Count – does it work, and if so, why?
  • Probability, statistics and the LAW of Total Tricks – how far can you rely on it?
  • Cost versus gain: information theory as applied to bidding systems
  • Using statistics to help you choose a bidding system that works for your style of play

This is a book I’ve wanted to publish for some time; I hope readers out there are as enthusiastic as I am about it.

Honors for books

Excuse the attempt at a catchy title — we haven’t actually won anything recently.  What I do want to do is explain the concept behind ‘Honors’, a new imprint we’re going to be launching early next year.

Like most publishers, MPP receives a good number of unsolicited manuscripts.  Roughly, these fall into three categories — the obviously publishable, and obviously unpublishable, and those in between.  There are a surprising number in that third group.  MPP is a business, and our titles have to have some prospect at least of paying the bills, even if they’ll never be bestsellers.  But we do get proposals every year for books that, while they have some intrinsic merit, don’t appear to us to have much chance of paying their way.  A good example is the second edition of ‘Bridge: the Ultimate Limits’, by Eric Mansfield, which I confess has been on my desk for the best part of two years now.  Those familiar with this book will know that Mansfield is a problem constructor of a very high order, specializing in extremely complex endings.  The book indeed contains the only known example of a hexagonal squeeze.  When I got the draft of the new edition from the author, I asked The Bridge World editor Jeff Rubens what he thought, and his view was that we might sell 50 copies of it (although I think he would have been a purchaser!).  So here’s a good example of a book that should probably be ‘out’ there’, but isn’t really commercially viable.  Of course, sometimes books surprise you.  When Roy Hughes brought us the first draft of ‘Building a Bidding System’, he agreed with our view that the same 50 people would probably want to buy that one too.  But we thought the book was so important that we published it anyway, and were pleasantly surprised by its success.

Evolving technology has provided us with a new option for these marginal books, though:  ebook publication.  And so ‘Honors’ will be born.  Hoors books will be books that we believe have merit, but that won’t work as standard books.  Basically we’ll offer the author our marketing channels, but will not put the time and effort and money into editing, design and printing that a normal MPP title would get.  So an Honors book will be available only as an ebook, and it will look pretty much as it did when we received it from the author.  The quid pro quo is that the author will receive a much higher proportion of the revenue than would be the case if we had a significant investment in the title.

It will be interesting to see how this works.  The market is still changing, and as usual, a format war is under way in the ebook world.  As of now, I suspect that ePub is going to be the winner.  Certainly, Amazon isn’t going to be able to impose their proprietary AZW format on the market any more than Apple was able to control the music download business.  The Kindle isn’t even a standout among the readers — my Sony is at least as good, and in some ways better, since it has touch-screen controls — and more new readers seem to be arriving every week.  It’s going to be fascinating to see how it plays out — and at MPP we’re trying to make sure we’re ready when the market does settle down.

Meanwhile, we have several potential Honors books in hand, and hope to get the imprint going in the next 3 months or so.  Anyone out there with a good manuscript?

Yes it’s broke – so fix it!

I’m not a big fan of the committee system, but since most floor directors don’t seem to have enough bridge expertise to make good decisions, it seems that it is a necessary evil.  But every so often you see a committee do something so mind-numbingly stupid that you realize just how bad the whole thing can be.

Here’s Appeal Case #3 from San Diego, from Tuesday’s Daily Bulletin:

Dealer: N

Vul: NS

West East
82 AKJ10643
963 K42
KQ10852 63
85 9

In the LM Pairs, N-S were vulnerable, and North upgraded his hand to a 2NT opening.  East bid 3S, and there followed a Break in Tempo (BIT) of 5-7 seconds.  South passed, West passed, and North bid 3NT with the same minimum hand he had already described.

The director was called during the auction and after the play.  The director determined that the BIT demonstrably suggested the 3NT bid, and rolled the result back to 3S down 1 for both sides (incidentally, West pointed out that 3S might well make in practice, and indeed at Linda’s table it did – doubled, no less).  All very sensible, it seemed to me.

But the account in the DB continued, of course.  N-S appealed the ruling.  They claimed that they play automatic reopenings, and  indeed their card was marked ‘auto reopenings after 1X-1Y-pass-pass’.  [Not to mention being ex post facto and a highly self-serving statement, the auctions are in no way comparable.]  They also now claimed there had been no real hesitation.  [Notice that the director, who was there twice, had ruled there was a BIT – indeed, the very fact that the director was called during the auction is strong evidence of it.]

I read on.  This surely was a slam-dunk Appeal without Merit – lose your deposit and maybe even get censured.  In fact, I wondered how this one had got past the screening committee.  But no – the committee ruled in favour of NS, and gave them the table result back!  The rationale apparently was that a 5-7 second pause in a pressure auction {my italics] did not transmit UI.  I could not believe what I was reading.  Did the committee not understand that this is only a pressure auction if South has some reason to take action?  She is under no pressure with a yarborough… This not an auction like 1H-1S-3H-3S; 4H-P-P-4S; ?  Now the opening bidder, whatever his hand, may well have a problem; he’s entitled to think, and his doing so (and even doing so then passing) conveys no real UI.  In the deal under discussion, South’s pause clearly conveys that she wants to bid but doesn’t know what to do – so her partner knows she has no long suit to bid, no spade stopper, and no penalty double.  Pretty descriptive I would think, and North clearly acted on the information received..

Had I been on the committee, I would have voted it an AWM, retained the deposit, and made sure the Recorder knew about North for future reference.

Am I wrong?

Squeeze defense

Perhaps it’s because of our intensive work on the soon-to-be-published new edition of Love, Bridge Squeezes Complete, but I’m more aware of interesting squeeze deals than I used to be.  My eye was caught last week by this one, which appeared in Paul Thurston’s daily column in the National Post.

Dealer: S

Vul: EW

A 9 7 6 4
J 4 3
A 8 6 4


A K 9 7 6 5 4

Q 5

10 8 6 2

West North East South
2 3 3 4
pass pass dbl pass
4 5 dbl all pass

This deal is from the recent Bermuda Bowl Final.  You seem to be playing with the proverbial pinochle deck here, but eventually you get fed up and just double them. Partner leads the Q and declarer plays low from dummy.  How do you defend?

Let’s suppose you ruff on general principles (we’ll look at the consequences of not ruffing shortly).   What are you going to do now?  A low spade return will almost certainly get you into the Daily Bulletin, but possibly for entirely the wrong reason!  What does partner have for his vulnerable overcall?  Surely he has diamond cards, so a diamond return looks indicated — but should you cash a spade first?  Make your decision before reading on.

Here’s the full layout:



A 9 7 6 4
J 4 3
A 8 6 4
West East
10 8 2 A K 9 7 6 5 4
Q 5
K Q 9 7 10 8 6 2
Q J 10 7 5 2
K J 10 8 3 2
A 5
K 9 3

So a low spade certainly gets you into the Daily Bulletin 🙂  It doesn’t look wrong to cash a spade before playing a diamond through, but it is — horribly wrong.  Remember Love’s acronym, BLUE?  You just rectified the count, adjusting L to 1.  Declarer wins the diamond, ruffs a spade, draws your trump and reels off the rest of the hearts.  Partner gets squeezed in the minors.  If you play a diamond through at Trick 2, there’s no squeeze — try it for yourself, as Love would say.

A neat variant occurs if you refuse to ruff at Trick 1, in case you are simply ruffing one of declarer’s losers.  He wins in hand, draws trumps, and gives up a spade.   Again now, he wins the diamond return, ruffs a spade and runs hearts.  This time West gets squeezed on the second-last heart, and declarer can duck a trick to him in whichever minor he abandons to set up the eleventh trick.

Of course, East-West could actually make twelve tricks in spades on this layout, but who could tell that from the bidding?

Watch this space — more LOVE to come…

Going with the Odds

Having just finished editing Bob MacKinnon’s forthcoming book, Bridge, Probabilty and Information, I think I may be more sensitive to these issues and ideas.  For whatever reason, my eye was caught by this deal which came up in the BB semifinal this afternoon.  The deal is rotated for convenience:


China’s Wang Weimi heard Zia open a Flannery 2 on his right.  He passed, Hamman bid 2, and North chimed in with 3.  South took a punt at 3NT, and the lead was the 5.  Clearly the key is guessing diamonds.  Playing all out you win East’s K with the A, and cash the A.  Everyone follows, so no 4-0 breaks.  You cross back to the A, and play another diamond, to which West contributes the last outstanding small card.  You know East started with 9 cards in the majors: does that mean you should finesse?

There are 3 ways to analyze this decision as far as I can see:

1) It seems that spades are 4-4 and hearts 3-5, leaving 2 more Vacant Spaces in the West hand.  Other things being equal, you should therefore finesse.

2)  The a priori odds are 50% for a 3-1 break, 40% for 2-2.  Of course, we are only interested in the 3-1 breaks, since 1-3 won’t help us. But the odds aren’t 40-25 in favour of the drop, because the order in which the spot cards are played reduces the number of possible combinations and therefore the 2-2 probability.  Actually, we are all familiar with this answer: it’s 52-48 in favour of the drop.

3) However, so far we’ve looked at diamonds in isolation — which is wrong.  You need to look at both minors together.  Is it more likely that clubs are 4-2 and diamonds 2-2, or clubs 3-3 and diamonds 3-1?  The two suits are not independent of each other.  My arithmetic (Bob, please post a comment if I’ve done this incorrectly) gets me to 9.6:9 in favour of 2-2 diamonds — about 7%.

4)  Yes, I know I said 3 ways, but the final piece of information you have is that East opened the bidding and 18 HCP are missing.  Looks like West has the Q, and East certainly had the K.  Give him even a minimum 11 for his opening, and he needs 8 of the missing 13 HCP — 8:5 odds that he has the Q.

So IMHO, (3) and (4) being the most compelling arguments, the odds favour playing for the drop, which is what Eric Rodwell did in the Closed Room, while the Chinese declarer took the finesse in the Open Room.  Granted, Rodwell had a slightly different auction but not much:  East opened 1 and spades were known to be 4-4, so declarer was in fundamentally the same position.  Now bridge is one of those annoying games where making the right play is no guarantee of victory, but on this occasion virtue was rewarded.  Diamonds were 2-2, and USA picked up a game swing as they steamrollered to a 57-IMP pickup in the set, and an overall lead of 83 IMPs after only 32 boards.

Can a 96-board match be over this early?  It sure feels like it.

Reading the cards

Deal 14 of the first session of the quarterfinals in Sao Paulo today was a real challenge.  It was a great example of how defensive bidding and carding can give you an almost exact read on the lie of the cards — but that even then, it may not be that easy for declarer to get home.  I’ll present it first single dummy, as one German declarer saw it in the Bermuda Bowl, (rotated for convenience):


You open 1NT (11-13) and LHO doubles for penalties.  Partner redoubles, saying ‘we got them’, a treatment I personally like as lot.  RHO bids 2H, which you double.  Partner removes this to 3H, and for lack of an alternative you trot out your club suit.  Partner raises you to game, and LHO expresses doubt.  He leads the H2, and when you see dummy, you have little doubt he has both missing aces.  You decide to play a round of clubs, leading the C4 to the CA, and RHO pitches the S8 on this.  What are you going to do now?

What the declarer I watched did was cross to the HK, draw the rest of the trumps, ruff a heart in dummy, and play a spade up to hand, inserting the 9.  We’ll return to the outcome shortly. Let’s go back to Trick 3.  What do we know?

1) LHO has most of the missing high cards, certainly the two aces.

2) RHO has heart length — on the lead, hearts seem to be 3-5.

3) Clubs are 3-0.

4) RHO’s first discard was the S8 — surely indicative of length.  Looking at that dummy, you also have to think about what his holding might be to make a spade discard look safe — certainly not 10xxx.

So isn’t it possible, even likely, that South has a doubleton SA?  In that case, there’s a very pretty possibility, which is that we can catch him in a Morton’s Fork, followed by endplaying him.  But the timing has to be exact: we have to draw trumps, eliminate hearts, and play a spade towards dummy at the right time.  If he goes up ace, we have three spade winners; if he ducks it, we shall eventually play a second spade, endplaying him to give us a ruff sluff or lead a diamond away from the ace.

That’s the theory, but the timing has to be perfect, and if you work it through, it turns out that the spade play has to happen at Trick 3.  The declarer I watched didn’t do that.  Instead, as I said, he cashed the HK, drew trumps and then ruffed a heart.  Now there was little alternative but to try the spade finesse, which was odds on.  However, odds on isn’t certainty, since the whole deal was:



West East
A10 87632
Q62 J10954
AQ982 J43

Khiuppenen of Russia demonstrated how it should be done.  He opened 1C, and LHO overcalled 1D.  Partner bid 1H, and RHO raised to 2D.  Thereafter the Russians bid unnoposed to 5C.  Again the lead was a low heart, won in dummy.  Declarer cashed the second high heart, and crossed to hand with the CA.  He ruffed his last heart, and finished drawing trumps, ending in hand.  Noting RHO’s discards, he correctly read the position and played the S9 from his hand.  West was helpless — take the ace now and concede three spade tricks, or duck it, and be endplayed on the next trick.  Neatly done.

One other declarer made this contract, in the Venice Cup, but unfortunately there is no record of the play.  Several were unsuccessful — usually there was bidding to provide a clue, but to a man they all eventually took that spade finesse.  Just goes to show that even in world competition, a tough hand is a tough hand.