It's been years since I left the tournament scene. No longer could I stand the gloating and the berating, the stupidity and the cheating. The glory started to fade, and glory never payed for the bills anyway.
There is no glory in money bridge, and no perfume to mask the ugliness of its characters. The money game is hard but it is fair. Either you rake up your winnings and go on, or you scrape up what's left of your life and turn home.
So why am I here, in this fancy East Coast casino, smelling of untold riches and broken lives? Could it be that after all these years I want to test myself again? Or was I lured here by an individual tournament with unprecedented prize money, advertised throughout the country?
Whatever has led me here, it doesn't matter now. I pick up my cards and look around. My partner is a familiar face from the money bridge scene. Hardly known for his stellar card play, he is often called the Bloody Butcher behind his back, though never to his face.
From the sides two young men look at me, kids really, eagerly awaiting their chance to show off their recently acquired skills. A new hopeful generation, ready for their dreams and self-esteem to be crushed. Well guys, it's going to happen sooner or later, better get it over with.
In an individual tournament people will open 1NT on just about anything, all thinking that they play the cards better than their partners. While I do share this belief, I don't subscribe to the style of bidding. I am more than willing to distort my hand when the auction calls for it, but initially I bid what I have in my hand.
Holding ♠ AQ10 ♥ J10763 ♦ AQJ ♣ J10 I see no reason to open anything but 1NT. 1NT describes my strength and shape, makes it easy to get to spades should my partner have 5 of them, and 1NT is more likely to rightside than to wrongside the contract.
My partner responds 3♦, showing a game-forcing hand with both minors.
Conventions change just like people do, and they rarely get any better. This 3♦ gadget is not so bad though. It may help us get to the right game, or to investigate slam prospects. I can continue by asking for shortness with 3♥. But why would I, if I want to play in 3NT regardless? Should my partner have a slam try he will be able to show his shortness later.
I bid 3NT, everybody passes, and the young gun on my left leads the ♠3.
East plays the jack and my spade queen wins the first trick. As the low lead promises an honor, I can place the spade king on my left, making East the danger hand.
Clubs, diamonds and hearts all offer potential for extra tricks. How can I best combine my chances for nine tricks?
There seem to be at least four reasonable lines of play. The most straightforward line is to play diamonds from the top.
Imagine that West wins the diamond king. Now I am in quite good shape. If he returns a club I play low from dummy and claim 9 tricks regardless of what happens. If he foolishly plays another spade I am also home.
It will be clear for West to shift to a heart though, giving me a guess in the suit. If I make the winning play I have at least 9 tricks, but if I guess wrong, East will play a spade through. Being up to 8 tricks only, I will then need 3 club tricks, and the best chance is to take the finesse.
Suppose now that East has the diamond king, wins the second diamond, and plays a spade. The situation is similar to before, but now I don't have the additional chance of getting hearts right and must rely on the clubs. So let's see... ignoring the possibility of a double duck in diamonds, a 5-0 diamond split or a singleton king of diamonds, it follows that my chances of making are either 75% or 50%, depending on the location of the diamond king.
Are there any alternatives that offer better chances?
Playing on clubs gives me 3, 4 or 5 tricks in the suit. Suppose I take the club finesse at trick 2. If my jack wins I am in very good shape, even though I cannot pick up Qxxx onside, and East might have played low with Qxxx as well. No matter. Instead of playing another club, I will play the ace-queen of diamonds. If the diamonds split there is nothing the opponents can do. Even if they play clubs before I can unblock the diamonds, I can pitch my jack of diamonds on the third round of clubs.
But suppose that the club finesse loses and a spade comes through. Now my chances are slim, since I only have 6 tricks (4 clubs + 2 spades), and only 1 remaining entry to dummy. It seems that I will need to find the singleton or doubleton king of diamonds onside.
Altogether I think that the club finesse is a bit worse than playing diamonds from the top.
A third possible line is to cross in clubs at trick 2 and take the diamond finesse. The advantage of this line is that if the diamond finesse loses, it loses to the safe hand. The best that LHO can do may be to play a club, but this might not be clear to West, especially since our joint card says that we are supposed to play oddball (Ed: Smith echo) at trick 2, yuck! Of course, no sensible East would play oddball after the spade jack loses to the queen at trick 1, but try telling that to your partner in an individual tournament. As my ♣10 is also the natural card from Q10x, it may be hard for West to return a club.
If West does somehow find the club return, I win in dummy and, assuming that the club queen does not drop, unblock diamonds to play a heart towards the king. Even if the heart ace is onside, I have a slight problem as I cannot get back to hand to cash my ace of spades. On the run of the diamonds my hand is in danger of getting squeezed, but if I can read the end position I will likely make the hand.
If West does not find the club return and plays a heart instead, I have to guess whether to go up with the king or play small. Again I will probably succeed if I guess right. If not, I'm back at hoping for a doubleton queen of clubs.
What if the diamond king is onside? I will cash the ace of diamonds. If the king drops doubleton I have nine tricks. If East has king third, I should not immediately play a third round of diamonds. This only gets me up to 8 tricks, which means that I will have to hope for a doubleton queen of clubs. I can do much better: after cashing the ace of diamonds, I can play a heart to the ace. If the ace of hearts is onside, this also gives me nine tricks.
Altogether, this line of play looks decent. Whether it is better than playing diamonds from the top depends on the opponents. Would West find the club return after winning the diamond king? Or would a smart West perhaps dissuade me from a winning line by ducking with Kxx of diamonds?
If I always play West for the ace of hearts then it doesn't help West much to duck the diamond. In the worst case I go down a few more tricks than I would have otherwise.
A fourth line, perhaps less intuitive but still worth considering, is to play a heart towards the king at trick 2. If the heart king wins I am pretty much home, taking 2 spades, 1 heart, 4 diamonds, and 2 clubs; if they duck the diamond king twice, 3 diamonds and 3 clubs.
Should the heart king lose, my chances are very poor. Getting 5 club tricks is no longer enough, so the best chance is now to hope for either the doubleton king of diamonds onside, or the diamond finesse plus queen-doubleton of clubs. It seems that this line therefore makes on the same hands as the previous line, but with fewer opportunities for a defensive slip.
I am left with two possible lines of play, both focusing on the diamond suit. I either play diamonds from the top, or I cross in clubs and take the diamond hook. The first option preserves communication, but the second option avoids the danger hand. Which line should I take?
Trying to compute the exact chances of success for the second option seems futile and will only make my head hurt. All factors considered it seems to me that the two lines are roughly equally likely to succeed. Instead of spending a long time trying to compute the chances, I think it is better to put myself in my opponents' seats. Is there another opportunity for an opponent to screw up in either line of play?
I've made up my mind. I win the opening lead in hand, play the ♣10 to dummy's ace, and ask for a diamond. My right hand opponent is right there with his king: danger hand high! I try not to smile as he follows twice more in diamonds.
East's play of a high diamond made no sense. Of course, there are situations where it is necessary to win the first diamond trick in the East hand, but from East's perspective this cannot be one of those hands. If his partner has the diamond ace and a high spade, I must have all the remaining high cards for my opening bid. But in that case, wouldn't I just set up 2 heart tricks instead of going after diamonds? Playing the king of diamonds cannot be the right play.
And why hop so quickly? There are plenty of situations where you should duck in tempo. But if you are thinking about playing high, you can almost always take your time before doing so.
It is not easy to find the state of mind needed to excel at this game. Only those that are deeply invested can maintain the necessary concentration, hand after hand after hand. But those that are too eager to look smart will often end up looking foolish instead. Perhaps then, this game is only suitable for old men, who no longer care about proving anything to themselves or the world around, but only about the game itself.
Plus... it's free!