Providence NABCTuesday, December 2 2014

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This column originally appeared in the May 1988 issue of the Bridge Bulletin.

“My son wants to become the world’s best bridge player,” a lady told me at dinner recently. “Should I encourage him?” “It doesn’t matter,” I told her. “If he’s bitten by the bug, he’ll spend all of his time on bridge no matter what. But warn him not to play too well.”

I told my dinner companions about cousin Cuthbert. He was making a name for himself at Cambridge almost 50 years ago when he was bitten by the bridge bug. He left the university and haunted the London bridge clubs, where he wrote monographs on Restricted Choice, Grosvenor Coups and Encrypted Signals.

To save the family name, his father, Brigadier Sheinwold, sent him to New Guinea. Cuthbert didn’t care; he was writing a definitive study of the play of the hand when the missing trumps break 6-2 or worse. I kept in touch with him and got the last letter he sent from his home among the headhunters. By that time he had gone to pot. Literally.

Dlr: South Vul: Both

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

A J 10 7 2
A Q 3
West North East South
Pass 2NT Pass 3
Pass 4 Pass 5
Pass 6 The End  

Opening lead: J

I played the accompanying hand last night against the chieftains of the local tribes,”Cuthbert wrote. “I ruffed the first heart with the J and saw that I could make the slam if I found the Q or if the club finesse worked. The odds were slightly better than three to one in my favor.”

Then, he wrote, he saw that the slam was unbeatable if the trumps broke 2-2. He took the A, led a spade to the 10 and ruffed dummy’s other heart. The trumps had broken favorably, and he was about to make the slam. Little did he know what a terrible risk he was running.

He led a diamond to the king and returned a diamond. East followed and Cuthbert finessed. The finesse assured the slam. If West had the Q he would be endplayed. A club return would give Cuthbert a free finesse; a heart return would let him ruff in his hand and discard a club from dummy. In any case, he would discard a club from dummy on the fifth diamond.

When West discarded on Cuthbert’s J, the burly cannibal chieftain in the East seat said, “You are cheating. You have looked in my hand. No honest bridge player finesses for the queen with nine cards in the combined hands.”
“Did the cannibal chieftain really say that?” a dinner companion asked.

“Yes,” I told him. “Very few cannibals know that it is sometimes correct to finesse for the queen with only four cards of the suit missing.”

West, also a cannibal chief, agreed with his partner. North disagreed but was overruled, and Cuthbert was summarily sentenced to the cooking pot. Since his captors were not barbarians, they allowed him to write a farewell letter while the water was heating.

“Do you still have the letter?” another dinner companion asked.

“No,” I replied regretfully. “The paper turned yellow and crumbled. But it taught me a lesson I have never forgotten: It is dangerous to play too well. To this day I sometimes play a hand or write a column with something short of perfection — in memory of my poor cousin.”