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The Expert Touch by Jeff Rubens

Source: It’s All in the Game by Jeff Rubens and Bob Ewen

The Great Expert was slouched in a chair in the far corner of the bridge club, leafing idly through the pages of a book and muttering softly to himself gathering my courage, I approached the Master and waited until he looked up and favored me with a friendly glare.

«I’ve heard that you are an expert in table presence, or the art of being able to discern from the opponents’ behavior the location of key cards and the distribution of crucial suits,» I said in my frankest and most engaging manner. «I can’t quite seem to get the hang of it myself, and I’d really appreciate a few quick pointers.»

He regarded me silently for a few moments, whereupon a strange light came into his eyes. «I can teach you a lesson, if that’s what you want.» he snapped. Whipping out a pencil, he jotted down this deal on the back of a pick-up slip:

South dealer East-West vulnerable

West North East South
2* 3 Pass 3
Pass 4 All Pass

* intermediate

At board-a-match team-of-four, West cashes the king and queen of spades, the G.E. said, East following with the six and eight. West shifts to the club eight, which you win in the South hand with the nine. You cash the heart ace, and West fumbles slightly before dropping the queen. What now?»

I considered for a moment. «Well,» I said, «the Principle of Restricted Choice states that West is almost twice as likely to have had a singleton queen as he is to have had queen-jack-doubleton. Also, West overcalled, and is likely to be short in hearts.» I thought a little longer. «I’d guess that a player is more likely to fumble with a singleton, in an attempt to avoid playing too quickly, but would play smoothly with a doubleton. Therefore,» I concluded triumphantly, «I’ll play East for four trumps, take the heart finesse, and play for a trump coup for five-odd.»

The strange look in the G.E.’s eyes seemed to grow a shade stronger. «Very neat,» he concluded. «Now let’s see you handle this layout:

West dealer East-West vulnerable

West North East South
 1  Double  2 4
Pass 4NT Pass 5
Pass 6 All Pass

«It’s the end of a long and tough rubber-bridge session,» the G.E. noted, «and you see that East is carelessly holding his cards so that you can see them.»

My jaw must have dropped, for he added, «You’d be surprised how often opponents practically shove their cards under your nose, in spite of repeated warnings.

You see the following:

K 9 6 2      10 8 7   10 9 7 6 4

«West leads the club king and shifts to the spade four, East playing the king. You win with the ace and lead the heart queen; West follows smoothly with the six. What’s your play?»

The whole problem appeared rather odd, to say the least, and I gave the matter some thought. Suddenly, the light dawned. «That’s only 12 cards in the East hand,» I argued, proud of my superior detective abilities. «What kind of player is East?»

«A tricky individual and tough player.»

«You won’t fool me on this one,» I announced. «That thirteenth card, which is probably concealed behind one of the others, must be the heart king. He’s showing me a void so that I’ll finesse. I’ll have none of that. Up with that ace!»

The players were starting to gather for the evening’s game, and my private consultation with the G.E. was clearly coming to an end. «Time for one last case,» he said. He showed me a deal in the book he had been reading, covering the East-West hands so that I could not see them. «Still rubber bridge,» he announced. «How do you play this one?»

West dealer Both sides vulnerable

West North East South
 1  Pass Pass Double
Pass 2 Pass 3NT
Pass Pass Pass

«West leads the king of spades, East playing the nine.»

«I duck.»

«West continues with the queen, East following with the deuce.»

«I duck again.»

«West leads the spade ten, and East plays the jack, which you must win with the ace. What do you play next?»

By now I felt that my table presence was developing beautifully. «I lay down the heart ace and watch the table action,» I said. «West should have the heart king for his opening bid, but I ought to get a clue as to the distribution of the heart suit and the location of the heart jack.»

«On the second heart,» said my instructor. «West hitches just enough for you to notice and then snaps a low heart out of his hand.»

«How good is West?» I inquired.

«Good enough,» was the reply.

I thought for a while and suddenly everything about the deal, and about table presence, became crystal clear.

«West must want me to know he has the king of hearts.» I announced.  «He started with four hearts to the king-jack and wants me to put up dummy’s queen to prevent East from gaining the lead. I can play dummy’s ten of hearts with confidence, thanks to your valuable lesson!»


(While I didn’t tell you that this was a quiz, your table presence should have discerned it from the fact that no full deals were shown.) «This lesson is just starting,» the G.E. barked, much to the amusement of various passersby.

«You’ve been so busy worrying about table presence that you’ve forgotten how to play bridge!

In four hearts here:

your play would lose the board,» the G.E. announced coldly. «The declarer at the other table dropped the heart jack, making five.»

«I object,» I said bitterly. «The Principle of Restricted Choice has apparently been repealed.»

«You failed to note,» the G.E. replied, «that your line couldn’t possibly have made five. Say East, who has shown three spades, holds:

 J 8 6   J 6 5 4    J 9 8   6 5 4

I studied the set-up glumly and was forced to concede that the G.E. was correct. His next comments penetrated my morose reflections.

«On the second deal, East was one step ahead of you. His concealed heart is the nine. If you were playing bridge, not E.S.P., you’d have noted that after East showed up with the spade king, West would not have had an opening bid without the king of hearts.»

I didn’t need to ask about the third case, for I knew I’d be quickly enlightened. I was not disappointed. The G.E. handed me the book he had been reading when I walked in, and I saw that the complete layout was:

«When you play the heart ace, West, who is quite adept at counting the missing high-card points, unblocks the king. Now try to take nine tricks.

«This deal was presented in the book, and in a recent newspaper column, as a triumph for the powers of West’s reasoning. I’ve changed the bidding to emphasize the point that declarer was actually asleep at the switch.»

«I see,» I said. «I should lead a low heart at trick four, and put up dummy’s queen if West ducks. Then, I can safely lose a heart trick to West by leading the second round from dummy. This may lose if East started with a low singleton, but it’s the best percentage play.»

«Close, but no cigar,» the G.E. shot back. «Give yourself the full chance by leading a diamond at trick four. If the diamond ten comes down quickly, you need only two heart tricks for game, and nothing West can do will hurt you. But if you go after hearts first, West may have the diamond ace as an entry to his two heart winners. Then, even if the diamond ten does drop on the third round, you won’t have time to cash your long diamond. If West holds up the diamond ace twice, you can always fall back on the heart suit as a last resort.»

«At least I had company on this one,» I said, thinking of the book’s author and the newspaper columnist. As the G.E. got up to leave, a thought occurred to me. «That East player on the second problem was pretty unethical and should be barred from bridge for life,» I complained. «Who was it?»

«I said at the beginning that I would teach you a lesson, didn’t I?» said the G.E. with a frigid smile. «That deal never took place. I made it up just for you.»


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