Even the Odds

Somebody Else’s Ears Get Pinned Back . . . Or Getting Even with the Odds

“Too many people play too well these days,” the Rueful Rabbit told me in confidence as we drove back together from the club, “and good play can boomerang, you know. If everyone always does the right thing, everyone else knows what it’s going to be. And in chess, there’s a gambit for every move — or is it the other way? Whichever it is, the less expert player has an advantage.

“Now take me. How can anyone counter my moves when even I don’t know where I’m going or what I’m doing? I make mistakes, but nobody knows which mistakes, do they? So they defend in the dark.”

These philosophic reflections were prompted by a hand which came up during the last rubber of the afternoon. Timothy the Toucan was Rueful Rabbit’s partner.

Dlr: South ♠ Q 10 5
Vul: All 3
A K Q J 10 8 7
♣ 6 4
♠ J 9 7 ♠ K 4 3 2
A J 10 9 4 2
2 9 6 5 4 3
♣ Q 10 9 3 2 ♣ 8 5
♠ A 8 6
K Q 8 7 6 5
♣ A K J 7
1 Pass 2 Pass
3♣ Pass 4 Pass
4 Pass 5 Pass
5♠ Pass 6 Pass
6 Dbl 6♠ Dbl
6NT Dbl 7 Dbl
7NT Dbl All Pass

There was nothing noteworthy about the first three rounds of bidding. Then came Rabbit’s 5♠ call, a “waiting bid” as he explained later — waiting for something to turn up. After all, would the Toucan go on bidding diamonds forever? The Rabbit freely admitted there was a case for passing 6 — with the Hog as a partner he would have passed without hesitation. But with Timothy — that was different. The Rueful one had the natural urge of the strong to protect the weak, and it went against the grain to leave that poor toucan in 6 facing a trumpless dummy.

With Papa doubling in a voice of thunder and with even Karapet looking as if he meant it, the last two rounds of bidding were motivated by panic rather than science. It became a question of choosing the cheapest contract not the best.

Coolly Papa surveyed the scene. With a four-figure penalty in prospect, his one concern was to find the most lethal lead. A diamond was too passive. A heart was out of the question, that being declarer’s six or seven card suit. So it had to be a club or a spade. Karapet had double 6♠ — presumably a cuebid showing second round control — so Papa led the ♠7.

It was R.R.’s custom to play quickly to the first trick and to meditate later — or not at all. So he promptly inserted dummy’s ♠10, captured Karapet’s king with his ace and began to count his tricks. The total came to 11, so at worst the deal would cost 500, a much better result than seemed likely during the cross-fire of machine gun doubles.

Going over to the dummy with a spade, Papa’s jack falling to the queen, the Rabbit hastened to release that avalanche of luscious diamonds. On the first five, he threw hearts, while Papa discarded the J and 9, followed by the ♣10 and ♣3, to help Karapet. The Armenian reciprocated by discarding the 4 on dummy’s next to last diamond, starting to give the Greek a count of the hearts. The Rabbit shed his last heart, retaining a spade and four clubs. Papa blanked his A.

As the last of the diamonds was called, this was the five-card end position:

Dlr: South ♠ 5
Vul: All 3
♣ 6 4
♠ 9 ♠ 4 3
A 2
♣ Q 9 2 ♣ 8 5
♠ 8
♣ A K J 7

Karapet followed through with the 2, the Rabbit tossed his spade and Papa(!) — what was he to play?

The cold, calculated discard of the 4 by East on the previous trick had exposed Papa to a deadly three-suit squeeze, and he was now looking at Karapet as Prometheus must have looked at the eagle pecking away at his liver. Fortunately the Rabbit didn’t know and wasn’t likely to guess that the lowly 3 could be a threat to anyone. So, trying to look unperturbed, Papa parted with his A.

The Rabbit wasn’t impressed. He has seen people throw aces and kings before, retaining less conspicuous winners for use later, and he didn’t doubt for a moment that Papa still had a best heart. Suddenly he had a brainwave and his ears tingled with excitement. Instead of going two down, which once seemed such an attractive prospect, he would do as the experts do — throw a loser on a loser and endplay Papa, forcing him to lead a club away from his queen. That way he would only go down one, a truly remarkable achievement on so tragic a misfit.

The 3 was the ideal throw-in card, and never was the Rabbit happier to lose a trick.

It took him a little while to realize that the 3 had held the trick, and he barely noticed Papa’s ♠9. For a moment he was tempted to cash the ♣A-K and call it a day. It was an unworthy impulse and he quickly suppressed it, for there was now a chance of actually making the contract. It came down to what pundits call a percentage play. There were two chances. The club finesse might work or the ♠5 might be good. Since Papa had thrown all his hearts, he was clearly guarding something and what could it be but the ♣Q? So the finesse was unlikely to succeed and the little spade was, on balance, the better chance.

“It pays to play with the odds,” cried the Rabbit exultantly when the ♠5 held.

“Why did you throw that four of hearts, the key to the whole hand?” fumed Papa, snarling at Karapet. “What’s the use of complaining about your luck when you wantonly discard your winners?”

“When you play with me, Papa” rejoined the Armenian, shaking his head sorrowfully, “please don’t double 7NT just because you have an ace — especially if you don’t intend to lead it.”