In Their Own Words

Upside Down Defensive Signals

by Alfred Sheinwold

Every experienced bridge player knows that a high card played by a defender is often an “encouraging” signal, and that a low card is “discouraging.” Sometimes the player can confirm his signal with a second card; high and then low is unmistakably encouraging; low and then high is unmistakably discouraging.

The purpose of this article is to suggest that you turn your signals upside down. If you adopt this suggestion, you will use a high card to discourage your partner and a low card to encourage him. In the case of a completed (two-card) signal, a low card followed by a high card is a “come-on;” a high card followed by a low card is a “stay-away.”

When Edgar Kaplan and I began to use this signaling method a few months ago in ACBL tournaments, we wrote “upside down defensive signals” on our scorecard and explained the general idea to each set of opponents. About half of these opponents raised their eyebrows silently and rolled their eyes heavenward to indicate the futility of discussing serious bridge with such heretics. The other half gave us the benefit of their wisdom in such instructive phrases as “Anything to be different,” or “Why don’t you fellows cut it out.”

We expected this reaction, of course, and in many cases we were able to reply in short phrases consisting of very short words. A different kind of explanation is suitable, however, for a family magazine like THE BRIDGE WORLD.

We have no pride of authorship, for the idea was first developed (as far as we know) by Karl Schneider, the veteran Austrian bridge star. Schneider discussed his idea with Sam Stayman this spring at the international tournament in Juan les Pins, adding that he had been playing it for five or six years with his favorite partners.

Stayman mentioned it to Kaplan at our own Summer National, and he gave the method its American debut in a one-session game with Dick Kahn. Kaplan suggested it to me, and we tried it since we both enjoy novelties. The method is, however, well past the novelty stage and quite ready for recommendation to the American bridge public.

The chief reason for suggesting a change in the orthodox signaling method is that sometimes you can’t spare a high card for an encouraging signal. Every experienced player is, of course, familiar with this situation, but the following hand may serve as a reminder:

♠ 10 7 6 3
10 6
Q 10 9 6 3
♣ A 8
♠ J 5
J 4 3
A 7 2
♣ 10 7 6 4 3
♠ K Q 9 2
A 8 7 5 2
8 4
♣ 5 2
♠ A 8 4
K Q 9
K J 5
♣ K Q J 9
South West North East
1♣ Pass 1 Pass
2NT Pass 3NT All Pass

When this hand was dealt in a pair event, most tables got to three notrump by some such route as the one shown. Several declarers got a heart opening lead and had no trouble in winning eleven tricks.

At three tables, West opened the jack of spades. In each case, East had to follow suit with the deuce, not being able to afford the encouraging nine. Each declarer won with the ace of spades, since a holdup would have let the cat out of the bag.

At each table, South next led the king of diamonds, taken by West’s ace. In two cases, West then despairingly shifted to a low heart. East took the ace of hearts and two spades, holding South to nine tricks. This was a fine result, to be sure, but not good enough.

I was one of the foolish Wests who opened the jack of spades in the hope of finding partner’s long suit. Kaplan’s deuce of spades was an encouraging signal, and South couldn’t conceal the situation by winning immediately with the ace of spades.

South led the king of diamonds next, and it was easy for me to take the ace of diamonds and lead my remaining spade. Kaplan took three spade tricks and the ace of hearts to defeat the contract.

The difference between top and a tie for second was only 1 ½ matchpoints, to be sure. At total points, the swing would have been at least 700 points, which is no trifle.

What would have happened if my spade opening had struck some nondescript holding in the East hand? Exchange the North and East spades, for example. Holding 10-7-6-3, Kaplan would have played the discouraging seven.

The point is that you can almost invariably afford a high card if you’re not interested in the suit. If you can’t spare the high card, you usually want the suit continued.

The upside down signal is used, likewise, against suit contracts. It’s just as easy to signal a doubleton 7-2 with the deuce first and then the seven as the other way around. (A singleton deuce becomes a come-on, which is sometimes helpful; but this is counterbalanced by the singleton eight, which is discouraging. Such singletons tend to offset each other.)

The second advantage of the upside down signal is that it’s harder for declarer to false-card against. For example:

♠ 10 8 5
Q J 8
K 10
♣ A Q J 7 6
♠ A K J 7
7 4
Q 9 8 3
♣ 5 4 3
♠ 9 6 3
6 5 2
7 6 5 4 2
♣ K 9
♠ Q 4 2
A K 10 9 3
♣ 10 8 2
South West North East
1 Pass 2♠ Pass
2 Pass 4 All Pass

At both tables of a team match, West opened the king of spades against the game contract in hearts. At one table, East played the normal three of spades. South casually played the four of spades.

West observed that the deuce of spades hadn’t appeared. Perhaps East had Q-3-2; or perhaps South was false-carding. West looked anxiously at the threatening clubs in the dummy and thought about overtricks, which were important at board-a-match team play. So he continued with the ace of spades, thus giving South the contract.

At the other table, Ralph Hirschberg and Edgar Kaplan were defending with upside down signals. Hirschberg, East, played the nine of spades at the first trick to discourage a continuation.

Just try to give declarer a combination of cards with which he can successfully false-card against the nine!

When you don’t want your partner to continue, you usually have an unwanted nine or eight that you can spare as a signal. Such a card will have no trick-winning value, but as a signal it has the great virtue of absolute clarity. Experiment with various holdings, and you will soon see that the upside down signal is often clearer than the normal signal, and that it is far safer against declarer’s false-card.

When Hirschberg signaled discouragement with the nine of spades, to return to the actual hand, Kaplan looked warily at the dummy’s clubs but reflected that Hirschberg had seen them likewise. Ralph wouldn’t have asked for a shift unless he had a fast trick in clubs or trumps, so Kaplan shifted to a club.

Declarer took the finesse, losing to the king. Now a spade return defeated the contract.

A third advantage of the upside down signal is that a one-card signal in the middle of a hand is often clearer than if normal signals are used.

♠ 7 4
A 3 2
K Q 10 9
♣ 9 5 3 2
♠ Q J 6
Q 10 6 5
A 6 5 4
♣ 5K J
♠ K 9 8 5 2
9 8 7
8 2
♣ 10 8 7
♠ A 10 3
K J 4
J 7 3
♣ A Q 6 4
East South West North
Pass 1♠ Pass 1
Pass 1NT All Pass

Leonard Harmon opened the queen of spades from the West hand, and I signaled encouragement by playing the deuce of spades from the East hand. This was not an important play, of course, since the normal signal of the nine of spades would serve every bit as well.

In this situation, any signal or no signal at all comes to the same thing. South is virtually marked with two or three spades – not a singleton, since he has bid notrump and not four, since he has failed to bid the suit at the comfortable level of one. Hence West knows that East has five or six spades, and there is no need for special signals.

At any rate, South held up his ace until the third round of spades. He then led a low diamond to dummy’s king, and I began a distributional echo by playing the eight.

This is an important point. The signal to encourage or discourage has nothing to do with the signal that shows an odd or even number of cards. It likewise has nothing to do with the trump echo. It doesn’t matter whether you use normal signals or upside down signals for encouragement, you will still high-low in certain situations to show that you have two or four cards in the suit.

Harmon naturally wanted to reach my hand so that I could cash the rest of my spades. He decided to hold up until the third round of diamonds in the hope that I could give him a signal on the third round.

How would you like to play a discouraging card from the 9-8-7 of hearts if you’re using normal signals? If you play the seven, your partner may play you for the K-7-4. This gives declarer a very anemic opening bid, to be sure, but it isn’t at all impossible that South has opened with
♠A 10 3 J 9 8  J 7 3  ♣A Q 10 8

In our case, there was no possibility of error. I could signal discouragement with the nine of hearts.

Harmon had been expecting this signal, as a matter of fact. He would expect me to reopen the bidding if I had five spades to the king and a side king. All the same, the signal made his course clear. He returned his last diamond, allowing declarer to develop the hand by himself.

South could have done well at double-dummy, but Harmon and I keep our cards well away from roving eyes. Declarer rather naturally tried the club finesse, losing to the king. Harmon returned the jack of clubs, and South took the ace and got out with a low club. This put me in with the ten of clubs, somewhat to my surprise, and allowed me to cash a spade. (I had discarded one spade on the last diamond, in the effort to avoid giving declarer a complete reading on the hand.)

We thus held South to seven tricks, for a score of 90 points. It turned out to be an important overtrick that we had saved, since at the other table (of a board-a-match team game) the East player reopened the bidding with two spades and went down one trick for a loss of 100 points.

To sum up, these are the advantages of the upside down signal:

  • It works when you can’t spare a high card;
  • It is harder for declarer to false-card against;
  • It often provides a clear one-card signal in the middle of a hand.

If you like the idea, don’t try it in a pivot game of rubber bridge. Save it for tournament play with your favorite (flexible-minded) partner. And don’t forget to write it down on your convention card.

(reprinted from The Bridge World – Oct. 1954)

About Alfred Sheinwold

Alfred (Freddie) Sheinwold (1912-1997) was one of the world’s foremost bridge columnists, authors and analysts. He is best known for a writing career that spans nearly seven decades. Sheinwold, a member of the ACBL Bridge Hall of Fame, served as the chairman of the ACBL Laws Commission and of the Appeals Committee at NABCs. He was chairman of the ACBL Board of Governors in the early Seventies and was named ACBL Honorary Member in 1983. Of Sheinwold’s many popular books, the most successful, 5 Weeks to Winning Bridge, has gone through many editions and sold more than a million copies. He was a story teller and raconteur without peer. A real audience pleaser, Sheinwold had an amazing memory and an endless file of entertaining talks and anecdotes. During World War II, he was chief code and cipher expert of the Office of Strategic Services. For a decade in the Forties and fifties he was a singer with the Cantata Singers. Sheinwold was a top-ranked player until he retired from competition. Sheinwold’s partnership, friendship and collaboration with Edgar Kaplan is legendary. The two co-invented the Kaplan-Sheinwold system, which features the weak notrump and other features still widely played in tournament bridge.