Meet my partner

November 03, 1958

Not long ago, about halfway through one of our less successful sessions, my most frequent and most favorite bridge partner chirped: "That's one hand we'll never see in SPORTS ILLUSTRATED." It gave me an idea.

For today I turn the podium over to her. She is, of course, Helen Sobel, acknowledged by all to be the greatest woman player of all time and, in my book, that puts her right at the top of all players, regardless of sex. Now may I introduce: my partner.

My friend Charlie Goren is a persuasive salesman. When he invited me to be his guest in this column, he didn't try to convince me that I was a great writer with a deathless message. He just said: "Helen, you know the questions people always ask? Answer them in print just once, and think of all the breath you'll save."

I really don't mind answering questions. I am in favor of crossword puzzles, conversation, dancing and many other social activities. It's just that the questions are so often the same. In bridge, at least, there are some 63 billion different hands, so they say.

The last three words are not purely feminine skepticism. Mathematics—not one of my best subjects—I think is an overrated science. This isn't part of my supposed pose as a feather-brained blonde. But I am like the little girl in a public school whose teacher asked, "Does anyone know about multiplication?" A sea of blank faces caused her to add: "You know, like four times four." "Oh, yes," responded the daughter of a bridge-playing family. "That's 16, the point count for four aces."

(All right, Mr. G., I'll leave the gags to you and get down to answering the questions. If this column turns out badly, you don't have to invite me again. But stay over on your side of the table and let me play this one for myself, the way you do in a bridge tournament.)

There, by the way, is part of the answer to one of the most frequent questions: "What makes ours such a good partnership?" We respect each other's game. We have a good partnership because we like to play together; because we have been playing as partners for a long time; because neither of us plays "fancy."

How good are women players?

Drumbeaters for masculine superiority point to the great number of men and the comparatively few women among the top-ranked life masters. This is about as logical as Moran's explanation to Mack (or maybe it was Mack's to Moran) of why black horses eat more than white horses. Sure there are more black horses—but that doesn't mean they can run faster.

The really good players among the women are just as good, I think, as the best of the men players. There just aren't as many of them—which may prove my point. Most women have more sense than to try to be the world's greatest bridge players.

What skill is the most important in bridge?

Bridge is a many-faceted game. Which is more important: bidding or play? Accuracy or brilliance? Fooling the opponents or fathoming their attempts to fool you? Some great players will be stronger at one than another; none has any real weakness. But, as you know, bridge is a partnership game so perhaps the most important skill is being a good partner. For me, at least, no partner can compare with Charles H. Goren. What makes him a great partner? Let me tell you about one of the countless hands we have played together.

You certainly can't blame Charlie for staying out of the bidding with that enormous West hand, despite the fact that he did hold a minor honor in clubs.

If you were sitting in his chair, which deuce would you have played on my second high heart, and which on the third? Players unhappily endowed with so many low cards are often careless of how they play them, but Charlie used all four of his deuces to best advantage.

When I cashed a second trick in hearts he discarded the club deuce. But when I cashed the third high heart he did not make the mistake of discarding the diamond deuce. That would have told me not to lead either clubs or diamonds and I would have played a fourth heart, hoping to establish a trump trick for West if he held three to the jack. But West did not have a trump to beat dummy's 10. South would have discarded a diamond and the hand would make.

Charlie took me off that spot. He trumped the third heart with the deuce of spades in order to return the deuce of diamonds. Declarer couldn't avoid losing to my diamond king and the ace of clubs. Spectacular? Perhaps not, now that you've read about it. But when you can save your partner from any chance of making a mistake it's a perfect example of being a good partner.

What do I get out of bridge?
An intellectual challenge. The thrill of excelling. Fun. An opportunity to travel and meet people I might otherwise never have enjoyed. Budapest in 1937 as a member of Ely Culbertson's team; Ireland, Monte Carlo, Paris, Jamaica and Rio—where I became the first and perhaps the only woman admitted to the Jockey Club. (They love their bridge in Brazil.)

Which is the strongest part of my game?

Maybe someone else ought to answer that, but I have my own ideas. One does best what one likes best. Or maybe it's vice versa. Anyway my preference is playing as declarer.

Bidding and defensive play are both like being in the chorus—you have to make every move in concert with a partner, who may take command. But there's a sense of freedom from constraint that comes when partner puts down the dummy, and from that point on it's up to you.

Which is my favorite hand?

It would have to be one I played as declarer, of course. Among those I remember fondly is this one which, coincidentally, also involves a hand where West held four deuces.

I won the first trick with the ace of clubs and took inventory. East had opened the bidding, so he must have the ace-king of spades and the king of hearts. The only high card West could hold was the queen of diamonds—but East might have it, as well. Unless I overtook the queen of clubs with dummy's king, thereby unguarding the club suit, I could get to dummy only once, with the ace of diamonds. So I couldn't lead up to my spades twice—and besides, I might need dummy's ace of diamonds in order to take a diamond finesse.

Suddenly a light dawned. Though he held an entry-poor hand, West had refrained from leading his partner's suit. He must have either none or a singleton. Also, he opened the deuce of clubs, showing a four-card suit. Why didn't he open from a five-card suit? Because he didn't have one! Then his 13 cards must be divided 4-4-4-1. In that case, he held four spades. And since East had to have the ace-king of spades for his opening bid, it was as certain as if I had looked into his hand that he held the ace-king alone.

So, I led a low spade from my hand. The king of spades fell, the kibitzers oohed and I wound up making four no trump for a top score on the board!

Do kibitzers make me nervous?
No, indeed. But sometimes they make me cross. How? By putting a foot on my chair. By breathing down my neck. And, sometimes—in the middle of a hand, for example—by asking me questions like these I've just answered.

PHOTOMRS. SOBEL IS KIBITZED BY GOREN

East-West vulnerable East dealer

NORTH

[10 of Spades]
[9 of Spades]
[7 of Spades]
[6 of Spades]
[Queen of Hearts]
[8 of Hearts]
[4 of Hearts]
[King of Clubs]
[Queen of Clubs]
[Jack of Clubs]
[Ace of Diamonds]
[9 of Diamonds]
[6 of Diamonds]

WEST

[8 of Spades]
[4 of Spades]
[3 of Spades]
[2 of Spades]
[2 of Hearts]
[10 of Clubs]
[5 of Clubs]
[4 of Clubs]
[3 of Clubs]
[2 of Clubs]
[7 of Diamonds]
[4 of Diamonds]
[2 of Diamonds]

SOUTH

[Ace of Spades]
[King of Spades]
[Queen of Spades]
[Jack of Spades]
[5 of Spades]
[9 of Hearts]
[6 of Hearts]
[3 of Hearts]
[7 of Clubs]
[6 of Clubs]
[Queen of Diamonds]
[10 of Diamonds]
[5 of Diamonds]

EAST

[Ace of Hearts]
[King of Hearts]
[Jack of Hearts]
[10 of Hearts]
[7 of Hearts]
[5 of Hearts]
[Ace of Clubs]
[9 of Clubs]
[8 of Clubs]
[King of Diamonds]
[Jack of Diamonds]
[8 of Diamonds]
[3 of Diamonds]

EAST

1 [Heart]
DOUBLE
PASS

SOUTH

1 [Spade]
3 [Spade]

WEST

PASS
PASS

NORTH

2 [Spade]
PASS

Opening lead: heart 2

Both sides vulnerable East dealer

NORTH

[8 of Spades]
[5 of Spades]
[10 of Hearts]
[7 of Hearts]
[4 of Hearts]
[3 of Hearts]
[Ace of Diamonds]
[9 of Diamonds]
[6 of Diamonds]
[3 of Diamonds]
[King of Clubs]
[5 of Clubs]
[4 of Clubs]

WEST

[10 of Spades]
[9 of Spades]
[4 of Spades]
[2 of Spades]
[2 of Hearts]
[Queen of Diamonds]
[8 of Diamonds]
[5 of Diamonds]
[2 of Diamonds]
[10 of Clubs]
[8 of Clubs]
[7 of Clubs]
[2 of Clubs]

SOUTH (ME)

[Queen of Spades]
[Jack of Spades]
[7 of Spades]
[6 of Spades]
[3 of Spades]
[Ace of Hearts]
[Queen of Hearts]
[5 of Hearts]
[King of Diamonds]
[Jack of Diamonds]
[7 of Diamonds]
[Ace of Clubs]
[Queen of Clubs]

EAST

[Ace of Spades]
[King of Spades]
[King of Hearts]
[Jack of Hearts]
[9 of Hearts]
[8 of Hearts]
[6 of Hearts]
[10 of Diamonds]
[4 of Diamonds]
[Jack of Clubs]
[9 of Clubs]
[6 of Clubs]
[3 of Clubs]

EAST

1 [Heart]
PASS
PASS

SOUTH

DOUBLE
2 N.T.
PASS

WEST

PASS
PASS
PASS

NORTH

2 [Diamond]
3 N.T.

Opening lead: club 2

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)