Choked by the smother play

May 15, 1966

Despite the frequency with which the occurrence is reported in the press, the odds are that a hand in which each player comes up with a complete 13-card suit will happen once in 2,235,197,406,895,366,368,301,559,999 deals—a number so large that bridge players with the maximum exposure to the game know they will never see one even if they spend every day at the Cavendish Club from now until 2066. Yet tournament players did see a real oddity turn up during the Spring Nationals in Louisville. It would seem at first glance to be far less exciting than a perfect hand, yet I would venture to say that the odds on the combination of circumstances it entailed would be at least as great.

Nobody but nobody these days plays a hand in a contract of one club. In many social games a hand on which nobody bids higher than one of anything is often thrown in—a practice that is not legal, of course, but does enliven the game. In a tournament the chance that everybody will pass your one-club opening is shaved to a microscopic figure because your right-hand opponent is very unlikely to sell out to such a bid.

What happened in the Men's Team event in Louisville was a combination of a one-club contract with the rarest coup in bridge, one so rare that for many years it was known only as a problem hand and no one had actually seen it at the table. It is called a smother play and involves the strange situation in which a player with a seemingly sure trump trick is unable to make it good. This freakish set of circumstances occurred in the hand at right.

South, Paul Portnoy of St. Louis, opened with a slightly irregular one club. The book bid is one heart. Many players who detest opening four-card majors would bid one diamond. One no trump—an underbid—is worth a thought but might cause trouble in different circumstances. Not a few experts would prefer the club call since it gives partner the cheapest opportunity to bid and is the least likely bid to be passed out. Likewise, not a few players holding the North hand would have given a courtesy diamond response, even though North is indeed a point shy of the usual requirements. In this case, however. North passed. East must have paused for a moment, but he simply had too little to risk a vulnerable reopening bid. So one club was the contract, and West opened the 7 of diamonds.

Declarer won the first trick with dummy's diamond queen in order to finesse the queen of hearts. This lost to West's king, and West continued with a diamond. South won, cashed his ace of hearts and trumped a heart in dummy. A low spade to South's queen was taken by West's ace, and West got out with a spade, won in dummy with the king. Declarer trumped dummy's remaining spade and led his fourth heart, trying for another ruff in dummy. However, West ruffed with the queen of clubs. West got out with a trump, won by East's ace, and East returned a third diamond, ruffed by West. The situation is shown below.

N

[— of Spades]
[— of Hearts]
[— of Diamonds]
[9 of Clubs]
[8 of Clubs]

W

[9 of Spades]
[6 of Spades]
[— of Hearts]
[— of Diamonds]
[— of Clubs]

S

[— of Spades]
[— of Hearts]
[6 of Diamonds]
[King of Clubs]

E

[— of Spades]
[— of Hearts]
[— of Diamonds]
[10 of Clubs]
[2 of Clubs]

Obviously, East's 10 of trumps was a trick because South's king was blank. But it was West's lead and he was caught in a smother coup. West had to lead a spade, North ruffed with the 8, and East's "sure" trump trick vanished. If East overruffed, South would top the 10 with the king and North's 9 would win the last trick. If East underruffed, South would discard the 6 of diamonds and win the last trick with the king of clubs.

Helped by this play, declarer made an overtrick, scoring a plus of 90 points instead of only 70, but still lost the board—at the other table two no trump was made, scoring 120. The freak hands and the slams will continue to get the headlines, but for my choice, this deal, played at the lowest contract in the game, is every bit as interesting and as rare.

Both sides vulnerable South dealer

NORTH

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

WEST

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

SOUTH

[Queen of Spades]
[2 of Spades]
[Ace of Hearts]
[Queen of Hearts]
[8 of Hearts]
[4 of Hearts]
[Ace of Diamonds]
[King of Diamonds]
[6 of Diamonds]
[4 of Diamonds]
[King of Clubs]
[Jack of Clubs]
[3 of Clubs]

EAST

[Jack of Spades]
[8 of Spades]
[7 of Spades]
[10 of Hearts]
[6 of Hearts]
[5 of Hearts]
[2 of Hearts]
[Jack of Diamonds]
[10 of Diamonds]
[9 of Diamonds]
[Ace of Clubs]
[10 of Clubs]
[2 of Clubs]

SOUTH

1 [Club]

WEST

PASS

NORTH

PASS

EAST

PASS

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)