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A Star is Born
By: Fred Gitelman

Originally Published in Canadian Master Point, June, 1992

Remember this name: Peter Peng. You will be hearing it alot.

Peter, from Toronto, is not one of Canada's better known bridge players - yet. Peter has everything it takes to be one of the best. He has a terrific mind for the game, excellent concentration, and a great deal of natural ability. Equally important, Peter's temperament is very good. Peter enjoys playing against top players. He takes bad results in stride and doesn't let them affect his play on subsequent boards. Perhaps Peter's greatest gift as a bridge player is that he is very eager to learn and is an excellent listener.

The one important area that Peter is lacking in is his experience in top level competition. We are working on that. On April 28, Peter and I played a practice IMP match at the Regal Bridge Club against two teams bound for the CNTC National final in Ottawa. Our teammates were Geoff Hampson and Duncan McCallum (Duncan is Peter's regular partner). Early in one of the matches I held:

Peter was the dealer and nobody was vulnerable. To my surprise, he opened 1 (our no trump range is 14-16). Right hand opponent preempted to 3. 4 by me seemed like the obvious bid. However, there were several problems with making this obvious bid. Peter, lacking the six top trumps, probably would not be eager to cooperate in the search for slam. Also, if he did cuebid, I would still be guessing as to how to proceed. Finally, 3NT could easily be our only making game and it is hard to bid 3NT over 4.

I eventually decided to make a negative double. This is not as crazy as it may appear. Most mainstream players in this sequence would not double without at least 4-4 in the majors. I obviously feel that the negative double should have less shape requirements as long as you feel you can handle any action by your partner. I could not think of a hand for Peter consistent with our style and the auction with which he would leave the double in.

LHO passed (thank you) and Peter bid 3, implying the balanced minimum that I thought he probably had. I now guessed to bid 5 (4 is non-forcing, 4 invites disaster, and I thought 4 was too big a position). Peter didn't look especially pleased with this development but he passed (partnership trust is another of his virtues). The K was led and I left the table to have a cigarette. Here is the problem from Peter's point of view, how would you play the hand?


When I came back from my smoke (about 5 minutes), Peter still had not played to trick one. Eventually Peter won the A, and ruffed a diamond. Ruffing a diamond was a good play for two reasons. It helped prepare for a possible elimination and it would make it easier to get a count on the hand. Peter next drew two rounds of trump (they broke 2-2) and took a losing heart finesse. LHO won the K and played a third round of diamonds, ruffed in dummy as RHO followed.

At this point Peter knew that LHO was probably either 3262 or 2362 (1462 and 4162 were possible but very unlikely for several reasons). 3262 is more likely than 2362 because the opponents have more spades than hearts. RHO certainly had the A, but the position of the J was a mystery.

Here are three possible lines of play from this point:

  1. Test hearts. If they break, claim. If not, play LHO for the J and finesse the 10.
  2. Test hearts. If they break, claim. If not, play RHO for the spade J. Ruff your last heart and play the K. RHO must win the A and lead a spade away from his hoped for J.
  3. Play the K immediately. RHO must win. If he returns a heart, win the J, cash the Q and run the trumps. If instead, RHO comes back a spade, win the Q and run the trumps. You will make the hand if hearts break, or if RHO has the heart length and the J (on a squeeze) or if LHO has Jx.

Which line is best? None of the above. I think Peter found the best (and least obvious) line which I will describe shortly. Surprisingly, the three lines of play described above all have exactly the same odds of success.

In comparing lines 1 and 2 the key question is who is more likely to have the J. After you test hearts and they don't break, LHO is known to have three spades to RHO's four. RHO thus seems more likely to have the J. This is an illusion, however, as one of RHO spades is already known (the A). Therefore, you are on a strict guess for the J and the two lines of play have an equal chance of success.

Now compare lines 2 and 3. Line 3 appears better. Both lines work when hearts break or when RHO has the J. Line 3 seems to give you the extra chance of LHO having Jx. This is also an illusion. If LHO has Jx, he is 2362 and hearts were always breaking. Thus lines 2 and 3 are exactly equivalent.

After the heart finesse lost and LHO returned a diamond, Peter ruffed in dummy and immediately cashed dummy's two remaining trumps. RHO (who had started with 4432) was forced to come down to Ax. Peter was now able to set up a second spade trick no matter who was originally dealt the J. Peter showed that my 10 was also an illusion. Notice that Peter's squeeze without the count would have succeeded (and would have been the only winning line) even if my 10 was a small spade.

It is true that Peter would have sometimes gone down by misreading the position when hearts were 3-3 all along. Peter's line would sometimes involve having to guess RHO's distribution. I personally would rather guess the defenders' shapes than have to guess the position of a random Jack, especially in these days of frequent (and excessive) count signals.

With the aid of a computer and four years of University math, it took me about 5 minutes to work out that Peter's line of play is slightly superior to lines 1, 2, and 3. I have been praising Peter's game extensively, but I don't think he is capable (yet) of doing calculations like these at the table (I only know of a handful of players in the world that are).

Peter should be applauded for picking the line of play with a 1.2% (or whatever) better chance of success. What really impressed me, however, was his careful consideration of the problem and his confidence in playing for a distribution that he thought existed. Peter's line of play was also certainly the most elegant.

One further point of interest: LHO would have probably defeated the contract by refusing to win the K! If the heart finesse wins, it seems right to ruff your last diamond, play a spade to the Q and a spade to the 10. RHO can cash two spades (if he has the J) but then he must lead a heart away from his assumed K or concede a ruff and discard.

At the other table, Duncan and Geoff played in 4X and went down two. The 3 IMPs we gained on this board was exactly our margin of victory in the match (we won the other match handily).

So remember, in ten years or so, when the name Peter Peng starts being heard in the company of Kehela, Murray, Kokish, Mittelman, Molson, and Baran, you read it here first!

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