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Would You Rather be Lucky or Good?
By: Fred Gitelman

Originally Published in Canadian Master Point, September, 1993

If you want to learn to win at bridge you must also learn to lose. Bridge is a probabilistic game. No matter how well you play the game, the cards will eventually catch up with you.

You and your partner bid a good slam not reached by the other team. Trumps are 4-0 however, and you lose 13 IMPS instead of gaining 13. You lose the match. Unlucky for you. 90% of the time you would have won the match, but today is in that other 10%. Is virtue its own reward? What is more important to you, bidding to the right contract or winning the match?

The following hand from the fourth quarter of a Spingold match from the Summer Nationals provoked these questions:


1NT showed 15-17. Sheri Winestock's next 5 bids were relays, asking me more about my hand. I showed 2353 distribution, 5 controls (Aces are 2, Kings are 1) and the K and no other Kings. Sheri knew that I had the other 2 Aces and either the Q or the Q to make up 15 points. Six diamonds had to be an excellent contract. And so it proved to be. Trumps were 4-0 however, and the slam failed. We lost the match by 11 IMPs. Had the slam made we would have won the match as the other team bid to 4.

Bob Hamman is perhaps the greatest player in the game today. He is certainly the greatest winner. After the match we had the opportunity to ask him over a (stiff) drink if he would have rather bid 6 and lost or not bid 6 and won. "A good slam is a slam that makes," said Hamman. "Winning is all that matters." At first glance, this point of view seems philosophically unappealing, but it is very practical. Sometimes you will be lucky, sometimes you will be unlucky. It all evens out in the long run. If you want to be a winner, you better start thinking like Hamman. Do not dwell on results like the one I am about to dwell on:


This hand is from the second last match of the round robin of the 1993 Canadian National Teams Championship (CNTC). My team was desperately fighting to hold on to a qualifying position while the opponents (Mike Cafferata-Mike Kenny, Mary Paul-Dave Colbert, Michael Roche-Chris Hough) were in a more comfortable position. We lost the match handily. We subsequently failed to qualify and the Cafferata team went on to win the event. The above hand was critical in our loss.

Geoff Hampson and I arrived in 6, a difficult slam to reach that was not bid at the other table. If Mary Paul had led a pedestrian Q the slam is practically a claim. Win the A, draw trump, cash the K and A, and duck a club to RHO. RHO is endplayed, forced to give up a trick in spades or clubs or to yield a ruff and discard.

Our auction revealed that a diamond lead was unlikely to help so Mary turned her attention to clubs. Imagine for a moment that Mary had led a pedestrian 7. I might have decided that both club honours were offside and played as follows: duck the first trick to Dave, win the diamond or spade return in my hand and play all but one of my trumps:


On a diamond to the A, Dave is trump-squeezed. A spade discard would allow me to ruff out the Q using the A as a re-entry. A club discard would allow me to cash the A and claim without even needing the K.

Well, Mary Paul is no pedestrian (and she is certainly not immaterial regardless of what the above diagram claims). Mary and Dave systemically lead low from worthless doubletons. Mary's 2 lead gave me no reason to think that she could not have a club honour. I finessed at trick one and, after drawing trump and testing spades, finessed again later. Down one.

It didn't matter that we reached a better contract than the Cafferata team on this deal. We were both good teams. Either one of us could have won on a given day. This was their day. In the entire match Mary and Dave did not drop a single trick in the play or defense. Their judgement in the bidding was right every time. They were playing with the confidence that they knew they were going to win. Congratulations to the whole team!

My last sad story is the saddest of all. This hand was the very last deal in the 1993 Maccabiah Games for Team Canada (Fred Gitelman-Geoff Hampson, George Mittelman-Robert Lebi, Irving Litvack-Joey Silver). Canada did very well in the round robin and faced the home team Israelis in a 48 board semi-final. Canada started with a 17 IMP carryover. We added 2 more in the first 16 boards, but lost 31 back in the next 16 to trail by 12 IMPs with 16 boards to play. The match ended in a tie. There would be an 8 board playoff to decide the match.

The first five boards were flat. On the sixth board, Israel bid aggressively to a vulnerable 3NT, found a miraculous lie of the cards (playing for Israel has its advantages) and made it. Robert and George properly played in a partscore and we lost 13 IMPs. On the seventh board, the Israelis overbid to another vulnerable game. There was no miracle this time as the contract went down two. Our team won 8 IMPs back when Geoff and I stopped in a partscore. We trailed by 5 going into the last board. On the last board, Geoff and I bid:


Our bidding was very aggressive and 3NT is a ridiculous contract. We needed to bid game, however, to have a chance to win the match (1 was passed out at the other table and Israel scored +130). If I made 3NT we would win the match and if I went down we would lose. I was favoured with the 2 (attitude) lead around to my K. Six rounds of diamonds followed. LHO discarded a small heart, the J, a spade and a club. RHO discarded a small heart, the 10 and 2 spades. I continued a spade. LHO followed and RHO won. A low club was returned. Do you play the K or J?

I had the good fortune to be in this position. I knew that if I guessed right we would win and if I guessed wrong we would lose. How absurd, I thought, that our ultimate fate in this event should come down to a guess at trick nine of the last board!

Was it a guess? It appeared that LHO had begun with 4 or 5 hearts to the Ace-Jack. If he had 5 hearts and the A he would have overcalled 1. Thus, if LHO had 5 hearts it is right to play the K. Unfortunately, I thought of what seemed a stronger reason for playing the J. Clubs were the unbid suit and seemed like the obvious suit for the defense to lead on our auction. In fact the contract would have no play on a club lead. The only reason I could think of for LHO not to lead a club was that he had the A. He was afraid of giving me my ninth trick since I was marked with the K. I thus played the J, lost to the Q and lost the match. LHO started with 4 clubs to the Queen-Ten and 5 hearts to the Ace-Jack. I don't know about you, but I would have led a club from that hand. I guess the lesson of all of this is that whoever wins any given bridge tournament is not necessarily the one who plays best. The lie of the cards often contributes as much towards who will win as does the skill of the participants. Be grateful for your luck when you get it, but do not get too depressed when you don't. Luck does eventually even out. The nature of bridge is that everybody always has a chance to win. The better you play, the more often it will happen to you.

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