Bridge across the Channel

To twist an old cliche, you can take a man away from bridge, but you can’t take the bridge away from the man. Five or so years ago I rejected the game at club level and above and could only be persuaded to join social rubbers where perhaps the quantity, if not the quality of the wine consumed was of  greater importance than either the bidding or the card play. It’s aptly called kitchen table bridge.

When I found myself in France literally round the corner from a bridge club, I found Denis, or rather he found me, and we played as partners twice a week for the next two months. The French play five-card majors and a 15-17 point no trump together with Stayman, transfers in the majors and Roman Blackwood. Similar, you might think to Standard American, but compare it to that at your peril. Standard French it is.

Les Carroz is in the Alps between Geneva and Chamonix and the bridge club meets twice a week in the winter and plays between 5-7 pm. Sometimes they might struggle to make up a table; at others there can be 20 or more. They meet more frequently in the summer.

Located in the first floor of a modern school, it is well equipped with plenty of tables and all the accessories necessary for a duplicate session. There is no table money; everything is totally free. Everyone is warmly welcomed with handshakes between the men and, once they know you, warm hugs from the ladies.

The use of bidding boxes avoids the need for fluent French, but it’s as well to be able to count and know the suits: pique, coeur, carreau and trèfle for spades, hearts, diamonds and clubs; no trumps are sans atout. The court cards are l’as, le roi, la dame and le valet for ace, king, queen and jack.

For those whose language is up to the mark, there are some lively post mortems which can help the less experienced, enlighten the few who think they’ve seen it all before and point out mistakes, possible alternatives and safety plays.

In England it was the voracious attitudes of the obnoxious minority that forced me to give up the game; in France it was the genuine warmth and enthusiasm of the company that brought me back. But France has the same problem as the UK in that the game is declining because the younger generation don’t feel a game of cards sufficiently demanding of their leisure time. A pity as some great situations arise in bridge two of which follow.

Author Ian Fleming was a member of the Portman Club, where the famous card scene from the 1955 novel Moonraker takes place, but he borrowed the deal from Ely Culbertson, the American writer who helped popularise bridge in the 1930s and 1940s. Bond, playing as South with his boss M, was in seven clubs doubled and was out to beat the villain Hugo Drax who was sitting east with a rock crushing hand.

The full deal, known as the Duke of Cumberland hand, was prepared in advance by Bond who switched the cards behind a handkerchief he pretended to use to wipe perspiration from his face.

It is easy to see that Bond’s contract is undefeatable against any defence. Interestingly, the contract is unlikely to have been bid at anywhere other than the Portland, which had banned bidding conventions other than strong two openings and take-out doubles.

While bridge is a brilliant game, sometimes the best things are the rows had by the opposition. I had a partner once who was a distinguished member of the Royal Shakespeare Company and we used to engineer highly literate verbal altercations, hopefully to induce complacency in the opposition so we could take advantage. Appalling behaviour, but I was younger then.

No row, engineered or otherwise, beats this one, which took place in Kansas City in 1931. John Bennett, sitting South, was partnering his wife Myrtle in a social game with another couple, the Hoffmans. John dealt this hand and opened one spade. West, Mr Hoffman, over-called with two diamonds. Mrs Bennett, North, raised to four spades which was passed out.

Hoffman led the ♦A, but switched to a ♣J when he saw dummy. John won the king and started drawing trumps. When he went one down, Myrtle hit the roof. She raced to her mother’s bedroom, grabbed a pistol, pointed it at her husband, shot and killed him. She was tried for murder, but acquitted. Perhaps there were a few bridge players on the jury. All these years later the question remains: did Bennett deserve to die of lead poisoning?

He didn’t have the values for his opening bid, but if Myrtle had known the Losing Trick Count she would have counted her eight losers, correctly assumed that her partner had seven losers and deducted the total (7 + 8)  from 18 and bid three which he would have passed.

Even so John might have saved his life by playing it better. After winning the K♣, he should ruff a diamond with a small trump, lead a trump from dummy and go up with his king. Mr Hoffman would cover the ♣ 10 that followed with his jack and dummy would go up with ace. Bennett should then have led the eight or nine of clubs and ruffed it letting Hoffman over ruff if he wanted to. If Hoffman wins and leads a diamond or heart Bennett’s contract is saved. A trump lead makes it more difficult, but at least Bennett would have made the best of it and given himself a chance to land the contract and stay alive.