Free bridge French style

I learned the basics of bridge not sitting on my father’s knee exactly, but sitting next to him when he played with his father and two brothers.
     Hovering above the round table and thick beize cloth was a swirling cloud of cigarette smoke; my grandfather and his middle son were sixty-plus-a-day men.
     Please note that I didn’t learn to play the game, just grasp the basics. My grandfather didn’t have much card sense, his three sons did, but their bidding was so appalling and the hand evaluation so misguided that they were always attempting to finagle their way out of disastrous contracts.
     Since then I’ve had a love-hate relationship with this great game largely because too many people don’t see it for it is, a game of cards, but growl at every losing finesse as if the contract were a matter of life or death and more important even than that.
     There have been long periods in my life when I haven’t played at all and the fact that I still do is down to the French. Although the two countries have a love hate with each other, the French get so many of life’s basics right that the English invariably screw up
    I was in Les Carroz, a ski resort in the Alps between Geneva and Chamonix and living five minutes from the bridge club which 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 twenty players or more. They meet more frequently in the summer.
     It was there 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.
     Located in the first floor of a modern school, the club is well equipped with plenty of tables and all the accessories necessary for a duplicate session. There is no table money; everything is free. Everyone is warmly welcomed with handshakes between the men and, once they know you won’t bite, 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 sadly, France has the same problem as the UK in that the game is declining because the younger generation don’t feel that cards offers them as much fooling around with the latest electronic device.

*****

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, siting south and partnering his boss M, is playing seven clubs doubled and was out to beat the villain Hugo Drax who was sitting east with a rock-crushing hand including three ace-kings and the king-jack of clubs.

     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.

Sometimes the best thing about bridge is the opposing pair’s arguments, particularly if you’ve not had the cards.

     But no row beats this one. It was dealt by a John Bennett in Kansas City in 1931. He was sitting south and partnering his wife Myrtle in a social game with another couple, the Hoffmans. 

     John opened one spade. West, Mr Hoffman, over-called with two diamonds. Mrs Bennett, North, raised to four spades which became the contract.

     Hoffman led the ♦A, but switched to the ♣J when he saw dummy’s singleton. John won the king and drew trumps. Sadly, he went one down.

     Myrtle was incandescent, raced to her mother’s bedroom, grabbed a pistol, pointed it at her husband, shot and killed him.

     I have no details of what happened next. No matter. She was tried for murder and 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’s a little short on high card points for his opening bid, but she wasn’t strong to raise to game. If Myrtle had known and used 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.

     If you look at the cards again you’ll see that 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.

     Follow that with the 10♣. Hoffman would cover with his jack and declarer would win with the ace in  dummy. 

John should then lead the eight or nine of clubs and ruff 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 declarer would have done his best of it and given himself a chance to land the contract and stay alive.

After years of being hooked

on Acol and the preemptive advantage

of opening a weak no trump (12-14),

an increasing number of top players

are switching to a strong no trump and

five-card majors because it’s more

precise, making it easier to find

the best part score.

This is the book they’re using

The pandemic of 2020 will change the game of bridge, but how it will change is a matter of conjecture.
     Some of the older players, at least those who refused to accept the gradual domination of society by technology, are frequently unable to marry the operation of a keyboard to what happens on a screen and have effectively disqualified themselves.
     Others have found that the withdrawal pains they suffer because they are unable to play sitting at a card table as they’ve always done in the past are so strong that they outweigh their self-confessed technophobia so they eventually get their heads round playing on line.
     But most are easily able to make the leap from bridge table to computer screen and find that on-line bridge is one of the more enjoyable aspects of lockdown. If, like me, you find the social aspects of club bridge more important than the game itself, then on-line bridge is a terrific substitute, but not the same.
     Thanks to the software developed by Bridge Base On-line, 50,000 people from all over the world can play the same hands at the same time. I don’t know whether or not more people played during the pandemic than they did before face-to-face, but I suspect so.
     Those players lost to technology will have been more than compensated by rubber bridge players used to the buzz of high stake rubber bridge along with those who play with their red wine on the kitchen table.
     Will any increase, if as I suspect  there has been one, be sustained when Covid-19 loosens its grip on our lives and we learn to love the new normal?
     I hope so. Although bridge is  astonishingly cheap, it’s been in decline for a generation or more. Playing cards is no longer a major component of our social lives, millennials sneer at the game as if it were something the cat brought in and serious enthusiasts like me have got older.
     Covid has brought change, much of it unwelcome, but good things will doubtless emerge. Let’s hope that a revival of one of the world’s great games is among them.