As in most years, the outstanding hands of 1968 belong to the critics. With their customary foresight and unerring precision in guessing, they defeated the players board after board, carrying before them every post-mortem and never losing an argument. A few hands here and there eluded them, and it is these that we look back upon with special pleasure at the Griffins Club.
The deal that comes to mind occurred in a match between two of the best teams in Europe early in the year. Declarer failed to make his contract and a host of distinguished critics fared no better, even with all four hands exposed. Could it be that the contract was unmakable?
When Olympic champion Bob Slavenburg showed me the hand, I promised him to take it round to the Griffins to see if members of the Bridge Menagerie could do better than the critics.
South had to make four spades against West's lead of the spade five (on which East threw the club four).
We studied the situation for a couple of minutes. First to speak was Oscar the Owl, our Senior Kibitzer. "With nine top tricks," he began, "we need only a heart ruff for our contract. The difficulty lies in getting back to the closed hand at the right moment. To pave the way I lead a club at trick two. What happens?"
I told him. "West wins with the club ace and leads a second trump."
At this point, the Hideous Hog, our best player by far, took over. "I return to my hand with the queen and lead a heart. If West goes up with the king . . . ."
"West plays low," I told him.
"Then," pursued the Hog, "I insert dummy's heart seven. Since East has no trumps he can't . . ."
"He doesn't need a trump," broke in the Owl. "A third club forces declarer to ruff (else West leads a third trump) and removes his only entry while the heart ace is still in dummy. West can ruff the second round of diamonds, and lead another trump, preventing declarer from ruffing his losing heart."
"Careless of me," admitted the Hog. "I played too quickly. At trick three, when I am in dummy with the second trump, I lead the heart seven, away from the ace, retaining the club queen in my hand. East wins with the heart queen . . ."
"And West," interrupted Oscar the Owl, "overtakes with the king and knocks out dummy's last trump."
The Hideous Hog glanced at his watch. "Heavens!" he cried in alarm. "I should have put through a most important call to Australia half an hour ago. I'd no idea it was so late. Excuse me. I'll be back." And with that he made a hasty exit.
We were still mulling over the hand when the Rueful Rabbit sauntered towards us. Most players entertain inflated ideas about their skill and the Rabbit claims that he is the second worst player in the world. We all like him too much to disabuse him.
O.O. covered up the East-West hands, so as not to put him off, and invited R.R. to make four spades.
"With all those trumps and aces about, it shouldn't be too difficult," observed the Rabbit jauntily. "Did you say that East threw a club on the first spade? Well, then, I lead a club hoping to find him with the ace and . . . No? West has it and plays a second trump, does he? All right. I lead dummy's little heart. If East has the king, he will probably go up, in case I have the queen."
Conducting the defense, Oscar did as before, overtaking East's heart queen with the king and knocking out dummy's third and last trump.
"Oh dear," sighed the Rabbit. "Now I shall never get that ruff. Still, something may turn up. It usually does when people get into impossible contracts against me, so why shouldn't it happen the other way round for a change? Anyway, I get back to my hand with the club queen and lead trumps. I know that West had a lot, so I go on until he shows out."
"On the fifth round," replied the Owl, "West throws a heart. On the five trumps East discards three clubs, the four, six and jack, and then the ten and nine of diamonds."
This was the end position:
The Rabbit crossed to dummy with the diamond ace and frowned: "Can't honestly remember," he muttered to himself, "if that club is good or not, though I'm almost sure I've seen the jack and ten go. Yes, I'll chance it." And raising his voice he called for the club eight.
Now East was in dire trouble. If he threw a diamond, declarer would ruff the club and lead his remaining diamond, setting up a diamond in dummy. (Seeing the diamond queen go, even the Rabbit would find the right play.) So from the East hand Oscar threw the heart jack. The Rabbit let go his diamond and shook his head when West unexpectedly produced the club nine.
With hearts only left, Oscar had no choice but to play one. Back on the table with the heart ace R.R. led a diamond and ruffed. Much to his surprise, the heart eight won the last trick.
"Ah well," he observed philosophically, "it's often the way. The contract depends on one of two things. Either the club eight or the heart eight must be right, so to speak. One was, the other wasn't. It's a fifty-fifty chance, really."
"Of course," declared the Hideous Hog who had rejoined us a minute or so earlier, "that's exactly how I was going to play it when I had to dash off for my call to South Africa. A combination trump squeeze. Stands out a mile."