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Larry who?

by David Burn, London, England


It appears that the most significant bridge book to emerge in recent years is something called The Law of Total Tricks. This work is said to have revolutionised competitive bidding among experts and average players alike, and it even has a sequel called Following the Law. The third volume in the series, Lesser Breeds Without the Law, ought to be out in time for Christmas.

The principle on which the Law is based was originally developed by Jules Verne in his novel Nord contre Sud, or "North Doubles South". It should be apparent from the title that the novel is a bridge fantasy, not meant to be taken seriously, but this has not prevented scholars from following its precepts religiously. In particular, the pithily expressed notion that "the sum of the number of tricks available to North-South in their best trump fit and the number of tricks available to East-West in theirs equals the sum of the number of trumps held by North-South in their best fit and the number of trumps held by East-West in theirs" has caused innumerable learned writers, including the present author, to forget what they were going to say at the end of a sentence because the beginning of it has gone on for so long.

The Law itself is more or less worthless, since the total number of tricks taken by anyone almost never equals the total number available to them, regardless of how many trumps they might have. That is why, in his second book, Larry Cohen was at pains to develop the theme of "adjustments". The current version of the Law of Total Tricks, assuming that I have fully understood the great man's words, is:

"The total number of tricks that North-South and East-West can take in their respective best trump fits is equal to: the total number of trumps they hold, minus one for the number of holdings such as Qx and Jxx in any of the hands, plus one for each card over eight in a side suit held by the partnership, minus a half for every honour held in a short suit, plus a half for having most of your honours in your long suits, with a tendency towards a negative assessment if the opponents bid one of your long suits, but a tendency towards a positive assessment if your hand does not contain impurities."

No wonder it doesn't work. And even if it did, no one would have a hope of understanding it. What I am going to present in this article is a far simpler rule, with the following absolute guarantee: If you never again violate Burn's Law of Total Trumps, your results will improve enormously.

That may sound a grandiose and wholly unjustifiable claim, but it is not. I have conducted the most comprehensive and painstaking research in order to verify my theory. At the recent Olympiad in Rhodes, any one of forty teams would have won but for the fact that at some point they violated Burn's Law. Chinese Taipei, for example, would have been in the final instead of France had they not done this.

NS game
Dealer North
S AK65
H 109
D 93
C AK853
S 72
H J87642
D KJ102
C 7
[ ] S J94
H 3
D Q8754
C Q1064
S Q1083
D A6
C J92

In the Closed Room, the auction was:

NS game
WestNorth EastSouth
2C (1) Pass 2D (2)
Pass2S (3) Pass3H (4)
Pass3S (5) Pass4D (6)
Pass4H (7) Pass4S (8)
Pass5C (9) Pass5D (9)
Pass5S (10) Pass6C (11)
Pass6D (12) Pass6H (13)
PassPass (14)Pass

It may help to set out the two different versions of this somewhat bewildering auction:

BidMeaning according to North Meaning according to South
(1)I have 5+ clubs, perhaps a major, and 11-16 points. North has 5+ clubs, perhaps a major, and 11-16 points.
(2)A relay.A relay.
(3)I have 4+ spades.North has 4+ spades.
(4)5+ hearts Well, I ought really to have hearts, but I am a bit fixed because 3S is not forcing, 4D is a splinter and 4S is feeble.
(5)No diamond guard.No diamond guard.
(6)Fourth suit, presumably looking for somewhere to play. A cue bid, which I hope partner will soon realise agrees spades even though there is no reason why he should.
(7)Heart support.Heart support.
(8)A cue bid with hearts agreed.Spade support.
(9)A cue bid with hearts agreed.A cue bid with spades agreed.
(10)A cue bid with hearts agreed.A sign-off in spades.
(11)A cue bid with hearts agreed. Club support. [It might be argued that taking six rounds of the auction to support your partner's first bid suit is a little excessive, but in view of the number of rounds that South took to support spades, not especially surprising.]
(12)A grand slam try in hearts, asking for good trumps. A cue bid with spades agreed.
(13)A sign-off in hearts. A grand slam try in spades, asking for good trumps.
(14)Oh, well!What the *@$&!

In the Open Room, the bidding was no less
risible but rather more effective:

WestNorth EastSouth
1NT (1)
Pass2C Pass2NT (2)
Pass4D (3) Pass4S
Pass6S (4) PassPass

(1) Out of turn, but nobody noticed. (2) Both majors. (3) A transfer to spades. (4) A punt, hoping that the slam would either be a good one or would make on a blind opening lead.

Six spades made, six hearts went five down, and France took the lead in the match for the first time in the final set of sixteen boards.

Shattered by this blow, the Chinese Taipei
men could not recover, and all because
they had failed to obey
Burn's Law of Total Trumps:

"When you are declarer, the total number of trumps held by your side should be greater than the total number of trumps held by your opponents."

Britain would have been in the
knock-out stages but for this:

S 10974
H 865
D J97
C A93
[ ] S A865
C None

In the Open Room, Slovenia did well to stop in a making contract, for South had SKQJ3:

WestNorth EastSouth
1SNo 4SNo

In the Closed Room, one of the more
serious violations of the Law occurred:

WestNorth EastSouth
No3C 4CNo

This contract went five down (it is an interesting corollary to Burn's Law that almost all violations of it end up going five down) and Slovenia gained 12 IMPs.

In true Larry Cohen style, I have already
written the sequel to the
Law of Total Trumps.

... It is called The Rule of Eight, and it is for those of you whose bidding methods are already geared to the avoidance of 3-0 fits but whose judgement at the higher levels of the auction may be a little suspect.

This deal from the Olympiad final between
France and Indonesia is a good example.

Love all
Dealer South
S QJ10765
H AQ72
D None
C 942
S 83
H K86
D A875
C Q865
[ ] S 2
H 3
D KQ96432
C AK73
S AK94
H J10954
D J10
C J10

This was the bidding in the Open Room:

WestNorth EastSouth
SzwarcPanelewen MultonWatulingas
Pass1S 2D 3D
4D 4H 4NT5H
Pass5S 6D (1)Pass
Pass6S (1) DblePass

(1) A violation of the Rule of Eight

In the Closed Room:

WestNorth EastSouth
Pass1S 2D 3D
4D 4H 5C 5S
6D (1) 6H (1) Pass6S

(1) Further violations

I make the same guarantee for the Rule of Eight as I made for the Law of Total Trumps. If you never again violate it, your results will improve immeasurably.

The rule is similar to the well-known
Rule of Eleven, and is
applied in three stages:

  1. During the auction, ascertain how many aces are held by your opponents.
  2. Subtract this number from eight.
  3. Do not bid at the level given by the answer.

The third book in the series will cover advanced topics in card play such as putting down the dummy. To whet your appetite, here is an important principle:

If your side has bid and supported a major suit during the auction, but finished up in no trumps, you should put the major you were bidding on the extreme right of dummy as it appears from declarer's point of view.

Otherwise, as one poor soul discovered
in Rhodes, your partner may fall foul of
Burn's Third Law:

You cannot make 3NT on a cross-ruff.

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