Wednesday, March 3, 2010

To play well, you have to "Work" at it

Whist is the granddaddy of modern-day bridge. Next in the evolution was bridge whist (also called bid whist), then auction bridge which was thought to have been first played in 1903 or 1904. Contract bridge came along in 1926 and auction lost its popularity.

In auction bridge, the aim was to keep the contract as low as possible because declarer's side was credited with the number of tricks won, whether game or slam was bid or not.

The book shown above was copyrighted in 1920 by Milton Work. Work was considered the greatest authority on auction and contract bridge from 1917 through 1931. He popularized a high-card point count system that Goren took, simplified and gave to the masses. Work also is credited with developing the losing trick count method of hand evaluation. He's a member of the ACBL Bridge Hall of Fame.

The book is charming and has mostly good advice. Here's a sample:
"A player who has bid his full strength, should thereafter be silent."

Good advice -- too bad some players today don't follow it. Notice the term he used for takeout doubles below:
"There are two kinds of doubles: Informatory and Business. Informatory are made for the purpose of conveying information to the partner who is expected to overbid. Business doubles are made with the expectation of defeating the adversary and for the purpose of increasing the score."

Work wasn't quite on the mark with this:
"Declarer, in the absence of conflicting information, should base his play upon the probability of an even division of the cards. That is, with seven of a suit in his own hand and Dummy, he should play for each of the adversaries to have three. In the long run, playing for the even break will net many tricks."

Actually, a 3-3 split is only 35% while a 4-2 split is 46.88%. With a combined nine cards in a suit, the 3-1 split is slightly more likely than the 2-2 division.
"One of the best and most servicable means of giving information is the Come-on signal, which is made, when not attempting to win the trick, by the play or discard of an unnecessarily high card. For example: the Ace and King of a suit being led, the play of the 6 followed by the 5 constitutes a signal, as the 6 is an unnecessarily high card. The meaning of this signal is that the player who makes it desires the continuation of the suit in which it is made.

"The signal is still used by some players to mean, 'I can ruff the third round,' but it seems foolish to limit it to any such narrow meaning."

Again, it's too bad so many modern-day players don't follow this tried-and-true advice.

Here's a hand from his book that was played in an auction tournament:

A 7 3
K 6 4 2
A Q J 8 6
K 4 6 5
Q 8 5 A J 10
K 5 3 7 4 2
Q J 10 4 3 9 8 6 5 2
Q J 10 9 8 2
9 7 3
10 9
A 7

North opened 1NT and South bid 2, ending the auction.

West led the Q. How would you play it?

The suggested line is to overtake the club with the ace and advance the Q. After West covers (probably not best), you win the ace and lead another spade to your hand.

Next you finesse in diamonds and end up taking 13 tricks: six spades, five diamonds, one club and one club ruff in dummy. In auction, because you took all 13, you're credited with a grand slam!

I scanned the book cover and the table of contents (shown just above). I borrowed the photo of Work from the ACBL web site. Click on either scan to enlarge.


  1. Methinks you need a university degree to play bridge effectively! Sheesh!

  2. I have for years collected the old classics. I think my oldest is Elwell on Bridge, from about 1902 or so. I love understanding the concepts as the ancients viewed them. Sometimes, I think of these older texts as sort of Neandethal, but in a good way. Meaning, modern man has developed culture (and bridge culture) by building on foundations different from the rejected foundations from years ago. However, it sometimes is good to go way back to the roots, because some aspects of a different foundation suggest unique ways to look at modern problems, by assuming what might have been had a different foundation evolved into today's modern approach.

    I mean, who ever questions weak two's anymore? Who would ever think of a three-level opening as a strong bid? Who would have follow-ups for such nonsense? And yet, in fourth seat, after three passes.....

  3. Ditto on Ken's comments. I love looking back at the early days. I enjoyed Culbertson (the mathematically atrocious law of symmetry notwithstanding), but the first and maybe greatest writer recognizable as a modern figure ahead of his time was Simon.