Never play your lowest card first

Israel Erdenbaum ( Israel )

ISRAEL ERDENBAUM was born in Poland in 1920 but has lived in Tel Aviv since 1935. He has been Israel 's National Chief Tournament Director since 1960. His inauguration into the international directing arena came in 1974. One Sunday evening, after 10pm, he entered his local bridge club and was told to telephone David Bardach, president of the Israeli Bridge Federation, in Las Palmas where the World Olympiad was taking place. Mr. Bardach told him that they were desperately short of directors and could he get there as quickly as possible. In 1974 things were not that easy, and it was already almost midnight, nevertheless he phoned his travel agent, his boss and several other necessary people. At 5.00am he left for Jerusalem to get a visa and managed to get to Las Palmas by late afternoon on the Monday. Immediately on arrival he was whisked away to direct the evening session. Needless to say, he was greeted very warmly by officials and players alike. This was the beginning of a successful international career as a tournament director in those days it was a very voluntary affair and the organisers did not even pay his air fare.

He has been the Senior Tournament Director at seven European Championships and four World Olympiads.

Over the last several years he has curtailed his bridge activities because of his wife's ill-health.

SHOULD one ever say 'never' or 'always' in relation to bridge? Maybe not, probably not, most certainly not. Nevertheless this is my tip. But why?


Some years ago we 'planted' the following hand in various duplicate games, in the hope of proving that the best way to illustrate a point is by way of a practical demonstration.

South Dealer 9 8 7

Game All

 4 3 2


 A K 7 5 4 3




















 A J 2


 A J 6


 9 8 6


 A J 6 5

South has to play 3NT after opening a 15-17 INT. To make nine tricks South must play the eight and nine of diamonds first. The hands of the opponents do not justify intervention.

When we examined the scoresheets we found that many pairs played the hand in diamonds, the contracts ranging between Two and Five. However, most played in 2NT or 3NT making six, seven or eight tricks.

In conversations with many of the players, it took some explaining why 3NT should be bid with 'only' 7 HCP. There was, however, no need to explain what happened in the play of the hand and why nine tricks were not made. The players involved were dismayed and even shocked by the way they blocked the diamond suit, when they automatically played the six of diamonds (the lowest) to the first trick.

Seven or eight months later we 'planted' the same hand again, exchanging only the diamond and club suits. As most of the players were playing this hand the second time and we remembered how shocked they were, we were eagerly waiting to see the scoresheets.

Well, there certainly was a difference. The number of 3NT contracts rose dramatically, so the bidding demonstration worked. As to the play of the hand, the 'practical demonstration' and the shock it caused were apparently completely forgotten. Nobody made nine tricks, the automatic play of the lowest card blocked the suit once again.

We repeated this experiment several times, always with intervals of six to nine months, with the same results. The few times the contract was made, it was by some seasoned 'tournament' or 'championship' players as opposed to 'social' or 'duplicate' players who play for pleasure.

We did toy with the idea of introducing the same hand one week later, but did not dare to do it. What we finally did, was to introduce one week later another hand.


South Dealer 4 3

Love All

 J 7 3


 J 6 3


 A K Q 5 3



















 A K Q


 Q 8 6 4


 A 9


 8 7 6 4


Again South opens 1NT (15-17) and North raises to 3NT. To make nine tricks South must make five club tricks and as clubs are 3-1 he must hold on to the four which he can then overtake with the five and then cash the three for his fifth trick.

There were no problems this time; everybody was in 3NT, everybody was one down. Clearly everybody blocked the clubs by playing the four of clubs (the lowest) to the first trick.

Why were these simple hands misplayed by players who should know better; in most cases by players capable of making difficult contracts. The answer lies in the apparent simplicity of the hand which makes the player careless.

The vast majority of people playing social or duplicate bridge play simply for pleasure. They do not take the trouble to analyse every move, so when a hand looks simple they play it routinely and automatically.

So on our first hand, having AKxxxx opposite xxx they play for the suit to be divided 2-2 but do not take the trouble to examine the spot cards. The same goes for our second hand. With AKQxx opposite xxxx they are so certain that they can make five tricks that they play the lowest card automatically and sometimes block the suit.

The Laws of Duplicate Bridge say that when declarer tells dummy to play low, dummy must play the lowest card at the first opportunity, but the simple fact is that this is exactly what he does whenever he plays without thinking, and quite often with dire consequences.

When we accept the fact that the average player will play automatically in these situations, and when we accept that the automatic play of the lowest card first is bad, then all that remains is to try to make him hang on to his lowest card.

Of course, sometimes (seldom) it is absolutely necessary to play the lowest card first, but what we want to do is change the automatic behaviour. To change automatic behaviour is a tough proposition and to give it any chance at all the proposed change must be as short and as clearcut as possible. So it is not ideal, but it is definitely a step in the right direction.


Therefore, my BOLS tip is:

Never play your lowest card first.