Don't walk the plank

David Poriss  

Picture how easy it is to walk across a board laid on the ground six feet long and one foot wide. Now take that same board and put it between two buildings ten storeys high and the same task becomes next to insurmountable. As the penalty for failure increases, one tends to change the technique. Whereas one would simply walk across a board on the ground, one might tend to crawl across it ten storeys up. However, the penalty for failure at the bridge table is only mental anguish not physical, so that the penalty for failure is only in the mind of the declarer. Most experienced bridge players forget how frightened novice declarers can become, and this phenomenon seems to be in direct relationship to the level of the contract in question. This even occurs with good players when their opponents are known as experts. When the spotlight is turned on, panic sets in, and logic flies out of the window. Overcoming the debilitating fear of failure as declarer can lift a player to a higher level of ability.

To illustrate this concept, here is a hand on combining chances by Hugh Kelsey. You are in 3NT and the lead is the jack of clubs. Cover the East-West hands and try your technique:


  South Dealer 3    


N-S Game

 8 7 5 2





 A Q 8 6 5 3





 9 5









A J 8     K 7 6 5

 J  9  4


W                          E

 Q 10 3




 J 10 9 7

 J 10 8 4 3 2



 7 6









 Q 10 9 4 2





 A K 6





 K 2





 A K Q




Under pressure at the table, many players would simply bang down the king of diamonds and continue playing diamonds, hoping for the even split. Away from the table, many players would discover the extra chance by ducking a trick in the heart suit (to maintain control in hearts) before running the diamond suit upon regaining the lead. But when your head is pounding and your heart is wildly thumping it is virtually impossible to realise the best technique or safest line of play.

There are two fears that go through the minds of declarers on this hand at the table. First, giving up the lead needlessly; second and more compelling, the perceived switch to spades. But a thoughtful glance at the Q109 combination away from the table would reassure us that no combination of spades would enable the opposition to take more than three tricks before we regained the lead to test both the diamonds and hearts. In fact the switch to spades would ensure the contract, otherwise the fourth heart in dummy now becomes the ninth trick when the diamonds fail to split.

Now you are playing against the international champion pair of Eddie Kantar and Alan Sontag.

  West Dealer 9 8 5    


E-W Game

 J 7 4





 A J 10 3





 J 8 2









A K Q     7 6 3 2

 10 8 6 2


W                          E


 ? 5 4



 ? 8 7

 A K 9



 Q 10 7 6 4









 J 10 4





 A K Q 9 3





 K 6 2





 5 3



Eddie, in the West seat, opens 1NT (15-17) passed around to you as South. At favourable vulnerability, you cautiously bid Two Hearts, at which point Eddie doubles. The stakes have been raised. If you make this contract your head will soar with the clouds, and if not you will fall into the abyss of humiliation.

Eddie bangs down the three top spades, then the king, ace and another club. You ruff and draw trumps. Your palms are sweaty, perspiration beads on your forehead, which way do you finesse for the queen of diamonds?

Eddie has already shown up with exactly 16 points, playing a 15-17 no-trump. There is no room for the queen of diamonds. Play East for that card. Or were you too nervous at the table to work this out? Understanding this mental process and overcoming the perceived fear is an important part of improving your bridge game.


My BOLS bridge tip is:


Never let the level of the contract or the quality of your opponents immobilise your thinking process.


Learn to walk mentally across the board, rather than picturing yourself walking the plank.