The favorite games of the European coffeehouse—the card-playing center of the Old World—are played with fervor and gusto. The moaning and the groaning, the gloating and emoting are part of the fun.
In a bridge game, however, such histrionics—called for obvious reasons "coffeehousing"—are tabooed by some four and one-half pages of the laws book. Under special circumstances, however, the subtle possibilities of the coffeehousing art have been explored by the experts. A classic example was told to me by my good friend, Pierre Jais, one of the foremost players in France. Pierre's team had just administered a sound thrashing to me and my teammates in the World Championship match between France and the U.S. played in Paris in 1956. To soften the blow he told how, in an "anything goes" family game, he was outwitted by his father.
The contract was four spades, and the opponents had taken the first three tricks. Jais fils was declarer. The remainder of his hand was solid except for one card—the queen of trumps. He could finesse either way for the missing card, and the fate of his contract depended on guessing correctly. So Jais blandly claimed 100 honors! Dummy's trump ace was in plain sight, so the opponent holding the queen would know at once that this claim was impossible. But if he protested, the location of the missing queen would no longer be in doubt.
Neither opponent said a word, but Papa Jais picked up his pencil and duly entered 100 points for honors on his son's side of the score. Naturally, declarer finessed for the queen against the other opponent. And, also naturally, it was papa who produced the missing lady to win the setting trick.
In serious play, expert players are never guilty of coffeehousing, but they delight to take advantage of inept coffeehousing. A favorite victim is the player who always hesitates when he does not have the honor with which to cover a lead. After this happens once, an observant declarer has a sure-fire guide to all two-way finesses. The only problem is the opponent one meets for the first time. And sometimes one can diagnose even a complete stranger.
The bidding was commendably brief between opposing pairs of strangers. South opened with two no trump, and North jumped right to six. Declarer won the opening club lead, knocked out the ace of diamonds, captured the club return and found it necessary to locate the queen of hearts in order to make the slam.
Eventually he led the heart jack from his hand. West huddled briefly and played small. I am not going to tell you which opponent held the queen of hearts, but South guessed wrong and went down one trick. After the opponents had left the table, South apologized to his partner. "Sorry," he said, "I couldn't tell if West was a coffeehouse huddler or a double-crosser."
"Lunkhead," his partner replied. "Your first play should have been the jack of spades!"
You see what North meant, of course. South leads the jack of spades. No matter what card West plays, dummy will win the trick with the king. But when South returns to his hand with a diamond and leads the jack of hearts, West is no longer a stranger. If West huddled over the earlier play of the jack of spades, when he couldn't have the queen, declarer would know how to find the queen of hearts. When South led the jack, if West huddled, it was a sure thing that he did not have the missing lady.
An opening bid of two no-trump announces a hand with 22, 23 or 24 points in high cards. It takes a combined total of 33 points to justify a small slam bid, so if the responder has 11 to 13 points, he can safely jump to six. At the same time, he knows that a grand slam is out of reach. With more than 13 points, however, the responder should make some effort to explore grand slam prospects. A combined total of 37 points is enough to insure that his side holds all four aces.