Bridge is an international language. I was never more sure of this than when I was in Greece recently and played in Athens with Markos Nomikos, head of the Greek shipping company that bears his name. Although we were many thousands of miles from the Regency Club in New York, the game we played had the flavor of the best hands played at the club.
The opening lead in the game described was unusual. It was made against my partner, Constantin Platsis, who played South and who, with Nomikos, is a member of the Regency. The lead, I am now convinced, did not succeed for the single reason that bridge is international. Because Platsis correctly guessed what was behind the lead, he was able to bring home a touch-and-go slam.
Costa, as Platsis is called, was a high-ranking officer in the Greek air force in World War II and a daring flyer. When the Nazis overran Greece, he joined the RAF. At the bridge table, as in the air, he is a bold tactician, and readers who follow my Sunday TV show will have an opportunity to observe this for themselves when he appears a bit later this season.
In this deal, it was necessary for him to defy mathematical probabilities in order to reach the right conclusion. Because good players rarely lead an ace against a slam, South concluded that West expected to win a trump trick to set the contract. So South, crediting West with the missing spade queen, took precautions against finding it triply guarded.
After West won the heart ace, he shifted to a diamond, taken by dummy's king. Costa came to his hand with the ace of clubs and led the jack of spades, letting it ride for a first-round finesse. When it held, he led another spade to dummy's 9, cashed the king and came back to his hand with the queen of clubs to draw West's queen of trumps, bringing home the slam.
Had West's too-revealing lead of the ace of hearts cost him the chance to set the hand? I doubt it. Suppose West fails to cash his heart trick and leads a club or a diamond. Instead of guessing the spade finesse, Costa would try to drop the spade queen, hoping that even if the queen did not fall he could avoid a heart loser.
Assuming a club lead, South wins, cashes the spade ace and a second club, then leads to dummy's spade king. If the spades are three to two, the slam is assured unless the player with the queen has fewer than three clubs. Even with the four-to-one trump break, South makes the hand. He discards his hearts on the king and jack of clubs, cashes dummy's king of diamonds and comes to his hand by ruffing a heart. The ace and queen of diamonds are cashed. After that, South leads his fourth diamond to be taken care of by dummy's 9 of trumps. West can win only his queen of spades.
An ace is seldom the best lead against a slam contract—unless you have at least one other ace in reserve. But when there is danger that you will lose your only ace unless you take it immediately, grab it fast and hope that another trick will materialize somewhere.