SI Vault
Charles Goren
March 16, 1964
Most top bridge players define a "mistake" as any bid or play they wouldn't make. I don't share this lofty attitude, but I do have strong personal feelings on the subject of table tactics and table manners. It just seems to me that there are certain things one doesn't do at the bridge table, whether they are violations of the laws of contract bridge or not. Some of these errors will merely cost you points; others will cost you friends.
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March 16, 1964

Winning Table Tactics

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The way to handle the speeder is to sit back in your chair, light a cigarette, ask to see the last trick and ask the hostess for another cup of coffee before you play that 4 of clubs you were intending to play from the beginning. Now, of course, you can't do this with a singleton or if the effect of your hesitation would be to deliberately misplace a finessable honor. That would be coffeehousing, and I am not recommending coffeehousing as a solution to anything. But when you can make an ethical pause and break up a speeder's rhythm, by all means do it. Most of the time a speeder is trying, consciously or otherwise, to get away with something, and he figures the best way is to rush you into an error. That's all the more reason for you to take your time and think. Be especially watchful when he has set up a string of cards and is running it. The end result of a long run of cards is often a squeeze. When you're a potential squeezee, you need all the clear thinking you can muster even while you still have automatic discards.

Often the speeder, in his boyish exuberance, grabs the trick and throws it on his pile before you've had a chance to see what has fallen. Sometimes he will go so far as to cover up his own card with his hand and rake in the other three cards simultaneously, trying to imply, "I'm just discarding junk from my hand, the same as you are." But when a squeeze is shaping up, it becomes all the more important to see what "junk" the declarer is discarding. When a speeder tries this maneuver on me, I simply demand to see the whole trick, card by card, and on the next trick I make the same demand. After this has happened a few times, he's lost more time by my demands than he's gained by his own sleight of hand, and he cuts it out.

A second cousin of the speeder, once removed, is the player who pulls out his card before it's his turn to play, as though to announce: "My play is automatic; I've got to play this card no matter what the rest of you play." This can be highly unethical, as, for example, when the player sitting there waving his automatic is actually getting ready to overruff. And when the play isn't unethical, it's revealing. The opponent may be trying to guess which way to finesse until such a kindly player shows him the way by flashing his automatic card.

A great deal of your behavior and your tactics at the table is of course directed at your partner and, as I have indicated earlier, the correct approach is a combination of courtesy and tolerance. If you play the game for pleasure, you will recognize instantly that any other approach is going to take the fun right out of the game for everybody. But treating partner like a human being is also the most rewarding method, no matter what your reason for playing bridge, because handling him gently will improve your score. As some of the leading pros have maintained for years, a big smile toward your partner at the beginning of every session is worth about 200 points per rubber.

Sometimes it takes iron discipline to put up with a difficult partner, but you'd better do it. Every now and then a strange partner will finish butchering a hand and ask me, "Could I have made more?" I have to fight down a burning desire to say, "No, not the way you played it." But I bite my tongue, and I say something soothing like, "You played it quite well."

Sometimes a partner will play a hand at two spades and make three when he should have bid four and made five, in which case I'll say something like, "Nice stop, partner. We'd have been down at a game contract." It may take us four hands to make rubber, but if I tell him the awful truth about his game he will become nervous and jumpy, and we'll be lucky to make anything.

The same is true of bidding. I've had people raise my opening bid when they had next to nothing. When dummy went down, they would say, "Well, I was told you were a good player." I suffered through a long evening with a partner like that, a lady who in all other ways led an entirely exemplary life. When she raised my one-spade opening bid to two spades on a hand highlighted by the queen of hearts and a singleton 9 of spades, I commented, "Your response to my opening bid was one of the most delicate compliments I've ever been paid." There was the trace of a barb in that remark, and I would not have made it except that I knew she wouldn't catch on. Nor did another player, given to prolonged hesitations, to whom I once said, "Madam, that second hesitation was definitely an overbid." If the urge to make such sarcastic remarks simply overwhelms you, make sure you are playing with partners who won't get the point. With all other partners, you must obey Dorothy Dix's admonition. A woman wrote the venerable columnist that she had found a man she loved and they intended to get married, but she wondered if she should tell him about her false teeth. Answered Miss Dix: "Keep your mouth shut!"

There is even a certain advantage in having a partner who makes the same mistakes over and over. If you're paying attention, you will quickly learn what those mistakes are, and often you will be able to turn his mistakes to your own profit. But if you start educating him at the table, what will happen? He'll try to correct his errors; sometimes he'll succeed and sometimes he won't, and you won't have any idea what he means from that moment on. At least you used to understand him.

Back in the dear dead days beyond recall, I played with a man who always opened an ace if he had one and who never led away from a king. I soon learned that there was no good in trying to change him; instead, I saved my mental effort for remembering his foibles, and soon I had him down pretty pat. Whenever I cut him as a partner afterward, I became a defensive demon. If he didn't lead an ace, I knew declarer must have it; if he led a suit and the king didn't appear in dummy or in my own hand, declarer might as well have dropped it out of his hand; it was as surely "exposed." Even when my inflexible partner finally had to break his rule and lead away from a king, his anguish was revealing: obviously, he had to have all four of them.

Signaling is another technique with which an inferior partner can be manipulated to your own advantage and the opponents' sorrow. It is an obscure art to most players, like sword-swallowing, and the best approach is to assume that partner's knowledge is limited to high and low discards. Even that could be assuming too much; you may have cut yourself a partner who plays only Chico Marx's convention: "If you like my lead, don't bother to signal with a high card. Just smile and nod your head." With him you may practice the fine art of the nonsignal, or the signal-that-isn't. Let us suppose that you cannot set a contract unless the declarer leads a club. So you discard a low club the first chance you get, telling partner not to lead a club. Partner, of course, is blind to this signal, but the opponent isn't, and he rushes in to take advantage of your club "weakness." You can use this nonsignaling technique to mislocate aces, indicate doubletons and voids when you don't have them and in general cast the opponents adrift on a sea of doubts.

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