Despite the frequency with which the occurrence is reported in the press, the odds are that a hand in which each player comes up with a complete 13-card suit will happen once in 2,235,197,406,895,366,368,301,559,999 deals—a number so large that bridge players with the maximum exposure to the game know they will never see one even if they spend every day at the Cavendish Club from now until 2066. Yet tournament players did see a real oddity turn up during the Spring Nationals in Louisville. It would seem at first glance to be far less exciting than a perfect hand, yet I would venture to say that the odds on the combination of circumstances it entailed would be at least as great.
Nobody but nobody these days plays a hand in a contract of one club. In many social games a hand on which nobody bids higher than one of anything is often thrown in—a practice that is not legal, of course, but does enliven the game. In a tournament the chance that everybody will pass your one-club opening is shaved to a microscopic figure because your right-hand opponent is very unlikely to sell out to such a bid.
What happened in the Men's Team event in Louisville was a combination of a one-club contract with the rarest coup in bridge, one so rare that for many years it was known only as a problem hand and no one had actually seen it at the table. It is called a smother play and involves the strange situation in which a player with a seemingly sure trump trick is unable to make it good. This freakish set of circumstances occurred in the hand at right.
South, Paul Portnoy of St. Louis, opened with a slightly irregular one club. The book bid is one heart. Many players who detest opening four-card majors would bid one diamond. One no trump—an underbid—is worth a thought but might cause trouble in different circumstances. Not a few experts would prefer the club call since it gives partner the cheapest opportunity to bid and is the least likely bid to be passed out. Likewise, not a few players holding the North hand would have given a courtesy diamond response, even though North is indeed a point shy of the usual requirements. In this case, however. North passed. East must have paused for a moment, but he simply had too little to risk a vulnerable reopening bid. So one club was the contract, and West opened the 7 of diamonds.
Declarer won the first trick with dummy's diamond queen in order to finesse the queen of hearts. This lost to West's king, and West continued with a diamond. South won, cashed his ace of hearts and trumped a heart in dummy. A low spade to South's queen was taken by West's ace, and West got out with a spade, won in dummy with the king. Declarer trumped dummy's remaining spade and led his fourth heart, trying for another ruff in dummy. However, West ruffed with the queen of clubs. West got out with a trump, won by East's ace, and East returned a third diamond, ruffed by West. The situation is shown below.
[— of Spades]
[— of Hearts]
[— of Diamonds]
[9 of Clubs]
[8 of Clubs]
[9 of Spades]
[6 of Spades]
[— of Hearts]
[— of Diamonds]
[— of Clubs]