The laws of bridge allow you to pick your seat at the table only if you cut the high card at the beginning of a rubber. However, even if you succeed in winning the cut, you still may not know which seats to choose for yourself and partner. Some players pick the seats that have been losing on the theory that the cards will even up; the majority pick the seats that won the last rubber and are "hot"—maybe. Way back in 1942, the late Playwright George Kaufman had this to say on the subject in his introduction to my book on the play of the cards, Better Bridge for Better Players: "As to choice of seats—how to select the winning chairs—that is a matter on which science is now working.... For the present I can only say that some highly promising results have been obtained with rabbits.... Eventually, I am sure, it will be possible to predict with great accuracy which way the cards will be running on a given afternoon or evening, and when this happens no one will ever lose a rubber. Meanwhile, Sam Fry, who is no slouch of an expert, has suggested that the various bridge clubs post a statement on the bulletin board each day, saying whether the cards are running North-South or East-West...."
I am very sorry to say that in the 27 years since then, science has not made the progress George had hoped for. But I will make you an offer. You may choose your seat, West or South, on this deal that was played in the recent Men's Pair Championship in Cleveland. Would you rather be declarer at three no trump or defend against that contract?
The spade lead is won in dummy and the queen of hearts is returned, but West ducks. If you chose to be declarer but didn't allow for this defense, I'll give you one more chance: play or defend?
The best play by declarer is to cash the ace of diamonds and another of dummy's high spades. Then he comes to his hand with the ace of spades and leads the jack of hearts. Possibly you have considered this play and seen that it is a forlorn hope. All West has to do is win the trick and stick dummy back in with a lead of his last spade. Operating from dummy is hopeless, of course, so no doubt you have elected to defend.
But wait a minute. South can escape being stuck in dummy. He simply discards dummy's high spade when West wins the heart trick! True, this makes West a present of a spade trick, on which South will discard his remaining diamond. But the price for giving up that trick, which South can afford to lose, is that West is compelled to return a heart or a club in the situation shown at right.
If West leads the ace and another heart, South makes two good hearts, discarding all of dummy's diamonds. Next he leads a club, and no matter what West plays declarer must make two club tricks.
Suppose, instead of playing his hearts, West leads a low club. South wins in his hand and forces out the ace of hearts. West is hooked once more. If he gets out with another club lead, South will make an overtrick—three clubs, three hearts, three spades and a diamond.
So, if you elected to sit South you were right after all. Right? Not so fast. At the point shown in the diagram, no less a star than Alvin Roth offered to bet a quarter on the defense. His ingenious ploy: don't lead the little club, lead the king! When declarer wins in dummy, he can't get off without leading a diamond—fatal, of course—or a club, which sets up two club tricks for West before his ace of hearts can be knocked out. West collects a spade, two hearts and two clubs and down South goes!
Ready to pay off? Don't. Roth lost his quarter. South makes his contract by using the same devilish play in clubs that he did in the spade suit. First, he lets West's king of clubs hold! Then he wins the next club in his hand, leads the 10 of hearts and discards the ace of clubs from dummy! South's remaining high club provides the entry to the good hearts.
Obviously there's considerably more to bridge than merely knowing which way the cards are running. They seemed to be going both ways this time.