If you've ever played Bingo or one of its relatives among the lottery games, you know that the space right in the middle of your card is labeled "Free." Does this free play give you an advantage? You can bet it doesn't. Every other card in the game makes the same gift. The free play only speeds things up so that "the house" gets a chance to run several extra games every session.
On some hands of duplicate bridge, however, a shrewd declarer may get a free play because of a rule of the American Contract Bridge League, which runs most duplicate games and tournaments. The league rule is that a player may open with a weak two-bid only if his count falls within the range of six to 12 high-card points. Until very recently a penalty for a violation of this rule was automatic, and even today, although it is no longer automatic, it would be an exceptional case in which an offender was not penalized.
Expert players have long been opposed to this regulation. They want to be able to make a weak two-bid on fewer points, or more, if, in their judgment, the situation seems to call for it. Then, too, they don't want to give their opponents a free play, such as the declarer got in this recent tournament deal Don't be surprised when you see that two cards are missing. They are the king and the 2 of hearts, and who has which is the declarer's problem.
West's two-no-trump response was forcing; after North's takeout double, East's rebid was preemptive; when South found enough to come in at the four level and West next bid four spades North somewhat brashly continued to five hearts, figuring that four spades doubled would yield a poor result on the deal.
After winning the ace of spades, West continued by leading a second spade for dummy to ruff. Obviously South can make his contract if he can avoid the loss of a trump trick. How do you play it? Assume that you cross to your king of clubs, lead the queen of hearts and see West play the 3. Who has the king? Who has the deuce? Do you finesse or play for the drop?
If East has only one heart, it is either the deuce or the king. But then East might not have any hearts at all. To the abstract mathematician the finesse offers a clear advantage, since it wins any time West has two or three hearts including the king and loses only when East has the singleton king. (The case where East has K-2 of hearts is not considered, since South loses no matter what he does.) But to the practical player who never got past simple arithmetic, the ACBL regulation offers a free play.
What South did after ruffing the second spade in dummy was to lead dummy's king of diamonds. West took the ace and led another diamond Declarer ruffed, led the queen of hearts and, when West produced the 3, dummy's ace was played without a moment's hesitation, dropping the king.
"The ace play couldn't lose," South explained. "If West turned up with the heart king, I'd call the director and demand an average-plus score. East couldn't have six high-card points without it."
South had proved this by locating the ace of diamonds before he led trumps. Unless East had the king of hearts, he couldn't have a legal weak two-bid. And unless he had it singleton, South couldn't make his contract. Under the league rule then in effect, the award of an average-plus score to the offended parties would have been automatic.