When bridge experts speak of the tyranny of the spade suit they are referring to the advantage in the bidding enjoyed by the side that holds the highest-ranking suit. Except for hands in which the opponents are able to bid no trump, they can compete against the spade holders only by climbing one level higher in the auction, and this extra trick is often fatal to the contract. For this reason, good bidders open on doubtful hands only when they can bid spades or when their spade holding is such that it is unlikely the opponents can compete in the reigning suit.
'Twas not always thus. In the early form of bridge, which was the direct offspring of whist, spades was the lowest suit. Bridge introduced several novelties that gave the staid game of whist a not always welcome shot in the arm. One of these allowed the dealer's side to name the trump suit. If the dealer himself had a poor hand, he left it to his partner, and if that player had nothing much he named spades as trumps because tricks in spades counted only two points each—very little in lieu of the fact that it took 30 points to make game. The opponents could double—another new feature that shocked conservative whist players. Doubling increased the value of spades to only four points per trick, and even if the opponents made all 13 tricks they could score only 28 points, two less than that required for game.
If the dealer and his partner had good hands and wanted to play at spades, they named "royal spades," more frequently called "lilies," which then became the highest-scoring suit.
In the memory of today's players, however, lilies have long been buried with simple honors, and in the bidding the spade suit now is always regnant. The monarch of spades—the king—also proved his despotic power not in the bidding, but in the play of this hand from the team trials in San Francisco that decided the North American team for the 1966 world championship. In a way he arbitrarily determined two of the three pairs that made the team.
Eric Murray's jump rebid in spades showed a powerful hand, so Sam Kehela's response of two no trump was a deliberate underbid. He knew that Murray would not pass, and he planned to carry the bidding to a slam after giving Murray a further chance to show his distribution. When Murray rebid three no trump Kehela jumped to six—the same contract that was reached at every other table.
It was the last round of the trials. Both Murray-Kehela and Arthur Robinson- Robert Jordan were strongly in contention, and Kehela, as declarer, knew that a place on the team probably hinged on making the slam. He won the first trick with dummy's king of hearts, cashed the king of diamonds and ace of clubs and then came to his hand with a heart to take a club finesse. East won with the queen and returned a club. Declarer cashed dummy's two remaining clubs, discarding spades from his hand, came back to his hand with the last heart and cashed the ace and queen of diamonds. The jack did not fall, and Kehela faced the problem of locating the monarch.
He had obtained an exact count on the opposing hands. East having shown out of hearts and West out of diamonds, declarer knew that West's last two cards were spades and East's were one spade and the jack of diamonds. The question was, which spade? If East had started with the king, the earlier play would have forced him to unguard it, so cashing dummy's ace would drop the king and the queen would win the slam-going trick. Conversely, if West held the king, a spade finesse would be needed to make the slam. Kehela guessed right; he took the finesse, and he and Murray made the team while the Philadelphia pair was eliminated.
In exactly the same situation at another table declarer George Rap�e elected to pin his hopes on the squeeze, and he and partner Boris Koytchou were also eliminated. But perhaps the crudest blow was suffered by contenders Dr. John Fisher and Jim Jacoby. They were defending the hand against declarer Sam Stayman, who, by nature, would ordinarily have preferred the squeeze to a simple finesse. But it happened that Stayman and partner Vic Mitchell were out of the running, and Sam didn't bother to give a thought to the possible squeeze. When the club finesse lost he tabled his cards and announced that he was banking his chances on the spade finesse. If Sam had been closer to landing a berth on the team, there's little doubt that Fisher-Jacoby would have made it.
Fortune-tellers call the ace of spades the death card, and everybody knows the queen of spades as the black lady. But at world-championship level, as you can imagine, there are not a few players who fear the power of the king.