The Overnight Expert – Detailed


Dear reader, if you have come reached this point, I know that Bridge may be totally alien to you as it was to me at some point in time. To follow the story, you will need a sneak peek into the world of Bridge. So let me be your guide to a quick world tour of Bridge. Please teleport to the 13 point hitchhikers footnote and come back enlightened enough to follow these next few paragraphs. The terms from the world of Bridge are in Bold to ease your reading.

Team Match was to be held at Godavari Hostel. Open room and closed room were two rooms in the same wing. We elected to play in the closed room, my partner strategically and not surprisingly deciding not to expose me to Kibitzers in the open room. With sweating hands, I sat down and shuffled the cards and put them into boards for commencement of the match. The opponent on my left was a senior from my hometown, he was a JEE topper from Computer Science. RHO was also a CS senior and my partner was the computer hobbyist! I was the dunce. We started off. Two Deals into the match, my partner closed the bidding in 3N where he would be declarer. I, for some reason, ignored that and jumped to an ambitious 5C contract to be played from my side.

Lefty attacked with the Spade KING. Dummy put down what is North’s hand below, South was of course my hand.


3N appeared to be cold played from my partner, North’s, hand. My partner sat back in expectation of seeing me muff it so that he could heap choicest abuse on me for not leaving him in 3N (where the target is two Tricks fewer). Trump contract – count losers, said my brain from the newly gathered book knowledge. 5C had three inevitable losers, the Club Ace, one Heart and one Spade. I could foresee the doom of 1 down. There seemed no escaping these 3 losers. Desperation clouded me for a second, I weakly asked for a small spade from dummy – then RHO played the spade Six. My brain, though befuddled by lack of sleep, sat up and took notice of that spot card. “Deceptive play, Week Five, Day 3” came flooding back to me. I played the Spade 4 without hesitation.

LHO (West in diagram below) took stock of this play as he won the trick. His partner’s Spade Six appeared to be an encouraging high spot card, the spade 2 was not seen, while my play of the SPADE 4 had given that impression that his partner had the Spade 2.  Defenders use high cards and low cards to show interest or lack of interest in the suit played. If East (my RHO) had held A62 or even J62, East would play the SIX to indicate “Please continue the suit to the next trick partner, I like it”.  Players are not allowed to say that aloud or indicate with any facial expression as it would be a violation of ethics – such tactics are not allowed in Bridge. West surmised that A62 or J62 could be a reasonable holding with East. While I waited with bated breath for my opponent’s next move, he thought this over for some time. He looked at my partner, who had buried his head in his hands right from the time I corrected the contract to 5C. My opponent then sneaked a probing glance at me. I projected the look of innocence of a baby baa lamb. It was a tough code for my opponent to crack. My partner was a known Bridge expert in the campus, and I did appear mostly harmless. He faltered and continued with a low spade. A shake of head escaped RHO when I grabbed the trick with my SPADE Jack. Without a thought I played the SPADE Ace and discarded a Heart loser as the next trick. I vaguely saw that my partner was looking all red in the face with this play and appeared short of breath. I then proceeded to play two TOP hearts (the Ace and the King), trump the third heart, play the Ace and ruff a diamond followed by the a ruff of the last spade on which my RHO discarded. I then played a trump and claimed.

Before opponents could accept my claim, my partner was heard rumbling something like “I hope you realise that there is something called TRUMPS!” in strangled voice. I too realised that my play was dangerous in that I could have played one round of trump to avoid the possibility of an over-ruff. “The trump pips were all high”, I announced airily. “No, the NINE was out,” pointed out my partner. “3N was cold, lefty would lead a diamond into my AJTx and that is my ninth trick,” my partner continued. “Didn’t you realise that I had broken the relay with my 3N? Why did you take off?” Both the opponents broke our altercation with a quiet “Well played”. I looked at RHOs hand. This was the full hand (with some spot cards filled in as far as I remember) and me as South.


3N would have made as predicted by my partner. I took a deep breath and settled down realising that I had just avoided a bullet with my name on it. My partner also grudgingly blurted out a “Well played” and “…though I hope you will play trumps immediately next time” before I could thank him. I shut him out and decided to focus on the job at hand. A few more boards later, my partner put me in a 3NT. Applying the basics gathered from the code breaking expert, I counted my top tricks, formulated a plan of play and went about it. I executed a Hold up play, cut defence communication (the WWII vet would have been proud of me) and then did a neat throw-in with an air of someone who had done it all in his sleep many times before. Come to think of it, I had not had much of that in two days. It was with great pleasure that I watched my partner’s lower jaw hit the ground! The opponents were suitably awed and soon we exchanged boards for the next half of the match. We bid a thin slam which had my partner at the helm and he soon competently made it. In the excitement, I put him to another slam which promptly went down. We missed a game, and my partner was furious. With our relay system devised by devilish minds, we open all Nine point hands when common mortals even imprudently would only do it with Eleven. We had no business missing any games, we should be bidding some for our opponents benefit too!

The match ended soon and we were comparing the scores. I went to wash my face and wipe off the sweat that had built up – for once, I couldn’t blame the balmy Madras evening. When I came back, I walked in to look at the scores. I gulped when I saw lots of big scores in their column. “What is the score?” I asked. 23-7, said everyone, without looking up, “We lost 23-7?” I asked lamely. “No, we won 23-7,” said the captain in irritation. I did not know if he was being sarcastic. I hunkered down to look at the scoresheet. The first score I saw was 5C which I made and found 11 points written against it. I looked down and saw that the 11 points was on the side that had won! Relief flooded in. My partners had merely scored on the wrong side of the sheet. “How did you beat 3N?” I asked my teammates. “I led a Heart,” said one of them. “Wow, well done,” I said realising that a heart was also a possible lead and in this case the only lead to beat 3N contract. We had indeed WON 23-7. The slam we made was not bid, but the one we went down with was bid at the other table where they went down too. The thin game was missed there as well, so we didn’t lose in those two boards. All in all, a resounding victory against a decent team. “I don’t know what happened to him, he was walking in the air like he had just gulped down the Magic Potion,” I heard the captain tell my teammates.

The rest of the tournament went off in a blur. We easily beat the other team to qualify for the knockouts. In the semi-final, we again beat a decent team to set up a final match with the best hostel team, Saras. My play and defence were nearly spotless, and now I was overconfident in bidding.  Saras had the institute captain and three very good players. We were no match for them, but ended up with a silver medal, which is what we had set out to achieve. When the player who was away came back, my captain promptly told him “He seemed to have acquired Artificial Intelligence! He played out of his skin,” and characteristically added, “Of course, in the finals, he was back to his true self,” laying the blame for the final loss squarely on me.

I kept in touch with the game despite a demanding IT job in the initial years of my career. Daily newspaper Bridge columns came to the rescue when reading up was not possible. Five minutes spent daily on the Bridge column does wonders to your understanding of the game when done over several years. I have had the fortune to meet all kinds of people as a result of pursuing Bridge. Top businessmen, cabinet ministers, Supreme Court and High Court judges, top IAS officers, military and police personnel, teachers, lawyers, IT professionals, NGO workers, farmers, chess player converts – you name it. I have been to places like Malta, Bahrain and Italy for Bridge-related IT work (We introduced the Italian VUGraph technology to India in 1996 through which computers were used to showcase Bridge to a large spectator audience. In 2003, we did it over Internet for the first time in India using a US-Canadian system. Bridge is one of the few games where even the World Championships can be seen free of cost on the internet). Bridge thus exposed me to a spectrum of people and the colours of life that a regular IT job that I started my career with would never have done. Some 25 odd years have passed, and I still have that worn out copy of Sheinwold with me. It must be from the World War 2 vintage too – just touching a page causes it to crumble. Who knew that just turning the cover of a book would open a window to unseen worlds! It reminds me of a young man who had no idea about cards, but who went on to become the overnight expert.

A casual hitchhikers guide to Bridge

  1. Bridge is played with a pack of cards without “Jokers”. There are four SUITS. SPADES, HEARTS, DIAMONDS, CLUBS. Each suit has 13 cards ACE, KING, QUEEN, JACK, TEN, NINE etc… down to the TWO. Thus 52 cards are in play. Ace is the highest card and 2 is the lowest card for each suit. A,K,Q,J and T are called honour cards or honours, the lower cards are called spot cards or pips. Low spot cards (5432) are sometimes shown as “x” in Bridge writing.
    Eg: Axx means Ace and two low spot cards.
  2. Four people play Bridge. They sit around a table (in a Team Match there are two tables, see later). These directions are arbitrarily called North, East, South and West to designate the cards held by each player and their relative positions. The player opposite to you is your partner. Thus North and South are partners. East and West are partners. The people on your left and right are opponents. Often called Left Hand Opponent (LHO, Lefty)and Right hand Opponent (RHO, Righty). So if you are South, North is your partner. West is your Lefty opponent and East is your RHO. Spectators who watch the four players in action are called Kibitzers, they are not permitted to speak, they may open their mouths only to Yawn!
    Partners who play badly are humorously called Centre Hand Opponent, but be careful not to call them that on their face!
  3. DEAL Cards are shuffled and given one at a time all around the table until all cards are dealt. Each person thus picks up 13 cards. The cards and ensuing play are together referred to as a Deal.
    “Your Karma is the cards that you are dealt. Your Dharma is what you do with them” – a quote attributed to Gandhiji who played an early variant of Bridge. Others who did include Nehru, Bill Gates, Warren Buffet. Martina Navratilova, the tennis legend, is an avid Bridge player. Irina Levitina, a top rated Chess player, is a world champion Bridge player too.
  4. THE PLAY – Play also goes one card at a time clockwise. When each person plays one card, that round is called a TRICK (equivalent to Pakkad or Pudi or Pidi in local languages). A Trick is won either by your side or the opponents’ side. Thus there are 13 tricks to a Deal of Bridge. The player who wins the current trick plays first to the next trick and so on until all 13 tricks are played and all cards are exhausted. The aim is to win as many tricks as possible for YOUR side with the combined resources available. A player may claim some of the remaining tricks by showing his hand. This saves time in the play.
    Eg: SPADE TWO, SPADE ACE, SPADE KING, SPADE FIVE – SPADE ACE wins the trick. The person who played the SPADE ACE will play FIRST to the next trick.
  5. TRICK, WINNERS, LOSERS – The first card played to a Trick designates the SUIT for that trick. All players must play a card from that designated suit if they have it, i.e., they have to “follow suit” . If they cannot follow suit, they can “DISCARD” or play a “TRUMP” (see later). When playing without Trumps (No Trumps), the highest card played of the designated suit for the trick wins the trick. Cards that are sure to win tricks are called winners and cards that are sure to lose a trick are called losers.
    Eg: In No Trumps, if HEART TWO, HEART TEN, HEART QUEEN and HEART FIVE are played to a trick, the person who played the HEART QUEEN will win the trick (Heart Queen is the highest of the HEART cards played to that trick). If SPADE TWO, SPADE SIX, CLUB TEN and DIAMOND TEN are played in that order to a trick, the person who played the SPADE SIX will win the trick since the first card played to that trick was SPADE card (the TWO) and the SIX was the highest SPADE card played to that trick. The person who played the Club TEN must not have any SPADE cards left with him, so also the person who played DIAMOND TEN will not have any SPADE cards either. Club Ten and Diamond Ten are called DISCARDs.
  6. TRUMPS – A TRUMP is a suit that is DECLARED for the whole Deal as the TOP SUIT. A TRUMP is called Turup or Thurup in local languages. A trump suit card can win over any card of any other suit. A TRUMP can be played only under three conditions a) As the first card to a trick and thus designating that as the suit to be played to that trick b) If the original card was as in (a) and one follows suit with TRUMP SUIT c) If you do not have a card in the original designated suit, you can use a Trump card to win that trick. This is called trumping or ruffing. One can also trump with a higher trump than your opponent called overruff. Within the cards of the trump suit, the normal hierarchy of cards apply: the ACE is the highest and the TWO is the lowest. The side which has more cards in a trump suit, will usually win more tricks than the other side.
    Eg: With SPADE declared as TRUMP suit, if the cards played to a trick are HEART ACE, HEART KING, SPADE FIVE  and SPADE EIGHT the person who played the SPADE EIGHT will win the trick since SPADE is the trump suit.
  7. DISCARD – A DISCARD is playing a card of a suit that is not the designated suit for that trick and is also not a TRUMP card. A DISCARD cannot win a trick.
    Eg: With SPADE as trump, if the cards played to a trick are HEART ACE, SPADE TEN, HEART TWO and DIAMOND THREE in that order, SPADE TEN will win the trick and DIAMOND THREE is a DISCARD.
  8. DECLARE, DECLARER – Each side tries to DECLARE their best and longest suits as Trumps since that will work to their advantage when trying to win tricks. In the process they also announce how many tricks their side will win (or “make”) if they declare. This process is called bidding and works like an auction. The highest bidder for tricks wins the right to DECLARE the Trump Suit. You can also DECLARE in No Trumps (NT) – in such a Deal, there are no Trump suits. The partnership that opposes the declaring side are called DEFENDERs or the DEFENDING SIDE and their play is called the DEFENCE. The final number of tricks bid for and the trump suit together is called a CONTRACT.
  9. CONTRACT – There are 13 tricks in a deal, 6-6 being the even division possible. A side must try and declare for at least 7 tricks to win the right to DECLARE the CONTRACT. This is called a 1-level contract, i.e., 6+1. Eg: A 5-level contract will declare for 6+5 or 11 tricks. A 4-level contract will declare for 6+4 or 10 tricks. Higher contracts that fetch Bonus points are called GAME. A SLAM declares for 12 tricks and a GRAND SLAM declares for all the 13 tricks. SLAMS and GRAND SLAMS come with more Bonus points too. For the purpose of bidding, No Trumps have the highest preference followed by Spades, Hearts, Diamond and Clubs in that order (S,H,D,C is also the reverse alphabetical order). So a 3-level bid in Diamonds (3D) can be superseded by a 3 level bid in Hearts (3H) or Spades (3S) or No Trumps (3NT), but not by a 3-level bid in Clubs (3C). 3-No-Trumps is the highest 3-level Contract possible. To bid over this, one must at least bid 4C, but remember that is one trick more, i.e., 10 tricks.
    Eg: A 5C (or “Five Clubs”) CONTRACT declares clubs as the trump suit and bids to win 11 tricks for the bidding side. A 3NT (“THREE NO TRUMP”)  CONTRACT declares No Trumps and 9 tricks to win for their side.
  10. MAKE and DOWN – If the side that DECLARES (called DECLARING SIDE) wins the required number of tricks, they have made the Contract. Otherwise, they have gone DOWN. For making a contract, DECLARING side will get points as their score. For taking a contract down, the DEFENDING side will get points as their score. The DECLARER tries to get as many WINNERS and reduce the number of LOSERS to as few as his CONTRACT demands.
    Eg: If we DECLARE 3N and make 8 tricks, we have gone down. We should have made 9 tricks. Similarly if we DECLARE a 6S and make 12 tricks, we have made the SLAM.
  11. DECLARER, DUMMY – For the declaring side, only one player plays the cards. She is called the DECLARER. The person to the LEFT of the Declarer plays the first card called the lead card (opening lead). Once the opening lead is made face up, DECLARER’s partner keeps all cards face up on the table so that all can see her cards. He is called the DUMMY. DUMMY plays her cards on instructions from DECLARER.
  12. MATCH, TEAM, BOARD etc. A Bridge deal typically takes about Eight minutes to play which includes bidding time and play time. A Bridge Match is played over many deals. Before the match begins, cards are shuffled for all the deals for the Match and put into card holders (called boards).  Each BOARD has slots designated for cards of each player (North, East, South and West). Cards are taken out from the slot by each player. Once the deal is played, each player puts back their own cards in the respective slots. Each deal is played in two different rooms called Open room (where spectators or Kibitzers as they are called are allowed) and Closed room. If the deal is played in the Closed room with your side as North-South, the same deal is played in the Open room with the opposing side as North-South. The points scored by your side on the deal are compared with points scored by opposing side on the same deal. By this process, called Duplicate (played at least twice), card luck is totally eliminated and Bridge is made purely a game of skill – your side plays the same cards as the opposing side. A Bridge team thus has four players or two partnerships.
  13. ETHICS – Bridge is a game played with the highest sense of Ethics. No rule of the game is wilfully flouted. A side that has accidentally flouts a rule will bring it to the notice of the opponents even if their opponents have not come to know of it. Players will not use any visual signals or gestures to communicate information to their partners. Such methods, though employed in other games, are unethical in Bridge. Fairness and ethical behaviour are paramount in Bridge. This along with the partnership and social aspect of the game makes it a unique indoor game.

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