by Zia Mahmood


It's rare that bridge players receive complaints -- but when they do come, the one that strokes my ego the most is the word "magician". You can keep your praises for error-free bridge or the accolades given to the so-called purity of computer-like relay bids - they don't do anything for me. No, I suppose it's something in my character that has always made me thrilled by the razzle dazzle of the spectacular and excited by the flamboyant and extraordinary. Yet, the world of bridge magic, like stage magic is often no more than illusion, much simpler to perform than it appears to the watcher. Allow me to take you into that world :--

Assume you are East, sitting over the dummy, North, after the bidding has gone 1NT by South on your left, 3NT on your right. Isolating one suit (let's say diamonds), you will see the dummy has:


either J 2 while you have Q 4  or      J 3 2 or   Q 5 4  or Q 6 5 4

Declarer plays the Jack from dummy. What would you do? Cover, you say? Correct.

With Q 4 and Q 5 4 you would cover all the time.

With Q 6 5 4, you would cover somewhere between usually to always.

Good! What if the bidding was 1H on your left, 4H on your right, and dummy had in a side suit:


Q 2  while you had  K 4    or  Q 3 2 or   K 5 4    or K 6 5 4

Declarer played the queen from dummy. Again, what would you do? Again, the answer is easy.

With K 4 and K 5 4 you would cover all the time.

With K 6 5 4 you would cover somewhere between usually and always.

In both examples, you would have defended correctly, following one of bridge's oldest rules, "Cover an honour with an honour". Bear with me a moment longer and change seats -- becoming declarer needing as many tricks as possible (don't we always?). How would you play these suits?

J 2                              or      Q 3 2

A K 10 9 8                      A J 10 9 8

Run the J, run the Q? That's normal; you would be following the simple, basic rule taught to every beginner about the finesse. But hold it for a moment. Something's wrong. How can both these plays be right? If in the first example we saw that the defender over the dummy would nearly always (correctly) cover the honour played, when he had it, how can it be right to finesse that honour, when we know that East (RHO) almost never has it? The Q in the first example, and the K in the second are almost surely in the West hand (Mal Place as the French say) and SOMETIMES UNPROTECTED. My BOLS TIP, therefore (and I certainly have taken my time to get there) is as simple as this:


and declarer should place or drop the relevant card offside, even when this is hugely anti-percentage. Before the critics jump, I must add a few obvious provisos.

1. The length must be in the concealed hand.

2. The declarer should not be known to have special length or strength in the suit.

3. The honour in dummy should not be touching, i.e. J 10 - Q J, etc.

4. The pips in the suit should be solid enough to afford overtaking your honour without costing a trick when the suit breaks badly.


I know this TIP is going to revolutionize the simple fundamentals of the every-day finesse, but although it comes with no guarantees, I can assure you that it is nearly always effective and deadly. Here are two examples - both from actual play.


K Q 3 2     Q 2
A 4 3     5 3
J 2     10 9 4
K J 6 5     A K 10 9 7 2
  Deal 1       Deal 2
A 4     A J 10
6 5 2     K 2
A K 10 9 8 6     A K Q 3
10 7     Q 6 5 3

Deal 1. You declare 3NT after opening a slightly offbeat weak NT (if you weren't offbeat you wouldn't still be reading this). West leads a Heart and you win the 3rd Heart with the Ace and lead the J - East plays low. He didn't cover! He doesn't have it! Drop the Q offside! Magic - you might have thought so, before you read this article.

Deal 2. Finally, you reach 6 from the right side (well bid) and receive a trump lead. How would you play?

 The scientists would carefully look at this hand and see that the percentage line would be to draw trumps and play A K Q - if the Diamonds were 3-3 or the J came down, they would discard a heart from dummy. Now they could play up to the K and if they lost finally try the finesse in Spades. Not bad, you say? True, but the greatest illusionist of all times, Harry Houdini, would have rejected this line. Instead he would have played the Q at the second trick. no EAST living in the 20th Century would fail to cover the K if he had it. (declarer might have A J 2, for example) - If East played low, Houdini would "know" the K was in the West hand and win with the Ace. He would now draw trumps and play on diamonds. If they weren't good, he too would play a heart up, but if they were good, he would discard a spade, not a heart from dummy and take a ruffing finesse against West's K, setting up the 10 for a heart discard to make his contract with both finesses wrong.

If at that time the kibitzers burst into applause and the deep-throated voice of Ella Fitzgerald singing that "Old Black Magic" could be heard in the distance, don't be surprised.