Days of Thunder

by Matthew Kidd

This article is both a discussion of Eric Rodwell’s book on advanced card play, The Rodwell Files: Secrets of a Bridge Champion and a close examination of one of the many fascinating hands from the book.

If you are good player and serious about bridge you should own a copy of The Rodwell Files and be on at least your second read through in the two years since it was published. The book is brilliant, difficult, terse, stunningly accurate, disorganized, irritating and incomplete. Chess books usually focus on the opening, middle, or endgame. I consider The Rodwell Files to be the second book on the middle game of bridge, and as such its author has had to invent a new language for complex positions never seen before or at least never classified and catalogued, a language that is not yet refined.

Preparation

First, a caution. Make sure you have a solid understanding of the broad techniques of card play before you pickup the book. Examples include ways to establish suits, methods to gain tricks by using trumps, e.g. a dummy reversal, common suit combinations, ducking tricks to cut or preserve communication, and so on. The Rodwell Files reviews these concepts quickly in a chapter titled “Some Basic Ideas” which might suffice for a diligent and bright student of the game. But most players would be better off starting with Bill Root’s very readable and well written books How to Play a Bridge Hand and How to Defend a Bridge Hand or the older and still excellent Card Play Technique: The Art of Being Lucky by Victor Mollo and Nico Gardener.

You should also be familiar with the basic end positions, for example a throw-in or the situation where a defender must lead into a tenace or allow a ruff-and-sluff, as well as the basic three and four card squeeze endings and the principles behind squeeze play in general. The Rodwell Files is not a book on endplays per se but often at least one theme of the hands presented is either the avoidance of a routine endplay or conversely compelling a defender to suffer an endplay as one of the equally futile options available to a him. However, it is not necessary to know the rarer squeezes because although The Rodwell Files is an advanced book on card play, it is also a practical book that is primarily concerned with challenging situations that arise regularly in practice rather than very rare end positions. The book covers some common squeezes in the early chapter “The Basics of Advanced Cardplay” but my suggestion is to begin by reading part of Clyde Love’s Bridge Squeezes Complete, Chien-Hwa Wang’s The Squeeze at Bridge, or even Marvin French’s online document Squeeze Refresher (For Good Bridge Players).

Be prepared to spend serious time with The Rodwell Files. It contains as much material as four or five ordinary books on card play. The text accompanying each hand is often terse. Frequently close attention is required just to follow the play. Watch those nine and tens and the trump situation very carefully. A decent understanding of card play is required just to understand assertions that are not detailed. Running 400 pages in a small font, the book would have to be split into several volumes if the text for each hand were detailed or diagrams of the play at a latter stage were included. Printed as a single book, a prepared reader will definitely get their money’s worth.

Terse does not mean incomplete or inaccurate. The essential aspects of each hand are covered. Moreover, the book is stunningly accurate. On the first pass, the only obvious error I saw was a duplicated ♠8 where one card should have been a ♠7. An average work of fiction has more errors, let alone a highly technical book.

Entries and Timing

What is Rodwell’s book really about? Entries and timing, particularly in the middle game.

Rodwell is explicit about the first, claiming to have coined the saying, “entries are the lifeblood of bridge.” He is indirect about the second and more important facet. Entries, both certain and possible, are usually easy to identify. The exact order in which to use them in complex situations is not obvious. Many of the types of hands Rodwell presents require delicate timing for optimal play and understanding this timing is key to understanding his material.

As an aside, one of my peeves with the book is Rodwell’s undignified claims to pithy phrases. Surely many players have realized the importance of entries. What really matters is the timing of their use and here Rodwell is a genius. But I suppose “the use of timing” is too complicated for a sound bite.

Books on card play are usually concerned with techniques. Most of the hands will have a single theme, for example the safe establishment of a suit in a dummy with limited entries. The desired result may always succeed with correct play. Or perhaps a suit must split well enough or an honor must be correctly placed, but if that fails there isn’t a fallback plan so declarer must just assume it will work. Or perhaps there are two similar ways to execute the theme, differing only in their probability of success, the lesson being which line is better. The point is that only a single theme is involved.

Eventually one comes to cases where two or more independent chances can be combined, for example declarer can try for a 3-3 split in one suit and if that fails, fallback on a finesse in another suit. Life gets more interesting when two or more themes come into play depending on which choice a defender makes. Morton’s Fork, a common maneuver against an ace when holding the king and queen in opposite hands, is a simple example of multiple themes. Here is an example of Morton’s Fork from a Wikipedia article.

South is in 6♠ and receives the lead of the J. Declarer ruffs this in hand, dummy and East playing small. Declarer draws trump in one round and then leads a small heart, the Morton’s Fork play. If West takes the A, declarer has two heart winners. One can be used to pitch a club and declarer can pitch the second club loser on the Q after a ruffing finesse is taken against the marked A. If West ducks the heart, declarer is limited to one heart winner but can pitch the heart loser on the Q. Then a club can be conceded and the last club is ruffed in dummy.

The Middle Game

If you regularly examine interesting hands with a double dummy analyzer such as Bridgify, which I highly encourage, you will discover many hands where declarer or the defense can switch themes in response to a decision made by the opposition. Let us say that a hand has a “middle game” whenever such a situation arises and it isn’t a standard endplay. Thus for our purposes, a squeeze, though it involves different play depending on which suit is unguarded, shall be considered a single well understood tactic or theme.

Books that teach card play usually dedicate little if any space to the middle game. Books of interesting and amusing hands, such as Victor Mollo’s Bridge in the Menagerie series and David Bird’s series on the Monks of St. Titus, may have middle game hands but make no attempt at classifying them. Géza Ottlik and Hugh Kelsey’s Adventures in Card Play (1979) was the first serious book on the middle game. Rodwell’s is the second.

Adventures in Card Play delves into middle game in the first chapter, “Changing Your Tack”, using a sailing analogy for the interplay between shifting declarer and defense tactics, or themes as I have called them above. Many of the hands in Ottlik and Kelsey’s subsequent chapters are classified by the authors as advanced endplays, for example the entry-shifting squeezes or non-material squeezes. But given the number of cards left at the critical moment, these endplays may also be considered part of the middle game or at least to belong to the fuzzy interface between the middle game and the endgame. In any case, the defenders in the book often have choices that declarer may respond to differently, for example by shifting between a cross-ruff and a trump elopement, thus meeting our requirement of multiple themes in defining a position as a middle game position.

Beauty, Business, and Organization

The card play in Adventures in Card Play is beautiful and magical. I imagine many of the hands were discovered in rough form during actual play and then polished by moving a few cards around to further investigate interesting situations. The card play in The Rodwell Files is beautiful too but it is also about business, the business of winning. Nearly all the hands are taken from high level tournament play, the majority of them from Rodwell’s own partnership with Jeff Meckstroth. This is both a strength and a weakness. It is a strength because Rodwell focuses on the important cases of advanced card play that arise often enough to discuss, cases where mastery distinguishes him from mere strong players well versed in standard card play technique. Also, we have a ringside view of which subtle mistakes his opponents, often very strong opponents, make. Refreshingly, Rodwell even points out a few of his own mistakes. Incidentally, the bidding sometimes provides an interesting glimpse at high level competition even though this is not a book about bidding. But beyond flagging alertable bids with an asterisk, bidding explanations are not provided except to note the range of weak no trump bids.

The drawback of Rodwell’s approach shows up in terms of language and organization. The language of basic card play techniques is well established. The language of endplays is also well established, scientific even, due to the diligence of several authors. Kelsey used the existing technical language accurately and logically extended it to include terms such as the non-material squeeze, extensions that I think will stand the test of time.

I am unsure that Rodwell’s coinages will take root. I’m betting on the following: bait-and-switch, entry fly, crossover stopper, left jab, gouging, shortshake, and tightrope. But many of his coinages are unwieldy (Running Suit Eradication Endplay or Trick Trashing Middle Falsecard), refer to people (Passell’s Gambit or Martellian Squash), or are quirky (Days of Thunder or License to Kill). Unless you have Rodwell’s memories, these phrases are hard to remember in association with the relevant situation. Other authors need to refine the language. I don’t want to sound unduly critical. Rodwell has a million great things to say and his book has been in the making for twenty-something years. The game will progress faster by accepting Rodwell’s core dump as it is now than waiting another five or ten years for the gestation of a cleaned up version. Lesser lights can clean up and repackage his core dump.

Vocabulary aside, the book’s organization is problematic. I’ve mentioned some of the introductory chapters above. The book concludes with a list of DOs and DON’Ts that I found too Zen-like to be useful. Most good players instinctively know Rodwell’s DOs and DON’Ts. The real issue is which ones to focus on in a given situation, inasmuch as bridge is a timed game. Partly this is a matter of hand type recognition which comes with experience but I feel Rodwell could do better in providing guidance, which in turn reflects on the organization of the main material.

The meat and potatoes of the book are two big sections totalling 210 pages, one on advanced card play maneuvers and one on counter-intuitive defense, the latter cataloguing situations when the instinctive defenses of second hand low, third hand high, not leading into a tenace, etc, are wrong. Some aspects of defense are put in third section but could have been in the first big section. Both these sections are cookbook style; for example the chapter “Reasons for Leading into a Tenace” has the following items, each with at least one example hand: setting up a force, breaking up the entries needed for a squeeze, taking our an entry prematurely, pretending to have a singleton, and preserving your own position.

This 210 page core is useful in that it shines a light on important and practical situations, many in the middle game, and thereby builds up hand recognition skill. However, it is difficult to absorb so much information without a framework to hang it on. The middle game is still waiting for a Dmitri Mendeleev or Murray Gell-Mann to create a periodic table of complex middle game situations so that we can better understand the relationship between situations and more quickly identify which situation(s) are consistent with the bidding and card play up to given point. Maybe Rodwell has a mental periodic table of middle game situations that was not readily presentable in book form. Or maybe a good classification awaits a computer analysis. We have already seen the role of double dummy analysis in David Bird and Taf Anthias’ fascinating pair of books, Winning Notrump Leads and Winning Suit Lead Contracts, the biggest contribution to the opening game in decades. What I propose for the middle game, a classification based on reducing double dummy results from perhaps a million hands, is significantly harder than the Monte Carlo simulations that Bird and Anthias used. But I think it will happen.

Bound into Zugzwang

In chess, zugzwang refers to a situation where the compulsion (zwang) to move (zug) is harmful, either resulting in a lost game or the conversion of a win into a draw. In bridge we usually say a player is endplayed, for example when forced to lead from K-x into A-Q. A slightly more complicated endplay arises after two suits have been eliminated from a defender’s hand, and the defender must choose between leading into a tenace and or conceding a ruff-and-sluff.

Let’s say a suit is bound for a defender if it can not be led without reducing the number of tricks available to the defense compared to the lead being in any other hand, including the defender’s partner. If all suits are bound, a defender is endplayed, just as a tumbler lock opens when all pins are bound at the shear line. Still the term endplay is overburdened. Let’s use zugzwang instead of endplay when a defender is not out of more than one suit, as often occurs in middle game. This gives us a convenient way to distinguish between endplays involving well known three or four card endings (or possibly five or six in some cases) and complex middle game endplays.

If you spend enough time with a double dummy analyzer and read advanced books on card play, you will build up a mental catalogue of the many fascinating ways a suit can be bound and an understanding of the residual worth of lesser suit combinations. A-Q in a single hand is a tenace and it is possible that two tricks can be taken without losing a trick if declarer actively works on the suit by finessing. A-x-x across from Q-x-x (or Q-x) is a split tenace. It is possible that two tricks can be taken but only by conceding one trick to the defense along the way. But the split tenace has an additional asset: it binds the suit for both defenders. The binding potential is often key in complex situations; indeed it may be fine to lose a trick to the king but only after the binding potential been used to place a defender in zugzwang, a delicate matter of timing. A-x across from Q-x is weaker yet. An active declarer has only one trick; however the binding potential is just as strong.

Some ways a suit may be bound:

  1. Elimination. May be full, i.e. the elimination of the suit from both defenders, or partial, just eliminating the suit from the relevant defender.
  2. Lead into a tenace.
  3. Lead into a split tenace.
  4. Lead from a frozen suit, e.g. Q-x-x across from J-x-x.
  5. Lead from a sequence allows a declarer to setup another trick by ruffing out remaining high cards, e.g. leading from KQ93 into AJT across from a singleton in dummy.
  6. Lead permits a ruff-and-sluff.
  7. Lead saves declarer an entry when he doesn’t have enough.
  8. Lead creates an extra entry that declarer needs.
  9. Lead flips the timing. For example, if spades are trump and declarer has the lead with ♠KJ A to a defender’s ♠AQ ♣7, playing the A ensures a trick. But on lead with ♠KJT A to a defender’s ♠AQ9 ♣7, declarer still only gets one trick, the minimum guaranteed with a K-J-T trump holding. Spades may be bound earlier because the ♠9 can not be led safely. See the Self-Forced Declarer.

Rodwell may not have a mental periodic table of full hand middle game situations, but you can bet he knows a hundred ways a suit may be bound, many no doubt involving tens, nines, and eights. These binding primitives are the building blocks of complex hands and they are glued together by entries and timing.

Zugwzang can not always be achieved. Nevertheless, a defender bound in three suits may come under great pressure in finding the safe suit and easily go wrong. Or the defender may have to guess the safe suit which may depend on declarer’s shape or intermediate holdings.

A surprisingly common theme in complicated deals is that the right play is right because it is the only play that isn’t wrong, rather than because it does something. In other words, the right play is effectively a passive exit. Often the specific card played doesn’t matter as long as it is in the right suit.

Days of Thunder

I’m not always in tune with how Rodwell classifies hands. Rodwell explains the Days of Thunder concept as a defender leading declarer’s strong suit to create impossible entry problems and begins with diagram below. With blockage in both suits and no outside entry, a spade lead from a defender forces declarer to immediately guess which suit is breaking. In his example, only one trick is at stake but if the jacks are replaced with small cards, it becomes a guess as to which suit will split 3-3 with two tricks at stake.

♠KQJ85


♣AK

♠A3


♣QJ874

Seventy-six pages later, he presents the following hand is from Chapter 9 (pg 230), which is also classified as a Days of Thunder situation.

The ♣J is led against 6♠ after an uncontested auction and East wins with king. How should the defense continue?

Only a diamond return sets the contract. Diamonds is declarer’s strong suit but the diamond continuation does not commit declarer to an immediate guess as the spade lead does above. The situation is quite a bit more subtle. Declarer easily has five diamonds, a heart, four trump, and a club ruff for eleven tricks. Hearts are bound by the split tenace. Clubs are bound because a club lead saves an entry, allowing declarer to ruff the second club. Declarer wouldn’t seem to be short of entries. The A is one entry and finessing the 9 will work on this hand if declarer has no other alternative. Trump would seem worth an entry or two. But looks can be deceiving when trump must also perform a second function, ruffing clubs here, a point worth keeping in mind on defense. Left to his own devices, declarer needs three entries to his hand, two to ruff clubs and one to draw the third round of trump before running the remaining diamonds. The ♠Q cannot be used as an entry without promoting the ♠T. Nonetheless, spades are bound for East at trick two because declarer can insert the ♠8 or ♠9. If West ducks, declarer has his third entry. If West covers, his trump position is weakened; declarer can afford to ruff the second club high in order to play dummy’s ♠J back to the ♠Q8 to pick up West’s remaining ♠75. The ♠T is a key card in this hand.

The lead of the only unbound suit, diamonds, succeeds not by creating a problem for declarer but rather by not helping declarer in any way. It is the correct play because it isn’t a wrong play. East is nearly but not quite in zugzwang at trick two.

Rodwell’s discussion of the play, terser than mine, is as usual accurate. But I prefer my way of viewing why the diamond return is correct because I think it will lead to a better classification of middle game situations, one that is easier to remember and use.

Flow Issues

My major complaints about The Rodwell Files are the organization of the material and the classification of hand situations. I feel certain it can be done better and much of the preceding discussion is a grasp in that direction. But I emphasize I do not have a full solution and that I feel it is a difficult problem.

There are also minor flow issues which I think it would be relatively easy to address. For example, page 184 discusses one of the reasons to force dummy, specifically “to prevent declarer from establish dummy’s suit followed by drawing trumps and ending in dummy.” The text reads:

This is most effective when dummy has honor-third of trumps in an eight-card fit with no side entry, where declarer wants to draw three trumps in three rounds, finishing with dummy’s honor. However, it can also be used against a 4-4 fit.

It would seem natural to present one example of the common 5-3 trump case. But Rodwell immediately veers off to the less common 4-4 case. True, if you are advanced enough to be reading the book, you can construct a common 5-3 case in your head. Still, such hiccups in the flow of the text are an unnecessary distraction from the irreducible complexity that one should be focussing on.

The flow issues are most damaging when Rodwell is introducing one of his coinages where the reader is not already familiar with the concept. For example, the discussion on the Entry Fly / K.O. Fly at the start of chapter 5 could be made much clearer by rewording slightly and adding a couple of sentences. I think the worst flow issues could be corrected without increasingly the length of the book by more than five percent.

The next edition would also benefit from an index. I hope the index includes player names so that interesting hands can be found on that basis.

Conclusions

Rodwell has written a brilliant book. No serious advanced player can ignore it. I am looking forward to a cleaned up second edition. I hope other top players take on the middle game in a systematic manner. Further refinements in the technical language and in hand classification are sure to advance the game significantly.