By Nikos Sarantakos, Luxembourg
In this article we'll examine what is perhaps considered the worst crime in bridge: ruffing partner's winner.
In fact, in a recent issue of Bridge Plus, there was a cartoon with the tombstone of a certain Mr Skinner (composed by J. Barnes of Newcastle) who was in the habit of ruffing his partner's winners - and presumably met with violent death at the hands of some irate partner. Without going to such extremes, suffice it to say that ruffing partner's winner is usually not going to gain partner's applause.This being the case, it is not perhaps strange that many players are reluctant to ruff their partner's winner even when this manifestly is the winning move. A shrewd declarer can benefit from this inhibition, as in the following deal, reported originally by Barry Rigal from a US National Championship:
South opened 1, West overcalled with 2NT (the Unusual No-trump for the minors) and North closed proceedings with 4.
The 9, a likely singleton, was led to the ace. Back came 10, another likely singleton, covered by the jack and won by West's ace. Now West plays a rather eloquent Q. East ruffs the king and fires back a spade to return the favour and beat the contract, right? Yes, but what if declarer refuses to put dummy's king on West's Q? It should make no difference, but this particular East had a strong aversion to ruffing his side's winners - so West's queen won the trick and the subsequent spade ruff disappeared. Contract made!
In the rest of this article we'll see some examples where defenders did not shrink in horror when it came to ruffing their partner's winner.
Our first exhibit comes from the Open Pairs event of the 1996 China Cup:
Fred Stewart of the USA opened 1 and Geir Helgemo of Norway doubled with the South cards (not exactly a text-book double!). You may have doubts about the strong-pass-then-double method employed by West and in fact, since East-West can make ten tricks in hearts, Helgemo's doubled contract stood to gain, especially if he could manage to get away with only one down.
Steve Weinstein (USA) led J. Declarer won with his ace and ducked a heart. Weinstein played low since he wanted partner to win the trick and play a trump through South. This duly happened and Weinstein won his jack, cashed the ace of trumps, and switched to his low spade. East won and continued with a third spade.
Now, West knew that driving out A was urgent. Afraid that his partner might well elect to continue with a fourth spade, Steve Weinstein ruffed his partner's winner and played a heart himself, going out of his way to make things easy for Stewart. Declarer won, and played A and club to the jack but East ruffed this with his king, and was able to cash a heart for two down.
In this last example, the sin was committed as a safety measure; in our next exhibit, it was essential in order to beat the contract:
The deal comes from the Scandinavian Derby between Sweden and Denmark for the 1995 European Championships in Vilamoura, Portugal. The Swedish West, Mats Nilsland, led 7 to East's jack. Declarer, Denmark's Jens Auken, ducked, won the K continuation with the ace, and then played A and a heart to the queen - an unnecessary move that he was to regret bitterly when East ruffed and then played Q.
Nilsland rose to the occasion: he ruffed his partner's winner and fired back J (suit-preference for diamonds) for East to ruff. Bjorn Fallenius duly ruffed, played a diamond to West's ace and received yet another ruff for one down.
Astute readers will have noticed that declarer can actually make ten tricks in spades as the cards lie if he simply goes about his business of drawing trumps instead of dabbling with hearts. Still, he received the deserved punishment only because Nilsland didn't hesitate to ruff his partner's winner.
In our next example some didn't dare commit the sin, some went for it and others even pulled their partners away from it!
This wild deal comes from the last edition of the late and much lamented Macallan (formerly Sunday Times) tournament. Although East-West cannot make 4 (unless playing against close relatives), understandably most Souths competed to 5 and were doubled there. Would that cost 500 or 800?
At one table, Xu Hongjun began proceedings against 5 by leading A and K. Zhuang Zejun, his partner sitting East, ruffed the king without a flicker and started on spades: this allowed the Chinese pair to collect five tricks for 800.
At another table, Omar Sharif was West: he also led A but when his partner, Christian Mari of France, followed with 5 (an obvious singleton by their methods), Omar switched to 9, forcing partner to ruff and switch to spades.
Just in case you scoff at going to such lengths to make things clearer for one's (expert) partner, witness what happened at another table, where against the same contract Tony Forrester led A and K. His partner didn't find it necessary to ruff, so the penalty was a mere 500 points. (Said partner shall remain nameless, but he was not Andrew Robson!)
Speaking about Omar Sharif, although we saw him in the act of pulling partner away from the path of sin, he is known to have committed the sin himself:
The deal comes from the 1998 Generali Masters, an invitational Individual tournament. Against 4 by South, Sharif led his singleton Q. Patrick Jourdain overtook and fired back his singleton club. Omar won and gave him his ruff. Then East continued with 10 and Sharif ruffed his partner's winner to give him another club ruff. This good defence achieved two down, but it turned out as a below average score for Sharif. Why?
Because at no fewer than seven tables West opened with 3 (yes, in second position: it was an individual, after all), North over-called with 3NT ending the auction, and then East proceeded to cash seven spades and a club, for a 200 points penalty! So, in Sharif's case, sin was its own reward, so to speak.
These few examples show that there always is a silver lining even in the darkest cloud; so next time your partner ruffs your winner, don't rush to yell at him: it might be a brilliant move after all. Yet if he is doing it consistently, or if he ruffs your ace with the ace of trumps, it might help if you show him Mr Skinner's tombstone!
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