Tired Old Book Review by John Brown

It is not widely-known that I have one of the largest collections of books about bridge in Shepton Mallet: well over fifty if you include the booklets. You may say to yourself, “It demonstrates that bridge books are useless. If they weren’t, he’d be a half decent player”. But I shall ignore cheap sniping like that.

To be honest, I have not purchased many of these books myself. A few were presents, a few were prizes (most of them won by my wife), a large number came from my former partner Ernie when he moved home, and most of the rest belonged to my late father-in-law (a real expert he was, too).

I don’t know about you, but I find quite a few bridge books rather irritating. They seem more designed to show the reader how clever the author is than offer any real practical help. A favourite ploy is to show a hand, say “plan the defence”, and give the answer on the next page. Having wrestled with the problem until you get bored (i.e. for about thirty seconds), you turn over to read “When this hand came up in a world championship, west failed to find the winning line”. In other words: “Aren’t I brilliant!  I found a better way of playing this hand than one of the world’s best”. As a practical illustration of how to do better at club level it is of little or no value.

Anyway, I thought I would, in this issue of Bridgewells (and a few subsequent issues if the editor lets me, and none of the readers tell me to stop this drivel), give an extract or extracts from a book or two which I have found particularly interesting (or annoying, or whatever).

So I thought I might as well begin with what appears to be the oldest book in the collection. Its age and style can be judged from its publication date (MCML), which was (and sometimes still is) a pretentious way of dating a book commonly used by publishers to mean “this is an important and serious work”. The title is (to be charitable about it) decidedly pedestrian: “Contract Bridge Hands”. Nowadays, it would be unlikely to get through the editorial process without being “sexed up” a bit. The author is Ewart Kempson. No, I hadn’t heard of him either. But he was apparently quite something in his day.

 The book follows a format still in popular use: problem followed by solution .The tone is patronising in places. For instance, he gives you a choice of lines on one hand and if you select the wrong one says smugly “You may profit from studying the hands in this book because your card play is not strong”. Thanks for those words of  encouragement , Mr Kempson. Similarly, the sentence “Many tournament experts are men of high intelligence: some of them can count up to thirteen, but others are not so advanced” strikes me as cringingly unfunny, while the implication that all experts are men dates the writing terribly. What is more, behaviour at the table seems to have improved over the past half century. At least that is the conclusion I draw from the sentence “West led a diamond against south’s four heart contract and the declarer’s cries of rage when he saw the dummy were quite terrifying”. Perhaps it is another of the author’s leaden jokes. But here are more similar asides scattered throughout the book, including the following, which must break all records for clodhopping wit: “An ugly scene broke out at the conclusion of the above hand, East being lugged off to hospital with several broken bones”. It all seems to suggest that games of bridge in the late 1940’s regularly ended with a brawl. Or maybe they did when the irritating Mr Kempson was playing.

Another big difference from modern books is that the bidding seems of no interest to the author at all. He will simply say “south plays in seven no-trumps”, leaving you baffled as to how north-south ever managed to bid to such an improbable contract on the cards. Where he does give a brief summary of the bidding, it is sometimes almost as baffling. You will gather that I put this book, with its laborious humour and somewhat patronising tone, in the “rather exasperating” category. But judge for yourself. I shall end with one of the deals from the book and give it, and Ewart Kempson’s commentary, complete and unabridged. He was obviously a very good player indeed. He must also have been a crashing bore.

Dealer North

                                                            S K Q 8

                                                            H  10 6 4

                                                            D  A 8 5

                                                            C  A K 7 4

                        S  7 2                                                               S  A J 9

                        H Q 9 7                                                           H  8 5 3

                        D Q J 10                                                          D  K 9 7 4 2

                        C  J 9 8 6 5                                                     C  10 3

                                                            S 10 6 5 4 3

                                                            H A K J 2

                                                            D 6 3

                                                            C Q 2

“I’ll take the cold West seat near the door, while you have the comfortable chair near the fire (do we really need this introductory rubbish?) Let us defend this four spade contract (why not three no-trumps?) together. The bidding is one club from North, one spade from South, three spades from North (why?) and four spades from South.

“I start off with the queen of diamonds and dummy plays the ace. Anxious to get rid of his losing diamond, the declarer leads a low club to his queen and then plays dummy’s two top clubs.

“For a second you consider discarding a losing heart, but you rightly decide there is no future in this defence so you pop on the knave of spades to win the trick. Now you lead the king of diamonds, but South ruffs and plays a trump to dummy’s king. You win with the ace and lead a third diamond, but the declarer is quite unembarrassed: he ruffs, draws the last two trumps with dummy’s queen and leads the 10 of hearts from the table.

“I win our third and last trick, and am almost justified in the dirty look I give you. (No you’re not!)

“When I led the queen of diamonds initially and you saw dummy, you should have known where the top hearts were. South, in a contract of four spades, does not hold A K Q J 8 of spades, A K Q of diamonds, or A K of clubs. So it is fair to assume he has the top hearts.

“On the third round of clubs you should ruff with the nine of spades and although you may not defeat the contract, you have a reasonable chance. South over-ruffs and leads a spade to dummy’s king. You win and make the king of diamonds, then lead a third diamond which the declarer ruffs. He now leads his penultimate spade, and I’ll bet you he finesses dummy’s eight.” (And I bet you he doesn’t.)

Thank you, Mr Kempson, and good evening. Don’t call us, we’ll call you.