Sea Legs

The Five Families

Prager_HeadshotFinding one’s footing is as important for newbies in the game of bridge as it is for landlubbers pressed into service on the high seas. In one form or another, the expression has been around for eons, inspired (according to some etymologists) by the way certain four-footed animals manage instinctually through trial and stumble to attain a standing position shortly after birth.

Confidence is a parent to success. Feeling comfortably reliant upon one’s own wits and those of partner are essential ingredients for enjoyable experiences and good results. Gaining a sense of the lay of the land external to one’s partnership is crucial as well, with knowledge of one’s opponents’ systems being foremost.

I’m often uncertain as to whether a transient adversary’s recitation of conventions is intended to inform or intimidate, but it can come off sounding like heaping servings of both when the roster is a tossed salad of reasonably familiar and arguably arcane devices, the great majority of them bearing the surnames of their inventors or proselytizers.

For example, at a break midway through a morning Gold Rush session, while Jo Ann was off refilling her water caddy, a new pair of East-West competitors arrived with five minutes remaining. We traded names as East laid down and positioned his convention card with painstaking exactitude, so that its short and long borders were perfectly aligned with the eastern and northern boundaries of the table. I made him out to be an engineer.

It was he who trumpeted an eponymously titled host of specialisms, concluding with three alliterative Ls: “We play Bergen, Modified Cappelletti, Smith Echo, Lavinthal, Lebensohl, and Lightner Doubles. What about you?”

When the only arrows you’ve got in your quiver are Jacoby-this and Jacoby-that, how are you supposed to respond without losing face? With time on the clock, I figured a little harmless humor was in order, fully intending to set the record straight in advance of the upcoming round. “We play Two-Over-One, Jacoby Two Notrump, Jacoby Transfers, Convenient Minors – plus Barzini, Corleone, Cuneo, Stracci, and Tattaglia. All the Five Families.”

“Thanks,” said West, shooting a do-you-have-a-clue-what-he’s-talking-about glance at his partner. No laughter. Not a flicker of recognition that I had rattled off the names of the heads of the warring families in The Godfather – and had done so in unerring alphabetical order. Zip.

Just then Jo Ann returned, introduced herself, and asked East and West how their tournament was going so far. They were happy to share the good news that they’d scratched in each session and earned a section top the day before. A moment later, the boards arrived. “Perhaps I should explain about those Five Families,” I offered, as hastening hands beat a path to the card cradles.

“That’s okay,” East assured, busily fanning his quarter of the deck, having won the get-mine-first steeplechase. “We know.”

He knew? What did he know? That it was a jest on my part? Or was he too prideful to admit that there were conventions even more esoteric and obscure than those of which he had boasted? My conscience was clear: Nota Placitum Ipsa Loquitur. Roughly translated from the Latin: The Convention Card Speaks for Itself.

The fellows were as good as their record of performance had indicated, finding and making a tricky slam on the first board. On the second, however, they slipped up, missing game when a preemptive 3 Bergen raise was tabled instead of the 3 limit raise merited by responder’s holdings. Rattled after making 200 in 3, they seemed at sea in the bidding of the third. Jo Ann opened 1♠, East passed, and I bid 3♣, which she alerted. When asked, she explained “a weak jump shift not in competition.” West, with a monster hand in Hearts, could have doubled, but bid 3 instead. With two honors in my suit and favorable vulnerability, Jo Ann carded 5♣ – pass, pass, pass. We went down one, undoubled. The opposition had missed 5 cold.

They were good sports and thoroughly enjoyable company. We finished a full five minutes before the end of the round and talked about this-and-that with shields down, as our time together in the ring had ended. We bade them good luck as they migrated to the next table.

Before they sat, I distinctly heard East offer the following advice to his partner: “We really should read up on those Five Families conventions.”


These days, shortly before assuming our seats at the table, we take turns reminding one another of the easy-to-miss or mess up conventions – Inverted Minors, New Minor Forcing, Checkback Stayman, and Drury being the headliners.

In the early going of my apprenticeship, I relished bolting on all manner of ‘new’ conventions and appurtenances. Each extension of the bidding arsenal carried openly coded messaging regarding one or more of shape, strength, shortness, and length. I learned that each artificial bid has a shadow – the ghost of the natural bid whose body it inhabits. Equally, when a lower-level cue bid implying strong support is available but not used, a show of support through a higher-level natural bid is weaker. Nuance and subtlety abound.

The mathematics geek in me revels in such stuff. Binary Choices. Finite Fields. Unbounded Sets. The Calculus of Deduction. The Universe of Permutations. And Minefields of Mistaken Identity.

The third time the following happened, I had no excuse. It was well before lunch. I hadn’t drifted off daydreaming about pepperoni pizza or Szechuan dumplings or bleu-cheese-and-bacon burgers. With Jo Ann sitting West as dealer, the bidding went:

West North East South
Pass Pass 1♠ Pass
2♣ All Pass

My 1♠ opener featured 14 HCP, including the top three honors in a five-card holding; a worthless doubleton in Hearts; three Diamonds to the King-Jack; and three Clubs to the Jack. Between what I had misinterpreted as Jo Ann’s denial of support for my major and my possession of three of her minor, I figured we’d fare better in her suit – and because she was a passed hand, there was little chance of taking eleven tricks for game.

After the round, Jo Ann confided that the first wave of nausea rolled in when she found me staring at her 2♣ bid, having failed to alert it. Ever observing the spirit and letter of the rules of the road, she gave no indication of anxiety or alarm. Instead, she sent me urgent, blood orange brain waves which, alas, rarely make it through the ether.

“This is the third time in two months that you’ve missed Drury. And we always review it right before each session. The only reason we might not get a low board on that disaster is because they didn’t pull trumps, and I got in a few good cross-ruffs.”

“I’ll do better next time. Promise.”

“There won’t be a next time. For three months, we’re going on a Drury Diet. No more Drury. Maybe your blind spot has something to do with the bid of Two Clubs. Remember how you missed my Two-Over-One up in York?”

How could I forget? “I feel like I’m being busted down from a three-striper to a private. Am I officially a puppy again?”

“No, no. You get to maintain your rank. You’ve earned it. But for the next ninety days, you are in the Drury Doghouse.”


(To Be Continued)

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