Deal Of The Week: December 23, 2021

The Zach Garber Swindle!

Who knows what they know?

RHO opens 1, you pass, LHO raises to 2 and after partner passes, RHO bids 6! You lead the 3 and partner plays the queen and declarer wins the ace. Declarer crosses to the ace of hearts and cashes the ace of clubs, pitching away the jack of diamonds. Next is the jack of spades, partner playing the three and declarer the two, putting you in with the king. What do you lead next? Answer below....

Morton Friedgood (1913-2006) was a New York City writer who worked in the motion picture industry and wrote crime novels under the pen name John Godey. The most celebrated of these was The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, a 1973 bestseller about the hijacking of a subway train which was the basis for a fun 1974 movie (as well as several other later adaptations which were not as good). Both the book and the 1974 film feature a key plot element: recognizing what is knowable and what is not.

The four hijackers stop a subway train in mid-afternoon, release the back cars and send the motorman to walk the passengers in the back cars through the tunnel back to the previous station, keeping the front car and the eighteen passengers as hostages. They give the city one hour to assemble a million dollars in cash and deliver it to the train. As the deadline approaches, the Transit Authority policeman (Zach Garber, played by Walter Matthau) negotiating with the leader of the hijackers (Mr. Blue, played by Robert Shaw) on the radio asks for more time, but is repeatedly denied. Finally the hijacker allows a small concession: if they get the money to the station entrance by the deadline, that will be acceptable. A police car races through the city streets with the bag of money the federal reserve has just hastily prepared, but there is a collision and Garber is told on the radio that the money will be late.

"We can start scratching those eighteen hostages off one per minute then," says Garber to the police lieutenant calling in the bad news. "How can they do that?" asks the lieutenant. "It'll be here a few minutes after the deadline. They know the money was coming and they know we were trying to get it there as fast as possible. We just hit some traffic and had a crash, that's all."

"They don't know anything about that down there," says Garber. "They don't know anything at all..." and then it hits him. He hits the button to talk to the hijackers: "Pelham One Two Three, the money has arrived! Repeat, the money has arrived." The rest of the command center immediately realizes Garber's ploy. "I hope it works," says the main dispatcher.

I'll let you find the movie (or the book) and check out how it worked. (Not much of a spoiler, that's less than halfway into the film.)

In bridge, understanding what the opponents probably know and cannot know yet can be crucial if the result could go either way. This week's deal is one where I tried the Zach Garber strategy:

If the K is onside I will make twelve tricks easily by pulling trumps and winning five spades, five hearts, and the minor suit aces. I took a small risk by playing a heart to dummy, risking the contract if hearts were 5-0, but against a distribution like that I would probably not have succeeded anyhow. The real problem is that the diamond lead removes my only winner in the suit, and if the trump finesse fails I will lose another diamond and go down, unless I can convince the opponents that leading a second diamond is futile. Crossing to the ace of hearts and leading the ace of clubs to discard the jack of diamonds (would they believe the deuce? Unlikely.) looks like I began with only two diamonds. From East's point of view, declarer could easily be 6=5=2=0 on an auction like this one. Partner might have three hearts to the queen, or a second trump might leave me a trump short if I plan to crossruff. Poor West is stuck in a stalled subway train with no easy way to discover what is happening. It might just be disastrous to try to cash the K instead of trying to find a second defensive trick elsewhere.

The key to deceptive plays like this one is to do them early on in the play, as early as possible. Good defenders will signal and piece together the distribution very quickly and learn whatever there is to learn. Against expert players you can expect on most deals that the hand is an open book after six tricks or less. But there is nothing to lose as declarer by setting such traps if there is a potential problem that needs to be avoided. And if you chose to lead something other than the K when reading the problem above, sympathies: it happens to us all occasionally!

By the same token, if you pull something like this off at the table, be aware that the defender ensnared by your deceptive play is likely to be a bit embarassed for falling for it. This is not the time to gloat or laugh. Just score it up and calmly explain, if asked, why you played it that way.

By the way, if you find a John Godey novel in a used bookstore, you will be in for an entertaining read. Godey's calling card was the surprise ending, which in all of his novels was a twist in the final sentence. The Pelham novel's finale was good but the movie twist, a final scene with Matthau, Martin Balsam, and Jerry Stiller, was much better: a brand-new twist at the end following a suspenseful scene involving the ransom cash, the search for the one unaccounted for hijacker, and a telltale sign just before the end credits rolled!

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