The Bald Man and the Fly







A surprising chapter title in a bridge book, you may think. In fact it is the title of one of Aesop's fables. In an English translation, it reads:


A Fly bit the bare head of a Bald Man who, endeavouring to destroy it, gave himself a heavy slap. Escaping, the Fly said mockingly, "You who have wished to revenge, even with death, the prick of a tiny insect, see what you have done to yourself to add insult to injury?"


For the classically minded, this comes from Townsend's translation of the Fables (1887); the Greek original of this fable is no longer with us Townsend took it from Phaedrus's Latin text of 1st century A.D.


But this is by the way. It occurred to us that there are many similar situations at the bridge table. It often happens that one side (the Man, not necessarily bald) holds the great majority of points and is looking forward to a game, or possibly a slam. The other side (the Fly) then makes an impertinent overcall on meagre values. Instead of brushing it aside and finding their contract, the point-laden pair decide to teach them a lesson (with a heavy double rather than slap). To add insult to injury, it sometimes happens that the tiny, low-level enemy contract makes!


Our first exhibit comes from the match between Egypt and USA in the 1968 Olympiad.



Dealer: North. Love All.

Sx 8 7 5 4

Hx Q 8

Dx Q J 5 3

Cx Q 8 5

Sx A 10 9 6 Sx

Hx A 10 Hx J 5 4 3

Dx 9 6 2 Dx A K 10 4

Cx 9 7 6 4 Cx A K J 10 3

Sx K Q J 3 2

Hx K 9 7 6 2

Dx 8 7

Cx 2


West North East South

Mrs Morcos Kay Shaffel Kaplan


Pass Pass 1Cx 1Sx

Dble All Pass


This was the era before negative doubles had gained worldwide acceptance, so Wests double was for penalties. What an awful call it was, particular when holding four-card club support! Why try to make seven tricks with spades as trumps, knowing there is a bad trump break against you, rather than attempting 1NT or a part-score in clubs? Mind you, her partner wasn't obliged to stand for it and might well have taken it out, given his spade void and attacking hand.


West led the dx6 to the queen and king. East cashed the ace of clubs and then attempted to cash the king, which was fatal for the defence. Doubtless he couldnt believe that his partner would make a one-level penalty double with four-card club support. Declarer ruffed the second club and led a low heart. West rose with the ace and returned the dx9, which held, and then another diamond, ruffed by declarer. The trump queen was allowed to win and Kaplan played a heart to the queen, followed by a second round of trumps to the jack and ace. West returned the ten of trumps to declarer's king. Kaplan then played the hxK and claimed seven tricks.


This insulting 160 was added to the 400 gained by the US at the other table. The US pair there were using negative doubles (in fact, Al Roth had invented them!) but they didnt have the chance to emply the method. The Egyptian South, a stunningly handsome amateur player who was surrounded by a swarm of kibitzers (you guessed it Omar Sharif), made a take-out double instead of overcalling.



West North East South

Root Zanariri Roth Sharif


Pass Pass 1dx Dble

1sx Pass 2cx Pass

3cx Pass 5cx All Pass



Al Roth and Bill Root bid efficiently to the club game (3NT was a sound alternative) and South led the king of spades to dummy's ace. Roth discarded a heart from hand and advanced the nine of diamonds. North split his honours and in the fullness of time Roth was able to score 11 tricks even after misguessing the trumps. He lost just one heart and one trump.


Sometimes the fly can bite before the bald man, er... the strong hand has had a chance to bid. This is what happened in the 2000 Maastricht Olympiad.



Dealer: South. E-W vulnerable.

Sx Q 5

Hx 8 7 3

Dx Q J 4

Cx A Q 9 6 2

Sx Sx A J 9 6 2

Hx A K Q 10 6 4 Hx J 9 5

Dx A K 10 6 Dx 8 5 3

Cx K J 5 Cx 7 4

Sx K 10 8 7 4 3

Hx 2

Dx 9 7 2

Cx 10 8 3


West North East South

Engel M.Branco


Dble Pass Pass Pass



The South hand may seem a bit light for a weak two bid, but at favourable vulnerability and first to speak Brazils Marcelo Branco couldn't resist the temptation. Zvi Engel, West for Belgium, now had a real problem. Holding a game-forcing hand plus a spade void, vulnerable against not, there was a real risk that a double might be passed out for an inadequate penalty. Engel did choose to double and partner passed it out. Who can blame him?


Insult was added to injury when Branco made his doubled contract. West led the ace of hearts and now, to beat the contract, it is essential to play hearts at every opportunity (East will discard a diamond on the fourth round of hearts, depriving declarer of a winner in the suit). The Belgian West chose to shift to a low club at Trick 2 and in due time Branco collected 470.


Despite this triumph there was (naturally!) a fly in the ointment for Brazil. They gained only 9 IMPs because at the other table, given a free run, the Brazilian East-West over-reached to 6hx and duly went down.


So far we have seen examples where the side that tries to swat the fly is able to make game, but prefers to double a lowly part-score only to see it make. What about a side having a slam available and doubling a lowly enemy contract unsuccessfully? This grotesque debacle has happened several times, even among well-known champions.


Our first exhibit comes from the semifinals of the 1998 Spingold teams. At the first table, Meckstroth and Rodwell bid efficiently to the good small slam in clubs, making twelve tricks. At the other table the fly put in a late appearance but it then stung forcefully:


Dealer: East. N-S vulnerable.

Sx 9 7 5 2

Hx K Q

Dx Q 8 2

Cx 9 6 5 3

Sx J 6 Sx A K 8 4 3

Hx A 10 9 Hx 3

Dx A J 9 3 Dx 5 4

Cx J 10 7 2 Cx A K Q 8 4

Sx Q 10

Hx J 8 7 6 5 4 2

Dx K 10 7 6



West North East South

Compton Freeman Onstott Nickell

1sx Pass

1NT Pass 2cx 2hx

Dble All Pass


East-West were playing a two-level response as game-forcing, so West began with a forcing 1NT response. We wonder what East would have needed to rebid 3cx. He chose a humble 2cx rebid, which might have been made on a three-card suit, and the magnificent club fit never came to light.


That said, West's double of 2hx was surely the main culprit. South knew he was bidding at unfavourable vulnerability and would not have stepped into the arena, on a passed hand, without considerable distributional values. Wests trumps were simply not good enough to venture a penalty double, particularly when there were reasonable prospects of scoring a game in his own direction. There was no defence against 2H doubled. 670 plus 920 was worth an impressive 17 IMPs to the Nickell squad.


Fly-hitting accidents can happen even to the worlds top players and our last example comes from the prestigious (but, alas, no longer with us) Macallan tournament of 1998. All four players at the table were among the world's elite.



Dealer: South. Love all.

Sx K Q 6

Hx K J 10 5 4 3

Dx 10 9 8 2


Sx A J 9 7 5 2 Sx 10 3

Hx 9 Hx A Q 8 7 2

Dx A Dx K 4

Cx A Q 8 5 2 Cx K J 6 4

Sx 8 4

Hx 6

Dx Q J 7 6 5 3

Cx 10 9 7 3


West North East South

Robson Helness Zia Helgemo


1sx 2hx Pass Pass

Dble Pass Pass 2dx

Pass Pass Dble All Pass


Wests reopening double seemed to hit the jackpot for a moment or two. The fly... er the Norwegians then flew to a more hospitable spot and the second double did not meet with success. Robson led his singleton heart to the ten and queen and the defenders could not prevent declarer from disposing of his four club losers in one way or another.


How do we assign the blame here? Wests re-opening double on the second round might well have picked up a big penalty against 2hx. However, it is always dangerous to conceal the second half of a big two-suiter. When you have a fit in the second suit, partner will over-estimate his defensive values and under-estimate how many tricks can be made by his own side. Here the big club fit never came to light and Zia, uncertain what game might be makeable by East-West, chose to defend against 3dx.


Note that 3dx can be beaten, but only on the difficult ace of diamonds lead. West must then switch to clubs and East has to play the king of trumps if he comes in early with a heart.


A tiny (fly-size) consolation for East-West was that not all pairs who reached six clubs managed to make it. At the table of Lauria-Versace, there was also a 2hx overcall, but Alfredo Versace as West reopened with an excellent 4cx bid instead of a double. The Italians soon found the good club slam and efficient bidding was followed by efficient play. Versace won the diamond lead and played a trump to the king. He led a second trump through South, who inserted the 9, and then played ace and another spade. He later ruffed a spade with the cxJ and finessed the cx8 on the way back. Six clubs made.


By contrast, Jeff Meckstroth, after winning the diamond lead, laid down the ace of trumps at Trick 2. A tiny difference, it seems, but now the slam could not be made! No longer able to ruff a spade high and pick up Souths trumps, he went down.


The opponents had put in a fly-weight bid at Meckstroth's table and no doubt it was responsible for the slam's failure. Germanys Daniella von Arnim, sitting South, had opened with a weak 2dx. It therefore made sense for declarer to play South, rather than North, to be short in clubs. Yes, some flies can bite in devious ways!