Mahmood’s mind-blowing play is bridge magic
Most of us know that a good game of bridge is magic — fun, enchanting, challenging, all of that.
However, sometimes the play of the hand in the hands of an expert can seem like real magic, and never so more than in the hands of the charismatic Zia Mahmood.
Mahmood, originally from Pakistan, was a member of the famous Pakistani team that lost in an exciting final of the Bermuda Bowl in 1981 to a USA team containing Meckstroth and Rodwell, who won their first Bermuda Bowl.
I was lucky to be a rookie commentator at that Bermuda Bowl in Port Chester, Rye, New York, and it had a special bonus because I have known Zia for ages.
Zia now lives mainly in London and plays a lot of bridge in the US and worldwide.
We both qualified as Chartered Accountants in London in the early Seventies and were articled clerks there at the same time.
I played with and against him many times in the Eighties and Nineties. Nowadays, we are often at the same poker table in London, but his game is Hold'em and mine is Omaha. He is also a good golfer and had a five handicap at one time. I think at poker he is a three handicapper and at bridge a plus six!
In addition to being a great player, Zia is a brilliant theorist and teacher of bridge.
Years ago, he wrote a groundbreaking article called “If they don't cover, they don't have it” that has now almost become a standard part of declarer play.
What Zia was referring to was mainly this situation:
His advice is the play the Jack as many defenders will cover that with the Queen — if your left-hand opponent plays low, Zia's advice is to assume he does not have the Queen, and therefore to go up with the Ace and finesse your right-hand opponent for the Queen.
The play is not guaranteed, but it is certainly better than 50-50, based on the negative inference from LHO not covering.
The advice though, can enter another realm and now I will show you a hand put forward by Zia applying the rule, and what results is, well, magic!
You get to the aggressive six-Club slam, played by the South hand so that the Heart King is protected on the opening lead — so far so good. West leads a Trump.
This is not a great slam, but essentially it looks as if it all hinges on the Spade King being with East, in which case not only does declarer avoid a Spade loser but also has a discard of a Heart on the third Spade to make the hand.
So the whole world, including me, wins the Club and plays the Queen of Spades — when East doesn't cover, there is an impending sense of doom and so it turns out — West wins the Spade King and cashes a Heart for down one.
The full hand:
Zia, however, saw something very different. He knew, as we all do, that 98 per cent of good players in the East will always cover an unsupported Queen in case declarer had something like AJ2, and when East didn't cover, he decided to follow his own rule and took a different route.
He went up with the Ace of Spades, drew another Trump and played on Diamonds, which needed either 3-3 Diamonds or a singleton or doubleton Jack, and on the fourth Diamond, threw dummy's Spade to reach this position:
Now he took the ruffing finesse in Spades by playing the Jack — West has to cover (if he doesn't a Heart goes away), the Spade is ruffed high on the board, the 2 of Clubs is played to the 2and a Heart goes away on the Spade 10 — declarer now loses only one Heart and the slam makes.
Really mind-boggling, and in a bridge sense conjures up images of Harry Houdini or David Copperfield. As I said, magic, and bridge at a truly different level.