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Ancient Roman History

The year 1998 marked the 2000th anniversary of the Pavlicek School of Bridge. Founded as the Pavlicus Academia de Pons in the year 3 B.C. by Romulus Pavlicus (nephew of Emperor Augustus), the School has evolved a lot over the years. Most of its original curricula did not withstand the test of time and has been revised or replaced in the modern era.

For example, the once heralded Roman 2 D opening was abandoned soon after Nero died, and Roman jump overcalls were canned in the Middle Ages. Perhaps the most long-standing contribution was Roman key-card Blackwood, which was known then as “Mabelina” after its inventor of the same name, who was the first woman ever to be a member of the Forum and serve on the Consul. Mabelina was a lovely lady but forever tormented with the troubles of her convention. In fact, modern-day historians consider this the primary cause of the fall of the empire.

A case in point: According to Mabelina’s original manuscript the Roman key-card responses included four steps as outlined below. There were five key cards (four aces plus the king of the agreed trump suit) and the responses also included a wrinkle to help locate the queen of trumps.

ResponseKey Cards
5 C0 or 3
5 D1 or 4
5 H2 or 5 without trump queen
5 S2 or 5 with trump queen

It was this ingenious “wrinkle” that caused Mabelina all her grief. Everyone loved her convention at first, but there seemed to be too many deals like the one shown in the diagram.

After the forcing jump raise to 3 H, South had strong slam aspirations and the most sensible route seemed to be to ask for key cards. North held two key cards (S A and H K) plus the queen of trumps so he replied 5 S. Oops. At the table South next tried to bid 5 H, but of course West would not accept it and South was obliged to say 6 H. East was staring at two aces, so he doubled to capitalize on the mishap.

6 H× by South

S A J 5 4
H K Q 4 3
D Q J 10
C 10 4
S Q 10 9 3
H 5
D 5 4 3 2
C 6 5 3 2
TableS 7 6
H 2
D A 9 8 7 6
C A J 9 8 7
Lead: S 9S K 8 2
H A J 10 9 8 7 6
D K
C K Q

West

Pass
Pass
Pass
North

3 H
5 S
Pass
East

Pass
Pass
Dbl
South
1 H
4 NT
6 H
All Pass

West had to choose an opening lead. The only clue seemed to be East’s double, which typically called for dummy’s first bid suit (not counting trumps). Hence he led a spade, the nine which was a Roman honor lead showing zero or two higher cards — another practice favored in ancient times but rejected after two millenniums as being more helpful to declarer.

Reading the lead perfectly, declarer played the S 5 from dummy and won the king. Trumps were drawn in one round with the H J, then South led the S 8; West covered with the 10 and North won the jack. Declarer returned to his hand with a trump and led the S 2; three, four. Note the careful play of the S 5 at trick one to allow this “world’s cheapest finesse.” Graduates of the Pavlicus Academia not only made fine technical plays but added a touch of flair as well.

Declarer was then able to discard his diamond on the S A and ensure the slam. But wait! Declarer next led the D Q, which was covered and ruffed. Dummy was reentered with a trump, and both clubs went away on the diamonds.

Making seven! North is reputed to have asked, “Why didn’t you bid 5 NT to ask for kings? Then we could bid seven!” as steam spewed from East.

Epilogue

Despite this “success” of Roman key-card Mabelina, the modern Pavlicek School of Bridge has eliminated the 5 S response, i.e., bidding 5 H on all hands with 2 or 5 key cards. This not only avoids the accident seen here but it simplifies the responses.

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© 1998 Richard Pavlicek