A Visit to ACOL

What does ACOL stand for?

When you mention “bridge” and “Europe” in the same breath, the term ACOL always seems to come up and it’s often surrounded with an aura of awe and mystery.

It’s supposed to be the oldest bridge club in London – and since everything in England is so old and since bridge was invented there, maybe the oldest in the world – and it’s the place where the ACOL bidding system with weak One No-Trump openers and four-card majors was invented. We had been told that if you play there, you are forced to bid ACOL as well.

That’s not true. My partner Christine and I played at ACOL last week (6-27-2016) during our UK holiday and even though most of our opponents did play ACOL, no one had any problem with us using our Standard American system.

But all that reverence of ACOL we found to be rather misplaced. The place was extremely crowded and hot and the director did nothing to stop the deafening noise of all the people constantly doing at-the-table analysis of the hands they’d just played. Also, nobody took any notice of us, even though the players we met said they rarely if ever get U.S. visitors to drop in. The atmosphere was much less welcoming than we had found in Scotland. The best part of playing at ACOL was the buffet dinner of passable Indian food that was included for free with the 11-pound (US$15) card fees.

Some have wondered if ACOL was an acronym and if so, what it stood for. Actually, this bridge club where the system was developed used to stand on Acol Street (it doesn’t anymore) and that’s where the name came from. Anyway, to us ACOL stands for Air-challenged, Crowded, Overrated and Loud.

To us the most exciting part of the evening was probably dropping in at a pub a block from ACOL to watch Italian fans go crazy as their national team beat Spain 2-0 in the European soccer championships – then the crowd fell deadly silent and morose as England suffered its greatest sports embarrassment, losing 2-1 to soccer minnow Iceland.

Away from the pub and back at the bridge table, we finished in the middle of the pack with a game just under 50%. We would have done a lot better if I hadn’t grabbed the wrong card out of my bidding box in the intense heat and din and inexplicably passed an18-point hand. Even so, by the hand records we didn’t have a bad game: 10 hands above par, 5 pars and only 9 results below par, so we should have been a hair over 50%. In any event we didn’t find defending against ACOL to be such a big deal – nothing to be scared of.

One hand we’re proud of that gave us a positive score was one on which we set an apparently cold 4 Hearts Game with an interference bid and the right defensive lead. Our North opponent who confidently raised his partner to 4 Hearts only to see the contract go down will be Flustered Flo in this latest episode of the adventures of the Bridge Burglar, while I’ll be her nemesis, Smug Sam, with the East hand for throwing in an interference bid that told my partner, Christine, alias Shy Shem, to make the setting lead.

East Dealer; East-West vulnerable

K Q 4
A K 10 5
9 6 4
A 6 4
West East
A 7 6 2 10 8 3
8 3 2
  5 2 A K 10 8 3
K J 8 5 3 Q 9 7 2
J 9 5
Q J 9 7 6 4
Q J 7

The Bidding:

East South West North
Pass 2 Pass 2 NT *
3 Pass Pass 4
All Pass

*alerted as Ogust convention bid asking partner to further describe his hand

Opening lead: 5 of Diamonds

Flustered Flo has been trying to learn Mel’s rules. Mel Colchamiro, the South Florida player and author, has a popular bridge book out in which he seems to have a number for everything – Mel’s rule of 8, Mel’s rule of 20, etc., one for seemingly every situation that may come up in bridge.

One rule that Flo particularly liked is Mel’s rule of 17. It says that when your partner opens with a weak 2 bid, raise to Game if your high-card points and the number of trump you have in your partner’s suit add up to at least 17.

On the diagrammed hand at a recent club game, Flo sat North with her 16-point hand when her partner, Loyal Larry, opened with 2 Hearts. Since she had four of her partner’s trumps, with Ace-King no less, that gave her 20 by Mel’s rule, and she had no doubt they belonged in Game. But she thought they might even have Slam, so she decided to ask Larry to further describe his hand by bidding 2 No-Trump, using the Ogust convention to ascertain his strength.

Then suddenly Flo’s nemesis, Smug Sam, piped up from the East position with a 3 Diamonds interference bid.

When Larry passed, Flo had to abandon her Slam hopes and settled for what she thought would be a safe Game contract in 4 Hearts. Because of Sam’s interference bid, naturally the opening lead was the 5 of Diamonds. Sam collected his Ace-King of Diamonds, gave his partner a Diamond ruff and later East-West cashed in the Ace of Spades for Down One. The minus-100 score for Flo and Larry gave them just 23% on the hand, and handed Sam and his West partner, Shy Shem, close to a top with a 77%.

“I can’t believe it,” Flo said afterward. “According to Mel’s rule of 17, I had 20, and that should have been more than enough to raise to Game. What did I do wrong?”

“You’re wrong to believe in iron-clad rules,” said Sam, smug as always. “Even Mel says in his book that his so-called ‘rules’ are only suggestions for what should work most of the time. In bridge, everything is situational.”

“That doesn’t help much,” said Flo. “Just tell me why I should not have raised to Game in this situation, even though I was supposed to have had the points and the trump suit in most cases.”

“Three things should have given you pause.” Sam explained. “First, you have those three little Diamond losers and you have no idea whether your partner will be able to pick up any of them. Then, secondly I bid Diamonds, so that should heighten your caution. Now the possible losers are pretty sure losers. And thirdly, after my interference 3 Diamonds bid, your partner passed, so you have to conclude that without interference, he would have bid 3 Clubs, indicating a weak hand. Those are three big caution flags that should have told you to just bid 3 Hearts and be content with a good partial score of 140.”

“Actually, you were vulnerable and you’re lucky I didn’t double you to put you Down for 200 points,” grumbled Flo.

“Oh, I knew you weren’t going to double me,” said Sam. “The risk of me making a doubled vulnerable Game is too great for you. The risk/benefit ratio is just not there for a double. And going Down One not doubled and giving up just 100 points would still have been s good score for us.”

“I still think I got snookered by Mel’s rule of 17,” said Flo. “I’m going to ask Mel for a refund for what I spent on his book.”

“Good luck with that,” said Sam. “You’d be better off buying another book, something like ‘The Play of the Hand’.”

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