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The short story ‘The Unprincipled Affair of the Practical Joker’ by Dorothy L. Sayers was collected in Lord Peter Views the Body (Gollancz, 1928). In this extract the characters are playing a game of bridge:

‘Whatever has induced you, my dear boy,’ said Colonel Marchbanks, ‘to take up with that very objectionable fellow Melville?’

Diamonds,’ said Lord Peter. ‘Do you find him so, really?’

‘Perfectly dreadful man,’ said the Hon. Frederick Arbuthnot. ‘Hearts. What did you want to go and get him a room here for? This used to be a quite decent club.’

‘Two clubs?’ said Sir Impey Biggs, who had been ordering a whisky, and had only caught the last word.

‘No, no, one heart.’

‘I beg your pardon. Well, partner, how about spades? Perfectly good suit.’

Pass,’ said the Colonel. ‘I don’t know what the Army’s coming to nowadays.’

No trumps,’ said Wimsey. ‘It’s all right, children. Trust your Uncle Pete. Come on, Freddy, how many of those hearts are you going to shout for?’

‘None, the Colonel havin’ let me down so ’orrid,’ said the Hon. Freddy.

‘Cautious blighter. All content? Righty-ho! Bring out your dead, partner. Oh, very pretty indeed. We’ll make it a slam this time.’

The puzzle here is to explain the bidding, which I’ve highlighted.

  1. If Lord Peter and Sir Impey have the cards for a slam, how come they stopped bidding at one no trump?

  2. According to the modern laws of rubber bridge, a bid “names both a level, from one to seven, and a denomination”. So Lord Peter’s opening bid of “diamonds” would today be given as “one diamond” and Freddy’s “hearts” as “one heart”. Was it the norm in the 1920s to omit the “one”, as in the dialogue above?

    By comparison, in Agatha Christie’s Cards on the Table (1936), the bidding is in the modern form, in this respect at least:

    There they were well down to it, their faces serious, the bids coming quickly. ‘One heart.’ ‘Pass.’ ‘Three clubs.’ ‘Three spades.’ ‘Four diamonds.’ ‘Double.’ ‘Four hearts.’

    One no trump’—clear and decisive—Mrs. Lorrimer.

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TL;DR: The characters are playing auction bridge, not contract bridge.

Auction bridge was the main form of the game before Harold Stirling Vanderbilt invented contract bridge in 1925. Vanderbilt’s rules quickly swept the bridge-playing world, but this was a little too late for ‘The Unprincipled Affair of the Practical Joker’, which was first published under the title ‘Beyond the Reach of the Law’ in Pearson’s Magazine vol. 61 (February 1926).

In auction bridge, overtricks are scored below the line and count towards game, and a slam scores a bonus whether it was bid or not. This means that there is no incentive for a partnership to carry on bidding after they have won the auction: their score will not be improved by bidding and making a higher contract, and of course a higher contract has a higher risk of going down. This explains why Lord Peter and Sir Impey stopped the bidding at one no trump even though they had the cards for a slam.

The omission of “one” from the characters’ bids is not so easy to explain. My theory is that this form of bid is a survival from the game of ordinary bridge, which was the only form of the game before the invention of auction bridge in 1905. In ordinary bridge, there is no bidding: trumps are chosen by the dealer, or, at the dealer’s option, by the dealer’s partner. There is thus no need to specify a level.

Here’s an anecdote illustrating the process:

A rubber is made up of two ladies—a mother and her daughter—and two visitors, who happen to be gentlemen. […] The mother has dealt and examined her hand very carefully.

“Oh, dear! Let me see! We are eighteen, aren’t we, and the rubber game? Well, if I should happen to leave it to you, dear, and you should just happen to make it no trumps, and we could make the odd trick, we should win the rubber, shouldn’t we? Well, I leave it to you, dear.”

No trumps,” said the daughter with alarming alacrity.

“Oh, how lucky that you could make it!” said mama.

Arthur Loring Bruce (1909). The Bridge-fiend: A Cheerful Book for Bridge-Whisters, pp. 252–253. New York, Moffat, Yard and Company.

(The mother’s behaviour here in prompting her partner’s choice is of course an egregious bit of cheating.)

If you had got used to playing ordinary bridge then when auction bridge came along it might be natural to omit the “one” from opening bids. Here’s an example:

“Oh, Peter, one moment!” [Nellie] whispered. “Look quickly at mamma’s face. When that holy expression comes on it, it always means that she is intending to declare no trumps. So when I’m playing against her, if it’s my turn first I always declare one no trumps, and then she has to declare two. Wait one second, Peter.”

No trumps,” said Mrs. Heaton.

E. F. Benson (1922). Peter, pp. 7–8. London: Cassell.

In this passage the discussion of “two no trumps” shows that the game must be auction bridge. Mrs. Heaton most likely began her bridge career playing ordinary bridge, so that a plain “no trumps” is her habitual form of bid; whereas the younger Nellie has only played auction bridge, so that “one no trumps” is hers.

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