Monday, January 20, 2014

The Hollow Needle

When I was 12 I discovered books and... Arsène Lupin, the brilliant, congenial and uncatchable thief created by French writer Maurice Leblanc.

Devouring thousands and thousands of pages, novel after novel, I was traveling everywhere in France, especially in Normandy, in this region called Caux, a triangle between Rouen, Le Havre and Dieppe, with all those poetic names, but one in particular, Étretat. How I dreamt of this name, Étretat, of that landscape, of that view.

In July 1995, and then again in 1998, I finally climbed the famous cliff that enchanted my youth and discovered, for the first time, the Hollow Needle.

At the summit of the cliff, a hundred meters above the sea, you find yourself at the base of a half circle of around a kilometre. To the far left, you see a rock called Magna Porta (Big Door); to the right, another big rock called Porte d'Aval (Door Downstream). They are called doors because the cliff, in both cases, throws an arm in the sea, creating a hole though which you can pass. The Hollow Needle, a rocky cone of around 80 meters high, is situated in that half circle, on the right side, about 50 meters from Porte d'Aval.

In this novel, "The Hollow Needle (L'Aiguille Creuse)", Arsene Lupin is chased by a young student, Isidore Beautrelet, who uncovers all his plans, only by thinking and logic. Young Beautrelet puzzles all veteran policemen with his unorthodox method of not looking for clues, but of imagining first a hypothesis and seeing afterwards if the facts correspond to this hypothesis.

"And if the facts don't comply?" asked the inspector, ironic.
"Well, they will be wrong and I will look for others more docile," responded Beautrelet.

First position, vulnerable, your LHO, a very capable player, thinks for a while and opens 3♠. Your partner, non vul, bids 4. RHO passes and you have:

For her 4 bid, partner should show a good hand. You Blackwood and end up in 6NT. LHO thinks again for some time and leads... a heart.

Oops! A bit high, no? But you're not down yet.

Let's apply the Beautrelet method, let's imagine a hypothesis, let's place cards in LHO's hand that will permit us to succeed. You see right away that he needs to have a stiff Ace or King of Diamonds.

On the lead, won with the Ace in dummy, RHO plays the 10, maybe a singleton. We need to extract the second heart from LHO's hand and then play a diamond. If he has a singleton honor in diamond, he will be endplayed, forced to play a Spade or a club. At the second trick, you cash the heart King. RHO signals violently in Diamonds.

You then play a diamond, small, small, King!!! LHO thinks. Wow, your hypothesis was perfect. The more LHO thinks, the happier you are. While he thinks, your mind wanders on the cliff of Étretat and the analogy strikes you: with AQ6 to the left of your hand and K10xx of Clubs to the right, like two open doors, will LHO play into the Magna Porta AQ6, or through the Door Downstream K10xx, the Hollow Needle being obviously Diamonds?

After a lot of thinking, he plays back... the club Queen, right into the Door Downstream. That play leaves you speechless.

Does he really have QJx in Clubs? Too easy!, would say my friend Arturo. Arturo came to this conclusion while we were looking for a parking place in Florence and came upon a big empty place. Let's go further. Would LHO play the Queen without QJx? It is a fact that we play the Queen only when we have QJx.

"The facts are the facts," the inspector said to Beautrelet.
"With ordinary adversaries, yes," responded the young man. But, if the enemy has some ruse, the facts are the ones he has chosen. All those famous clues upon which you base your investigation (like opponents' signals in defence), it is easy for him to give you phony informations (falsecards). And when the opponent is Lupin (or a good bridge player), you can see to what total ineptitude he can lead us."

You look and look at the club Queen, trying to calm your heart. Arturo's words spring again in your mind: Too easy!

"Really, you say to yourself, I only have to win with my King and play to the 9 in dummy and I will cash 12 tricks in this impossible contract?"

You give a look to your LHO. He kindly smiles back. Suddenly, you recognize him: behind this benevolent expression, it's him, Arsene Lupin, and his words come back to you:

"When you will think you're about to grasp victory, it will escape you. There will be something... a detail... the sand pebble I will have placed somewhere that you will have missed."

You call upon all your will in order to think and count.


Lupin knew you could cash 7 heart tricks, 1 Spade and 2 Clubs, for 10 tricks. Why would he play the Queen of Clubs, giving you 4 tricks if he has QJx? Why would he play like that? Does he know something you don't know? You can't help hearing his voice, full of mockery:

"Who knows if the trap where you will fall inevitably is not already open?"

The club Queen is still on the table, shining brightly, so attractive. Almost ready to succumb, you succeed in breaking the fascination that paralyzes you and you decide to count RHO's hand: he has 1 heart, 7 diamonds. If he has 2 Spades, he has 3 little Clubs, which is logical with the bidding and LHO's club Queen. Too easy, says your instinct, too easy. There is something else, you're missing something. Go back to the bidding.

Suddenly, you have a shock, the light is so bright you have to close your eyes: LHO hesitated before opening 3♠. Did he open 3♠ with 8 cards because he was vulnerable? He would then have 8 Spades, 2 Hearts, 1 diamond and 2 Clubs. And RHO would have 1 spade, 1 heart, 7 diamonds and 4 clubs. If LHO had played back a spade, he would have submitted himself and his partner to a deadly squeeze and nobody would have been able to guard the Clubs. The only option left was to create an illusion, to try and make you believe he had QJx in Clubs.

This last hypothesis (distribution 1174 in RHO) being the one (if the facts don't comply, I will look for other ones, more docile, said Beautrelet) that will permit you to succeed, you then have to base your plan on that hypothesis and reject all other clues (attitude signals, count signals, preference signals, switch that seems to give you the contract, etc.) that opponents offer you. They are all false leads.

You win the club Queen in dummy with the Ace. You win the club Queen in dummy with the Ace. The situation should be this one:

You play first the ace of spades. Then you cash the 5 heart tricks in dummy, watching RHO's discards. He discards all his Diamonds, except the Ace. At trick 10, on the last heart, if he discards a spade, it will mean Lupin's got you. It is the moment of truth: you play the last heart and East pitches a... club. You discard the now useless Queen of diamond. The situation is now:

You play a club from dummy, small, 10 from your hand, winning. You cash the last 2 Clubs for +990.

Lupin gives you a look of admiration and murmurs:

"Well played, young man."

The four hands:

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