Ever heard of the **Law of Total Tricks** ? We guess you have. Formulated
by French bridge theoretician Jean-René Vernes in an
article
in *The Bridge World* in June, 1969, it spread
like wildfire, when American expert Larry Cohen popularized it with his two books
*To Bid or Not to Bid* and *Following the Law*, published in 1992
and 1994, respectively. Today, few people, whether experts or just average
players, seem to question its accuracy.

The Law of Total Tricks, or the Law, as its adherents usually call it, is a theory which says:

The number of tricks your side can take, if you play in your best
trump suit, added to the number of tricks the opponents can take, if they play
in their best trump suit, is approximately equal to the number of trumps held
by both sides.

So, if North-South's best trump suit is ♠, where they hold 8 cards, and East-West's best trump suit is ♣, where they hold 9 cards, the total number of trumps is 17. If the sum of the tricks North-South can take in supe ♠ and the tricks East-West can take in ♣ — the total tricks – also is 17, the deal agrees with the Law.

What is important to remember is that Vernes was talking about average values. And if you take a large number of deals and compare the average total tricks with the average total trumps, they will indeed be approximately equal. So far, so good.

What Vernes didn't say — and definitely didn't mean — but which many people
think the Law says, is that "Total tricks and total trumps are equal on any
deal." One of the reasons why this false claim is so popular is that Larry
Cohen formulated the Law that way in his first book *To Bid or Not to
Bid*. Even *The Official Encyclopedia of Bridge* has got it wrong, by
including the expression "on any given bridge deal", words which weren't present
in the original and correct definition of the Law. It is important to understand
this, because the truth is that trumps and tricks are more likely to be unequal
(roughly 60% versus 40% equal).

If you are a questioning person, you may wonder why trumps and tricks should go hand in hand. Lots have been written about the Law, but practically no explanation has been given. Larry Cohen skips the issue, just like the other main proponent of the theory, Cohen's former partner Marty Bergen. And there is a very simple reason for their silence: There is no connection. If we have a deal where the total tricks are 16 and the total trumps also are 16, the tricks are not a function of the trumps. They are related to each other only tenuously and indirectly.

We who say so are three-time world champion Mike Lawrence of the USA
and bridge theoretician Anders Wirgren of Sweden, and we can prove that
the number of trumps is a poor guide to the number of tricks. Devotees of The
Law have no proof to back up their claim. We will show you what is important in
estimating your potential tricks and we will give you a brand new tool that will
make you cry**:** "The Law is dead. Long live (the new) Law !"

All this is presented in our book, *I Fought the Law of Total Tricks*,
which tells you all you need to know about competitive bidding. Still, you may
have questions and doubts, which we understand very well. After all, this
thinking is new. We will try to help you along the way, so don't hesitate to
contact us with questions and deals you want to have analyzed. If we find your
question to be interesting, we will publish it here on this site together with
an answer. And don't worry. You won't see any answers like "You can't expect the
Law to be right on every deal," which used to be the stock retort of the other
side. We will tell you exactly why. To submit a question and/or an
interesting deal, use the links "Questions" or "Deals" in the left frame.

Let us look at two examples, where both sides are vulnerable:

A 8 4 2 | ||

7 6 | ||

J 4 3 | ||

A 9 5 3 | ||

J 3 | 10 7 6 | |

K Q 10 2 | A J 8 4 | |

A 9 6 5 | 8 7 | |

Q J 2 | K 10 7 4 | |

K Q 9 5 | ||

9 5 3 | ||

K Q 10 2 | ||

8 6 |

(1)

North-South have 8 spades and take 9 tricks. East-West have 8 hearts and also take 9 tricks. The total tricks are 9+9=18. Both sides have 8 trumps, so the total number of trumps is 8+8=16. Therefore, this deal does not agree with the Law. Since there are two more tricks than trumps, we call it "+2".

And before the Law guys start screaming about "the need for adjustments" and mutter something about a factor called 'purity' (which, by the way, is just a nonsense), we keep the same honors, give each side an extra trump and change the distribution slightly. Then we get:

A 8 6 4 2 | ||

7 6 | ||

J 4 3 | ||

A 9 3 | ||

J 3 | 10 7 | |

K Q 10 9 2 | A J 8 4 | |

A 9 6 | 8 7 5 | |

Q J 2 | K 10 7 4 | |

K Q 9 5 | ||

5 3 | ||

K Q 10 2 | ||

8 6 5 |

Now the situation is reversed. Here, the total trumps are 18, but the total tricks are 16. Since we now have two tricks fewer than the total trumps, we call the deal "–2". And since the 'purity' of the deal is exactly the same as in the first deal, we have just proved that purity does not explain the difference. Else how could 2 tricks disappear into a thin air ?

A corollary to the Law of Total Tricks, often called The Law of Total Trumps and sometimes confused with it, is that you should "always bid to the same level as your number of trumps." And a few years ago, Larry Cohen won a prize for a bridge tip titled "Eight never, nine ever." With that, he meant that in deciding whether to bid 3-over-3, say 3♠ over the opponents' 3♥, you shouldn't do it with 8 trumps, but you should with 9.

Applying this principle to the deals above, we realize that North-South will do the wrong thing on both occasions, when East-West compete to 3♥. In Deal 1, they will let East-West play 3♥ (eight never), and in Deal 2, they will bid 3♠ (nine ever). And in doing so, they have gone –140 instead of +140, and –100 instead of +100. Uh-oh!

Does that mean we have to despair, and accept "occasional bad results" (in truth, more often than occasional), as advocates of the Law say ? No. In the presence of a better way, that tells you what to look for and helps you do the right thing more often than not. Read our book and find out for yourself. To order it, use the link "Order our book" in the left frame.

Ever heard anyone say, "Not enough trumps to bid, say, 5♥ over 4♠" ? You surely have. The Law guys say things like that all the time. The examples just discussed showed that the explanation to be false — and here is another example, from the Bermuda Bowl in Port Chester, 1981:

A J 7 3 | ||

Q | Dealer: North | |

A 9 3 | N-S Vul. | |

8 7 5 3 2 | ||

Q | 10 6 5 2 | |

10 8 3 2 | A K 9 6 5 | |

10 8 7 6 5 2 | 4 | |

9 4 | K J 6 | |

K 9 8 4 | ||

J 7 4 | ||

K Q J | ||

A Q 10 |

In the match between Pakistan and Argentina, the auction went as follows:

West | North | East | South |

Pass | 1 | Dble | |

3 | 4 | 5 | Dble |

Pass | Pass | Pass |

South led ♥, then won ♠K at trick two and returned another
♥, sacrificing his trump trick. When he gained the lead next, he played his
last ♥ to restrict East to five ♥ tricks in hand and
one ruff in dummy.
That excellent defense meant declarer was five down**;** –900 (according to the old
scale for doubled undertricks — today it would be –1100), 6 IMPs worse than
conceding –680 to North-South.

In *To Bid or Not to Bid*, Cohen writes: (p. 258)

"East should figure
on 9 trumps for his side, and 8 for the opponents, for a total of 17 trumps and tricks.
Even if 4♠ was making 10 tricks,
5♥X would go down four.
And what if 4♠ was making 11 tricks ?
That would be down five in 5♥X.
And, of course, if 4♠ was going down — why bid on ?
All the indications were present to prevent this violation of the LAW."

According to that reasoning, there weren't enough trumps on this deal. But what about the next one, where we have swapped ♥2 and ♥K between West and East, and kept everything else as it was.

A J 7 3 | ||

Q | N-S Vul. | |

A 9 3 | ||

8 7 5 3 2 | ||

Q | 10 6 5 2 | |

K 10 8 3 | A 9 6 5 2 | |

10 8 7 6 5 2 | 4 | |

9 4 | K J 6 | |

K 9 8 4 | ||

J 7 4 | ||

K Q J | ||

A Q 10 |

On the same defense, East now takes no fewer than nine tricks, if he
gets everything right (and the Law assumes that). He wins the lead in hand and
gives up a ♦.

On the trump return, he sticks in ♥10, ruffs a ♦,
draws the last trump with ♥K and ruffs another diamond. All he loses are
three black tricks and one diamond, –300. Now, East wins 9 IMPs for
bidding 5♥X over 4♠(–680).

On the other hand, when North plays in ♠, he will take 12 tricks no matter where ♥K is.

So, if there were "not enough trumps to bid 5♥ over 4♠"
on the previous layout, but here there are indeed "enough trumps to bid
5♥ over 4♠,"
we are led to a contradiction, because the number of
trumps is equal in the two examples. Therefore, the argument "Not enough trumps
to bid 5-over-4 (or 3-over-2 or whatever you may think of)", is not valid.

If you ever hear it again (we hope you don't), dismiss it as irrelevant.

You may have read that any changes which gain tricks for one side if they play the hand are compensated by the same loss for the other side if they declare. That claim is false. Many changes affect one side only. Here, moving ♥K from East to West meant a gain of three tricks for them (actually, only two, because if the defenders lead and continue spades — their best defense in that scenario — East will be held to 8 tricks), but it didn't affect how many tricks North-South could take in ♠ (or ♣). As this example shows, where the honors are located may matter for one side but not for the other.

9 8 7 6 | A K Q J 10 | |

4 3 2 | 7 6 5 | |

4 3 2 | 6 5 | |

4 3 2 | 7 6 5 |

Clearly, East-West take 5 tricks in ♠ contract, no more nor less.

In this case, North-South's best trump suit is ♦, where they have 8 cards. Therefore, the Law will say there should be 9+8=17 total tricks. Is it right ?

Well... The answer depends on North-South's distribution in
♠, their weak suit. If it is 2-2,
North-South will take 11 tricks, and
the total tricks will be 16. If their spades are 3-1, they will take 12 tricks,
and if their spades are 4-0, they will take all 13 tricks.

Now, the total tricks are 16, 17, or 18.
Assuming that 16, 17 and 18 are equally likely (which they aren't; the correct percentages are: 40.7, 49.7 and 9.6), the
average will indeed be 17 as Vernes said, but for any individual deal the
Law will be right only one third of the time. And this shows how dangerous it
may be to use an average value for prediction.

9 8 7 6 | A K Q J 10 | |

5 4 3 2 | 7 6 | |

4 3 2 | 6 5 | |

3 2 | 7 6 5 4 |

**Copyright c 2012, Mike Lawrence & Anders Wirgren**