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Remembering John Lowenthal

Remembering John Lowenthal

by Phillip Martin, Scarsdale, NY

Late last year, the bridge world lost one of its most creative and colorful personalities. John Lowenthal was a perennial favorite of kibitzers, since he had a flair for producing the unexpected. I remember this hand from a Swiss match, when John was playing with his second wife, Helen:

S Q 6 4
H Q 8 6 5 2
D 7
C K 6 3 2
S 5
H J 10 7 4 3
D K J 4
C Q 10 8 5
S K 10 9 7 2
H K 9
D A Q 9 3
S A J 8 3
D 10 8 6 5 2
C 9 7 4
John   Helen  
-- -- Pass 1 S
Pass 1 NT Pass 2 D
Pass Pass Double Redouble
Pass Pass 2 H Double
2 S Pass 3 C Double
3 S Pass Pass Double
Pass Pass Pass  

Now, after years of playing with John, the two-spade bid looks normal. At the time, I thought it was the strangest call I had ever seen—a record that lasted for exactly one round of bidding. The three-spade bid easily had it beat.

West led a diamond. (He should have led a trump, but, understandably, he didn’t expect to find three spades in the dummy.) East did the best he could by shifting to the king of spades at trick two. John won, cashed the heart ace, ruffed a diamond, ruffed out the heart king, and ruffed another diamond. East ruffed the heart queen with the nine of spades, and John pitched a club. East could not avoid breaking clubs sooner or later, so John escaped for down one.

“Often the best place to play a misfit is in the opponents’ suit,” John explained later. “When trumps split 5-1, the opponents can’t crossruff.”

When John and I formed our partnership in the late 70’s, Henry Bethe warned me about John’s opening leads. Henry had observed John’s tendencies over the years and had formulated what he called Lowenthal’s Laws:

(1) The lead of an honor denies a touching honor.

(2) The lead of a low card promises an honor sequence somewhere in the hand (though not necessarily in that suit).

(3) The lead of a trump shows a side singleton or void.

(4) The lead of a short suit is an attempt to force declarer to draw trump.

I didn’t take these Laws seriously at first, so John and I had a few accidents. In one of our early efforts, John led the king of spades and dummy hit with a singleton. It looked like a good idea to overtake with my ace and shift. It wasn’t. Not only did this set up declarer’s queen-jack, it was the wrong approach altogether. We were supposed to be tapping the dummy, not attacking side suits.

“Even if I did have king-queen, why would I lead the king if we needed you on play at trick two?” John asked. “If I had anything worth shifting to, I would lead low, or perhaps the queen.”

Later on, John led the king of clubs. Dummy hit with Q 9 x and I had J x x x x. Demonstrating that I still hadn’t learned my lesson, I signaled with the jack as an alarm clock. John had K 10 x. Declarer could now take three tricks in this suit. But, of course, he didn’t. He thought I was playing him for a sucker and he wasn’t about to fall for it.

When I started paying attention to the Laws, we began to do better.  Once, against a four-spade contract, John led a low diamond to my ace.  I returned a diamond to his king, and John played a heart back to my ace.  It was now clear that they only thing left for me to do was to try to give John a ruff in a red suit. So I had to decide which was more likely, that John had led a low diamond from king-doubleton or that he had failed to lead a singleton heart?  A quick review of the Laws gave me the answer.  John couldn't have a singleton heart, since he hadn't led a trump.  I played a diamond, and John ruffed.

On another deal, John led the jack of clubs against three notrump. Dummy hit with K Q 7 6 and I had 10 8 3. When declarer played low from dummy, I dropped the eight. Declarer, with A 4 2, took his ace and led low to the seven, playing John for J 10 9 5 3. Later I wondered if the eight was the right falsecard. Perhaps I should have played the ten, the card I was known to hold.

When Kit Woolsey played with John in the Goldmans, I explained the Laws to him before the first session.  On the first round, the opponents bid pass--one spade / two clubs (Drury-fit)--four spades.  John led a trump. Dummy hit with a six-card diamond suit, and Kit fell off his chair laughing. Dummy thought perhaps Kit didn't care for his auction, but Kit was laughing because he held six diamonds himself.  So he knew I was right. John had led a trump with a singleton or void in diamonds.  (By the way, at trick two, declarer led a diamond to his stiff ace, and John ruffed and led another trump.  This was the only winning defense.)

John found my own opening leads too pedestrian and always tried to help me out in the auction. He would make fit-showing jumps on ace-king doubleton rather than leave me to my own devices. Once, my RHO opened one notrump, LHO bid three clubs, invitational, and RHO bid three notrump. After two passes, John doubled. It seemed unlikely that a club lead was the right idea, so I tried something else. The hand took about fifteen minutes to play. After every trick, declarer and I would go into a huddle trying to construct what John could have to warrant a double. Finally, we would think of something and play would continue. At the end of the trick, it would be clear to each of us that our construction was wrong and we would start all over. Eventually, declarer finished down one. John turned up with a 1-4-5-3 pattern with scattered high cards. Declarer and I both turned to John and asked, in unison, “What was that double?”

“I just wanted you to make an unusual lead,” said John. “I figured anything was better than your usual lead.”

In truth, John’s singleton spade had terrified him. If my spades weren’t good enough to bid, he certainly didn’t want me to lead one. (As it happens, a spade lead would have beaten the contract two tricks, so the double broke even.)

Whenever John had a singleton spade and nobody bid the suit, the wheels started turning. The most dramatic example occurred in the Reisinger’s Knockout against Larry Edwards. John picked up,

S x    H x x x    D x x x x x x    C x x x.

His LHO opened with three clubs, I bid three hearts, and Larry bid seven clubs. John’s singleton spade made it fairly clear what Larry had: solid spades, a heart void, and the ace of diamonds. John had little hope of beating seven clubs, but there was a good chance I was void in clubs. If so, he could beat seven spades. Accordingly, John doubled. After two passes, Larry glared at John and said, “Nobody ruffs my suit on opening lead! Seven spades.” John doubled that, too, and led a club. Now Larry glared at me. “You ruff that club and I’m going to kick your ass.” I stood up, tossed a trump on the table, and ran.

Larry, typically, was as delighted as if he had perpetrated this maneuver himself. When he found out what John had, he gave him a high-five, leaned back in his chair, and roared with laughter.

John went through periods, just like Picasso. There was a time when John looked for excuses to avoid opening one notrump. The hand was always too suit-oriented or too control-rich or too concentrated. Then he played a session with Chuck Lamprey where, in Chuck’s opinion, this phobia was responsible for several bad boards. “One of my regular partners,” said Chuck, “opens one notrump on all kinds of hands: six-card majors, singleton kings. Nothing bad ever seems to happen.”

Since Chuck felt strongly about this, John agreed to give it a try. He started opening one notrump on a variety of “inappropriate” hands. Chuck was right. Nothing bad happened. John got more daring. Soon he was opening one notrump on any hand with 15 to 17 HCP. (“It doesn’t seem to work to cheat on the high-card points,” John told me.) We had auctions like,

John   Me  
1 NT 2 S Pass 4 S
4 NT Pass 6 C (All pass)

John, of course, was 1-1-5-6. Eventually he decided he’d gone too far and started toning it down. But that was John’s way. There was no sense in trying out something new unless you were willing to test the limits.

When John began his series “Develop Your Imagination” in The Bridge World, we had an argument about creativity. I maintained that John approached the game with no preconceptions. Most of us play bridge by considering possible bids and plays from a repertoire we have assembled over the years. Our “brilliancies” are nothing more than repetitions of plays we have read about. If we haven’t seen it before, we’re not going to do it.

John, I said, had a different approach. He focused on his objective and asked himself how to achieve it. No play was so bizarre that he would dismiss it out of hand. As a result, he found plays the rest of us would never even consider. John denied this. He claimed that he, too, simply repeated plays that he had seen before. Creativity, he said, was not a matter of inventing new tactics; it was a matter of applying old tactics in new contexts.

I think John was selling himself short. Take a look at this deal and see whose side you would take:

S K J 10 8 7 6
H A J 4
D 3
C 6 4 3
S 9
H Q 9 7 3 2
D K J 8 7 4
C A 10
S Q 5 4 3 2
H 8 6
D 10 5
C J 8 7 2
H K 10 5
D A Q 9 6 2
C K Q 9 5
  Me   John
1 D Pass 1 S Pass
2 C Pass 2 S Pass
2 NT Pass 3 NT (All Pass)

I led the three of hearts. Declarer won with his ten, cashed the spade ace, and led a low heart. I played the queen of hearts to kill the entry to the spade suit. A nice play, but straight from the book. Declarer, realizing too late that he should have won the first trick with the king, tried to recover by cashing the spade king, pitching his king of hearts. He continued with the spade jack to John’s queen, pitching a diamond. I pitched two hearts. John switched to the deuce of clubs—queen—ace—low. When I returned the ten of clubs, John thought this over a while, then overtook with his jack! As often happened with John at the table, declarer’s eyes widened and all the kibitzers sat up and looked at each other. Declarer took his two club tricks and played ace and a diamond. I now made my second “nice play.” I hopped with the jack, crashing John’s ten, cashed the diamond king, and exited with a diamond. John took the setting trick with the eight of clubs.

I was pleased with myself, finding the blocking play of the heart queen and a crocodile coup on the same deal. Then I stopped to consider John’s jack of clubs. Had John played low, declarer could have made the hand. He could duck (playing the nine). I would have to lead into his ace-queen of diamonds. Declarer could then play king and a club, putting John in to lead to dummy’s spades. The two plays I was so proud of were well-known positions. John’s jack of clubs was on another level altogether. If I were in John’s seat, I suspect I would see it was the right play provided I thought of it. But I doubt very much if it would ever have crossed my mind.

While John’s imagination was the hallmark of his game, he was also a consummate technician. Few players would find the best line on this deal:

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

West was Gail Greenberg. She opened two spades, and John and I reached four hearts. Gail led the deuce of clubs. You will note that declarer can make the hand simply by taking the club finesse. This would fail, however, if the minor-suit honors were reversed. John found a line that depended on little more than Gail’s having her bid, generally a good bet.

John rose with the club ace and played a diamond to the queen. He drew trump in three rounds, preserving his four-spot, and played a second diamond to his jack. He now exited with the club queen. Gail won and shifted to the king of spades. John took the ace and played the king of diamonds. If diamonds were three-three, he would have a pitch for a spade loser (using dummy’s heart six as an entry). When, instead, East won and led the ten of diamonds, John discarded a spade. East now had to lead a club, allowing John to pitch his last spade and ruff in dummy.

In reporting this deal, it is tempting to reverse the minor-suit honors, making John’s line necessary. But John would not have approved. He was a stickler for honest reporting. I once wrote up a hand he had misdeclared, identifying him simply as “my partner.” John chastised me for this. “You name me when I do something good,” he said, “so you have to name me when I blunder, as well.”

It’s fitting that such frankness is what brought John to national attention in the first place. After John won his first regional, he discovered a scoring error that knocked him down to second place. He, of course, reported it, which created a mild sensation. When Oswald Jacoby heard about it, he was so impressed that he asked John to play, and they formed a partnership that lasted several years.

By vocation, John was a software consultant. Since he moved from client to client, he frequently had to submit to job interviews. His penchant for frankness showed in these interviews. John was a late riser. He would go to work about 11 and stay until 8 or 9 in the evening. One client said that he had heard John liked to work flexible hours.

“Nope,” said John. “Nothing flexible about it. You won’t see me until 11.”

On another occasion, a client invited his technical expert to the interview to test John’s knowledge of programming. John answered a few questions, then closed his eyes and leaned back in his chair. “Are you thinking about your answer?” the expert asked.

“No,” said John, “your questions are putting me to sleep.”

“What kind of questions would you ask?” asked the expert.

John opened his eyes and started firing questions at his interviewer, most of which he proved unable to answer.

While John will long be remembered for his imagination and technical prowess, he had an even rarer quality. He knew how to take care of a partner. He could inspire confidence, and he could keep morale up when things went wrong. The best example of this ability is perhaps the most often-told Lowenthal story of all.

John was playing with his first wife, Linda, who apparently had little talent for the game. She had declared several contracts in the course of the session, all of them cold, and she had gone down in every one. John, in an effort to build up her confidence, decided he would see to it that she made a contract before the evening was over. So, when he picked up a fair hand and heard her open one diamond, he passed. His LHO had other ideas, however, and balanced with one heart. This was passed around to John. John tried to imagine how the play would go in two diamonds. Finally he decided his wife could probably make it, so he bid two diamonds. After two passes, it was RHO’s turn to get into the act. He competed with two hearts. John thought briefly about bidding three diamonds, but he knew it was hopeless. Linda had never in her life taken nine tricks on any single hand. Having failed in his initial objective, John decided to bid what he thought he could make. So he bid six notrump.

While John never went to such extremes playing with me, he was still an exceptionally supportive partner. Once, I suffered a blind spot and went down in a game there was simply no excuse not to make. John looked at me and uttered the most severe criticism I ever heard from him: “I don’t think you played that hand with your usual care.” That’s the John I’ll always remember.


A few people have asked about John's final double in the Larry Edwards hand. Truscott, in his write-up in the New York Times, glossed over this double, calling it a display of confidence. Of course it wasn't. All of John's unusual actions had careful reasoning behind them, and this double was no exception. The truth is, John was afraid that his construction might be wrong. Perhaps Larry didn't have a heart void after all. Perhaps he had solid spades and both red aces. True, he should have bid seven notrump with that hand. But he might be asleep. If John passed and I made a Lightner double in pass-out seat, it would wake Larry up. So John doubled to stop me from doubling. A double from the opening leader would not make Larry suspicious.

John and Kit Woolsey (who was our teammate when this deal was played)  had an argument about this final double. Kit thought the downside was too great. John was already in a good position, having chased declarer into a contract he had a better chance of beating. But it was hardly 100% I had a club void. If I didn't, and if the other table were in a grand slam making, the final double would be quite costly. When you are already in a good position, it is not the time to take risks. Besides, Kit said, if I was looking at a club void and no heart ace, I would surely worry about chasing them into seven notrump myself. I wouldn't make a Lightner double with that hand; I would just trust John to find a club lead as his best shot. 

I'm not going to weigh in on this one. I'll let you decide for yourself who had the better argument.