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Bridge-Playing Computers

The current card-playing capability of software is so low compared to that of humans that bridge-playing computers are mostly a subject of ridicule. However, we are all in awe of Chthonic (the first two letters are silent), the creation of the Orttman Foundation, a machine with superb technique, high talent for imitation, and personality traits that compete with the very worst homo sapiens have to offer. Below, one of his escapades.

Pronoun Trouble

by Nick Straguzzi

Normally, Marty McClain and I are the only two people who work in the basement robotics lab at the Orttman Foundation for Scientific Advancement. But last Tuesday, as I strolled in at 8 a.m., about half the building was crammed in there waiting for me.

"Morning, everyone," I said as nonchalantly as I could muster.

They set upon me like tabloid reporters. "Mike, what happened?" "We heard Orttman's been barred from the bridge club!" "Yeah, over a fight with Chthonic!"

"Oh?" I said innocently. "Who told you that?"

"Chthonic, of course," said Marty, elbowing her way through the crowd. "He sent out a message on the electronic mail system. Plus, he's been broadcasting the news every ten minutes over the intercom."

"Oh, brother," I groaned. "Orttman's going to sell him for scrap metal."

I looked for an exit, but they had both doors covered. I feigned amnesia, but they wouldn't buy it. There wasn't much I could do but tell the story.

The night before, Chthonic and I were the stationary pair in a six-table Howell at the Pinelands Bridge Club. We didn't face the inimitable Dr. Frederick O. Orttman, founder, president and principal visionary of the Foundation, until the final round. With his sharp features, bald head, and gray-streaked beard, the 300-pound Orttman was an even more intimidating presence at the club than Chthonic, if that's possible.

"Rather dull set of hands tonight, wouldn't you say?" boomed Orttman as he sat down.

"Why, yes," said Chthonic in the voice of George Sanders. "Quite mundane, I agree. We're probably no more than six boards above average."

Orttman ignored him. "Board 17 was particularly tedious. We were plus 920 in a cold six-diamond contract on our five-two fit. Of course, most of the field was in the hopeless six notrump."

"Hmm? Oh, yes, I suppose it would be hopeless if one were unfamiliar with basic guard-squeeze play."

"And of course," continued Orttman, undaunted, "your opponents found the falsecard on Board Five to hold three notrump to nine tricks, as I did."

"I wouldn't know. I was in six clubs, making."

"Pass," I said firmly. When those two got started, they could go on all night. Here was the board that caused all the trouble:

North dealer
North-South vulnerable

6 5 4 3 2
10 4 3
K Q 9 8
K 10 8 7
Q 9 8 7 6 2
7 6

10 8 7 6 5 2
A J 10 4 3 2
A Q J 9
A K Q J 9
K J 5
1 3 Double*Pass
3 NTPassPassPass


East was B. Endicott Birdsworth, chief engineer at the Foundation. With his wire-rim glasses, greased black hair and bow tie, the timid Birdsworth was about as far removed from Orttman in personality as imaginable. He stared dumbfoundedly at his 12 round-suit cards and decided that no opening bid was quite right. By his next turn, all four suits had been mentioned in one way or another so he quietly passed again. Birdsworth files his income tax retum on January second every year, just in case it gets delayed in the mail.

Orttman led a club. A thin red beam of light slid across the table as Chthonic examined my cards. I could tell he wasn't happy, but that's nothing new. Chthonic thinks the only truly intelligent human was the one who coined the term "dummy."

"Good show, Michael. You've taken the negative double to a stunning new low."

"I wanted to show you my five spades," I mumbled.

"Oh, and they're splendid indeed. Perfect for rummy. I hope it will not diminish their luster in any way if I remind you we're presently playing bridge. King, please."

Endicott won the ace and cashed the ace of diamonds. Chthonic unblocked the jack and took the heart return with the ace. The king of hearts brought a diamond and a small smile from West. On the spade ace, Birdsworth threw a club and Orttman's grin grew wider.

"A most unfortunate lie of the cards," he announced to no one in particular. "Declarer, who is marked with 4=5=3=1 distribution, has no ready entry to dummy. He cashes the spade ace in the hopes of dropping the king or maneuvering an endplay, scarcely expecting the actual layout.

"The success of this hand," he continued, raising his voice thoughtfully so the players across the room could hear, "was assured by my daring three-diamond preempt. A weaker player would never think of making such a bid when holding four of the unbid major, despite its obvious disruptive advantages and its . . . "

While Orttman pontificated, Chthonic considered the end position for nearly ten seconds, an eternity by his standards. Then he played with lightning speed. He cashed two rounds of hearts, pitching spades from dummy as Orttman threw diamonds. With five tricks in, that left:

6 5

10 3
Q 9
K 10 8

Q 9

10 8

J 10 4 3
Q J 9
K 5

Orttman nodded sagely as Chthonic placed the spade queen on the table. "An excellent attempt, my friend, but as you see I've kept an exit card." He took his king of spades and in the same sweeping motion played the club three. "Few defenders would have the foresight to retain such a seemingly worthless card, especially as it presents declarer access to the queen in dummy, but his total still comes to only eight tricks. I . . . "

"Your play," interrupted Chthonic. He had won the queen of clubs, pitching his last heart, then played the king and five of diamonds. West had to win and return a spade into the jack-nine.

"I congratulate you, Frederick," said Chthonic dryly as I marked plus 600 on the traveling scoresheet. "Few defenders have ever endplayed themselves five times in a six-card ending."

Orttman shot him a dirty look, which Chthonic took as an invitation to elaborate. "When you won the spade king, you were endplayed in three suits. A diamond return presents me with nine tricks immediately. A club, as we just saw, costs a trick and sets up endplay number four in spades. And on a spade retum, I win the jack-nine and play king and a diamond for a club endplay at trick 13. Shall I demonstrate?"

"Enough, Chthonic. Next time I'll duck the spade queen and the only number you'll count to is minus 100."

"I hardly think so."

"Well, then, shall I demonstrate?" snapped Orttman. He recreated the five-card end-position but with the king of spades exchanged for the eight. "There. You can throw me in with a spade or a diamond, but my club exit holds you to eight tricks."

Chthonic, meanwhile, had removed a card from his holder and placed it face down on the table. "Throw you in? My dear Frederick, you flatter yourself." He slowly turned over the heart nine. "Endicott can take his hearts, but then he'll have to lead a club to the board. I'll save a spade and a diamond in dummy and the king-eight of diamonds in my hand. And which two cards will you keep, Frederick?"

And before the boss could respond, he added, "Have I mentioned that four spades is unmakable?"

Orttman's neck turned bright red. The nerve of this . . . thing, humiliating him in front of the club! "Chthonic," he said, his voice trembling, "I find your gloating tiresome. Had a diamond not, er, accidentally slipped from my hand on the fourth heart, your silly three-notrump contract would have been unmakable as well."

"Frederick, you cannot set it."

"I am warning you, Chthonic!" bellowed Orttman, leaping from his chair. He rearranged the cards again, this time with a third diamond in place of his little club:

6 5

10 3
Q 9
K 10 8

Q 9 8

10 8

J 10 4 3
Q J 9
K 5

"We have another board to play," I said, not that anyone was listening. Several kibitzers edged their way to the table. Beads of perspiration dripped from Orttman's brow as he pushed Chthonic's card holder until it was flush against his laser eye.

"See? Lead a heart and we get three tricks. Play on diamonds and we get at least three. Lead a spade and I win and get out with a spade." Orttman's voice had risen a full octave. "You can concede the last two tricks to me or East, your choice. What have you got to say about that?"

"Play the queen of spades," said Chthonic. Orttman slammmed the spade king and eight onto the table, then reached for Chthonic's nine.

"I'd prefer the jack, Frederick, if you'd be so kind."

Orttman's expression slowly turned from anger to puzzlement to the look of a deer caught in headlights. Chthonic was about to put him on play again with the spade ten, and the forced diamond return would concede the last three tricks.

Dr. O slumped into his chair, a beaten man. "You win, Chthonic, you win," he whimpered. "The hand was cold for three notrump all along. But . . . why didn't you just say so in the first place?"

"Because it's not."

Orttman's face reddened again. "You said not two minutes ago that it couldn't be set."

Chthonic switched to the voice of Daffy Duck: "Aha! Pronoun trouble! I didn't say it couldn't be set. I said you couldn't set it." (Back to George Sanders) "A competent West, on the other hand, would simply save three diamonds, then exit with the ten of spades after winning the king. From there, declarer cannot mmmmmph."

It took four men to pull Orttman off Chthonic. The director suffered a sprained wrist in the melee and one lady was knocked to the floor. The Ethics Committee ruled that Orttman's suspension would be reduced to thirty days on account of his previously spotless record, but he'll remain on disciplinary probation for the rest of the year. As for Chthonic, he's got a few dents in his chassis but they're nothing Marty can't fix.

But the worst was yet to come. The director had awarded us an average-plus on the final board, the one we never played in all the commotion. We won the event by half a matchpoint. Over Orttman.

Chthonic phoned him at 3 a.m. to tell him the good news.