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Ancient Roman History

  by Richard Pavlicek

The year 1998 marked the 2000th anniversary of the Pavlicek School of Bridge. Founded as Pavlicus Academia de Pons in the year 3 B.C. by Romulus Pavlicus (nephew of Emperor Augustus), the School has evolved a great deal in two millennia. Much of its original curricula did not withstand the test of time and has been revised for the modern era.

For example, the once heralded Roman 2 D opening was abandoned soon after Nero died, and Roman jump overcalls were canned in the Middle Ages. Perhaps the most long-standing contribution was Roman key-card Blackwood, which was then known as “Mabelina” after its inventor of the same name, who was the first woman to be a member of the Forum and serve on the Consul. Mabelina was a beautiful lady but forever tormented by the troubles of her convention. In fact, modern-day historians consider it a primary cause of the fall of the empire.

According to Mabelina’s original Roman key-card manuscript, responses included four steps to locate five key cards (four aces plus the king of the trump suit) plus an added wrinkle to locate the queen of trumps. The steps were:

ResponseKey Cards
5 C0 or 3
5 D1 or 4
5 H2 or 5 without trump queen
5 S2 or 5 with trump queen

It was the ingenious wrinkle that caused Mabelina all her grief. Everyone loved her convention at first, but there seemed to be too many deals like the one in the diagram.

After the forcing jump raise, South had strong slam aspirations, and the sensible route seemed to be to ask for key cards. North had two key cards (S A and H K) plus the queen of trumps, so he answered 5 S. Oops! South next tried to retreat to 5 H, but West wouldn’t accept it, so South had to bid 6 H. East, staring at two aces, doubled to capitalize on the mishap.

Board 11
None Vul
S A J 5 4
H K Q 4 3
D Q J 10
C 10 4


3 H
5 S

1 H
4 NT
6 H
All Pass
S Q 10 9 3
H 5
D 5 4 3 2
C 6 5 3 2
Table S 7 6
H 2
D A 9 8 7 6
C A J 9 8 7
6 H× South
Lead: S 9
S K 8 2
H A J 10 9 8 7 6

West had to choose an opening lead. The only clue seemed to be East’s double, which traditionally called for dummy’s first bid suit (not counting trumps) so West led a spade — the nine. This was a Roman lead showing zero or two higher cards, another practice of ancient times that’s been rejected after 20 centuries, because it often helps declarer — and did it ever!

Reading West’s lead, declarer played the S 5 from dummy and won the king. Trumps were drawn with the H J, then South led the S 8, covered with the 10 and won with the jack. Declarer returned to hand with a trump and led the S 2; three, four. Note the careful play at trick one to allow this “world’s cheapest finesse.” Graduates of Pavlicus Academia not only made fine technical plays but added a touch of flair as well.

Declarer was then able to discard his diamond on the S A and ensure the slam. But wait! Declarer next led the D Q, which was covered and ruffed. Dummy was reentered with a trump, and both clubs went away on the diamonds. Making seven!

North is reputed to have asked South, “Why didn’t you bid five notrump to ask for kings so we could bid seven?” as steam spewed out of East.


Despite this “success” of Roman key-card Mabelina, the modern Pavlicek School of Bridge has eliminated the 5 S response, i.e., bidding 5 H on all hands with 2 or 5 key cards. This not only avoids the accident seen here but simplifies the responses.

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© 1998 Richard Pavlicek