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Declarer play (in NT)
Hand of the week 25 July 2018

Open book

Remember all those seminars about declarer "seeing through the back of opponents' cards" by making inferences from the auction and opening leads? With all those specially constructed hands? Well, here's an example from real life.

You're West, declarer in 3NT. (After South's overcall of 1, your partner's 2 rebid is asking whether you have a diamond stop for no trumps – and indeed you have!) North leads the ♠3, down goes dummy and you're off. 

OK. Time to peep through the back of your opponents' cards. Look at the auction, count your points, check out the opening lead ... and there are two huge inferences you can make. One's blindingly obvious and the other needs a moment or two's thought. Have a go before reading on.

What's blindingly obvious is that South has all the missing diamonds: she overcalled, so has at least 5, and you have the remaining 8! So without so much as peeping you can see  A 10 9 7 2 in South's hand. This suggests that you could do worse than lead diamonds from dummy at every opportunity.

The second inference is closely connected. The defenders have just 10 points between them, and South must have nearly all of these for her overcall. She surely therefore holds the only other missing high card: the ♠K. Otherwise, she's making an overcall not only with a thin suit but with just 7 points – ugh! And if that ♠3 is North's 4th highest spade, then the ♠J must be with North.

So it's up with the ♠10 from dummy, South duly plays the ♠K and you win trick 1 with the ♠A.

What now? Well, it's dead easy. You just want to keep leading diamonds from dummy, beating whatever card South plays. You have plenty of entries to dummy (2 hearts, one spade and one club) so off you go. Hearts are the best option, as you want to get rid of dummy's KQ in order to free up the A in your hand. 

So a heart over to the K and lead a small diamond. Beat whatever South plays and go back and do it again. And again ...

At some point, of course, she'll get fed up and play her A, but that'll be the only trick they take, as you'll see if you take a look at the whole deal. You'll have 2 spades, 3 hearts, 4 diamonds and 3 club tricks for a cold 12 tricks. And all because you took a few moments at trick one to make a couple of pretty straightforward inferences – play the ♠Q at trick 1 and you're down to 11 tricks.

A reasonable overcall?

But should South be overcalling at all? Well, she has 8 points and a just-about-adequate diamond suit, but 3 of her points are in a singleton, so it's pretty marginal. Unfortunately for NS, the overcall provides exactly the information a thoughtful declarer needs to make an unbiddable small slam. Without the overcall it's a whole lot more difficult.

In Box and Bath

In Box, everyone reached 3NT (though only once by West) and made 9, 10 or 11 tricks. 

In Bath, 8 of the 11 EW pairs got to 3NT, all making, but only one made 12 tricks. The other 3 contracts were an inferior 4♠ by West making 10 tricks, an extraordinarily underbid 2♣ by East making 11 tricks and an inexplicable 4♠X by North going 7 off for -1700. 


POSTSCRIPT – Hang on a minute ...

... can't South scupper declarer's plan?

Yes, indeed. An alert South can drive a coach and horses through it. But then again, an alert declarer can anticipate South's super defence, counter it and still make 12 tricks.

Can you see (a) South's best defence and (b) how declarer can nullify it?

ANSWER BELOW

South must hold up her A until the third round (so dummy's last diamond has been played). She can then stick declarer in dummy by leading a club. With no diamonds or hearts left in dummy, declarer can't get back to her hand to cash her A or remaining 2 diamonds and so will have to concede a club and a spade trick to North.

How can declarer stop that? She has to hope that South has no more than 3 clubs and 2 spades. Before leading her last diamond from dummy, she cashes her ♣AKQ and ♠Q. Then, when South takes her A, she has only hearts and diamonds left, and so must lead one – giving declarer access to all her winners. Yey!

 

Hand of the week 31 January 2018

Taking your 9 tricks

A pretty standard auction leaves me, sitting North, as declarer in 3NT. Unsurprisingly, East leads a little heart – the 2: I've denied 4 hearts, after all, and so has my partner, so it's a pretty obvious lead. And it's up to me to plan a way of making the required 9 tricks. As declarer, I'm looking for answers to these questions:

  • How many heart tricks am I going to lose?
  • How many 'top tricks' do I have? Where are the others going to come from?
  • What am I going to do when I get the lead?

What about the hearts? Well, if that 2 is the 4th highest, East has just 4 hearts, and therefore so does West. Which is good news: if they were 5-3, EW could possibly make 4 heart tricks plus the A for one down. Still, I'm going to hold off winning with my A until trick 3, just in case East's lying!

I've got 6 top tricks: 3 clubs, 2 spades and one heart. The other three will have to come from diamonds.

My best chance of 3 diamond tricks is if West holds the A. So when I get the lead I'm going to lead a small diamond towards my KQ, more than once if necessary.

OK. Let's try it. West takes trick 1 with the K and leads a second heart to East's Q. I win trick 3 with my A, leaving EW with (I hope!) one heart each. 

Now to put my plan into action. To lead a small diamond towards my hand I need to be in dummy. Fortunately, I have two handy entries: the ♣A and ♣Q. How does it go?

  • I cross to dummy with a club and lead a low diamond. West plays low and I win with the K. So far so good.
  • Now I have to do the same again. Back to dummy with another club and lead low towards my Q. Let's say West plays her A this time. I play low and the J drops from East. I've set up my diamonds!
  • West now cashes their 3rd heart trick, but that's all they take. I have the rest: two spades, a club and two diamonds. Nine tricks.

Have a look at the whole deal. Pretty simple, really. But it exemplifies the single most important aspect of declarer play in no trumps: if you need to set up winners in a suit and that involves losing the lead, make it a priority. Specifically, do it while you still have stops in all the other suits. If you muck around cashing a couple of spade tricks, for example, you'll be giving away a trick to the ♠Q and that'll cost you your contract.

Why hold up on tricks 1 and 2? A hypothetical case

Well, if you're sure the hearts are 4-4, there's no need. But supposing East is leading the 2 from a three-card holding and also holds the A? If you take trick 1 or 2, when East wins her A she'll be able to lead a small heart to West's heart winners. But if you hold up till trick 3, she won't have a heart left to lead. She'll have to lead a club or a diamond or a spade, thus giving you your contract. As it happens the hearts are 4-4 and West has the A anyway, but better safe than sorry.

​​In Box & Bath

In Box, 4 out of 5 NS pairs found 3NT (the fifth being in a less felicitous 4♠), but two pairs went off. If you were North, it might be worth trying to work out where you went wrong, because 9 tricks are 'cold'.

In Bath, everyone was in 3NT, with 11 out of 14 making 9 tricks. The three that went off all got a club or spade lead rather than a heart, but that actually makes things easier so I'm not sure what went wrong. Mysterious game, bridge.

Hand of the week 30 August 2017

Play safe

Sitting North, you're in 3NT and East leads the K. What do you make of that?

Well, it's odd, 'cos it's your opening suit and she's leading round to you rather than through you. She must have a few, then.

And that affects your plan. Say East has 5 hearts. You have just one heart stop, and you're likely to lose the lead at least once before you've set up your 9 tricks. So if you're not careful, they're going to make 4 heart tricks plus whatever else and you're going down. What to do?

This is a classic example of hold-up play. You have to run West out of hearts (so he can't lead a heart later to his partner's winners) and hope that you can keep East off lead for the rest of the play. 'Hope' is the right word, because if East has the K you're going down however you play it.

Let's go, then. Trick 1. West plays an encouraging J and you hold up – that is, play low. Now East continues with a low heart and West plays the 10. And you hold up again in case West has a third heart. West's trick, then. But the 3rd heart never comes – the hearts must have started 6-2 because West now leads the ♠10. You cover with the ♠J and it wins. And now you're pretty much home. How do you know? 

Because even if East has the K she can't run her hearts – you still have the A, remember. So you attack the diamonds, losing a trick to West (as it happens) and you end up with 10 tricks: 3 spades, 4 diamonds, 2 clubs and one heart. Have a look at the whole deal, and read on. 

A few points

  • Because East has 6 hearts and no other entries, it turns out that you could have taken the 2nd trick and ended up with 11 tricks. But you didn't know that at the time and were right to hold up a second time because if West has a 3rd heart you're going screaming off. 
  • Note that if EW's hearts are 4-4 you still make your contract because you now only lose 3 heart tricks, not 4 or 5. But in that case, East would probably have not led your opening suit.
  • A couple of technical terms: the defender with the long suit (here, East) is the danger hand, and must be kept off lead. You need to hold up until the danger hand's partner has no more of the suit and so can't lead it.
  • Sometimes you can't guarantee that the danger hand will be kept off lead – for example, if you're missing an Ace – but you should still hold up and then cross your fingers.

​​In Box & Bath

In Box, two pairs ended up in 2♠ (not a good place to be with 27 points between you!). The other three were in 3NT but one went off (didn't hold up!) and the others got 11 and 12 tricks (and therefore risked going off).

In Bath, all 12 pairs were in 3NT, with results ranging from 7 to 12 tricks. One or two of the high scorers didn't get a heart lead, which made it easier, but most got just 10 tricks – must have held up twice, then.

Hand of the week 24 May 2017

Split honours

You've maybe come across the term 'split honours'? Imagine you're declarer in this situation, with no problem negotiating entries to either hand:

HAND   A J 10 9 6              7 3 2  DUMMY

If you play the Ace at trick one, the chances are you'll lose 2 heart tricks (to the K and the Q). Instead you finesse. Only 25% of the time will both the missing King and Queen be in the 'wrong hand', and there's a slightly better than 50% chance that the two honours will be 'split' – that is, one in one defender's hand and one in the other's. So you lead low from dummy and play the J, expecting the finesse to lose to one of the missing honours. Then when you get the lead back, you finesse again – leading a low heart from dummy to your 10, but this time expecting the finesse to win. And most of the time it will. You've just successfully 'played for split honours'.

Take a look at today's hand. I'm not recommending the auction shown (a 1NT overcall from East is a much better bid than 2♣), but this is an auction we had at Box, and East is to be commended for seeing the possibility of 3NT after partner's raise to 3♣ and being brave enough to punt it. She can count 2 heart tricks, (possibly) 5 club tricks and a diamond trick – so if partner can come up with just one more trick ... 

South leads the 4 and down goes dummy. The clubs look good (phew!), and your 2 heart tricks are in the bag, but where's that 9th trick going to come from?

A spade perhaps? Well, no. By the time you've knocked out the ♠A and ♠K (losing the lead TWICE), NS will have drawn your A and before you can blink will merrily cash 4 or so heart tricks. No good. You can only afford to lose the lead ONCE.

It'll have to be the diamonds, then, and dummy's solid J1O9 sequence gives you cause for hope. Supposing the missing honours (the K and Q) are SPLIT – one with North and one with South? You can go over to dummy with a club, lead dummy's J and play low from hand, losing to South's (say) Q. South will then correctly lead a second heart, knocking out your A ... and now comes the moment of truth:

Cross over to dummy with a second club and lead your 10. If North covers with the K win with the Ace and dummy's 9 is now the top diamond – your 9th trick. If North plays low, cross your fingers and play low as well ... and, as you'll see if you click on Show all hands, the finesse works and you've just made 3NT: 2 hearts, 5 clubs and 2 diamonds.

A couple of points to note:

  • You have to take the trouble to plan this at trick one. If you take the first trick and then bang out your 5 club tricks to 'see what happens', you're going off. Why? Because you need to use two of dummy's big clubs as entries so that you can finesse the diamonds. 
  • It looks risky, but in fact the 'split honours' finesse is pretty well bound to succeed on this auction: North has merrily bid on to 3 with just 4 points in hearts (you know that because you have the other 6!) after her partner's pass, so she must surely hold nearly all the missing points. No way can South hold both the K and the Q. So you don't even need to cross your fingers.
  • As so often with no trumps, the winning line is to lose the tricks you need to lose immediately, while you still have stops in the other suits.
  • 'But supposing South switches to a spade instead of leading another heart? Can't they take their ♠AK?' Sure they can, but all that achieves is to set up your ♠Q as a 10th trick. You should be so lucky!

In Box & Avon

Just one pair in Box reached 3NT. No one in Avon got to game – and if East makes the best overcall of 1NT you can see why. 1NT shows 15-17 points, so West will reason 'Even if my partner has the maximum 17 points, we still only have 24 between us – not enough for game.'

Ah well – that's bridge for you.

Hand of the week 10th February 2016

Make your own luck

South leads a heart against your 3NT contract, West lays down a 14-point dummy and you begin to regret not being in 6NT. You can count 7 tricks off the top in clubs, hearts and spades and if the diamonds break 3-2 another 5 tricks in diamonds.

With only one heart stop you'd normally hold up for a couple of rounds, but here there's no point. You have 10 tricks off the top and may have 12, so why give away 2 tricks?

OK. You go up with your A. What next? It's just a question of banging out all those winners, isn't it? Well, yes and no. Supposing the diamonds aren't 3-2? Say they're 4-1. What then? 'Well, in that case I'm only going to make 10 tricks. Could be worse!' True, but it could be better, too.

It never does any harm to give the opposition a chance to make a mistake. Leave the diamonds for now and bang out your four spade tricks. Someone's going to run out of spades before you're done, and if they're hanging on to their hearts and/or want to protect their ♣Qxx, they might throw away a diamond instead. If they do, and if they started with 4 diamonds, you'll get your 12 tricks after all.

Sure, it's a long shot. Both opponents can see the long diamond suit in dummy and so discarding a long diamond is poor defence. But it costs you nothing. And defenders do make mistakes. Now and again it'll pay off.

Does it pay off here? Who knows? There is a bad break in diamonds, as you'll see if you click 'Show all hands', but whether South will chuck one away on the 3rd or 4th spade I've no idea.

What I do know is that if you attack the diamond suit at trick 2, she certainly won't throw one away because you haven't given her a chance to – and you'll get just 10 tricks. So give yourself that extra chance just in case ...

Just one declarer in Bath made 12 tricks. How? Dunno. But it's hard to see how one or two declarers in Box made just 9 tricks – there are, after all, 10 tricks to be had off the top!

A note on the auction

East is right to open 1 and then rebid NT. Sure, it's a rubbish suit, but that's all to the good – your bid will later deter the opposition from leading what may be their best suit!

No point in West showing spades on his second bid, though. East can't have 4 spades (she would have opened 1♠ instead of 1♣ if she had). With a combined holding of around 30 points he should just raise to 3NT.

Hand of the week 20th January 2016

The only chance

Surprisingly, North leads J (West's bid suit) against this 3NT contract and declarer soon finds out why – South shows OUT on the first round. No chance of making a bunch of heart tricks, then.

So what's to be done? Where are your 8 other tricks going to come from and how are you going to play it?

Clearly, you'll have to develop your diamonds. But there's a problem. The opening lead has just taken away your only sure entry to dummy, so if you're unable to get rid of the K quickly, how are you going to get back there to cash all your diamond tricks? The answer is: maybe you can't! If South holds the ♣A and the diamonds are unkind, you've had it.

In situations like this, when there's only ONE chance of making the contract, you have to assume that things are the way you want them and play for that. So here you assume that North has the ♣A and that you will therefore be able to enter dummy later with the ♣K. What do you do now?

Your instinct is probably do go over to hand with a spade and finesse a diamond. OK. What if it works (or seems to work)? Then you have to go back to your hand with your OTHER big spade and do it again. But what if the K fails to appear again? You're in trouble. Not only have you not yet established your diamonds but you've also used up both of the entries to your own hand, so you can never cash your AK. AND you've used up both of your spade stops. Yuk!

Start again, and this time keep it simple. You've won your first trick and you're in dummy. Forget the diamond finesse. It'll probably lose anyway, because if North has 6 hearts South is odds on to have the K. Cash the A and keep leading high diamonds until the K appears. Now you can win the return in your hand and lead a low club. North also plays low and – heart-in-mouth moment – you go up with your ♣K ...

... And it wins! Now you can bang out the rest of your diamonds, go back to your hand with a spade and cash your AK. That's 3 hearts, 5 diamonds, 2 spades and a club. 11 tricks. Not bad when the K is wrong.

Have a look at the whole deal. You'll see that if you finesse twice, all South has to do is refuse to win the trick TWICE, and she'll eventually come in and run off three spade winners.

In Box and Bath

Half of Box made it into game – all 3NT – and all but one made it. Lots of people were in 3NT in Bath, only one not making it. Some others stopped in 3 (not sure why) and just one sad West ended up as declarer in 4, which goes 2 off what with the 6-0 trumps split. And that, of course, was me!

Hand of the week 25 November 2015

12 sure tricks

Don't want to get bogged down with the details of the auction, but I don't like opening 2NT with a singleton (not that it's a problem on this hand – partner will probably go straight to 6NT). Anyway, here you are needing 12 tricks in NT. Can you see 12 SURE tricks?

You have 11 tricks off the top: 4 hearts, 3 clubs and 2 each in spades and diamonds. You need just one more. Where's it coming from?

Since we're talking about SURE tricks, forget clubs, because they require a good break, of which more later. So it's down to spades and diamonds. Either will generate the extra trick if the finesse works. So which one?

Spades, of course. Why? Because they generate the extra trick whether the finesse works or not! Try it. You lead the ♠A (wouldn't it be great if the ♠Q was a singleton!) then a small one to the ♠J. If it holds, that's your 12th trick. And if it loses to the ♠Q, your ♠10 becomes your 12th trick instead. 100% SURE.

(If you finesse diamonds instead of spades and it loses ... now you have to go back and finesse the spades – and if that loses too you're 1 off. So start with the spades and reduce your risk of going off to 0%.)

Trying for an overtrick

This being pairs, we'd like an overtrick if we can get it. Enter the club suit. The clubs are interesting because if they break 3-3 (only a 36% chance), you've got 14 (!) tricks: 6 clubs,4 hearts, 2 spades and 2 diamonds. Not only that, but they're also an alternative route to 12 tricks provided they're no worse than 4-2 (you can give the opposition a club trick and then the rest are yours). So it's worth trying the clubs first, just in case. What happens?

Well, this being bridge, it's horrid. East shows out on the 2nd round of clubs – you have a 5-1 club break. So abandon the clubs immediately (for goodness' sake don't cash your ♣Q, because that'll leave West with two club tricks) and revert to your SURE 12 tricks via the spade finesse. Remembering, of course, to cash your ♣Q later, once the danger is past.

In Box and Bath

A couple of pairs didn't bid the slam in Box (would have done if I'd got to the table in time!), but everyone made 12 tricks, and a couple even managed 13. In Bath, everybody was in a slam, some of them odd ones: 7 (one off), 6♣ (2 off), even 7NT (1 off). But most in 6NT making.

Hand of the week 18 November 2015

Trick 1

A tricky bidding decision for West after South overcalls your partner's opening 1 with a preemptive 3. You could try 3♠, but if partner doesn't have spades she's not going to be bidding 3NT, is she (surely you and South have all the diamond stops between you!) and you might end up going too high in a 7-card heart fit. So with game-going points, a nice spade suit and TWO diamond stops, you punt 3NT. Worried about the clubs? Maybe, but partner opened the bidding and has no significant honours in spades or diamonds, so surely must have a club stop as well as her hearts.

And at trick 1, North leads not a diamond but the K, dummy goes down and it's down to you to plan the play. Time for a ponder ...

Looks pretty good, doesn't it? Always assuming you get good breaks in the majors. 5 tricks in spades (if they break 3-2) and 5 tricks in hearts (if they break 3-3). But supposing one of them doesn't break (quite likely, given South's long diamonds)? Then you're going to have to attack the diamonds and that means losing the lead to the A.  Followed by at least 4 club tricks from North. Yuk. Can anything be done?

Well, yes. If South has long diamonds (presumably including the A for her bid), she's likely to be short in clubs. Maybe as short as 2. Wouldn't it be nice if, when she comes in with her A, she doesn't have any clubs left?

So give yourself that extra chance: hold up. Refuse to take the first trick. North wins and leads a second – low – club to knock out your A in dummy. Now take a look at the full deal to see what happens next.

You try the spades, but they don't break. South has only one. Next the hearts, which do break, as it happens. Hey – that's 9 tricks. Contract made. But this is pairs – every extra trick counts! So you lead a diamond from dummy. South would do well not to take her A immediately (can you see why?) but the odds are that she won't be able to resist it and ... it's her lead and she has only diamonds left. So you make your K and Q for 11 tricks. And poor old North has had to discard all his potential club winners.

Now rewind and instead take your A at trick 1. You take your 9 tricks and lead that diamond from dummy. South wins with her A and still has a club to lead to her partner, who takes the last 3 tricks. 

So. Stop and think about the play BEFORE you play to trick 1. It can make the difference between a top and a bottom. And remember that holding up is a major weapon, especially in NT contracts – it can cut the defence off from their winners.

In Box and Bath

Box did rather better than Bath this time. In Box, everyone in 4♠ made 10 tricks, but those in 3NT made 9, 10 and 11. In Bath most people were in spades (though a few didn't bid game!) and of the two declarers in 3NT, one went 2 down (!) and the other made 10 tricks.

Hand of the week 11 November 2015

See-through cards

Some Norths – though not me! – will open 1 (I prefer 1) on this hand, intending to rebid 2NT to show a balanced 17-count. East innocently overcalls 1 and your partner doubles – a negative double, showing enough points to respond and exactly 4 spades. After West passes, you make your intended rebid, 2NT, and partner raises you to 3NT. East leads not the expected heart but the ♣3 and down goes dummy. Where are your 9 tricks coming from? Have a ponder before reading on.

Well, you have 2 club tricks (provided you play low from dummy at trick 1!), 3 diamond tricks (maybe 4) and 2 spade tricks (maybe 3). That's 7 certain tricks. So you need to generate at least 2 tricks in hearts, preferably before using up your 2nd and last club stop.

Your first job, then, is to attack hearts. What's the best way of doing that? What do you know about the opponents' hands? Count your points, take another look at the auction and again – have a ponder before reading on.

You have a combined 29 points, leaving just 11 for East and West. Yet East has overcalled 1 – so most of those 11 points must be with her. Moreover, she must have at least 5 hearts for her bid, and they will surely be either AJxxx or AJxxxx – West has at most one small heart. And from her club lead it looks as if East has the ♣Kxx3 as well, leaving poor old West with either J or ♠Q – maybe both on a good day. Blimey – as far as hearts and clubs are concerned, East might as well lay her cards down on the table. You can see right through the back of them.

And that makes it really easy for you to play the hearts. You take the opening trick with your ♣Q and lead a low heart. East will play low, hoping that you will play the Q from dummy, but you know she's got the J so you insert the 9, winning the trick.

What now? Do it again! Go back to your hand with the A and lead another small heart, this time inserting the 10, which again wins. Lovely. That's 2 heart tricks already, and there's another one for the taking as well. You now lead your K from dummy, and East finally takes her A and leads another heart back to your Q.

So far so good, and if you now attack diamonds it gets even better. A low diamond to dummy's Q reveals that East is now out of diamonds (she does, after all, have at least 9 cards in hearts and clubs) and so you can now finesse a diamond on the way back, giving you 4 diamond tricks. Which, along with your 3 hearts, 2 clubs and (as it turns out) 2 spade tricks, gives you a very pleasing 11 tricks. 

Thanks for the overcall, East!

In Box and Bath

In Box, a couple of NS pairs got sidetracked into 7-card major fits, but most were in 3NT, making 9, 10 or 11 tricks. In Bath, everyone was in 3NT, mostly making 11 tricks. One only made 10 and one even managed 12.

 

Hand of the week 25th February 2015

Danger hand

Sitting East, you end up in 3NT after South has made a weak jump overcall in hearts. No surprise, then, that she should lead the  K. What are your thoughts – in particular, what is the main danger you face and how do you aim to deal with it?

In general, things look pretty rosy. Once you've knocked out their clubs (probably conceding a trick to the Q or J, you have plenty of tricks: two in spades, one in hearts, at least 3 in diamonds and 5 in clubs. That adds up to 11. But that's not going to help if they can make 5 tricks before you can make yours. Where's the danger?

Hearts, of course. You only have one stop and there's a danger that once they've knocked out your A South can reel off heart tricks galore and take you off. And the trouble is: you have to lose the lead (in clubs) before you can clean up.

In other words, South is the danger hand: once your A is gone, your job is to keep her off lead at all costs. How to do that?

  • Well, for starters, you'll need to run North out of hearts. Then if he gets the lead, he won't be able to lead a heart to his partner. That's easily done with a little simple arithmetic. How many hearts does North have? South has 6 (she made a jump overcall in hearts, remember), dummy has 1 and you have 4 - leaving North with just 2. So to run him out of hearts is easy: just refuse to win the first trick and win the 2nd instead. Now North can't lead a heart.
  • And now how to approach the clubs (which, of course, you'll want to set up immediately once you've got the lead). To keep the danger hand off lead, you lead a low club from your hand and beat whatever South plays. That way, South can never win a club trick, not even if she holds ♣QJx. As it happens, South plays the ♣J, which you beat with the ♣K. Then you come back to your hand (with a diamond) so that you can lead low from your hand again. This time South shows out, and the rest is simple:
  • Let North win a trick with his ♣Q. He'd love to lead a heart to his partner, but because you wisely held off he has none left, so it only remains for you to win the next trick – followed by all the others. 11 tricks.

So there you are. As is so often the case, declarer's play to the first trick is crucial. If you win the first trick with your A, North will still have a heart when he comes in with his ♣Q ... and you'll be going 2 down instead of making 2 overtricks.

In Box and Devizes

Of the 6 pairs in 3NT in Box, half went off. Meaning that half took the first heart trick, allowing South to cash all her lovely hearts. In Devizes, they evidently knew all about the danger hand as they all made their overtricks. Even more impressive, two of the EW 7 pairs managed to bid and make minor-suit slams ... but that's another story altogether.

Featured hand: 13 August 2014

The moment of truth

The auction's simple enough: With a lovely balanced 12-count East raises her partner's opening 1NT to 2NT (don't even think of bothering with the diamonds) and West, with a maximum 14 points, continues to game.

North leads the ♣3. Where are your 9 tricks coming from? What is the main danger you face? And with that in mind, what cards do you play at tricks 1 and 2?

Have a quick ponder before reading on.

OK. First question: Where are your 9 tricks coming from?

Assume that the diamonds break in a friendly fashion. That's 5 tricks. You also have two top clubs and the A. Eight. And that's it. You have to create an extra trick somewhere else. And the obvious place to look is spades. The beginnings of a plan!

Question 2: What is the main danger you face?

North has led a club and you only have 2 clubs in each hand. The defence have got 9 between them – so one of them has at least 5 clubs. Once your two club stops are gone, they therefore have at least 3 club tricks, maybe more. They also have a certain spade trick (maybe two) and a possible trick in hearts ...

Question 3: What cards do you play at tricks 1 and 2?

One of your two club stops is about to be used up, and as soon as they get the lead back they'll be knocking out your other one, as sure as eggs is eggs. After which you're wide open in clubs. So you must perform your trick-creation magic now. 

This will, of course, take the form of a spade lead (you're aiming to create your 9th trick in spades, remember), and with ♠ K743 sitting opposite ♠ J109 you'd rather be leading towards the King. Which (finally!) tells you how to play trick 1: win it with the ♣K in dummy, so the lead's in the right place for trick 2.

And now trick 2. The lead's easy: lead the J (or the 10 or 9 if you prefer!), and if South obligingly puts up the A, it's all over, and your K will provide the 9th trick. But what if South plays a low spade ...?

You've reached the moment of truth: you have to guess. Depends who has the Q, doesn't it? If South has it, you want to play low from hand, but if North has it you're better to go up with the K and hope. It's just a guess. Me, I'd go for the one that's potentially the most profitable – if South's got the Q I'm making 2 possibly 3, spade tricks. So I play low from hand and ...

... poor old North has to win with his A. South does indeed have the Q. :-)

It's all over. Now it doesn't matter when North continues with another club, removing your last defences in the suit. You have your 9 tricks. So you win the club, pop over to dummy with a high diamond, grab your two spade tricks (via a finesse – you know South has the Q, remember), then bang out the rest of your diamond tricks and finally cash your A ... and that's 10 tricks and contract made with an overtrick.

(If you guess wrong and go up with your ♠K at trick 2, that's just bad luck. North will win with the ♠A and knock out your last clubs. South will later win with her ♠Q and then cash 3 club tricks for 1 off. BUT at least you gave yourself a chance!)

And in Bath?

Well, they didn't all get a club lead. A heart lead is easier to deal with, and a spade lead is a dream come true ... But everyone managed 10 (or even 11) tricks, so one way or another they must have led a spade from dummy and played low from hand. Well done them.

Featured hand: 5 February 2014

Danger hand!

You're East in 3NT and South leads the 10. How are you going to play the hand?

First, a quick look at the auction. After passing originally, North pokes his oar in on his next turn with an overcall of 2. East, who isn't strong enough to show her second suit (clubs) at the three level, simply passes and it's up to West (who unlike East knows they should be in game) to keep things going. She decides on a game-forcing 3♣ and East, with a heart stop and rightly preferring game in no trumps to 5 of a minor, ends the auction with 3NT.

No surprise, then, that South leads a heart, her partner's suit. Which brings us back to your game plan. Which you need to formulate BEFORE you play the first trick. Something like the following:

We need 9 tricks. We have 4 club tricks, 2 spade tricks, 1 heart trick and 1 diamond and therefore need to develop one more trick. Has to be diamonds. 

Straightforward enough so far. The trouble is, of course, that while setting up your extra diamond trick(s), you will probably have to lose the lead. Could that be a problem?

Yes. Once my A has gone, I'm wide open in hearts. Say the diamond finesse loses. South can lead another heart and North can reel off lots of heart winners.

True. But you can stop that happening, can't you? Do a little heart-counting.

OK ... North must have at least 5 hearts for his overcall. That leaves South with just 2 (because 5 + 3 + 3 + 2 = 13). So if I refuse to take the first heart trick ...

That's right. Hold up for a round and win the second heart trick. Now poor old South doesn't have any hearts left.

Right. So I win the 2nd trick with my A, go over to dummy with a club and finesse a diamond. If that loses, South will have to return a club, a diamond or a spade – because he doesn't have a heart to lead!

Which means that North, who is the 'danger hand' – the hand that can reel off enough tricks to get you down if only he could get the lead – has no way of doing so. By holding up at trick 1, you've neutralised the danger hand.

And despite the fact that you have to lose TWO diamond tricks (to South's K and the J) you end up making 10 tricks. Click on Show all Hands and check it out.

And in Bath?

Of the 8 pairs that ended up in 3NT, just one went off – guess what that declarer did at trick 1? 

Featured hand Wed 22 January 2014

Assume the worst

Never mind the auction for the moment. You're North in 6NT and East leads the 7. How do you plan to make 12 tricks?

You only have 8 top tricks, so you're going to have to develop tricks diamonds or clubs. But which one?

Chosen yet? The trick is to assume the worst – well, if not the worst, at least  that it isn't all going to go your way.

Take diamonds. You're surely going to lose a trick to the K. So even if you make all the other diamonds that still only comes to 11 tricks. So now you will have to try the club finesse – with your heart in your mouth, because if it doesn't work, you're going one off. 

Now clubs. Again, assume the worst – assume you're going to lose a trick to the ♣K. But you've got SIX clubs in dummy, plus two in your hand. So even if you DO lose a club trick, you'll still be making 5 club tricks. Which, added to the 7 in the other 3 suits, will give you the 12 tricks you need. And all without having to take any further risks.

So no contest. Ignore the diamonds. Win the first trick in your hand and attack the clubs IMMEDIATELY. That is, BEFORE you use up your controls in any of the other suits. As long as you retain the A, A and ♠A, you can afford to lose a club trick. And whether you lose a trick to the ♣K or not, you're home.

And that's it. As the cards lie, the finesse works, and if you're lucky you'll make all 13 tricks. But that's just a bonus. It's making sure of 12 that it's all about.

 

What about the auction?

Many Norths, responding to an opening bid with a magnificent 21 points, will be desperate to go jumping all over the place to show partner how strong they are. But there's no need.

A change of suit is forcing – partner has to bid again – so no need to hurry: simply bid 1 and see what partner says next. If he rebids 2NT, for example, showing 17-18 points, you will doubtless jump straight to 7NT – after all, you'll have 39 out of the 40 points between you.

As it is, partner simply rebids 2C, so you can content yourself with just 6NT instead. No need to go through Blackwood. Just count the points – you're pretty sure to have the requisite 33 between you. Either that or South will be long in clubs.

Hand of the week 28 November 2012
Hold up and hope
 
On this hand, NS (who play Benji Acol with a 19-20 points opening 2NT) reach 3NT with North as declarer, and East leads K. What are your thoughts as declarer?

Two things should be uppermost:

(1) You have only 6 'top tricks' so to make your contract you will have to lose the lead again at least once (to drive out the
A) and
(2) Once your
A has been played, you're wide open in hearts.

You can see the danger right from trick one: you take the first trick with A and lead a spade. They win with A and take a further 4 heart tricks: one down before you even get going.

Not what you want to happen, so let's rewind.

This situation is screaming for a hold-up play: nothing complicated - you simply refuse to win the first two heart tricks, and win the third. Now, if the hearts started 5-3 (which is what you're afraid of), one of the defenders doesn't have any hearts left. And if she's the player with the
A, you're home and dry.

Have a look at the EW hands and see how it works. East bangs out
KQJ and you win the third trick. Now East still has two heart winners but West, who has A, doesn't have any left. So when she comes on lead with her A, she can't lead a heart. Instead, she has to lead a diamond, another spade or a club, all of which suit you very nicely. You end up with 9 tricks and poor old East never makes her two heart tricks.

But hang on - how do you know that West has the
A? If East has it, all that holding up's a waste of time, isn't it? Quite right. Like the finesse, the hold-up is often based on hope - in this case, hope that the A is in the right hand. If it isn't, the holder-up will do no better than the player who unthinkingly goes up with the A at trick 1. But if it is, you've gained a contract. Put it another way: if you don't hold up, you're always going off when someone has 5 hearts; but if you do, you're making your contract 50% of the time. So hold up and hope!

In Box and Bath


In Box, two of the four pairs that ended up in 3NT in Box made their contracts - well done. Bath players, however, must be inveterate holders-up, as 8 of the 9 pairs in 3NT made their nine tricks. (Doing rather better, incidentally, than the two pairs who ended up making 10 tricks in a flaccid 3
.)
Hand of the week 5th September 2012
Hold up!
 
It's always satisfying when a real hand crops up that exemplifies something you've read in a book. In this case, it's the hold-up. In case you haven't come across it, here it is in its simplest form:
 
In no trumps, if the defence lead a suit that you've only got 5 of and just one stop (e.g. Axx opposite xx) hold up for a couple of rounds: in other words, refuse to win the first two tricks, then win the third.

Why? Because if you only have 5, they have 8, and potentially lots of tricks. Look at this hand. West is in 3NT and North leads the K.

How many tricks have you got? Just 8 off the top (5 club tricks, the AK and the A) and possibly a 9th if the spade finesse works (that is, if North holds the Q), but there's every chance that you'll have to lose the lead a couple of times to set up a diamond trick.

Now then.
Losing the lead isn't a problem provided that they aren't going to make 5 tricks before you can make your nine. So what about those hearts? What does North hold?

Well, if he's leading the
K, he ought to have the QJ as well, and he may well have five altogether (but probably not six, as he surely would have poked his oar in during the auction). So let's say he has something horrid like KQJ9x. That means his partner has the other three hearts: xxx.

So. What happens if you win the first trick with your A? Say you later lose the lead to South. She's going to lead a heart back to her partner's QJ9x and you're going to lose 4 heart tricks on the trot: that's 5 tricks in a row and one down (actually, 2 down because they've got TWO diamond tricks, haven't they?)

OK. Suppose you refuse to win the first trick, and instead win the second. What happens then? Sadly, the same thing: when South comes in she leads her last heart to her partner's
J9x and again you're off.

I know. It's getting boring – but it's just about to get a whole lot better.

Let's say you refuse to win trick 1 AND trick 2 and instead win the third heart trick. What happens now if South gets the lead? Answer: she can't lead a heart to her partner because she hasn't got any left. So she has to lead a club or a diamond or a spade, all of which suit you just fine, and poor old North never makes his heart winners. And consequently, you make your contract.

And that's the way it is here – have a look at the whole deal.
Turns out that South has AK, but after three rounds of hearts can't give her partner the lead: as long as you hold up twice, you're home and dry. Let's recap the three possibilities:
 
  • Win the first trick and go off.
  • Hold up once and win the second trick ... and still go off.
  • Hold up twice and make your contract. Why? Because you've run South clean out of hearts.
     
So there you have it. It's a technique which may seem pretty abstract and theoretical when you read it in a book but hey! – when you see it actually working in the flesh, what a difference it makes.

Icing on the cake

Have you spotted my deliberate omission? In fact, if you hold up twice and let North win the first two tricks with his KQ, he'd be pretty daft to lead a third heart anyway, wouldn't he? Can you see why? Click to check your answer ...
 
Answer

This is what the hearts look like after North's won the first two tricks (the greyed-out cards are the ones that have been played):

   KQJ92  
  A1073 N
W       E
S

 5
  864
 

Can you see what happens if he leads a third heart? Whichever card he leads, West makes not one but two heart tricks!

This cheeky way of stealing a trick (by holding up until the opponent is leading into your 'tenace') even has its own name very appropriately in this context: it's known as a Bath Coup.

Hand of the week 6th June 2012
Finesses again
 
By coincidence, this hand revolves around precisely the same point as a very recent hand of the week (Pick a finesse!, 23rd May, below). It's a matter that comes up time and time again, however, and is well worth a second look.

Let's say you've reached 6NT by West (not necessarily via the auction shown) and North leads the
J. Try these questions (and triple-click on my answers to reveal them):
 
  • How many tricks do you have off the top? What are they?

Unless you're very unlucky, you will make 5 diamond tricks. You also have 3 spade tricks, 2 heart tricks and the Ace of clubs. That makes 11 in all.

  • Can you guarantee making your contract or it is a matter of hoping one of the finesses (in hearts or clubs) comes off?

You can guarantee making your contract.

  • So what do I do? (Hint: Think of how you might make the extra trick even if both finesses are wrong.)

Well, if you start by taking the heart finesse and it loses, what are you to do next? All you can do is take the club finesse, and if that loses too, you're sunk. On the other hand ...  

... if you start with the club finesse (leading low towards the J) and it loses, you've just created an extra trick in clubs for yourself (because your Q is now worth a trick. So now you've found your 12th trick, and you don't have to take the heart finesse at all.  

Simple really. But don't take my word for it – put out the cards yourself and play it out.
 

Postscript

As it happens, the club finesse does work. At which point, your correct play is to get greedy and see if you can make an overtrick. Now you can take the heart finesse, but it isn't to make your contract any more (you've already done that): now it's for the extra 30 points. And as it happens, that finesse works too, and you make 13 tricks.

But the way you played it guaranteed success wherever the K and Q happened to lie.
 

And now ...

... while it's fresh in your mind, pop across to the Improvers' page and see the same principle in action in Pick a finesse!. A similar hand could be coming to a bridge club near you any time ...

 

The right finesse
 
Never mind how you got there (there are plenty of routes!), but you're in 6NT (sitting South) and West has led the 7.

What are your initial thoughts? Go into a declarer's huddle for a few moments, then read on and see if we're thinking along the same lines.

(Pause)

 

You have three club tricks.
You have three certain spade tricks - 4 if you're lucky.
You have two certain heart tricks, possibly three or even four if you're lucky.
You have either four or five diamond tricks.

The key thing is that you are missing the two red kings, so one way or another you will have to finesse if you're going to make 12 tricks.

So the next huddle is to decide which suit to finesse in: hearts or diamonds? Think for a moment before you make your choice.

(Pause)

When you have a choice of finesses, a key question to ask is: What happens if the finesse loses? Because they often do!

Take hearts: say you finesse the
J and it loses to the Q. What do you do now? Well, you now have to take the diamond finesse and hope that that works. And if it doesn't, you're one down (because you've lost one trick already).

Now take diamonds: You lead your
9 and finesse, playing low from dummy. What happens if East wins with the K? The answer is that you have just made your contract, since you now have four diamond tricks, which added to your other 8 top tricks makes 12.

So there's no contest. If you finesse a heart and it loses, you may go off. If you finesse a diamond and it loses you can't go off.

And in this case, as you'll see if you click 'Show all hands', you'll see that the
K is actually 'right' and you're making all 13 tricks.

(Actually, the heart finesse is a loser for more than just that reason. Even if it works, you've only got 10 certain tricks. So to avoid finessing the diamonds, you'll need lucky breaks in both hearts and spades ... Why bother with hearts at all, then? Take the diamond finesse, claim 12 tricks and accept glowing and grudging praise from partner and opponents respectively.)


And in Bath?
 

We'll never know. They played the wrong boards that night, so this hand was never played. But never mind – it's provided us with a useful insight into declarer play.
 

The art of being lucky
 

This is the subtitle of a great book on cardplay written by Victor Mollo in the 1960s. What he's saying is that you make your own luck by giving yourself the best chance of winning.

Suppose you have a 25% chance of making your contract even if you take the trouble to play your cards right. That means that 75% of the time you'll fail in spite of your best efforts, and 25% of the time you'll succeed. Not wildly exciting, I agree. But if you decide at the outset that the odds are too poor to bother, you'll lose 100% of the time a far worse result.

This week's hand is a telling example - not a 'prepared hand' specially tweaked to make a teaching point, note, but a real hand played in a real bridge tournament.

You're South, declaring in 3NT and West leads the ♠6. Down goes dummy, and down go your expectations, because it looks as if you're going off. Why? (Have a think about it, on the assumption that your opponents know their onions and will not give you any free gifts. Then triple-click for my version.)

Well, to make your nine tricks, you have to set up the diamonds (maybe the clubs too, but certainly the diamonds). That means knocking out the diamond Ace, and that means losing the lead. Unfortunately, the opponents have already found your weakest suit, spades. You only hold 4 spades, leaving them with 9, so one opponent holds at least 5. That means that once they've knocked out your spade Ace, they'll come to the Ace of diamonds plus (at least) a further 4 spade tricks, and that's at least one too many.

At this point, many players will give up and will duly go down. But we're not going to do that. Instead, let's try to make our own luck.

So here comes question no 2. There are nine spades out against us, and someone has the A. West presumably led her 4th highest spade: the ♠6, so she probably started with at least 5 (as you can't see the ♠5, ♠4 or ♠3). So is there a distribution that might allow you to make your nine tricks before they make their five? And if so, how are you going to play?

If the spades are divided 5-4, there's nothing you can do: you have to take either the first, second or third spade trick, and then whoever wins with the A will lead a spade and that's goodnight.

But supposing West started with SIX spades (leaving East with just THREE)? And further supposing that East has the A? Then if you refuse to take the first two spade tricks (the technical term is 'hold up') and win the third with your ♠A, East will no longer have any spades left. So when he takes his A, he can't lead a spade back to his partner.

So far so good. So what will he lead? Not a heart, because he can see the AK in dummy. So he'll lead a club ... which will be disastrous, because West will win with her ♣A and play off her spade winners ... Dammit!

But there you go giving up again! To give us a chance of winning, we have to make a further supposition: that East has the ♣A too!

So there you are: to succeed you need West to have at least 6 spades and East needs to hold both outstanding Aces: the ♣A and A. Goodness knows what the odds of success are, but they can't be more than 10%.

But 10% is better than 0%, so you decide to give yourself the best chance. You play low on trick one, again on trick 2 and (perforce) win the third spade trick. Then take a deep breath, lead your K ... and East wins with the A! Uh oh - he's leading a club, so up with your ♣K and it wins! Well against the odds, it turns out that East does have A and ♣A, and only 3 spades. You have made your own luck! (Click on Show all Cards and check it out.)

Which brings us to a key principle in declarer play: if there's only one lie of the cards that will enable you to make your contract, assume that that's how the cards lie and play accordingly. If it doesn't come off (and it often won't), you've lost nothing. But if it does ...

Postscript

At Bath, they did reasonably well. Of the 8 pairs in 3NT, 6 made it and 2 went off - though that's still 25% of declarers not bothering to give themselves the best chance. At Box, it was 50%
but hey, that means that the other 50% got it right, and that's not bad for a group of improvers!

 

 

Featured hand: March 2011
Tricky first trick
 

Board 13 was unlucky for some declarers, but lucky for others, when North played this hand in no trumps.

I know, I know, South has only 10 points and technically should pass North's opening 1NT, but with that lovely club suit it's surely worth punting 2NT - after all, partner will only go to game with a maximum 14 points ... and that's exactly what happened.

So place yourself in the North seat as declarer in 3NT. East leads the 6, South lays down the dummy, and since South has nothing in hearts, it does no harm to postpone your game-plan until after West has played. So you play low from dummy, and West plays the K.

NOW is the moment to stop and think, before you play to the first trick.

What are your initial thoughts? Specifically, where are your tricks going to come from? And are there any dangers to look out for?

Initial Thoughts: tricks & dangers

Clearly you have to develop your clubs - once the ♣A is gone, you have five club tricks: add them to the 5 top tricks you already have and that's plenty for your game contract.

Equally clearly, though, you have to lose the lead once (to the above-mentioned ♣A). And that's where the danger lies: that East-West, with one trick (in clubs) under their belt, may proceed to take 4 heart tricks, leaving you one down.

You'll have already noticed that there's no danger if the hearts are divided 4-4. You'll take one of the heart tricks with your A, and that will only leave them 3 further tricks in hearts. Not enough to get you down. But if East started with 5 hearts ... yuk. It could turn nasty. And that's the danger we have to plan for: a 5-3 split in hearts.

(By the way, who has the Q? Yes, East does. If West held the KQ, she would have played the Q to trick 1, not the K.)

So what should you do at trick 1? Do you take the trick with the A, or duck it with the 9? It kinda depends on who's got the ♣A, doesn't it?

If East has the ♣A ...

 


... you want to take the first trick with your A. Then, when East gets the lead with the ♣A at trick two, you're quite safe, because East's heart lead is coming round to your J9 - because the A and K have gone, your J will act as a second stop in hearts.

But if West has the ♣A ...

 

 


... you want to duck the first heart trick and the second heart trick, and take the third heart trick with your Ace. Why? Because when West comes in with the ♣A at trick 4, she won't have a heart left to lead to her partner, and you'll make your contract.

So which is it to be?

Well, you simply don't know, do you? You need to know who has the ♣A, and the simple fact is that you don't, yet - and unfortunately you have to play to trick one NOW! So it's pretty well a straight gamble on two 50% chances ...

... But not quite. In fact, there are a couple of reasons that make it a better bet to take trick 1 with your
A. One concerns the detail of your heart holding, and the other is to do with a suit that is neither hearts nor clubs.

First, the hearts. We're worried, remember, about West getting the lead and leading a heart through your
J9 to East's Qxxx. We know that East has the Queen (see above) but we don't know who has the 10. So if the worst happens and West leads a little heart, you have a chance: play the 9, not the J, and hope that the 10 is with West. True, with 5 hearts, East is more likely to hold the 10 than West, but it's still a chance (and if it comes off, East will have to win the trick with his
Q, leaving your J as the top heart).

Second, the other suit. Somewhere out there, either with West or split between East and West, are the
KQJ ... Your diamonds are even more unprotected than your hearts - only the Ace stands between you and oblivion in diamonds. Supposing you duck the first trick, and West returns not a heart but the
K ...? Yikes. You've already given up one trick, and now they've uncovered your weakest spot. Sooner or later you'll have to take your diamond Ace ... and then when they come in with the A, they're going to have you for breakfast. Even worse, suppose West does return a heart, won by East, and then East says 'Thanks very much for those two tricks, declarer - I think I'll switch to diamonds now ... ' Disaster.Two off, at the very least.

So what does all that amount to?

Just this:

Playing the
A at trick 1 loses if

 

 

  • West has the ♣A
  • AND East has Q10xxx

That makes it rather less than 50%. I make it around 33%.

Ducking the first (and second) trick loses if

 

 

  • East has the ♣A
  • OR either West or East switches to a diamond

Which is a bit or a lot more than 50%, depending on how good the defenders are!

So there you are. Going up with the
A at trick 1 and attacking clubs immediately will succeed 67% of the time. Ducking will succeed less often than 50% of the time. So up with the A!

Postscript

As it happens (as you'll see if you click on Show all Hands), East has a singleton
A, so if you won trick 1 with the A, you're going to make at least 10 tricks. If you ducked, bad luck: East wins with the A and cashes two further heart tricks, for 1 down.

In Box, everyone was in NT (though only one pair bid game), and it was 50-50: two pairs made 8 tricks, and the other two made 10 and 11.

At Bath BC, some pairs were in bizarre contracts in clubs or diamonds, but of the 7 pairs in No trumps (4 in 1NT, 3 in 3NT) all but one pair made 11 tricks. So whether by luck or judgment, they played with the odds on this one.


Postscript 2

What makes the difference on this hand, of course, is the J (and the
9). Holding A42 opposite xx, declarer would have been absolutely right to duck the first two rounds of hearts, in order to use up West's hearts. AJ9, though, is very different from A42!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pay now - live later
 

What have we all had drummed into us ad nauseam about playing No Trump contracts? Other than taking a careful note of the opening lead, checking out dummy and counting your winners? Yes, yes, make a plan, I know, goes without saying (it should, anyway!) but what should be the main thrust of the plan?

If you know the answer, test yourself on this hand. No tricks - it's all utterly straightforward. You're North, you're declarer in 3NT after an unremarkable and perhaps under-adventurous auction, and East opens the play with the 3.

Things look pretty good - you have a comfortable 29 points - and you decide to play to the first trick before planning in detail. You play low, West plays the Q and you win the trick with your K.

What now? Make your plan. If you're feeling a bit woolly about it all, here is the bit that's drummed in about planning NT contracts. Highlight to read.

1   Count your winners (that is, the tricks you can take without losing the lead).
2   Identify a suit in which you can establish extra winners.
3   Because establishing winners usually involves losing the lead, it's vital to get this over with NOW, while you still have stops in their strong suit(s).

Does that help? Take a moment to formulate your plan, however rough. Then read on.

OK. Here's a thinking-aloud version of my plan:

I've already got a heart trick. There are 4 club tricks and three spade tricks. That's 8. Where are any extra tricks coming from? There are two possibilities:

  • If the spades divide 3-3 I shall make 5 spade tricks, not 3 - that's two extra. And even if they're 4-2 I can make one extra spade by letting them win a fourth spade trick and then my last spade is a winner. That makes 9 tricks altogether.
  • Alternatively, I can establish 2 extra tricks in diamonds. I have the KQJ, so I can force out the Ace with one of those, and that leaves me with two winners. That will give me 10 tricks.

OK. Which to go for first? It doesn't matter a great deal, but my vote would go for diamonds, because they're guaranteed to make me two extra tricks, not just one - and I can always try the spades later without having to lose the lead again.

The important thing is NOT to waste time doing what your gut feeling makes you want to do - cashing in all your lovely club and spade winners. It's been drummed into you often enough: set up your extra tricks FIRST, and leave the fun, easy 'cashing-in' stuff till LATER. Sound advice.

But just a moment, I hear you ask, is it SAFE to lose the lead? After all, in my weakest suit I only have J8 opposite 96. What if they get the lead with their A and then take a whole bunch of heart tricks? Well, if you think about it, they can't. East led a low heart, and West (3rd player, playing high) played his Q. If that's his highest heart (which it should be) then East has the A - which means that my J8 is a stop (the K and Q went on trick 1, remember). Sure, West can cash his A, but then I get back in again with my J.

So let's try it. I've taken trick 1 with my K. What happens?
 

  • I immediately lead a low diamond towards the J in dummy, which wins the trick.
  • I lead dummy's last diamond and play the K. East wins with the A. Lovely. I've already made one diamond trick, and now I've established a second - my Q is now the top diamond.
  • Let's say East decides not to cash his A (because he's worried about giving me a trick with my J) and leads, say, another diamond ...
  • I win the trick - that's three so far. And I can count seven more top tricks in the black suits.
  • I now cash all my club tricks. Why? Because eventually, someone is going to run out of clubs and will have to discard in another suit. They might mistakenly throw a spade.
  • They don't, but it doesn't matter, as the spades turn out to be 3-3. The lead's in my hand. I cash my ♠A, then lead a low spade to dummy ... and on the third round of spades, the ♠J drops under my  Queen - and I've made the rest of the tricks. 12 tricks and a top.

And poor old East didn't even make his A. He 'went to bed with his Ace', as the saying goes.

If all that seems complex, it isn't really. It's just following basic No Trump technique: if you can, establish the extra tricks you need straight away. Do the hard work first, leave the fun till later. Makes sense.

  Postscript   

In Bath BC, they all ended up in 3NT bar one pair. A few made 10 tricks, most made 11 and just one made 12 (that'll be East not cashing his
A, then).

The other pair were in 6NT doubled, going one off. That'll be East doubling because he held two Aces, and this time you can be sure he cashed them both!

 

 

Finding the extra trick
 

No great mystery about the auction here: with a balanced 14 points, North opens 1NT and South, also with a balanced 14 points and no 4-card major, raises to 3NT.

A combined 28 points - that's a King better than the 25 required for game - should make for a comfortable contract, but on the day two out of three declarers went one off. How come?

Put yourself in declarer's seat. East's lead is the 2. Let's think about it together. Try to come to your own conclusion before triple-clicking on the red area to see what I think. (This is going to go on for a while, so maybe you should make yourself a cup of coffee.)
 

  • First of all, how many 'top tricks' do we have? How many more do we need to establish?


We have 7 top tricks: three in clubs and two each in spades and hearts. So we need two more to make the contract.

 

 

  • Which extra trick is guaranteed (i.e. we know we can establish it whatever each defender holds and however they play)?


A diamond trick. Once the Ace is forced out, we will have the highest diamond.

 

 

 

 

  • So we just need that elusive 9th trick. There are four possibilities. The first (given) will be settled on the first trick. What are the other three?


1  Clubs. It's possible that East has led from ♣J10x(x). In which case, all you have to do is play small from dummy and your ♣9 will win the first trick. Thanks very much!

2  Also Clubs. If the defenders' clubs are split 3-3, I'll have a 4th club trick.

3  Spades. If the defenders' spades are split 3-3, I'll have a 4th spade trick (but I'll have to give up a spade trick on the way).

4  Diamonds.  If the A is with East, I can make a 2nd diamond trick by leading twice towards the KQ from my hand.

 

 

 

 

  • Unfortunately, you will discover on trick 1 that possibility 1 doesn't come off. What do you think of each of the other three possibilities? (It may help to know that the chance of a finesse succeeding is 50%, and the chance of a suit breaking 3-3 is just a bit better than 1 in 3.)

Possibility 2: Clubs. The lead of the 2 makes it very likely that East has 4 clubs, so they aren't going to break 3-3. (Sure, he could have just 3, but then he'd have at least 4 in some other suit, and would surely prefer to lead that.) Forget it.

Possibility 3: Spades. Well, if it comes off better than 1 time in 3, it's worth a try. But how best to go about it safely?

Possibility 4: Diamonds. At 50%, a better chance than the spades - but a good deal more dangerous. Can you see why?

 

 

 

 

  • Hmm. What's all this talk about 'safety'? What is the ever-present danger when you're trying to establish extra tricks in no trumps, and which should always be right at the forefront of your thinking?


In order to establish extra tricks, you will usually have to lose the lead. This will enable the defence to attack your weakest suit, trying to knock out your stoppers in it. Once they've done that, they'll be able to run off their winners - maybe making five tricks before you can make your nine.

 

 

 

 

  • OK. In that case, although I'm a bit disappointed that the clubs aren't going to provide me with my extra trick, I'm rather glad I got a club lead. Why?


Because I have three stoppers in clubs. If they'd led a diamond or a heart, things would look much dodgier. As it is, it's my lead and my defences in hearts and diamonds are still intact.

 

 

 

 

  • So there we are. 10 minutes have passed and your opponents are looking distinctly weary. Time to make your plan and play to the second trick. Bearing all the foregoing in mind, what are you going to do? No - let them wait just a moment longer. First, what are you NOT going to do?


I'm not going to bang out all my winners. That way I'll be throwing away my valuable stops and will end up simply establishing winners for the defence. If there's a guaranteed way of ending up with only 8 tricks, that's it.

 

 

 

 

 

  • Fine. So having disposed of that, what are you going to do? It's a bit long to put in red, so decide on your answer before reading on.

Well, I'm tempted to try the diamonds first, because at 50% they're the better chance. But a warning bell sounds faintly in my head. Suppose I lead a small diamond to my King and it makes. Lovely. East must have the Ace. Back to my hand (with a club, maybe) and do it again. But what if I'm wrong, and that dastardly West actually started with AJxxx and decided to hold on to his Ace? I will have strung myself up: they will get 4 diamond tricks and later the spade Queen will put me one down.

So I'm probably better off preparing the ground for the possible spade trick first. Since I have to lose a trick anyway, it's better to do it NOW, while I still have stops in other suits. So at trick 2 I play a low spade from both hands. Probably West wins with the Queen, and switches to a heart. I win, and play a 2nd round of spades. When both players follow, I know the spades are no worse than 4-2, so I play a 3rd round and ... I'm in luck. The spades drop and I have my extra trick. It only remains to force out the
A to establish my diamond trick.

And what if the spades don't split? Well, you'll only have lost the lead once, so you still have a heart stop, and so now you can try the diamonds: it may be dangerous, but at this stage it's the only chance you've got left.

Complicated? Not really. You can lose your first trick in either of two suits. One's dangerous and one isn't. So choose the safer one. They might even make a mistake and open up the diamonds for you themselves.


So it only remains to nudge East and West awake, score up, and get on to the next board.

  Postscript  

At Bath, everyone was in 3NT and either they all played it well or the defence messed up, because everyone made the contract, some with overtricks.

A final thought: notice the importance of 3rd player playing high. If West fails to play his ♣J on trick 1, declarer's ♣9 makes after all, and declarer is spared all that tedious thinking!
 

 

 

 

Play & Learn Wed 23 June
Avoiding unnecessary danger
 

There's a basic but vital technique that all declarers need in their toolkit in no trump contracts to avoid unnecessary danger: the holdup play. Of which this board provides a beautifully clear example.

  The auction  

Before that, a quick look at the auction (above) reveals a pretty good example of a reverse. North opens a club and then bids 2 over South's 1, showing 16+ points and at least 5-4 in the minors. With a spade stop, South now bids 3NT. And North, having already shown his 17 points with the reverse, is content to leave it at that.

 


  The play  

So it begins. Unsurprisingly, West opts for the unbid suit and leads the ♠3. You're sitting South. You have a combined 30 points, and, it would seem, plenty of tricks. Nothing can go wrong - can it? Well, two of the three pairs who played the hand in 3NT this morning went off, so evidently there's a danger lurking somewhere.

Can you spot it? And if you can, how can you avoid it?

A good start is to look at the opening lead and see what it tells you. You only have 5 spades, so the ♠3 is likely to be 4th highest. So how many spades has West got?

Answer: You don't know. Either 4 or 5. (If you could see the ♠2 somewhere, you'd know that West only had 4 spades, but as it is, she might have 5.)

And there's your danger. Suppose West has 5 spades. To make your contract you may have to lose the lead once more (in order to establish your club tricks), and what you don't want to happen is for West to reel off four more spade tricks for one down.

Can you see a way of avoiding that? Well, you're only in danger if West started with 5 spades. OK. In that case, how many spades did East start with? Yes, 8 minus 5, which is just 3.

So there's a simple twofold solution.

 

 

  1. Refuse to take the first and second spade tricks (in other words, hold up) and then take the 3rd with your ♠A. Now. If West started with 5 spades, how many does East have left? Exactly none.
  2. Now to approach your clubs. You can finesse for the Queen in either direction. So which direction do you choose? Correct. You finesse towards East. That is, you arrange things that if the club finesse doesn't work, it's East who wins the trick. Why? Because East doesn't have any spades left, so poor old West can't cash her two spade winners.


As well as holding up, there's a second concept waiting to be identified here, and that's the danger hand. The danger hand is the hand you don't want to get the lead. So let's go over that again.

 

 

 

 

  • You hold up in order to isolate the danger hand (to run her partner out of a suit so that she can't lead it and give the danger hand the lead). And the danger hand for this board is West.
  • You then do everything you can to stop the danger hand from getting the lead. Which in this case means finessing the clubs through West (the danger hand) towards East (who is not dangerous).

So how does it go?

Well, for a start, you play the ♠Q from dummy (If West has the ♠K, you've won the trick and all the above is unnecessary, as you now have a second spade stop.) But unfortunately, East plays the ♠K, and you duck. Then East returns a spade and you duck again. You take the third trick with your ♠A, and start on the clubs.

First you lead your ♣A from hand (just in case one of your opponents has the singleton ♣Q), and continue with the ♣10, intending to play low and finesse into the safe hand (East). But your worries are now over, as the ♣Q appears from West and you end up with 11 tricks.

But stop a moment. What if East turns up with the ♣Q and you lose a third trick? Again, you make all the remaining tricks, because East doesn't have a spade to lead and you control all the other suits.

And if East does have a fourth spade? Again, you survive, because that means that the spades started off 4-4 and you only lose one further trick - which still leaves you with nine.

You see the idea. The only way to go down in this contract is to go up with your ♠A on the first (or second) trick and then guess the clubs wrong. And that's exactly what happened at two tables out of three this morning.

Holding up (and subsequently keeping the danger hand off lead) guarantees that you make your contract if West started with 5 spades. And you have to do it right away, at trick 1.

To help you remember, there's yet another handy little rule with a number in it: the Rule of 7. This states that if the opposition lead a suit in which you only have one stop, count your combined holding and subtract from 7, and that's the number of times you need to hold up. So if (as here) you hold 5, hold up twice. If you have 6, you only have to hold up once. And with 7, you don't hold up at all.

  Postscript  

So did they hold up at Bath BC? Apparently they did. Of the 10 pairs in 3NT, all made 11 tricks.

One pair, however, was in 6NT ... so they couldn't afford the luxury of losing 2 tricks by holding up! Instead, declarer must have won the opening lead and guessed the clubs right, because they somehow ended up making all 13 tricks!

And we shouldn't forget the two pairs who ended up in clubs: one in 5♣ and one in 6♣. Sod's Law decreed that the former made 12 tricks and the latter only made 11.

Which goes to show that bridge can be almost as unpredictable as football.
 

 

 

Play & Learn Wed 16 June
Set up your winners first ...
 

I chose this hand as a good illustration of the key to good No Trump declarer play, but the auction's well worth a quick look too.

A confession: during the session I misread the position when called to the table. I imagined that North was the dealer, in which case the auction would have gone something like:

North     South
1      2♣
2NT      3NT


(With 15 points and 5-3-3-2, North opens 1, intending to rebid NT. South prefers 2♣ to 1♠, as she can always reverse into 2♠ if necessary to show her spades and extra strength. But as it happens, 3NT seems to fit the bill nicely.)

 

 

The reality, with South as dealer, is a bit more complicated, as West may well try to muddy the waters with 1♠ (or even a weak jump to 2♠!) over South's opening 1♣. In the event, instead of muddying the waters, West's bid actually makes things easier for NS. Over the 1♠ intervention, North's 2 not only shows strength but also guarantees 5 hearts (with only 4 hearts he would make a negative double instead). South is now no longer under any obligation to show her 4-card spade suit, and instead simply bids 2NT, showing 15-16 points and a spade stop and North, after adding combined points and only coming to around 30, settles for just 3NT.


  The play  

Let's assume the 2nd auction, and have South as declarer. At the table I was at, West led his 4th highest ♠7 (though the J would be better, as top of an interior sequence). You're declarer. Take a moment to plan your play. Given no nasty breaks, can you see your way to 12 tricks?

No, don't give up yet. What are you going to play to the first trick? And what about the second? Go on - make a plan.

Trick 1. West has called spades, and has led the ♠7. Apply the Rule of 11 and you know that East has just one spade higher than the 7. Given the overcall and the fact that you hold ♠A and ♠Q yourself, the chance of the ♠K being with East are miniscule: go up with your ♠Q and take the first trick!

And now what do you lead?

Count your tricks. You have two tricks in each of spades and diamonds. You have 5 tricks in hearts (BTW, make a note to yourself: lead thatJ pretty soon to unblock, so that you can later pop over to dummy and take four further heart tricks.). What about clubs? You have 8 altogether, leaving 5 with the opposition. If the clubs are 3-2 (which is more likely than not) you'll be in for a further 4 club tricks .... Blimey - that's 13 tricks! Unfortunately, it isn't, because on your way to your 4 club tricks you will of course have to give one to the opposition.

So what to do? It's screaming at you: duck a club straight away, at trick two. Lead a low club from hand and play a low club from dummy. If the clubs are 3-2, that's the only trick the defence will make. Whatever they lead, you take the trick, get rid of the J, go out to dummy with the ♣A, cash all those lovely hearts while you're out there (flinging away little spades and a little diamond from your hand) and then come back to your hand, which by now will be full of winners.

Easy - but it's also easy to go wrong. As always in no trumps, you have to lose the tricks you have to lose immediately, while you still have stoppers in the other suits.

(But what if North had been declarer, as in the first auction? How does it go then? Well, East will probably lead a diamond, and it'll be much the same. Declarer wins the trick, ducks a club, and then comes in again to take a spade trick, a second diamond trick, 4 clubs and 5 hearts - again 12 tricks. East can only keep declarer to 11 tricks by leading her singleton spade. She might reason 'Neither N nor S has bid spades, and I only have 1. Therefore partner must have a fistful.' Declarer will duck the lead round to the Queen, enabling West to make his ♠K, and EW will eventually come to a second trick in clubs.)

  Postscript  

What happens in Bath continues to surprise. Inexplicably, four pairs failed to find game at all, in spite of a combined 30 count, and subsided in 3, 3♣ and even 4♣. Three more pairs ended up in 4, no doubt seduced by the solid honours in the suit, and just 4 pairs found 3NT. Of those, three made 11 tricks and only one found the twelfth. Let's be charitable and assume that East found the killing spade lead every time ...