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July-Dec 2020 HOTWs
  HOTW 29 Dec 2020 - finding a slam

It's that moment again

Slams are not as rare as you might think. Apparently a slam can be made (though not necessarily bid!) on a whopping 13.6% of hands *, which means that in an average 24-board session, there'll be at least two slam hands – one for you and one for your opponents. So it's well worth keeping an eye out for that lightbulb moment ...

... even if it sneaks up on you on board 1. When your partner opens the bidding and you're looking at an 18-count, there should at least be a flicker. Your forcing 2 response is just what's needed to find out more about partner's hand, and her 2NT rebid switches the lightbulb on good and proper. She has at least 15 points – which, added to your 18, comes to at least 33 points: the magic number needed for 6NT. End of auction.

A different auction

But what if your partner raises you to 3 instead of bidding 2NT? She's probably got 5 diamonds and 4 clubs, but the strength is less clear – she could be as weak as 11 points. You could just bid 3NT yourself, but then that'll be it – no slam. 

Alternatively, you could pursue clubs. Blackwood would be nice, but missing 3 key cards, there's a danger of getting stuck in a slam you can't make (eg if partner responds 5 showing 1 keycard). The thing is, though, that 3NT is likely to make with overtricks, scoring more than any club contract below a slam. So since 5 is always going to get you a poor score, you might as well try for 6. **

A sensible alternative would be to get more info from partner. Say you bid 3, showing a spade control. If partner now bids 3NT (showing a heart stop, probably the Ace), you might be more inclined to punt a slam.

What's on?

Take a look at the whole deal. You've got 12 tricks off the top in either clubs or NT, but in clubs you can ruff a spade in dummy for your 13th trick, so can make the grand slam.

The main lesson, I think, is for East. Rebidding 2NT is just so much better than raising West to 3. First because it describes her hand better (a balanced 15-16 points) and also because 9 times out of 10, game in NT outscores game in a minor.

Sure, an experienced pair may well reach 7, via a mixture of cue-bids and Blackwood, but the main aim is not to miss a slam, and the 2NT rebid makes it so much easier to find 6NT.

What happened on the day?

Everyone made at least 12 tricks, either in clubs or NT, but no one bid either slam. In the case of 5 and 3NT by West, that's not surprising – we've seen that it's harder to find the slam after a raise to 3. But where East has rebid 2NT, West really ought to be bidding 6NT: it's simply a matter of adding 15 and 18 and getting 33: time to check your wiring!


* See, for example:

** This is worth bearing in mind for other occasions. If you find yourself heading for a minor game (worth, say, 400 or 420 with an overtrick) and you suspect that everyone else will be making 3NT+1 (worth 430), you're getting a lousy score anyway. So bid 6 instead of 5: if you go off, you still get a lousy score – but if you make it, you've got an outright top.

  HOTW 22 Dec 2020 - cardplay in NT

Lucky breaks

Without interference, this is an easy auction for EW. With 13 points, West knows game is on, so transfers her partner to spades (via 2), then bids 3NT, giving East a choice between that and 4♠. With a doubleton spade, East will pass and you're in 3NT.

As things are, though, South has come in with a 2 overcall – albeit with a jack-high suit, it seems. What to do now? If you simply bid 2♠, your partner will understand that as being 'to play' and will pass – and you'll miss game. A better bet is 3♠, which again offers partner a choice between 3NT and 4♠ and as before you end up in 3NT. *

So switch seats and you're now East, needing 9 tricks in NT and South leads the J (presumably from J109...). How do things look?

Well at least he didn't lead a diamond! You don't want to lose the lead, because sooner or later they're going to find their diamond fit, but you're going to have to do some finessing, certainly in spades and probably in clubs too. So let's take a quick look at the two suits ...

Spade & club finesses

With the spades, it's pretty straightforward. You lead a low spade from hand and insert the ♠J. If it works, you return to hand and do it again with the ♠Q, and if the spades are 3-3 you have 5 spade tricks.

The clubs are different. For a start, you can finesse in either direction. And because the missing card is a Queen, you can also guard against it being a singleton. How? Well, once you've decided which way you're going to finesse, you cash either the ♣A or ♣K, as appropriate and then take the finesse. And if the ♣Q is singleton in either hand, it's job done and you have 4 club tricks.

Dead lucky

Your first lucky break was that you got a heart and not a diamond lead. Let's say you win trick 1 in your hand and finesse a spade. It works – lucky break no 2. Now to get back to your hand to do it again. How to do that?

Well, you know you have 3 spade tricks and 3 hearts, so you may well need 3 club tricks too ... The trouble is, the player with the longer clubs is likely to be North **, so if you simply get back to hand with the ♣A and North has the ♣Q, you're going to lose a club trick. So maybe you should take the club finesse NOW, on your way back to your hand ...

But wait! Wouldn't you look daft if you finessed and South had the singleton ♣Q? You've decided which way to finesse, so there's no harm in cashing your ♣K first just in case ... and lo and behold South drops the ♣Q – lucky break no 3.

Now it's simple. No club finesses now needed. Over to your hand with another club, take your 2nd spade finesse, then cash your ♠A ... and the two remaining spades drop, giving you two more spade winners in dummy – lucky break no 4.

Take a look at the whole deal. You've ended up with 5 spades, 3 hearts and 4 clubs – a little slam in NT when the opponents have 4 tricks off the top in diamonds. Magic.

Making your own luck

Sure, you got a few lucky breaks – it was Christmas, after all. But you made your own luck too. First, by getting into game to start with. And second by guarding against South's singleton Q: if they make that and switch to diamonds, you're down.

Wishing you many more lucky breaks in 2021. smiley


* Many players use the Lebensohl convention, in which a X of South's 2 shows 11+ points: in this case, with AKxx, East might decide to pass and pick up a handsome penalty: you look likely to take 3 trump tricks, and at least 4 tricks in the black suits.

** Because South has long hearts, North has more room than South for other suits – eg clubs. See Vacant places (HOTW 03 Nov 2020) below.

  HOTW 15 Dec 2020 - overcoming opps' preempts

Worth a punt

It's your bid. What are your thoughts?

West is weak – say 5-9 points – with 6 hearts. What about your partner? You're vulnerable, so she must be quite strong and have a decent diamond suit. And East? Points not determined, but has probably got 3 hearts, leaving your partner with a singleton.

What to do, then? The key is to realise that your vulnerable partner must be strong(ish). How strong, do you think? 14 points? 15? 16? Add any of those to your 11, and that's enough for game. But which game? Minor games are notoriously difficult to make ... but what about 3NT? With a 9-card fit, will the opps be able to resist leading a heart? Probably not. In which case, you've got TWO shots at establishing your partner's diamonds ... It's a definite chance, and certainly worth a punt. Fingers crossed and 3NT it is. West leads the 10 and down goes dummy ...

How does it go?

Take a look at the whole deal, but pretend you haven't seen the EW hands. Looks pretty good, doesn't it? 2 heart tricks, 2 clubs and 5+ diamonds = 9+ tricks (and if they lead a spade, you come to a spade trick after they take their AK). 

Funnily enough, because of the nasty 4-1 diamond split, the only thing that can undo you is dummy's singleton J. If it were a low card, you'd win in hand with your Q, finesse the J, eventually give West a trick with her Q and all will be well. But if instead you win trick 1 in dummy and bang out your AK, West now makes two diamond tricks and you're in trouble.

Be that as it may, on a normal day, 3NT is the place to be, and if you take into account the likely holding of the other three players, I think it's a decent punt. Nobody bid it, though ...

The corollary

... but that's partly down to the efforts of EW. The whole reason we bid weak 2s is that they get in the way of opps with stronger hands. Same reason that we raise partner's 2 to 3 if we have 3 of her suit. It gets in the way. Gives South more collywobbles about bidding on. Several EW pairs did that on this hand – and it worked. Well done them.

What happened on the day?

Three EW pairs were allowed to play in 3, while some Norths were left in 3. One South, obviously aware of their combined strength, raised to 4, which was doubled and made for 710. Well done – even 3NT can't compete with that!


  HOTW 01 Dec 2020 - when (not) to clear trumps

'...unless there's a good reason not to'

As we've seen in other HOTWs, it's usually better to be in a 4-4 major fit than NT, because the suit contract is likely to yield an extra trick. That said, when South leads the 4 against your 4 contract, you might feel that 3NT would have been a bit easier: simply cash your A, then force out the K and bingo! – you have 9 tricks ...

But we are where we are, and you have to make not 9 but 10 tricks in hearts. How are you going to do it?

You have just 8 top tricks ...

... assuming that the hearts split 3-2 (which they do), so you need to find two more. I suppose if both minors were 3-3 – not very likely – you might land on your feet, but fortunately there's a much simpler route: ruff two spades in dummy.

It's the way to go. But it has to be done right. For a start, you have to get rid of your ♠A. Then you have to get over to your hand twice – once for each spade ruff. And of course at some point you have to clear trumps. Which should lead you to two major conclusions:

  • You have to do your ruffing before you clear trumps. If you clear trumps first, you won't have two trumps left in dummy to ruff with.
  • You're going to need your K as one of the entries to your hand, so make sure you win trick 1 with dummy's A.

And that should do the trick. Let's try it.

How does it go?

  • Win trick one in dummy and cash your A. So far so good.
  • Now cross to your hand with a trump (no harm in starting to clear trumps!) and ruff a spade.
  • Now back to your hand again with the K (don't use a trump again or else you'll be ruffing with your A) and ruff your last spade.
  • Now you've done your ruffing, you can get on with clearing trumps. Cash your A, cash your A and exit with a diamond or club.
  • The defence can cash a diamond and two clubs, but you eventually come to two further trump tricks. Contract made. Take a look at the whole deal.

A mantra for declarer play in a suit

   Clear trumps at the first opportunity unless there's a good reason not to.   

The first question you ask yourself as declarer is 'Can I clear trumps straight away?' because the longer you leave it the more likely the opps are to grab a ruff. But sometimes there are jobs that simply have to be done first. On this hand, if you clear trumps immediately you're going off – a decent enough reason. *

What happened on the day?

Everyone was in hearts (better than NT), but only 3 of the 8 pairs bid to game **. Which was just as well, as only 2 declarers made 10 tricks! Leaving the one pair who bid and made 4 with a well-deserved 100%.


* See the top two HOTWs in the Bridge @ Box collection (click here) for further examples. Also worth scrolling down to the HOTW for 16 August 2017 on the same page.

** With a combined 27 count, 4 is the place to be. With a powerful 16-count (4 Aces is always a good holding, and only 6 losers) West must invite with 3, and with a near opening hand and only 8 losers, East should accept.

  HOTW 24 Nov 2020 - cardplay in NT

In it to win it

Here's a comfortable game to be in – provided (a) you're in it and (b) you don't lose the plot in the cardplay. First the auction ...

Getting to 3NT

East opens 1 intending to rebid 2NT, showing her 18 points. With only 9 points, is West strong enough to respond 2, or should she stick to a more modest 6-9-point 1NT? My rule of thumb is that you can respond at the 2 level with 10+ points or with 9 points plus a decent 5-card suit – so the 6-card suit with 3 honours qualifies for me.

After that, it's easy: East's 2NT is now forcing to game. Why? Because her 2NT rebid promises 15+ points, and West's 2 bid promises 10+ (or 9 with compensating features, as here) and that adds up to a game-going combination. West must accept the invitation and raise to 3NT.

But what if West goes for the more modest 1NT response? No problem: East invites game with 2NT (showing a balanced 17 or 18 points) and West, holding a maximum 9 points, must again accept the invitation and bid 3NT.

A last point: West shouldn't be seduced by her long diamond suit: it's just as useful in NT as it is as a trump suit, and 3NT is a much more likely game.

Making the 9 tricks

Let's assume the original auction. South leads the 3 ... and North cashes A and K and you win trick three in hand with your Q, everyone following. What now? Can you be sure of making your contract?

Sure you can. You already have one trick. Add to that 1 club, 3 hearts and a fistful of diamonds and you're home. It only remains to set up your diamonds – do this now, while you still have stops/entries in hearts and clubs *: cash your A and then finesse the J ... 

But supposing the finesse loses? No problem. They take their 3rd trick and if North happens to have the last spade (there's only one left, remember!) they get a 4th – but then you get the rest. Take a look at the whole deal.

Replay  suppose South's opening lead is a heart? This is trickier, as it threatens to cut dummy off from your hand. Your priority is still to get rid of the Q *, and you can always get back to your hand via your QJ (or your Q if they attack spades) ... The crucial thing is that once the Q is out of the way, you must get back to your hand to cash the KQ while preserving dummy's A – which is the only way you're going to reach all those lovely diamond winners.

What happened on the day?

The good news is that no one was seduced by the diamonds – everyone was in NT. Three of the seven pairs didn't reach game, however – and only three declarers made 9 tricks. So some useful bidding and declarer-play insights to be had from this hand.


* If this sounds familiar, it's because it was the main teaching point of last week's HOTW: if you have to (or might have to) lose the lead, do it early, while you still have stops and entries in the other suits.

  HOTW 17 Nov 2020 - timing in NT cardplay

The early bird ...

Most Wests found themselves in 6NT this Tuesday, and faced with a 6 lead from North. It isn't immediately obvious that you're going to be able to make 12 tricks (in spite of 34 combined points), so before you play a card take a moment to count your tricks and make a plan ...

You will have concluded that you're going to need more than one heart trick, so let me put your mind at rest on that one: whatever card you play from dummy, you're going to win trick 1 without having to play your A. So now it's easy, isn't it? ... Well, isn't it? I ask because most declarers went off, even after the bit of luck at trick one.

It's hard to see how. Count it up: you have 4 clubs tricks, 3 diamond tricks, 2 heart tricks, 2 spades off the top ... and dummy's ♠J10 will provide the 12th: once the defence have taken their ♠Q, Bob's your uncle.

So what went wrong?

I think it must have been something to do with timing or managing entries. This deal is no different from most other NT hands: you haven't got enough tricks off the top, so you must establish the extra trick(s) you need – usually losing the lead in the process. And because you're losing the lead, you have to get this done early, while you still have stops in all the other suits.

Here you only need to establish one extra trick – in spades, so do it now, while you have plenty of stops and plenty of entries between the two hands:

So after winning trick 1 with your 8 (or 9 or Q), cash your ♠AK. Now to get rid of the ♠Q ... Simple enough: over to dummy with (say) a diamond, and lead the ♠J and that's it. Whether or not they take their ♠Q immediately, you've got your 12th trick. Say they do: you win the next trick and bang out the rest, remembering to cash your ♠10 at some point while in dummy.

The thing is, of course, that to make your 3rd spade trick, you have to get to dummy twice: once to force out the ♠Q and once more to cash your ♠10. So if you bang out all your clubs and diamonds before touching the spades, you won't be able to do it. The golden rule:

   If you have to lose the lead to establish winners, do it early, while you still have stops and entries.   

The opening lead

Take a look at the whole deal, and change seats to North. The 6 isn't actually a very good lead. Sure, it's the 4th highest, but with a broken honour sequence you're much better to lead the top card of the 'sequency' bit, ie the J.* You can see why: leading the 6 lets declarer win a cheap trick – here with her 8 or 9. But the J allows declarer to guess wrong: if she doesn't go up with her Q, it's all over. She has to win with her A and then when you come in with your Q, you cash your K for one off.

What happened on the day?

Only two Norths led the J: nearly everyone else led the 6. Of the eight Wests in NT, only two made more than 11 tricks. It's telling that the pair that ended up in 2NT and made 11 tricks scored 63% instead of a deserved 0%!


* You'd lead the top of a 3+-card sequence: KQJ(xx) or QJ10(x), and if the sequence is broken, top of the sequency bit: KJ10(x), AQJ(xx), KQ10(x) See Andrew Robson's sample hand here.

  HOTW 10 Nov 2020 - a lo-o-o-ng minor suit

A helluva suit and not much else

It's not every day that you pick up a hand with a 9-card suit * – never mind one as nice as this. What will you open?

Other than the suit itself, it's not a strong hand, is it? More a preemptive kind of hand. And just as you'd open 3 with a weak hand and 7 clubs, and 4 with a weak hand and 8 clubs, on this hand you'd open 5. You're not necessarily expecting to make 5, but you'll surely be making it very hard for the opponents to find their fit – if you've got just 4 cards in diamonds, hearts and spades combined, you can bet your boots that they've got a big fit in one of them. But after your opening bid, West's going to have make his first bid at the five level. Not easy.

And if you are going to make 5, it'll be just as difficult for them to find the right suit to sacrifice in.

But what if we've got a slam? Well, that's up to your partner. You've told her exactly what you've got, so if she's sitting there with A, A and A, she'll know to go on.

What happens next?

Take a look at the whole deal. How do you think it'll go?

West would love to show his spades but what if his partner's got a fistful of the red suits? Can he risk bidding 5, even non-vulnerable? Or maybe he should double for penalties? He has 4 top tricks, after all. Though he'll be pretty lucky if South's got more than a singleton spade ... Or he could pass – the 'safest' option. Let's say he passes.

North doesn't have anything like enough to try the slam. She can see 9 club tricks and 1 diamond trick and maybe a heart trick will materialise ... but no chance of 12 tricks. So pass.

And East's pass will end the auction.

How goes the play go? West will probably cash his ♠A and then lead the ♠K. South clears trumps, forces out the A and makes 11 tricks.

A couple of questions

  • I've got an opening hand. Why shouldn't I just open 1♣? If you do, West will overcall 1♠ and his partner will raise him to 4♠ ('bid to the level of your fit'). And if you now bid 5♣ it's too late: now they know about their spade fit they can sacrifice in 5♠, which only goes 2 off. The whole point of the preempt is to stop EW talking to each other.
  • But isn't it dangerous to open 5♣? We're vulnerable and they're not – we could easily go 2 off doubled. True, but your partner only needs to come up with one trick to keep you to just 1 off, which is affordable. Any Ace or the K will do. And if partner has nothing, the odds are that EW have got a slam on. It's well worth the risk.

What happened on the day?

At 5 tables, South played in 5♣ – doubled in two cases – and all made at least 11 tricks. Sadly, the pair who played in 4♣ also made 11. One North haplessly went 3 off in 4NTX, and one West somehow managed to make 5♠ (undoubled).


* You'll get one once in around 2,700 hands.

Vacant places

Here’s a nice contract to be in. West leads the ♣9 against your 4 contract. Are you going to make it? Sure you are – unless … Unless what?

Well, there’s nothing you can do about the three missing side-suit aces, but what about trumps? You’re missing Qxx and you can't afford to lose a trump trick. If they’re split 2-1 no problem, but if they’re 3-0 you’re going to have to make a guess …

So what about it? If anyone’s holding the Qxx, who’s it more likely to be: East or West?

Vacant places

The answer’s in the auction. What’s East got for her overcall at the 4 level? Apart from a decent hand, she’s surely got at least 6 clubs. Leaving West with only 2. So what?

Well, that means that East has only 7 cards outside clubs, while West has 11. So any (non-club) missing card is more likely to be with West than East, because there are more vacant places in West’s hand than in East’s: the odds are 11:7. And that goes for the Q as well.

That in itself is a decent reason to place the Q with West, but for your purposes the odds are much better than that. You’re only worried about a 3-0 split, and the chance of East holding all three hearts are vanishingly small: I make it around 4%. *

Let's just look at that again. Most of the time the trumps will be 2-1 and the Q will drop. You're only going to lose a trump trick if they're 3-0 – and if they are, West is much more likely than East to hold Qxx.

So how do you set about clearing trumps?

Do you start by cashing your A or your K? If you imagine West has Qxx it's easy: cash your K. If both opponents follow, you're home. And if East shows out you're still home, as you can catch West's Q.

If you start with your A, however, and East shows out ... then West makes her Q and you're one off.

It won't work all the time, of course. 1 time in 25 East will turn up with Qxx and you'll go off. But the other 24 times you'll be quids in.

And on this hand ...? Take a look at the whole deal. That little bit of extra thought paid off – West does indeed have all the missing trumps.

What happened on the day?

Of the 5 declarers in hearts, only one made 10 tricks. I don't know whether East showed her club suit in the auction, of course. If she didn't, then you have a straight guess. But if she did, she's given you a mega-clue as to how to clear trumps.

More vacant places

This kind of inference comes up all the time, particularly when an opponent's shown a long suit (eg opened a weak 2 or 3 bid): if you want to place a particular missing card outside that suit, it's probably with the other opponent!

For a couple more examples of 'vacant places' at work, click on the link below this article.


* You don't need to get your calculator out to use 'vacant places'. It's not hard to infer that if East has fewer spaces for hearts than West, the odds of East having all three missing hearts will be pretty remote. But if (and only if!) you're really interested in the arithmetic, click on 'Show answer' below.

Working out the odds

How likely is East to have Qxx? Imagine those three cards being dealt one at a time ...

The 1st heart There are 18 vacant places (11 in West's hand and 7 in East's) so East has a 7/18 chance of receiving the 1st heart. Let's say it comes off ...

The 2nd heart There are now 17 vacant places (11 in West's hand and 6 in East's) so East has a 6/17 chance of receiving the 2nd heart. Let's say that comes off too ...

The 3rd heart There are now 16 vacant places (11 in West's hand and 5 in East's) so East has a 5/16 chance of receiving the 3rd heart.

And if that comes off too, East will have all three hearts.

The odds of that happening are therefore 7/18 x 6/17 x 5/16 = 0.04 or 4%

The odds of West having Qxx, using the same reasoning, are 11/18 x 10/17 x 9/16 = 0.2 or 20%. Five times as likely.

And the rest of the time, the hearts will be 2-1.

So if you start by leading the A, you'll succeed 80% of the time. But if you start with the K you'll succeed an even better 96% of the time.

  HOTW 27 Oct 2020 - looking ahead in NT cardplay

Thinking ahead

Here's a hand that everyone played in 3NT, probably after an auction something like the one shown. And at most tables the lead was the ♣6. The task is, then, for you, sitting North, to make as many tricks as you can. What are your thoughts?

What does the lead tell you?

It's interesting that East didn't lead either of the two unbid suits – diamonds or spades – but instead chose your partner's suit, clubs. It looks a bit like a '4th highest', doesn't it? In which case East has a club honour ... which must be the Jack, as you have all the others! So we start with a free trick, which you can take with your ♣10.

So far so good. That's 4 club tricks in the bag. There are 3 more in hearts (4 if the hearts split 3-3), at least one diamond trick and ... how many in spades? At least 2, but if West has good spades (as East's club lead suggests she does) then you've surely got 3? All you have to do is finesse through West a couple of times ... How (and when) to go about it?

Setting up the spades

As long as West holds the ♠Q or ♠K (or both) you're going to make 3 spades. But as you're short of entries to dummy (outside clubs you only have one: the K) you'd better start now. Take trick 1 with your ♣10 (yes, it wins) and lead dummy's ♠10. If West plays low, so do you ... and it wins! West must have the ♠KQ. Now another spade and this time West inserts the ♠Q, which you beat with the ♠A. Now it's a simple matter to lead your ♠J to West's ♠K and your ♠9 is a winner.

What happens next?

That will depend on what West leads. If she leads a diamond, that's fine, as you need to set up a diamond for your 11th trick ... but if not, simply win the trick and lead a diamond yourself.

And provided you play the remaining cards in the right order the rest of the tricks are yours: ♠9, ♣AKQ, AKQ and the K (or Q). 11 tricks. Take a look at the whole deal.

Yes, you're lucky to make 11 tricks *, but once you've made the key plays of putting up the ♣10 and attacking spades immediately ** , you're pretty well guaranteed at least 10 tricks.

What happened on the day?

Four declarers made 9 tricks, three made 10 and just one made 11 – as it happens, the only South to be declarer.


* If West had the A, she'd exit with a 4th spade, getting rid of your ♠9. On getting in with the A, she could then cash her 5th spade, keeping you to 10 tricks.

** For another example of playing a suit missing the KQ, click here: and scroll down to May 2017: the article's called Split honours.

  HOTW 20 Oct 2020 - another splinter bid

Short and sharp – splinters revisited

In the HOTW a couple of weeks ago (October 6th) we found that a splinter bid provided the key to finding a rock-solid slam. Its use in today's hand is more straightforward but no less telling. Responding to your opening 1, West's 3♠ – a double jump shift – shows four key features:

  • at least 4-card support for partner's suit, hearts
  • a singleton or void in the suit bid – in this case spades
  • enough points for game
  • and an interest in slam.

All of which fits very nicely with your 17-point hand. With no losers in spades, there are just 3 cards you need to know about – the trump King and the two minor Aces – and finding out about them is simplicity itself: RKC Blackwood. Partner's response – 5♣ – shows 0 or 3 key cards. So where do we go from here?

First, is it 0 or 3? Has to be 3, doesn't it? Impossible to create a hand for West which is worth a slam try without any of the K, ♣A and A in it. Which means you've got all the key cards!

So do you bid 6 or 7? Depends if partner has the ♣Q, doesn't it? At pairs, bidding and making 6 is going to get you a good score anyway, so bidding 7 may be unnecessarily risky. 6 it is.

How does it go?

Let's say South leads the Q. Down goes dummy and – take a look at the whole deal.

Making 12 tricks is child's play: you have 5 top tricks outside trumps (♠A, AK, ♣AK), 4 trump tricks ... and 3 spade ruffs in dummy:

  • Win trick 1 in dummy. Lead a spade to the ♠A and ruff a spade.
  • Now a trump to the A and ruff another spade (note that South shows out at this point – if she hadn't you'd have ruffed with the K, just to be sure).
  • Another trump to the Q (that's trumps cleared!) and ruff a 3rd spade.

And that's it. Whether you make an overtrick depends on how you play the clubs. As it happens, the ♣Q drops under the ♣AK, but it's better play to cash one club trick and then finesse – and if you guess right you have 13 tricks.

What happened on the day?

Although nearly everyone made 13 tricks (2 made 12), just one pair bid 6, for a colossal top. One other pair punted 7 and were unlucky enough to guess the club finesse wrong, going one off: very bad luck. Pretty well everyone else stopped in 4♥ – including the robot pair.

As a fortnight ago, it's the splinter bid that switches on the 'Slam?' lightbulb. You can find a couple more examples of splinters leading to slams on the Bridge @ Box website. Scroll down to September 2018 and then (as suggested there) to September 2017. Here's the link:

Splinters are also one of A Robson's favourite conventions:


  HOTW 13 Oct 2020 - opening leads

Leading questions

What would you lead against East's 4 contract, sitting South with this hand? The aim here isn't to find some magical 'killer lead' – there's precious little to go on from the auction! – but rather to focus on which card you'd choose from each of the available suits. 

A trump? Let's get the easy one out of the way first: should you lead the 8? Leading a singleton trump is usually a poor idea *, so we'll bin that one and move on.

A spade? Would work well if partner has ♠AKx(x) or ♠AQx(x) sitting over dummy's ♠K. Unlikely, but possible. You should lead the ♠5: then on trick 2, your ♠4 will tell partner you started with just 2 spades and she can give you a ruff. 
The rule: high-low from a doubleton. If instead you lead the ♠4 and then play the ♠5, she'll think you've got 3 spades ...

A diamond? It's usually dangerous to lead away from an unsupported honour (here the K) unless partner's bid the suit. But if you do lead a diamond lead the 4.
The rule: low for like. ** With an honour, lead your lowest card, or (with a long suit) your 4th highest.

A club? Why not? Seems harmless enough. If you lead a club it should be the ♣8 (or ♣9).
The rule: high for hate. ** The high card (usually the 2nd highest from 4 cards) tells partner you don't have an honour in clubs. And when you play a lower club next time she'll know you started with 2 or 4.

And just to complete the set, what would you lead from a rubbish 3-card suit – say 852. The answer is the 5. Followed by the 8 next time and finally the 2.
The rule: MUD – middle-up-down. Make sure you remember to play the 8 next – otherwise partner will think you hold a 52 doubleton!

What happens on this hand?

Take a look at the whole deal It's pot luck! As it happens, the only lead that allows East to make her contract is a club. Declarer cashes her ♣AQ immediately, discarding dummy's Q10 and makes 11 tricks. On any other lead, the defence can take four tricks: AK, A and ♠K.

Full marks go to West for jumping straight to 4 – it blocks all communication between N and S and even going one off earns a better score than NS making 9+ tricks in diamonds or clubs.

What happened on the day?

Nearly everyone was in 4 – well done; and no one led their singleton trump – well done again. But although it wasn't crucial on this hand, you need to get your choice of lead card sorted out. Only one South led an appropriate card: the 4th highest 4. Other leads were:

  • ♣2 – promises an honour – you don't have one.
  • 9 – denies an honour – you have the K.
  • 2 – shows a maximum of 4 diamonds – you have 6.
  • ♠4 – when followed by the ♠5, shows at least 3 spades – you have 2.


* Here's a handy short article on the subject by Andrew Robson:

*Another short article by AR:

  HOTW 06 Oct 2020 - using a splinter bid to find a slam

Controlled bidding

What are your thoughts sitting East and your partner's opened a 12-14 1NT? Mine would be:

  • I wonder if partner has 4 spades ...
  • ... and if she does I wonder if we've got a slam.

True, you've only got 28-30 points between you – for which reason 6NT is unlikely to make – but in spades (or, failing that, clubs) things are looking far more promising.

So let's start with Stayman ... and partner responds 2♠: you have a spade fit. What next?

Three choices

Well, you could just punt 6♠. Short and sweet, certainly ... but a bit rash. If partner's lacking the A and you also have a trump loser (or S holds AQ), you're scuppered.

RKC Blackwood, then? An improvement, certainly. But what if partner responds 5 (2 keycards, no ♠Q)? The A is useless to you. You still don't know whether she's got the A, and if not you're in trouble again.

You need to find a way of discovering whether partner has the A – can you do that? Sure you can. Make a splinter bid: 4 agrees spades and shows a control in diamonds (either a singleton or a void) and, crucially, an interest in going for a slam. How can partner respond? Well, with nothing in hearts, all she can do is sign off in 4♠ – but if she holds the A the very least she can do is tell you about it by bidding 4. Which indeed she does.

Now, we're getting somewhere. If partner has the A, we're probably making 6♠. And now we can use Blackwood as a final check: you bid 4NT, partner responds 5♠ (showing 2 key cards and the ♠Q) and you can now bid ♠6 with confidence.

And if you look at the whole deal, you'll see that it's a doddle to make all 13 tricks, notwithstanding the 4-1 trump split: just one diamond ruff is needed in addition to 4 trump tricks, the AK and 6 club tricks to make the grand.

Showing controls

Slams are all about controls: you can be sitting there with 14 tricks, but if the opps can take two quick tricks before you can get the lead, you're off. 

Which is what makes control bids (aka cue bids) so important. It's really not that difficult * : once you've agreed a suit, any other suit you bid that commits you to game shows a control and an interest in slam. And once you start, you can swap control info up the line and thereby decide whether or not to go further. Here, your 4 bid is ideal, as the only control bid available to your partner is hearts – exactly the suit you need to know about. Lovely!

And without a spade fit?

What do you do if partner responds 2 or 2 to your Stayman bid? Without getting too sophisticated, I think I might just punt 6♣: if we're missing the A at least a heart lead will come round to my K and not through it. Depends how frisky you feel!

What happened on the day?

Apart from a pair of robots, just one pair bid 6♠: well done! The rest were in 4♠, except for one pair who, alas, ended up in 5♣ – cherchez la major fit! Everyone made 13 tricks.


* Bernard McGee's 3-part treatment of slam bidding is well worth studying. Part 1 is very much about RKC Blackwood, while Part 2 focuses on control bids:

  HOTW 29 Sept 2020 - good contract, rotten luck

Taking a hit

The auction isn't as silly as it looks. North doesn't quite have an opening hand, so passes; and when South opens 1♣ (the suit below the singleton) responds 1♠ (never mind the club fit - show your major!). South, mindful of partner's initial pass, raises to 2♠. North now needs to invite to game - she's a full 5 points better than she might be - and so bids 3♠ * - 'Have you got just a bit extra, p?'. And North, with just 6 losers, accepts the invitation and they're in 4♠.

East leads the ♣5, dummy goes down and you're in the hot seat.

How does it look?

Pretty good. If the trumps behave themselves, you have 4 trump tricks. Plus a couple of diamond ruffs. At least 3 club tricks, maybe 4. And a heart trick, maybe 2. So on an average day, 10 tricks and on a good day 11 or even 12. Pity about the club lead, mind: a diamond lead would have allowed you to get your two ruffs in without risking a club ruff. Still ...


To save you the agony of deciding whether or not to go up with the ♣A (you should, unless you think East is daft enough to lead away from the ♣K) take a look at the whole deal. 

Everything that could be wrong is wrong. The trumps don't behave themselves: they're 4-1. The ♣K is wrong. And the K is wrong. You're going off. 

So what happens in the post-mortem? 'I'm sorry, partner, I should have left you in 3♠ - you're a passed hand after all'? 'Sorry, p - shouldn't have invited after your raise'? Piffle. What you should be saying is 'Well done, p - we got to the right place. Just rough luck we didn't make it.'

Rough odds

What are the odds of success on this hand? Roughly speaking, you're going to make it if just ONE of those Kings is finessable OR, failing that, if the trumps are 3-2. Turning that around, you're only going off if all three are wrong - as happened on this hand.

Getting arithmetical for a moment, the chances of a finesse working are 50% and the chances of a 3-2 split are 68% (so the chances of a bad split are just 32%). So the chance of failure is 50% x 50% x 32% = a miniscule 7%. Meaning that you're going to make 4♠ a whopping 93% of the time - let's round that down to 90%.

What that means in practical terms is that if you take the EW cards and shuffle and deal them randomly 100 times, you're going to make 4♠ 90 times and go off just 10 times. 4♠ is the place to be.

What happened on the day?

Well done to the three pairs that bid 4♠ and commiserations that you went off: you took a hit this time, but on most other days you'll be getting a top. The two pairs in spade part-scores scored well today, but on most other occasions will regret missing game. And the two who ended up in clubs need to focus more on finding a major fit.


* An alternative bid for N at this point would be 3. After partner raises your major to the 2 level, bidding another suit is a 'Trial bid', asking for help in that suit: 'I think we might have game, p, but I'm worried about losing a bunch of tricks in diamonds. Can you help?' Here, with a singleton diamond, S can indeed help - there are a couple of diamond ruffs to be had! - and so will go straight to 4♠. For Andrew Robson's take on trial bids, go here:

  HOTW 22 Sept 2020 - Contract or penalty double? Vulnerability

If it looks like 3NT ...

This hand goes hand in glove with the previous HOTW (Red vs Green, Tuesday 8 Sept 2020) ...

Your partner doubles West's opening weak 2 and East passes. What do you bid? As the title suggests, 3NT springs to mind – and maybe something more ambitious, given that the X should promise an opening hand.

But a thoughtful South will certainly consider Pass as an alternative: if partner's got an opening hand, you've got pretty well 30 points between you, so West isn't going to be doing too well in 2X, is she? If you pass, thus converting partner's takeout double into a penalty double, you might be in for a very nice penalty that scores more than making 3NT. What do you reckon?

Red vs Green

As last time, it's a good idea to check the vulnerability before making your choice. How many tricks are you going to have to take 2X off in order to score better than 3NT making? Check the NS and EW vulnerability on this board and then the table at the end. Then read on.

OK. You're vulnerable and they aren't. Which means that the vulnerability is in their favour. Why? Well, you'd get 600+ for making 3NT. And in order to get a penalty worth more than that, you'd need to take them four off in 2X. Can you be sure of doing that? That's the equivalent of making 3 yourself with a decent 6-card heart holding on your left. A dodgy prospect, I'd say.

If the vulnerability were the other way around, that would be a different thing altogether. Then you'd only be making 400+ for making 3NT, and you'd only need to get them two off (earning 500) to make a profit.

So be guided by the vulnerabilty, and also by an adage I picked up from a distinguished member of Bath BC: If it looks like 3NT, then it probably is!

A different auction

Take a look at the whole deal. As you can see, a reasonable alternative bid for partner instead of X would be 3. Now the vulnerability doesn't really come into it and you can be guided by the adage: it certainly looks like 3NT, so go for it. (Yes, as it happens, you can make 6NT, but only by peeking at West's cards so that you know to finesse her diamonds twice – not a great slam to be in.)

What happened on the day?

Two pairs found 3NT, each making 11 tricks for a top – very well done. A couple tried leaving in the X, but didn't get 2X off enough to make a profit – a good try, but see above. None of the others, sadly (with 28 combined points!), bid to game.


  making game 1 off X 2 off X 3 off X 4 off X
non vulnerable 400+ -100 -300 -500 -800
vulnerable 600+ -200 -500 -800 -1100


  HOTW 08 Sept 2020 - to sacrifice or not? Vulnerability

Red vs Green

Well, it's up to you – do you pass or bid 4♠?

With a pretty poor 5-point hand, you're obviously not expecting to make 4♠. If you do bid on, it would be a sacrifice, expecting to go off. This is only a good thing if:

  • the opposition are going to make their contract AND
  • going off doubled (they're going to X you, that's for sure!) is cheaper than letting them make their contract.

Is this the case here? Let's take a look at ...

... what the auction tells you

Your partner should have 4 spades for her raise (your 1♠ only promises 4 spades) so (in my system, anyway) will have 5 clubs, as she opened 1♣, not 1♠. This gives you a double 9-card fit  which is advantageous. As for points, your partner has just an ordinary opening hand – 11-13 points, say.

What about the opposition? South's takeout X shows an opening hand with both red suits, and North is strong enough to make a free (ie not forced) 3 bid over your partner's 2♠. And North, under no pressure, decides to go for game.

So. Are they going to make it? Probably. They obviously have decent points – and as you have a double fit in the black suits, so do they, probably, in the red suits – in both of which you have a miserable doubleton: no scope for ruffing, then! All they have to do is clear trumps and then bang out their diamonds ...

Next question: will it be cheaper to sacrifice? Well, that depends crucially on the ...

... vulnerability on both sides

In a nutshell – see the table at the end – the more advantageous the vulnerability, the more tricks you can lose safely:

  • If you're red and they're green, you can only afford to go 1 off in 4♠X: -200 is cheaper than -420, but -500 (for 2 off) is worse.
  • If you're both green or both red, you can afford to go 2 off: -300 (-500) is cheaper than -420 (-620). But 3 off is worse.
  • If you're green and they're red, you can afford to go 3 off: -500 is cheaper than -620. Don't ever sacrifice if you're going 4 off unless it's against a slam!

So on this hand, even if you only make 7 tricks in 4♠X, sacrificing is cheaper than letting them make 4. With your double fit, it's a no-brainer – go for it!

What happens?

Take a look at the full deal. They're making their 4, aren't they? They lose just a spade, a diamond and a club and bank 620 points. Whereas you make 8 tricks in 4♠X, going just 2 off and giving them just 300 instead. Marvellous.

What happened on the day?

Only 2 NS pairs bid 4, but both made it. The lesson for NS seems to be: bid up! And for EW: don't bother to bid on if they're not in game, but if they are, sacrifice!


  making 4 1 off X 2 off X 3 off X 4 off X
non vulnerable 420 -100 -300 -500 -800
vulnerable 620 -200 -500 -800 -1100


  HOTW 8 Sept 2020 - NOT the negative X (again!)

Déjà vu

Take a quick look back at last week's HOTW (board 1, 1 September 2020, below) and compare it with board 1 played in the same session a week later.

By a remarkable coincidence, they're almost identical. Same opening, same overcall, and the same dog not barking in the night time: instead of the negative X, you bid 2♠, showing at least 5 spades PLUS enough strength to respond at the 2 level. And the same punt by North,

And the same outcome: 4 spades making comfortably – this time with an overtrick on just 22 combined points. And again (as it happens) 4 is an alternative making contract.

Only two pairs bid it, though, and of those 1 went off. 

NOTE: This is NOT the HOTW for Tuesday 8 September – that will appear above.

  HOTW 01 Sept 2020 - NOT the negative X

The dog in the night time

The negative double is one of the most useful tools available to a responder, and is well worth adding to your armoury *. In a nutshell: if your partner opens 1 of a suit and your RHO overcalls, a X from you shows enough points to respond and at least 4 cards in any unbid major. Here, for example, a double would show 6+ points and 4+ spades.

With this holding, however, we have a better bid. Firstly, we have not four but five spades and secondly we're strong enough to say so. And 2♠ tells partner just that. How come?

  • Well, if you only had 4 spades, you'd X. You're only interested in spades if partner has 4, so you can show your strength after her next bid.
  • And if you had 5 spades but (say) only 8 or 9 points, you couldn't afford to bid so high (2♠ goes beyond partner's natural rebid of 2, after all). So again, the negative X would be the only bid available.

2♠ works a treat on this hand, as you'll see if you look at the whole deal. Knowing that you have 5 spades, North can abandon her scrappy 6-card heart suit and raise you to 3♠, and you can confidently go on to game.

What if North opens a weak 2?

North doesn't quite have a Rule of 20 opening hand, so may prefer to open a weak 2. What do you say over East's 3 overcall?

This is a bit trickier. You're not worried about the spades any more, because you have a known 8-card heart fit ... but do you bid 3 or 4? Without the overcall, you'd have bid 2NT Ogust, asking for more information. Your partner would have shown 'max points' and you'd have gone on to game.

But you can't do that over 3. Partner will certainly (and rightly) pass 3, so you just have to take a punt one way or another. With your shortage in diamonds, I'd have thought that 4 is well worth a try.

How does it go?

You can make 11 tricks in either major, losing a heart and a diamond in each case. 

If hearts are trumps, a little more thought's needed. You haven't really got a finesse position, so the best line is to cash the A and lead another heart and duck, in the hope that the K is doubleton – which indeed it is. (If West covers with the J, you play the Q, of course!)

Should West raise partner's diamonds?

No! Sure, she's got 4 diamonds but with an abject 12-loser hand, she doesn't want to encourage partner to sacrifice in 5. It'll surely get doubled.

What happened on the day?

A couple of NS pairs failed to find game, but everyone else got there – most in spades and a couple in hearts. Everyone made at least 10 tricks, with a couple somehow sneaking 12 . One hapless EW pair sacrificed in 5, which was duly doubled and went 4 off for -800. Ouch.

The dog in the night time?

The fact that partner didn't X indicates both extra spades and extra strength. The absence of a possible bid also conveys meaning ...


* An excellent and accessible account of negative doubles by Bernard Magee can be found here:

  HOTW 25 Aug 2020 - Signalling with a discard

Signal success

'What discards do you play?' is a question you need to be able to answer, as your choice of discard can give partner vital information as to what to do next. Two popular systems are:

  • Attitude. Play a high card from a suit you like or a low card from a suit you have no interest in. Also known as HELD - High Encouraging Low Discouraging. HELD is also common when following suit to partner's lead.
  • McKenney. Discard from a suit you don't want led: play a high or low card depending on whether you want the higher or lower of the two remaining suits.

Either of these, plus a few other basic observations, can lead you to a good result against West's 1NT, against which your partner leads the 5 ...

How does it go?

Let's think it through. First the points. Declarer has 12-14 points – call it 13 – and dummy 6, so that's 19 points. You have 14, so that gives your partner around 7 points.

Now the opening lead. The 5 looks like partner's 4th highest heart, which is promising. You win with your K and lead the A, on which declarer drops the J and partner the 3. So who has the Q?

Your partner does. How do you know? Because if the 5 is her 4th highest and she also has the 3, she must have started with 5 hearts. Meaning that declarer's got none left.

So go for it. Lead your 7 for a further 3 heart tricks ...


... which is where the discards come in. Obviously you'd like a diamond when the hearts are all cashed. How to let partner know?

Say you're playing McKenney. On partner's 4th heart, you discard a high spade – the ♠9. You don't want a spade, but the higher ranking of the other two suits – diamonds.

Or if you're playing HELD, discard the ♠2 – not interested in spades – and on partner's 5th heart discard the ♣5 – not interested in clubs either. (It would be quicker to throw a high diamond, but you don't have one to spare!)

So at trick 6, your partner, who's been diligently observing your discards, leads the 9 (top of nothing, no interest in diamonds).

What happens next?

Well, the contract's down, isn't it? You could just cash your AK and be done with it. But that wouldn't be good defence. For one thing, you're setting up diamond tricks for declarer in dummy. And for another, your partner's still nursing 5 points over there in one or both of the black suits ...

So no hurry. Take your diamond trick with the K (which wins, kinda telling partner you have the A as well) and switch to a black suit. Better to lead through strength rather than round to dummy's ♠A, so lead a club ...

... and now would be a good time to look at the whole deal to see what happens.

Whatever declarer plays, she's losing a club trick. If she plays her ♣A, she's going to lose 2. Let's say she plays low. Your partner wins and returns another diamond ... That's 8 tricks to the good guys and a really good result. *

What happened on the day?

The defence did pretty well: of the 6 declarers in 1NT, three went 2 off, two went 1 off and one (somehow) just made.


* Yes, I know. The 'makeable tricks' table says declarer can only make 4 tricks. That would require you to switch to a club at trick 3, before any diamonds have been played. Let's keep it simple and be content with our 8 tricks, shall we?

  HOTW 18 Aug 2020 - finding the major fit

Major vs Minor: wood and trees

This is getting to be a bit of a worn record, I know, but this hand's quite an eye-opener. We've seen in previous weeks that what we're looking for in any auction is a major fit; failing that, NT is the next best option; and (slams excepted) playing in a minor is a last resort.

Here's it's very easy to miss the wood for the trees. You've (so far) done well to resist the urge to jump into a stratospheric diamond raise and instead show your heart suit – you won't find a major fit if you conceal a 5-card major! – and now you have to decide what to bid over partner's 1NT rebid.

Clearly you're going to be in game – but in what? 4? 3NT? Or maybe 5

Let's say you can resist the dazzle of the diamonds (a minor suit is a last resort, remember). NT scores better, doesn't it? Trouble is, you don't have much to offer in the black suits, do you? If partner has (say) ♣Axx in clubs and they lead a club, you could be in trouble. Yeah, best stick to the diamonds, then ...

But hang on a minute! Aren't we supposed to be looking for a major fit? Has partner told you she's got fewer than 3 hearts? Not a bit of it. Have you told her you've got 5 hearts? Um, not yet, no. Better check it out, then, because if you've got an 8-card fit that's where you want to be.

How to check for the fit?

The simplest way of finding out is to bid 3. This says 'We're in game, partner, but I think you should know that I've got 5 hearts, in case you've got 3.' If she has, she'll bid 4 and if not it'll be 3NT. *

There's another way of asking, via a very useful convention called Checkback Stayman. It's initiated, like ordinary Stayman, by bidding 2♣, but this time over a 1NT rebid, rather than a 1NT opening bid, and asks about opener's major holdings and also, in passing, about strength. If you used it here, you'd clearly be wanting information about partner's hearts (since you've bid them). Partner's responses are (positive, holding 3 hearts) either 2 (minimum) or 3 (maximum) and (negative, holding only 2 hearts) 2 (minimum) or 2NT (maximum). Neat! **

So what happens? Take a look at the whole deal.

Partner does indeed have 3 hearts. So over your 3 she'll raise to 4. And if you go via Checkback 2♣, she'll respond 3, showing 3 hearts and a maximum 16, which you can duly raise to 4.

So are we in the best place?

In 4, you're going to lose one spade (you can discard a spade loser in your hand on dummy's ♣A) and one trick to the K. 11 tricks, scoring 650.

3NT (as you feared) goes off on a club lead. At some point you've got to let them back in with the K and they can then reel off club tricks galore. Score: -100

And 5 makes the same 11 tricks as 4, only this time you only score 600.

What happened on the day?

This is the eye-opening bit. No-one found the 8-card heart fit. If you had you'd have earned yourself 100%, as your 650 beats everyone else hands down.


* Whatever you do, don't bid 2. This is a weak sign-off: sorry, partner, I've got long hearts and nothing else. Partner will pass it.

** I've been looking online for an accessible account of Checkback Stayman, and the nearest I can find is an article by Jeremy Dhondy in a Mr Bridge magazine: It's on page 27.

  HOTW 11 Aug 2020 - major fit vs NT
HOTW 11 Aug 2020 - major fit vs NT

Major fit vs NT

Which is better? If you're scoring the same number of tricks either way, NT wins, as it's worth eg 430 (3N+1) rather than 420 (4H=). As we saw last week, however, most of the time you'll get an extra trick in a suit contract, either by ruffing or stopping the opposition running away with a good suit.

On this hand, partner opened 1 and has rebid 2NT, promising 17-18 points. Clearly you want to be in game (as 17 + 9 = 26) ... but which one? If your partner has 5 hearts, 4 might be a better bet than 3NT. It's simple enough to find out: with a minimum 6 points, you'd just be passing 2NT, so anything you bid now is forcing to game – so simply bid 3. Partner now knows you have 3 hearts, so can choose the game she prefers.

Take a look at the whole hand: with 5 hearts North will accept your offer and bid 4.

How does it go?

Say they lead the ♠4.. It's not difficult to make 4, is it? You have 4 trump tricks, three clubs, two diamonds and a spade for a comfortable 10 tricks (actually, if you play your cards right you can make 11) ...

... whereas on the same lead, 3NT is decidedly tricky. Once your ♠A has gone, you're wide open in spades and in order to set up your 9th trick you have to let the opposition in with a heart. As it happens, if you hold up your ♠A at trick 1 and perform some jiggery-pokery with the hearts * you can prevent them running away with their spades and eventually come to 10 tricks. On another day, such jiggery-pokery might not work and 3NT will go off.

What matters on the day, of course, is how well the declarer plays and the defenders defend, and on this day the no-trumpers prevailed: one was allowed to make 11 tricks and all except 1 made their contracts. Of those in 4, only one made their contract (not sure why). But the 'makeable tricks' table (see right) is clear that 4 is worth 11 tricks and 3NT just 10.

It's not just this hand ...

By coincidence, there were three other hands in this session in which declarers were divided between 4 and 3NT:

  • On board 5 NS can make 10 tricks in hearts but only 9 in NT,
  • on board 6, EW can make 10 tricks in hearts but only 7 in NT
  • and on board 13 EW can make 12 tricks in hearts but only 11 in NT.

There's a pattern there somewhere ...


* If West has only 2 spades, you can run him out of spades by holding up for 1 round. Then (hoping for a 3-2 heart break) you simply run hearts round to West: lead your 9 and if East plays low so do you ... forcing West to win the trick. As he has no more spades, you get the lead back straight away and can now cash 4 heart tricks. If East covers with the J, up with your Ace, cross your fingers and lead another heart to your King - which works a treat.

  HOTW 04 Aug 2020 - Guarding against bad split / prefer NT to minor

Bid to win, play to win

This hand offers a couple of important lessons for improving players, one in bidding and one in declarer play. Here goes ...

If you have a minor fit, get to NT if you can

You're sitting West with a pleasant 15 points. Once your partner opens 1♠, you know game is on – and it's therefore your responsibility to make sure that happens. You respond with a forcing 2♣ and partner raises to 3♣. So. She has an ordinary hand with spades and at least 4 clubs. Slam's not likely, then. But which game to go for?

Your red suit holding suggests that NT is the way to go. So show your diamonds: 3. This clearly a try for NT. Your partner responds 3 – this is 4th suit forcing, and in this situation is wondering if you've got anything in hearts *. You have, so you bid 3NT and that's the final contract. Which, as you can see, should make at least 10 tricks.

So why go for 3NT instead of 5♣? Two reasons:

  • Provided you have sufficient stops, it's easier to make 9 tricks in NT than 11 in a minor. Suit contracts are often worth 1 more trick than NT, but less often 2. So there are lots of hands with minor fits that make 3NT but go off in 5♣/.
  • It usually scores more. Sure, 3NT and 5♣ are both worth 600 ... but once overtricks come into the picture (as they do here) NT wins hands down. 3NT+1 earns you 630, whereas 5♣ – even if it makes an overtrick – is only worth 620. You need all 13 tricks in a minor to score more than 10 tricks in NT.

So go for the minor only if you're short of stops – or if you reckon the minor's worth a slam. 

Cash one of the 'double honours' first

Right. You're in 3NT and North leads the 2. Play low and you're guaranteed two heart tricks – South wins with the K and plays a low heart back to dummy's A. You're down to your last heart stop, so you can only safely lose the lead once ...

... which is fine. You can force out the A and then you've got a guaranteed 10 tricks ... or have you? Those clubs look pretty solid, but are they? Really? Take a moment to think how you should play them and why.

Time's up! You have 9 clubs to the AKQ, so your only worry is if they split 4-0. Can you deal with that? Of course you can: Cash the ♣A and if both players follow, no problem. And if one opponent shows out, you can now finesse in either direction to 'catch' the ♣J.

And as it happens, they are 4-0: take a look at the whole deal ...

What a good thing you started with your ♣A! If you'd started by cashing the ♣Q, North's going to make his ♣J, isn't he? But because you had the foresight to cash the first club trick in the hand that has two top honours, you still have one in each hand, and so can catch the ♣J whether it's in the North or South hand.

It's a simple enough precaution, and nearly all of the time it won't matter. But on the 5% of hands where you it does matter, as here, it's a winning play.

What happened on the day?

Half the tables reached 3NT – well done – and the other half were in clubs, two not reaching game (with 28 combined points!)

The declarer play was a bit leaky: no one made 11 tricks, so no club games were made. The NT declarers were happy enough, however: even if they missed a trick (or two) they were in the better contract and all made game.


* Why did East bother with '4th suit forcing' when she has a heart stop herself: the A? It's that foresight again: you're going to get a heart lead, aren't you, (you've bid the other 3 suits) and East's Ace is going to be history after a couple of tricks, leaving you wide open in hearts – unless West can help out. Fortunately, West can! And if not – well, this would be one of those hands where you're better off in 5♣ instead. 

  HOTW 28 July 2020 - the joy of 10s

The joy of 10s

Here you are with a flat 9-count and partner's rebid 1NT over your 1♠ response. Let's say it shows 15-16 points. What are you thoughts?

Top of the list must be that if partner has a maximum 16 points, you have 25 between you – enough for game. So the one thing you mustn't do is pass. Yes, I know, you haven't got a 5-card suit and it's mostly queens and jacks, but queens and jacks are very useful in NT opposite partner's higher honours. And if you're still not convinced, you must have noticed that you have not one, not two but three tens. Tens are honours too, and are more useful in NT than they are in a suit contract – particularly when combined with queens and jacks ...

So at the very least, you should invite partner to game by offering 2NT.

Lots of players will go further: if a single jack is worth 1 point, surely three 10s have got to be worth 1 point as well – meaning that you're strong enough to punt 3NT yourself.

Take a look at the whole deal.

How does it go?

Luckily enough, you'll probably get a heart lead, which immediately give you an extra trick in hearts. So far so good. What about the rest?

Well, it's looking pretty good. Once you've got rid of the ♠AK you have two spade tricks. Add 3 hearts, at least one diamond and at least 4 clubs and you're comfortably home.

I'd probably hit the spades first, having made a note to finesse a club later, once back in dummy with the A. At most they're going to make ♠AK, A and maybe the Q. 


What about those three 10s? Well, they make all the difference.

  • the ♠10 gives you the muscle to create two spade tricks
  • the ♣10 means that you can afford to lead the ♣J to finesse the ♣Q - if the finesse loses, you still have 4 club tricks via your ♣AK10
  • and your 10 may prove a useful finessing tool if the opposition decide to lead diamonds.

Well worth the extra point we awarded ourselves earlier!

What happened on the day?

It wasn't surprising that only one table reached 3NT - West has a minimum 15 points and will probably turn down East's 2NT invitation.

What was surprising was that only one pair played in 2NT - the rest were all in 1NT. If you were East, you really should have at least been looking for game. On another day, partner will have a maximum 16 and the fact that you missed game will be entirely your fault!


  HOTW 21 July 2020 - games in both directions

Games in both directions

This is one of those hands – each side holds just 20 points, yet each can also make game in a major suit.

It takes some frisky bidding to find either game. Such as South's rather dodgy 1♠ overcall on just 8 points – well, they're not vulnerable, are they? And West's direct (weak) raise to 4, in an attempt to shut NS out. Unlucky – with a 12-count, four good spades and a singleton in the opponents' suit, North's always going to punt 4♠. Which leaves East wondering whether to pass, double or bid 5. As it happens, 5 is best, as NS can make 4♠ and 5 is only one off. 

How does it go in 4?

The opposition will probably start by cashing a heart. All South has to do is force out the ♣AK, clear trumps and claim 10 tricks.

Don't be tempted to clear trumps first: if you do, they can win a club, force you to ruff a heart with North's last trump ... and then when they win their 2nd club they'll get a heart trick too  – ugh!

How does it go in 4?

As it happens, it's very similar. The opposition will start with a couple of spades, the 2nd getting ruffed, and then all you need to do is force out the AK to set up a bunch of diamond tricks. This time you can afford to clear trumps first, as you'll still have enough trumps in hand to ruff spades twice if necessary.

What happened on the day?

The bidding was pretty shrewd: all but one table reached game in either hearts or spades, one getting to 5.

The declarer play wasn't so great: only 3 of the 7 declarers made 10 tricks, the others making just 9. If one of those was you, it might be worth playing it through again in your head and working out where it went wrong.


  HOTW 14 July 2020 - Defence vs suit contract

Simple – but killing – defence

Sitting East, you pass over North's opening 1NT - that's a pretty ropy heart suit you've got there - and South begins a transfer to spades. North now 'super-accepts' (showing 4 spades and a maximum 14 points) and South punts game despite being a point short - well, why not?

And it's your lead ...

The play

It turns out Lady Luck is on your side. You have a fairly obvious lead: the A allows you to peek at dummy without giving too much away - and you're delighted when partner follows with the 10 - which is surely either a singleton or top of a doubleton. So are they going off in 4♠?

Sure they are. The one holding partner can't have is three diamonds, from which she'd play the lowest, not the top. Therefore declarer must have more than two (she can't have a singleton as she opened 1NT). So you can confidently continue with your K ... on which partner plays the 9. Perfect. You could just give partner her ruff and hope that she leads you back a heart to take the contract off, but why take the risk? Cash your A first and then give partner her ruff. Then you're sure the contract's going off.

Take a look at the whole deal.

Points to take from the hand

  • Super-accepting is a good way of finding marginal games: if partner's weak your extra strength and trump length will usually be enough for 9 tricks.
  • With what might be a very useful club void, South's hand is worth a punt at game. They're unlucky here - if North had had high diamonds and rubbish clubs, or if the diamonds had been 3-2 the other way round, 4♠ makes easily.
  • A from AK is an attractive opening lead: it allows you a free peek at dummy while retaining the lead ...
  • ... and in this case allows you to work out that there's a ruff to be had.
  • On this hand, partner's pretty sure to lead back a heart after her ruff (as dummy's void in clubs) but it does no harm to make sure of the setting trick by cashing the A first.

What happened on the day?

4 of the 7 NS pairs reached 4♠, the others stopping in 2♠. Only one declarer was allowed to make 10 tricks. Four made 9 tricks. And two (somehow) only made 8.


  HOTW 07 July 2020 - finding a slam

Finding a slam

'How do we bid the slam on board 11?' may have been a commonly aired question after the session, in which one pair reached 7♠, two more managed 6♠ ... and the other 5 pairs didn't.

The short answer is that it's easy if West opens a game-forcing 2♣. With a 15-count featuring 2 Aces and 2 Kings, East immediately knows that some kind of slam must be on – and it's up to her to make sure it's bid.

The auction can continue in all sorts of ways. The simplest is that after East's 2 (= tell me more) and West's 2♠ rebid, East simply bids 6♠. Not very sophisticated, true, and risks missing a possible grand, but at least you don't miss the slam!

An alternative would be to jump straight to RKC Blackwood: West shows 3 keycards and if asked further will also show the trump Q and a side-suit King ... and you may find the grand ...

Or you can take it more slowly ...

  • The telling bid in the auction shown is East's 3♠. If she'd bid 4♠, that would have been a shutout – 'OK, partner, you wanted to be in game. You got it. Now pass please.' 3♠, on the other hand, shows a stronger hand and an interest in slam. It gives West an opportunity ...
  • ... to show her A (and deny the ♣A or A) and this encourages East (who is staring at both of those other Aces!) to try RKCB ...
  • ... West's 5♣ response showing 3 keycards (which must be ♠AK and A)
  • 5 (the next suit up) asks about the trump Queen ...
  • ... and West's 6♣ says 'Yep, I've got the ♠Q – and the ♣K as well' ...
  • ... allowing East, who can see at least 6 trump tricks and three other AKs, to punt 7♠. All you need, after all, is ONE of the three side-suit queens for the 13th trick.

But if that all seems a bit complicated, don't bother with it: as we saw earlier, simply punting 6♠ after West's 2♠ will earn you a great score.

Don't open 1 spade

With a slightly weaker hand, it would be fine to open 1♠ in West's seat. The reasoning is that if partner's too weak to respond you probably don't have game anyway. But this hand's pretty well worth game even if partner has next to nothing – you daren't risk getting passed out. And that's as good a reason as any for opening a game-forcing 2♣. Here you're always going to find game, sure, but opposite an opening 1♠ it isn't quite as obvious to East that the slam must be on – which is probably the reason so many pairs didn't find it.