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Jan-June 2021 HOTWs
  HOTW 29 June 2021 - overcalling with a strong hand

Double first

With 26 combined points and an 8-card spade fit, you'd want to end up in 4 on this hand. Yet only one pair reached game. How come?

If East passes, it's fairly easy. South opens 1 and over North's 1NT response jump rebids 3, showing a good 6-card suit and 16-18 points. And it would be faint-hearted of North, with a spade honour and a near max 8 points, not to raise to game.

But East doesn't pass. What, then, to bid over her opening 1♣? If South simply overcalls 1♠, North will probably pass. And 2♠ and 3♠ are both weak, preemptive bids. The answer, with a strong hand, is to start off with a double, intending to bid spades the next time round, whatever partner bids. To double first and then bid your suit shows a hand with 16+ points and a good suit – this is the overcalling equivalent, if you like, of opener's jump rebid.

So how does it go? South doubles, West passing, and North bids 2 (the jump showing a hand with at least 8 points). South now bids 2♠ as planned, and now North knows what's going on: she can raise to 3♠ and with 18 points South will now go on to game.

Planning the play

Having bid 4♠, we now have to make it. How are things looking on a ♣9 lead?

You've got a loser in each of clubs, diamonds and hearts – and maybe a trump loser too. Any ideas?

Well, the diamonds look promising. You may remember from previous HOTWs the idea of 'split honours'. * If West has at least one of the missing KQ (a 75% chance) you can make an extra trick by finessing diamonds twice.

How does it go? No reason not to start with trumps ... Ouch! East shows out on the 2nd round, meaning EW have a spade trick. So now the diamonds have got to come in. Play a 3rd round of trumps, leaving West with the ♠J, and start on the diamonds: lead the 10, playing low in dummy. East wins with the K, cashes a club and leads another. You ruff and West overruffs with the ♠J. Yikes – that's 3 tricks already!

Don't panic. Keep to the plan. Win the heart return and lead a 2nd diamond, playing the J from dummy ... which wins! The honours were split, as you hoped. Now you can ditch your losing 8 on the A and the rest of the tricks are yours. 4♠ bid and made. Take a look at the whole deal.

What happened on the day?

Three pairs were in 2, two were in 3 and just one bid 4. Four pairs made just 9 tricks and two made 10 – including the pair who bid game. Well done to them!


* See, for example, the HOTW for 30 March 2021, below.

  HOTW 22 June 2021 - what to open with 5-3-3-2


Playing standard Acol, what do you open with West's hand? 1 or 1NT?

1NT is reserved for 'balanced hands with 12-14 points'. The hand has 12 points, but is it balanced? Answer: yes. If you change just one card (transferring one of your clubs to the diamond suit) you have 4-3-3-3, the most balanced possible shape. Which makes 5-3-3-2 one of the three 'balanced' shapes with which to open 1NT. The other being 4-4-3-2 (again, just one card away from 4-3-3-3).

So with this hand, I'd open 1NT. As I would if my 5-card suit were diamonds. But ...

... supposing my 5-card suit is a major?

Let's swap the clubs and the hearts. This is a bit trickier. There are three schools of thought:

  1. I never conceal a 5-card major, so I open 1.
    Pro: you know where you are – if p opens 1NT she can't have a 5-card major. Con: you might have to rebid 2 on a wretched Jxxxx
  2. I always open 1NT with 12-14 and 5-3-3-2, whichever suit has 5 cards.
    Pro: it's simpler – and if partner rebids 2, she'll probably have 6. Con: it's harder to find a 5-3 major fit.
  3. Depends on the suit quality: if it's good enough to rebid I'll open it. But if it's rubbish I'll open 1NT.
    Pro: avoids having to rebid a rubbish suit. Con: p can't be so certain about your shape.

My preference is option 3, so on this hand, not fancying having to rebid 2, I'm opening 1NT. But each option has its pros and cons: you pays your money and you takes your choice. The important thing is that you and your partner agree which one you're playing! *

What happens on this hand?

Take a look at the whole deal.

If you open 1NT, p will invite you to game with 2NT – and with a minimum you'll refuse.

If you open 1, partner should reply 1 (hoping to end up in NT, as is usual with minors) and you have to rebid your rubbishy club suit – another good reason to open 1NT in the first place! Failing that, she might raise you to 3 (she's too strong for just 2). Either way you'll end up in 2 or 3. And aren't you lucky to find partner with all those clubs? On another day, you'll be stuck in 2 with Axxxx opposite xx - yuk!

And what happens? Usually, playing in a suit will net you 1 extra trick over playing in NT, and that's what happens here. You can make 10 tricks in clubs for 130, but that's not as good as 9 tricks in NT, which earns you 150.

What happened on the day?

Three pairs were in clubs, one mysteriously only making 8 tricks, and the others were in 2NT, making 8 and 10 tricks – well, that's an average of 9, anyway!


* All of the above, of course, assumes a 12-14 point count. With 15 or more, the problem doesn't arise, as you open your 5-card suit and then rebid NT.

Postscript: Three aces
Some players don't like hands just consisting of Aces. I've known people actually refuse to open with a hand like today's. Sure, if partner has nothing you're in dead trouble in 1NT – but in that case you're in trouble wherever your 12 points are! But if partner has something, she'll be providing the Js, Qs and Ks that you don't have. Aces are great – learn to
 love  them!



  HOTW 15 June 2021 - more vacant places

Which line?

Sitting North, what do you bid over West's 4 overcall? With 18 points, great heart support and a singleton spade, some kind of a slam is at least a possibility. Just in case the grand is on, I'd probably go for RKC Blackwood, exploring for the minor suit Kings if partner shows up with both missing keycards (A and K), but if that all seems a bit involved, it's easier just to punt 6 and be done with it. *

West leads the 9, your hand goes down as dummy and (as you're playing online) you can now see partner's hand as well. How does it look? Are you off to put the kettle on or are you staying around to kibitz?

What can go wrong? 

It's looking pretty good, isn't it? The minors are solid, and your only potential losers are in trumps. Do they have any chances of taking you off? I can think of two:

Danger 1  West has KJ4. If you cash your A at trick 2, she's making 2 tricks.

Danger 2  West has a singleton diamond AND J4. If instead you run your Q at trick 2, East wins with the singleton K and gives West a diamond ruff.

Which danger is greater? Which line should partner take? Should she cash the A or finesse?

First, danger 1. Other things being equal, the chances of a 2-1 split are 78%, leaving 22% for the two possible 3-0 splits. Making danger 1 an 11% chance. But other things aren't equal: West has just shown up with 8 spades, so she has much less space to accommodate hearts than East, who only has 3 spades. This makes the chance of West holding all three missing hearts much smaller: I make it less than 2%. **

What about danger 2? I think it's a given that the 9 is a singleton – why else would West prefer that to leading K from her (presumed) KQ? And while the odds of the singleton K being with East aren't high (less than 20%, say), it's still way more likely than danger 1.

So go with it, partner. Cash your A at trick 2. And if East does have that singleton K, you're going to make an overtrick!

What happens?

Take a look at the whole hand. It's a laydown, isn't it? You cash your A and claim, conceding a trick to the K.

And, of course, as it happens you make 12 tricks whichever way you play the trumps. Making all the above agonising about the odds of the two dangers a waste of time, right? Not a bit of it. Sometimes it will matter and those are the times you clean up. And every time you take the trouble to think things through, you improve. In fact, it's the only way you improve!

What happened on the day?

Three pairs found 6, one mysteriously going off (maybe continued with diamonds at trick 2?). At the other two tables, EW played in 5X. Not a great bid, 5, vulnerable against non-vulnerable, as the penalty should be worse than NS making game – and you might just push them into a making heart slam! Not a bad result as things turned out this time, however. And it was good to see NS doubling the sacrifice.


* After 4NT, South responds 5 (1 or 4 keycards in my system); 5 then enquires about the Q and you end up in 6.

** For more on this, see the HOTW for 03 November 2020 Vacant places


  HOTW 01 June 2021 - handling trumps

Danger ahead

This week, another recurring theme that's well worth a revisit - this time on declarer play. You're sitting West, and North leads a small trump against your 4 contract, South following suit. How can you be sure of making your contract?

As far as losers are concerned, things look promising: you're going to lose one heart, one diamond (because after that you can ruff in dummy) and (maybe) a club. Is that right? Well, that depends ... 

What about winners, then? You've got 5 spade tricks, one heart and (maybe only) two clubs. Yikes - that's only 8! Where are the other two tricks coming from? There's only one answer to that: you need to ruff two diamonds in dummy. And therein lies the danger. Can you see it?

The danger ... 

What do all good declarers do at the first opportunity? Clear trumps, of course! OK. Let's lead another trump. South shows out. Never mind. There are still 2 trumps in dummy. Better clear the diamonds and get my ruffs ... The trouble is, to clear the diamonds you have to give the lead back to the defence. And if they now lead a 3rd trump you no longer have 2 trumps in dummy! You can now ruff only one diamond, and if you then guess the club finesse wrong you're going off.

... and how to avert it

Simple. You have to clear the diamonds immediately, at trick 2, and not lead a 2nd trump. They can win and lead back a trump but now you still have two trumps in dummy to ruff diamonds.

How does it go?

Take a look at the whole hand. What happens if you play a second round of trumps before you clear diamonds? South wins and (not having a trump) leads the J to North's Ace. North now leads her last trump ... and you're now dependent on guessing the clubs right to make your contract. *

Rewind and lead a diamond at trick 2. The same happens, except that dummy now has an extra trump. You win in hand, ruff a diamond, come back to hand with the K and ruff another diamond. Now it only remains to return to hand with a heart, clear North's last trump ... and take the club finesse, which works! 11 tricks to the good guys.

And the recurring theme? It's the one that says 'Clear trumps at the first opportunity unless there's a good reason not to.' On this hand, ruffing two diamonds is a pretty good reason not to.

A word on the auction

It's not immediately obvious that with just 24 points EW will reach game. East has only 8 points, but with 4 good trumps and that magic singleton diamond has only 8 losers, so I think is well worth a 3 invitational raise. And West, with a 16-count, will accept the invitation.

What if East only raises to 2? Well, West might try a long suit trial bid. 3 means 'Hey, partner, I'd like to be in game. Have you got a bit extra, and in particular can you help me in diamonds? Mine are a load of rubbish.' And East, who can answer 'Yes!' to both questions, should now bid 4. **

What happened on the day?

Five pairs played in spades, though not all bid game. One made 11 tricks, two made 10 and two made 9. One NS pair made the excellent sacrifice of 5X, going 3 off for -500 (instead of -600+). 


* If you guess wrong and North wins with her Q, another diamond will take you one off.

** For more on trial bids, see my 11 Feb 2015 HOTW Time for a trial bid. Go here and scroll down (quite a long way!)


  HOTW 25 May 2021 - NT or the minor suit?

All that glisters ...

Here's a new take on a familiar theme – preferring NT to a minor suit. This time right from the opening bid. After 3 passes, despite (because of?) your excellent diamond suit, 2NT seems to me a much better opening bid than 1. Even if you can make 5, NT is likely to net you a better score: 10 tricks in NT (630) is worth more than even 12 tricks in diamonds (620), so why bother with the diamonds at all? There are other advantages in the 2NT opening:

  • It describes your hand in a single bid.
  • A weak partner's less likely to pass (especially if you play a 20-22 opening 2NT).
  • The opposition are less likely to intervene in the auction – and therefore less likely to find their best suit for defence.

As it happens, East's hand is far from 'no-trumpy'. Her best line is to show you her 5 spades via a transfer and then raise to 3NT, leaving the choice to you. And with only 2 spades, you pass.

How does it go?

Pretty well. If the diamonds break 3-3 (or the Jack's in a doubleton) you're home and dry. As you are if you can catch the Q and cash dummy's long clubs. Much will depend on the opening lead: a club or diamond would set you up nicely ... 

Let's say North instead leads the J, which comes round to your Q. Best to try the clubs first, while you still have the ♠A as a potential entry to dummy ... Cash the ♣K, lead the J .... and North's Queen drops under dummy's Ace. Magic! *

Now it only remains to bang out dummy's clubs – and if North fails to hold on to all four of her diamonds you're going to end up with 13 tricks. As you'll see if you take a look at the whole deal.

That's all a bit lucky, mind, as NS hold both the major Aces. But at least 10 tricks are there for the taking. Much better than 5, which anyway goes off because of North's Jxxx holding.

What happened on the day?

Three of the five EW pairs played in 3NT, making 10 tricks. The other two pairs were in 3 (!) and 5 – again making 10 tricks – West having fallen for those shiny diamonds.


* What to do if the Q doesn't appear? Probably best to go up with the ♣A anyway, hoping for the Q to drop from South. If it does, fine. If not, revert to plan B and try the diamonds ... And if that doesn't work, console yourself with the thought that 5 doesn't make either!


  HOTW 18 May 2020 - the 'reopening double'

for business

Here's an interesting auction. Sitting South, you would have bid 1 in reply to North's opening 1, but East's overcall gets in the way. The difficulty now is that 2 shows a much stronger hand than you actually have and might land you in trouble – especially if partner's minimum. So you elect to pass and see what happens. If partner subsides, that's fine, but if she's strong enough to bid again, then we could be going places ...

And what happens is that West passes and partner doubles. A double in this situation – where a Pass would end the auction – is called a reopening double, and it means 'Come on partner. I've got a decent hand here. What have you got to say?' And it will normally show at least tolerance for the so far unbid suits.

Which is music to your ears. Sure, you only have 7 points, but with a 9- (or even 10-)card fit in hearts plus a fit in diamonds, you're surely worth game in hearts: 4 it is.

How does it go?

Like a dream. They can take a club trick, but then you clear trumps, ruff a club in dummy and end up with 6 hearts tricks + a ruff + 3 spades + 2 diamonds = 12 tricks. 

In fact, if they don't start with a club lead, you're making all 13 tricks. Can you see how? Take a look at the whole deal. Answer below.

What happened on the day?

Three of the six NS pairs reached the heart game (well done!) and all made 12 tricks. One pair stopped in 3, another subsided into 3, and one EW pair went 3 off (should have been 4 off) in 5 – undoubled! That's criminal: North, with a 19-count including A, AK and A must surely be reaching for the X? It would have earned them an undisputed top.

On the reopening double

  • Don't assume your partner has nothing if she passes after an overcall. She simply might not have an appropriate bid – as here. If the overcall's passed round to you and you've got a decent hand, consider a reopening X
  • Here's a different situation: your partner opens 1 and your RHO opponent overcalls 2. You've got a 10-count that includes KJ974. What to do? Just pass smoothly, cross your fingers and hope that partner makes a reopening X. If she does, you Pass, converting the X from takeout into penalties. Yummy!
  • And the corollary: beware of overcalling at the 2 level with something like AQxxx. Could be expensive!



Hmm. You've got a club loser and a diamond loser, right?

Not if they don't lead a club.

  • Whatever they lead, clear trumps and then cash your spades, discarding a diamond from hand on the 3rd spade. Now you don't have a diamond loser!
  • Now cash the K and A and ruff a 3rd diamond. Now dummy's last two diamonds are good ...
  • Back to dummy with a trump and cash your last two diamonds, discarding two clubs ...
  • ... and that's 13 tricks.
  HOTW 11 May 2021 - Checkback Stayman

Sheer luck!

A few weeks ago (En passant, 13 April, below) we saw how you can check for a 5-3 major fit after a NT rebid. Today's hand is another example, this time using a handy convention called Checkback Stayman. This is a version of Stayman used after a 1NT rebid and asks opener about already-bid major suits

Here, West's 2 bid is asking about hearts: if partner has 3 hearts, you want to be in 4; if not, you'd rather be in 3NT. East replies 2, showing 3 hearts and a minimum 15-count (with 3 hearts and a maximum 16-17 points she'd say 3 instead), enabling West to bid 4, which as you can see is much the best contract.

What if East has only 2 hearts? Again, there are two possible responses: 2 if she's minimum, as here, and 2NT if she's maximum. In which case West would sign off in 3NT instead. Neat.

How does it go?

West will be sighing with relief when she sees dummy: if they were in 3NT, NS could presumably rattle off at least 5 club tricks! As it is, if you can catch the Q, you're going to make 11 tricks in 4. Actually, as you'll see if you look at the whole deal, you're likely to make only 10, as the 'percentage play' is to take the trump finesse, which fails.

So where's the 'sheer luck', then?

That's reserved for the EW pairs that landed in the inferior contract of 3NT. By a fluke, all of South's small clubs happen to be higher than all of North's small clubs, so the clubs are blocked: the defence can only make 4 club tricks before surrendering the lead, and EW can then take their 9 top tricks. Phew!

And if they get really lucky, South won't lead a club at all, but a spade (the unbid major). In which case, East will win, rattle off her diamonds, drop the doubleton Qx and end up with goodness knows how many tricks ...

But 9 out of 10 times, you'll be better off in 4!

What happened on the day?

Of the five pairs in 4, three made 10 tricks and two made 11. Of the three pairs in 3NT, two got a club lead and so made just 9 tricks, and one got a diamond lead, ending up with 11 tricks for a very, very lucky top!


  HOTW 27 April 2021 - a double-dummy problem

a 2-loser hand

If you've been following recent HOTWs, you'll recognise the pattern of the auction thus far. With this magnificent 23-count hand, West can't risk missing game, so must open 2, rebidding 2 over East's 2 relay. With few points but 3-card spade support, East now makes a 'fast arrival' game raise, showing a spade fit and not much else.

Which leaves West wondering about 6 nonetheless. For the slam to be on, East needs to have so little – either minor-suit Queen would probably do it. So ... does she punt it or not * ? Let's suppose she does ...

The play

OK. You're declarer. North leads the J and down goes dummy ... What's your plan?

Well, if you get a good club split and the trumps aren't 5-0, everything should be OK. You have to lose a club, but you can ruff your little diamond in dummy and you should make the rest.

How does it go? Cash your top two diamonds and ruff a 3rd – with the J, just in case! Then clear trumps (they turn out to be 4-1, but that's no problem), cash your AK and concede a club. Ruff whatever they lead back and the rest of your clubs are good. Check out the full deal.

What happened on the day?

No-one punted the slam, but four declarers managed not 12 but 13 tricks (including one in NT). How come? Well, when West clears trumps, North has to find three discards ... and if one of them's a small club, declarer no longer has a club loser!

Just for fun ...

The 'makeable contracts' table for this hand says that West can only make 11 tricks against the best defence. So here's a 'double dummy' problem for you: how can NS take 6 off? Answer below.


* Blackwood's pretty useless in this situation, as you have all the key-cards that matter. Sure, if East has the A you might be able to ditch your small diamond on it. But how do you get to dummy? East's 'fast arrival' bid suggests that if she has the A, she's unlikely to have any other high cards. So a punt it is!

'Double dummy' problem answer

It's all down to the fact that the trumps are 4-1. This allows NS to make a 'forcing' defence: ie forcing the long trump hand to ruff. Here's how it goes:

  • North leads a heart, which declarer has to ruff, putting her down to just 4 trumps.
  • West takes her diamond ruff, starts to clear trumps and discovers they're 4-1 ...
  • Problem: if she clears them all, she now has no trumps left. So when North comes in with the ♣J, another heart takes the contract off.
  • If she keeps a trump, she can ruff the later heart, but now South has the only remaining trump and it's still going off.
  HOTW 13 April 2021 - finding a major fit en passant

En passant ...

Imagine a deal where you and your partner have 8 spades, 7 hearts, 5 diamonds, 6 clubs and 27 points between you. Just off the top of your head, what's your guess for the best contract?

Most likely, 4. True, given suitable stops, you may make as many tricks in 3NT, but the major's safer and may offer an extra trick via a ruff. Most of the time, 4 will be the place to be. It's worth wondering, then, why only one pair found it on this deal.

Just checking ...

The auction shown was probably thus far the same at every table, the 2N showing 17-18 points, and it's West's bid. Before we go on, two basic if crucial observations:

  • If West is weak (say 5-6 points) she's going to pass. If she does anything other than pass, then, it must therefore be forcing to game.
  • Neither player has raised each other's major. Neither major, therefore, is 4-4 or better. But that's not to say that there isn't a 5-3 fit in either of the majors. And if West simply raises to 3NT you're never going to find out.

The solution is obvious. There's no heart fit, as West has only 2, but there might well be a 5-3 spade fit and it costs nothing to alert partner to the fact en passant. Bid 3♠ – 'We're in game partner, but just in case you've got 3 spades, I think I should tell you that I've got 5.'

And East does indeed have 3 spades (have a look) and will raise you to 4. Job done.

Other combinations

Provided that you've agreed that bidding anything over 2NT is forcing to game, there's no danger of going wrong. Here are some alternative West holdings:

  • With just 2 hearts and only 4 spades, there's no possible major fit: bid 3NT.
  • With 3 hearts AND 5 spades, either major could be 5-3. Bid 3 (the lower suit) to show your 3 hearts. Your partner can then raise you to 4 (holding 5), offer you spades (holding 3) via 3, or sign off in 3NT (holding neither).
  • With 3 hearts and 4 spades, there's no 5-3 spade fit, but there might be one in hearts: bid 3. You'll either end up in 4 or 3NT.

What happened on the day?

Two pairs missed bidding game, one found 4 (making 10 tricks) and the rest were in 3NT, all but one going off. The top score on the day was 3NT +1, but you can in fact make 11 tricks in spades.


Postscript: What about a 1NT rebid?

What if the auction had gone 1 - 1 - 1NT? How do you find a 5-3 fit then? There's a handy little convention called Checkback Stayman which does the job nicely. If you're interested, I have some notes: email me at

  HOTW 20 April 2021 - Jump shift response - or not
HOTW 20 April 2021 - Jump shift response - or not

This is a pleasant hand to pick up any time, but when your partner opens the bidding, this thought bubble will surely pop into your head.

How to respond? Well, if you're a standard Acol player, the best bid is probably 2 – a jump shift.

When to respond with a jump shift?

The jump shift shows a strong hand – 16+ points – with a good 6-card suit, in this case spades. It's game-forcing and clearly shows interest in a slam. It doesn't necessarily deny a fit in partner's suit.

Sure, you could just have said 1 so see what partner will say next (of which more below) but 2 tells the whole story in just one bid.

So how does your partner respond? With fewer than 2 spades, she'll repeat her hearts, bid a minor suit or try NT. But with 2+ spades, she'll look no further and support your suit.

On this particular hand, she'll bid 3, which in this game-forcing situation is actually stronger than going directly to 4 and shows a better than minimum hand. *

After which it's a simple matter to find 6, maybe going via RKC Blackwood to check that partner has the K.

But we don't play the'strong  jump shift'!

These days, a lot of pairs play a 'weak jump shift' response, so that 2 over partner's opening 1 shows a weak hand (5-8 points) with 6 spades **. In which case, you'll bid 1 instead. Partner will now rebid 1NT (showing 15-16 or 15-17) – and usually guaranteeing at least 2 spades. In which case you'll do the arithmetic and probably jump straight to 6.

How does it go?

Take a look at the whole deal. You have tricks coming out of your ears. If you guess the Q right, you've got all 13 tricks, but there's no way you're not making 12.

What happened on the day?

Half the pairs were in spades and half were in NT. Only one pair bid the slam: 6, making – well done! 


* This cropped up recently (02 March HOTW, below) in another game-forcing situation: raising the strong hand directly to game – 'fast arrival' – is weak ('OK, partner, you want to be in game: here you are then. Now let's stop!'), whereas a 'slower' raise shows extra strength and an interest in slam.

** This is because the strong jump shift comes up relatively rarely, and the weak version has its own advantages: it gives an instant picture of your hand and (like the opening weak 2) has preemptive value as well.

  HOTW 06 April 2021 - two routes to a slam

Awkward 20 count

What do you open with this 20-count hand? 1 or 2NT?

I'm not a great fan of opening 2NT with a singleton – even if it's an Ace. 9 times out of 10, the opposition will lead that suit and – pouff! – that's your only stop gone in a puff of smoke. So my vote would be for 1. Sure, with a very weak hand, partner may pass, but in that case we probably haven't got enough between us for game anyhow. 

If you open 1 ...

... you're pleasantly surprised when partner responds 4 – a splinter promising a game raise in hearts and a diamond singleton or void. If partner's got an opening hand and you have 20 points, surely you're in a slam? The only question is, is it small or grand? It's easy to find out via RKC Blackwood. Partner's response shows just one of the two missing key cards (A and K), so you're content to sign off in 6. Which makes comfortably, as you'll see if you take a look at the whole deal.

As luck would have it, this is one deal where you would get away with opening 2NT with a singleton. How does it go?

If you open 2NT ...

This time, it's your partner who can see the slam coming. Your 20+ points added to her 13 comes to the magic 33 points usually needed for 6NT. She'd do best on this hand simply to jump to 6NT (which scores 10 more than 6 – provided it makes, of course!), but with that singleton diamond might feel more secure looking for a major fit instead. Whichever kind of Stayman you play, you'll find your heart fit easily enough and end up in 6. *

What happened on the day?

4 out of 9 EW pairs got to a slam – well done. Three were in 6, for which they scored 75%, and one hit the jackpot with 6NT, making 100%. As you'd expect, all 9 declarers made 12 tricks.


* Ideally, West would also like to check for a 5-3 spade fit on the way. That's easily done if you have 5 hearts and 4 spades: you simply transfer partner to hearts and then bid 3, showing 5-4. With 5 spades and 4 hearts, it's more difficult: if you transfer partner to spades and then bid 4 you could be in trouble, as you've gone beyond 3NT and partner might have just 2 spades and 3 hearts ... Besides, you don't want to risk partner passing 4, as you're aiming for a slam.

There's a neat solution: over a 2NT opening, 3 isn't needed as a natural bid, so it's normally used precisely for this situation: responding 3 to partner's opening 2NT is game-forcing and shows exactly 5 spades and 4 hearts. Handy!

Here, if you bid 3, partner will bid 4, which you can then raise to 6.

  HOTW 30 March 2021 - playing for 'split honours'

The best chance

Oh dear. If only your partner had insisted on one of her major suits instead of passing 3NT * – you'd be in a much better place. You can make 4 or 4 in your sleep!

As things are, you're sitting East in 3NT and (no surprise there!) South has made the worst possible lead: the 4. That's one of your two club stops kaput already. You've got one left, so can afford to lose the lead just once. What's your plan for making 9 tricks? Pick a suit!

  • Well, diamonds are out, aren't they? Forcing out the A will only generate you 2 tricks – a drop in the ocean.
  • Hearts are a (slightly) better bet. If an opponent happens to hold Qx, you'll have 5 heart tricks – in which case you could then force out the A to make your contract. Trouble is, the Q won't often be in a doubleton – my odds table tells me it'll happen just 27% of the time.
  • Spades are altogether more promising. If you can set them up for the loss of just one trick, you've made your contract. But hang on – we're missing the K and the Q. Won't we have to lose the lead twice, then? Not usually, no. If you play the spades right, you have a whopping 75% chance of making your contract ...

Playing for 'split honours'

Imagine you finesse the spades not once but twice. When will you lose two spade tricks? Answer: only when North holds both the K and the Q. That's just one of the four possible distributions of the two cards **. In the other three cases – when South holds them both or when they're split between both hands – you'll only lose one trick. That's 3 times out of 4: 75%.

Let's try it and see what happens. Win trick 1 in your hand (yes - overtake with your A!) and lead your J. South plays low, low from dummy ... and the J wins! Now another: Q from South, A from you ... and another spade forces out South's K (yes, South had them both). It only remains to get back into dummy via a club (Ah - that's why you had to get rid of your A at trick one!) and you can cash three more spade tricks. ***

And, as luck would have it, the Q is in a doubleton, so you can now cash a whole bunch of heart tricks too – and if NS neglected to cash their A while they had the chance, you've just made 12 tricks. Take a look at the whole deal.

What happened on the day?

5 EW pairs ended up in 3NT: all got the 4 lead, and three declarers went off, the other two making 9 and 10 tricks. All those who insisted on playing in a major made their contracts.

Three things to take from this hand.

  • Prefer the major to no trumps, even if this means overruling your partner's preference for NT. As it happens, EW can make a slam in hearts or spades, but this is only because of the lucky Qx doubleton. Not a slam you want to be in.
  • Missing the KQ in a suit, play for split honours. ****
  • Plan your play before playing to the first trick. You must keep a club entry in dummy in case it takes 3 rounds to clear the spades. It's difficult to anticipate everything, but a sensible initial thought might be 'Well, I can always get back to my hand with a heart, but what if I need to get back to dummy? Better get rid of my A just in case.'


* West should rebid her hearts over 3NT, showing at least 5-5 in the majors. Having rebid NT, partner should have 3 cards in at least one of them.

** The others are (2) KQ both with South, (3) the K with South and the Q with North and (4) the ♠Q with South and the ♠K with North.

*** What if (as expected) your first spade finesse loses? North will probably return another club to knock out your last stop. Now you have to cross back to your hand with a heart and, crossing your fingers, finesse the spades again, hoping that the honours were split. If it works you're home and dry. If not, well – at least you gave it your best shot!

**** This was the subject of a pre-Covid improvers' minilesson at Bath BC. The handout (available here) features two Bridge @ Box HOTWs.

  HOTW 23 March 2021 - the rule of 15

The rule of 15

When a whole session features just 3 hands with possible game contracts, it seems appropriate to focus on one with the points divided 9-10-10-11. Here you are on the last board, sitting East with 10 points after 3 passes. Do you open 1 or throw the hand in with a fourth Pass?

As the title suggests, there's a handy rule of thumb designed for just this situation, but before we go there ...

  • If nobody's opened and you have 10 points, you're all going to have roughly the same number of points. No-one will have as many as 12.
  • There probably aren't any weird distributions knocking around – there've been no 'Rule of 20' openings or preemptive 2- or 3-bids.
  • All of which means that the best anyone's going to get out of this hand is a part-score – probably at the 2 level.

So the question arises: Which pair is the most likely to get a plus score in this situation?

Answer: The pair that has the fit in the highest-ranking suit – because they can outbid the other pair without having to go to the 3-level.

And the highest-ranking suit of all is spades

On this hand, then, you might well have a diamond or heart fit, but it's your opponents who are more likely to have a fit in spades. Better, then, to get an assured 0 points by passing than to risk minus 110 for them making 8 tricks in spades. Which brings us to ...

The rule of 15

It's a simple enough rule of thumb. If you're 4th in hand after 3 passes, add the number of points to the number of spades in your hand. If it comes to 15 or more, open. If not, pass.

Here your count comes to 10 + 2 = 12. Not enough. Pass.

What happens?

Take a look at the whole deal. While you have a nice fit in diamonds, your opps do in fact have a spade fit and can make 2 comfortably. Note that if you do open 1, your partner will probably raise you to 3 * , landing you with a minus score – again, worse than scoring zero for passing.

As it happens, the opps are more likely to overcall clubs than spades (North's spades are pretty ragged), but you're still getting a minus score: either you go off in diamonds or they can make 3.

What happened on the day?

4 Easts passed, giving EW a pleasant 72%. Four EW pairs ended up in 3 (or 4 in one case!) all going off for a much less pleasant 38% (one off) or 17% (two off). and two NS pairs were in spades: one bid and made 3, scoring 100%, the other went one off in 4 for 0%. **


* That's another problem that can arise when you open on not-quite-an-opening-hand: there's a risk that your partner will take you too high!

** So how did NS get into spades? North probably opened a 'light' 1. A lot of players will open light in 3rd position ('borrowing a king from partner', as tradition has it). It can get in the way nicely and here leads to a top – unless partner overestimates your strength – see * above.

  HOTW 16 March 2021 - a lucky slam

Stronger than it looks

Here's a fun hand to pick up as dealer. What to bid? You could open 2, but that would scupper any chance of finding a possible spade fit. It's probably better to pass and see what happens – someone's bound to open the bidding and then you'll have something to say ...

Sure enough, someone opens – your partner, with a (20-22 point) 2NT. Perfect: you transfer her into hearts and then bid your spades: game forcing and showing at least 5-4 in hearts and spades. And partner opts for 4, presumably with 3 hearts in hand. *

And the auction's over. Or is it? Well .... Sure, you've only got 27-29 points between you, but your shape's pretty strong. If partner's got 4 keycards (which she might well have), a slam's surely on, and 3 keycards will probably be enough. It's easy enough to imagine a 20-point hand that would fit the bill (including, say, K, AK and one of the minor Aces – and that's only 14 points!). So try RKC Blackwood? Up to you. Let's say you do ...


It's one of those situations – we've all been there. Your partner responds 5♠ ... meaning that she's got 2 keycards and the trump Queen ... but unfortunately 5 is above 5, which lands you in a heart slam missing two key cards! And if those two key cards are both Aces ...

Never mind. We are where we are. Keep a poker face (if you're on RealBridge), bid 6 and cross your fingers.

The play

Change seats. You're now sitting East and South leads a diamond. Take a look at the whole deal – but try not to look at the NS hands – and plan your play.

You have a club loser and a possible trump loser. One too many. Can you do anything about that? Sure you can. Thankful that you didn't get a club lead, you immediately cash a second diamond trick, discarding dummy's singleton club.

And that's pretty well it. If the K is right, you've got 13 tricks. To find out, get into dummy by ruffing a club and finesse the Q – which holds! Ruff another club and do it again. The K drops and you've made the lot.

Now check out the NS hands. You've been a bit lucky: swap the N and S hands and you're probably going off. South could well lead her A at trick one ... and the trump finesse will fail too. 

What happened on the day?

Although some ended up in 3NT (not ideal – West should insist on one of the majors) most pairs stopped in 4. Just one pair bid the slam ... and they went one off, despite getting a diamond lead. Just one declarer made 13 tricks – well played! 

Three things to take from this hand

  • The West hand has only 7 points, but if you have a fit has only 6 losers – a powerful hand. Opposite an opening 2NT, it's very likely to be worth a slam.
  • Take care with Blackwood: check that partner's reply can't take you higher than you want to go! ** But that said ...
  • ... remember that luck can be on your side as well as your opponents'. Here the opps are unlikely to find their best lead – a club – which isn't an attractive lead from Kxx.


* If partner had instead bid 3NT (denying 3 hearts) you'd now bid 4♠ – if she hasn't got 3 hearts, then she ought to have 3 spades!

** There's a better way of exploring for the slam: over your partner's 4, you could bid 4 – a cue-bid showing the A. Now your partner can try RKC Blackwood instead and, finding you with just one key card, can sign off in 5. Pity to miss the slam, though!

  HOTW 09 March 2021 - bid, double or pass?

Well, what do you know?

You're sitting West and it's your bid. What's your take on the auction so far?

Well, clearly you've got more points than NS. North's come in with a preemptive 3, so presumably has a weak hand with 7 spades. Your partner's double will be competitive * rather than for penalties, wanting you to bid on ... but South (who is presumably also weak with some spade support) raises the bar with 4.

So what to do? 

What you know vs what you don't know

Well, without the 4 bid, you would have had to bid something – a delayed raise to 4 is the obvious choice. For that to work, partner would need 5 hearts (she probably hasn't got 6 – if she did, she probably would have rebid them instead of doubling). *

You can probably make 4, then. But can you make eleven tricks? Maybe ... but you simply don't know. Eleven tricks in diamonds is even less certain.

What about their spade contract, then? Is it making? Surely not. You have the majority of the points. If partner only has 5 hearts, you have a chance of 2 heart tricks. Partner probably has something in clubs as well, and possibly in diamonds. And, crucially, you have two quick tricks in the minor suits – if anything's good news for defenders, it's Aces!

So. You know you should get 4 off. And you don't know whether you can make a contract at the 5-level. Two choices then:

5, if you're feeling frisky. (Great if it makes, but what a nitwit you'll feel if you go off, giving the opps a plus score!) Or X for a pretty certain +100 or +300 – much the better option, I reckon.

What you mustn't do is Pass. NS are clearly sacrificing, so the least you can do is make it as expensive for them as possible. It's no good leaving it to you partner to X you're the one with the two Aces. You're the one who knows that 4 is going off.

What happens?

Take a look at the whole deal. 4 goes 2 off, losing two heart tricks, two diamonds and a club. That's +300 if you doubled, but only +100 if you didn't.

Bizarrely, as it happens, you can make 5, your combined 22 points notwithstanding. That's because the hearts are 3-2 AND the diamonds break 3-2 AND the K is onside. Even more bizarrely, for the same reasons you can make 6.

But that's a side issue: the main message is that if you're leaving the sacrifice in, you have to double it.

What happened on the day?

At most tables, NS were in 4♠, all going off. Only one was doubled, giving that EW a well deserved 100%. Two EW pairs punted 5, but both went 2 off. **


* Meaning that she has values, but no obvious bid: maybe 5 hearts, maybe 4 clubs, maybe some diamond support – so she's asking you to take the initiative.

** The declarer play's pretty straightforward: clear trumps and then finesse the diamonds, taking 5 tricks each in hearts and diamonds plus the A.

  HOTW 02 March 2021 - 'slow arrival'

More lightbulbs

Here's a hand that ought to get 'Slam!' lightbulbs flashing for both players. In order to find it, though, North needs to open 2 – and the partnership needs to understand what the subsequent bids mean. First, the opening bids:

  • North: This is a really strong hand which needs hardly anything from South to make game – just the Q would do it! It would be dreadful if partner passed your opening 1, so show your strength: open 2.
  • South: Opposite a 2 opening, your two Aces are gold dust. But no need to get dramatic yet – bid 2 and find out more about partner's hand.

OK. North bids 2, showing a game-going hand with a good (probably 6+ card) spade suit. Over to you. Choose one of these bids: 2NT    4    3    3

The answers may be surprising. Here goes:

2NT  After an initial 2 response, 2NT is the pits: 'Partner, I have nothing. I'm not going to bid again, so I leave the final contract to you.' (You can't simply pass 2 – not if you want your partner to play with you again – so 2NT is your letout.) It does NOT mean 'I don't like your spades, partner – let's play in NT.'

4   Stronger than 2NT but still pretty weak. 'OK, partner, you want to play in game. Here you are, then. Now please Pass!' You'd do this with (say) 3-6 points.

3   If 4 is weak, it follows that 3 is stronger. 'We're certainly in game, partner, and maybe should look for a slam.' Sums up your hand perfectly and leaves plenty of bidding room for further exploration.

3   A possible alternative to 3 if you're worried that partner might have only 5 spades. Positive natural bid, showing values.

What happens next?

Let's say South bids 3. Both sides know the situation, so anything other than 4 is looking for a slam. If North now bids 4 (showing the A), South can conveniently bid 4 (again, showing the Ace) and Blackwood beckons. And when North discovers that you hold 2 key-cards, she can actually count the 12 tricks: 7 spades, AKQ, A and A. 6 it is.

What happened on the day?

Everyone stopped in 4. Which is why I thought it might be useful to offer the system described above: 2NT = the 'second negative'; raise to 4 = a weak, 'fast arrival' sign-off; and raise to 3 = stronger, showing slam interest. Well worth taking on board.


Postscript: the play

On a club, diamond or trump lead, it's a doddle: clear trumps, cash the KQ, out to dummy with the A and fling a heart on dummy's A. 

But what about on a heart lead? Can you still make 12 tricks? Click below for my answer.


You have to win with your A, which was to be your entry to dummy. Fortunately, you can also get out to dummy with a trump. 

So at trick 2, go over to your hand with a trump (that's cleared some of their trumps) and, crossing your fingers, cash your KQ. No one ruffs. Now back to dummy's 9 (unfortunately not clearing their last trump) and, crossing your fingers even more tightly, lead the A, discarding a heart. Then you can get back to hand with the A, clear the last trump and claim 12 tricks.

You're OK providing the hand with the last trump didn't start with just 2 diamonds – and if you look at the whole hand, you see that you're in luck!

STOP PRESSAn extra chance

I'm grateful to Richard Samter for pointing out that I can significantly improve my chances of success if I duck the opening heart lead. East wins with the K and (unable to see my J9) returns a heart. If she leads the 10 it's all over: up with the J, dummy's Ace beats East's Q and my 9 is good. And if it's a low heart I have to guess right and play the 9. If it doesn't work out, never mind – back to Plan A, as described above.

Of course, if East's heart is a singleton the contract goes off, but the hearts being 6-1 is pretty unlikely, especially since West didn't open a weak 2 during the auction.

  HOTW 23 February 2021 - K led vs their NT contract

NT contract – King led

After a straightforward auction, your partner leads the K against North's 3NT contract. Dummy has 8 points, giving NS a seemingly comfortable 28+ points. Two questions:

  • What are your chances of taking this contract off?
  • Which card do you play?

Clue  The answers to both questions lie in the lead. We looked at 'top of sequence' leads a few weeks ago * – what do you think your partner's heart holding might be?

Well, if partner's led the right card, she's got either KQJ(xx) or KQ10(xx). Let's be optimistic and assume that she has 5 hearts – that would be enough to take the contract off. Which takes us to question 2 ...

Without hesitation, you should overtake the K with your A and lead back your 8. Why?

Keep the flow going

Because if you don't, there's a danger that you might BLOCK the heart suit. Or that partner may get confused and abandon hearts altogether, especially if she holds KQ10... ('Hmm. I wonder if that dastardly declarer has held up with AJx'). 

Here's the problem: suppose partner has KQ10xx. You duck the first trick and she continues with the Q. Do you overtake now? If you do, declarer's going to make her J. And if you don't, you'll have BLOCKed the suit: you'll make your A and partner's two heart winners will never get cashed.

But play the Ace at trick one and lead back a heart through declarer's J to partner's Q10 and you're in business.

Fortunately, you don't have to do all this complicated working-out in real time. There's an easily remembered rule of thumb which will serve you well in no trumps:

   If partner leads a King against a NT contract offload any honour(s) you hold asap.   

As we've seen above, there are two benefits: (1) it UNBLOCKS the suit and (2) it tells partner where the high cards are.

And on this hand, it pays handsome dividends. If you look at the whole deal, you'll see that partner has not five but six hearts – two off!

What happened on the day?

Nearly everyone was in 3NT and nearly every lead was a heart. Most went two off, but two declarers made 10 tricks – West had held onto her A and blocked the suit!

Note: Several Easts led the 4th-highest 7. As it happens, this works fine: West goes up with the A and leads back a heart. Actually, it's a poor lead, and unless partner has the A or the J will cost you a trick. With KQ10(xx), lead the King!


* 17 November 2020. Here's the relevant bit: 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 16 February 2021 - preparing for a ruff

A simple solution

Sitting North, you punt a non-vulnerable 4 over West's opening 1. East leads the 4 and dummy's A and QJ9 come as a pleasant surprise. You can see 9 top tricks and so need one more. The question therefore arises: Where's your 10th trick coming from?

The answer, you'll have gathered, is dead simple.

If you need a clue,highlight the bit in red:   your trumps are rock solid   (a triple mouse-click will do it)

A simple solution

The answer's in the clubs. You have 3 clubs in hand, but only 2 in dummy. So you can ruff one.

There's a bit of work to do first, of course, to get rid of dummy's clubs. Ruff the diamond and lead a club. Win the return and lead another club. Now you have no clubs in dummy and so you can ruff one, clear trumps and claim 10 tricks. Simple enough, but a word of warning:

Do all this immediately. Don't touch trumps yet. Why? Take a look at the whole deal.

Say you start by leading a trump 'just to see how things look'. OK. You have 2 trumps left in dummy. Now you lead the 3 – East, who isn't daft and can see what you're up to, wins with the 9 and leads a trump. You have one trump left in dummy. You win and lead a 2nd club: East wins again and leads her last trump ... thus drawing dummy's last trump. Goodbye club ruff – and goodbye contract: you're going to lose 3 clubs and a heart for one off.

Safety first

Hitting the clubs immediately is pretty safe. Your eventual club ruff can't be overruffed because dummy's trumps are high, and if you have to ruff a 2nd diamond, you have plenty of high trumps for that too. The only slight risk is if East returns a heart and there's a singleton heart about – if she does, you can of course afford a single round of trumps at this point before leading your second club – East can no longer run dummy out of spades, so why not?

East could, by the way, have made life very difficult for you by leading a trump to start with – now she can run dummy out of trumps whatever you do. *

What happened on the day?

Most were in 4 or 5 – presumably forced higher by EW bidding 5. Three of the six declarers made only 9 tricks – one of them following an opening trump lead.

A couple managed to get away with going off in diamonds. **


* As the cards lie, you can (luckily!) still make your 10th trick by leading clubs twice from dummy, inserting the ♣10 from hand. As luck would have it, West has the ♣J so you end up with a club trick! But the club ruff's a very much better solution.

** It's a brave West that comes back into the auction, vulnerable against non-vulnerable, with 5♣ ('Pick a minor, partner!') but as it happens 5 only goes 1 off and is a good sacrifice – and if it tempts EW into an unmakeable 5♠, so much the better!

  HOTW 09 Feb 2021 - do you open 1 or 3?

A competitive auction

What do you open on this hand? With only 9 points and a 7-card suit, 3 springs to mind. But 1 is rather better. Why? Well ...

  • ... for one thing, the hand satisfies the 'Rule of 20' – and would do so even if the J were the 2. *
  • For another, it's potentially pretty strong: if you can find a fit, this becomes a 5-loser hand.
  • And finally, what if you've got a spade fit? If you open 3, you're unlikely ever to find it – but after 1, you have a much better chance.

What happens next?

As luck would have it, after South's 1 overcall, your partner makes a negative X, showing 4 spades. ** Which means that when North raises to 4 ...

... you're in a position to bid 4, knowing that you have a 9-card spade fit.

Take a look at the whole deal, and you'll see that the final contract will depend on which side holds its nerve best. With a void in your first suit (diamonds) and the Ace of your second suit (spades), and 6 hearts to boot, South will surely push on to 5. At which point, you may or may not decide that you've taken your 9-point hand as far as it will go – but as you can see, 5 is making, so going one (or maybe two) off in 5X is a good sacrifice – one that you wouldn't be in a position to consider if you'd opened 3 to start with.

Lessons all round

Reaching the 'par' contract of 5X depends on all four players bidding well:

East: as we've seen, opening 1 is a good start. And capitalising on partner's spade holding is a good continuation

South: needs to realise that her 5-loser hand with all four suits counting is worth 5 (but only bidding it if pushed!)

West: remembering the 'negative double' to show her spades is all she needs to do.

North: must raise partner to 4 straight away – bidding 'to the level of the fit' (she knows they have at least 10 hearts between them).

What happened on the day?

On the whole, NS did better than EW: most got to game – two punting 5 when forced – and all but one made their contracts.

A couple of EW pairs were allowed to sacrifice in 5 (one not doubled!) and one (presumably opening) preemptive 3 bid was passed out (South must surely overcall 3?) No one ended up in spades.


* Rule of 20: Add the number of points to the number of cards in the two longest suits: here that's 9 + 12 = 21.

** We looked at the Negative Double a few weeks ago. West would bid 1♠ holding 5+ spades, but here doubles to show just 4. Click here for the link to B Magee's article again.

  HOTW 02 February 2021 - why bother with a finesse?

Grab the tricks!

The auction on this hand is similar to last week's HOTW: the overcalling pair use the 'unassuming cue-bid' (UCB) to help them find game. The mystery, however, surrounds the play ...

The auction: the UCB again

We dealt with the UCB last week, so no need to dwell on it. After West passes, North doesn't simply raise his partner's spades overcall – which would be weak. Instead she bids the opponents' suit to show a good raise with points. South now jumps to 3 – 'Yes, I'm better than a minimum, partner' – and North, with a very pleasant 14-count, has no trouble raising to game.

When both hands are revealed, however, NS begin to wish they'd gone further ...

The play: it's looking grand

West leads the 2 (partner's suit), dummy goes down, and you're declarer in 4. What are your thoughts?

Well, with a couple of big IFs, it's looking rather good:

  • IF you can catch the Q you've got 6 trump tricks ...
  • ... and IF the diamonds behave themselves (ie split 3-2, as they will most of the time) you have 5 diamond tricks.
  • Add to that the A and A and you have 13 tricks.

So how does it go? You win trick 1 with the A and test the water with the trump Ace ... and the singleton Q drops. That's one IF out of the way – two more rounds clears trumps. Now to try the diamonds. Again, no problem – they're 3-2. That's IF number 2 sorted. It remains only to take the rest of the tricks – 13 in all. Take a look at the whole deal.

And so to the mystery: whilst most NS pairs found game, only one declarer made more than 11 tricks – and even he only made 12. That's two tricks unnecessarily conceded.

What went wrong?

Dunno. My best guess is that declarers simply didn't realise that the 8-card diamond fit was worth 5 tricks and so only counted the AKQ for 3 tricks. In that case, it would be natural to try the club finesse, but when that didn't work there was a heart to lose as well as the K.

But if you count your 5 diamond tricks, then you don't need to risk any finesses at all. Why? Because you have no losers in either hearts or clubs. Your 2nd little heart and 2nd little club can disappear on the 4th and 5th diamond tricks. *

Conclusion   Before you start giving tricks away, count the ones you have – and maybe you don't need to be so generous!


* Even if the diamonds split 4-1 you're on course for 12 tricks: you simply ruff the 4th diamond in your hand, go out to dummy with the ♣A and cash your 5th diamond.

  HOTW 26 Jan 2021 - the unassuming cuebid (UCB)

The what kind of cue-bid?

When you've got a fit and just one side is bidding, it's fairly straightforward to know how high to go. You might raise partner's 1 to 3 to invite to game, and she either accepts or refuses the invitation. Job done.

In a competitive auction, the water's a bit muddier. How can you tell if your partner's raise is genuinely 'sound' – with decent points – or just a weak, preemptive raise to 'get in the way'? Here's how it's done:

Straight raise vs the 'unassuming cue-bid'

Whether you're opener or overcaller, there are two suits out there: yours and theirs. And that gives you the 'weak' and 'sound' options you've been looking for:

If you're weak, raise your partner's suit. On this hand, with 4+ diamonds and a weak hand, East could raise her partner to 2, 3 or even 4 – how high would depend on losers, vulnerability and sheer courage, but they have in common that they're all weak.

If you're stronger, bid your opponents' suit. With 4+ diamonds and 10+ points, East should bid 2: 'We've got a diamond fit, partner, and I've got points. Without the interference I would have raised you to 3.'

As it happens, East passes (you don't yet know why) and it's you, South, to bid. You have a spade fit, and exactly the same choices as East: any direct raise of partner is flimsy: with just a few points and 3 spades, you'd raise to 2 and with more spades you'd raise higher. But you aren't weak. You have a 10-count which includes 2 aces. Very nice. And if your partner's got a decent hand you might well have game. So it's important not to sign off with a weak raise: instead make an unassuming cue-bid. Bid their suit – 2.

What happens next?

Take a look at the whole deal. Your partner has a very pleasant 14-count with a void and the Ace of opener's suit. If you just plonk in a flaccid 2 raise, she'll (rightly) pass. But after your 2 bid, which promises points as well as spades, she'll have no problems jumping straight to game, which makes with an overtrick.

Getting your head around it

At first sight the choice between straight raise and the UCB seems a bit complicated (partly because of its daft name). But once you've got the hang of it, it's a pretty straightforward tool and a very useful – and frequently used – addition to your bidding armoury, which allows you to (a) find game when it's on (b) stop if game isn't on and (c) get in the opponents' way (if you bid 2 then they can't!).

 I recommend you to explore it further *, discuss with your partner and add to your convention card.

What happened on the day?

Four pairs found game (including one in hearts). The rest all stopped at the 2 level – which shows just how useful the UCB can be. Everyone made 10 or 11 tricks.


* There are two consecutive Bridge @ Box HOTWs on the subject here. Scroll down to Jan 2016 Two kinds of raise and back up to April 2016 The UCB (again)
  For an excellent 3-minute video on the UCB with a deal pretty much like this one, go here.
  And for a slightly more cerebral treatment from Andrew Robson, click here


  HOTW 21 Jan 2021 - missing a simple inference

Sorry, partner

Just to prove that I'm as dumb as everyone else, this week's HOTW is taken from this week's Thursday Open Pairs, where I failed to make a simple inference and so went off in 3NT. I'm sure you can do better ...

I opened 1NT and after a Stayman enquiry, my partner raised me to 3NT. North led the 3 and dummy went down. What are your thoughts? Plan the play!

First thoughts

Well, I'm glad that wasn't a diamond lead, was my first thought. Not that it matters much, because with a bit of luck I've got 9 tricks off the top – 3 hearts, the A and 5 clubs. So up with the K, clear the clubs and cash my 9 tricks ... Anything wrong with that?

Plenty. South followed with the 2 and then showed out when I led the Q at trick 2, meaning that North was going to make his J, leaving me with just 8 tricks. And before I could set up a 9th trick for myself in spades, they'd knocked out my A and I was one off – take a look at the whole deal.

How stupid was that? If I'd stopped to think, I could have foreseen the whole thing ...

A simple inference

It's all in the opening lead. Why would North lead a club instead of a (more usual) major? Because he likes them, of course. And if that's his 4th highest club ... then he's either got all five clubs – J10532 – or else J1053 and his partner's got the 2. Either way, South's clubs are rubbish and I can save myself a trick by playing low from dummy on the first trick. 

As the cards lie, playing low gives me a cheap first trick and leaves me still holding the AKQ to drop North's Jack. And (as in the original plan) I make 9 tricks off the top.

Ironically, if I have to broach clubs myself, I'm going to lose one. It's only because North leads one himself that I make my contract. So the very lead that gives me my 9th trick also tells me what I have to do to make it ... and I didn't. Sorry, partner.


Postscript If North chooses to lead his ♣J instead, it's even easier to get it right. He must have the ♣10 as well, so this time you do win in dummy, come to hand with a heart, and finesse the ♣9, again making all 5 club tricks.

  HOTW 12 Jan 2021 - competitive opportunity missed

Unlucky for NS

Sometimes vulnerability can get in the way. Had North-South been non-vulnerable, North might have upgraded her very pleasant 11-count with four 10s and opened 1NT. Or South, with 6 spades but just 5 points, might have risked a 2 jump overcall over East's opening 1 ... Either way, NS would surely have found their way to a 4X sacrifice over EW's 4. But this being board 13, NS were vulnerable and – quite reasonably – kept their heads down.

Is it a good sacrifice?

Certainly. Against 4X by NS, EW will make the two black aces, the AK and (if they find it) a diamond ruff, for two off at most: that's -500 instead of -620 (or more) for 4 making.

How does it go? After taking her AK, East leads her singleton diamond. Then when she comes in with her trump Ace, she leads a low club to partner's Ace and ruffs a diamond with the 2. That's a total of 5 tricks for EW.

12 tricks for EW in hearts

As it happens, thanks to a couple of singletons and an excellent double fit in hearts and clubs, EW make 12 tricks in hearts – with just 24 points between them. But if the bidding goes 1–2–4–4, I don't think either East or West will feel inclined to risk 5 – they're vulnerable too, after all! Instead, they'll be content to X for penalties.

Can they bid the slam? Difficult. Suppose West, instead of simply raising to 4, bids 3 – a splinter bid, showing a game raise with a singleton or void in spades. * East may then sniff a slam possibility – she's got the singleton spade covered and has a singleton herself. So Blackwood, maybe, and on discovering West has one key card (either the A or A) and the trump Queen, might have a punt ... But with just 24 combined points, it's tough to find.

What happened on the day?

Nearly every table was in 4 making 12 tricks. Just one NS overcame their inhibitions sufficiently to end up in 4X, and somehow they managed to take only 7 tricks – thus turning an outright 100% top for -500 into an outright 0% bottom for -800. Told you this board was unlucky for NS!


* We've already looked at splinters in a couple of previous HOTWs – 20th and 6th October 2020, below. For A Robson on splinters, here's the link again.

  HOTW 05 Jan 2021 - Switch to plan B

Finding the extra trick(s)

You're declarer in 4, sitting South. How did you get there?

After a couple of passes, you open 1. As you hold 19 points, any kind of response from partner is enough to ensure you'll reach game. So when she doubles West's 1 overcall (showing enough points to respond and 4 of the other major – spades) you simply bid 4. *

So far so good. West leads the K and dummy goes down ...

Plan your play

... and you have to find 10 tricks. You have 7 off the top: 4 spades, 2 hearts and the A – and once you've forced out the A a further two diamond tricks. Where's the 10th coming from? 

Answer: a ruff of one of the red suits – and diamonds offer the chance of a bonus 11th trick too: if they're 3-3 or 4-2 your last little diamond will be also worth a trick.

So how does it go? Win with your A and start to clear trumps: a spade to dummy's K, another spade back to your A ... and West shows out. Dammit. The trumps are 4-1. What now?

Obviously you can't afford to continue clearing trumps. If you do, you'll be out of trumps too, and when they get in with their A they'll be taking a fistful of club tricks. You've got to get rid of that A while you still have trump protection.

A small diamond to the K, then, which East wins with the A. They take their Q and then lead a heart ...

... which you win with the A. Now you're in control. You can take that diamond ruff you planned at trick 1. Cash your Q, ruff a low diamond with dummy's Q (why take any risk?) and NOW you clear East's remaining two trumps ... leaving you with the last three tricks: K, J and 6.


Take a look at the whole deal. West's overcall – vulnerable, just 7 points and a thin suit – was pretty abject, but it did you a favour: it put you off trying to set up hearts and pushed you in the direction of diamonds! A couple of lessons to take from the play:

  • The mantra 'Clear trumps immediately unless there's a good reason not to' applies here – but sometimes the 'good reason not to' isn't immediately apparent. If that happens, as here, you may need to change course in mid-stream.
  • It's often possible to 'ruff out' a side suit. Here, you can set up the diamonds without ruffing at all if they're 3-3, and if they're 4-2 just a single ruff is needed. That's how you come to the magic 11th trick on this hand. **

What happened on the day?

Most NS pairs found 4, but only two made it, and none made 11. As we noted, West's overcall makes the best play easier to find – without it, declarer might try to set up hearts instead ... and get ruffed by East! 


* North's X is nothing to do with having lots of hearts. It's the very useful 'negative double': for an excellent article on the subject by Bernard Magee, click here

** Click here for Andrew Robson's take on setting up a side suit.