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Improvers' Hand of the week
Board 17 Thursday 09 September 2021

Slamming again

For a change, here's a hand from last week's f2f '9 HIGH' session, soon to be rebranded 'Relaxed' – for a relaxing time, come along!

The auction shown is just one of many possibilities, but worth a look for all that. How would you interpret each bid after the 1? My take on it's below:

  • 3: invitational raise. I have 4 hearts, I'm an Ace better than I might be and/or I've got just 6 losers.
  • 4NT: I smell a slam here, partner. RKC Blackwood.
  • 5♣: 0 or 3 keycards. (Has to be 3 on the bidding so far!)
  • 5: Have you got the trump Queen, partner?
  • 5: No.
  • 6: Hmph. That scuppers our chance of the grand slam, then. I'll settle for 6.

There are other ways of reaching a slam, including ace-showing cuebids after the 3 bid, but if the ins and outs of all that are not your style, there's a dead easy way: 'Partner's 3 probably shows 15+ points and I've got 18. That's enough for a slam: 6!'

Even better would be: 'Hmm. If we've got 33+ points, that's actually enough for 6NT. And the most likely lead is the unbid major, which'll come nicely round to my ♠AQ.'

The only trouble with bidding 6 or 6NT directly over 3 is that you might be missing the grand slam – but here it matters not.

How does it go?

Take a look at the whole deal. Say you get a club lead against 6. You soon discover the bad heart split, but no matter: once you've given South her heart trick, you have 1 spade trick, 3 hearts, 5 diamonds and 3 clubs: 12 in all. You'd make the same 12 tricks in 6NT, which of course scores 10 points more than 6.

What happened on the day?

One pair bid and made 6 – well done! Most others were in game, either 4 or 3NT, but only made 11 tricks. One other pair made 12 tricks, but evidently after a bidding misunderstanding, as they were in 3.

What to take from this hand?

  • Bidding: make sure you show your full strength. You both need to in order to find the slam.
  • Play: Once you concede a heart you have 12 tricks. No reason to make do with 11.


Forcing game

What's your partner got on this hand? 6-9 points, clearly. And probably fewer than 3 spades *. Obviously she'll have at least one of the other three suits – and maybe that will include hearts.

What to do, then? You could bid 2, showing at least 5-4 in the majors, and let partner choose. The trouble with that is that partner can choose hearts simply by passing – and that scuppers any chance of making game.

Let's consider. You have an 18-count, so you're only missing game if partner happens to have a pretty rubbish 6-count. And opposite a spade or heart fit your hand has only 5 losers. So how about forcing game with a jump shift: 3? With 4+ hearts, partner will raise to game. With both minors, she can punt 3NT. And 4♠ has a fighting chance of making, even with just a 5-2 fit. I think I'd go for it.

What happens?

Take a look at the whole deal. Partner has only 6 points, but you've forced her to game, and with 5 hearts she'll be happy to raise you to 4. Which makes comfortably as you lose only 2 clubs and the K.

What happened on the day?

None of the three pairs in hearts had any trouble making 10 tricks, but only one had bid game - well done! 

The fourth pair languished in 1♠. Moral: With 6+ points, don't pass partner's opening bid - she may have 18 or even 19 points! 


* With an unbalanced hand and 3 spades, I'll prefer to raise to 2 – it's more positive than 1NT and makes it more difficult for the opponents to butt in. (But with 4-3-3-3 and 3 spades – no ruffs to be had in dummy! – I'll prefer 1NT.)

Board 12 Wednesday 18 August 2021

Bidding up the line

Here's a pretty simple question. Sitting West, how do you respond to your partner's opening 1? Do you bid 1 or 1♠? With two 4-card suits, Standard Acol would have you bid 'up the line' - 1 - and I agree. Sure, your spades are more impressive than your hearts, but bridge is all about finding fits, and bidding 1 actually conceals your 4-card heart suit. Consider. Supposing your partner has something like:

♠ J 4    A Q 6 4    A Q 8 5 3 2   ♣ 7 

After 1♠, she's not strong enough to reverse into 2, so has to rebid 2, which will become the final contract. You've just missed playing in the more profitable contract of 2.

But what if partner has spades, not hearts? For example:

♠ K J 6 4    Q 4    A Q 8 5 3 2   ♣ 7  

No problem. Over your 1 she'll now bid 1♠ and you'll have found your spade fit anyway.

The message is clear: respond 1 and you'll find your major fit if you have one; respond 1♠ and you might miss a heart fit. Bid your 4-card suits up the line.

And on this hand?

Take a look at the whole deal. You do indeed have a heart fit, but luckily for you, West gets away with 1♠ this time. Holding a 16-count, partner is strong enough to reverse ** into 2, which with your 9-count you can raise to 4. You lose just 1 trump and the two black Aces for 10 tricks. 

What happened on the day?

Two of the four EW pairs got to 4, but both were played by East, meaning that West got lucky after a 1♠ (or in one case 1NT - see * below!) response. One EW ended up in 2(oops by both bidders!) and one sneaky NS pair went off undoubled in 4♣!


* I don't list 1NT as a possibility because it's not a good response on this hand. Bidding is primarily all about finding a major fit, and you don't do that by concealing not just one but two 4-card majors. Respond 1NT if you have no 4-card suit that you can bid: it's a last resort.

** If you're not sure about reversing, I have some notes from a past seminar. Email me at if you'd like a copy.

Board 13 Wednesday 11 August 2021

Adult in the room

When East bids 2 over your partner's opening 1, you decide to punt 4, which ends the auction. West leads the J to East's A, then drops the 6 on East's K. East now leads the Q ...

Well, on paper you've got the rest of the tricks: 8 hearts and 3 diamonds. But you're going to have to play it carefully and cross your fingers as well. So what's the plan?

First up, you need to deal with this trick. Like you, West is out of clubs (♣J followed by ♣6) and you need to ask yourself who's more likely to hold the J, West or East. 'Vacant places' would suggest that if East has long clubs, West is more likely to have long hearts and so probably has the J. It would clearly be disastrous if West won this trick, as you're also missing the ♠A. So ruff with the Q, just to be sure. 

Now, provided the hearts and diamonds don't split too badly, you're home. Cash your A, out to dummy with the K ... and discard your two little spades on dummy's KQ. Now you can come back to hand by ruffing a spade, clear trumps and that's that. Take a look at the whole deal.

A couple of things to note:

  • It was vital that you didn't get overruffed at trick 3. If you'd carelessly ruffed low, allowing West to overruff with her 6, you could go two off. Don't, as they say, send a boy to do a man's job. Or, in these gender-sensitive times, send a child to do an adult's job. You have two adult hearts in your hand, so use one of them. Sure, it turns out that East held the J, so the adolescent 7 would have done the job, but you weren't to know that: so ruff high!
  • 'But if West had Jxx, she's now going to make a trump trick!' So what? By then, you'll have already discarded your spade losers and you still make your contract. As it happens, the J was singleton, so you've lost nothing: fortune smiles on the brave!
  • Before you go out to dummy you have to unblock the diamonds by cashing your A. If you don't, you can never make your KQ.

The 'best defence'

As you can see, you can't make 4 against the best defence. But it's hellish difficult for EW to find it. I suppose East could discourage clubs by playing a low club on the ♣J opening lead. But will West then find the killing switch to the ♠Q? If her partner doesn't have the ♠A, that would be suicidal. And anyway, East doesn't know her partner has the ♠QJ ... So 4 is actually a great contract to be in.

What if East bids 5 clubs ...

... over your 4? Well, your partner opened the bidding, and you have two Aces. 5♣ is a sacrifice bid, isn't it, and you will surely double it for penalties!

What happened on the day?

Two pairs reached 4, one making (for a deserved top) and one pair stopped in 3. The other two were in 5♣ by EW ... undoubled! 


Postscript: Board 14

Congratulations to the three pairs whose lightbulbs pinged and who bid and made a slam on this hand!

Board 05 Wednesday 28 July 2021

Up to you

When your partner opens a 12-14 1NT on this deal, it's pretty clear that you want to end up in 4♠.* But how to get there? There are two main possibilities, which are ...?

Well, you'd usually transfer partner to 2♠ (via 2) and then raise her to 4♠. Alternatively, you can just go straight to 4♠ yourself. Which raises the questions: does it matter which you do? Is one better than the other?

The answer (you've guessed it) is that it depends. One advantage of going straight to 4♠ is that it stops the opponents from talking to each other. On this hand, they've surely got a heart fit, which won't worry you unduly as spades outrank hearts. But swap your spade and heart suits and I'd be inclined to go straight for game in case they decide to sacrifice in spades.

That apart, it'll depend on where you want the opening lead coming from. Is there a reason you'd rather have the lead coming round to your hand? Well, yes - you'd rather get a club coming round to your ♣AQ than coming through your ♣AQ. So let's go for a straight raise to 4♠.

How does it go?

Take a look at the whole deal. As you can see, a club or a diamond lead coming round to your hand would have been great ... but as luck would have it you get a heart.

Never mind. You're going to make your contract. At the very worst you'll lose one trick each in trumps, clubs and diamonds. A couple of points to note in passing:

Which finesse?  It's not going to be easy to get to dummy, but that aside, should you go for clubs or diamonds? Clubs might be better, in that even if the finesse loses, you might be able to discard that little 2 on a club later on.

Clearing trumps  When you cash your ♠K, West drops the ♠Q. Hmm. Is that a singleton, do you think, or did West start with ♠QJ? According to the rather weird Principle of Restricted Choice (yes, really!) when a player drops one of two equivalent high cards, as here, there's a 2:1 chance that it's a singleton rather than a 'significant doubleton'. I won't go into details here **, but it certainly works on this hand: finessing on the second round of trumps catches East's ♠J for an extra trick.

Which means that you can't get back to dummy to take that club finesse. Never mind. Lead the ♣Q and hope someone goes up with the King. If not, cash the ♣A and see if it drops. And if not, not to worry: 11 tricks is a pretty good result.

What happened on the day?

Everyone was in spades (though one pair didn't bid game): half played by South, half by North. One pair made 11 tricks, the rest 10.


* With a 5-loser hand and Aces in 3 suits, you might experience a dim flickering of a slam-seeking lightbulb, but with a max 28 point holding, you'd need a bit of luck to bring a slam home.

** The message is a simple one - see Andrew Robson on the subject here . But the explanation ain't: see, for example, Larry Cohen's amusing but challenging effort here

Board 1 Wednesday 21 July 2021
Board 1  Wednesday 21 July 2021


It seems a bit unfair to be picking up a hand like this on board 1, before you have a chance to settle in, but that's randomness for you. We've talked before about lightbulbs flashing when a slam might be on, but when you're looking at a 19-point hand AND partner OPENS the bidding with ONE OF YOUR SUITS, the slam possibilities are fairly screaming at you – not so much a lightbulb as a firework display!

But let's take it slowly. Bid 1♠ and see what partner says next ... which turns out to be 2. So what now?

Prefer NT to a minor unless ...

I'm always banging on about ignoring minor fits and going for NT instead, but there's an important exception: unless you can make a slam in your minor fit. Which looks pretty likely here. For her opening bid, partner has at least 10 of the outstanding 21 points, so the chance of her holding at least 2 of the missing 3 Aces is pretty good.

There are all sorts of complicated ways of exploring for a possible NT or spade slam, but looking for a slam in your known fit, diamonds, is easy. RKC Blackwood should do it: bid 4NT.  If partner only has one Ace (either 5♣ or 5, depending on your system), you can stop safely in 5. If she has 2 Aces (5) you can raise to 6. And if she has 3, you can bid the grand! *

As it happens, partner responds 5, showing 2 Aces, and you end up in a comfortable 6. as you'll see if you look at the whole deal.

But doesn't 6NT score better than 6?

Yes, it does. But whereas West may lead a low club against 3NT, she may lead her ♣A against 6NT, which'll take you 5 off. Bidding and making any slam's usually enough for a good score, so there's no need to break a leg scrabbling for the extra few points. Why take the risk?

What happened on the day?

Two pairs played in 5 (making 12 and 13 tricks) and one made 10 tricks in 3NT. Which goes to show that you have to be on the lookout for lightbulbs – and fireworks – all the time, even on board 1.


* If partner's response shows '0 or 3 Aces', it has to be 3. With no Aces, she'd have a maximum of 9 points, so wouldn't have opened the bidding.

Board 11 Tuesday 13 July 2021

Suit  yourself

Leaving the auction for the moment, let's just say you're in NT. Now imagine that you could choose which opponent should lead each suit. Starting at the top with spades, who would you nominate - N or S? Here are my answers:

  • ♠  I don't care. Either way, once they've taken their Ace I make 3 tricks.
  • ♥  North. That way, whoever holds the K, I make 2 tricks - or, put another way, I have 2 stops! If S leads them and N has the K, I could be in trouble.
  • ♦  Either. Whoever leads them takes my finesse for me. I make 3 tricks - maybe 4.
  • ♣  Again, North. Like the hearts, I let the lead run to my ♣J and I have 3 club tricks, whoever has the ♣Q.

Back in the real world ...

... you're East in 3NT and South leads the ♠4 (not a heart - phew!), dummy's ♠8 winning the trick. What now?

Well, whoever holds what, you can now guarantee your contract. You have a heart, two clubs, (ultimately) 3 diamonds and (again ultimately) 3 spades. What you don't want is a problem with hearts. So make sure that if anyone leads them, it's North (as discussed above). Switch to diamonds and finesse towards North. If it wins, you're home, but if it loses you're home, too. North can't lead hearts without giving you a 2nd heart trick, so you've got plenty of time to force out the ♠A and claim your contract.

So a diamond to the A, lead the 10 back ... and South shows out. Never mind. Give North her trick with the Q anyway and that's that. You can set up the spades safely and you're home. Check out the whole deal.

Sure, but why switch to diamonds so early? Why not set up the spades first and then go for the diamonds?

Well, you can do it that way, but it's much trickier. Say South wins with the A and switches to a heart. You must keep the Q in dummy and win the trick with your A. * Now when North gets in with her Q you're still safe in hearts.

But the early diamond switch is easier!

On the auction

East may open the bidding 1♣ or 1♠, depending on their style. Either way, it should be East playing the final 3NT contract. West replies either 1 or 2, as required, East rebids 2NT and ends up in 3NT.

It turns out that on the day, 3 of the 5 tables ended up in 3NT by West. At each of these tables, the auction began 1♠ - 1NT. The 1NT response is wrong on two counts. One, because West has 10 points (not 6-9) and two, because the 1NT response is essentially a bid of last resort **: 'I've got to respond something but I don't have any other bid!' Well in this case, she has: she has a 4-card diamond suit and enough points to respond at the two level: 2.

What happened on the day?

As luck would have it, both of the East declarers got a spade lead but went one off (well bid, anyway!). The West declarers got it easier, as North (quite reasonably) led either hearts or diamonds, thus doing declarer's job for her! Wouldn't you know it!


* If you duck, you're doomed. A second heart lead disposes of your A and you're now wide open in hearts.

** Not least because the weaker hand ends up as declarer, leaving the stronger hand exposed as dummy.

Board 11 Tuesday 06 July 2021

A 30-point deal?

What do you make of this auction so far? What's your partner's spade holding, for instance? And what do you know about the opponents' hands?

First, partner's hand. Well, she didn't open a weak 2, so she'll only have 5 spades. And looking at your own holding, she surely wouldn't have overcalled unless she has ♠QJxxx. And points? Well, she's a passed hand, so 8-10ish. Which gives you (say) 18 points between you ...

... and the opps 22. Divided how? Well, West's 2 over your 1♠ overcall is pretty weak, so East has most of the points – 15 or 16, say. 

Can they make game? On points, you'd guess not. But hang on a minute. If you're lucky, the spades will split 2-1 instead of 3-0, but even then your mighty 10 points in spades are only going to net you ONE trick. So if you're going to get 4 off, your other 8 points are going to have to win you 3 tricks. Unlikely.

So what's your bid?

Received wisdom would suggest you jump straight to 4♠ – 'raising to the level of your fit'. *

On this hand, though, I'm not so sure. With only 22 points between them, are they actually going to bid game anyway? If not, there's no point in sacrificing – East can surely see that as two passed hands you're not going to make 4♠ so will double, maybe getting you 2 off for-300. That's great if you've stopped them making 4, but horrid if they were going to stop in 3 anyway.

You could just raise to 2♠, hoping they'll be content to outbid us in 3. Probably better is the more pre-emptive 3♠, hoping they'll give up – it's a brave East who'll bid on to 4 with only 16 points after partner's weak raise. They don't know, remember, that you guys are holding 10 points in their short suit!

And hey – if they do go to game, you can still do your sacrificial 4♠ anyway.

What happens?

Take a look at the whole deal. The spades are indeed 2-1, but with your Q and partner's K handily placed for them, they're still making 11 tricks in hearts – on a combined 21 points!

That Q and K also mean that you're struggling in spades, making only 7 tricks against the best defence. That's -500 if you're in 4♠X. Ugh!

What happened on the day?

It was pretty well a split between hearts (2 and 3) making 10 and 8 (!) tricks, and spades (3 and 4) making 8 tricks. (West reasonably led the A at trick 1, gifting you a trick with your K.)

And the title?

Well, if you're void in a suit in which the opps have a (useless) AKQJ, that's 10 points that you don't have to worry about not having. You're effectively playing a 30-point deal. OK, here West has a singleton, but the same principle applies. Which is why 21 points are enough for game.


* This is a handy rule of thumb derived from the Law of Total Tricks. The weaker side bids straight to the level that = their combined trump holding. So if partner makes a weak jump overcall of 2♠, say, and you have 4 spades, you have 10 trumps between you, so bid 4♠ (= 10 tricks). But it ain't a rule. Vulnerability might make it unwise. And as we've seen, it shouldn't pay off on this hand.

For Andrew Robson's take on bidding to the level of your fit, go here.