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Play & Learn News

At last a decent coffee machine!

Yep. Got them in Bath too.

We have tablet scoring. 

In Bath, too. Same.

Declarer play (in a suit)
  HOTW 19 Feb 2020 | 5-0 split ...

5-0 split ...

Looks like a pretty decent slam. After a sensible information-swapping auction * you end up in 6. North leads the J and when dummy goes down you're sorry you didn't go the whole hog and bid 7.

You win trick 1 in dummy and lead the 9 towards your A ... and discover that North is void in spades: South holds J8543. Stop right there and rethink:

Can you still make your slam? And if so, how?

Yes, of course you can! You have 8 tricks in clubs, diamonds and hearts. So all you have to do is make sure you only lose ONE spade trick ... and spades will provide you with the other 4. Easily done, as you know exactly what spades South holds:

  • Lead a low spade out to dummy's king and lead back the 10 ...
    • If South covers with the J, beat it and lead another spade, giving her a trick with her 8. Then you can clear her last small trump and bang out your winners.
    • If she plays low, your 10 wins the trick. Over to your hand with the A and play Q and another spade, giving South her spade trick. Then bang out your winners.

Which makes it a bit of a mystery how none of today's declarers made anywhere near 12 tricks – see below. My guess is that they took fright when they discovered the bad split and abandoned clearing trumps. 

PS  It is, of course possible for NS to take the slam off – by starting with a diamond lead instead of a heart. This forces out West's A, and now when South comes in with a trump she can cash her K for one off.

In Box and Bath
In Box, three of the four Wests were in the slam and one stopped in 4. Three declarers made just 10 tricks, and one made nine ... frown

In Bath, bizarrely, only TWO pairs bid a slam – one 6 (making) and one 7♠ (one off). All the pairs in spades bar one made 12 tricks. The most popular contract was 3NT, mostly making 13 tricks. How? Presumably declarer banged out her clubs and South carelessly discarded a spade or two ... 

* After East's 2NT rebid, showing 17-18 points, any bid by West is forcing to game. Instead of just raising to 3NT, West should rebid her spades just in case they have a 5-3 spade fit. And it turns out they do. 

With 14 points and excellent controls – 3 Aces and a singleton – West must surely sniff a possible slam. RKC Blackwood confirms that East holds the 2 missing key cards ... and we have lift-off. If the spades are 3-2 – which they will be 68% of the time – you're making all 13 tricks.

  HOTW 05 Feb 2020 | First things first

First things first

This is mainly about declarer play, but the auction's well worth a look. After partner's opening 1 and the spade overcall, a lot of Easts will meekly raise to 2 (yuk) or maybe stretch to a preemptive 3 (better). But if you count your losers, you'll find you only have 7 – and that gives you an excellent stab at game. Go straight to 4.

What's the plot?

Now you're West, and North leads the Q against your 4 contract. Make a plan! What do you play at trick 2?

Let's count the tricks. Two spades, 5 trump tricks (maybe 6) and the A. That's 8. And the others are coming from ...? Ruffs in dummy are the answer, and if you play your cards right you can get THREE of those. Which means that at trick 2 you lead ...

... not a trump but a small club. Now when you regain the lead you're all set up for ruffing. Let's say they lead another spade:

  • Win in hand and ruff a club.
  • While you're in dummy, cash your A and ditch another club. Now you've only one left ...
  • ... so back to your hand with a trump to the A and ruff your last club.
  • Hmm. This is going well! I wonder if I can get away with ruffing that last little spade as well. Let's try ...
  • Back to hand with a diamond ruff, ruff the 5 with dummy's last remaining trump – the Q – and the K's the only further trick they take.

So that's 11 tricks, with just half the points. Pretty good going.

Things to take from this deal

  • This is yet another hand where it's best to delay clearing trumps – just like the HOTW A good reason a couple of weeks ago. If you clear trumps that'll only leave you with 2 ruffs in dummy – enough to make your contract, sure, but NOT to make the overtrick.
  • For the same reason, forget the trump finesse. If it loses (which it does as the cards lie) North will lead back her last trump, leaving you again with only two ruffs in dummy.
  • And finally, be bold – East hasn't many points, but with just 7 losers game is worth a punt. It's your club shortage that gives you the 7-loser hand – the very same club shortage that enables you to make 11 tricks!

In Box and Bath

Everyone in Box reached 4, making 9, 10 and 12 tricks. The last one is impossible unless NS allow the singleton J to win a trick or North throws her K under the A or leads her 8, so I don't pretend to understand what happened!

In Bath, nearly everyone was in 4, making 10 or 11 tricks. No-one made 12! A couple of brave NS pairs sacrificed in 4X, somehow scrambling 9 tricks for a good score (it should go 3 off, with EW making AK, A, A a club ruff and a diamond ruff.)

  HOTW 22 Jan 2020 | A good reason

A good reason

Here's a weird hand that yields useful insights into both bidding and play. Let's start with the play. You're sitting North and have ended up in 4. East leads the 7. What's your plan?

If, after winning trick 1 in your hand, you immediately attack the trumps, you're in for a poor result. Can you see why?

Because you've got a bunch of losing black cards in dummy. You can ditch them on your diamonds, but it has to be NOW, at trick 2, because once you lead a trump you're locked out of your hand for ever. So play on the diamonds and THEN clear trumps.

How does it go? Win trick 1 and lead a second diamond, discarding a club from dummy. Now a third – yes, it may get ruffed but the odds are against it * – discarding a small spade. Do you now lead a 4th, discarding your last small spade from dummy? Up to you. Someone's going to ruff – if you're lucky with a singleton K – but it's just as good (and probably better) to revert to clearing the trumps via a finesse at this point.

'But you're always telling us to clear trumps straight away!' The rule says 'Clear trumps at the first opportunity unless you have a good reason not to.' Here you have an excellent reason: that lovely diamond suit – stranded unless they're used NOW.

If the opening lead is a spade ...

... I'd play it a little differently, because you still have your diamond entry intact. Win with the A and cash your A. If the K falls, you simply cross back to your J (clearing the remaining trump) and bang out your diamonds for 13 tricks. If it doesn't, revert to diamonds and hope for a good break.

If you look at the whole deal, you'll see that the K doesn't fall, but it's the only trick they make.

On the auction

Shouldn't I open 1? I think 1NT's better. You have a balanced 12-14 points with a 5-card minor which is worth 5 tricks on its own. 1NT.

Why doesn't South just bid 4 When your partner opens 1NT and you know you're going to end up in 4 (or 4, for that matter), you can choose where you'd rather have the lead coming from. If you held (say) Kx, you'd rather have the lead coming round to you, rather than through you, so you'd bid 4 directly. But here you're quite happy to have the lead coming round to your partner, so you transfer first and then bid game.

In Box and Bath

In Box, everyone reached 4  (2 by N, 2 by S), but the trick-counts were dramatically different: 9, 10, 11 and 12.

In Bath, all 12 tables were in game (except one going off in 6), but everyone made at least 11 tricks: 6 made 12 and one made 13.

* It's an interesting fact that if you're missing an odd number of cards in a suit, they're likely to split nicely for you, whereas if you're missing an even number they're more likely to split badly. If you're missing 7 cards – as with the diamonds here – there's a 62% chance that they'll split 3-4.

  HOTW 09 Oct 2019 | A simple safety play

A simple safety play

You're sitting South, declarer in 5 and West leads the Q. East's 3 overcall, by the way, is Ghestem*, showing at least 5-5 in the major suits. With a 15-count and stops in both majors, many Souths will plump for 3NT, but you decided to show your diamonds instead. Good thing too, as 3NT goes screaming off on a heart lead.

5 looks good, though. You've got tricks galore – 2 spade tricks, 3 in hearts (including 2 ruffs), a great club suit to set up and a whole bunch of diamond tricks. The trick is to make sure you don't lose 3 tricks on your way to making 11 ... Which you might. Can you spot the danger?

Trumps. You have 10 and they only have 3, but those 3 include the K and Q. If they're 2-1 (which they will be most of the time) nothing could be easier: bang out your A, which will drop either the K or the Q, and they only make one trump trick. But what if the trumps are 3-0? If you bang out your A, they're going to make both the K and the Q, aren't they?

Can you guard against that? Well, it depends. If West has KQ3, there's nothing you can do. They're making the KQ and the A and you're one off. But if it's East with KQ3 you're OK ...

... providing you don't just bang out your A. Instead, you simply lead a low diamond from dummy and beat whatever card East plays. Now she's only making one trick, not two, and you're home. 

Here's how it goes. You lead a low trump from dummy ...

  • the trumps are 2-1: East follows. You beat that card. Maybe West wins the trick. But there's now only 1 trump out and you can clear that with your A.
  • East has KQ3: If she plays high, you win with the A and she makes one trick. If she plays low, play your 7, which wins. You can now drop one of her honours with your A and she makes one trick.
  • West has KQ3: East shows out and you're one off. Nothing you could do about it however you play it.

So go for it: give yourself the extra chance  – ruff the opening heart lead so you're in dummy and lead a low trump ...

Is it worth the trouble?

Here are the figures: 78% of the time the trumps will be 2-1 and you'll get away with what is essentially the careless play of banging out your trump Ace. 11% of the time West will have all 3 and you'll be off anyway. It's on the final 11% that the safety play makes the difference between +600 and -100.

So if you play safe, you make this contract 89 times out of 100, whereas if you don't, you succeed only 78 times out of 100. Which is a big difference. 11% better. Apply the same level of care to every hand in an evening's bridge and you'll score 55.5% instead of 50%. 61% instead of 55%. Or 66.6% instead of 60%. Yummy. It's precisely because good players take the trouble to foresee and counter possible snags that they score better than the rest of us!

And on this hand? Take a look. It doesn't make any difference, because the trumps are (as expected) 2-1. But on another day ... 

In Box and Bath

In Box, two NS pairs were in NT, going off, one was in 5 making – and one EW pair made an excellent sacrifice of 4 (well done, NS, for doubling it, anyway!)

In Bath, only three NS pairs reached game: one in 3NT going off, the others in 5♣ and 5, both making.

* There's a HOTW on Ghestem on the Using Conventions Improvers' Page: scroll down to August 2016.  

  HOTW 31 Jul 2019 | Tricks on the side

Tricks on the side

East was doubtless imagining herself as declarer in spades when she picked up her hand ... but your opening weak 2 bid turned that on its head. Why bother with spades when you have a 10-card heart fit? There's another reason for preferring hearts as trumps, of which more later.

North leads the A and your splendid dummy is revealed. How many tricks do you think you can make? And what's the best line to take? You're playing pairs, remember, so you want as many overtricks as you can ...

Well, you're certainly going to make your contract. You have 6 heart tricks, the two black aces and at least two diamond ruffs in dummy. That's 10. Add a third diamond ruff (pefectly possible with careful planning) and you've got 11.

Any advance on 11? Well ... how about 13? 

How's it done? Pretty simple, actually, if the spades behave themselves. It's just a question of setting up your side suit: if you can (1) get rid of all their spades (2) clear trumps and (3) make sure you still have an entry to dummy, you can bang out a vast number of spade tricks that no-one can ruff, throwing away any losers you have left in your hand. 

Let's do it. Take a look at the full deal.

  • Ruff the opening lead in dummy and lead a trump to your K: both defenders follow suit – only one trump left now. 
  • Now a spade to the A and ruff a second spade in hand. Both defenders follow suit. How many spades do they have now? That's right – just one. Let's get rid of that ...
  • ... and take out their last trump at the same time: a small trump to dummy's A. Now ruff a third spade and watch North's K drop harmlessly to the table.
  • And that's it. You have FOUR spade tricks in dummy waiting to be cashed. How to get there?
  • Ruff a diamond with dummy's last trump. Then cash your spade tricks, throwing losers from hand. You can even discard your A if you like, as you already have 13 tricks without using it. Not bad for a combined 19-count.

So why didn't anyone do that in Bath?

Two reasons. First, they were playing Teams, not Pairs, and in Teams overtricks are less important. Second, North's takeout double suggests that he has 4 spades, which makes it more difficult and dangerous to ruff them out – or even 5, making it all totally hopeless. Better to play safe and go for the diamond ruffs in the short trump suit. But playing Pairs, and without that double from North, I reckon you should go for 13.

In Box and Bath

In Box, every West was in 4, all making, but only one with an overtrick.

In Bath, it was much the same story, except that one or two were pushed up to 5 by South's bidding diamonds. Plus nearly everyone made overtricks. At one table, South somehow got away with sacrificing in 6 (which went 3 off) without being doubled. How come? I suppose East must have decided that she must have a heart void. But even so ...

NOTE  If you've got a double fit with nothing to choose between the suits except their distribution – say 5-4 and 6-2 – it's usually better to make the more balanced one trumps. Why? Because you're aiming to clear trumps and set up your side suit – as here – and an unbalanced side suit will give you more discards than a balanced one. This hand's a great example.

  HOTW 03 Jul 2019 | 1-1 or 2-0?

1-1 or 2-0?

Sitting East as declarer in 5, you're delighted when South leads a spade - her partner's suit - and dummy goes down showing QJ. North covers with her K and your Ace takes trick 1. No spade losers, then!

It's looking pretty good. Provided North has either the A or the K - which she should have, having opened the bidding - you're going to make your contract. But as always, you're out to make all the tricks you can. It's obvious how you're going to play the diamonds - a small one from dummy towards your king. But how are you going to play the trumps?

You have 11 clubs, so the opponents' clubs are either 2-0 (one way or the other) or 1-1. Other things being equal, the odds are slightly in favour of their being 1-1: around 52% to 48%. So you'll usually do better just to bang down your A rather than take the finesse.

But given that North has an opening hand, a thought springs to mind: before touching trumps, why not try the diamonds first? NS have only 15 points between them. So if South turns out to have the A (meaning that you've lost two diamond tricks) then surely North must have the K, so you can safely take the trump finesse. But if (as is more likely) North has the A, your contract is safe and you can go ahead and play for the trumps being 1-1.

So what happens?

You need to be in dummy, so you go out to dummy's J and lead a small diamond towards your K. It wins! North must have the A. So lead your A ... and the 10 and K drop under it. The trumps were indeed 1-1, as you'll see if you look at the whole deal. 

Eventually, you have to concede a trick to North's A, but you get the rest: 2 spades, 2 hearts, a diamond and 7 clubs. Not a slam you want to be in, but it's always good to get the overtrick!

Wouldn't NT be better than clubs?

As it happens, yes - provided, of course, that you play the clubs right. But again, it's not a contract you want to be in. Imagine that South has K10 and starts with a diamond. Your A is knocked out ... and when you lose to the K, NS take any number of diamond tricks ... Yuk.

In Box and Bath

In Box, every East was in clubs (3 x 5 and 1 x 3), making 10, 11 and in one case 12 tricks.

In Bath, 7 pairs were in clubs (though by no means all in game) and 6 of them made 12 tricks. I don't know if they played on diamonds first, but they certainly went with the odds and played for the trumps being 1-1.

  HOTW 27 Feb 2019 | Two options

Two options

Here's a tricky contract: East leads the 7 against 4 and you're in the hot seat, sitting North. How do you maximise your chances? What are the opportunities – and what are the dangers?

Well, you've got 8 top tricks: 5 hearts, two clubs and the A. Where are the other two coming from? There are possibilities in two suits:

  • DIAMONDS. There's a 50% chance that West has the A. If so, your troubles are probably over – you win trick 1 in dummy, lead a low diamond towards your K. If West rises with the A, you can now cash your K and ruff a diamond in dummy (with a high trump, just in case). And now you clear trumps and attack the spades ...
    Note  Obviously you must deal with the diamonds before you clear trumps or you won't have a trump left in dummy to ruff a diamond with!
  • SPADES. If East has the A, never mind – you can still eventually engineer a diamond ruff in dummy – but now you will need two tricks in spades. As we've seen in several previous HOTWs, the way forward is the 'double finesse', which has a whopping 76% chance of succeeding (see below). Lead a low spade toward dummy's 10, expecting to lose. Then repeat, towards the J, this time expecting to win. 

So how does it go? Take a look at the whole deal.

  • West does indeed have the A: say she wins trick 2 and returns her partner's club lead. You win in hand, cash the K and ruff your last diamond with the K.
  • Now clear trumps, ending in your hand, and the stage is set to try for the overtrick ...
  • Finesse the 10, losing to the K, ruff the return and you're ready for the coup de grace ...
  • Lead a low spade towards the J. It wins and you now have 11 tricks. Lovely!

The double finesse

How come the odds are so good for the double finesse? Well, there are four ways the spade honours can lie: (1) Q with East and K with West; (2) the other way around; (3) East has KQ (4) West has KQ. You're only going to lose two spade tricks in layout (4). In layouts (1), (2) and (3) you lose just one spade trick.

For more on this, see Split honours (Declarer play in a suit, 15 Jan 2014); Split honours (Declarer play in NT, 24 May 2017)

In Box and Bath

In Box, 3 pairs were in 4, one going off, and the other was in 3NT, making. No-one made 11 tricks.

In Bath, only 3 pairs reached 4 (making 9, 10 and 11 tricks). Most of the others were in 3NT.

  HOTW 09 Jan 2019 | Play safe

Play safe

This is a classic. You're sitting South, declarer in 4 after a competitive auction in which EW bid clubs. West leads the Q and East beats dummy's singleton K with her Ace and leads back a trump. You win in hand with the A and both defenders follow to your K. That's trumps out of the way ...

... so what's next? What are the opportunities? What are the dangers? Plan the play.

Clearly you need to attack the spades. Once you've cleared the defenders' spades, you have oodles of tricks and can discard all those little diamonds from your hand. If the spades are split 2-2, in fact, you're going to make 12 tricks: five hearts, six spades and a club ruff in dummy. Lovely. Tempting ...

... but supposing the spades aren't 2-2. Can you see the danger? Well, if West comes in with the 3rd spade trick and leads a diamond ... and if East has the A (which is quite likely, as it was East that made the vulnerable club overcall with, it turns out, not many points in clubs) ... then you could go one off: the A, the Q and two diamond tricks – one too many.

Is there a way of avoiding this risk – of guaranteeing your contract? Yes, there is – a classic safety play. Can you spot it?


They can only defeat your contract if they can take two diamond tricks. And they can only take two diamond tricks by leading diamonds through your K8 – in other words, if West gets the lead. West is the 'danger hand'. So all you have to do is prevent West from getting the lead. How to do that? Easy:

Lead your 9 and beat whatever West plays. If East wins the trick, that's fine. She can cash her A, but that's it. You can now clear spades and claim the rest of the tricks.

As it happens, as you'll see if you look at the whole deal, the result's magic:

  • If West plays low, so do you and East can only follow with her 6. You now clear spades and claim 12 tricks.
  • If West plays her J or Q, you beat it, come back to your hand with a trump and play another spade, finessing again. Again, 12 tricks.

Note: safety plays normally have a price tag

When you embark on this safety play, you're expecting to lose a spade trick to East, plus another trick to the A. So you're sacrificing the chance of making 12 tricks in exchange for a guaranteed 10 tricks. On this particular deal, of course, there's no price tag, as the safety play itself is the only way you can make 12 tricks. But normally it costs possible overtricks ...

... which is why many players will ignore the safety play and go for the greedy option. So how did we do?

In Box & Bath

In Box, three pairs reached 4 but only one made 10 tricks. Two others were in spades – again, just one pair made 10 tricks.

In Bath, they didn't do much better. Four of the seven pairs in hearts made just 9 tricks, as did one of the pairs in spades. No one made 12 tricks – unsurprisingly, with two Aces missing! To my eternal shame, I was one of the declarers that went off in 4. I got greedy ... and paid the price!

  HOTW 15 Aug 2018 | Keeping control

Keeping control

It happens sometimes that you end up in a contract with a 4-3 trump fit. Not much fun usually, as it's easy to lose control of the trumps. 

West leads her A followed by the K. Well, you're going to have to trump the heart with dummy's ♠10, aren't you? Then what?

Well, if you're lucky, the trumps will split 3-3 and it'll be plain sailing. I say 'lucky' because it's not very likely to happen. If there's one set of probabilities it's useful to know it's this: with 6 cards missing, they'll split 3-3 only 36% of the time; a further 48% of the time they'll be 4-2 ... and the other 16% of the time it'll be worse.

No harm in trying, though. After ruffing the heart, cash your ♠A and ♠Q, keeping your fingers crossed ... and everyone follows. So they're either 4-2 or 3-3, then. What next? To lead a 3rd round of trumps, you need to be in hand, so a little diamond to your A, lead your ♠K ... and East shows out. As the probabilities suggested, the trumps were 4-2. Pity. Never mind. You can still make your contract comfortably. But how? What next?

Easy. Just start banging out your clubs and diamonds. Eventually West will have to ruff with his ♠9 (the top extant trump) and when she leads another heart you can ruff it with your last spade. And all the rest of those lovely club and diamond tricks are yours for the taking. 11 tricks made.

What you mustn't do is lead a trump to 'get rid of' West's last trump. Because that'll deprive you of your own last trump, too, leaving West free to cash 4 heart tricks ...

To keep control, you must force West to ruff, and then you're the one with the master trump. It works like a dream - well worth dealing out and watching it happen.

In Box and Bath

In Box, two pairs reached 4♠, one making 11 (as above) and one going two off as the other above, probably!). One EW pair managed to sacrifice in 4 (without getting doubled! Shame!) 

In Bath, most NS pairs were in game in spades, making anything from 10 to 13 (!) tricks. One optimistically tried 6♠ but went one off. The best score was earned by the pair who bid and made a stone-cold 6♣ - but that's another story.

  HOTW 04 Jul 2018 | 'Double dummy'

'Double dummy'

The all-knowing computer reckons that North can make this 4♠ contract against any defence, but nobody did, either in Box or Bath. Just for fun, I thought I'd offer it as a 'double dummy' problem, showing all four hands. East takes the first two tricks with her ♣A and ♣K, then continues with the ♣Q. Can you make 10 tricks? Have a go before reading on – it's not that hard!

You've already lost two tricks, so you can only afford to lose one more. Hearts and diamonds are no problem, so you must limit yourself to just ONE trump loser. Obviously you must ruff the ♣Q in dummy – but if you ruff low, West will overruff with the ♠9 and, still holding the ♠KJ, will eventually come to a 2nd trump trick for one down. You must therefore ruff high with your ♠Q. West can overruff with her ♠K, but now when you regain the lead in dummy (with the Q or A) you can lead a low trump and catch West's ♠J9 with your ♠A10. Ten tricks and contract made.

(What if West cunningly refuses to overruff? No problem: you lead a low trump, beating whatever West plays, then return to dummy and lead a second low trump. That will limit her to just one spade trick.)

But what about in real life?

Wouldn't we all do well if we could see all four hands? In real life, you're not very likely to ruff with the ♠Q. Instead, most players will ruff low, expecting to be overruffed, and hope to drop the remaining two trumps under the Ace. (That won't work if East is the one holding 2 trumps, but that's pretty unlikely: East, after all, started with 6 clubs, West with only one. So there are 12 'vacant places' in West's hand for spades to live, compared with only 7 in East's hand.) 

The odds are certainly in favour of a 2-1 split with West having two spades. Even taking the 'vacant spaces' into account, the chance that West has all three is just (I think!) 23%. Nevertheless, a super-thoughtful declarer might reason 'Well, if they're 2-1 I'm going to drop the remaining 2 trumps under my Ace anyway, so it won't hurt to ruff high, just in case West holds all three.' So far so good. But even then, she has to decide to take the trump finesse instead of playing for the drop if she's to make her contract.

In Box and Bath

In Box, the two pairs that got a club lead against their spade contract went one off. In Bath, all 6 pairs in spades got a club lead and all made just 9 tricks. 

  HOTW 06 Jun 2018 | Split honours

Split honours

There are a couple of far from basic issues that might arise from this 16-point (!) slam, one being how on earth to bid it (the auction shown is pure invention on my part - see below for a half-baked explanation of it). There's also the question of whether it's a 'good slam to be in' - in other words, what are the odds of making it? (Again, see below.)

But for you, sitting West as declarer in 6, there's a more basic concern: how am I going to make it? How about it? North leads the ♠K and you need 12 tricks. How do you play it?

Well, you're missing the QJ5 of trumps, so you really need the hearts to split 2-1 - don't worry: most of the time they will. And then there's the diamond holding. You're going to lose a diamond trick for sure. But you can't afford to lose a second. And there's the rub. After winning trick 1 and clearing trumps, how do you approach the diamonds?

Well, you finesse. But because you're missing both the K and the Q, you have to finesse twice. What you're hoping is either that North holds both honours, or that they're split - one in the North hand and one in the South. How does it work? Go over to your hand (ruffing a spade is a good way) and lead a low diamond to the 10. It loses to the Q. No matter. Get the lead back and lead a second low diamond from your hand to the J. If it holds, you're home.

Have a look at the whole deal. As it happens, the diamond honours are split: South takes a trick with her Queen, but that's all they get. Provided you play it properly, of course. Let's sum up the 3 elements:

  • First, clear trumps!
  • Take a diamond finesse, expecting it to lose.
  • Take it again, expecting it to win.
  • And to do this, you need ENTRIES. You have to be able to get to your (pointless!) hand TWICE, once for each finesse. You can do this with 2 spade ruffs (you can also get there by leading a low trump, but why waste them?)

So is it a 'good' slam?

Right. Here come the numbers. For the slam to make you need two things:

1 A 2-1 trump split  The odds for this are 78%. So far so good.

Luck with the diamond distribution   ... but not that much. The odds are 52% that the honours will be split, 24% that North holds them both (which would also suit you fine) and 24% that South holds them both (which wouldn't). So you're only losing one diamond trick 76% of the time. Which is pretty good.

However, you need BOTH of these to happen for the slam to make, so that means a bit of multiplying is in order. And 78% x 76% comes to 58.3%. The slam will make nearly 60% of the time - not bad odds. But you have to play it right!

Not really biddable, though, is it?

No, not really. My auction, for what it's worth, was:

N 1♠  -   Rule of 20 opening bid.
E 3♣   -  Ghestem, showing at least 5-5 in hearts and diamonds.
S 4♠  -  A perfectly good raise to game, with 13 points and 7 losers.
W 5  -  No points but 5 hearts! A sacrifice (both pairs vulnerable, so can afford to go 2 off).
N Pass  -  she's already bid her rather weak hand.
E 6  - What the hell? Why not go for it? I've got the ♠A and partner's obviously short in spades; I'm void in clubs. And I've got two great red suits.
S X  -  Huh! They're not getting away with that ...!

In Box and Bath

In Box, we had two EW pairs in 4 and one NS in 4♠. Neither of the heart declarers made 12 tricks.

In Bath, no one bid the slam either. About half the contracts were NS in spades, and half EW in hearts. But 5 out of the 6 heart declarers made 12 tricks. They know their double finesses @ Bath!

  HOTW 18 Apr 2018 | Temptation


You're sitting West, declarer in 4♠ after partner's excellent 7-loser game raise of your opening 1♠. Although you have a strong hand, you didn't explore further because partner's direct raise to game is a shutout – weak and distributional.

North leads the 8, dummy goes down and it's time to plan the play. How's it going to go?

It's looking good, isn't it? On that lead, North's unlikely to be holding the K, so you're going to be losing a club, a diamond and no more than one heart. Splendid. OK. Let's go. What do you play to the first trick?

Did you play low from dummy? Oh dear. You're going one off. Take a look at the whole deal. South wins with her K and leads back the 3 for her partner to ruff. Back comes a club to South's ♣A, and a second heart ruff makes it 4 tricks to the bad guys.

Yeah, I know. It's just so tempting to let the heart run round to your Q. You somehow sense that there might be a 'free' trick in it. But there isn't. There never was. Not unless North started with K8 doubleton, in which case she's not leading a heart at all. The correct play is to go up with the A and clear trumps. THEN, with the danger of a heart ruff eliminated, you can lead low from dummy towards your Q and your 10 tricks are GUARANTEED – plus you have a decent chance of discarding a losing diamond on your last heart for an overtrick.

The moral? ALWAYS ask yourself whether the opening lead might be a singleton – in this case it's quite likely because you hold 8 hearts – and whether you actually gain anything by playing low from dummy. Beware temptation.

Suit preference signals

In passing, you might be wondering how North knew to lead back a club (rather than a diamond) to get her second ruff. Simple: South told her to. When she leads a heart for her partner to ruff, South has a choice of hearts to lead, and so can show a suit preference: a low heart (the 3) asks partner to return the LOWER of the other two suits, while a high one (here, the J) would be asking for the HIGHER suit. Here she leads the 3, asking for a club. Easy when you know how.

In Box & Bath

An interesting and very clear divide, with everybody in spades and almost all facing 8 as the opening lead.

In Box, three declarers made 9 tricks, the other two making 10 and 11. One of the former was very lucky, having not bid to game in the first place!

In Bath, all but one of the 11 pairs made at least 10 tricks. Just one failed to go up with the A at trick one. How do I know? Luckily for me, it was at my table.

  HOTW 21 Feb 2018 | The only chance

The only chance

I don't know how the auction went - maybe something like the one shown. Anyway, the end result is that you're declarer in 4♠, South leads the A and your partner lays down a minimum 'rule of 20' opening. Time to count your winners (and losers) and make a plan. What are your thoughts?

Losers are the key point here. You have 3 losers in the red suits, and that's as many as you can afford. What conclusion do you come to?

Exactly. The club finesse HAS to work. The ONLY chance of making your contract is if South holds the ♣K. So go for it. If it's the only chance you have, what else can you do? Assume that South has the ♣K and plan your play. Any problems? Well, there is one potential difficulty: even if South has the ♣K, you may have to finesse TWICE to ensure it doesn't take a trick. So how does it go?

Let's say you get lucky and South continues with a second heart. You ruff in hand. What to do now? Clear trumps or attack clubs at once? Well, it's safer to clear trumps, just in case the clubs are 4-0 - a club ruff would finish you off. So a low trump to the ♠K, back to your hand with the ♠A and that's all the trumps gone. Now you're in the right hand for the club finesse, so fingers crossed and lead a low club to the ♣J. It holds! laugh What now? Cash the ♣A and hope the ♣K drops? No! Why take the risk? 

What you do now is lead a diamond from dummy. Sure, they get their two diamond tricks, but when they lead a third, you ruff in hand and now you can take the club finesse again. And you have your 10 tricks.

Look at the whole deal

It was a good thing you didn't cash your ♣A in dummy for the 2nd club trick, wasn't it, because South has THREE clubs to the King and you'd have given them a club trick for one down.

But you can also see that as the cards lie you missed the chance to make 12 tricks. Can you see how? Take the club finesse straight away, before clearing trumps, then clear trumps, ending in your hand. This allows you to take the club finesse again without losing the lead. The ♣K drops under the ♣A at the 3rd club trick and now you can cash all those lovely clubs in dummy, discarding your diamond losers from hand. 

So why not play it that way, then? Depends how lucky you feel. As we noted above, if the clubs are 4-0, you're going to get ruffed for one off. Or, if the finesse were to lose, there might then be a ruff as well for TWO off. So probably better to play safe and get rid of the opponents' trumps first.

Take the best chance

There's one other chance of making the contract other than the club finesse, of course, and that's if North holds the singleton ♣K: in that case, you have to play the ♣A first, not take the finesse. But the finesse is a much better chance: it has a 50% chance of coming off, whereas there's only a 1 in 16 chance of finding a singleton ♣K with North. 

​​In Box & Bath

In Box, everyone was in 4♠ but only ONE pair made the contract. Which is why this hand ended up as HOTW: if you plan to finesse the clubs, twice if necessary, you can't go off. I suspect that the 'twice if necessary' bit was the problem!

In Bath, 4♠ was the norm (though one NS got away with 3+1), but they ALL made at least 10 tricks. Two took the extra risk of a club ruff and ended up with 12 tricks for a joint top. Good for them.

  HOTW 14 Feb 2018 | Empty trump suit

Empty trump suit

I've cheated a bit here. With a 6-loser hand, East's 2nd bid should really be a jump to 3♠, after which West, with just 7 losers, will raise to 4♠. Still, no one in Box bid the game, which is just as well as it doesn't make! 

But the point of the hand is not the auction but the play. You've got an 8-card spade fit, but missing all the honours except for the ♠A it's pretty thin. Let's say South leads the ♣9, won by North's ♣K. Not wanting to set up dummy's clubs, North now switches to a heart, won by dummy's J. What now? Do you attack trumps or not? 

Yes. You must. You have winners in all the side suits and you don't want them ruffed. If you fail to take out their trumps they may make each one separately on a cross-ruff – a nightmare. Cross your fingers and hope the spades are 3-2 and lead ♠A and then a small one. Excellent – they were 3-2 (as they will be around 68% of the time). When you come in again, don't bother to knock out their remaining trump – it's a winner anyway. Instead, force out their A and you'll have made 9 tricks, losing just one club, one diamond and two trump tricks.

'But what if the trumps are 4-1?' Well, what if they are? You're going to lose 3 spade tricks now instead of 2, and effectively you'll be playing in NT, but that's fine too: you have a spade trick, a club trick, two diamonds and four hearts: that's still 8 tricks.

Moral: Don't be put off clearing trumps just because you have an 'empty' trump holding. It's fun watching all their high honours crashing on the second round! Fail to lead trumps and you risk a defensive cross-ruff which will cost you dear.

​​In Box & Bath

Everyone in Box was in spades but no one made the 9 available tricks, which suggests that declarers were wary of clearing trumps. Two made 8 tricks, two made just 7 and one made 6. Yikes!

In Bath, most EW pairs were in spades, including four who bid on to the unmakeable game. But seven of the nine pairs made their 9 tricks, while the remaining two made 8. 

  HOTW 06 Dec 2017 | What's in a lead?

What's in a lead?

Spades are trumps. How many tricks do you expect to make on this hand if West's opening lead is (a) a diamond? (b) anything else?

(a) Probably 10. You're going to lose tricks to the A and K and your Queen will probably either be 'caught' or ruffed. After that you make the lot.

(b) Certainly 12. What are your 12 tricks and how do you play it? (A good question, because at Box a heart was led and both declarers still only made 11 tricks.)

Say the lead is a heart. You've got 7 spade tricks, 2 heart tricks, 2 club tricks and ... what else? Yep, you've got it – a club ruff in dummy.

So how does it go? The non-diamond lead is a godsend, as it enables you to discard two of those nasty diamond losers in your hand on dummy's AK. That's the first two tricks, then. Now to attack trumps ... and East shows out. West started with THREE trumps, then. And here's where I suspect the Box players went wrong. If you carry on clearing trumps – 3 rounds needed – you won't have a trump left in dummy to ruff your 3rd little club. So stop clearing trumps, cash your ♣AK, ruff your ♣2 with the ♠A ... Why with the Ace? Because then you can get back to your hand with a trump to finish off clearing trumps. And at the very end you have to give the defence their diamond trick, leaving them to wonder why they didn't lead a diamond in the first place and keep you to 10 tricks.

So a really annoying hand: 6♠ goes screaming off on a diamond lead – but it's hard for West to lead a small diamond from Kxx, and any other lead gives you the slam cold. Missing the AK it's a dreadful slam to be in anyway, so gratefully accept your two overtricks and move on ...

​​In Box & Bath

In Box, both pairs stopped in 4♠ and got a favourable lead but declarers failed to find the 12th trick.

In Bath, most stopped in 4♠, one pair ventured 5♠ and just two punted the hopelessly optimistic slam. The ♣6 was the most popular lead, and a couple of Wests led a trump, and at all of those tables bar one declarer made his/her 12 tricks. Just two Wests led the 2, and as predicted took the first three tricks. (East wins with her A, leads back her J, which catches declarer's Q and the defence win the 3rd diamond trick with East's 10. And the slams? One made, one went 2 off. There's no justice.


  HOTW 22 Nov 2017 | Avoiding 2 losers

Avoiding 2 losers

Sitting East with a balanced 10-count, you probably didn't expect to end up as declarer in 6 ... but there you are. South leads the ♠8, your partner puts down a spectacular 21-point dummy and it's up to you to make 12 tricks. What's the plan? [Hint: take a look at the auction before you decide.]

Well, it's pretty obvious that North has the ♠K, isn't it? So if you finesse your ♠Q you could be one off before you start – and if the ♠8 is a singleton or doubleton, it could be two off!

Trouble is, if you go up with your ♠A (as you must) you're then in trouble if you happen to lose a trick to the Queen of trumps, as they can now cash their ♠K. So since you can't guarantee not losing a trump trick, the question becomes: how can I avoid losing a spade trick?

And the answer to that is dead simple. Isn't it? Of course it is. Simply go over to your hand with the K and lead your ♣AK, throwing your ♠Q3, and you're out of spades in dummy. Then you can clear trumps (losing a trick to the Q but nonetheless making your contract.)

Two points:

  • Don't worry that North might ruff one of your club tricks. South's opened a pre-emptive 3♣ , sure, but that only shows 7 clubs – or maybe 8 with a very weak hand. So North's going to have at least 2 clubs, which is enough for your purposes.
  • 'But hang on a minute – can't I do better than that? If I clear trumps, I can discard the single remaining spade in my hand on dummy's 5th diamond, possibly making 13 tricks!' Um, yes, but the trouble with that is that you might lose the lead while clearing trumps ... Sure, as you can see if you look at the full deal, the grand is on: start with your A (noticing South's 10 dropping), then lead your J and finesse. The finesse works and you can clear trumps – et voila! Trouble is, if South does have the Q and a second spade to lead, you're off. It's unsafe, whereas dumping spades on your ♣AK is rock solid.

Not especially difficult, but it's one of those hands that requires a little thought before you go into automatic trump-clearing mode – and where you can go off at trick one if you're not paying attention to the auction. 

​​In Box & Bath

Two of the 7 tables at Box reached the slam, one making and one going 2 off (presumably a losing spade finesse before clearing trumps, then a ruff. Yikes!)

In Bath, most EW pairs were in a slam of some description, mostly 6, all making. They're a canny lot. The pair playing against Trevor and me brilliantly bid all the way to 7 but very fortunately for us didn't find the winning play. Phew!


  HOTW 25 Oct 2017 | Magic shape

Magic shape

'Not a lot of magic here,' you might think, sorting your 2-point hand at the start of this deal. 

But take a look at the auction so far. Your partner has overcalled South's opening 1♣ with 3♣ – a conventional bid called Ghestem which shows not clubs but at least 5 cards in each major. North raises her partner to 4♣ and ... before you reach automatically for the PASS card, stop a moment. There's a well-known mantra for competitive auctions which urges the weaker pair to 'bid to the level of your fit': that is, bid to make as many tricks as you have trumps between you. Here your partner has at least 5 spades, and you have 5 too. That makes 10. Bid 4♠. Crazy? Could be. But you're void in their suit, you also have a heart fit with partner, and stranger things have happened ...

What will happen now? Well, they might go on to 5♣ – which may or may not make. Or they may double you for penalties – which may or may not get you a good score, depending on how expensive it turns out to be. Let's say they double you. South leads a small club, dummy goes down and ...

The play

Take a look at the full deal. How does it go?

  • You ruff in your hand and lead a trump to the Ace, dropping the ♠K and ♠J. 
  • Don't waste two of your trumps on the ♠Q. Come back to your hand by ruffing another club and
  • lead a small heart to dummy's J – it wins! Hey, let's try that again ...
  • back to you hand by ruffing dummy's last club and lead another heart towards dummy. South might take her A this time and now dummy's hearts are all good.
  • It only remains for you to bang out all your remaining hearts and the rest of the tricks – excepting North's ♠Q, which she'll take at some time – are yours.

11 tricks. Not bad for a measly 12 points between the two hands. Oh – and doubled, too. 

So. A good example of the magic of shape: lots of trumps between you, a second fit in a side suit, plus voids in the other two suits. Who needs points?

​​In Box & Bath

In Box, NS won all the auctions, ending up in 4♣ or 5♣. South can actually make 5♣ but the play's tricky.

In Bath, most NS pairs ended up in clubs (one was allowed to get away with 3NT with overtricks) but 4 EW pairs were in 4♠ or 5♠, usually doubled, and only one making 11 tricks. Sadly, I had doubled my opponents' 4♠, which made, getting them a great score – but at least they had the grace to make just 10 tricks.



... on GHESTEM on the Using Conventions improvers' page (HOTW 26 August 2016) and

... on BIDDING TO THE LEVEL OF YOUR FIT on the Competing & Sacrificing improvers' page (HOTW 23 March 2016)

  HOTW 16 Aug 2017 | Golden rule of suit play

Golden rule of suit play

You're South playing in 4♠. Your partner's X is the much-forgotten negative double, showing enough points to respond and at least 4 of the other major – that is, hearts – and with a rather lovely distributional hand, you bid your second suit to give partner a choice. And spades it is.

West leads not a diamond but the K (what does that tell you?) and it's time to plan your play. Which brings us to our golden rule for suit play, one which all suit-play declarers should consult at trick 1 without fail:

Unless there's a good reason not to, draw the opponents' trumps at the first opportunity.

So here's the question: after winning with your A, what do you play at trick 2?

Well, even if you lose a heart and two trump tricks, you're always going to make your contract, but this is pairs, and it's your job not just to make your contract but to take as many tricks as you can. With that in mind, what's going to happen if you now set about clearing trumps? Correct: they're going to win with their ♠A and West will take the next trick with her Q. Is there anything you can do about that? Sure there is – lead your A at trick two and discard your losing heart. Now they don't make a heart trick.

And now, at trick 3, you can start to draw their trumps. How do you do that, incidentally, missing the ♠A and the ♠J? It might be tempting to run the ♠10 (taking the 'deep finesse') but that's a bad move. Why? Well, 50% of the time the ♠J will be with West, so 50% of the time taking the deep finesse will cost you TWO spade tricks. It costs nothing to go up with your ♠K and see what happens. If neither honour appears, you can always get back to dummy with your ♣Q and try the finesse on the 2nd round. As you'll see if you look at the whole deal, in this case West's singleton ♠J drops on the first round, which solves the problem. Playing your ♠K has saved you from the embarrassment of losing a trick to a singleton Jack!

A couple of points

  • On this hand, there was a good reason to delay clearing trumps. But once you've achieved your aim, get straight back to clearing those trumps. Immediately.
  • What does West's lead tell you? Two things. One, she doesn't have solid diamond honours or she'd surely have led top of a sequence in their agreed suit (in fact, her ropy diamond suit ain't good enough for a 2-level overcall at all, in my book). And two, she does have the Q. 
  • East should raise her partner to 4, not 3 – 'bid to the level of your fit' – which makes it more difficult for NS to find their contract. 5♦X is actually a good sacrifice, going just 2 off for -300. That said, NS will probably continue to 5♠ and still make an overtrick.
  • You just made 12 tricks on a combined 23 points. Very difficult to bid the slam – most players won't – but it's still declarer's job to take the maximum number of tricks possible.

In Box & Bath

In Box, everyone was in the spade game, and three made 12 tricks (on a diamond lead, which makes it easier, but still well done!). The other two (K led) made just 10 tricks, which means they must have gone straight for clearing trumps at trick 2 and lost to that singleton ♠J. frown

In Bath, one pair bid and made 6♠ (hats off to them!), while all the others were in game. Most Wests led the K, with the result that 3 pairs made just 11 tricks, the others all making 12.

  HOTW 02 Aug 2017 | Bad split

Bad split

Ignore the auction for the moment. You're sitting South in 5 and West begins by cashing AK and then leads a 3rd heart, which you ruff in dummy. You need to make the rest of the tricks. What's the plan?

Let's count. You have 5 trump tricks (including the ruff you've just made) and a certain club trick. And if you're lucky and the spades split 3-3 you will have 5 spade tricks too. Simple, then: clear trumps and then bang out the spades. Except the spades probably won't split 3-3, which happens just 36% of the time. 4-2 is much more likely (48%) and sometimes they'll be as nasty as 5-1 or even 6-0.

In that case you're going to have to do some ruffing in the South hand: if they're 4-2, someone will have a spade left after you've cashed your ♠AKQ, so you'll have to ruff once in hand to set up your last spade. And if they're 5-1 or worse, you'll have to ruff twice - which could be nasty if the trumps also split badly.

So let's see what happens. You draw two rounds of trumps and the trumps turn out to be 2-2. Phew! Now to test the spades. First the ♠K from your hand (get rid of the high cards from the short holding first!) and then a small spade to dummy ... and West shows out! The spades are 5-1. No matter - luckily you still have two trumps left in your hand, so can survive. Can you see how it goes? It's pretty straightforward, actually.

OK. Cash your ♠AQ (discarding a club) and ruff a spade in dummy. Now to get back to dummy to do it again. How? Cash the ♣A and ruff a club. Now lead your last spade and ruff it with your last trump - and dummy's trumps take the rest. 11 tricks. Summary: you made 5 diamond tricks in dummy, three spade tricks, two spade ruffs (in your hand) and the Ace of clubs.

Point to remember: each ruff in the shorter trump hand is worth an extra trick, and here you were able to create two extra tricks by ruffing two losing spades in your hand.

The auction

West is right to open 1♣ rather than 3♣, which would show a weak hand with 5-9 points.

The 2♣ cue bid is a convention called Ghestem - see Improvers' pages / Using conventions / 3rd article down for details. In this sequence, it shows a hand with at least 5 spades and 5 diamonds.

After East passes, South shows a preference for diamonds - with only 9 points, she doesn't bother to jump.

West grabs the opportunity to bid her clubs again, showing a long suit, and North, who has a strong hand, now invites her partner to game by jumping to 4.

And South, whose hand now looks very useful indeed, with 4 trumps, the King of partner's other suit and the Ace of the opponents' bid suit, raises to game: 5.

In Box & Bath

In Box, two pairs got to 3 and the other two reached 5, making 10, 11 or 12 (!) tricks.

In Bath, just three pairs out of 13 got to 5, and they all made 11 tricks.

  HOTW 26 Jul 2017 | Set 'em up

Set 'em up

Most Souths will be too dazzled by their spades to find the club slam on this hand - see the note at the end - but let's look at the play. Sitting South, how do you plan the play? West leads the 10, won by East's A and East now returns a heart, which you ruff in hand.

It's tempting to cash your two diamond tricks and go for a cross-ruff for the rest, but the most likely successful line is to 'set up' your spades - that is, keep ruffing spades in dummy until the ♠K drops, and then you can cash lots of lovely spade tricks and make your slam. Let's say the trumps split 2-1. Make your plan, then read on ...

The first thing is that you'll need to clear the opponents' trumps, as you don't want them overruffing. And the next thing is to make sure you have enough entries to your hand to keep getting back there to lead spades. Well, you have the ♠A itself, the K and one remaining trump which you can use to cash a heart. So even if it takes a while to drop the ♠K things should work out. This is how it goes:

  • Cash your ♣AK - that's all the enemy trumps gone.
  • Now cash your ♠A and lead a little spade, ruffing in dummy. The ♠K doesn't drop.
  • No matter. Back to your hand with, say, the K and lead another little spade, ruffing in dummy. This time the ♠K does drop.
  • End of story. Go back to your hand by ruffing a heart and cash the spades from the top, throwing away red cards from dummy.

As you'll see if you take a look at the whole deal.

The auction

I think the South hand is strong enough for the all-purpose Acol strong opening bid: 2♣. North's 8 points now look slamworthy and she could make a positive response of 3♣ straight away, but I think I'd prefer the 2 'tell me more' response - if partner now bids 2NT, showing a balanced 23-24 points, you might be looking at 6NT. Instead partner will show her spades: 2♠. 'I've got a game-going hand with spades as trumps, partner.'

OK. Time for North to give some information herself: 3♣ - 'I have values and a club suit and I don't like your spades much'

Much though she loves her spade suit, South must surely wonder about a club slam: even if North's clubs are as paltry as Qxxxx, which is unlikely - why would she bother to bid them at all if they're that poor? - 6♣ looks a good bet. At the risk of missing a grand slam, should that happen to be on, I think I might just punt 6♣, as in the auction shown. 

In Box & Bath

In Box, I pushed for 6♣ and two pairs obliged, one going one off (didn't clear trumps!) and the other making an overtrick (not a diamond opening lead). The others ended up in 4♠, mostly making 11 tricks. 

Nearly everyone in Bath ended up in spades (4, 5 or 6), mostly making 11 tricks. Just one pair found 6♣, which earned them a top. 

Why, you may ask, does 6♣ make and 6♠ go off? Because in addition to the A, with spades as trumps you can't avoid losing a trick to the ♠K. With clubs as trumps, however, you can simply ruff it. Marvellous!

  HOTW 05 Jul 2017 | West leads a 2 ...

West leads a 2 ...

Weird auction, but let's leave that till later. Here you are, sitting South and declarer in 5, and West leads the ♣2.

This is the time for all good declarers to do a bit of thinking - about the opening lead, among other things. What do you make of it? 

  • Well, for a start West hasn't got the ♣A; she'd have led it if she had. ('Don't lead away from an Ace against a suit contract.')
  • Leading the LOWEST card of a suit usually means that you have an HONOUR - in this case the ♣J (because you can see all the other club honours). So West either holds the ♣J ...
  • ... or the ♣2 is a singleton.

So what to do? If the ♣2 is a singleton, you must play HIGH from dummy. Then they can take their ruff at trick 2, but then you'll be able to get the lead, clear trumps and win a trick later on with your remaining high club in dummy.

But what if West has the ♣J? It's tempting to play LOW from dummy, isn't it? Then East has to win with her ♣A and you'll have two club tricks ... except ... erm ... can you see the flaw?

Well, if West has the ♣J, you can catch it anyway (after clearing trumps) by finessing with your ♣109. But if the ♣2 is a singleton and you play low, East (holding ♣ AJxx) will win trick 1 with the ♣J, then cash the ♣A and then lead a third club for West to ruff - and you'll be one off before you take a trick! Yuk.

So to be safe you have to play HIGH from dummy at trick 1. As it happens, the ♣2 is a singleton (have a look at the full deal), so it only remains to catch the Q and discard two spade losers on your AK and you're home.

So, start with a couple of 'What if...'s and all will be well. (The fact that East has 4 clubs to West's singleton, by the way, can help you get the trumps right: if West is short in clubs, she's more likely to be long in diamonds - because she has more 'spaces' available for diamonds than East has - so it's better to finesse for the Q with West than to 'play for the drop'. In this case, however, you win either way, as West's ruff has reduced her trump holding to Qx, so the Queen drops anyway.)

What about the auction?

After South's 1 opening, North - holding 5 diamonds, a heart void and just 5 losers - will wonder if a diamond slam is on, so responds with a splinter - the 3 is a DOUBLE JUMP shift showing good diamond support and a SINGLETON or VOID in hearts, plus an interest in a slam.

South, however, with a balanced 4-3-3-3 hand and (at least) two heart stops, likes the look of 3NT.

But North still fancies the slam, so bids 4, which South raises to game. A better 2nd bid from North would be 4♣, meaning 'I still fancy the diamond slam, partner, and I have control(s) in clubs. In which case, South (with her otherwise dismal ♣1098) will probably punt the slam, which sadly goes off. Well worth a try, though, I reckon. 

In Box & Bath

In Box, one pair stopped in 3♣ (not great - a part-score with 26 combined points!) while the other two pairs bid 5, one making.

In Bath, no fewer than 6 out of 13 pairs ended up in 6 - plus one pair in 6♣ and another in 6NT - all going off, of course. The pairs that did best were the ones who decided to stop in 3NT, which made 9, 10 or 11 tricks. 

  HOTW 17 May 2017 | The right order

The right order

What a difference an opening lead can make. You can always make 10 tricks here, but you'd much rather make 11. With a helpful lead, you can achieve that in your sleep, but otherwise you'll have to make your own luck.

You're always going to lose tricks to the A and A, and you've got a losing club, too – or have you? Once you've got rid of the A, you'll have a top diamond in dummy and a diamond void in hand, so you'll be able to throw away your losing club on dummy's top diamond. And that should be your focus.

But back to the opening lead. If they lead a diamond, you're home and dry. You've now set up your diamond trick in dummy and whatever they lead now, they can't stop you discarding your losing club: 11 tricks.

But what if the lead is the ♠2? Can you see the danger? Can you see how to guarantee 11 tricks?

Right. First the danger. You lead a trump and they come in with the A. They then lead a CLUB, knocking out your ♣A. You clear the last trump, then set about the diamonds (knocking out the A so that you can discard your losing club on the Q, remember). Oops – you're too late, because when they come in with their A, they cash their King of clubs, leaving you with just 10 tricks.

How to do better? Simple. Just attack the diamonds BEFORE you clear trumps. At trick 2. Then you've set up your club discard BEFORE they can force out your ♣A. Can you see what happens?

  • trick 2. Lead the K. They win with their A.
  • trick 3. They realise that a club switch would be a good idea – but this time it's their turn to be too late. You take your ♣A and immediately ...
  • trick 4. ... lead your Q, discarding your last club from hand.
  • and now you get on with clearing trumps, losing just the A in the process and ending up with 11 tricks.

So it's a bit like the sketch with Eric Morecambe and André Previn: you're both playing the same notes, but Eric's playing them in the wrong order. The right order is diamonds first, then the club discard, then trumps.

In Box & Bath

In Box, everybody in 4 got a diamond lead, so everybody made 11 tricks.

In Bath, it was largely the same, but the three declarers who got a spade lead were obviously in Previn mode, as they all made 11 tricks too.

A note on the auction

In Bath, a lot of EW pairs were in 5 and one went off in 6. Why was that, then? Well, with 8 hearts East is entitled to open 4 instead of 3. Vulnerable with just 4 points I didn't fancy it myself, so I opened three and Trevor simply raised me to four. But if I were sitting West and partner opened 4 I'd find it hard not to even look for a slam. And presumably that's what happened. West would have tried Blackwood, then stopped in 5 when no key cards were forthcoming. But if you're in 5 rather than 4, you have an even greater incentive to go for the 11 tricks rather than the 10!

  HOTW 26 Apr 2017 | Getting to dummy

Getting to dummy 

Never mind the auction. Sitting East, you're in 4 and South leads the 6. What are your thoughts?

Pretty positive, I would think. If the trump split is 3-2 you've got tricks all over the place. The only snag is that you don't have any clubs, so how are you going to get over to dummy to cash dummy's lovely ♣AKQ?

On a diamond lead, that isn't a problem, provided you DON'T clear trumps. Simply win the first trick, cash your other high diamond and then ruff the 10 in dummy with your 2. You can then throw your three spades on the ♣AKQ and if the trumps are 3-2 you've made 12 tricks. For that to work, of course, the diamonds must split no worse than 5-3 (an 80% chance). You've also got a better than 90% chance that the clubs will be no worse than 5-2. So go ahead. Grab the club tricks while you can and leave the clearing of trumps till later. As it happens (have a look at the full deal) the diamonds and clubs split as nicely as you could want, but the hearts are 4-1 so you end up with just 11 tricks.

On a trump lead, it's not so easy. You can no longer ruff a diamond, and your only chance of reaching dummy is going to be with a spade. In that case, it's best to take a 2nd round of trumps (discovering the bad break - ugh!) before attacking spades. I think I'd lead the ♠K from hand: if either defender wins with the Ace, you're home and dry. If not, it'll depend on who has the ♠J. Lead a small spade towards dummy's ♠Q10 and take a guess: in this case, the ♠10 is the winning choice, as South holds the Jack. Just home, with 10 tricks.

In Box & Bath

In Box, 5 out of 6 pairs were in 4, mostly making 10 tricks, though one went off (bad luck) and one made the overtrick (well done).

In Bath, one pair (strangely) stopped in 3 while two others tried for 6, but otherwise most were in 4. None got a trump lead, but even so only 3 pairs made 11 tricks.

Just one pair in each event settled on the makeable-but-not-quite-so-good 3NT contract - making in Box but going 3 off in Bath!

  HOTW 18 Jan 2017 | 100% sure

100% sure

Do you ever do daft things when you're up against really good players? I'm afraid I do. On this board, undaunted by the quality of our opposition, my partner (Trevor) swept me into a little slam in diamonds. East led the ♣J and all I needed to do for a great score is keep my head and play logically ...

OK. How do you make 12 sure tricks? You have one in clubs and six in diamonds. Plus the ♠AK and AK. And your 12th trick is ... what?

Dead easy, isn't it? Win the first trick and clear trumps. Then you simply finesse a heart (in either direction). If it wins, fine. And if it loses, fine: you now have the top three hearts (either AKJ or AK10, depending on which direction you finessed) and that gives you your 12th trick – you can discard your losing spade on your last heart.

So what did I do instead? I panicked and rejected the heart finesse as 'dangerous'. The only possibility I could see was to hope that the opposition's spades broke 3-3. Then my fourth spade would be my 12th trick. So after clearing trumps, I ignored the hearts and gave up a spade trick ... and luckily for me, the spades did break 3-3 and I made my 12 tricks. Much to the amusement of my opponents.

Why were they amused? Because I rejected a 100% certainty of making 12 tricks via the heart finesse (and a 50% chance of making all 13) in favour of a paltry 36% chance that the spades would break 3-3. And I'm willing to bet that playing against less daunting opposition I'd have made the correct play in my sleep. 

A note on the auction

When I persisted with my 2 bid over West's 2♣ overcall, Trevor reasoned that I must have a diamond suit worth talking about, and holding Kxx himself and a hefty 18-count decided to explore the possibility of a diamond slam. His 4♣ cue-bid of the opponents' suit showed 1st round control – lovely, given my singleton club! I responded 4 to show where my other points were (and just in case Trevor held five hearts, in which case the major suit would be a better place to be) and that was enough for him to punt the diamond slam. It only remained for me to retain my composure and play it properly ...

In Box & Bath

In Box, nearly everyone was in the very reasonable 3NT. If you just bang out all your winners (as maybe I should have done in Bath!) the Q drops and you make all 13 tricks.

In Bath, nine out of the 12 pairs also reached 3NT, making either 12 or 13 tricks. Luckily for me, Trevor was the only South in the room that found the diamond slam and (also luckily for me) those spades just happened to break 3-3 and we scored 100%. There's no justice!

  HOTW 07 Dec 2016 | The 10th trick

The 10th trick

Nothing too taxing about this interesting little deal, BUT for NS to reap their due rewards they must first get to the right contract – and then make it.

First, the auction. Sitting South, what do you bid after North's 2 bid? You need to choose a denomination and a level. Let's do it as multiple choice:

(a) Pass    (b) 3    (c) 2    (d) 3 

Well, if North's got 5 hearts, the denomination is a no-brainer: you have a heart fit and hearts are a major. (As always (!), you'll do a quick check that she's not 4-4-4-1: if she was, she'd open 1 with a singleton club, but then she would have supported your spades. So she does have 5+ hearts.) Forget (a) and (b) then. 

You've found your fit. So how high should you go? You only have an 8-count, but (again, as always!) count your losers. Your singleton club means that you only have 8 losers, and you should therefore invite your partner to game with 3. And with a very pleasant 17-count, she'll accept your invitation and go to game.

The play

Time to switch seats: you're now declarer in 4 and East, mindful of the auction, leads a small club – her partner's suit. West wins and switches to a trump. How do you plan the play?

Well, assuming the hearts behave themselves, you can see 9 tricks: 5 in hearts and 4 in diamonds. Where's the 10th trick coming from? With luck, if East has the ♠Q, you can make your ♠K, but that's not going to work if West has ♠AQ – which is quite likely, as she's the one who overcalled.

Fortunately, there's a 100% certain alternative: simply ruff your remaining club in dummy. Then you can clear trumps, cash your diamonds (ending in your hand) and finally lead a low spade towards dummy's ♠KJ. As you can see if you click on 'See all hands' you're clean out of luck with spades as West does hold ♠AQ, so you just make your 10 tricks.

'So what's the problem?' you may be thinking. 'Obvious, innit?' Well, we all know that other things being equal we're supposed to clear trumps as soon as possible, and it would be only too easy to clear trumps first and only then stop to think. If you do that you're going off, because by the time you decide to ruff your club there won't be any trumps left in dummy! Other things are NOT equal here: you have to take your ruff BEFORE you clear trumps.

'100% certain?' you may now be thinking. 'What if East ruffs the 2nd round of clubs with the J, then?' Nah. In that case, West would have started with NINE clubs and the auction would surely have gone very differently.

In Box & Bath

In Box, the two declarers in hearts made only 9 tricks. They surely cleared trumps first and stopped to think afterwards! One brave EW pair sacrificed in 5♣X, but it was a level too far vulnerable, and they went 3 off for a horrid -800.

In Bath, plenty of people played in hearts – inexplicably not all were in game – but they ALL made their 10 tricks. One EW pair made the too-expensive 5♣sacrifice with the same horrid result. And as for the South that passed her partner's 2 ...frown


  HOTW 25 Nov 2016 | Honours even

Honours even

You're sitting West and you're in 4. How many tricks do you think you'll make? I make it 11. You're going to lose a spade and a diamond and that's it, right? Well, quite a few players (in Bath as well as Box) only made 10. How come?

Let's start again, at the beginning of play. North leads the 3, you play low, South plays the 8 and you have to put up the K to win the trick. [Supplementary question for later: What does South's play of the 8 tell you about the opponents' diamonds?]

So you have the lead in your hand. Any reason not to clear trumps immediately? No. Let's do it. How do you play the hearts? 

If you led your A or K you've paved the way for 11 tricks. But if you led low to the Q you've just given a trick away. Why? Click on 'Show all hands' and you'll see: North has Jxxx and South has no hearts at all.

'But that's just bad luck! I'd have been OK if it had been South with Jxxx!' Well, yes, it is a bit unlucky - the chances of a 4-0 break are only around 12% (that's 6% each way round) - but luck doesn't really come into it because with a smidgeon of care West can ensure that she doesn't lose a heart trick whichever player turns out to have Jxxx. Look at the suit:

A K 10 9 7  Hand       Dummy   Q 5 3 2

If the hearts are anything other than 4-0, you can just clear them by playing top hearts. And if they do happen to be 4-0 you can finesse on the second round, using your 109, in either direction - provided you still have a HIGH HONOUR in each hand. Which is why you have to lead the A or the K: if N or S is void, you'll find out at the first trick and can finesse whichever way is necessary. Like this:

Play the A. South shows out. Ah - North still has Jxx. So now lead your 10 and finesse. Or alternatively ...

... if it's North that shows out, simply play a low heart to the Q, then a low heart back, catching South's J. Get a pack of cards and play it out. Both ways.

So a new rule to take on board (it soon becomes automatic, honest): if you have two high honours in one hand and just one in the other, play one of the pair first: that way, you retain a high honour in each hand and can subsequently finesse in either direction.

In Box & Bath

In Box, only 1 declarer took 11 tricks, everyone else making just 10. In Bath, they did better: 4 pairs made 11 tricks, and 2 pairs made 10. Overall, 3 pairs went off in 6 (which is a pretty good punt - see below).

PS 1: The mystery of the diamonds

What does South's play of 8 tell you about the NS diamond holding? You can see all the diamonds up to the 8, but none of the QJ109. Where are they? Well, if North had them (or any 3 of them or even just QJ) she would have led top of a sequence. So South must have at least a couple of them. And as it's her job to play high (to force out a high card from declarer) how come she only played the 8? The answer must be that she holds them all and knows that the 8 is sufficient to force out declarer's King. North's 3, then, must be a singleton. 

PS 2: The mystery of the auction

Why didn't more pairs bid to the slam? The auction I constructed above uses a slam-seeking convention called Jacoby, which we won't go into now, except to say that West's 4 rebid is a cut-out showing a minimum hand. Me, if I'm sitting East holding that 18-point hand with 4 hearts, I'm going straight to Blackwood, and when my partner tells me she's got the AK, I'm certainly going to 6 and may even look for 7. It's just bad luck that you can't make 12 tricks. (If West's ♣2 were to become the ♠2 instead, for instance, the slam makes: West can discard a losing diamond on one of dummy's clubs, and now you're only losing one trick: a spade.)


  HOTW 26 Oct 2016 | How to avoid 2 losers?

How to avoid 2 losers?

Never mind the auction for the moment. You're sitting East and need to make 12 tricks with hearts as trumps and South leads a trump.

Hmm. Unfortunately, it looks as if you have two possible losers: the Q and a little spade. Before reading on, what are your thoughts?

Well, if someone has the Q doubleton, your troubles are over, as you can drop the Q at trick two, clear the last missing trump with dummy's J and now you will only have one loser: a spade. So let's try that. You win the first trick and lead your other heart. Everyone follows but the Q doesn't drop. Hmph. What now?

Well, you must now find a way of not losing a spade trick. And the only way of getting rid of dummy's losing ♠3 is to discard it on a diamond winner from your hand. So you're going to have to get lucky with the K. Interestingly, with the singleton diamond in dummy, you can play either opponent for the K: 

  • If you think North has it, you lead dummy's 10 and play low from your hand - and if it works, you can later throw dummy's ♠3 on your A. 
  • If you think South has it, you cash your A, then lead your Q: if South covers with the K, you ruff and later throw the ♠3 on your J; and if South doesn't cover, you take a deep breath, discard your ♠3 and hope the K doesn't appear from North. (This is known as a 'ruffing finesse' - there's an article about it in the Declarer play in a suit archive.)

Oh dear. How to choose? It's just a 50-50 guess, really. Fortunately, there's a better way – and one I failed to notice when I first wrote this article! Suppose I cash the A and then keep ruffing low diamonds. With luck, the K will eventually fall and my Q will be good. That'll work whenever the diamonds split 4-3 (which is 62% of the time) and also when the K is singleton or doubleton (a further 10%) giving you a better than 70% chance of success. How does it go?

Well, you need to keep enough entries in your hand to keep coming back to the diamonds, so start by only taking ONE trump trick. Then A and ruff a diamond. No King appears. Back to hand with a 2nd round of trumps (the Q doesn't drop, but never mind) and ruff a third diamond. Everyone follows but the king doesn't appear. Which means the K is now the opposition's only remaining diamond. Back to hand with a club and ruff South's K (hooray!). North overruffs with the Q but you don't mind that: she was always going to make her Q anyway.

And now, finally, when you get back the lead, it remains only to go to hand with another club and cash your Q, discarding dummy's little spade: 12 well-earned tricks.

The technical term for what you've just done is 'ruffing out a side-suit' – you kept ruffing until they had none left, leaving you with winners. And very useful it can be in a suit contract.

In Box & Bath

In Box, I encouraged anyone who called me over to try the heart slam (better than 6NT, which goes 1 off however you play it). But it's not easy to make and they all went one off. Ironically, the two pairs who didn't bid the slam made 12 tricks. It was ever thus ...

In Bath, half the pairs were in 6 and they all made 12 tricks. Clever them. One pair bid 6NT and made it. How? Because South made the dreadful lead of a small diamond away from his/her K and presented declarer with an extra trick at trick 1. Don't make dangerous leads away from strength against a slam!

The Auction

If you're interested in decoding the auction, which involves Roman Key Card Blackwood, click on Show Answer, below ...


Here's the auction in English:

East 2NT   A balanced 20-count.

West 3    Starting a transfer to hearts.

East 3    Completing the transfer as instructed

West 4NT   Roman Key Card Blackwood, with hearts as trumps.

East 5♣    You're playing 1430, so 5♣ shows either 1 or 4 key cards (in this case, obviously, 4: A, ♣A and AK) 

West 5    Bidding the next suit up asks partner whether she holds the Queen of trumps. West knows that they hold ALL the key cards, and if partner has the Q they might have a grand slam. 

East 6    Sorry partner. I don't have the Q. We'll have to make do with just the small slam.

  HOTW 21 Sep 2016 | 9 top tricks

9 top tricks

You're sitting North with a tasty 17-count and the auction proceeds as shown. Most Souths would simply bid 3NT over your 3♣ rebid, but your partner sniffed the possibility of a minor suit slam – and here you are in 6♣ wondering how to make 12 tricks on the lead of a small trump.

As all good declarers do, you count your tricks – if the trumps break kindly, you have just 9 top tricks: four in clubs, 3 in diamonds and one each in hearts and spades – and have to find three more tricks to make your contract. What's your plan?

The answer is that this hand is perfectly designed for a cross-ruff.  Once you've taken your two major-suit aces, you can ruff spades in dummy and hearts in your hand. Backwards and forwards till the cows come home (or until an opponent overruffs).

So how does it go? The golden rule of cross-ruffing is that you cash all your winners in the side-suits before you embark on the cross-ruff. So after winning the first trick in your hand, take the plunge and

  • cash your three top diamonds. Phew! everyone follows to the third round.
  • cash the  A and the ♠A and you're ready to start the cross-ruff.
  • ruff a spade in dummy, then ruff a heart in your hand, then ruff a spade in dummy, then ruff a heart in your hand, then ...
  • ... and so on.

As it happens, every time an opponent can ruff, you can overruff, so you're going to make all 13 tricks. Just a bit better than the 9 top tricks that are all you can make in 3NT.

The opening lead

When the opposition end up finding a fit in a suit that neither of them bid first, a trump is usually a good lead. Why? Because, as here, they're likely to be short in each other's longest suit and a cross-ruff may be possible. Leading a trump takes away TWO of their trumps, which might otherwise make two separate tricks if used in a cross-ruff. 

So East's trump lead here is a good one. She's hoping that she or her partner can get in again before the cross-ruff gets going, in which case they can lead another trump and stop declarer in his tracks. No luck on this occasion, but it will often pay off.

Notes on the auction

Not a wonderful auction, but it gets NS to a good place:

North's 1♠ is uncontroversial.

South's 2 shows a 5-card suit (the only sequence in Acol that guarantees a 5-card suit from responder) and at least 10 points.

North's 3♣ is a REVERSE: it takes the auction beyond 2♠ and shows a strong hand with at least 16 points. As South has shown 10+ points, this is forcing to game on both players.

South's 4♣ is a bit of a punt, taking the auction above the obvious contract of 3NT as it does, but it pays off here.

North uses Blackwood to discover that South has both missing aces (one would have been enough) and punts the small slam.

Yes, the grand slam is on, but getting to 6♣ with a combined 29 points ain't bad. Well done to the two Box pairs that bid and made 6♣. In Bath only ONE pair found the slam – everyone else in the room stopped in 3NT.

  HOTW 17 Aug 2016 | An impossible slam

An impossible slam

Never mind how you got there. You and your partner have bid your way to a magnificent 6♠ on a hand where you have a 10-card trump fit, all the Aces and all but one of the kings. Marvellous. You can see 11 top tricks, so all that remains is to find something to ruff in one hand or the other for your 12th trick ...

... and then it all falls apart. Your hand and the dummy are mirror images: each has 5 spades, 3 hearts, 3 diamonds and 2 clubs. You can't ruff anything, and it seems that you have TWO diamond losers. Shucks. That means that all those unadventurous ******s who stopped in 4♠ are going to get a top, while you will earn a bottom for bidding a perfectly decent slam. Unfair!

In situations like this, hopeless as it seems, there are two possible routes to success. One is to hope the defence will make a mistake (as they often will!) and the other is to think of particular holdings they might have that will allow you to make your contract. I can think of one, albeit very unlikely, off the top of my head: supposing East has the singleton K – it drops under your A, and then you lead a low diamond towards your J: West makes a trick with her Q, but your J then becomes your 12th trick. Unfortunately that's got less than a 1% chance of coming off.

That said, the answer isn't a million miles away from that. Consider this: you can't get a ruff yourself, but what if you could persuade an opponent to lead something that would give you a ruff? Supposing you had no hearts or clubs left and a defender were to lead a club or a heart? You could ruff in one hand and discard a losing diamond from the other: a useful technique for declarers that is unsurprisingly known as ruff and discard. But why would a defender be so stupid? Well, perhaps she doesn't have a choice. Watch:

You clear trumps – it takes just two rounds. You then play three rounds of hearts and two rounds of clubs. Now you can ruff either of those suits in either hand. Now you lead your A and both defenders play low. Now then. Just supposing (and here you have to cross your fingers) that one opponent started with Kx. A diamond doubleton headed by the King. When you lead another diamond she wins the trick ... and it's her lead. But what can she lead? She has no trumps, and she no longer has any diamonds. She has to lead a heart or a club. And at this point you gratefully discard a diamond from one hand while ruffing in the other. 12 tricks.

And as you can see if you click on 'Show all hands', poor old East does indeed have Kx. Lucky? You bet. But you sometimes have to make your own luck. In 1955 Victor Mollo and Nico Gardener wrote a wonderful book called Card Play Technique or The Art of Being Lucky. Says it all.


The above is an example of a quite advanced play called Elimination and Endplay: you eliminate your holdings in the suits you want to ruff, then endplay an opponent – that is, force him to take a trick and make a lead he doesn't want to make. Worked a treat here!

  HOTW 22 Jun 2016 | Think ahead!

Think ahead!

East wasn't in the mood for sophisticated bidding when her partner opened a weak 2♠. Figuring that West was unlikely to hold the club Ace, she decided that a small slam in hearts should have a reasonable chance and bid it direct..

Seeing partner's hand, however, she wished that she'd taken things a bit more slowly, as (assuming no nasty breaks) she could see 13 tricks: six each in hearts and diamonds plus the Ace of spades.

But just because it looks easy doesn't mean that you shouldn't plan the play – indeed, it's precisely when things look easy that danger lurks. So. How do you play to the first trick if South leads a spade? a club? a diamond? And how do you subsequently play the hand in each case? Think it out before you read on.

On a spade lead: Win with the Ace, discarding a club from your hand. Then lead dummy's singleton trump and clear trumps. Then cash your diamond winners. 13 tricks.

On a club lead: Ruff with dummy's sole heart. Then come back to your hand by ruffing a spade and clear trumps, before cashing your diamonds and the A. 13 tricks. Don't risk a diamond to your Ace at trick 2. The opposition only have three diamonds between them and they may be 3-0.

On a diamond lead: Win with the Ace (or the King, or the Queen) in your hand. Whatever you do you mustn't win the trick 'cheaply' with the 9 (or with dummy's  J, throwing the 9). If you do, you've just gone off. Why? Because that 9 is your only entry to dummy's long diamonds. Without it, you'll end up having to lead clubs and that'll be that. 

Did you spot the need to keep a diamond entry to dummy? It's easily missed. And actually, I've cheated a bit, because if you look at the full deal, you'll see that North is void in diamonds and is therefore going to RUFF an opening diamond lead. It's in situations like this that you really need to keep your cool. You've planned your play meticulously and BANG! you get the shock of your very first trick getting ruffed – and all that planning goes out of the window. You crossly play the 9 from your hand – and go off. Why? Same as before: you need to play the A, K or Q instead. You still need the 9 to reach dummy's diamonds later in the play. I know – it goes against the grain to 'waste' an Ace on a lost trick, but with this holding, it's not a trick lost: it's two tricks saved! It's called UNBLOCKING, and it happens all the time.Once you've unblocked, you win whatever North chooses to lead, clear trumps and you still have 12 tricks. Not as good as 13, certainly, but a lot better than going off.

In Box and Bath

In Box 4 out of 5 EW pairs played in 6 but more than half made 10 or fewer tricks. If you were one of them, it's well worth another look.

In Bath, all but two pairs were in a slam (two in diamonds rather than hearts) and all but one made it. None of them got a diamond lead, so no excuses for not making 13 tricks.

  HOTW 25 May 2016 | A marked finesse

A marked finesse

Usually finesses involve crossing your fingers but sometimes they're a dead certainty. As on this board.

You're sitting North. The auction's been short and sweet: East has overcalled in your second suit, partner's shown spades and West's passed. If East leads a diamond (as is quite likely) you can almost certainly see 8 tricks in your own hand, which makes 3NT a very attractive punt. True, you haven't got a heart stop but then no-one's bid hearts either, so maybe your partner can help. And if you get that diamond lead you may not need a heart stop anyway.

East duly leads the 7 and you can't quite believe your luck when dummy goes down – as well as the top two hearts, your partner also has the J! East must surely have the Q for his overcall, so you thank partner profusely and call for the J, which indeed holds trick 1. 

Now to plan the rest of the hand. You have a total of 9 clubs to the AKQ, so barring a 4-0 club split you'll take 6 club tricks. Add the AK and AK and the trick you've already taken and that makes 11 tricks. Couldn't be better.

So what to do first? It would be as well to check that the clubs are going to break OK. You lead a small club to the A ... and East shows out! The clubs are 4-0 after all.

Time for a slight rethink. Before reading on, decide how you're going to play the rest of the hand for those 11 tricks.

Decided? OK. You will have worked out that West still holds ♣Jxx, and that if you lead a small club from dummy you can catch that Jack and still get your 6 club tricks. This is, of course, the marked finesse of the title. But first you have to get the lead to dummy. How to do that? Simple – lead a small heart to the A.

So is that it, then? Over to dummy with a heart, then play on clubs, finessing to catch the Jack? Erm, not quite. You'll make your 6 club tricks, and then you'll cash your AK ... and then you'll look across at that lovely K in dummy and realise, too late, that you can never cash it. You started with a singleton heart and now you don't have a heart left to lead.

The answer is, of course, that when you go over to dummy with the A, you cash the K while you're there, before you take the marked finesse in clubs. That's the only way to make 11 tricks.

[Note: The diamond opening lead isn't a great choice. North has, after all, jumped to 3NT in spite of your diamond bid. Much better to lead a heart – the unbid suit. This makes life much more difficult for declarer, as you've taken away her only easy entry to dummy before she knows about the bad club split.]

In Box and Bath

Most pairs in Box were in 3NT, two making 11 tricks ... and two going off! One pair plumped for 5♣ instead, which goes one off. 

In Bath, less than half the pairs were in 3NT, the majority preferring to go off in clubs. The four declarers in 3NT made 9, 11, 11 and 12 (!) tricks.

  HOTW 4th Nov 2015 | Give yourself a break

Give yourself a break

Never mind the auction, or even the contract for the moment. Just check out the spade suit. How do you play it to try and make 5 tricks? It's

♠ A32  opposite  ♠ KQ1076

Most of the time, as you know, the suit will break 3-2, and in this case it's sufficient just to bang out the AKQ and Bingo! – the 76 are now good. But sometimes (actually, more than a quarter of the time) they'll split 4-1. Can you still make 5 tricks then? Well, it's all down to the Jack is, isn't it? If it's a singleton, it's dropping on the first round, so no problem. But if one player has Jxxx, it depends who: if South has it, there's nothing you can do. But if North has it, you can catch it by finessing the 10. So. Make a note to yourself. When it comes to playing the spades, you'll want to bang out the K (in case the Jack is singleton), then go over to the ♠A (by which time you'll know whether you have a friendly split or not). Then you'll be in a position to finesse North for the Jack if necessary.

Back to the hand. You're in 4 and (providing the spades work out OK) you're wishing you were in 6. Never mind. The next best thing is to make 12 tricks: 5 trump tricks, 5 spade tricks, the A and a club ruff. Always providing the spades work out ...

The defence begin with two rounds of clubs. You ruff the 2nd round in dummy and clear trumps in two rounds. So far so good. Now for the spades. You know what to do because you spent a bit of time earlier planning your strategy, didn't you?

  • Cash the K. Everyone follows. Note that South follows with the 9. That's good, because if she had 4 spades she'd surely have played a lower one.
  • Now a small spade over to the A. South shows out. Marvellous – so North will be left with Jx.
  • Now it only remains to play your remaining small spade from hand, catching North's Jx with your ♠Q10.

And that's that. Now you just cash your remaining spades and the A for 12 well-deserved tricks.

In Box and Bath

Not so good for us. All five tables in Box were in hearts, and none of them made more than 11 tricks. In Bath, people were in all sorts of contracts (including excellent sacrifices in 5X), but all four of the declarers in hearts made 12 tricks. The difference lies in playing the spades correctly.

If you're interested ...

... in looking at this in a little more detail, notice that there's nothing particular clever about this. You'd probably handle spades in the same way even if you knew they were 3-2, because after 3 rounds you're conveniently back in dummy with your remaining spade tricks. And you didn't actually have to decide who to play for ♠Jxxx – the cards decided it for you. You can only finesse North for the ♠J, so you just have to hope that North is the one with the long spades.

And finally, the arithmetic's worth a look. The spades will break 3-2 68% of the time, 4-1 28% of the time and 5-0 just 4% of the time. If they're 4-1, the Jack will be singleton 1 time in 5, so that's 20% of 28% = 5.6% of the time. Which leaves a bit over 11% each for ♠Jxxx being in the North or South hand.

So what? Well, if you just bang out your ♠AKQ, you'll succeed in making 12 tricks 73.6% of the time. But if you play the spades properly, that goes up to almost 85%. Over a lifetime's bridge, that's one hell of a lot of hands!

  HOTW 15 Jul 2015 | What club loser?

What club loser? 

It's not easy to reach 6 on this deal - you've stopped in 4 - but once you can see both hands, the word SLAM! is simply screaming at you. Never mind. You're obviously going to be beaten by any other NS pair that's bid the slam, but all is not lost: your job now is to make as many tricks as you can so as to beat / not be beaten by the other NS pairs who only bid to game, like you. In other words, you've got to make at least 12 tricks.

Let's say East leads a small club round to West's ♣Q and your ♣A. Now you can see 12 tricks, possibly 13. Can't you? On the face of it you have a possible diamond loser and a club loser. But hey - you actually don't have a club loser at all, do you? You have AK in your hand and a singleton spade in dummy, so what simpler than to play two rounds of spades, discarding dummy's losing club on the 2nd round?

But there's no hurry. Remembering the excellent principle that you should clear trumps IMMEDIATELY unless you have a good reason for not doing so, you play three rounds of hearts, the opponents' trumps falling conveniently, and NOW you make the key play in spades, discarding dummy's club loser.

Now all that remains is to try for 13 tricks by finessing the Q. Sadly it loses to West's K, but that's the only trick you lose. 12 tricks made, even if not bid.

In Box and Bath

Every NS pair in Box ended up in 4, but only 1 out of 7 made the 12 tricks. In Bath, OK - a couple of pairs bid the slam, though most didn't. But tellingly, all eight declarers made 12 tricks. Which suggests that it might be worth browsing amongst the Declarer play articles in the Improvers' Pages. There are plenty of them!

  HOTW 08 Jul 2015 | Make the rest!

Make the rest!

I suppose the auction might have gone something like the one shown. South overcalls 1♠ over East's opening 1♣, West makes a negative double (showing at least 4 of the other major, hearts), North raises partner to 2♠, East passes and with just 5 losers, South punts game: 4♠. 

Things start off badly. West leads the ♣6 - which looks unpleasantly like a doubleton in her partner's suit. As indeed it is: East cashes her ♣AK and leads a 3rd club for her partner to ruff. 3 tricks to the enemy, and you now have to make the rest. Can you?

OK. Count the tricks. Assuming no nasty trump breaks, you're going to make 5 trump tricks, the A and the AK - that's 8 ... leaving you with 2 little diamonds in your hand. The ONLY way you're going to get two tricks out of those is to ruff them BOTH in dummy. And for that to succeed, you'll need a little luck ...

Having ruffed the club, West is on lead, and sensing that you might be wanting to ruff diamonds, leads a trump. You win with dummy's ♠A (otherwise you'll later have to use your ♠A for ruffing, which may cost a trick) and East follows, but the ♠J doesn't appear.

What now? You DON'T clear trumps, of course, because you need BOTH of dummy's remaining trumps for ruffing. So fingers crossed: cash your AK and ruff a diamond with dummy's ♠6.

Phew! Everybody follows. So now you need to get back to your hand to ruff your last diamond. How? Easy: cash your A and ruff a heart. 

And this is where you need your bit of luck. One opponent is now OUT OF DIAMONDS, and you have to hope that whoever it is doesn't hold the ♠J . You lead your last diamond ... and West discards a heart. Bingo! She can't have the ♠J because she would have ruffed. You ruff with your ♠10 and poor old East (who, of course, has the ♠J) has to follow with her 4th diamond. 

And now all you have to do is lead a heart from dummy, ruffing with your ♠9 and you're left with two winners: the KQ of trumps. 10 tricks bid and made.

  HOTW 15 Apr 2015 | No finesses!

No finesses!

You're East, declaring in 4♠, and South leads the K. Looks good ... or does it? You're actually in danger of losing FOUR tricks: the A, the ♠K, the ♣K and a small club.

What you'd like to do, of course, is take a couple of finesses. Then if either of the black kings is with North, you're home and dry. Trouble is, you can't get to the dummy to take the finesses! So what to do? Assuming neither of the black kings is singleton (which is sadly the case), which of the four losers can you avoid?

The answer is (with luck) the small club. Provided both opponents have at least 3 clubs, you can ruff it in dummy. Win the first trick, cash the ♣A, then lead the ♣Q and let them win the trick. Then when you get the lead back, lead your little club and ruff it in the dummy – and if NS both follow suit you're home and dry. All that remains is to bang out a couple of rounds of trumps, giving them their ♠K, and the rest of the tricks are yours.

Note that you mustn't touch trumps before setting up the clubs: if you cash your ♠A and then start on the clubs, NS will twig what's going on and lead a 2nd trump – now you'll have no trump left in dummy to ruff the club, and you'll be one off.

A note on the auction

​With 9 playing tricks, East has a pretty good candidate for a 2 opening. West replies 2 ('Tell me more, partner') and East's 2♠ shows a strong hand almost worth game in spades. West doesn't have much, so must decide between 2NT (a second negative showing virtually nothing) and 4♠ – and with 2 trumps and an outside King, 4♠ seems preferable.

In this situation, 4♠ is very much a 'shut out' bid: OK, partner, you wanna be in game? Here you go, then. But for heaven's sake don't go any further! It's called the Principle of Fast Arrival. A bid of 3♠ would show a much stronger hand and slam interest, and invites an exchange of cue-bids at the 4-level – definitely not appropriate for West's bunch of tram-tickets.

  HOTW 04 Mar 2015 | Better in the major

Better in the major

At first glance, this balanced 27-pointer looks like an ideal 3NT combination: 4 tricks in clubs and 2 in each of the other suits (once you've knocked out the  AK). In practice, you're likely to be restricted to 9 tricks, as the opposition can attack either spades or diamonds and take a couple of tricks in either, in addition to their 2 heart tricks. If you're unlucky and they can reel off THREE spade/diamond tricks, you could even go off.

As usual, it's better to be in a major fit if you have one – not only can you stop them reeling off winners in diamonds or spades, but there's also an extra trick up for grabs: you can ruff either a diamond (in dummy) or a spade (in your hand) for the 10th trick.

'But my hearts are awful!' some will complain – and will complain still more when they find that West hold AK108. It actually doesn't matter much if you play it sensibly ... so how to you plan the play on the lead of, say, ♣10?

The play

The best way to play the trumps is, of course, to lead low from your hand TOWARDS the high cards in dummy. Any reason not to attack trumps immediately? No – always bearing in mind that we want to take a diamond or spade ruff at some point. 

  • So win in your hand and lead a low heart. West goes up with the King and leads another club.
  • Same again – win in your hand and lead another heart. West plays low, you go up with the J ... and East shows out. Yuk!
  • Hmm. This changes things. Time to get that ruff out of the way before West clears trumps for you! The thing is, you need to keep your Qx in dummy to stop West scoring two more trump tricks, so abandon the idea of the diamond ruff and ruff a spade in your hand instead. How does it go?
  • A small spade to your Ace, another spade out to dummy's King, then lead your last spade from dummy and ruff. West follows suit – phew!
  • Now that's out of the way, you lead your last trump towards dummy and West can take his K now or later. 

Gosh - that looks more like 11 tricks than 10 – you'd better count them up for yourselves. In any event, 10 or 11 is better than 9 (or 8!) tricks in No Trumps.

Three things to take from this hand

  1. In general, prefer the major fit to NT
  2. Don't be discouraged from clearing trumps just because you have a poor holding
  3. Make sure you do any ruffing before you use up all your trumps.

In Box and Bath

Most people were in it, but quite a few went off in both venues. Should have tested the hearts before starting on the ruffs ... At least no-one in Box got into the horrendous 6NT, as two pairs did in Bath (going 2 and 4 off respectively).

  HOTW 07 Jan 2015 | Look before you leap

Look before you leap

Today's hand is mainly about declarer play, but we can glean a couple of useful basics from the auction too.

The auction

South has a 'rule of 20' 1♠ opening, and West's 2 overcall takes away North's intended  2♣ response. Hmph. It does, however, provide a perfect opportunity an even better bid: a negative double (the bid that everyone forgets!). This simply says 'I have enough points to respond – anything from 6 upwards – and I have at least 4 of the other major, hearts.'

East passes, and South can now bid 2, agreeing hearts as the trump suit. She doesn't jump, because she's a minimum opening with minimum points and 7 losers.

And the rest is easy. Holding opening points herself, North is strong enough to raise her partner to game in hearts. Everyone passes, West leads the K and North's hand goes down as dummy ...

The play

Now then. Nearly everyone in Box and Bath found 4 one way or another, but only one Box pair made it and even in Bath two pairs went off. Yet the contract is easily makeable.

I agree that things don't look great at first sight. Once your A is knocked out, you have two diamond losers and two missing Aces. That adds up to four losers – one too many. And if you simply shrug your shoulders, give up and mechanically start to clear trumps, you're going off: the opposition will grab their A, cash two further diamond tricks and, either immediately or later, will cash their ♣A for one off.

And yet it's so easy to make the contract. Stop, check out the two hands, plan the play ... and you have your 10 tricks. When you've decided what to do, click for the answer.


Embarrassingly easy, wasn't it? All you have to do, immediately after winning the first trick with your A, is cash your ♠AK, discarding one of dummy's losing diamonds on the 2nd round of spades. Now you only have 3 losers – one heart, and one club and only one diamond - because now you can ruff the third round of diamonds in dummy.

This is one of those cases where you have to do a little housekeeping before you clear trumps. Once they get the lead back, you're down, so you must get rid of that 4th loser before you do anything that lets them in.

Just a question of looking before you leap.

  HOTW 15 Oct 2014 | Extra tricks

Extra tricks

You're East, declarer in 4, and South leads the K. How are you going to play the hand? How many tricks do you think you'll make? What does that depend on? Have a ponder before reading on.

The word that should be at the front of your mind is 'finesse'. There are all sorts of things you don't know about the hand, but the most important one is the location of the trump King. If South has the K, it's going to make them a trick; but if North has it, it's not.

You're always going to make your contract, mind. Count it up: you have 4 trump tricks (assuming losing one to the K), one diamond trick, two club tricks (once you've knocked out the ♣A) and (at least) 3 spade tricks. That's 10. But this is pairs: it's not about 'making your contract' – it's about making as many tricks as you can. So it's important to go for the extra trick.

So what's the plan? Dead simple.

  • You win the first trick and, having no reason not to draw trumps, that's what you do. But you want to try the trump finesse, and for that the lead has to be in dummy. How are you going to manage that?
  • Easy. Lead a small spade to dummy's ♠K. And now you're in the right place to lead a trump. But which one?
  • Well, if the finesse fails, it doesn't matter. But what if it works? Then you'll want to do it again. So you have to lead the Queen, playing low from hand. Because after the finesse succeeds (which it does) you want the lead still to be in dummy. So at trick 4 ...
  • ... lead another heart (a low one will do this time), winning the trick with the 9 or 10. And when that wins (South showing out) ...
  • ... bang out your A and have the satisfaction of watching North's K crash under it.

The rest of it's plain sailing. It remains only to force out the A (after which they'll take a diamond trick), but you have all the rest: 11 tricks. Lovely.

In Box and Bath

The problem is, all six pairs in Box got into the right contract, but only one made 11 tricks. What went wrong? I can only think that they didn't take the trump finesse. Or maybe they did but led a small heart instead of the Q and found themselves in the wrong hand and so banged out the A anyway, hoping the K would drop ... and it didn't. If you're one of those declarers, it's worth physically dealing out the hand and going through the play again.

In Bath, again pretty well everyone was in 4, but only two pairs failed to make 11 tricks – and one even made 12. Talking of which ...


Suppose you get a club (or a spade) lead instead of a diamond. Now (again assuming the K is right, which it is) you're worth 12 tricks, not 11. How's it done?



The problem you had before was that their opening diamond lead knocked out your A, so when they won their ♣A they could cash their Q.

But if they don't lead a diamond, things are different. Let's say they lead a spade (as happened with the 12 tricks in Bath). You win and clear trumps, as before and – again as before, force them to take their ♣A. But this time they can't take their diamond trick while they're in because you still have the A! So they have to give you back the lead ...

... and you can take the rest of the tricks: the 12th comes from ruffing dummy's 4th spade in your hand for an extra trump trick. You already had this trick, of course, but this time you were able to make your 12 tricks before they could make their 2. Magic.

  HOTW 26 Feb 2014 | 10 + 2 = 12

10 + 2 = 12

Never mind the auction for a moment. Just put yourself in the North seat, East having led the ♠Q, and plan your play. You have 4 trump tricks and 2 top tricks in each of the other three suits. That's 10 tricks. Where are the other 2 going to come from?

Well, there are two possibilities. One is to play two rounds of spades and then ruff TWICE in the South hand. Provided it all goes OK, that'll give you two EXTRA trump tricks and get you home. You'll need a bit of luck, because on the 4th round one opponent or the other will also be out of spades (count it up for yourself), so you may have to ruff the last round HIGH.

The other is to work on clubs. If you're lucky, the missing clubs will be 3-3, leaving your last two clubs in dummy as tricks in their own right - 13 tricks! But even if they're 4-2 you can set up your 5th club as a trick, so you should be able to scrape home.

Which shall we try? Let's do the clubs. Since we may need to ruff twice, I'm only going to take ONE round of trumps first - don't want them leading trumps and taking away a trump I need to ruff with. So.

  • I win trick 1 in my hand (leaving the ♠A as an extra entry to dummy for later) and cash the Ace of trumps (both opponents following suit, thank goodness).
  • Now two rounds of clubs ending in dummy, and I notice that East drops the ♣Q on the second round. Never mind. Carry on. If East DOES overruff me on the next trick, that will at least mean that no-one has more than 2 trumps left. I can afford to lose one trick, remember.
  • So ... lead a low club from dummy and ruff with the 9 - and, as sure as eggs is eggs, East overruffs with the 10. 
  • Never mind. Win whatever East leads back in dummy and lead a fourth club, this time ruffing HIGH. East can only discard.

And now there are no clubs left apart from one in dummy. So take two more rounds of trumps (East has them both - it turns out that the hearts were 4-1) ending in dummy, and you only have winners left. So which were your extra 2 tricks? One was a club ruff (the one you ruffed high) and the other was the 5th club that you established.

Have a look at all the hands and play it through for yourself. And then, as an exercise, try the alternative route and ruff two spades instead. It works just as well, provided you get stuck in before clearing trumps!

So what about the auction? The one shown employs a very useful slam convention called Jacoby, whereby a 2NT response to 1 of a major shows game-going support and interest in a slam. 

North's 3NT response shows 15+ points, with no shortages, and the next two bids are cue bids showing the ♣A and A respectively.

At this point, South reckons that Blackwood will handle the rest: North's 5 response shows 2 key cards and South can now raise to 6.

In Bath, 6 of the 13 tables reached 6 – though only 2 of them made it! One rather ambitious pair went off in 7, while another (greedy for the extra 10 points?) went off in 6NT. No trumps aren't much use here, of course, because you need to do some ruffing to come to 12 tricks.

  HOTW 15 Jan 2014 | Split honours

Split honours

How do you play this suit to make 4 tricks? You're bound to lose a trick to either the K or the Q, but you don't want to lose a trick to both.

West  AJ10xx       xxx  East

The answer is to play for split honours. That is, you hope that the King's in one hand and the Queen's in another. And you simply finesse – twice. How does it work?

  • Lead a small card from East, and if South plays low insert the 10. You're expecting to lose the trick to either the Q or K in North's hand.
  • OK. If the honours are split, South has the other one. So next time you're in, lead another low card from East and this time insert the Jack.
  • If it wins, it only remains to cash your Ace (dropping the K or Q, whichever it is) and you've got your 4 tricks.

Fine. But supposing the K and Q are both in the same hand. What then? Well, it's 50-50. If South has them both, no problem: you still have your 4 tricks. But if North has them both, you've lost two tricks.

All this adds up to a 75% chance of success – a much better chance than the alternatives, such as cashing the Ace and hoping for a singleton K or Q to drop.

Have a go

On the hand shown (Board 4), EW have snuck into a 2 contract, even though they have only 18 points. Going one off isn't a bad result, but how much nicer to make it. 

It begins badly, with NS cashing three spade tricks, but then they let you in with your ♣A. Now to clear trumps. How does it go ...?

  • You're already in dummy, so lead a small heart, inserting the 10. North wins with the Q and leads another club.
  • You win with the ♣K and lead a second small heart. As it happens, you don't need to finesse again as the K appears, so you simply win with the A and then clear the remaining trump with your J.

Now it only remains to cash a couple of spade tricks (all their spades have gone, remember). They get their A, but meanwhile you've chalked up 2 clubs, 2 spades and 4 trump tricks, and you're home and dry.


A nice result for EW, as NS can make 3♣ – difficult for them to find it, though, as it would involve South overcalling 2♣ vulnerable with an utterly threadbare suit. Would have paid off this time, sure, but in the long run will cost dearly.

Meanwhile, if you're missing the KQ, remember to play for split honours. Got you a top on this board, certainly!

  HOTW 08 Jan 2014 | Getting lucky

Getting lucky

Just for fun, let's be West trying to make 6 after the auction shown. North leads the A, and presumably will lead the K on trick 2. What are your thoughts?

'Oh dear' (or something stronger) might be appropriate, because it looks as if you can't avoid losing a spade trick in addition to the A. But might there be a chance? What spade distributions would enable you to get home?

There are three possibilities:

  1. If either opponent holds ♠QJ doubleton, you can drop them with your ♠AK. A 1-in-16 chance.
  2. If North holds singleton ♠Q or ♠J, you can drop it with your ♠A and then catch South's honour by finessing from dummy. Again, a 1-in-16 chance.
  3. If South holds QJx (or QJxx or QJxxx) you can finesse from dummy twice. A 1-in-4 chance.

Which to try? I think most players will go for option 3, reasoning that (a) it has the best raw chance and (b) South is likely to have more spades than North (because North has shown a likely 6-card diamond suit and so has fewer spaces for spades). But some will reason that North needs more than just the AK for his overcall and is more likely than South to have points in spades.

Which gets your vote? Are you going to finesse (option 3) or play your ♠A (options 1 or 2)?


OK. If you took the finesse (option 3) you've lost. Let's say instead that you led your ♠A – and are delighted to see North drop the ♠Q. Whoopee! But you're not out of the wood yet, because you still don't know whether North started with ♠QJ (in which case you now want to lead your ♠K to drop it) or with singleton ♠Q (in which case you want to go out to dummy and finesse) ...


If you led your ♠K you lost, because North did indeed start with a singleton ♠Q – bad luck. Once you see the ♠Q drop, it's actually slightly more likely that South started with Jxxx (because, as we've seen, South has more spaces for spades than North does), so it's best to get over to dummy and start finessing.

Lucky? You bet! But it illustrates a key principle in bridge: if there's a chance, have a go – the cards might just be the way you need them to be. And if there's a number of possibilities, as here, cross your fingers and pick one! What you don't do is sigh and lay your cards on the table saying 'I'm afraid I have to give you a spade trick as well. One down. Sorry partner ...'

In Bath ...

Just one pair reached the slam, and they made it. I suspect that North made it easier for declarer by switching to his singleton ♠Q at trick 2 (having cashed his A at trick 1). Now declarer's thinking will be 'I wonder why North would switch to a high spade honour – must be a singleton, eh ...?'


  HOTW 27 Nov 2013 | Bid and make 4S

Bid – and make – 4

The best contract on this hand is 4♠, which makes comfortably. In Bath, hardly anyone got there, and only one pair made it. In Box, 3 out of 6 tables got there (well done), but no-one made it! So what's the problem?

First, the auction. Straightforward as far as it's shown here – West has rebid 2NT, showing her 18-count, and East has to decide what to do. Game looks good, but if partner has 3 spades it'll probably play better in spades than in NT. So what to do? Easy – in this situation any bid other than pass is obviously forcing to game, so East can bid 3 (showing 4 hearts and therefore 5 spades - think about it!) or simply 3♠ (showing 5 spades) and West will duly raise to 4♠.

What about the play? It's really just a question of adding up tricks: if you're lucky and the trumps break, you'll get 5 spade tricks, three clubs, one diamond and ... where's the 10th trick coming from? Has to be from hearts. You lead a low heart towards the King, and if North goes up with the Ace, your K will provide the 10th trick. If that doesn't work, you can (after leading another heart) ruff a heart in dummy (the short trump hand) for your 10th trick.

What happens here? Say you get a club lead: ♣J. Win in your hand and lead a low heart to the King. It works - the A is with South, and you're home ...

... or are you? It might be worth just getting rid of your remaining club honour, because later you can perhaps dump that little losing diamond on dummy's ♣A. How does it go? South has taken his heart Ace and now leads a diamond. You win with the Ace, pop over to your hand to get rid of your last club and now clear trumps: take the ♠AK - oops! North shows out on the 2nd round, and so South started with ♠J10xx. Annoying. Never mind. Let's play on the clubs ... Lead your ♣A, discarding the diamond loser from your hand and South gratifyingly drops his ♣10 - leaving your ♣9 as a winner. Marvellous. Lead your ♣9, and that gets you your 10th trick. If South trumps, you're making all your spades. And if he doesn't, you've just made an extra trick in clubs.

Notice that you didn't just clear trumps at trick 2, because you needed to set up a possible heart ruff in dummy first. And that gave you the flexibility you needed to change course in mid-stream when you discovered the bad trump split. Tricky, but better than 3NT, which only makes 9 tricks.

  HOTW 08 May 2013 | Leading question

Leading question


You're East playing in 4following an auction in which NS remained silent, and South leads the K. Looks promising, doesn't it?


How do you plan to proceed?


Well, adding up tricks, you can see 4 spade tricks (5 if you can finesse to catch the Queen), at least three heart tricks, at least two diamond tricks ... and you can ruff a club in dummy (provided you leave a trump there for the purpose!) for your 10th trick. 


What about losers? You're going to lose the 2 minor Aces and, if you're unlucky, the Queen of trumps. 


So what do you do? Try the spade finesse? Or lead a club to set up your club ruff in dummy?


The answer is: neither!



Take a look at South's lead. West has bid hearts, yet South has chosen to lead the King. She doesn't have the Queen, as you can see that in dummy ... so what's going on? Why would she choose a suicidal lead like that? Answer: it's clearly a singleton, and she's hoping for a ruff.


Say you finesse the J at trick 2. If South wins with the Queen she'll surely put partner in with one of the minor-suit Aces and get a heart ruff. One down.


Or say you lead a club. North wins with the Ace and leads a heart for South to ruff. Again, probably one down.




Once you know South has no hearts, it's simply too dangerous to play 'normally'. The priority is to denude South of trumps so that she can't ruff. So never mind the finesse – at trick 2, cash the A, and then cash the K ... and lo and behold South's doubleton Queen falls under the King.


Now you're in business! Cash your 10 in hand (South can't ruff because she has no trumps left), then over to dummy's 10 (clearing North's last trump as you go) and the lead's conveniently in dummy to take a further 4 heart tricks, on which you will chuck your unwanted K8 and 83. Eventually, you'll give them a trick with their A, but you'll have romped home with 12 tricks. 



You're lucky, of course, that the Q drops, but even if it doesn't, you've saved your contract by banging out your AK straight away.


To see how bad it can get, have a look at all four hands. Say you lead a club at trick 2:


  • North wins and before he leads a heart cashes his singleton A. Then comes the heart return
  • South ruffs and returns a diamond. North ruffs and returns another heart.
  • A careless East will either not ruff or will ruff small. If so, South ruffs with her ♠Q and leads another diamond for North to ruff ...
... leaving EW with just 7 tricks. Instead of 12!
Just one more example of the need to pause for a few moments to consider your hand, dummy and (in this case crucially) the opening lead, instead of just plunging in and hoping for the best.
  HOTW 20 Feb 2013 | A simple finesse!

A simple finesse!

You're South and you're in 4. East opened the bidding with 1 and you made an (intermediate) jump overcall in spades (showing a 6-card suit and opening points). With just 7 losers and Axx, your partner raised you to game and West has led the J.

How do you plan the play? Count your winners. Count your losers. You need to make 10 tricks before they make 4.

OK? Let's go through it. You have 6 trump tricks. And you will either make this diamond trick or the next one. That's 7. You can also eventually make 3 heart tricks. Hooray! That's 10 ...

... but hang on. If you let them make their K on the way, and they also make their A and their ♣AK (which they will!), they're going to make 4 tricks before you can make your 10. So somehow you have to stop them making the K ...

... and you can only do that if East has it and if you FINESSE it successfully. 

So. A plan. Clear trumps and then take the heart finesse. Easy. Just remember, though, that to finesse the hearts, the lead has to be in dummy. So you have to plan ahead enough to ensure you're in dummy after clearing trumps.

Not difficult. For a start, you can play low to trick 1, and if East goes up with her A you've got a 2nd entry to dummy (the other being the ♠A).

But you don't even need that. There are just 4 trumps to be cleared, and they're unlikely to be worse than 3-1. So cash the ♠KQ in your hand and then lead a low spade out to dummy's Ace and you've cleared trumps and are in dummy as required.

Now, which heart to lead? If the finesse succeeds, you'll want to take it again, so lead the 10 or 9 (not the 5!), playing low from your hand – and when it works the lead's still in dummy and you can repeat the finesse, getting the 3 heart tricks you require to make your contract.

As it happens, the K drops on the 2nd heart trick, so up with the Ace and lead the J back, overtaking with the Queen, and (if they haven't already cashed their AK) you can discard one of those losing clubs on dummy's 4th heart, making 11 tricks in all. Lovely!


It looks so easy, doesn't it? But it's also easy to get careless and forget that you need the entry to dummy. Let's say you use up your K, then clear trumps by cashing your ♠A first, then the ♠KQ in your hand ... Marvellous – now to take that heart finesse ... only you can't, because you have no way of getting out to dummy. Now they make their K and you're one off. 
As always, it pays to stop and think for a moment at trick 1 and clarify where the lead needs to be later in the contract.
  HOTW 22 Aug 2012 | Plan the play
Plan the play
Nothing tricky here, either in the auction or the play. But both are worth a look.

The auction

  • East, the opening bidder, has a balanced (see last week's article!) 14-count, but with a decent, rebiddable 5-card major decides to open 1 rather than 1NT.
  • With a 13-count herself, West knows immediately that the partnership must reach game, but which game? It isn't clear yet. So she simply bids her suit: 2.
  • East now rebids her hearts as planned.
  • And now West knows what's what: partner has at least 5 hearts, so they have a heart fit and that's the game they should be in: 4. Easy. End of auction.

Notice that it ain't no good West pussyfooting around with 3: that would be passing the buck to East, who may well pass. It's West who knows that game is on, so it's West's responsibility to make sure it's reached.

The play

You're East, you're in 4
, South leads the K and down goes dummy. How do you plan the play? (Nothing tricky here, as promised – all that's needed is a little forethought!)

It's looking good, isn't it? As well as a nice heart fit, you also have a splendid 5-3 diamond fit: if the diamonds break in a friendly 3-2 manner (which is more likely than not), you'll make 5 diamond tricks: your AKQ will remove the opposition's diamonds and your 4 and 3 will then be worth a trick each. Add to that a spade, two clubs and at least 4 trump tricks and you're easily home and dry.

But how are you going to play it? Have a think. Then click below and read on.
Making a plan

There's just one simple logical step to take. It's this:

You won't be able to enjoy those lovely diamond tricks if the opposition still hold any trumps, because they'll start ruffing. So you simply remove their trumps beforehand. At the first opportunity.

How do you do that? Well, you have a finesse position. If North holds the
K, you can trap it with your AQJ. So you want to lead trumps from dummy and as soon as you can.

So a plan is forming:
  • Win the first trick with the A, giving you the lead in dummy.
  • Lead a small trump and finesse.
  • If it works, get back to dummy and finesse again. If it doesn't, get the lead back and clear out the rest of the trumps.
  • And once all the NS trumps are gone, you can start cashing diamond tricks.

Simple. The only difficult thing is to remember your plan and keep to it: it's so easy to forget it in the heat of battle.

And what happens? You win trick 1 and lead a low heart to your Q, which unfortunately loses to South's K. South now cashes his Q and switches to a club.

You win in your hand and ... 'Oh goodness, what was I doing? Um ... Ah yes! I was drawing trumps, wasn't I, so I can cash lots of diamond tricks.' So you lead your A and then your J (the KQ have gone, remember) and that's their trumps gone. And now you lead diamonds till the cows come home and end up with 11 tricks.


There are occasions when you don't clear trumps straight away (and no doubt there are numerous examples of this on the Improvers' page), but this isn't one of them. Which brings us to the golden rule of declarer play in a suit contract:

Unless there's a good reason not to, clear the opponents' trumps at the first possible opportunity.

Refer to it every time: it'll stand you in very good stead.

  HOTW 14 Nov 2012 | Easy ... um ... isn't it?
Easy ... um ... isn't it?
Never mind the auction - there are all sorts of possibilities (which we'll look at in Tuesday's workshop) but let's say you're South and you end up in 6♠. How do you go about making it on, say, the lead of 4?

Easy. Clear trumps and bang out hundreds of heart tricks from dummy, throwing away diamonds and clubs from your hand (including the two Aces, if you want!).

And as always when it's 'easy', dead obvious, child's play, etc, you should stop and ask yourself 'What could possibly go wrong?' Well, nothing, unless the hearts are divided 5-0.

And in this case they are!

In the worst possible case, this is what happens: you clear trumps in 3 rounds ending in your hand. Now you have to get out to the hearts - so you ruff a diamond, say, using up dummy's last trump. Now you lead your A
and East shows out. Hmm - trouble! East will win the 5th round of hearts with her 10. You can set up the hearts by ruffing a small one in your hand, sure but then you can't ever get back to dummy again ... and you're going off in an 'easy' slam.

Rewind! Instead of just plunging into the play, plan ahead. As you might need to get back into dummy TWICE (once to start leading hearts, and one again after you've ruffed a small one) arrange things so that you can do that. So, for example, play off your
A, then a small spade to your K and then (whether the trumps are cleared or not), play a small heart and ruff in your hand. Now the rest of the hearts are yours, even if they started 5-0, and after conceding a trick to the Q you still have an entry to all those scrumptious heart winners in dummy.

Moral: The time to beware is when it seems only too easy. It's also easy just to pause for a moment right at the start and consider what might go wrong - while there's still time to put it right.
  HOTW 23 May 2012 | Pick a finesse
Pick a finesse
This is a lovely hand, and one with a useful lesson on play. First, a passing word on the auction.

The auction

I'm not defending the auction shown, as I think West might check things out a bit more thoroughly in case the grand slam is on. But her initial 1 response is spot on: if East happens to have 4 spades, you'll find that out on her next bid, and if she doesn't, her second bid will tell you more about her hand. As so often with modern Acol, there's no hurry – a simple change of suit is forcing for one round, so West's always going to have another bid.

So when partner simply rebids clubs, West reasons that the small slam surely must have a chance and simply goes straight there.
But on to the real point of the hand ...

The play

All right, let's say South leads a small trump (good, neutral lead against a slam, unlikely to give anything away).

Looks pretty good, doesn't it? Count your tricks. You have 6 club tricks, the A and a heart ruff in dummy, the AK and the A: that's eleven, so you're looking for one more. Where's that going to come from?

Well, it's all down to finessing. You're home if the spade finesse comes off OR if the diamond finesse comes off. So you only go off if BOTH finesses fail. OK, that still gives you a 75% chance of success, doesn't it? So here goes – clear trumps and then start finessing. Doesn't matter which suit I start with, right?

Wrong! Half-baked thinking. Actually, the contract's in the bag, and there's NO chance of it going off. But you have to choose the right suit to finesse. So which one is it? Diamonds or spades? It's not difficult, so look carefully at both hands and have a think before reading on ...

Did you have a Eureka moment? If so, you don't need to read on. If not, here's how your thinking might go:

  • OK. Let's take it one suit at a time.
  • Let's say I take the diamond finesse first and it loses. What now? Well, I now have to try the spade finesse, and if that fails too I'm one off.
  • Now. Let's say I start with the spade finesse and that fails. What now? Ah – having forced out the K, I now have THREE winning spades in dummy. So now I don't need to take the diamond finesse at all, as I have 12 tricks and can fling my 3rd diamond on one of my newly established spade tricks.
  • So I have to start with the spade finesse, and whether it wins or loses, the contract's 100% certain to make.

And as the cards lie (click to see the full deal), the spade finesse works anyway, so you just do it again, fling away your losing diamond and claim 13 tricks.


Moral: a 75% chance is good, but a 100% chance is better!


PS The shocking thing in Bath was that only 4 out of 13 pairs bid the slam at all. But of the 12 pairs that were in clubs all but one made 13 tricks. Poorly bid, but well played!

  HOTW 08 Feb 2012 | No thanks, I've got one of my own
No thanks, I've got one of my own
How about this for a weird auction? You've got a lovely hand with 6-6 in the minors and a singleton spade. East opens 1, allowing you to bid a Ghestem 2NT, showing at least 5-5 in clubs and diamonds. West passes, and you confidently expect partner to bid his preferred minor, which you will then raise to game (or maybe explore for more) ...

... but instead she bids 3
. What does it mean, and what do you do?

Well, there's only one thing it can mean, isn't there? Partner wants none of your minors and has an impressive suit of her own: spades.

The question is: how good is it? After all, partner doesn't yet know that you're 6-6 and not 5-5, and that might make a difference. So do you pass, bid 4
, bid 4 or raise partner to 4?

I don't think you can pass: you have a strong hand with great distribution and first round controls in three suits.

You could bid 4
, meaning "Aren't you listening? I said choose a minor!" or 4, meaning "I've got 6 of these" but either of these could be passed, and as we've agreed, you have a strong hand.

The bold response (as one South suggested and subsequently bid on Wednesday) is 4
. You can contribute 3 tricks in the minors, maybe more, and if you get a heart lead (which is likely on the bidding so far) your little 6 is going to score a trick, too. Go for it!

The play

You're North, playing in 4
. As your partner predicted, East leads the A and you need 10 tricks. Click on Show all hands and try not to look at the defenders' holdings. What are your thoughts?

Looks pretty good, doesn't it? You're going to ruff in dummy (with that lovely little 6) to win the first trick. Then (assuming a kind trump break) you'll make 6 spades, plus three tricks in the minors: that makes 10.

But there's a danger, too. If you simply come back to your hand (say by playing
A and then ruffing a club) and bang out your trumps, you're going to lose a trump trick plus THREE further tricks in hearts. One down.

The solution? Simple. At tricks 2 and 3, before you touch trumps, play your
AK, discarding a losing heart on the K. Now you only have two heart losers, and will make your contract.

So win in dummy, cash your
AK, then cash your A, ruff a club and bang out your trumps. 10 tricks made.

Any chance of 11 tricks?

Well, yes, actually, but it's a bit dodgy, so the faint-hearted should skip this bit.

You can hope for a 3-3 split in diamonds. So after cashing your
AK, lead a third diamond, ruffing in your hand with the 10 (to make an overruff a little more difficult). If the diamonds are 3-3 (as they happen to be in this deal) your remaining diamonds in dummy are good.

So cash your
AK, leaving the defence with just one (master) trump. Now out to your A and lead your J, throwing a second losing heart from your hand. East can ruff it with his J, but East was always going to make his J anyway, and you've managed to discard a loser on it. Clever stuff.

Now you have just one losing heart, giving the defence just 2 tricks and you 11.

However, fun though it is, this play is risky, so better to play safe and settle for 10 tricks.

After all, not everyone will be in 4
, will they ...?

In Box and Bath

... Um, well in Box they were! (Though I confess to having nudged a couple of NS pairs in the bidding.)

In Bath, by contrast, only ONE pair made it to 4 (making 10 tricks). All of the others chickened out into contracts like 4 and 5, in which they ALL went off, making exactly 9 tricks.

Great hand!
  HOTW 11 Jan 2012 | Beware of the Autopilot
Beware of the Autopilot
The bidding's short but sweet on this hand, and easy for advocates of the Losing Trick Count. After 3 passes, East opens 1 and West, with only 8 points but also with only 8 losers, raises to 3. East, who has just 6 losers, raises to 4.

(For those of you unfamiliar with the Losing Trick Count, there's an introduction in the Nuts and Bolts section of this website.)

The play

Let's assume that South leads the A. It's a pretty poor lead, but as luck would have it it's the only lead that might cause you any real difficulty.

On the face of it, the contract's a doddle. Now that the A is out of the way, all you have to do is clear trumps and bang out all your diamonds plus the AK.

So let's get on with it ... You follow, North plays the 9 and South now leads a second diamond.

What's the plan?

Well, you've looked on the bright side. Now let's just check to see if there are any possible dangers. One is that North's 9 was a singleton and she's now about to ruff a diamond. That, combined with the A and a possible trump loser will take you off. And if that's the case there's nothing you can do about it.

But you're in luck. North follows with the
2 and you win trick 2.

What now? Are you out of danger?

By no means. You're a well-trained declarer: you know that you have to clear trumps at the first opportunity, and you also know about taking finesses. And the danger you're in now is of going into autopilot mode and taking the trump finesse. If that's what you were about to do, hold on a moment and think it through.

If the finesse works (i.e. if North holds the
K) you're going to make 11 tricks. (5 trump tricks, 4 diamonds and 2 spades).

But if the finesse doesn't work, you're going off. Why? Well, you've watched North's signals, haven't you? She played the
9 followed by the 2. So she started with just 2 diamonds. South's been noting his partner's signals, too. So if South wins trick 3 with the K, he's going to lead a 3rd diamond and North is going to ruff it. And for good measure, they'll take their club winner: game over.

Your chance of success is better than 50% (because you're OK if North started with a singleton heart), but it's still pretty risky.

What's the alternative? Simple: don't take the trump finesse! Instead, cash the
A and then play a second high heart to force out the King. And that cuts the chance of a diamond ruff by North to virtually zero.*

The point is that you can afford to lose a trump trick and you still have your 10 tricks. What you can't afford is to lose a trump trick AND concede a diamond ruff as well. And as the cards lie (click on Show All Cards), taking the heart finesse will indeed result in you going off.

Don't just finesse just 'because you can'. By all means take a finesse if it's your only way of making the contract. But if it isn't, beware of lurking dangers.
* If you're interested in the various possibilities (well, you might be!), read on:
  • If the trumps are divided 2-2, then they're now cleared, so no danger.
  • If they're divided 3-1 and the K is singleton, well done: you've just made an overtrick!
  • If South has Kxx, North now has no trumps left, so no danger.
  • If North has Kxx or Kxxx, there's still a danger, but only if South has A. North can put her partner in with the A and then get a diamond ruff.
  • If South has Kxxx it's not pretty either.

Sparing you the details of my rather ropy maths, I make that around an 82% chance of making your contract (more, if you allow the possibility of NS making a mistake).

  HOTW 18 Dec 2011 | The right order
The right order
You're missing the KQJ and KQ on this deal, so it's not surprising that no-one ventured beyond 4 by East. Nonetheless, it's not difficult to bring home 12 tricks in spades against any defence. A club lead makes it too easy, so let's say that South leads the 3, North plays the J and you win with your A.

What's your plan? Specifically:

  • Where's your 12th trick coming from?
  • Do you have to lose the lead to set up the 12th trick? If so, how can you stop them nicking a second trick while they have the lead?
  • What are you going to do, and in what order?


Let's take those one at a time. Have a quick think, then triple-click to highlight the answer.

  • Where's your 12th trick coming from?
    I can count 5 trump tricks, 4 diamond tricks and the heart and club Aces. That's 11. The 12th trick must come from a ruff. But which suit? And in which hand? It gains nothing to ruff a heart in the long trump hand (as I'm making all 5 of those trumps already), so I have to ruff a club in the short trump hand, East. That gives me the extra, sixth trump trick, and takes me up to 12.

  • Do you have to lose the lead to set up the 12th trick? If so, how can you stop them nicking a second trick while they have the lead?
    Yes. I have to play two rounds of clubs to run East out of clubs before I can make my ruff, and on one of those I have to lose the lead. The danger is that when they come in they'll cash a heart winner and get me one down. So before I lose the lead I have to get rid of that heart loser in dummy. I can do that by cashing four rounds of diamonds and throwing the heart on the fourth round.

  • What are you going to do, and in what order?
    OK. I win trick one with the heart Ace.
    Then I clear trumps, so that no-one can trump any of my winning diamonds.
    Then I play off the diamonds, taking care to cash the KJ in dummy first, then crossing over to my hand to cash the AQ. I throw dummy's remaining heart on the fourth round of diamonds.
    Now (finally!) it's safe to lose the lead. I play a low club from both hands, giving them a trick.
    Now I have only trumps and
    AJ in dummy. I can ruff the J in my hand and the rest of the tricks are mine.


Pretty straightforward, really. You just have to make sure you do things in the right order. First clear trumps so that your diamonds get a clear run. Then run the diamonds, dealing with the heart danger. Then, and only then, give them their club trick, take your ruff and claim the rest.

It's a stone-cold slam, so should you be in it? Probably, but that's another story.

PS In Box the hand was flat, as everyone was in 4
and everyone made 11 tricks. Probably no-one felt the need to stretch for the extra trick. But providing it's risk-free (as it is here) it's always worth going for the extra trick in pairs: any pair finding the 12th trick on the day would have scored a top – even though they hadn't bid the slam.
  HOTW 04 Dec 2011 | Don't clear trumps yet!
Don't clear trumps – yet!
This hand's really all about the play, so if the auction looks a bit long-winded, skip to the next section! But for those who are interested, this is how it went at one table:
  • South should really open a weak 2♠, but just as well she didn't, because 1♠ makes it easier to find the best spot.
  • After showing her diamonds and partner rebids spades, North's 3♣ (a new suit at the 3 level in an uncontested auction) shows extra strength and is forcing to game: in other words, neither player need rush anywhere because both know the other won't pass below game.
  • With no particular liking for either minor, and having a heart stop, South swallows her misgivings about having only 10 points and bids 3NT. (Rebidding spades again is a bit feeble, so why not show the heart stop?)
  • But North isn't interested in NT. She rebids her clubs (not her diamonds: rebidding her second suit tells partner that both of her suits are 5+), giving partner a choice.
  • South sighs, but prefers her partner's diamonds because they might be longer than the clubs.
  • And finally, game is reached at 5, and everyone can pass. Phew!
East leads the 4 and dummy goes down. What do you think?

The play

At first sight, it looks great. You have one heart loser and if either the Q or K is well placed, you can madly finesse away and make eleven tricks ... or can you?

You have just one sure entry to the dummy, and you're about to use it at trick 1. So if you now start to clear trumps and the diamond finesse loses ... what now? East will shoot back a trump (to stop you ruffing in dummy) and eventually you'll be stuck with leading clubs from your hand all the time, and barring miracles will lose one club trick and probably two.

There has to be a better way, and there is.

What about delaying clearing trumps and instead ruffing a couple of clubs in dummy? That way you may set up a club trick for yourself (2 if you're lucky and the clubs split 3-3.

Let's see how it goes ...

You win trick 1 with the
A and play out your AK. Now lead a low club and see what happens. North hesitates and thinks. He's clearly out of clubs, but if he ruffs you're going to overruff with your J. Eventually, he uses his K to ruff high (so the diamond finesse wouldn't have worked!) and leads a second spade.

Can you now see a way forward? The only remaining club (the
Q) is with West and you can ruff that out (high with your J if necessary).

So ruff the spade in hand and lead a fourth club, ruffing in the dummy. Now all you have to do is clear the remaining trumps and you are left with a fistful of trumps, a boss club and a small heart which will eventually lose to a defender's

11 tricks.

But wouldn't 3NT have been better?

No. It would have been awful. They lead hearts, knocking out your king, and then your diamond finesse loses and that's that. Not to mention a club loser at the end. Two off.

In Box and Bath

Some strange contracts in Box, and in Bath too. Lots of people ending up in 4
and going several tricks off. Only two pairs in Bath found 5 (though to be fair to them it's more difficult if South opens a weak 2).

In Bath their play was pretty good, though, as most of those in diamonds made 11 tricks – by no means easy, as you've seen.

Finally, two playing points to take from the hand:
  • Clear trumps immediately unless you have a good reason not to (as here) and if you do delay, clear them as soon as you can afterwards.
  • Just because you can take a finesse doesn't mean that you should. Here you have two finessable suits but not enough entries to manage them. And as we've seen, who needs finesses anyway?
  HOTW 26 Oct 2011 | Finessing hat-trick
Finessing hat-trick
When partner opens 1NT, West has only one thing in mind: game in hearts. Partner is known to have at least 2 hearts, so you have a fit, and the singleton diamond (kinda) makes up (ish) for the lack of points. So West transfers partner into hearts and suppressing doubts about her 10 points puts down the  STOP  card and bids 4.

South leads the
9, down goes dummy and East has the task of taking 10 tricks.

Well, the lead has helped, hasn't it? Now it's time to make a plan. What are your first thoughts?

Here are mine:

I'm going to lose a trick (probably the first one) to the A. And after that it's all finesses, isn't it?
  • If the K is 'wrong' I've lost a heart trick, ...
  • ... if the Q is wrong, I've lost a 2nd spade trick ...
  • ... and if the Q is wrong, I've lost a club trick.
So if they're all wrong, I'm going down. But given that any single finesse has a 50% chance of success, that would be a pretty unlucky outcome: a measly 1 in 8 chance, in fact.

And already, I'm pretty sure that one of the key cards is sitting in the right place for me. Did you notice the lead? I don't think South would want to lead away from an unsupported Queen as an opening lead – that
9 looks much more like top of a doubleton to me than from Q9, so I'm placing North with the spade queen.

So my initial plan is to see what happens to the first trick, play the
J if North returns a spade, and then try the heart finesse on my way to clearing trumps, leaving the club finesse till later. (What I'm not going to do is mess around ruffing lots of diamonds in the long trump hand, which will gain me precisely nothing.)

So here goes. I play low, North wins the trick with his
A ... and instead of returning a spade switches to the 10.

Odd. Why would he want to lead round to dummy's
KJx? Maybe it's a singleton? Never mind – he's just taken my club finesse for me! Thank you, North. Now I've certainly made my 10 tricks.

So play low, South rises with the
Q and I win in dummy with my K.

Now to clear trumps – except that I'm in the wrong hand. How to get the lead back to my hand? Not with a club, that's for sure: if that
10 was a singleton, North's going to ruff. The safest route back to my hand is my little diamond to the A.

Now I'm ready to clear trumps, and I'm hoping that South has the missing
K. So the next question is: which heart should I lead? It must be the Jack, mustn't it? Then, if the finesse works, I still have the lead in my hand and I can lead another heart immediately.

And that's what happens. The finesse works, I lead a second heart, beat South's
K with my Ace and clear the last trump with my Q.

What next? Well, two of the three finesses have turned up trumps, as it were, so let's test out my theory that North has the
Q. Yes, he does. I lead a small spade and my J wins.

And that's it. I still hold the top spade, the two top clubs and a dummyful of trumps. Twelve tricks on a combined 23 points. But hey – let's not be too self-congratulatory. The chances of all three finesses being right are just as slim as them all being wrong: just 1 in 8. So most of the time with a hand like this you'll only end up with 10 or 11 tricks and one time in 8 you'll go off – even if you play it right.

(It's just a side issue, but note the two instances of elementary card-reading above. South does have
9x and North's 10 is a singleton, but it's not that difficult to work out: it's mainly a question of taking the trouble to notice what cards the defence play and trying to make sense of it all.)

In Box and Bath

In Box, everyone reached and made 4
, which shows good bidding sense, but only one declarer made 12 tricks – so perhaps you missed a finesse or two, or found it difficult getting the lead in the right hand. Next time, you'll get it right.

In Bath, most pairs were in 4
, but three pairs timidly stopped in 3, meaning that every pair in Box got a better score by virtue of bidding game! One pair bizarrely ended up in 3NT (a horrible contract, because a diamond lead wipes out your only stop and then the heart finesse has to be right if you're to survive). All the hearts declarers bar one brought home 12 tricks, though, so they know their finessing down there in Twerton.
  HOTW 00 00 2011 | Two slams
Two slams
I gave what turned out to be not the best advice on this hand - Board 15, the last before our autumn break.

With a balanced 25 and a hand capable of making 3NT almost single-handed, you're usually best to open your partnership's strongest bid (which will be 2
, or 2 if you're playing Benji Acol) and then rebid 3NT. You've then described your hand perfectly, and partner can then decide whether to go further.

In this case, however, North (with just 5 points) will either pass or possibly 'correct' to 4

All of which goes to show that you can't rely entirely on points, as you should have no trouble making a small slam in hearts on this deal with a combined point-count of just 30.

Worse still, you can make all 13 tricks with diamonds as trumps ... so my suggesting that South shouldn't bother mentioning her diamonds was perhaps not my finest moment.

However, leaving aside the complications of bidding either slam, let's concentrate instead on play (as those who were in 5
made only 11 tricks instead of 13!). Have a go at these questions, then click to find my answers. There's nothing tricky or obscure here - just basic sound cardplay required!

1  How does North make 12 tricks in hearts? (opening lead from East:

2  How does South make 13 tricks in diamonds? (opening lead from West:

3  Why can't you make 6NT? (assume a club lead)

Making 6

Nothing too complicated here - just a question of counting to 12. You'll make:
  • 1 trick in clubs (the A)
  • 2 tricks in spades (the AK)
  • 5 tricks in diamonds (assuming the diamonds aren't 4-0, which they aren't)
  • 5 tricks in hearts (assuming that you lose a trick to the Q, which you do).

Yes, I know, that adds up to 13. But if you have to lose a trick to the Queen of trumps, that kind of limits you to 12 tricks overall!

How to do it? Simply win the opening lead and clear trumps (though there's no need to clear the
Q, as it's going to win a trick anyway) and thump out your winners. East will make her Q at some point, but that's the only trick they take.

Making 7

Again, no rocket science required, but you do need to be sensible about the order you do things. You have 5 diamond tricks and 3 tricks in the black suits, so to make 13 you need 5 tricks from hearts. Easily done - all you have to do is ruff the 3rd round of hearts to get rid of the
Q. So

  •  win the opening lead with A
  • clear trumps in 3 rounds
  • cash the AK ending in dummy, and ruff a third round of hearts in your hand: the Q drops and now all your hearts are good. But how to get over to dummy to cash them?
  • simple - ruff a club with dummy's last trump, and cash the remaining 3 heart winners. That's 10 tricks ...
  • ... and you have AK and a trump left in your hand, giving you 13 tricks in all.

Why can't you make 6NT?

Well, you can make it on any lead except a club. But a club lead to East's Queen and your Ace leaves East holding the master club: the
K. So when East comes in (as she must) with her
Q, she can now cash K - and that's curtains for declarer.

  HOTW 00 00 2011 | A 50% slam
A 50% slam
How do you make 12 tricks here on a diamond lead?

But first, decide whether you're interested in the auction. If not, skip the next bit and read on from The play, below.

The Auction

The auction shown is just one possibility, and is based on Standard Acol. If you're playing Benji Acol, you'd open 2 instead. Here's the reasoning behind it:

   I've got a strong, game-going hand. (Nothing to do with clubs, this bid). Only in exceptional circumstances can either player now stop bidding before game is reached.

2   This is a 'relay' bid, meaning: OK, understood. Tell me more.

2   My best suit is spades.

The next bid by North is crucial – it's his first real chance to say anything about his holding, rather than just listen to his partner talking about hers.

So what to say? Well, spades are great, so that's one problem out of the way. But should he bid 3
or 4? Well, this is a bit topsy-turvy, because neither player can stop before game is reached. For this reason, 4 would be a very weak bid, saying OK, I like spades but I haven't got anything else to speak of, so I'm putting you straight into game, as required. I don't want to go any further. With a better holding (and 6 points +5 trumps ain't bad, after such a strong opening), you're better to bid 3: this indicates that you have some values outside trumps, and allows bidding space for a few cue-bids if they're required. So:

3  Yep, I like spades, and I've got a bit extra, too.

Now it's South's turn to stop and think. Partner likes spades and also has values. Hmm. No point in using RKC Blackwood, as I already have all the key cards myself. No point in cue-bidding, either, for the same reason. So I shall just punt the slam:

6  Wish me luck, partner.

The play

So there you are, sitting South, with a diamond lead, and rather wishing you'd stopped in 4
. Let's plan the play (triple-click to check):

First, how many tricks have you got off the top?

Ten. 5 in trumps, the
AK, the AK and the A.

It's not hard to see a way of making one more certain trick. How?

You can ruff a heart in your hand or a club in dummy for an extra trick.

But that still leaves you one short ... So can you see a possible 12th trick anywhere?

Or put another way: you have two losers, a club and a diamond. Can you see a way of avoiding either of those?

Well, there aren't many candidates, are there? If you can't think of any at all, have a look at this clue:

You have to try and win a trick with your
Q. It's your only chance. But how do you do that?

OK. If you're worked it out, well done. If you haven't, the answer's below. Either way, read on.

You win trick 1, and clear trumps in 2 rounds, ending in your hand.

Now's the time to try for the extra club trick. It's a 50% chance. You have to hope that West has the
K. If he does, you're home. So you ...

... lead a low club towards the Queen. If West has the King, you've just made your 12th trick. If he plays it, your
Q is now worth a trick. If he doesn't, you play your Q ... and it wins. So either way, you've now got two tricks in clubs. Let's assume West wins the trick with his K. How does it go?



  • He probably leads a heart. You win in your hand.
  • Take your newly-earned trick with the Q.
  • The lead's now in dummy, so back to your hand with a heart.
  • Now lead your A, discarding a losing diamond from dummy.
  • And that's it. You have a winning diamond, and lots of trumps and 12 tricks.

So not a great slam to be in really, as it relies on a finesse, but once you're in it, you might as well try to make it. And this time, your luck was in.

And in Bath?

Most pairs played safe and stopped short of the slam. One pair had a disappointing time in 6NT, which went two off, and the two pairs that did find 6 only made 11 tricks. So our putative pair above would have scored 100%.



  HOTW 00 May 2011 | 9s and 8s
9s and 8s
After the auction shown, you're West in 4, and North leads the 6. Before we see the whole hand, take a look at the hearts on their own.
 J7  N
W      E

Given the auction,


  • How many hearts do N and S have?
  • Who do you think has the Q?
  • Who do you think has the 10?

Here are my answers:



  • North should have 6 hearts for his bid, leaving South with a singleton.
  • We don't know who has the Q, but North is at least 6:1 favourite ('at least' because many players wouldn't open a weak 2 with a suit as poor as 10xxxxx).
  • Again, North is the clear favourite to have the 10, but might have opened with just Qxxxxx.

Now then. Supposing you need three heart tricks for your contract, without losing a trick along the way. How do you play the hearts?

Well, you could lead a low heart from West, and (if North plays low) insert your
9. Trouble is, if South's singleton heart is the Q or the 10, you've lost your trick along the way.

What about starting with your
J, then? This is better, isn't it? If North and dummy play low, you'll only lose the trick if South has the singleton Q (which we originally thought was pretty unlikely). (And if North does cover with the Q, you take the trick, come back to your hand and use your other heart to finesse for the 10: you can't lose, as South now has no hearts left.)

There's a possible bonus here: if North plays low and South does have the
10, it drops under your J and you've just conned your way into not just three but four heart tricks: all you have to do is come back to your hand and lead your second heart, finessing for North's Q.

What makes all this possible, of course, is that lovely little 9 sitting in dummy. Change East's holding to AK64 and you're only getting two heart tricks however you play it. The lesson to take away, then, is to keep an eye out for useful 'intermediate' cards like 9s and even 8s. They have a habit of coming into their own.

The full hand

Take a look at the full hand (trying not to notice the North and South hands), and make a plan.

Your first reaction, on counting tricks, might be a slight disappointment that you haven't bid
6, because there are certainly 12 tricks there.

Can you count them?

Hint: You can never make 4 heart tricks against the best defence (and in any case, South doesn't have the
10), and it's unnecessary to rely on the diamond finesse (which anyway doesn't work).

You have 6 trump tricks (assuming that you can catch the
Q without losing a trick).
You have two diamond tricks.
You have two certain heart tricks (or an almost certain 3 provided you clear South's trumps before proceeding to your second heart trick - remember, he only has a singleton heart!)
So for your 12th trick, you have to be trumping clubs in dummy.

And actually, if you can ruff clubs twice in dummy, you don't need all that complicated stuff with the hearts. Let's try it:




  • Take the first trick with the A. (Don't risk playing the J.)
  • Immediately lead your Q, setting the scene for club ruffs in dummy.
  • South wins with the A and sends back a trump. You win with your Ace and ... dammit! North shows out. That means South started with Q8x. Which makes it impossible to ruff clubs more than once. (Try it: you'll be left with just the J in dummy. South will cover with the Q and eventually make a trick with the 8! It's those 'useful intermediates' at work again!) So we do need the hearts after all.
  • Ruff a club in dummy. Leaving you with J10 in dummy.
  • Use the J10 to take the marked finesse against South and clear trumps.
  • Now lead your J and proceed to take three heart tricks, the K and the remaining trumps in your hand.

So there you have it: 12 tricks on a combined 27 points. Six trump tricks, one club ruff, two diamond tricks and three more in hearts.

It was South's puny
8 that prevented you doing things the easy way by ruffing two clubs. And it was your plucky 9 that allowed you to replace the lost club trick with an extra trick in hearts.


At Box, everyone made 11 tricks in 4

You were in good company, as only two pairs at Bath BC made 12 tricks. Only one pair bid the slam and they (naturally) went one off.







  HOTW 00 00 0000 | Think positive
Think positive

Last week we had to establish extra tricks for a no trump contract (Pay now, live later, on the Declarer Play (No trumps) page) by the simple expedient of forcing out an opponent's high card. Now let's try our hand at planning a suit contract.

With a marginal 11-pointer, North chooses to pass, South opens 1 and with just 7 losers North is happy to raise straight to 4. West leads the ♠J, dummy goes down ... and you're South, needing to make 10 tricks with hearts as trumps.

On Wednesday, all three tables were in the same contract, all got the same lead, and all went one off! Yet the contract is perfectly makeable.

So - over to you. As always, before you play to the first trick, make a plan!

First Thoughts: winners and losers

OK, winners. Doesn't look too great, does it? You have just 8 winners off the top (5 trumps and the other 3 aces), and somehow have to generate two more.

And then your losers. It looks as if you have a spade loser, two losers in diamonds and a possible club loser as well: four. That's one too many.

(At trick 1, you should play your ♠Q from dummy, just in case West led his ♠J from ♠KJ10, but sadly, it doesn't work: East covers the ♠Q with the ♠K, and you win with your ♠A - so you do definitely have a spade loser.)

Think positive: losing a loser - gaining a winner

Can you see a possible way of avoiding one of those losers (and gaining a winner at the same time?) Hint: take a finesse.

Yes, that's right. You have to hope that the ♣K is with East, rather than West. At some point, you will lead a small club from dummy towards your ♣Q. If East holds the ♣K, you will have lost your club loser and gained a club winner.

Let's just dwell on that for a moment longer. If the ♣K is 'right', you have a chance of making your contract. If it's 'wrong', you have no chance of making your contract. Therefore, you have to assume that it's right, because that's your only chance.

OK. By thinking positive, we've persuaded ourselves that we have 9 tricks ...

Ruff stuff: finding the 10th trick

... but where's the 10th trick coming from?

Let's see: we have a spade trick; 5 trump tricks; a diamond trick; and (with luck) 2 club tricks.

Perhaps we can gain a trick by ruffing something ... but what? There seem to be two possibilities:

    • we could take our club tricks and then ruff a club in dummy
    • or we could lose a spade trick and then ruff a spade in hand.

One of these ideas will gain us an extra trick. One won't. Which is the one we want? And why? If you can't decide, highlight the hint below.

We already have 5 trump tricks. We need the ruff to be our 6th trump trick.

Right again. We can ruff a club if we like, but it doesn't gain us anything, because we were going to win a trick with the 6 anyway.

Spades, however, are a different story. This time, we're going to get a trick by ruffing in the South hand, but the North hand still has 5 trumps, so we're making 5 trump tricks plus one spade ruff. As you remember from your Beginners' class: ruffing in the short trump hand gains a trick; ruffing in the long trump hand doesn't.

Putting the plan into action

So hang on. What are we doing? Ah yes, we're ruffing a spade (one extra winner) and finessing in clubs (the other extra winner). Once you've made a plan it helps to remember what you've decided to do!

Here's how it goes. (Strong recommendation: click on Show all hands, make up the four hands with cards and actually play it out.)



  • Win the first trick (as described above) and lead another spade immediately.
  • Let's say West wins and returns a diamond. East plays the Q and you win with the A.
  • Now we want to ruff that spade, but we're in the wrong hand. How to get out to dummy? With a trump - so at trick 3, a low heart to the Ace. Ouch! - West has no hearts (so East has four!), but that's OK. We can deal with that later.
  • So, we lead our last spade from dummy and trump with the J (just in case West is now void in spades and tries to overruff).
  • Now to clear trumps (remembering that East still has 9xx). First run the 10, then your last heart to the K, and finally lead the Q, dropping East's last trump.
  • And finally, the moment of truth. With bated breath, you lead a small club from dummy, East plays low, you play the Q ... and it wins. Half the time, it won't, but this time it did, and that's good enough.
  • And now it only remains to cash your A, and the remaining trump in dummy is your 10th trick.

Contract made. You found your two extra winners, one via a successful finesse and the other by ruffing in the short suit. A 4-0 trump split notwithstanding.
But don't for a moment imagine that you will make the contract if you don't stop to make a plan. If you unthinkingly bang out four rounds of trumps ('Well, I had to clear trumps, didn't I, partner?') you won't have one left in your hand to ruff a spade, and that'll leave you one trick short.


And at Bath BC? All were in hearts, though two pairs didn't bid game. And amazingly, just over half of declarers failed to make 10 tricks. Which meant that if you'd been playing in Bath last Thursday and had bid and made 4, you would have chalked up 20.7 matchpoints out of a possible 24: that's more than 86%. Worth a few moments' (or even a couple of minutes') thought.







  HOTW 00 00 0000 | 12 comfortable tricks
12 comfortable tricks

Here's a hand which offers several different ways of making 12 tricks. But first the auction, mainly from South's point of view.

Your partner (who you later discover opened a trifle light, with 11 points and 8 losers) opens 1♠, and East comes in with a 2♣ overcall. You reply 2, showing your longer suit first (yes, you could have made a negative double, but let's not get into that now), and West passes. Partner rebids 2♠, and at this point you're thinking 'slam'. Why? Well, for one thing you've found a fit (in spades); for another you have 18 HCPs opposite an opening bid; and for yet another, you have a shortage in the very suit in which your opponents have strength.

Your 4NT agrees spades as trumps, your partner's 5 response shows 2 key cards and the Queen of trumps, and with just one keycard missing you confidently bid 6.

East leads his ♣A, you lay down your hand as dummy, and you now change seats and become North, who has the task of making 12 tricks.

  The play  

OK. Looks good, doesn't it? You've lost the first trick. Fine. So all you have to do is take the rest.

So we go through the normal routine. First, assuming no mishaps, how many top tricks have you got?

I make it 10: 5 trump tricks, 3 in diamonds and 2 in hearts.

So where are your other two tricks coming from? (There's nothing too tricky here - just the need for a sensible plan of action.)

Let's start with a couple of dodgy options:

  • First, the diamonds. If they split 3-3, I have two extra diamond tricks, and that's that. Trouble is, that will only happen 36% of the time. But still, as long as they're no worse than 4-2 I can ruff the 4th round and still make one of my extra tricks.
  • And second, the hearts. If the Q is right, I can make a 3rd heart trick by finessing the J.

So that's one possible plan: clear trumps and try the diamonds; if that doesn't quite work, ruff the 4th round and try the heart finesse. Well, it could well work (and East's overcall surely makes it more likely that he has the Q).

But there's a much better and much simpler solution screaming at us - particularly after East's opening lead. Can you see it?

That's right: it's the standard method declarers use to make extra tricks in suit contracts: ruffing in the short trump hand. All you have to do is ruff two clubs in dummy: win the 2nd trick; ruff a club; get back to your hand; ruff another club; clear trumps; and cash all your winners. You'll make the 10 top tricks we counted earlier, plus two club ruffs in the short trump hand, giving you a total of 12 tricks.

Any dangers here? Well, clearly you have to do all this before you clear trumps, as otherwise you won't have any trumps left in dummy to ruff with ... so the only danger is that West may be short of clubs too (East overcalled in clubs, remember) and will overruff you. How likely is that? Think for a moment before reading on.

Well, there's no chance at all, is there? There are 9 clubs out there. What if West started with just 1? That gives East 8 clubs - no way is he going to overcall 2
with that holding; he's going to bid a preemptive 4. So you're safe to take one club ruff. OK, but it's just possible that he started with 7 clubs, isn't it? Then West will have just 2 and will overruff on the 3rd round of clubs ... Um, no he won't, because you hold ♠AKQJ109 and your ruff will be unbeatable!

Time to click and look at all the hands. The first thing you notice is that West has four trumps, but it doesn't matter at all: they're all small ones and you can clear them at your leisure.

But the next thing you notice (with disappointment) is that you couldn't have failed to make the contract however you had played it. The diamonds are indeed 3-3, so that would have worked. And yes, the Q is in the right place for the finesse, which would also have worked. And West has 3 clubs anyway, so no need for all that careful calculation about ruffing power.

So all your careful planning has gained you nothing over the hoi polloi who just banged out their 12 tricks and got lucky. But in the long run, it'll get you handsome rewards, and you'll be one hand closer to being a good bridge player.


At Bath BC, only 3 tables bid the slam, and of those one unaccountably managed to go one down. So well done Ray and Paul, who bid and made the slam on Wednesday.

  HOTW 05 Apr 2010 | Getting lucky
Getting lucky

It didn't happen like this (at least not at the Pavilion) but it might well have ...

The auction is real enough. With 16 points, a balanced hand and a heart stop, West makes a 1NT overcall over South's opening 1, North suggests spades but South, with 7 good hearts and encouraged by his partner's willingness to bid, takes a punt on 4.

Which leaves West with a tricky opening lead. Not wanting to lead away from her unguarded ♣K or ♠K, or from her AQ, West decides to lead a trump. South is 99% certain to have the A, so there's no danger that this will cost a trump trick.

South takes the first trick with the 9, and leads the A, just in case West's K is doubleton. It isn't. Now what to do?

Well, West has nearly all of the outstanding points and bid no trumps, so is likely to have both of the black kings. Wouldn't it be nice to lead ♣A and another club, leaving ♣QJ in dummy, on which he can then discard those nasty losing diamonds? Trouble is, as soon as West gets in, she's going to start cashing diamond tricks. So that's no good.

But we can get rid of one of the diamond losers, by leading a spade to dummy's Queen, then discarding a diamond on dummy's ♠A. Not great, but better than nothing.

So off we go. Small spade to the ♠Q, which wins. Lead dummy's ♠A and discard a diamond from hand and ... Hey, a bonus! West drops the ♠K under the Ace. OK. Let's push our luck a little further. Lead the ♠J from dummy, dropping a 2nd diamond ... and  the luck holds. West has to trump with her K: we've just discarded a loser on a trick the defence was going to make anyway!

All of which leaves us with just two more losers: one diamond and one club: ten tricks.

Only two pairs @ Bath managed the 10 tricks, and this could have been how it was done. Or could it have been an unwise opening lead of a small club away from the ♣K? I leave you to imagine how it might have gone from there ...

  HOTW 24 Feb 2010 | Vacant places
Vacant places

Well done if you kept your concentration up for the whole session. We came across various ways in which Declarer can glean useful information for his or her cunning plan. One was bidding (or the lack of it) by the opposition, and another was the opening lead (we found the Rule of 11 particularly informative). Either of which, in conjunction with a careful initial point-count (so that we know how many HCPs the opposition hold), can help us place missing high cards with one opponent or another.

Sometimes, as in this hand, things become clearer as the play progresses.

You're South. You open 1NT, and after a conversation in which North shows game-going points with a 5-card spade suit, you become declarer in 4♠.

West leads the 2, down goes dummy, and you feel a quiet satisfaction as you can see a comfortable 10 tricks, the only losers being the two missing Aces and a possible trump loser.

Dream on! East takes the trick with her A and returns a heart, which West ruffs - "Having none, partner." Next comes the ♣A, and you finally get in with your club King.

This isn't at all what you had in mind. The opposition have three tricks already, and it's essential that they don't get any more.

So that's the problem. How can you clear trumps without losing a trick to the ♠Q? Is it just a guess or can you do better than that?


Well, you can't be sure, but there is certainly a strong indication.

West has shown up with a singleton heart, which means that East started off with no fewer than 6 hearts. Enter the Law of Vacant Places, stage left. We need to know which defender has the ♠Q - East or West?

East started with 6 hearts, so has 7 other cards in her hand. That's 7 vacant places which might be occupied by the ♠Q.

West, on the other hand, is known to have started out with just 1 heart, so she has 12 slots where the ♠Q might be lurking.

Which makes the odds 12:7 - or nearly 2:1 in favour of West. Better than a 50-50 guess.

So back to your hand with the ♠K (in case the ♠Q is singleton, which it will be now and again) and lead your ♠10. The Queen doesn't appear, so play low and ... East shows out. Surprise surprise.

You're still in your hand, so now you simply lead a low spade, finessing again, and play a fourth round of trumps, dropping West's ♠Q under your ♠A.

You've just dealt successfully with an unfriendly 4-1 split, recovered from what seemed a disastrous early ruff and made your contract.

It won't work all of the time, but around 70% of the time it will. (That's better than 2:1, but that's because you also catered for the singleton Queen being with East.)


Here's another, rather simpler way of arriving at the same conclusion:

Because of the heart situation, West is likely to have more spades than East. Therefore any given spade (the Queen, for example!) is more likely to be in West's hand than in East's. Obvious, really.
  HOTW 18 Nov 09 | Using a trial bid
Using a trial bid

This is a nice example of an auction that makes use of a 'trial bid'. Here's the theory:

  • You open one of a major and your partner raises you to two. You've agreed your suit.
  • You've got more than a minimum, and you're wondering whether to go on to game. You could just bid 3, saying "Partner, if you are maximum for your raise, go on to game", but this is pretty vague, and misses an opportunity to ask a more precise question.
  • A trial bid is a way of focusing attention on your particular needs. After (say) 1 - 2, a (non-jumping) bid of any other suit (i.e. 2♠, 3♣ or 3) says: "Partner, I'm thinking of going on to game, but I'm a bit worried about this suit I've just bid. I've got at least two losers in it. Can you provide any help in this suit? If you can, or if you're a maximum (or both!), please bid game. If not, just sign off at the three level and we'll leave it there."
  • 'Help' may consist of high cards, or a singleton or (even better) a void.

And how nicely that works here. Although very strong in the minor suits, South may have as many as three losers in spades, so bids 2♠, asking her partner for help. And holding the ♠A10, North goes straight to game. Holding a singleton spade, she'd do the same. But with a load of rubbish like 863 or J42 she'd sign off in 3.

What of the play? Imagine yourself sitting South. At our table, West led a trump. East won with the K and returned a diamond, which you win with your A. How do you plan to make your contract?

First, add up your winners. You have 3 trump tricks, 3 club tricks, 2 diamond tricks and one sure spade trick: 9 tricks in all. You need to find one more.

Now the losers. You have two trump losers, and a further two possible losers in spades. You need to avoid one of those.

One possibility is to hope that East holds the ♠K, and lead a low spade from the North hand, intending to play the ♠Q if East plays low. But there's a much simpler and safer route. Can you see it?

Of course you can. Obvious, isn't it? After playing off your ♣AK, you can then throw one of your spade losers away on the ♣Q, so that you can eventually trump a losing spade in your hand (the short trump hand!), avoiding a loser and creating an extra trick at the same time.

So (doing things in the right order) ... you lead another trump, losing to East's A. East now probably leads another diamond, hoping his partner has the King. She doesn't, and you win the trick.

Now you play off your ♣AK, and lead a small spade, winning in dummy with the ♠A. Now is the time to lead your third club winner - the ♣Q - and discard a losing spade.

Now it's time to give up a spade trick (the opposition's third - and final - trick), and whatever they lead back you trump in dummy, and lead dummy's last spade, trumping it in your hand. Game over. (If they lead back a spade, of course, they're doing your job for you: simply trump it in hand, leaving only trumps in dummy.)

POSTSCRIPT  As it happens, East does have the ♠K, so our original idea would have worked just as well on this particular hand. But in 50% of cases, West will have it and you'll go off. Why take a chance when you have a cast-iron certainty?

  HOTW 14 Oct 2009 | One trick at a time

One trick at a time

You're declarer, sitting West. North leads the 5 and dummy goes down. It's very much as you expected from the auction: a nice near maximum with 3-card heart support. Thank you, partner! (And thank goodness we aren't in 3NT, which would doubtless have attracted a spade lead, with disastrous consequences.)

Let's play the ... No, wait a minute. Make a plan before you play a card! How many tricks have we got? Well, if we're lucky we'll make 4 trump tricks. ♠A makes 5. At least 2 in diamonds, and at least two in clubs. That's nine. Where's the 10th coming from?

Think about the possibilities before you read on.

  • One possibility is in clubs: if the ♣K is with South, we can finesse twice (if we can reach dummy enough times!) and make an extra trick.
  • Another is diamonds: if North has led away from the Q, we can steal a trick by inserting the J from dummy at trick 1.
  • But the best bet must be to ruff a couple of spades in dummy, creating not one but two extra tricks. Lovely.

So. What to do? No harm in putting up the J, just in case. Then play the ♠A (to create a void in dummy). Come back to your hand with a club finesse (if it works - if not, simply win the next trick and carry on) and ruff your first spade. Then do it all over again.

[Hang on a minute, I again hear you say (quite reasonably). Aren't you supposed to clear out their trumps at the first opportunity to stop them ruffing? Well, yes, but if you do that you won't be able to ruff any spades, will you, because there won't be any trumps left in dummy. More to the point, that'll leave you with 2 spade losers in your hand, plus (at least) one trump loser ... so if the ♣K is wrong, you'll have lost 4 tricks - one off!]

But this is all getting a bit theoretical. Let's actually do it and see what happens.

Trick 1: Up with the J. Alas, South puts in the Q, so you win in your hand with the Ace.

Trick 2: As planned, a small spade out to your ♠A.

Trick 3: Heart-in-the-mouth time. You lead a small club and put in the ♣J from hand ... And it wins!

Trick 4: Again as planned, lead a spade and ruff it in dummy with the 3.

Trick 5: That was good - let's try it again! Another small club from dummy and South plays the ♣K, which you beat with your Ace.

Trick 6: Now it's time to ruff our last spade with the 6. We've won six tricks out of six and the lead's in dummy.

What now? Tempted to make another club trick? Don't be. South went up with the King last time, so maybe he only had two to start with. No. If you remember, we delayed clearing trumps because we wanted to get those spade ruffs. That's all done now, so it's time to get trumps out of the way ...

Trick 7: Lead dummy's last trump (the 10). South plays the King! Goodness. Does he only have one heart? That means North's got the other four. But no matter. Win the trick with your A and ...

Trick 8: ... lead your J. North wins with the Queen, you discard a diamond from dummy and North shows out, as you expected.

Now if North is silly enough to lead another trump, you aren't going to lose any more tricks at all. He'll probably lead a spade, in which case you ruff in your hand, clear away one of his two remaining trumps by leading the 9 ... and in the end he'll make his 8 by ruffing a diamond. (Yes, that first diamond lead was a singleton.)

So you make an excellent 11 tricks. (Note what happens if, at trick 7, you unwisely try to take that third round of clubs. South ruffs with his (singleton!) K, and returns a diamond (his partner's lead). North ruffs, and eventually takes one more trick in hearts. You're still home, but with one fewer trick.

And now (if you're still there) ... admit it. Your eyes (and brain) glazed over at around Trick 5 and you began to lose track. Unsurprisingly. There's a lot going on. But it's so much easier if you're actually holding the cards in your hand. Press the Show all hands button, use a real pack of cards and lay them out on the table, and play the hand out for yourself.

  HOTW 00 00 0000 | Test your declarer play

Test your declarer play

You're declarer in 4♠, sitting South. West leads, AK and a third heart, which you ruff with your ♠2.
That's one trick. You can see a further 8 tricks off the top:
AK, ♣AK and four trump tricks. That's nine.

How are you going to make your 10th trick? Plan your play.


Answer  The simplest way is to ruff a club in dummy - but of course you have to do that before you clear trumps. Otherwise you won't have a trump left in dummy to ruff with!

Cash a top trump first, just to make sure trumps aren't a horrible 5-0, then cash your ♣AK (ending in your hand!) and lead your last small club. Then ... careful! You've got lots of high trumps in your hand, so you can afford to ruff with your Queen. That way, if East happens to have started with only two clubs he can't steal your trick by overruffing. In this case, he did have three after all (Check out the full deal), but why take the risk when you don't need to?

Postscript: Another possible route to the extra trick would have been to clear trumps, then play on diamonds, hoping that the opponents' diamonds are 3-2. Which, as you can see, they aren't!