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Another 8 ever, 9 never

In the finals of the USA2 senior trials, Zia and Berkowitz faced the following play problem.

North
A10x
10xx
AKQ9xx
3
South
x
xx
J10
AKJ8xxxx

North-South were vulnerable against not. Dealer West. At Zia's table, the auction was (1H)-2D-(2S)-5C. Berkowitz heard (1H)-2D-(DBL)-5C. At both tables West started with three top hearts, East pitching a spade on the third one. The question is whether you finesse or play for the drop of the CQ.

If you knew nothing about the East-West hands, you would play for the drop, picking up all 2-2's and 1/4 of the 3-1's (~52.5%) versus 1/2 of the 3-1's and 2-2's (~45%). But from the auction and play to the first three tricks we have some useful information.

High card points. West opened 1H at favorable. Given modern opening bid standards, AKQxxx is possibly enough. Where East bid 2S, he may not have your grandmother's 10hcp but at these colors KQxxxx may be bid by the adventuresome. (I tell my juniors, "At favorable, you are allowed to be slightly crazy." They have little trouble taking that direction.) Similarly, a negative double on KQxxx is de rigueur so my conclusion is that either defender can have the CQ.

Distribution. We know the hearts are 6-2 and the spades are at least 4-5 but could be 3-6 or 2-7. If West has more open spaces than East, it is always right to play CA. What if East has 5 open spaces and West has four? I believe it makes the finesse closer to the drop but the drop still prevails. (I make the drop 58.5% to 51.6% for the finesse. I have East with 3 clubs 31.7%, 2 clubs 47.6% and 1 club at 15.9%. Yes, this is me wasting time on a Sunday with a pad of paper and the calculator on my cell phone.)

Defense. Why did West show you his sixth heart when he knew it wasn't cashing? With club shortness and attempting to talk declarer out of finessing, might it have been better to switch to a high spade or diamond, feigning side suit shortness? And my answer is "no."

The defenders can put declarer on at least AK8th of clubs, he may have the Q and/or J. If West held CQx, I believe an expert defender will always play a third heart so as to promote his CQ when East ruffs in from CJ or CJx. From declarer's perspective, this may indicate West has the CQ. It follows that with club shortness, West should play as if he had CQx.

At the table, Berkowitz played to the SA and the CJ. Zia played to the SA and ruffed a spade back to his hand (West playing 7-8 and East playing 2-K.) Zia then played the CA.

You don't really want to know which one worked, do you? One deal doesn't prove anything. Ok, I will tell you anyway. East held CQxx. No one said "bridge is fair."

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