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Bundesliga jewel: Bridge over broken hearts
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The German Bundesliga 2018 is approaching its climax. Last weekend we played the rounds 4-6 (out of 9, there are 10 teams in each division). The final of the season will take place in April, you can find the standings on the homepage of the German bridge federation (http://www.bridge-verband.de). Our team is struggling to advance from the third to the second division; the following hand barely registered on the score sheet, but it was a missed opportunity:

West
3
AKJ108
KQ1072
QJ
North
K109876
654
93
52
East
AQ42
Q3
5
K97643
South
J5
972
AJ864
A108
W
N
E
S
1
P
2
P
2
P
3NT
P
4NT
P
P
P
D
4NT East
NS: 0 EW: 0

At most tables EW reached a mundane 3NT contract and collected between 9 and 12 tricks. Some pairs played heart or club contracts instead, and a few got overboard, ending up in a slam with two aces missing. As far as I can tell, our opponents (I happened to be sitting South) were the only one to bid 4NT which may still seem boring but is actually highly interesting beneath the surface.

The first bids at our table were routine; East's bidding is mildly aggressive considering what qualifies as an opening these days, but nothing more. West had to make an interesting bidding decision over 3NT.

Two-suiters in the middle range - something like 15-17 - can be difficult to bid if there is no convenient opportunity to show the extra values. Is the West hand, with two very good suits and even two honors in partner's primary suit, worth another try? The West player at our table thought so, and I am not criticizing his decision. With barely enough to bid game in the first place, East naturally rejected the invitation.

West
North
East
South
J5
972
AJ864
A108
W
N
E
S
1
P
2
P
2
P
3NT
P
4NT
P
P
P
D
4NT East
NS: 0 EW: 0

First, about the opening lead. A club is out of the question, with clubs being my RHO's long suit. A diamond does not seem to serve a good purpose either; with partner nearly broke, there can be no hope of establishing the suit. This leaves hearts, opener's best suit, or spades, the unbid suit.

In such cases I often rely on my table presence - which does work sometimes, and sometimes not. In this case, the East player could have inquired instead of jumping to 3NT if he had had any doubts about the quality of his spade stopper.

Hence I decided that, if he was confident about his spade holding, his judgment was also good enough for me. Again, we must keep in mind that partner can hardly have a lot. Picture him with Qxxx(x) in spades, and it is easy to see how a spade lead can cost. In the end I kicked off with the 9.

Some books tell you that there are basically two kinds of opening leads, attacking or passive. The idea of the former is to actively establish tricks, the latter means just waiting for the tricks to come to you.

There is actually a third kind, attacking entries instead of tricks, which seems to work well against high-level notrump contracts with two shapely (and misfitting) hands. Of course I could not know it at the time, but the heart lead turned out to be critical in disrupting the communication between declarer's hand and dummy.

West
3
AKJ108
KQ1072
QJ
North
East
AQ42
Q3
5
K97643
South
W
N
E
S
1
P
2
P
2
P
3NT
P
4NT
P
P
P
D
4NT East
NS: 0 EW: 0
9
1

Next, a game plan from declarer's point of view. At first glance there seems to be an abundance of tricks: five hearts, five clubs (assuming a friendly break), and one or more tricks in each pointed suit, depending on the location of the missing honors. With the spade finesse on, it seems declarer cannot possible go wrong and will lose the two minor suit aces and maybe one more trick. Double-dummy the contract is indeed cold, but declarer cannot know the layout.

The main problem is entries. Establishing the clubs seems like the best choice, but even with a 3-2 split two more entries in the East hand will be needed. Declarer will not be happy to use spades for this purpose, because if the finesse were wrong, the suit could easily be wide open afterwards due to the lack of intermediates.

So, should declarer work on the diamond suit instead? Clearly this is not a good idea. He can win one or two tricks on sheer power, put properly establishing the long diamonds is unlikely to work. After all, holding a singleton one can only lead once towards dummy, and the entry situation in diamonds is no better than in clubs.

Declarer decided to play on clubs and accordingly won the heart lead with the ace. This is of course the correct choice because it keeps the entry situation flexible for the moment. I should mention that my partner followed to the first trick with the 4; with upside-down attitude signals agreed I felt he was confirming that he had the queen.

The club shift did not come as a surprise, and I took the ace right away to preserve the blockage. What now?

West
3
AKJ108
KQ1072
QJ
North
K109876
654
93
52
East
AQ42
Q3
5
K97643
South
J5
972
AJ864
A108
W
N
E
S
1
P
2
P
2
P
3NT
P
4NT
P
P
P
D
4NT East
NS: 0 EW: 0
9
A
4
3
0
0
1
Q
2
3
A
3
1
1
2

A continuation of the attack on declarer's communication must still be the right idea. In fact, nothing has changed over the last two tricks. Since I was under the impression that there was nothing left to be done in the heart suit, I shifted to the jack of spades.

With a singleton in dummy, the shift will rarely cost a trick directly. Still, it is not entirely without risk; the point is that it tells declarer something about the spade layout he cannot find out on his own, so it might guide him to a successful line of play.

My expectation (or even hope) was to find declarer with something like AKxx or even AKQx, such that he did not have any decision to make in the spade suit at all. It would also help my partner to understand the full layout, in particular the plan to lock declarer in one of his hands at some point. I was quite surprised to see partner play the K.

How should declarer continue? What he cannot possibly know is that the spades break 6-2, and that the hand with the long spades will be dead. So he must still fear losing the top tricks in one of his hands, either his own good clubs or dummy's hearts, depending on where he would choose to win the next heart trick.

Declarer proceeded to unblock the clubs, noting the 3-2 break. Keeping the club honor in dummy would serve no purpose; a dummy entry is only meaningful if the next heart is won in hand, but the only point of doing so is to cash the long clubs, so the unblock would be needed anyway.

West
3
AKJ108
KQ1072
QJ
North
K109876
654
93
52
East
AQ42
Q3
5
K97643
South
J5
972
AJ864
A108
W
N
E
S
1
P
2
P
2
P
3NT
P
4NT
P
P
P
D
4NT East
NS: 0 EW: 0
9
A
4
3
0
0
1
Q
2
3
A
3
1
1
J
3
K
A
2
1
2
4
8
J
5
0
1
3
4

It is at this point that declarer can succeed double-dummy simply by returning to his hand, cashing his winners in the black suits and leading his diamond. With no further exit card in spades in the hand holding the A, the defense would be forced to present dummy with a vital trick.

The danger of this line is obvious; releasing the spade stopper risks losing the rest of the tricks after exiting in diamonds. (This would not be a big deal in 3NT, since declarer would already have won two hearts, five clubs and two spades.)

Cashing the clubs but not the spade winner is hardly better. The defense would return a spade after winning the A and - with the possible exception of certain layouts that include a blockage in the NS hands - get two more tricks in the end.

Our declarer adopted a different plan, namely to clear the situation in diamonds immediately by leading one of dummy's honors. A double-dummy analysis marks this as the decisive mistake, but without hindsight I believe it is merely unlucky.

West
3
AKJ108
KQ1072
QJ
North
K109876
654
93
52
East
AQ42
Q3
5
K97643
South
J5
972
AJ864
A108
W
N
E
S
1
P
2
P
2
P
3NT
P
4NT
P
P
P
D
4NT East
NS: 0 EW: 0
9
A
4
3
0
0
1
Q
2
3
A
3
1
1
J
3
K
A
2
1
2
4
8
J
5
0
1
3
K
5

If the defenders duck, declarer can go back to square one, i.e. cross to his hand in hearts and abandon dummy's long suits entirely. He will come to ten tricks in the black suits and just lose a spade trick in the end. If South wins and returns a diamond, the same applies.

The critical line is South winning and returning a heart. When that happens, it must be declarer's hope to win in dummy, cash the remaining hearts (or at least some of them) and then return a diamond. On most layouts, a defender will either be forced to revive the East hand or give dummy enough tricks in diamonds.

It turns out that this line is exactly the one which does not work on the current layout. The South hand will keep all its diamonds and, due to the 5-2 break, score two diamond tricks in addition to the two aces in the final ping-pong game.

The play, as it should have proceeded, can be followed in the diagram below:

West
3
AKJ108
KQ1072
QJ
North
K109876
654
93
52
East
AQ42
Q3
5
K97643
South
J5
972
AJ864
A108
W
N
E
S
1
P
2
P
2
P
3NT
P
4NT
P
P
P
D
4NT East
NS: 0 EW: 0
9
A
4
3
0
0
1
Q
2
3
A
3
1
1
J
3
K
A
2
1
2
4
8
J
5
0
1
3
K
9
5
A
3
2
3
7
K
5
Q
0
2
4
J
6
2
2
0
2
5
10
3
4
5
0
2
6
8
6
6
10
0
2
7
2
7
7
4
3
3
7
6
7
8
9
0
3
8
Q
9
K
8
0
3
9
10
10
Q
J
3
4
9
E/W -50
13

It is noteworthy that North must drop the 9 under the king (at least double-dummy), or else declarer can throw him in with a small diamond after stripping him of his exit card in hearts. South cannot afford to overtake since this would cost him a diamond trick, but he cannot leave his partner on lead either since he would be forced to give declarer access to his hand. Also note that a fourth round of hearts on declarer's part would be fatal, though, as North could ditch the 9.

My partner did in fact follow to the first trick diamond with the 9. (He confessed later that he did not actually see all this coming.) However, after having followed the right defense so far, I fell from grace by ducking the diamond honor. Declarer happily took his ten tricks, and that was that.

Why did I misdefend at the critical stage? Well, I was confused by the signals I had received from my partner, in particular the 4 at trick one. Placing the Q in the North hand, there seemed to be no particular hurry.

Also, something I was slightly worried about was that declarer might try a throw-in against my partner with the Q, and that he would not find the unblock unless I somehow made the situation clear to him. Winning the A immediately and returning a heart seemed counter-productive to me; I imagined he would hold on to his queen and get himself endplayed later.

A reflection for just a moment would have allowed me to see that my partner could not possibly hold the Q. Having seen the K in the North hand already, where did East's bidding come from if he was missing another queen as well? Therefore, I should have found the proper defense with or without the heart signal. Mea culpa.

West
3
AKJ108
KQ1072
QJ
North
K109876
654
93
52
East
AQ42
Q3
5
K97643
South
J5
972
AJ864
A108
W
N
E
S
1
P
2
P
2
P
3NT
P
4NT
P
P
P
D
4NT East
NS: 0 EW: 0
9
A
4
3
0
0
1
Q
2
3
A
3
1
1
J
3
K
A
2
1
2
4
8
J
5
0
1
3
K
9
5
4
0
1
4
8
5
Q
2
2
1
5
K
10
2
3
2
1
6
9
7
7
6
2
1
7
7
6
10
6
2
1
8
6
8
Q
7
2
1
9
Q
5
10
8
2
1
10
2
J
J
9
1
2
10
10
4
A
K
1
3
10
E/W +430
13

I think the above hand is very instructive in several ways. For one thing, it shows what can happen if one is too obsessed with a single thought, perhaps after misreading a signal or an early play. Also, the defensive plan deserves attention; hands like this do not come up very often, and when they do, the best defense is offen missed.

Disrupting declarer's communication can be very effective in high-level notrump contracts which are not based on two balanced hands or a single source of tricks, but on general strength in two unbalanced hands. The misfit combined with an attack on the entry suits can lead to a situation where declarer must abandon one of his hands, and it pays to keep one's eyes open for such situations.

Finally, this deal is a good reminder of how the best double-dummy play and reality can diverge. A double-dummy solver will tell you that contract was cold for 10 tricks from the start, yet one cannot blame East for adopting a different line.

Even if a contract can be made in theory, it is the duty of a good defender to make it as hard as possible for declarer. If I had found the winning defense at trick five, we would have picked up 11 IMPs, instead of just 2 IMPs for the overtricks our team made at the other table (3NT+3).

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