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Cash or underlead?
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Playing in a home game IMP match against solid opponents, you find yourself with a decision to make at trick 2.

West
AK109
J65
96
6432
North
76
842
AQ1052
AQ9
W
N
E
S
P
1NT
P
3NT
P
P
P

As West, you are on opening lead as the opponents bid yet another game. Your agreements are that leading the King asks for count or unblock, while the Ace asks for attitude. So you lead the A. Partner encourages with the 2 (upside-down attitude) and declarer follows with the 4. Think for a minute about what to play at trick two.

Partner has at most 5 HCP, so our only chance to beat this is clearly to run the spade suit.His encouraging spade indicates exactlyone honor in spades, either the Q with any length or possibly Jxxxx (but would partner know to encourage with this?). With both honors he would have played the queen.

Cashing the K works if partner holds Hxxxx. Leading the 10 works if partner holds Qxx and another trick somewhere, probably the K (or declarer will run too many tricks after we cash our four spades). Keeping in mind partner's maximum of 5 HCP, playing for the Qxx and K seems to be catering to a specific holding. So, when this hand came up at the table, the player holding this hand chose to continue with the K. Sure enough, this was the full hand:

West
AK109
J65
96
6432
North
76
842
AQ1052
AQ9
East
Q52
973
K43
10875
South
J843
AKQ10
J87
KJ
W
N
E
S
P
1NT
P
3NT
P
P
P
D
3NT South
NS: 0 EW: 0

Partner won the third round of spades with the Q and shifted ineffectively to a heart. Declarer claimed after taking a losing diamond finesse.

Should we have gotten this right?

Actually, upon further analysis, we shouldn't have been given this problem at all! Consider what would have happened had partner played the 5 at trick 1. Knowing that we could run at most four spade tricks and playing partner for something like J5x, we would have shifted, probably to a club. With only seven tricks in the round suits, declarer would have taken a losing diamond finesse, allowing partner to cash the Q and run the spade suit.

Should partner have known to discourage? Upon reflection, we think he could have worked it out. From his hand, he can read us for at most 8 HCP, and the opening lead pinpoints the AK. With AKxxx and at most an outside jack, our hand would have led a low spade, so he should realize we have at most 4 spade tricks. Even if he were to encourage and we correctly figure out to cash our 4 spade tricks, if declarer has 8 tricks outside diamonds, he'll get them anyway after we finish running the spades. In order to beat the hand, partner needs to assume that he must score the K, so partner should discourage, despite holding Qxx.

So given that partner should discourage with Qxx, that means he should not only encourage with Qxxxx, but also with Jxxxx (opening leader can have AK10 but then we aren't beating it). That means our hand no longer has a problem. We should always cash our second top honor after seeing the encouraging signal, and rely on partner to discourage in the situation where he doesn't want us to cash.

One final interesting point. If declarer has J9x, and LHO leads two high spades, declarer should drop the J on the second round, retaining the 9. Now, when LHO holds AK10 and RHO holds Qxxxx, RHO will be persuaded to duck the 10 on the third round, blocking the spades. Just goes to show that we can't get every situation right, but we can get a lot more once we realize that in this specific situation, encourage = cash your second top honor.

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