In a semi-final match in the Senior trials, you have to make a straight power evaluation.
E-W vul, East deals. As North, you hold:
1♦: 11-15, 2+ diamonds
1NT: 13-15, balanced, fewer than 4 spades
You play 2-way checkback. If you wish to make a straight power invite, the call to do this is 2NT.
One hates to play in 2NT. An invitational 2NT is almost always the wrong thing to do. But sometimes that is simply the percentage call. This looks like that time. You have a flat 11-count. 4-3-3-3 is bad. Two 10's are good, particluarly since one of them is in your 4-card suit. You are non-vulnerable, so you would like game prospects to be around 50%. If partner has a minimum of 13 the combined count is 24, and 3NT is probably an underdog but 2NT figures to make. If partner has 14 or 15, you probably want to be in 3NT. If you invite, partner will reject with 13, bid game with 15, and probably bid game with 14 unless he doesn't like his hand. The invite looks to be right on target.
You bid 2NT. The bidding concludes:
Over you go to partner's seat to play it.
West leads the ♠4. Standard leads and carding.
How do you start?
This is going to be a close contract. You have 4 spade tricks and 1 diamond trick for sure. The hearts may produce anywhere from 2 to 4 tricks. You might have a club trick if the ace is onside. Also, there may be some kind of end position. Unfortunately, this passive spade lead didn't give you anything.
The bulk of your tricks will have to come in the heart suit. On a good day K10x of hearts will be onside and you will have 4 heart tricks. The sure entries to dummy are somewhat limited, so it seems reasonable to win the opening lead in dummy and attack hearts now. If you do something else, there is a danger that the opponents will get minor suit tricks going first.
There is an interesting ploy to consider. You might win the opening lead in your hand and bang down the king of diamonds. You are going to have to knock out the ace of diamonds at some point, and this may be as good a time as any. The opponent who doesn't have the jack of diamonds will be sure that you have that card, and even the opponent who does have the jack will believe that your diamonds are a lot better than they are. If West has the ace of diamonds, you might talk him into ducking. You may talk the opponents into breaking the heart suit thinking that they need heart tricks quickly. Whatever happens you will still have time to tackle hearts and get 4 heart tricks if the cards lie right. But maybe the opponents will help out.
You choose to win the lead in dummy with the ♠10. East plays the ♠6. How do you continue?
Clearly you will attack hearts. You are planning on taking two finesses if needed, so you aren't going to lead a small heart to the queen. You must start with the jack of hearts to maximize your chances of taking 3 heart tricks while keeping alive the possibility of winning 4 heart tricks.
You lead the jack of hearts. East covers with the king. You win the ace, with West playing the ♥6. What now?
You have to get back to dummy for another heart finesse. The best route looks to be in spades, as that keeps the minor-suit position more flexible. Naturally you will unblock the spades. This also gives you the option of cashing the fourth round of spades if you choose to do so.
You cash the king of spades, and then overtake the queen with the ace. Both opponents follow. What next?
East didn't open the bidding, so West is very likely to have at least one of the minor-suit aces. Thus getting back to dummy shouldn't be a problem. Still, it looks right to cash the thirteenth spade. You will have to make a discard from your hand, which will be somewhat uncomfortable, but both opponents will also have to make a discard and they may find that even more uncomfortable as well as revealing.
You cash the jack of spades. East discards the ♦9. What do you discard?
Obviously you won't pitch a heart. The ♣8 could come into play later in the hand if West has Q9xx or J9xx. Holding a third diamond doesn't appear to be of much value.
You discard the ♦2. West discards the ♦5. What next?
Clearly you will continue hearts. Leading the ♥8 looks best. That is wrong only when East has K10 doubleton, and if West had 4 small hearts he would probably have led a heart instead of a spade. If you catch West with 76 doubleton, your heart spots will allow you to scoop the entire suit. Even if West has 62 or 63 doubleton, your spots are good enough to allow a winning finesse against the ♥7, although the suit will be blocked.
You lead the ♥8. East covers with the ♥10. You win the queen, as West follows with the ♥2. What do you do now?
If the hearts are 3-3, you have 9 tricks. But there are several reasons to believe the hearts are 4-2. You can't put much stock in West's echo in hearts, since he could do anything. However, there are several other clues.
First of all, this is actually a restricted choice situation. If West has 762, he could play either the 7 or the 6. If he has 72 or 62 doubleton, he has no choice. So, even if there are no other considerations West is about a 2 to 1 favorite to have a doubleton heart.
Secondly, there is the opening lead. It turned out that leading dummy's suit didn't cost anything this time, but it might have cost. Dummy is known to not have 4 hearts. If West had 3 small hearts and 3 small spades, it seems likely that he would have chosen to lead a heart rather than a spade.
Finally, there is West's discard on the fourth round of spades. West must hold some cards in the minors. If West started with 762 of hearts, he might not have seen the significance of these spots and discarded a heart.
Putting all these facts together, it appears very likely that the hearts are 4-2 instead of 3-3.
If the ♥5 and ♥4 were switched, all you would need to do is get to dummy and take a third heart finesse. However, the hearts are blocked, so even if you take that finesse successfully you might not be able to advantage of winning the finesse.
What is the likely distribution? Once again, let's look back at the opening lead. West appears to have started with 3 spades and 2 hearts. If he had a 5-card minor he probably would have chosen to lead that minor. Thus, West appears to be 3-2-4-4.
If West has the ace of clubs, you will be in good shape. But suppose East has the ace of clubs. Then West probably has the ace of diamonds, since East didn't open the bidding and has already shown up with the king of hearts. It looks natural to lead out the king of diamonds, but this has problems. West will win, and put a club through. East will win, exit with a red suit, and you will be stuck in dummy.
A better idea is to lead a small diamond towards the queen. When West ducks, you can win the queen, take the heart finesse, and exit with a diamond. West can win, cash a diamond, and put a club through. But you can cover this club shift cheaply and the opponents can take only 2 diamonds and 2 clubs. In the end, East will have to give you either a heart trick or a club trick. It won't help West to go up ace of diamonds and shift to a club, since East will still get end-played.
You choose to lead the king of diamonds. West wins the ace, East playing the ♦4. West leads the jack of clubs. You cover, and East wins the ace. East now leads the ♥3. Do you finesse or play for the drop?
If the hearts are 3-3 you need to go up ♥9. As we have seen, the odds heavily favor the hearts being 4-2. Still, if you can't make by letting the heart shift ride around to the ♥5 you might as well go up ♥9 and hope for the best.
What are the possibilities if you win the ♥5? Exiting with a small diamond won't work even if East is down to a singleton jack. He will simply dump you back in your hand with a heart as West discards his last diamond, and you will lose 2 club tricks in the end.
Better is to cash the queen of diamonds. Now you will have a choice. If East started with exactly AQ9 of clubs, you need to exit with a club and East will have to give you a heart trick in the end. More likely, West has either the queen or the ♣9. You exit with a diamond. East must discard his heart to have a chance. You also discard a heart, and guess right when West leads a small club. Restricted choice in clubs says to play East for the queen and West for the ♣9.
You choose to go up ♥9. As feared, West discards the ♣3. Now what?
If the distribution is what it appears to be, you need West to have the queen of clubs to have a chance. There can be no end-play unless West has the queen of clubs, and if that is the case leading up to the ♣10 will work. You might as well lead a club, in case somehow West started with QJxxx of clubs.
You lead a diamond to the queen, and exit with a diamond. As feared East has the queen of clubs, and you are down 1. The full hand is:
How was the opening lead and subsequent defense?
The opening lead choice is interesting. It is almost certainly wrong to lead a minor. A broken 4-card suit vs. what figures to be a close contract is definitely a losing proposition. Passivity is in order, along with the possibility of setting up tricks in partner's hand.
West can assume that North has exactly 4 spades and fewer than 4 hearts from the 2NT call. If East has 5 hearts, a heart lead is almost certainly best. But if East has 4 hearts declarer will also have 4 hearts, and a heart lead may pick off East's heart holding. Of course a spade lead could also pick off East's spade holding, and North is known to have 4 spades while South might not have 4 hearts. It is a close choice. This time West chose well.
East had to pitch a diamond on the long spade, since he needed to retain his club holding. West, however, should have pitched a club instead of a diamond. At that point he should have known that declarer had 3 spades and 4 hearts from the line of play, and declarer wouldn't be discarding down to a stiff diamond. So there was no need to keep the long club. If West had pitched a club, the play of leading a diamond to the queen would not have succeeded since West would get 3 diamond tricks.
West made a nice jack of clubs shift. He had to play for the existing hand, and his shift takes the pressure off his partner.
It didn't really matter whether East returned a diamond or a heart at the end, since the position transposes if declarer reads it. Probably the heart was best, as that makes it a little more difficult for declarer to see the ending.
How was South's bidding?
South is right on the bubble. He has 14 points, right in the middle of his range. No jacks, which is generally good. The 4-3-3-3 is bad, as is the lack of 10's. Passing is probably percentage, but the decision is so close it isn't worth worrying about.
Most pairs playing 2-way checkback use an immediate 2NT rebid by responder as a puppet to 3♣, either to play or perhaps to show some otherwise difficult hand pattern. In order to power invite, they go through 2♣. I have never understood the logic behind this. They are giving the opponents a free chance to double (or not double) 2♣ for a lead on a notrump power auction. It makes more sense to use 2♣ followed by 2NT as the puppet to 3♣.
At the other table against 3NT on basically the same auction West chose to lead the ♥6. If declarer had been paying close attention to the heart spots he would have covered with the ♥8, and it would then be pretty easy to come to 9 tricks. However, he carelessly played the ♥5. This gave East the chance to play small and limit declarer to 3 heart tricks, after which declarer would have to guess extremely well to make. But East also wasn't paying close attention to the heart spots and he inserted the ♥10, and now picking up the heart suit for 4 winners was trivial. Quite a pair of blunders for two world-class players.
This sort of close contract with 24 or 25 combined HCP and two balanced hands can lead to the most exciting play and defense problems. There are often many different twists and turns, and every card can matter. The difference between the ♥4 and ♥5 on this hand was a good example of this.
Plus... it's free!