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Handling Charges

Bridge has a catalogue of excellent metaphors; one is “handling charges.” This refers to, say, a slam where you clearly have material for 12 tricks, but because you cannot afford to pull trumps immediately, there is a chance that one of your precious dozen breaks in transit. Playing carefully to minimize handling charges is not very romantic, but it is even less romantic to go down in a makeable slam! So, try your hand at this combination I faced in the last round of the Open Swiss. You have opened 2NT and landed in 6 on a transfer auction:

North: -- KT754 QJ6 KQ864


South: AQ64 AQJ AK54 75


Lead: T. Plan the play.

 

North
K10754
QJ6
KQ864
South
AQ64
AQJ
AK54
75

 


If you can score a club ruff in hand, you’ll have 12 tricks. You will have to risk a second-round defensive club ruff – this is an unavoidable handling charge, since you can’t afford to play more than one trump before knocking out the A. There is a small advantage to leading clubs from hand – if West has the stiff A, you’ll pull trumps ASAP, and avoid the ruff. You must keep the diamonds unblocked, so you win trick 1 in dummy, cross to a trump (both following), and play a club to the Q.  This holds. What now?


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Did you say “Play a second club”? This is indeed a much better plan than crossing to a second trump and counting on the A onside, but if you weren’t more specific, you probably just went down! At the table, East held Kxxxxx xxx x A9x. If you carelessly play a low club off dummy, West can win and give East a diamond ruff.

West
J
K109754
J10972
KQJ108643
North
K10754
QJ6
KQ864
East
K98532
832
3
A92
South
AQ64
AQJ
AK54
75
D

It’s a much better idea to play the K from dummy. Could this ever cost? Well, it would blow a club trick when West has Ax, but this rarely matters…it only costs the contract when West has specifically a diamond singleton and 4 trumps to go with Ax in clubs. The play would go club king to the ace, trump return (say) revealing the break; now you need two dummy entries and can’t afford two ruffs. So you will try to use a diamond entry and go down. That layout is much less likely, though, than the danger that actually existed (or an equivalent layout with West having been dealt a diamond singleton and the Axx or Axxx). Full marks if you saw both possible handling charges and prevented the more likely one.

Now for the real-life story: East indeed held the hand above, but failed to put me to the test by ducking the Q. After she won, I made 6 routinely, which was just enough for my team to complete a highly dramatic comeback into the last overall position, tied for 42nd :-). It only occurred to me hours later that the hand need not have been nearly so routine. Quite honestly, I hadn’t made a specific plan of which club to continue with if the first club held, so I cannot say if I would have passed the test. Would you, as East, have found the duck that gives declarer a chance to go down? And would you have passed the test as declarer?

Actually, because East knows declarer has at least two clubs, it's a good general principle to duck here even if you don't know why.  If East had held, say, Kxxx 9xxx x AT9x, ducking would actually beat the contract legitimately, because declarer can't get his ruff and pull trumps without trying a round of diamonds and suffering a ruff.

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