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How Many Spade Finesses?
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You are North. First seat, both vulnerable.

North
QJ98
2
AJ863
K32
W
N
E
S
1
P
2
P
?

2 is old-fashioned standard, not a game force, but will normally not hold a four-card major with less than a game-forcing hand.

Our response structure: 2 or 2 would be natural, but 2 wouldn't promise a full reverse. 3 is a simple raise, and not forcing. Or, if you love your hand, you could splinter. Your choice?

This is a minimum hand, and certainly not worth a splinter raise, so that is out. We could easily have a 4-4 spade fit, and someone has to mention the suit. Still, partner, with a game force, and clubs and spades, will bid spades, so you are in no rush to show spades yourself. If you do show spades, or rebid 2, it may be hard to show the club fit conveniently, and there is a lot to be said for raising partner's suit. To me, the tipping point in favor of a 3 raise is if partner passes. Then, we are most likely in the right spot, while any other bid by you will make stopping in a club partial very hard.

North
QJ98
2
AJ863
K32
W
N
E
S
1
P
2
P
3
P
3
P
?

You bid 3, and partner continues with 3. Your call?

It would be nice if you could bid a natural 3 here, but partner will read that as some sort of fourth-suit noise, and certainly won't picture you with a double stop in spades. Seems like, if we belong in 3NT, we have to bid 3NT. Could that be the best game? Sure, picture partner with a hand like xx AKJx xx AQJxx. So, 3NT it is.

Partner isn't done, and continues with 4.

North
QJ98
2
AJ863
K32
W
N
E
S
1
P
2
P
3
P
3
P
3NT
P
4
P
?

That's an unusual call. Almost certainly, partner is patterning out, with some slam interest. So, partner will be 3+ 4 1- 5+, and your hand is looking very nice. To bid less than 6 would be very timid. It is, however, vaguely possible that we belong in spades. Maybe partner will take 5 as natural, and make the right strain choice. Or maybe, such a call will completely torture poor partner.

Whatever. You raise to 5, and, after some very painful looks, partner bids 6. Over to the South seat to play the hand.

West leads the K:

West
North
QJ98
2
AJ863
K32
East
South
A1052
A1075
AQ764
W
N
E
S
 
1
P
2
P
3
P
3
P
3N
P
4
P
5
P
6
P
P
P
D
6 South
NS: 0 EW: 0
K
1

Sure enough, we belong in spades. Finding our fit in the fourth suit can be quite hard. Oh well - this is still an excellent slam. Time to make it.

Your plan?

The simple line is to play for trumps to split. If so, the hand is easy - win, discarding a heart, heart ace, heart ruff, spade ace, heart ruff, club king, diamond ruff, draw trumps. Then concede a trick to the spade king. Simple, practical, and maybe best.

Of course, we can afford a trump loser if we can avoid a spade loser, so, perhaps we should try some spade finesses. I've given this hand to many players, and the most common plan was this:

Diamond ace, discarding a heart, spade queen. If it holds, heart ace, heart ruff, diamond ruff, heart ruff, club king, spade to the ten. That, too, looks promising, but, we can certainly improve on the timing. Consider this possible layout:

West
4
Q9864
KQ1075
J9
North
QJ98
2
AJ863
K32
East
K763
KJ3
942
1085
South
A1052
A1075
AQ764
W
N
E
S
 
1
P
2
P
3
P
3
P
3N
P
4
P
5
P
6
P
P
P
D
6 South
NS: 0 EW: 0
K
1

West would trump the second spade, and you will still have a spade loser. We are better off keeping the club king on the table, and leading a spade to the ten earlier - maybe spade queen, heart ruff, spade to the ten. Here, West can ruff, but will run out of trumps, and the slam will still make.

That is a better line, but, frankly, I wouldn't worry too much about a spade ruff by West. Seems like West would happily lead a singleton spade on this auction - a lead that would probably do you in.

There is another flaw in the common plan. Let's follow the play for a while.

West
North
QJ98
2
AJ863
K32
East
South
A1052
A1075
AQ764
W
N
E
S
 
1
P
2
P
3
P
3
P
3N
P
4
P
5
P
6
P
P
P
D
6 South
NS: 0 EW: 0
K
A
2
5
1
1
0
Q
3
2
4
1
2
0
2
3
A
4
3
3
0
7
6
2
8
1
4
0
3
4
4
5
3
5
0
10
9
3
J
1
6
0
K
5
6
8
1
7
0
8
6
8

This will be the position when the second spade is led:

North
J98
J86
South
A105
AQ7

Is it so clear to stick in the spade ten?

Playing the 10 lands the contract when East started with Kxx in spades, and trumps don't split, but costs the contract if West was mean enough to have ducked the first time with Kxx in spades, and trumps do split. That is not a hard defense, and presents a real danger.

Maybe we should take only one spade finesse - odd as that seems. The second spade finesse wins with Kxx onside, and trumps 4-1, while declining the second finesse wins against just as many spade positions, Kxx offside, but in the much more likely 3-2 trump split. Yes, planning to take two spade finesses is poor.

So, the choices seem to be between the simple line (no spade finesse), and taking only one spade finesse. Which of those lines is best?

Taking just one finesse in spades wins if trumps were 4-1 with Kx of spades onside. Simplealso gains once when trumps are 4-1 - a stiff king offside. That means the single finesse line gains four times to one, among the 4-1 splits - roughly 11% of those bad splits.

Simple gains, however, if either player started with a small singleton spade, when trumps were splitting. Even if we ignore the cases where West held a singleton spade, that is still around 11% of the 3-2 trump splits.

Turns out, simple is best.

At the table, we opted for the one-finesse line, and lost big time when trumps were splitting, but West had chosen not to lead a singleton spade.

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