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 Another southern hemisphere winter rolls around, and with it, another GNOT qualification event in Sydney. For some reason, interesting hands always seem to crop up in this event. And the knockout format means you often have to get them right at the table.

Playing in the middle stages of the New South Wales state GNOT qualifier, you hold the following hand as South:

South
1086432
J10
A10
J83

With just your side vulnerable, West deals and passes. Partner opens 1 , showing 16+ points any distribution. East overcalls 1.

Your options are 1 (natural and forcing to game), double (artificial, 6-7 points), and 2 (six-card suit, about 5-7 points). What’s the best move on this round of bidding?

South
1086432
J10
A10
J83

This hand doesn’t really have the strength to force to game opposite what might be a balanced 17-count, or even worse, an upgraded 15-count with a singleton spade.

Likewise, although we technically have what's required for the bid, 2 doesn’t feel right with all of our values outside our suit and some playability in other strains. A hand like QJ10543 K3 752 83 would be much more suitable for a “jump semi-positive”.

You decide to double, showing a few bits and pieces, and LHO jumps to 3. Partner doubles for takeout, and RHO passes. Your bid?

South
1086432
J10
A10
J83
W
N
E
S
P
1
1
X
3
X
P
?

South
1086432
J10
A10
J83
W
N
E
S
P
1
1
X
3
X
P
?

Holding a six-card major when we haven’t promised any major suit at all is a big plus. Bidding 3 doesn’t express the full potential of our hand, and although it allows room for partner to bid 3NT, we expect a nine-card spade fit on balance. Meanwhile, bidding 3 and hearing partner pass seems like a recipe for disaster. Bidding game in spades can't be too far off the mark. 

You jump to 4, ending the auction, and the lead is the 3 (fourth highest). Partner puts down...

North
QJ5
AK62
74
AK42
South
1086432
J10
A10
J83
W
N
E
S
P
1
1
X
3
X
P
4
P
P
P

The first trick proceeds: 3, 4, Q, A.

How does the land lie at first sight?

North
QJ5
AK62
74
AK42
South
1086432
J10
A10
J83
W
N
E
S
P
1
1
X
3
X
P
4
P
P
P

On the lead, we have three quick losers: two top trumps, and a diamond as soon as the opponents get in. The main problem to be solved is how to avoid losing two tricks in the minors. Counting our tricks, we have 4 spades, 2 hearts, 1 diamond, and 2 clubs = 9, confirming that we will need to create an extra heart or club trick to make our contract.

In the heart suit, we have a finesse available against the queen. If West does have the queen of hearts, we can play on hearts immediately and throw away our losing diamond. Does this seem necessary?

North
QJ5
AK62
74
AK42
South
1086432
J10
A10
J83
W
N
E
S
P
1
1
X
3
X
P
4
P
P
P

North
QJ5
AK62
74
AK42
South
1086432
J10
A10
J83
W
N
E
S
P
1
1
X
3
X
P
4
P
P
P

A preliminary analysis suggests that we should be in no rush to take the heart finesse.

For an immediate heart finesse to be necessary (compared to drawing trumps), the opponents would need to win the first trump lead, cash their diamond trick, then attack clubs from the right side (the hand without the queen).

Next, they would have to prevent us getting to hand in trumps (meaning trumps would have to be 3-1 and the opponents played their top cards in the right way to block entry to our hand). Finally, after ducking the second round of trumps, they would have to resist the temptation of a safe diamond return (allowing us to ruff to our hand), and instead continue the attack on clubs. This would prevent us from getting to our hand in time to finesse hearts.

On the other hand, delaying the heart finesse may allow us to test other options, rather than risking immediate failure if the heart finesse is off. 

Given that there are many layouts where the killing defense can’t materialize, and that this defense requires very precise plays from both of our opponents, it seems better to keep everything intact and delay any heart plays for now.

Might there be a way to hold our trump losers to one?

North
QJ5
AK62
74
AK42
South
1086432
J10
A10
J83
W
N
E
S
P
1
1
X
3
X
P
4
P
P
P

North
QJ5
AK62
74
AK42
South
1086432
J10
A10
J83
W
N
E
S
P
1
1
X
3
X
P
4
P
P
P

In order to only lose one trump trick, both the ace and king would have to be played on the same trick. This would likely involve either East covering an honor lead from dummy with A97/K97, or West hopping up with an honor on the first lead towards dummy.

The former seems a bit more plausible, though it would still be poor play. Can we afford to cross to dummy and lead the queen of spades?

No. If we cross to dummy in hearts, we destroy our main chance of making the contract (the heart finesse). But if we cross to dummy in clubs to play a top spade, and East ducks, we make it much easier for West to continue clubs. This would increase the chances of going down on a cold hand when the heart finesse is onside but we don’t take it immediately. The chance of East blowing the hand by covering the first spade lead is too low to make it worthwhile mucking around here. 

Having decided that the heart finesse can wait and that any chicanery in spades will have too high a cost, you lead a low spade from hand to the queen and East’s ace.

East returns the 5 to West’s jack. West’s next play is to lay down the king of spades. How has the landscape of the hand changed?

North
QJ5
AK62
74
AK42
South
1086432
J10
A10
J83
W
N
E
S
P
1
1
X
3
X
P
4
P
P
P

North
J5
AK62
AK42
South
108643
J10
J83
W
N
E
S
P
1
1
X
3
X
P
4
P
P
P

At the beginning of the hand, we worked out that if we didn’t take the heart finesse immediately, there was a chance of being cut off from our hand. That danger is still very much live. If we play low on West’s king of spades, the hand starts to look a bit ugly when we win the next lead in dummy.  

There is no benefit to being in dummy, and being in our hand gives us lots of chances… such as the heart finesse, for one! We might also want to run our trump suit.

On West’s king of spades, therefore, we dump dummy’s jack of spades. East discards the 2. West continues with a spade and we win in our hand as East throws the 8, leaving the following position:

North
AK62
AK42
South
864
J10
J83
W
N
E
S
P
1
1
X
3
X
P
4
P
P
P

We’ve drawn trumps, and all of our chances are still intact, so things are looking a little healthier.

Is now the right time to take that heart finesse?

 

North
AK62
AK42
South
864
J10
J83
W
N
E
S
P
1
1
X
3
X
P
4
P
P
P

We can’t combine our chances in the clubs and hearts - for example by playing to drop the queen of clubs before finessing in hearts - due to the lack of entries to our hand. But there is no rush to take the heart finesse just yet.

If we run off two (or three) more rounds of trumps, we may well find something out about the hand. Both opponents might discard hearts, for example, in which case we could decide to try and ruff out the heart suit. We will never be any worse off than if we take the heart finesse now.

We decide to run a few trumps and see what happens. On the fourth round of trumps, West discards the 6, we let go of dummy’s fourth club, and East quickly discards the king of diamonds.

On the fifth round of trumps, West discards the 7. What should we let go from the dummy this time? Is anything interesting developing?

North
AK62
AK4
South
64
J10
J83
W
N
E
S
P
1
1
X
3
X
P
4
P
P
P

North
AK62
AK4
South
64
J10
J83
W
N
E
S
P
1
1
X
3
X
P
4
P
P
P

At first glance, it appears that we can happily discard dummy’s fourth heart at this point. After all, we only need one extra heart trick. However, a closer analysis will show that a club, baring dummy’s ace-king, is the right pitch from dummy.

The cost of discarding a heart is that we may wish to play three rounds of hearts, ruffing, and hoping that the fourth heart is now high. It won't be if we pitch it now. Meanwhile, blocking the clubs has no cost if we are thinking of dropping the queen of clubs, as we can always return to hand with a heart ruff to cash the jack of clubs.

On our 6, we discard dummy’s other low club, and East also discards a club. Can you paint a picture of the full hand yet?

North
AK62
AK
South
4
J10
J83
W
N
E
S
P
1
1
X
3
X
P
4
P
P
P

North
AK62
AK
South
4
J10
J83
W
N
E
S
P
1
1
X
3
X
P
4
P
P
P

Spades are 3-1, and although we haven't seen all thirteen diamonds, it appears that the diamonds are divided 4-5 from the bidding and the play so far.

East is unlikely to hold five hearts or five clubs along with their diamonds. With five hearts, East’s overcall might have been 1, and with five clubs, East could have overcalled 1NT to show both minors (and West would have led their singleton club).

An even firmer inference is that if East started with a five-card side suit, they would likely have discarded once from that suit earlier in the play. East seems to have been unwilling to discard from either hearts or clubs, suggesting they hold three or four of each suit.

It appears that East’s most likely shapes are 1=3=5=4 or 1=4=5=3. This would give West 3=4=4=2 or 3=3=4=3 respectively, both consistent with the bidding and play so far.

Based on these thoughts, can you see any alternative to the heart finesse?

North
AK62
AK
South
4
J10
J83
W
N
E
S
P
1
1
X
3
X
P
4
P
P
P

If West is 3=4=4=2 and East is 1=3=5=4, the full hand looks kind of like this:

West
K97
Q953
J963
97
North
QJ5
AK62
74
AK42
East
A
874
KQ852
Q1065
South
1086432
J10
A10
J83
W
N
E
S
P
1
1
X
3
X
P
4
P
P
P
D
4 South
NS: 0 EW: 0

 

On the above layout, the heart finesse will be the only winning play.

If we swap the queen and four of hearts, there will be no way to make the hand: the heart finesse fails, the club queen is still protected, and the hearts can’t be ruffed out.

Finally, if we give West the queen of clubs without the queen of hearts, the way to make ten tricks will be to play the ace and king of clubs at this point, dropping the queen and establishing our jack while we still have a trump entry. 

If West is 3=3=4=3 and East is 1=4=5=3, the full hand will look something like this:

West
K97
Q94
J963
Q76
North
QJ5
AK62
74
AK42
East
A
8753
KQ852
1095
South
1086432
J10
A10
J83
W
N
E
S
P
1
1
X
3
X
P
4
P
P
P
D
4 South
NS: 0 EW: 0

The heart finesse will work, as will dropping the queen of clubs.

What about if the above distribution exists, but East started with both the queens rather than West?

The hand where East is 1=4=5=3 with both Queens looks like this:

West
K97
984
J963
1076
North
QJ5
AK62
74
AK42
East
A
Q753
KQ852
Q95
South
1086432
J10
A10
J83
W
N
E
S
P
1
1
X
3
X
P
4
P
P
P
D
4 South
NS: 0 EW: 0

On this layout, we have executed a trump squeeze on our penultimate trump!

If you were on the ball, you might have spotted this position developing when we threw dummy's last small club from the dummy. The trademark sign of the trump squeeze, the blocked threat, is present in the club suit. 

This is the position at the end:

West
984
9
1076
North
AK62
AK4
East
Q753
Q95
South
64
J10
J83
D

On the fifth round of trumps, North throws the 4. East can’t hold the position.

If East pitches a club, declarer cashes the top clubs then ruffs a heart back to hand. The jack of clubs takes the last trick.

If East pitches a heart, declarer cashes the top hearts and ruffs the third round. Dummy’s fourth heart will grow up to become declarer’s tenth winner.

In contrast to the trump suit, where a blockage spelled defeat, blocking the clubs was a crucial element in setting up the endgame. 

Very pretty. But do you really think we have executed a trump squeeze on this hand?

North
AK62
AK
South
4
J10
J83
W
N
E
S
P
1
1
X
3
X
P
4
P
P
P

Back we are, at the cross-roads. There are three possible plans:

  1. Take the heart finesse. Not very fancy, but you can’t argue with 50% (is it 50%?)
  2. Play the top clubs, trying to drop the queen. This will work nicely if someone has unguarded the queen of clubs, particularly if they were trump squeezed. This play has the added benefit of getting you into the bulletin… one way or another.
  3. Play the top hearts and ruff out the suit, hoping to establish the fourth round.

 

Have you been keeping track of the discards?

If we are going to play for the trump squeeze, we should play for someone to have been squeezed out of their club guard rather than their heart guard. No one has discarded a heart yet, so playing three rounds of hearts is a doomed line – someone will still hold the master card in the suit.

Meanwhile, in clubs both opponents have discarded a card, which makes the chances of dropping the queen of clubs far more promising.

There is one last little thing that might be niggling away at you. What is West holding onto at this point?

 

If we go back through the discards, West has discarded one diamond and one club. This means that West has, weirdly enough, held onto a useless diamond (and thrown a club instead). Either that, or they only started with three diamonds – just as strange, given the auction and East's last discard.

Assuming that hearts aren’t 2-5 (and therefore clubs not 4-2, West holding the length), West is highly unlikely to hold the queen of clubs. Why would West discard from Qxx of clubs while dummy still had three clubs, when they had a diamond to cast off instead?

North
AK62
AK
South
4
J10
J83
W
N
E
S
P
1
1
X
3
X
P
4
P
P
P

Back to business. We’ve worked out that most of the time there should be a way to make this hand.

Let’s knuckle down, do the hard work, and go over all of the possible cases. It would be sad to go down in this vulnerable game which probably hasn’t been bid at the other table.

If clubs are 2-4:

If East started with A  Qxx  KQ852  Qxxx, we could never have made the hand, so ignore this layout. West has the heart length so no trump squeeze this time. 

If East started with A xxx KQ852  Qxxx, we must take a heart finesse now.

If clubs are 3-3:

East has been trump squeezed, and the queen of clubs is dropping now. The heart finesse will work in one of these layouts but not the other (where East is holding onto Qxxx).

There are, roughly, two layouts we don't care about (both plays work, or neither), one layout where we need to take the heart finesse, and one layout where we need to play off the clubs. Which layout should we play for?

It seems as though East would probably have discarded as they did whichever of the above hands they held. Going back over to look at the West hand, the swing cases are when West holds:

  1. K97 Qxxx J963 xx – we should take the heart finesse;
  2. K97 xxx J963 xxx – we should drop the queen of clubs.

 

Which is more likely?

Probably the first hand. Why?

On the first hand, West would always discard a diamond or a club, keeping heart length with dummy. On the second hand, West might have discarded a worthless heart instead. This would also have given us a losing option (of ruffing out the hearts when East discards a club on the penultimate trump).

However, on the first hand East has three little hearts and queen fourth of clubs. He might well have pitched a heart from that holding rather than a club from length - although he certainly should pitch a club, given that it makes dropping the queen look more appealing (and it's not working for declarer). On the second hand, East had no appealing pitch from Qxxx and Qxx. 

Last chance before the full hand is revealed. Hearts or clubs - what do you play?

North
AK62
AK
South
4
J10
J83
W
N
E
S
P
1
1
X
3
X
P
4
P
P
P

This was the actual full deal:

West
K97
Q94
J963
1076
North
QJ5
AK62
74
AK42
East
A
8753
KQ852
Q95
South
1086432
J10
A10
J83
W
N
E
S
P
1
1
X
3
X
P
4
P
P
P
D
4 South
NS: 0 EW: 0

My apologies if you agonized over this one! The heart finesse works, and East had been trump squeezed out of their club guard as well. Either of the plausible lines would have worked at the finish. 

At the table, declarer found the best line of all: the jack of hearts, tempting a cover, followed by the top clubs. West made the mistake of covering the jack of hearts with the queen, so declarer made the contract without further difficulty. 

As long as declarer realised that the lack of heart pitches meant that ruffing out the hearts was doomed to fail, 4 was always going to make. 

Any thoughts about the defense?

West
K97
Q94
J963
1076
North
QJ5
AK62
74
AK42
East
A
8753
KQ852
Q95
South
1086432
J10
A10
J83
W
N
E
S
P
1
1
X
3
X
P
4
P
P
P
D
4 South
NS: 0 EW: 0

Although 4 was cold at the beginning of the hand, this was one of the layouts where declarer needed to take the heart finesse at trick two. When declarer elected to draw trumps, the contract was at risk. 

After a trump was played to the queen and ace, the defence was on the right track when East underled their diamonds back to West. If West had played a club through at trick four, 4 would no longer have been makeable. As discussed earlier, West would have had to continue the good work by ducking the jack of spades on the next trick in order to deny declarer an entry back to hand. 

This was a good hand for fourth highest (promising an honor). Those playing third and low would have a difficult decision on the East hand about whether to risk a low diamond back, potentially losing to AJ doubleton with declarer.

One point I did not discuss earlier was declarer's decision to win the opening lead. If declarer had ducked the Q, on this layout he would have still been cold even if he played trumps at trick three after a diamond return. In fact, East doesn't cash the A at trick two, they will be endplayed after winning the first round of trumps!

Ducking the diamond lead severs defensive communications and starts setting up potential endplay options. There is little risk to this play: if East wins and shifts to a club, declarer can try for either queen onside, and if neither are onside then declarer was likely going down regardless. 

West
K97
Q94
J963
1076
North
QJ5
AK62
74
AK42
East
A
8753
KQ852
Q95
South
1086432
J10
A10
J83
W
N
E
S
P
1
1
X
3
X
P
4
P
P
P
D
4 South
NS: 0 EW: 0

Despite declarer risking going down in a cold contract, the hand was played reasonably well. The choice to draw trumps and let the hand evolve, rather than go for an immediate heart finesse, was a reasonable one. 

Later, the play of unblocking dummy's jack of spades under West's king was obviously crucial, but might have been missed by some. The decision to run a couple of rounds of trumps and see if anything developed was also fine play. And if you managed to work out East's likely shape at the end, as well as to cotton on to the fact that East was quite likely to hold the queen of clubs, you can give yourself a pat on the back.

Performing a trump squeeze was the icing on the cake. Well done to my partner Nye Griffiths who played the hand as described. 

If you enjoyed reading through this hand, hover over my name on the right-hand side and click Follow. Bridge Winners will let you know next time I put up an article.

I will be over in Toronto for the nationals this week - see you at the bar!

Previously: Fantasyland

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