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Steal the Trick
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In a round-robin match in the Open Trials, you have to find the best way to proceed opposite a weak notrump.

E-W vul, East deals. As North, you hold:

North
Q6
109864
KQJ
AJ7
W
N
E
S
P
1NT
P
?

1NT: 10-12

Available to you are:

2 is game-forcing Stayman. Partner will bid a 4-card major if he has one, else a 5-card minor, else 2NT. If partner bids a major or 2NT, you can determine his exact distribution by bidding 2NT over the major or 3C over 2NT. Otherwise, natural bidding.

2 is non-game-forcing Stayman. After this call, any new suit bid by you below 3H is to play. 3 of a major is a natural invite, as is 2NT. If partner bids 2, both 2 and 2 are assumed to be garbage Stayman -- with 5 spades and 4 hearts you would bid 2.

Other suit bids are to play. 2NT is an invite in an unspecified minor, so you must go through 2 in order to make a power invite.

Your call?

 

North
Q6
109864
KQJ
AJ7
W
N
E
S
P
1NT
P
?

You have 13 HCP and a 5-card suit. Other than that, the hand is pretty awful. All of your high cards are in your short suits. In addition, you have a queen-doubleton. This hand should be downgraded if anything. It is not worth forcing to game opposite a 10-12 NT. If partner isn't accepting an invite, you won't want to be in game.

On the other hand, you are a bit too strong to just sign off in 2. If partner has a maximum you probably want to be in game, particularly if he has a heart fit or spades stopped.

It looks like the best start is 2. But you must have your game plan in mind if you make this call.

If partner bids 2, you could follow with 3 inviting in hearts. But 2NT looks better. With partner having spades under control and you being strong in both minors, it is likely that 3NT will do as well or better than 4 even if you have a 5-3 heart fit. Keep in mind that hearts has to take two more tricks than notrump for hearts to be better since you play notrump one level lower, and that doesn't seem likely.

If partner bids 2, obviously you will be playing in hearts. You like hearing the 2 call. But even with the known 9-card fit you aren't really worth anything more than a 3 invite. If partner rejects he will have 10 or a bad 11, and 10 tricks looks like too much to hope for opposite that.

If partner bids 2, it is more interesting. Not only do you not have a 9-card heart fit, but the opponents have at least 8 spades so spades is a potential danger suit at notrump. You could still invite with 2NT or 3, but game now looks unlikely even if partner has a maximum so it is better to stop low. How can you do this? By bidding 2. Yes, this shows a garbage Stayman hand with both majors, but so what. If partner passes, you will be fine. If partner corrects to 2 you can now re-correct to 2NT, and it won't be difficult for partner to figure out what you have done.

You choose to bid 2. The bidding continues:

W
N
E
S
P
1NT
P
2
P
2
P
?

Your call?

North
Q6
109864
KQJ
AJ7
W
N
E
S
P
1NT
P
2
P
2
P
?

You can't stop short now. You have forced to game, so anything you bid below game will be forcing. Unless you want to have a change of heart and pass 2, which you certainly don't want to do, you might as well bid the game and be done with it.

You bid 4, ending the auction.

W
N
E
S
P
1NT
P
2
P
2
P
4
P
P
P

You overbid it, so over you go to try and make it.

West leads the 6 (third and fifth leads)

North
Q6
109864
KQJ
AJ7
South
K8
Q532
A7
Q8654
W
N
E
S
P
1NT
P
2
P
2
P
4
P
P
P

How do you proceed?

 

North
Q6
109864
KQJ
AJ7
South
K8
Q532
A7
Q8654
W
N
E
S
P
1NT
P
2
P
2
P
4
P
P
P

Prospects aren't good. You will need to hold your trump losers to 2 for starters. In addition, it appears that you will need to find king-doubleton of clubs onside. There may also be some end-play potential.

There is an additional possibility. If you can steal a spade trick past the ace of spades, you will be able to discard your losing spade on the third diamond. This is a very real possibility. The opponents don't know you are 5-4-2-2, nor do they know whether or not you have a potential club loser which might be discarded on a spade if they take their ace prematurely. The question is, what is the best way to steal the trick?

It looks best to try to steal the trick as quickly as possible. If you draw trumps first the opponents will know how many trump tricks they have coming. They may realize that the ace of spades is the setting trick, so they won't duck it.

Due to the flexibility in the diamond suit you can try to steal the trick by either opponent. You can win the diamond in dummy and lead a small spade from dummy, or you can win in your hand and lead a spade up to the queen.

Stealing the trick past East has the advantage of deception. East will not expect you to go out of your way to block the diamond suit. If East doesn't visualize the possibility that you might have ace-doubleton of diamonds, there will be no reason for him to rise ace of spades.

Against this, there are several reasons to try to steal the trick past West.

1) West is more likely to have the ace of spades than East. East passed as dealer, and the ace of spades might have given him an opening bid. More important, consider West's opening lead. If West doesn't have the ace of spades he might just as well chosen to lead a spade rather than a diamond. However, if West does have the ace of spades he would never be leading a spade. This is a legitimate application of restricted choice of which many players are unaware.

2) East has seen West's spot card opening lead, so he has a good idea of the count of the diamond suit. If he has the information that you have a doubleton diamond, he may be able to figure out what you are doing. West won't have this information. Maybe East's play at trick 1 should be count in this situation, but most pairs probably play it as suit-preference or meaningless.

3) Trying to steal the trick past East looks strange. When you win the opening lead in dummy, East will be expecting you to play a trump. When instead you lead a small spade, the alarm bells go off. Once East starts thinking, he may work out what is going on. West, on the other hand, will not be hearing the alarm bells. It looks perfectly natural for you to win the opening lead in your hand and lead up to dummy's queen-doubleton of spades. Thus, West is more likely to routinely follow small.

4) Suppose you do steal the trick past East. What then? You will unblock the diamonds, of course, and then get to dummy for the discard. But how will you get to dummy? If you take the club finesse and it loses, you are down. If you refuse the club finesse, you may be exposing yourself to a club ruff. By contrast, if you steal the trick past West you are immediately in position to run the diamonds, discard a spade, and make a trump play.

5) Even if you fail to steal the spade trick, there are end-play possibilities to make the contract when West has the king of clubs but it isn't doubleton. You can strip the spades and diamonds before touching trumps, and the defense may be forced to break clubs. This can work when West has K10x of clubs and East has 9-doubleton for example. If you read the position, a club play by either opponent will allow you to pick up the suit without loss. The opponents may be able to prevent this by cashing their trump tricks when with their ace of spades, but this won't be obvious to them. However, if you block the diamonds before trying to steal the spade trick and failing, your communication for stripping the hand won't be as good.

These arguments indicate that your best bet is to try to steal the trick past West by winning the ace of diamonds and leading a spade towards dummy.

You choose to win the opening lead in dummy and play a small spade to your king. West wins the ace, and shifts to the 9. What do you do now?

 

North
Q
109864
QJ
AJ7
South
8
Q532
A
Q8654
W
N
E
S
P
1NT
P
2
P
2
P
4
P
P
P

You now need to avoid losing a club trick to make the contract. The possibilities are that West has underled the king of clubs or that East has a singleton king. Neither appear likely.

Could West be underleading the king of clubs? He would be nuts to do so if he has 3 clubs. But it is barely possible that he might do so if he has K9 doubleton, since he knows his king will be dropping anyway.

Could West have 109xx of clubs? That is totally impossible. There is no way he would break the club suit with AJx in dummy when he has a safe spade or diamond exit.

It looks most likely that West has 9x of clubs, since he probably would have led a singleton club. If that is the case, your best play for down 1 is to duck. This will cut the defensive communication, so it will be more difficult for them to get a club ruff with a small trump.

You duck. East wins the king of clubs, and returns a club. You win in dummy, and lead the 10. East goes up ace, West dropping the jack. East plays another club. West ruffs with the king of hearts, and you are down 1. The full hand is:

West
AJ972
KJ
10962
93
North
Q6
109864
KQJ
AJ7
East
10543
A7
8543
K102
South
K8
Q532
A7
Q8654
W
N
E
S
P
1NT
P
2
P
2
P
4
P
P
P
D
4 South
NS: 0 EW: 0
6
K
3
7
1
1
0
6
3
K
A
0
1
1
9
7
K
4
2
1
2
2
5
3
J
1
2
2
10
A
2
J
2
2
3
10
6
K
A
0
2
4
6

Would South have been successful had he tried to steal the spade trick past West? We will never know, but it is certainly possible that West might have erred and ducked.

Was the defense accurate?

 

West
AJ972
KJ
10962
93
North
Q6
109864
KQJ
AJ7
East
10543
A7
8543
K102
South
K8
Q532
A7
Q8654
W
N
E
S
P
1NT
P
2
P
2
P
4
P
P
P
D
4 South
NS: 0 EW: 0
6
K
3
7
1
1
0
6
3
K
A
0
1
1
9
7
K
4
2
1
2
2
5
3
J
1
2
2
10
A
2
J
2
2
3
10
6
K
A
0
2
4
6

East was quite correct to continue clubs, hop with the ace of hearts, and give his partner a club ruff. Assuming West has the doubleton club indicated by the 9 shift, East is guaranteeing a set. If East doesn't defend this way, declarer can make if he has the king of hearts.

How about West's club shift? This may seem wrong at first glance since if declarer has K10 of clubs it guesses the clubs for declarer. However, if that is the club layout and East has the ace of hearts the defenders will eventually be end-played unless West shifts to a heart now, and West isn't ever going to do that. The critical layout is when South holds the ace of hearts and East the KQ of clubs. Picture South's hand being Kx Axxx Axx 10xxx, certainly a possible hand. If West doesn't shift to a club declarer will strip the spades and diamonds and then play ace and a heart. West can win and lead a club, but declarer ducks and East is end-played. West needs to shift to the club now in order to break up this end-play. West made a fine shift.

Do you agree with South opening 1NT on the 5-4-2-2 shape?

 

West
AJ972
KJ
10962
93
North
Q6
109864
KQJ
AJ7
East
10543
A7
8543
K102
South
K8
Q532
A7
Q8654
W
N
E
S
P
1NT
P
2
P
2
P
4
P
P
P
D
4 South
NS: 0 EW: 0
6
K
3
7
1
1
0
6
3
K
A
0
1
1
9
7
K
4
2
1
2
2
5
3
J
1
2
2
10
A
2
J
2
2
3
10
6
K
A
0
2
4
6

Unless South is willing to pass, something Precision players don't like doing with an 11-count, he has no choice but to open 1NT. A 2 opening shows 6 clubs, and of course a 1 opening shows 5 hearts. If South opens 1 and North bids 1, South would be stuck. Since the range for a 1NT opening is 10-12, a 1NT rebid shows 13-15 and South doesn't have that. South also can't rebid 2, as this shows more than a doubleton diamond. 1NT is the only possible opening bid.

When you are making a deceptive play, it is important for the play to look like a normal play to the opponents. This gives you the best chance to succeed. If the play looks strange, the opponents are more likely to figure out what you are doing. On this hand declarer failed to follow that principle, and lost an opportunity to steal a contract which he might have stolen with proper play.

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