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HORNS OF A DILEMMA

A K Q 5 2
6
Q J 10 8
Q 9 7
N
W E
S
10 9
A K 8 5
A 9 7 2
K 8 5
West North East South
1 
1  1 ♠ Pass 1 NT
Pass 2 ♣1 Pass 2 
Pass 3 2 Pass 3 NT
All pass
  1. New Minor Forcing
  2. Game forcing with diamonds
3 NT by South
Lead:  3

Playing IMP pairs, where your primary objective is to make your contract and not take risks for overtricks, West leads a fourth best  3 against your 3 NT contract. East plays the  9. How do you plan the play to best ensure nine tricks?

Do you remember the redoubtable Professor Kingsfield, played by John Houseman in the 1973 film The Paper Chase scaring the pants off his law students by calling on them at random? "I ask you a question, and you answer it", Kingsfield said during his first class. We'll try that approach here!

1. What does each opponent hold in the heart suit?

(a) If the  3 is a fourth best lead, West can’t have more than five hearts (very likely exactly five). If West holds five hearts, then East holds three hearts. West would lead the  Q holding three touching honors and not the  3 from  QJ1032.

(b) With partner and dummy each playing a small card, East should have played his highest heart but the lowest of two or more equivalent touching hearts.

Therefore, either

West holds  QJ732 and East holds  1094, or
West holds  QJ432 and East holds  1097, or
West hold  Q7432 and East holds  J109.

What is important going through this exercise? Realizing West holds five hearts no better than  QJ732 and East holds three hearts.

2. Do you have the makings of nine tricks between the hands?

Absolutely! Three spades, two hearts, three diamonds and one club is nine tricks. The diamond finesse could work allowing four diamond tricks. The spades could split 3-3 giving you five tricks. Since you hold the ♠ 109, you could lead the ♠ 10 and let it ride – the finesse might win, and even if it lost to the ♠ J you’d have four spade tricks even on a 5-1 spade split.

3. Do you have the time to set up these tricks? Can you simply win the heart, see if spades split, and then lead the  Q for a finesse?

If West holds both the  K and ♣ A, a likely possibility when West overcalled vulnerable at IMPs on a poor quality suit that at best is  QJ732, if you take the diamond finesse early and it loses, a heart is returned to knock out your final heart stopper and West still holds the ♣ A as an entry. You would need a 3-3 spade split or a successful finesse against the ♠ J to make your contract.

4. Can you afford to duck the first round of hearts? Can you afford to duck the second round of hearts?

You can afford to duck once if they later score the  K, ♣ A, and ♠ J. If you duck twice, you can't afford to let them score both the  K and the ♠ J to go with their ♣ A. Ducking the first heart seems clear. If you decide on a line of play where East might get the lead early, you would prefer he not hold a heart to lead back if hearts are split 5-3, so in that case you should hold up twice, not once, in the heart suit.

5. Is there a line of play that will allow you to score nine tricks if West has both the  K and the ♣ A?

Yes - and it's somewhat counterintuitive, since it involves playing immediately on your SHORTEST combined suit (other than hearts)!

Duck two hearts and win the third heart in your hand, pitching two diamond honors from dummy, Now lead a low club from your hand toward dummy's ♣ Q97 (the key play on the hand). This catches West in the horns of a dilemma. He can duck his ♣ A and let dummy's ♣ Q win. But then you can take the diamond finesse and even if it loses, you have nine tricks (three spades, two hearts, three diamonds, one club) no matter how any suits split.

What if West hops up with his ♣ A and leads another heart to set up his fifth heart as a winner? Then you have TWO club tricks, which is vital. You win the heart return in your hand and lead a spade, playing low from dummy if West plays low. Even if East wins his ♠ J, he has no heart to lead. You score four spades, two hearts, ONE diamond, and TWO clubs.

Does this line of play guarantee your contract? No - it is possible East will hold the ♣ A which will nearly guarantee the diamond finesse is not working. When East returns a club or diamond, you will probably need the spades to split 3-3 to make your contract. But would West make a vulnerable overcall at IMPs on only  QJ7xx and the  K? Not likely. In my opinion, it makes sense to take a line of play that will nearly guarantee the contract no matter how the suits split if West holds the ♣ A and not to take a line of play that fails when West holds  QJ7xx, the ♣ A, and the  K and the spades don't split 3-3.

The full hand is shown below:

South Deals
E-W Vul
A K Q 5 2
6
Q J 10 8
Q 9 7
8 3
Q J 7 3 2
K 6
A 6 4 2
N
W E
S
J 7 6 4
10 9 4
5 4 3
J 10 3
10 9
A K 8 5
A 9 7 2
K 8 5
3 NT by South
Lead:  3
 
     
 
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