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Assume It Is Off
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In a Round of 32 match in the open trials for USA2, you have to find the best way to handle a delicate hand.

N-S vul, North deals. As North, you hold:

North
A52
5
QJ98
AK643
W
N
E
S
?

Your opening 1NT range is 14-16.

A 1 opener would generally be 16+ points. You may upgrade if appropriate, particularly if there are serious rebid problems if you don't open 1.

A 1 opening shows 11-15 points, at least 2 diamonds, no 5-card major, no 6-card club suit.

A 2 opener is expected to have 6 clubs.

Your call?

North
A52
5
QJ98
AK643
W
N
E
S
?

There is no reason to distort with a 1NT opening bid. Also, the hand is not worth an upgrade to a 1 opener. Opening 1 is fine. This distribution will not be unexpected.

You open 1. The bidding continues:

W
N
E
S
1
P
1
P
?

1: 11-15, 2+ diamonds

A 1NT rebid is expected to be a balanced hand, 11-13 HCP

A 2 rebid would show both minors, 5-5 or 5-4 with either minor being longer.

A 3 rebid would show 5-5 in the minors, maximum.

Your call?

North
A52
5
QJ98
AK643
W
N
E
S
1
P
1
P
?

Once again, there is no reason to distort anything. 2 is fine. It is true that you could have a good deal less for this sequence, but that issue can be dealt with later if need be.

You bid 2. The bidding continues:

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

2: 5-5 minors or 5-4 either way.

2: Artificial game force

If you had 3-card heart support, you would now bid 3. Otherwise, with 5-4 in the minors you are expected to bid one under the 4-card suit. With 5-5, your bid would be 3.

Your call?

North
A52
5
QJ98
AK643
W
N
E
S
1
P
1
P
2
P
2
P
?

By your agreements, 3 shows your minor-suit distribution exactly. This will permit partner to show 4-card support for your 4-card minor at the 3-level, which is the reason for this agreement.

You bid 3. The bidding continues:

W
N
E
S
1
P
1
P
2
P
2
P
3
P
3
P
?

Your call?

North
A52
5
QJ98
AK643
W
N
E
S
1
P
1
P
2
P
2
P
3
P
3
P
?

It can't be right to ram it into 3NT just because you have a spade stopper. Your hand is far too suit-oriented for that. Best seems to be to temporize with 3 and give partner room to convey his intentions. If partner bids 4 he will be showing slam interest in diamonds, and you will be off to the races.

You bid 3. The bidding continues:

W
N
E
S
1
P
1
P
2
P
2
P
3
P
3
P
3
P
3NT
P
?

Your call?

North
A52
5
QJ98
AK643
W
N
E
S
1
P
1
P
2
P
2
P
3
P
3
P
3
P
3NT
P
?

There is a saying that 3NT ends all auctions. However, there are exceptions, and this hand may be one of them.

If partner had bid 3NT over 3, you would have an automatic pass. You would have described your hand, and partner's decision would be final. That 3NT call would end the auction.

Partner didn't bid 3NT over 3. He bid 3. If he definitely wanted to play 3NT knowing your minor-suit shape, he would have bid it. His 3 call suggests that some diamond contract might be superior to 3NT. Even when he follows with 3NT, that initial suggestion remains. This 3NT call does not necessarily end the auction.

Your hand is very suit-oriented for play in diamonds. Your primes are outside of diamonds, and you have great diamond intermediates. This is the sort of hand where 5 could easily be a better contract than 3NT, even if it is a 4-4 fit. Your losing clubs can be ruffed in partner's hand to establish the suit, and your powerful trumps can then be used to draw trumps. In 3NT, there simply might not be enough winners. Also, your hand is very strong. Partner might have a hand which looked like it belonged in 3NT, but once you choose to play in diamonds he could show some slam interest. With your hand, all you need is the slightest show of interest from partner to drive to slam. Your hand is as good as it could possibly be for a diamond slam in the context of the previous bidding.

You could bid 4. This leaves partner room to bid 4 if he has any slam interest. With no slam interest, he would just end the auction with a 5 call. However, 4 might be taken as an alternative strain, since the 5-3 club fit could be better than the 4-4 diamond fit if the clubs are strong. It looks better to simply bid 4, clarifying that you definitely belong in diamonds. If partner has no slam interest he will sign off in 5, and that will be that. If partner has any slam interest at all he will bid something other than 5, and you are prepared to drive it to slam opposite any show of interest.

You choose to pass, ending the auction.

W
N
E
S
1
P
1
P
2
P
2
P
3
P
3
P
3
P
3NT
P
P
P

You dropped partner in 3NT, so you have to go over and make it.

West leads the 7. Standard leads.

North
A52
5
QJ98
AK643
South
K96
AJ972
A1075
8
W
N
E
S
1
P
1
P
2
P
2
P
3
P
3
P
3
P
3NT
P
P
P

What do you do with this trick?

North
A52
5
QJ98
AK643
South
K96
AJ972
A1075
8
W
N
E
S
1
P
1
P
2
P
2
P
3
P
3
P
3
P
3NT
P
P
P

There doesn't seem to be any reason to win this trick. You aren't afraid of a shift, and the opponents will be getting at least one spade trick in all variations. The spades might be 5-2, or you may find out something about how the spades are divided if they are 4-3.

You play small from dummy. East plays the 10, and you duck. East returns a spade. Where do you win the trick, and what do you then do?

North
A5
5
QJ98
AK643
South
K9
AJ972
A1075
8
W
N
E
S
1
P
1
P
2
P
2
P
3
P
3
P
3
P
3NT
P
P
P

The spades could be 5-2 with West having QJ87x of spades, although from this holding he might have chosen to lead the queen. If the spades are 4-3, the carding indicates that West has Q87 and East has J1043.

You have 8 sure tricks. If the diamond finesse is on, you will always make. If it loses, you will need another trick from either hearts or clubs. You will need to develop this extra trick before the opponents can take 5 tricks.

If your plan is to develop an extra club trick, it would be best to win the spade in your hand. You could duck a club, win the likely spade continuation, and take the diamond finesse. If it loses, you will still have adequate entries to dummy to establish and cash the long club.

The problem with this approach is that even if you are able to keep the opponents from taking 2 spade tricks, you will still lose the race. When West wins the king of diamonds he can and will shift to a heart, and the opponents will get 1 spade trick, 1 heart trick, 1 diamond trick, and 2 club tricks before you are able to enjoy the long club. Since this won't work, you are better off winning this trick in dummy for a red-suit play.

You win the spade continuation in dummy. What do you try?

North
5
5
QJ98
AK643
South
K
AJ972
A1075
8
W
N
E
S
1
P
1
P
2
P
2
P
3
P
3
P
3
P
3NT
P
P
P

If the diamond finesse is on at the beginning of the hand, it will be on at the end of the hand, and you will have the needed club entry to take that finesse. If the diamond finesse is off, you are going to need to develop a second heart trick before the opponents can take 5 tricks.

There are two reasons to play hearts first. One is that if West has 3 spades and East has 4, you would prefer to knock out East's entry first. When you later take the diamond finesse, West won't be able to cash a spade. The other reason is that you tell the opponents less about the hand than if you first take the diamond finesse, which may make a difference.

You lead a heart from dummy. East plays the 4. What do you play from your hand?

North
5
5
QJ98
AK643
South
K
AJ972
A1075
8
W
N
E
S
1
P
1
P
2
P
2
P
3
P
3
P
3
P
3NT
P
P
P

You will need a fortunate lie in the heart suit to develop a second heart trick in time. It may seem right to put in the 9 hoping East has K10x or Q10x, but that can't gain. Playing the jack would be just as effective, or ineffective.

There is a real possibility that East failed to split from a KQ holding. This wouldn't necessarily be an error from his point of view. If he has KQxx of hearts you might have AJ109x of hearts, and splitting would give you 4 heart tricks while he gets only 1 heart trick. You might as well try the jack. If it wins, you have 9 tricks. If it loses, you will almost certainly need the diamond finesse.

This possibility of East not splitting illustrates the value of playing hearts first. If you instead take a losing diamond finesse and West continues spades from his initial 3-card holding, it will be trivial for East to split later as not only would he be able to count 9 tricks for you if you have the jack of hearts but he would be looking at the setting trick.

You play the jack of hearts. West wins the queen, and continues with the 8 to your king, East following with the 4. And now?

North
QJ98
AK643
South
A972
A1075
8
W
N
E
S
1
P
1
P
2
P
2
P
3
P
3
P
3
P
3NT
P
P
P

Even if you find the miracle holding of KQ10 tripleton of hearts in the West hand, that only gets you up to 8 tricks so you would still need the diamond finesse. You could play for this extra chance by ducking a heart now. If West does have the miracle holding East won't be able get in, and you will survive even if the diamond finesse loses. If instead you cross to dummy with a club and lose a diamond finesse, West will always defeat you by leading back a club. The problem is that this risks going down an extra trick when West has 4 hearts, since East can win the heart, cash his spade, and lead back a heart, and when the diamond finesse loses West will have a heart to cash. While usually it is right to go all out for your contract, the odds on success vs. down 2 are so bad that it probably isn't the right play.

You cross to dummy with a club, and pass the queen of diamonds. It holds. What next?

North
J98
K643
South
A972
A107
W
N
E
S
1
P
1
P
2
P
2
P
3
P
3
P
3
P
3NT
P
P
P

You don't want to cash the king of clubs now in case the diamond finesse is actually off, but you need to keep an entry so you will be able to cash it later. Dummy's diamond spots are so good that this is no problem. You can either ride the 9, or you can lead the jack planning on unblocking the 10. The one thing you must not do is lead the jack and play small from your hand, since if West were holding up from Kxx of diamonds you would then be locked out of getting the king of clubs.

You pass the 9. It holds, both following, so you have 9 tricks. The full hand is:

West
Q87
KQ63
62
10952
North
A52
5
QJ98
AK643
East
J1043
1084
K43
QJ7
South
K96
AJ972
A1075
8
W
N
E
S
 
1
P
1
P
2
P
2
P
3
P
3
P
3
P
3N
P
P
P
D
3NT South
NS: 0 EW: 0
7
2
10
6
2
0
1
3
9
Q
A
1
1
1
5
4
J
Q
0
1
2
8
5
4
K
3
2
2
8
2
A
7
1
3
2
Q
3
5
2
1
4
2
9
4
7
6
1
5
2
7

How was South's bidding?

West
Q87
KQ63
62
10952
North
A52
5
QJ98
AK643
East
J1043
1084
K43
QJ7
South
K96
AJ972
A1075
8
W
N
E
S
 
1
P
1
P
2
P
2
P
3
P
3
P
3
P
3N
P
P
P
D
3NT South
NS: 0 EW: 0
7
2
10
6
2
0
1
3
9
Q
A
1
1
1
5
4
J
Q
0
1
2
8
5
4
K
3
2
2
8
2
A
7
1
3
2
Q
3
5
2
1
4
2
9
4
7
6
1
5
2
7

South took some risk forcing to game, since if North has a minimum opening bid any game could be poor. However, N-S are vulnerable, so even a poor game is often okay as long as it has some play. If instead South makes an invitational 3 call, that pretty much eliminates any intelligent choice of games decision when North accepts the invite. From South's point of view the best strain could be notrump, hearts, or diamonds, and it is worth the slight overbid in order to maximize the chances of finding the right strain.

The follow-up looks accurate. South's 3 call confirms a diamond fit, and gives North a chance to take a heart preference with a doubleton heart, bid 3NT if that's what North's hand looks like, or do something else.

Over North's 3 call, 3NT looks fine. South has already shown interest in playing in diamonds rather than notrump. Now South must show that notrump is also playable, and North can make the final decision.

This hand is a good example of playing on an assumption. The wrong way to think is: I'll take the diamond finesse, since if it wins I have 9 tricks and if it loses I'll worry about that later. The right way to think is: If the diamond finesse is on I will always have 9 tricks, so I will assume it is off and play on that assumption.

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