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In a Round of 16 match in the Open Trials, you have an evaluation problem opposite partner's strong balanced hand.

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

North
943
Q85
J9
K8742
W
N
E
S
P
P
P
1
P
1
P
1NT
P
?

1: Strong, artificial

1: 0-7 HCP

1NT: 18-19 HCP

Available to you for this hand are:

2: Asks for a 5-card major. You will be unable to invite game in notrump if you take this start and partner doesn't have a 5-card major.

2: Size ask. Partner will bid 2NT with a minimum, 3 with a non-minimum.

2NT: Transfer to clubs, must be accepted.

Your call?

North
943
Q85
J9
K8742
W
N
E
S
P
P
P
1
P
1
P
1NT
P
?

If you didn't have a 5-card suit, it might be right to make a power invite with the appropriate strength. While you never like to play in 2NT, there are hands which can't afford to pass 1NT but which really don't belong in game if partner has a minimum.

The 5-card suit changes things. You don't know if the suit will run or not, and there is no way to find out. You simply have to drive to game and hope for the best. This is not the hand to risk bringing back +150, lose 10 to the comparison.

As long as you are driving to game, you might as well check to see if partner has a 5-card major. If he doesn't his 2 response isn't going to tell the opponents anything of value, and you don't have to worry about 2 being doubled for a lead. If partner does have a 5-card major, the odds are that 4 of that major will be better than 3NT. He won't have a 5-card major very often, but there is little downside to checking.

You choose to bid 3NT, ending the auction.

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

You bid it, so over you go to try to make what you bid.

West leads the 2. Fourth-best leads. Upside-down count and attitude signals.

North
943
Q85
J9
K8742
South
AKJ6
1093
AK6
QJ10
W
N
E
S
P
P
P
1
P
1
P
1NT
P
3NT
P
P
P

Do you play the 9 or not?

North
943
Q85
J9
K8742
South
AKJ6
1093
AK6
QJ10
W
N
E
S
P
P
P
1
P
1
P
1NT
P
3NT
P
P
P

You will be attacking clubs after winning the opening lead. It won't matter much which hand you lead clubs from, since West will be ducking twice if he has Axx even if the 9 holds and you lead a club to the queen. Therefore, it is just a question of the spade suit.

Playing the 9 may gain if West has Q10xx. This will leave him no spade exit, so if he has the ace of clubs he will be forced to break a red suit which may be to your advantage.

Playing small leaves the 9 in dummy, which could put some pressure on West. For example, suppose West has 10xxx. If you play small, it will go queen, and you will win with the ace. If West has the ace of clubs, he may play his partner for the king of spades when in with that card and continue spades rather than break a red suit.

It isn't clear, but playing small is probably better on balance.

You play a small spade. East plays the 8. What do you win with?

North
943
Q85
J9
K8742
South
AKJ6
1093
AK6
QJ10
W
N
E
S
P
P
P
1
P
1
P
1NT
P
3NT
P
P
P

Winning with the king would be a nice deceptive play to fool West. If West has the ace of clubs he will be convinced that his partner has the jack, and will underlead his Q10xx allowing dummy's 9 to win.

The problem is that when you do have 4 club tricks you won't necessarily have 9 tricks without getting 3 spade tricks. In addition, when you can't bring in the club suit you will definitely need 3 spade tricks to have a chance.

The conclusion is that while the deceptive play of winning with the ace or king could succeed, the straightforward approach looks better.

You win the jack of spades. What next?

North
94
Q85
J9
K8742
South
AK6
1093
AK6
QJ10
W
N
E
S
P
P
P
1
P
1
P
1NT
P
3NT
P
P
P

Clearly it is right to go after clubs. You want to smoke out the ace if you can. Your best shot is to lead the queen. If an opponents has Axx he should duck, but this gives him a chance to go wrong.

You lead the queen of clubs. West plays the 9, and East the 3. You try the jack of clubs. West discards the 5, and East plays the 5. Now what?

North
94
Q85
J9
K87
South
AK6
1093
AK6
10
W
N
E
S
P
P
P
1
P
1
P
1NT
P
3NT
P
P
P

At this point you have a very good picture of the hand. West led the 2, and on this auction that is probably an honest lead. If so, West has 4 spades. He also has a stiff club. If he had a 5-card suit he surely would have preferred to lead that rather than from Qxxx, so his distribution figures to be 4-4-4-1.

The top heart honors are probably split. East can't have both since he is a passed hand. If West had both, he probably would have chosen a heart lead rather than a spade lead.

The 5 could be a high spot, or it could be West's smallest diamond. However, if West had Qxxx of diamonds, he would not want to discourage a diamond shift, and he might feel that he can't afford to discard a diamond. Therefore, East probably has the queen of diamonds.

You have 7 sure tricks. The heart suit may produce an eighth trick if the jack of hearts is onside, but that won't see you home. It also might produce an entry to dummy's clubs. If you lead the 10 or 9, West doesn't cover, and East wins he trick, then the queen of hearts will become an entry. Or if you lead a small heart and West plays small, you can force an entry to dummy by inserting the 8. This is a known combination, but expert defenders have been known to slip.

Clearly you will play a third round of clubs. Might it be right to first cash a spade, so East will be forced to exit with a red card? When he exits with a heart you will have to play the 10 or the 9 so dummy's 8 will be an entry threat. Now the position will be clear to the defenders, so if they are able to maneuver to keep dummy from having a heart entry they will be able to do so. But they might not be able to do so. West will have to win the heart trick, of course. Suppose he plays back a spade. You win, and lead your remaining high heart. If West covers you cover, and you have your entry. If West ducks you duck. East will have to duck to keep you off dummy, but a third round of hearts will end-play him if he has the queen of diamonds. Even if East has the jack of hearts, this end-play will work, assuming your inferential count of the heart suit is correct. Cashing a spade and then leading the third round of clubs looks like the right idea.

It is true that West can foil this plan by shifting to a diamond when in with the heart, provided he doesn't have the 10. However, this shift might not be so obvious.

You choose to lead the third round of clubs without cashing a spade. West discards the 3. You overtake. East wins the ace, and returns the 10 to your ace, West playing the 5. What do you try now?

North
9
Q85
J9
87
South
K6
1093
AK6
W
N
E
S
P
P
P
1
P
1
P
1NT
P
3NT
P
P
P

Leading the 9 or 10 doesn't figure to work. If West plays small and you play small from dummy, it will be easy for East to duck since he can see the danger. That will be your eighth trick, but there will be no reasonable play for #9.

You have a better chance by leading a small heart. If West plays small from AJxx or KJxx, you have both your heart trick and your entry. He can defeat you by winning and setting up his spade trick, and then covering your next heart play, or by the master stroke of inserting the jack of hearts. However, he has to find this play.

You lead a small heart. West plays small. You insert the 8, and as hoped for, East has to win the king. East returns a diamond. You win, lead a heart up, and score an overtrick. The full hand is:

West
Q752
AJ62
8543
9
North
943
Q85
J9
K8742
East
108
K74
Q1072
A653
South
AKJ6
1093
AK6
QJ10
W
N
E
S
P
P
P
1
P
1
P
1NT
P
3NT
P
P
P
D
3NT South
NS: 0 EW: 0
2
3
8
J
3
1
0
Q
9
2
3
3
2
0
J
5
4
5
3
3
0
10
3
K
A
2
3
1
10
A
5
4
3
4
1
3
2
8
K
2
4
2
2
A
4
9
3
5
2
9
A
8

How was the opening lead and defense?

West
Q752
AJ62
8543
9
North
943
Q85
J9
K8742
East
108
K74
Q1072
A653
South
AKJ6
1093
AK6
QJ10
W
N
E
S
P
P
P
1
P
1
P
1NT
P
3NT
P
P
P
D
3NT South
NS: 0 EW: 0
2
3
8
J
3
1
0
Q
9
2
3
3
2
0
J
5
4
5
3
3
0
10
3
K
A
2
3
1
10
A
5
4
3
4
1
3
2
8
K
2
4
2
2
A
4
9
3
5
2
9
A
8

We have seen again and again how leading from a broken 4-card suit vs. 3NT is more likely to cost the setting trick than to be necessary to defeat the contract. This is especially true when leading into a strong, balanced hand, with no apparent threat of a long suit to be run by the opponents. This hand is no exception. Granted it is fortunate that a diamond lead would turn out so well, but it is a lot safer than a spade lead. Honors are meant to be led up to, not away from.

West had tough discards on the clubs. From his point of view, declarer might hold four cards in any of the three other suits. His decision to abandon diamonds completely looks reasonable.

Should West have worked out to not play low on the heart lead? That is a very complicated question.

First of all, West must assume that his partner has the king of hearts. If declarer has that card he will have 4 club tricks, 1 heart trick, and 3 spade tricks off the top. Declarer would have to have either the ace or KQ of diamonds to get up to 18 HCP (he is known to have 8 in spades, 3 in hearts, and 3 in clubs for 14 HCP), so declarer would have 9 tricks. If East has the king of hearts, that places declarer with AK of diamonds and East with the queen of diamonds.

Suppose declarer has 3 hearts. Playing low is fatal when declarer has 109x. Playing the jack will cost a trick in hearts when declarer has 10xx, but that will still be only 8 tricks for declarer. Playing the ace will be fine.

Suppose declarer has 4 hearts. Playing the ace is always fatal as declarer can and should duck the second round. If declarer has 109xx there is no defense, since playing the jack of hearts gives declarer two heart tricks. So, the relevant holdings are when East has K9 or K10 doubleton. If East has K10 doubleton the hand is down whether West plays the jack or plays small. East cashes the second heart and exits with a spade -- if he doesn't have one he has 5 diamonds so a diamond exit is safe. Declarer will have only 8 tricks. However, if East has K9 doubleton playing the jack does cost, since declarer will then get 2 heart tricks as he has the 7.

The bottom line is that playing the jack is wrong only when East has K9 doubleton. Playing small is wrong when East started with K74, K73, or K43. That makes playing the jack the percentage play.

All this would be difficult to work out at the table, but not impossible. West would have made a great play had he inserted the jack of hearts.

While one expects expert opponents to find the correct play most of the time, it is wrong to think that they will always get it right. It is important to see how things look through their eyes and judge whether or not to play for an error vs. taking a more legitimate line of play. On this hand declarer played for the error, and was right. However, careful analysis shows that playing for the legitimate make is superior.

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