Sanjoy Bhattacharyya On Bridge: What It Takes-II
The true master differs from the aspiring expert in terms of concentrating intensely even while tackling innocuous deals. The ability to anticipate booby traps and pay attention to detail on these hands is incredibly rewarding. Coming up with a robust plan yet remaining flexible is often the key to coming out ahead. See what you would have done on the following hands. While the aim is to enjoy the game, make a mental note of where you chose to act differently and why. Hopefully, self-awareness is the first step on the path to genuine expertise.
You are up against an elderly couple in the penultimate round of a grueling elimination. Most likely the score is narrowly in your favour at this stage but you need to widen the gap in order to minimize the possibility of any last round jitters! With neither side vulnerable, you land in the normal contract of 4♠. West chose to overcall 2♥ on your initial 1♠ response but took no further part in the auction. With a benign smile, LHO leads the ♣8.
The sight of dummy suggests that West most likely holds two picture cards at a minimum in hearts and the ♦K. What should you do to land 10 tricks with minimum fuss?
At my table, one of India’s most imaginative and competent card players – SK Iyengar – was at the wheel. After a brief but intense scrutiny of dummy, he asked for the Ace of clubs to be played and dropped the 9 from hand. Three rounds of trumps followed, ending in dummy. Next came the ♣7 and East rose with the King (his partner discarded a low heart), realizing that playing low would leave the lead in dummy. The return of the heart 10 was smoothly ducked and now the defense is powerless! If a second heart follows, West is end-played confronted with the Hobson’s choice of conceding a ruff-and-sluff or under-leading from ♦K. If East switches to a diamond after the first heart, the ending is just as graceful. Declarer wins with ♦Q, completes the club finesse, and completes the coup de grace by exiting with the heart King. Curtains for West! Note the commendable foresight in unblocking the club 9 at trick 1.
The slightly less than expert declarer in the other room did not demonstrate the same urgency in going up with ♣A on the lead, clearly “top of nothing”. East won with the King and gave his partner a ruff. West exited harmlessly with a trump and declarer proceeded to draw two more rounds. This was followed by a diamond finesse, ♦A, and a third diamond throwing West in with the King. West was dealt ♠1064♥AQJ743♦K108♣8.
This allowed declarer to escape with the loss of just one heart trick. Skilful, but not quite good enough.
The next hand was played during a high stakes game (West dealer, Both vulnerable) at Crockfords Club in London in the 1940s. The bidding (1♦-2♥-3♦-3♠-3NT-4♦-4♠-5♣-6♠) by the legendary British partnership of Maurice Harrison-Gray and Kenneth Konstam may appear slightly blunt and intuitive but the final contract was as good as it gets. Mr Konstam received the lead of a low trump. How would you have set about your task of getting to 12 tricks?
A proficient declarer after counting ten top tricks (4 trumps, 3 diamonds, 2 clubs & a heart) would aim to secure two heart ruffs. An apparently safe line with a high chance of success. Consistent with this reasoning, he won ♠A at trick one, played the ♥A and ruffed a heart. He chose to return to hand with ♣A and ruffed another heart. Alas, it was not to be and the contract went kaput when East over-ruffed with the 9, and the diamonds failed to behave in a friendly manner (3-3 break).
Like most of us, Konstam won the lead with the Ace. However, being a true master he questioned the need for the second heart ruff. Can one improve the odds and simultaneously cater to a 4-2 break in diamonds as well as trumps? The solution is incredibly elegant and reflects the simplicity of genius. Play a low ♦ from both hands at trick 2. The defense can do no better than playing a second trump. Declarer wins in hand and cashes the heart Ace before ruffing a heart with dummy’s last trump. The rest of the hand is fairly elementary. Return to hand with the club Ace and draw trumps. The time has come to cash the diamond King and use the club King in dummy to enjoy 3 winning diamonds. 4 diamonds, 5 trumps including the heart ruff and the ♣AK and ♥A add up to 12! It almost seems like Konstam had read the back of East’s cards ♠97♥Q10♦J975♣Q10643!
The final hand features a fairly routine slam that does not seem to pose any problems in the play. In fact, many might rue not being in the grand because all it requires is an even trump split. Leaving such regrets aside, how should one set about ensuring 12 tricks in 6♠ after the lead of the ♣Q?
The vast majority of experts would play the trump Ace at trick 2, reasoning that this caters ideally to either a 2-2 trump break or a singleton ♠Q coming down. When East showed out, looking at the ceiling for inspiration was worthless. Declarer put on a brave face and continued with a low trump. West was perfectly up to the task and after winning the Queen, returned a third trump. Perfectly sensible defense, since playing a second club offers declarer tempo and permits him to now land the contract on a dummy reversal.
The sole remaining hope now is to find West with 4 diamonds which allows declarer to discard 2 hearts from dummy. When that failed to occur, the Titanic had sunk!
Even if one manages to dispel the complacency that comes with playing a seemingly simple contract, the master play is not easy to find. South can guarantee his contract by playing the ♠8 at trick two. Regardless of what the defense does, there will now be two trump entries in dummy, enabling declarer to ruff two clubs high in the closed hand. Must it be the ♠8? Yes – in case East has all four trumps. It is far from obvious, but if you go through all the permutations and combinations, it becomes apparent that declarer cannot afford to play the ♠9 from dummy on the first round of trumps.
Andy Grove, the legendary former CEO of Intel, summed it up beautifully in saying, “Success breeds complacency. Complacency breeds failure. Only the paranoid survive”.
Sanjoy Bhattacharyya is Managing Partner at Fortuna Capital and an avid bridge player.
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of BloombergQuint or its editorial team.