Images of playing cards are seen a casino. (Photographer: SeongJoon Cho/Bloomberg)

Combine Your Chances


Playing in the penultimate round of the Swiss League at the HCL 2018 Teams event, you are dealt ♠752♥A6♦AK94♣AK53 as South. After a brisk auction you land in 3NT, and receive the lead of a low club. The sight of dummy – ♠A964♥J1052♦Q106♣64 – confirms that a fair bit of hard work will be required to bring home the contract.

Combine Your Chances

If the diamonds are evenly divided or the Jack drops in 2 rounds, 8 tricks are in sight (4 diamonds, 2 clubs and the major suit aces). What is the most likely prospect of conjuring a ninth trick? It seems as though a 3-3 spade break (on offer 36 percent of the time!) will do nicely, provided West does not have both spade winners. The big risk is that West started with 5 clubs and can set the suit up before you get to your winning trick.

So what is your best shot at trick one?

Best to let righty win the first club with the 10. This allows you to keep control of the club suit (whenever it divides 5-2) when you lose the first spade to East. When East returns ♣8, you hop up with the Ace and play a low spade. Lefty stares long and hard at dummy and reluctantly plays the 3. When East captures the 6 from dummy with 8, you are relieved and hope he has no more clubs! It seems to be the case when he opts to return a low heart, won by West with the King. The club Queen hits the deck in a flash and your hypothesis is confirmed when East discards a heart on this.

What should you discard from dummy and can you now guarantee 9 tricks?

The answer is yes provided East holds the Queen of hearts! You need to change tack and abandon spades. In case West wins the third spade, the defense will arrive at 3 clubs, a heart and 2 spades. With only the ♥Q to be dislodged and 2 entries remaining in dummy, you can now score 2 hearts and the spade Ace apart from 6 minor suit winners! The defense will be restricted to 2 hearts, a club and a spade! You win the club Ace pitching a spade from dummy, cash heart Ace and enter dummy with the ♦Q to play the knave of hearts. When East wins the Queen and the diamond Jack appears on the second round from West, you gracefully accept partner’s compliments on having done a great job. The key to winning card play is flexibility and the constant search for a better option having identified a winning line. LHO was dealt ♠K103♥K94♦J5♣QJ972.

Quite often it is less than obvious what additional chances are on offer. The true expert is skilled enough to spot an extra chance, however small, to take advantage of the lie of the cards. How would you tackle 4♠when West leads the ♣Q?

Combine Your Chances

Also read: The Bidder’s Game

Prima facie it appears you have nine certain tricks and the tenth depends on the ♥A being favourably placed. What other opportunities exist to improve the odds? A skilled player would consider three additional possibilities. First, West might hold doubleton AQ in hearts. Second, West holds either 4 or 5 diamonds and finally, the chance of forcing West to win the first round of hearts after eliminating the minor suits.

The next question is can you take advantage of each of these chances by playing the cards accurately. Clearly, it is possible to do so provided you come up with a coherent plan at trick one.

What you must avoid at all costs is East gaining an entry to play a heart through your King.

That realisation is essential to identify the correct play at trick one – ducking the lead of the Queen, unless East is wily enough to overtake it with the King. Having kept East off the lead, you win any continuation and draw one round of trumps to test the break. When the opponents follow to the first round of trumps, you cash ♦A-K and ruff a diamond high. Now you can draw a second round of trumps ending in dummy and lead the last diamond.

If East were to show out at this stage, you simply claim 10 tricks since West is forced to either offer you a ruff and sluff or open up the heart suit. Unfortunately, East follows to the fourth round of diamonds forcing you to ruff in hand. Chance 2 has failed to materialize. You now lead a low trump, won in dummy, and play a heart towards your King. If East does not rise with the Ace, you play the lowest heart – 4 – from your hand and hope East is forced to win. As the cards lie, East wins the Jack and is end-played! Regardless of the suit he chooses to return, club or heart, you will arrive at 10 tricks. The actual cards West held were ♠52♥AQJ♦983♣QJ1085.

The next deal, from a high stakes rubber bridge game, illustrates a common error when faced with a choice of two finesses. An experienced player bemoaned his luck after failing to analyse all the chances that he had. Check out whether you would have fared better in the eventual 3NT contract after receiving the lead of the ♠J.

Nine tricks are pretty straight forward if either red suit finesse works. What matters most is the order in which you choose to tackle the suits.

Ideally you should first test the suit that, if it fails, will still give you a chance to try the second option.

On this hand, you could either try for 5 diamonds and the top honours in the three other suits to arrive at 9 tricks or a winning heart finesse, A-K in both minors and the spade Ace. Since there is no point in holding up the spade Ace, you win the first trick and ponder your options. Fairly soon, it dawns on you that a losing finesse in either suit will put the contract to sleep when the defense cashes their spade tricks. This realisation should help you spot the best line. Cash ♦A-K and if the Queen fails to appear, take the heart finesse and pray!

Combine Your Chances

Also read: Odds And Ends

Luckily, the West hand turns out to be ♠J10963♥K83♦1098♣94. The underlying principle in card play technique is if one cannot try both finesses safely, first cash the top cards in the suit in which the outstanding honour is more likely to drop.

As Charlie Munger once put it in an altogether different context, “Our job is to find a few intelligent things to do, not to keep up with every damn thing in the world.”

Also read: Bridge At The Top

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.