A SURE THING by Stephen Rzewski IMPs vul: none North ♠ K973 ♥ A6 ♦ J764 ♣ K107 South ♠ AJ865 ♥ 3 ♦ K52 ♣ AQJ6 bidding: S W N E 1♠ 3♥ 4♠ (all pass) opening lead: ♥ Q Today’s hand came up in a Swiss teams event at a local club. Declarer won the heart lead in dummy, then played the king of spades, on which both opponents followed with low spot cards. When a low spade was played next, East followed with the 10. Should declarer now finesse the jack or instead play for the drop of the queen by going up with the ace? Why? (take no credit unless you give the correct reasoning) * * * * * * The full deal: North ♠ K973 ♥ A6 ♦ J764 ♣ K107 West East ♠ 4 ♠ Q102 ♥ QJ109874 ♥ K52 ♦ A83 ♦ Q109 ♣ 98 ♣ 5432 South ♠ AJ865 ♥ 3 ♦ K52 ♣ AQJ6 At the table, declarer successfully finessed the jack of trumps, rejecting the old adage of “eight ever, nine never”, which suggests that when missing five cards including the queen, one should finesse, but instead play for the drop when missing only four cards. Later in the play, declarer led a diamond to his king and lost three tricks with the unlucky layout in that suit, but at least fulfilled his contract. So why did declarer take the finesse? It is true that in a vacuum the odds favor playing for the drop, but the mathematical advantage for that choice is slight, and if there are other factors to take into account, one should consider the alternative play. Here there is the matter of West’s pre-empt, which shows great length in hearts, normally a 7-card suit, increasing the chances of his holding a singleton spade. The queen of spades is not a relevant card in the bidding, as West would probably be just as inclined to make the same pre-empt if he held Q-x of spades as well as a small singleton. But with 8 of West’s cards inferentially known (7 hearts + 1 spade played), that leaves only five cards in his hand that could be the queen of spades. Whereas only five of East’s cards are known (2 spades played + 3 presumed hearts), there are 8 cards in his hand which could be the queen. That leaves much more room in East’s hand to hold the queen, indicating that the finesse is a distinct favorite. Nevertheless, in the context of the complete deal, declarer should have played for the drop. The finesse might be a good calculated risk at matchpoints, where overtricks can bring heavy premiums, especially in normal contracts like this one, but at IMPs scoring, making the contract has the highest priority. If declarer had played the ace of spades at the critical juncture, and the queen had dropped, the contract would have been assured. But what if West had then shown out, as in the actual layout? Declarer would then have a sure line of play as follows: a club to dummy to then lead and ruff out dummy’s remaining heart**, followed by the play of the remaining club winners. Then a trump is led, putting East on lead, who will have to break the diamond suit (or play his last heart, which would give declarer a fatal ruff and sluff). As long as declarer plays a low diamond from his hand when East leads low, he can not be deprived of a diamond winner, no matter how the honors in the suit are distributed. So going up with the ace of spades is a heads-you-win, tails- you-win play. No need to resort to guesswork when a sure thing is available. **An afterthought: my good friend, Michael Klein pointed out that declarer could improve his technique by ruffing dummy’s small heart at trick #2, before touching trumps. This would provide for the case where a defender with the third trump and a club void, probably West, with something like: ♠ Q10x ♥QJ10xxxx ♦ Axx ♣ --- might be able to ruff in and exit safely with a heart before dummy’s heart could be removed, forcing declarer to break and guess the diamond suit himself. It is also worthy to note that there is a standard safety play with this card combination of starting the play of the spades with the ace rather than the king, which one might consider at this form of scoring. This play guards against the possibility of a 4-0 trump split in either hand, and ensures the loss of no more than one trump trick. However, since LHO is highly unlikely to hold four spades along with the presumed 7-card heart suit, the initial play of the king in this case will likely work out just as well.