COUNTDOWN by Stephen Rzewski Playing against the only competent team (besides yours, of course) in a Swiss event at a small Sectional tournament, you find yourself facing the following play problem. As you read the account, try to answer each of the numbered questions before continuing: North ♠ A42 ♥ AKQ ♦ KJ8 ♣ AQ82 South ♠ KQJ ♥ J95 ♦ Q65 ♣ K1053 bidding: S W N E 1♣ P 2♣ P 2NT P 5NT P 6NT (all pass) opening lead: ♦ A Forty years ago or more, few players would have considered the South hand worth an opening bid, but times have changed, and most today tend to open any reasonable collection containing 12 or more high-card points. North has a problem at his first turn with such a powerhouse, but he chose the “inverted minor” raise of 2♣, which is forcing for one round, hoping to get a better idea of what to do after his partner’s rebid. South’s 2NT call defined his hand within a narrow range of 12-14 hcp and balanced shape. The 5NT call by North is a quantitative raise, forcing to a small slam and inviting his partner to bid a grand slam with a maximum. With a dead minimum, South settled for the 12-trick contract. West started the proceedings by cashing the ace of diamonds, then continuing with a small diamond, East following both times. 1) How do you assess the contract, and what is your general plan? * * * * * * * You have eleven top tricks, and there will obviously be no problem if clubs divide 3-2, so you should assume they will split 4-1 or worse. It might seem natural to play off the ace and queen, enabling you to finesse against J-x-x-x in the East hand if West shows out. Possession of the 8-spot in dummy, however, makes it just possible to pick up J-9-x-x in the West hand by leading twice toward dummy and taking a double finesse. This is admittedly a highly improbable holding. Nevertheless … 2) Is there any way to play the hand to cover all the routine cases and still guard against J-9-x-x (-x) in the West hand? * * * * * * * Yes, at least possibly. The answer is to defer playing the clubs and first play as many side winners as possible in an attempt to get a count on the opponents’ hands. There is some guesswork involved on where to begin, but let's suppose that you elect to play a third round of diamonds. On this trick, West shows out, discarding a spade. 3) What suit should you play next, hearts or spades? * * * * * * * You should play hearts, not spades. Now that West is known to have started with only two diamonds, the possible danger of his holding long clubs has increased somewhat. Should you need to make two club leads from the South hand late in the play, you may need a side entry to do so. Since only the spade suit offers entries to the closed hand, and the heart suit does not, you should play all your heart winners and refrain from playing spades until later. Both opponents follow to the first two hearts, but on the third round, West again shows out, discarding another spade. 4) Should you now play three rounds of spades? * * * * * * * No, you should play only two rounds, including the ace in dummy, and leave an entry to the closed hand, for the reason explained above. On the ace and king of spades, both opponents follow suit. 5) What do you now know about the opponents’ distribution? * * * * * * * West showed out on the third round of both diamonds and hearts. That means that East started with five cards in each of those suits. East also followed to both spade leads. So there is room in East’s hand for only one club at most, marking him with a singleton or void. Therefore, West has at least four clubs. 6) So how should you play the club suit? * * * * * * * You should start with the king, guarding against a possible singleton jack in the East hand. If East follows low or shows out, lead a club of your choice from the South hand. If West follows low, finesse the 8 with full confidence. If he splits his two high clubs by playing the 9, play the queen, then use that well-preserved spade entry back to your hand to take a 2nd finesse through West’s remaining J-x toward dummy’s A-8. The full deal: North ♠ A42 ♥ AKQ ♦ KJ8 ♣ AQ82 West East ♠ 108763 ♠ 95 ♥ 83 ♥ 107642 ♦ A4 ♦ 109732 ♣ J974 ♣ 6 South ♠ KQJ ♥ J95 ♦ Q65 ♣ K1053 Did you expect to win a lot of IMPs on the hand? Well… it turns out that the opponent holding your hand at the other table found the same line and was equally disappointed to only earn a push on the board. Some days, you have to be at your best just to break even.