THE SQUIRM FACTOR by Stephen Rzewski Today’s deal came up at a Regional tournament many years ago. My partner and I, along with two good friends, had just lost an early round of a Knock-Out team event, and we decided to all go out together to seek nourishment, lick our wounds, and try to re-energize for the upcoming events. A topic of conversation over dinner addressed the problem of trying to read our opponents’ cards during the play of the hand. One of our teammates, to whom I shall refer as Peter, offered a tip when faced with a two-way guess for a missing queen: run a long suit, if possible, and watch for an early discard. Often the person making the first discard in that suit will be less likely to hold the critical missing card, as he would have only small cards there with nothing to protect, and can more easily throw one away. This principle is not conclusive where a player has extra length in the suit (such as Qxxxx), but often an inferential count on the hand will be available and provide further clues. After the meal was concluded, the four of us decided to enter the pairs event of that evening, as no team event was available. As fate would have it, the four of us bought entries in opposite directions, such that late in the session, we sat down against each other as opponents. On the 2nd board of the round, I picked up: ♠A74 ♥Q842 ♦5 ♣K10752 Peter, seated on my right, opened 1NT (15-17), and the auction continued 1NT P 2♣ P 2♦ P 3NT (all pass) I led my 4th-best club, and the following dummy came down: ♠ K863 ♥ AJ93 ♦ QJ2 ♣ 98 ♠ A74 ♥ Q842 ♦ 5 ♣ K10752 My club lead hit paydirt. Partner produced the jack, declarer ducking, then came the queen from partner, declarer winning the ace. Feeling somewhat smug, I settled in to wait for the eventual spade lead, on which I would pounce with the ace to cash my good clubs. At trick #3, declarer led a low diamond to dummy’s jack, which held the trick, followed by the queen. Partner’s first two diamond spots indicated that he held an even number, which meant that declarer had a five-card suit to run. Suddenly I realized that I was going to have to produce a number of discards—four, in fact. Before continuing, decide how you, reader, would have selected the next four cards in your hand to throw away, holding at this point: ♠A74 ♥Q842 ♦--- ♣ K107 Declarer was almost sure to have the king of hearts, and my queen was finessable in front of dummy’s A-J. I could throw two spades away easily, but on the 4th and 5th diamonds, I would have to choose between hearts or clubs. Peter was a good declarer, and I knew he would be watching all of our cards carefully, looking for clues. If I started discarding my good clubs, that would be revealing to him. Why would I throw away potential winners, unless I were protecting some other holding, and what else could that be other than the queen of hearts? Furthermore, if I discarded even one club, Peter could well figure that I would now not have enough club winners to set him, and he could simply lead a spade, establishing his 9th trick there without having to take the heart finesse. No, I realized that my only chance was to unguard the queen of hearts. If Peter did not hold the 10 of hearts, he was probably going to finesse me for the queen anyway. Whatever I was going to do, I had to make my decision quickly. If I started acting tentatively about my choice of discards, hesitating and squirming uncomfortably, that would be a giveaway. I also could hear Peter’s remark made at dinner in the back of my mind, which he probably didn’t even remember. I felt a bit guilty about turning his own advice against him, but all’s fair in love and war. So at my first opportunity, I threw the 8 of hearts, in tempo. Peter turned to my partner and asked about our carding agreements. “Our carding is upside-down, count and attitude.” was the reply. This meant that in theory the discard of the 8, a high spot-card, signaled discouragement for that suit. On the next two diamonds, I discarded first the 4, then the 7 of spades, an encouraging signal, to show that I had the ace. On the 5th diamond —in for a penny, in for a pound—I threw the 2 of hearts without pause, coming down to Q-4. Partner, bless his soul, discarded a spade on the 5th diamond, keeping both of his small hearts. Then came a heart to the ace, and a low heart back from dummy. My remaining cards were: ♠ A ♥Q ♣K107. Peter went into a long study, which must have lasted a full minute. Had I thrown the heart too early, making the bluff obvious? I was dying inside, but knew my partner and I had to appear completely dispassionate and stone-faced. Finally, Peter produced the 10, and I faced my hand and claimed the remainder, for down two. The full deal: ♠ K863 ♥ AJ93 ♦ QJ2 ♣ 98 ♠ A74 ♠ J95 ♥ Q842 ♥ 65 ♦ 5 ♦ 9874 ♣ K10752 ♣ QJ43 ♠ Q102 ♥ K107 ♦ AK1063 ♣ A6 In retrospect, pitching the 8 of hearts first might have looked suspicious, and maybe I should have started my discards with a low spade. But had I discarded a club and kept three hearts, declarer would almost surely have gotten it right, especially since it is more natural to finesse the hearts through me, picking up the entire suit whenever I would have started with four and ending up with ten tricks. Or, at the very least, he would have led a spade instead and ensured nine tricks. The point of this article is that when defending, one must try to anticipate how the play of the hand will unfold and have one’s counterplays worked out in advance. Although I had not done so here, a good time to project the play and defense is at the first trick, while declarer is making his plan, so that one’s mind is already made up when the critical moments occur. If one waits until the play has to be made, the squirm factor will often give away the show. (As a footnote: I’m sure every reader of this column understands that it is highly unethical to feign hesitancy and pretend that one has a problem during the play when in fact no problem exists).