Stuart Rachels

A Non-Made-Up Hand

Playing matchpoints, with nobody vulnerable, we pick up this 14-point hand:

AJ4 98542 74 AKQ

Our partner is the great Daniel Hollingshead, a 16-year-old whom I've been playing with since he was 11. Daniel opens 1, so we won't stop short of game. We respond 1, and Danny rebids 1NT. We're playing weak no-trumps, so I alert this: it shows 15-17 balanced and does not deny a 4-card major.

We now bid 2, an artificial bid that forces to game and asks partner to describe his major suit holding. (This convention is called "Two-Way New Minor Forcing.") Daniel jumps to 3. This does not come up much, but it must mean he has 4 s. Should we try for slam--for example, should we bid 3 to cuebid our A?

We should not. We know that our side has 9 s and 29 to 31 points. Given just those facts, slam does not sound too unlikely. However, two other things should make us cautious: our balanced hand is facing another balanced hand, and our honors are concentrated in short suits. The nine points we have in s are likely to yield only three tricks. Slam may be iffy even if partner holds a maximum.

So, we bid 4, and everyone passes. West is a crafty player. He leads the J, and dummy comes down:

AKQ                 Contract: 4

East follows low as we win with the A. What are your thoughts?

What do you make of the opening lead? It's either a singleton, or it's a deceptive lead from QJ. Either way, when we play the suit, we'll play the K.

We are going to lose a . The J is probably useless. True, we can set up a pitch if the KQ are on our left. But not only is this position a priori unlikely (just a 24% chance), but if West held the KQ, he probably would have led the K in preference to the J. So let's not be too hopeful about that.

Have you noticed something about the s? This is a suit you want the opponents to lead. If LHO leads the suit, you automatically make three tricks. If RHO leads it, you'll play low from hand, and LHO must beat the 9. If he plays the Q, you'll make three tricks. If he plays the 10, you'll play the K and can still take the finesse back into your hand. That way, you'll lose a trick only if West has both the Q and the 10. On the other hand, if you must break the suit yourself, you'll lose a trick whenever West has the nonsingleton Q, regardless of where the 10 is.

The situation suggests that you look for an endplay. Can you throw the opponents in, forcing them to break s? If s split 2-2, you can't do it. You can draw trumps, clear the s and then play s, but once the bad guys win with a , they can play a back, forcing you to break s, sooner or later.

However, if s split 3-1, you might be able to throw East in with the Q. But there is a problem. Suppose you play the K (discovering the 3-1 split), clear s and then play s. East will be able to win with the K or Q (assuming he has one), cash his Q and then exit with a . Now you are back to trying the finesse.

The solution to this problem is simple: play s before cashing the K. The most elegant move is to play a low off the board at trick 2.


You have just lost a trick to whichever opponent cared to take it. What can they do now? It is enormously unlikely that they can find a ruff (and this won't even cost you a trump trick if trumps are 3-1). You want them to lead s. Most likely, they'll exit with a . Now you can set up the endplay: win the A, cash the K (discovering the 3-1 split), play the A and ruff the J in hand (if East ruffs in, pitch a and claim). The position is now:


Play off your top s. If East ruffs in, he's endplayed. If he doesn't, you exit with a and wait for East to lead a or else give you the old ruff-and-sluff. Notice that, if trumps had split 2-2, then you would have lost nothing by playing a small at trick 2; a loser was inevitable.

That's the main point of the hand: you need to prepare the endplay before playing your big trump and thus setting up East's Q. But as always, there may be some other things to think about. Suppose that, at trick 2, East nervously jumps up with the K when you play small from the board. After he returns a and you cash the K, you should play your top s and throw East in with a without clearing s--after all, East cannot safely lead into your AJ. So, East plays a , and you play low. If West plays the Q, you can claim. But if West plays the 10, forcing out your K, you now have a choice of plays: should you finesse s or return to hand to finesse s? Your answer will turn on whether you think East's nervous play of the K indicates that he doesn't have the Q. This is a question of psychology. Since I am a philosopher, not a psychologist, I can't help you with that.

Final Thoughts

Timing is hard in bridge because it requires foresight and visualization. I have neither. When this hand was played, I felt sure that West's J lead was from QJ. So I played the K at trick 2 and waited to see the Q pop up. When it didn't, I fidgeted for awhile, trying to figure out how to set up the endplay, but it was too late.

If I ever write a book about bridge, I'll call it Misplay These Hands With Me. When I told this to my partner Daniel, he suggested a different title: Cogitations of a Dimwit. Either way, at least my book would be honest. Here's how you know that this hand wasn't made up: East, not West, held the Q. Thus, none of this mattered. I misplayed the hand but still made 5 on the straight finesse.