The Art of Playing a Hopeless Contract: A Deception

Here is a hand played at a recent Thursday night club game.  You are dealt this pretty hand.


What is our opening bid?

While it is now permitted to open 1NT or 2NT with a singleton honor, it is not clear that a Jack should qualify.  So you decide to open 1♦ intending to make a strong jump shift in clubs on your rebid.  You are unlikely to make game if your partner can’t scrape up a bid of some sort, and so you are not too worried about getting a bad board if the hand is  passed out.

Following your 1♦ opening, your LHO preempts 3♣.  Partner and RHO pass.  Your bid?

Well, clubs are well stopped and you do have 21 high card points.   Partner could easily have enough high cards for 3NT or 5♦ to be a laydown and not have a bid over 3♣.  The chance that partner has at least a little something in hearts is very good, and so you take a gamble and bid 3NT, ending the auction.

As expected, West leads the ♣K and partner tables the dummy.  It is not the dummy of your dreams:


Your partner in fact has a little something in hearts, but not enough of something it seems.  It looks pretty hopeless even with the gorgeous diamond Jack.  It appears that you have 8 top tricks (5 diamonds, 2 spades and a club) and no real prospects for a 9th trick.  There is a serious risk that defenders can cash 3 heart tricks if they get in.   Is there a way to play the board to take 9 tricks?

The last time we spoke about playing an apparently hopeless contract (see post dated November 10, 2017 below), you were advised to mentally place the defender’s cards in the most favorable position to allow you to make your contract, assume that is where the cards are, and then base your play on that assumption — right or wrong.

There is an element of that here (you assume that the hearts are placed in a manner where they can not be cashed out quickly).  But the main point of this lesson is that in situations such as these you often need to enlist the help of the defenders to establish your ninth trick.  There are two possible ways to do that here:

  1.  The spade suit looks like a possible source of a 9th trick.  Opponents do not know that your diamond Jack is a dummy entry and so you may hope that spades break 3-2 so you can take the club ace (relying on the ♣10 as a stopper) cash out the A and K of spades, lead a 3rd spade and, when you regain the lead (if ever), get to the dummy with the diamond Jack.The problem with this line of play is that defenders have brains.  Your order of play will expose your plan.  The only reason you would play that way is if the diamond jack was indeed an entry, so witnessing that line of play by you they would certainly realize they need to cash out quickly and will play hearts and clubs, perhaps gaining at least 5 tricks before you take 9.
  2. The club 10-9 is a very nice holding. If you hold up, and can persuade West to play clubs enough times, one of them will be promoted to your ninth trick.  You must only hope that West will not switch to a heart, or that the hearts are arranged so that not too many can be cashed at once.

Which plan is better?

Plan 2 is better.  Why?  Because you are going to attempt your deception early in the play before the defenders have enough information to figure out what to do.  With plan 1 (establishing spades), it is obvious that a heart shift will be required once you cash the spade Ace and King but with plan B you will hold up immediately before anything is known.  Even if West realizes s/he should shift, s/he won’t have any information about which major to shift to (your opening bid of 1♦ will suggest a major suit shift).  Indeed, since dummy’s hearts are marginally stronger than spades, a spade, instead of heart, shift might be slightly more tempting.

So you hold up your club Ace.  West knows you have it — you would never have bid 3NT without it — but she does not know how many clubs you have or who holds the 10 and 9.  She will probably think it safe to continue clubs.  After all, her diamond 10 may be an entry if partner has a diamond honor, so why not try to establish her long suit?

After your duck, West now cashes the club Queen.  Here you are at a crossroads.  You have two choices:

A.  Take the club Ace now and shoot back the club 10, establishing the 9; or

B.  Duck again and hope West leads leads a third club into the teeth of your Ace 10 tenace.

Both plans have problems.  Plan A shouts out to the defenders what you are trying to do.  Once you take the Ace and play the 10, it is obvious you have the 9 and a major suit shift is required.  But which major suit?  And perhaps West has a heart holding, such as a singleton honor or doubleton honor 9 (A9, K9, or Q9), that can’t hurt you (check it out — the suit gets blocked up).

But plan B also has risks.  If West figures out what you are up to, and shifts to a different suit, you have the same 8 tricks that you had before.

Frankly, I don’t know which plan is better.  Against weaker players, I’d try plan B — they are more likely just to continue clubs, promoting your club 10.  Stronger players would figure out that with a club void in dummy and their partner’s failure to take a 4♣ “sacrifice”, you have the protected club 10, and shift.  So you may as well tell them what they already know (or can figure out for themselves), take the club ace on the play of the 2nd club and fire back the 10.  They still have to figure out what major suit to shift to, and that is a real conundrum.

Take full credit on this one if you decided to hold up on the club Ace for one round because in this instance, either plan would have worked other than against very good defenders.

This was the full hand:


After the hold-up following the opening lead, the only way for West to set the contract is NOT to play a 2nd club, but rather shift to the stiff queen of hearts and then play a passive diamond or spade.  Good luck finding that defense.  But the 1st round hold up on the club Ace is necessary to have any chance.  Simply cashing out your eight winners and praying for a miracle has very little chance of succeeding.

— Tom Hunt


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