The key to being a successful bridge player is to be able to count the entire hand (high cards; distribution; and tricks), making appropriate inferences from the bidding and the play. Try your hand at counting on this board that was played at a recent club game. You are South trying to make 3 spades after the auction and bidding shown:
By way of explanation, West’s jump to 3♣ was alerted as a weak, preemptive bid. Your partner’s cue-bid of 3♦ showed a limit raise or better in spades. West leads the diamond ♦3. Your play.
Your first decision is what to play from the dummy. Counting losers, you see that you potentially could lose a spade trick, 2 heart tricks 2 diamonds tricks and a club trick — two tricks too many. You would like to eventually promote a winning diamond in the dummy for a heart discard. The best way to do this is to play low on the 1st trick, hoping that your right-hand opponent (East) is missing the ♦J. If East is missing the ♦J, he will unlikely play the ♦9 from ♦AK9(xx) for fear that you, the declarer, have the ♦J and will win an easy trick with it. This play costs nothing if East has the Jack, and is the only realistic hope of eventually promoting a diamond winner assuming proper defensive play.
So you call low from the dummy. Sure enough, East rises with the ♦K and switches to the ♣9. Now what?
There is no reason to play the ♣Q (the King is obviously on your left) so you play low. West plays the encouraging ♣8.
Since you are doomed to lose a club trick anyway, you decide to duck this trick to impair defender’s communications. The ♣9 wins. On the next lead of the ♣2, you are forced to take the trick on the Board with the ♣A. Here are the cards played so far:
At this point this hand is an open book — you can figure out the defenders’ exact distribution and the placement of nearly all the high cards. Try doing this now. If counting is a skill you are still developing, sketch your thoughts first on a piece of paper, revising and adjusting them as you think the hand through.. When you have finished figuring out the distribution and high card placement, go ahead and plan the rest of the play. Click the More button after you have counted the hand and think you know what to do.
Here is the distribution of and high card placement in defenders’ hands:
Clubs: West made a weak jump shift in clubs showing at least 6 clubs. East played the ♣9 and then ♣2. This high-low play shows a doubleton, which obviously does not include the ♣J. So West started with KJxxxx of clubs.
Diamonds: West led a low diamond. He must have the ♦J, as with the ♦J, East would have played that card on the 1st trick. With doubleton ♦Jx, West would have led the ♦J, not the ♦3 (lead top of a doubleton). So West has at least 3 diamonds. He almost certainly has exactly 3 since East opened 1♦, which almost always shows 4.
Hearts: not a single heart has been played but you can figure out the heart distribution easily enough. There are 6 hearts between your and your partner’s hand and so defenders have 7. If East had 5 hearts, he would have opened 1♥, and not 1♦. So East can have at most 4 hearts. So give East 4 hearts and West 3 hearts.
Spades: West has 6 clubs, 3 diamonds, and at least 3 hearts. 13 – (6 + 3 + 3) = 1 so he has AT MOST 1 spade! Did you figure this out?
While not strictly necessary to figure out the following, it is easy enough the place the rest of the high cards. You and your partner have 23 between you. West has at least the ♣KJ and ♦J, which accounts for 27 in all. East opened. Give him all or most of the rest — the ♦AK, the ♥K and either the ♠Q, the ♥Q or both!
So how to you play the hand? You suspect the ♠Q is with East but you can’t be sure. And there is no reason to guess. West has at most 1 spade. So just play a low spade from board to a high honor in your hand. If the Queen is a singleton with West, it drops.
So you play a spade to your hand. West and East both play a low spade. How to you safely get to the Board to take the marked finesse in trumps?
You can’t go to the Board with the heart Ace because then you are at risk of losing two quick tricks to the ♥KQ. But a diamond is perfectly safe. You know that West started with at least 3 diamonds and he is out of trumps anyway. You also want to to promote a high diamond to arrange for a heart discard in case the ♥KQ both lie with East. So lead a diamond to the 10. East takes his King.
East now faces a hobson’s choice: He can either play a diamond or a heart putting on the Board, or finesse the spades for you by playing a low trump. East tries a low trump hoping you will mis-guess and play high. But you have counted the hand perfectly. You finesse to the Board’s ♠J, winning, cash the high diamond, pitching a heart, draw the last trump the queen falling, and claim. Well done! Here are all four hands:
You won’t be able to count the hand so completely so early on in every hand, but there is almost always a point while playing a hand where it is useful to count defender’s distribution and high cards. And don’t try to undertake this arduous process after each card is played — you will exhaust yourself mentally after the 1st hand. Rather, look for the 1 or 2 critical junctures during the play of most any bridge hand and then and only then put in the requisite mental effort. It will make a huge difference to your ability to plan the play of the hand, and will ultimately result in higher scores, and, most importantly, more fun playing the game. Happy counting!
— Tom Hunt