The Italian Intrafinesse

Ciao a tutti da Italia!

I am here in Italy, on the island of Sardegna (Sardinia, in English), in Cagliari, a   beautiful city found on this island not well-known to most Americans.   Bridge is very popular in Italy; Cagliari, a city the size of Charlotte, has 3 active bridge clubs.  Of course, I wanted to try the game while I was here.

I did not know anyone, so I got in touch with the President of one of the clubs, a Mr. Giancarlo Garbati, about finding me a partner.  Mr. Garbati did me the honor of agreeing to play with me the first evening I could play.  Mr. Garbati emailed me a convention card and so I boned up on multi 2♦ openings and overcalls and other conventions while not widely played in the United States, are popular in Europe.  Of course, I wanted to acquit myself  well by playing competently with Mr. Garbati my first session there to enhance my ability to find a partner on some later day.

I happened to have plenty of opportunity that day, as there were many challenging hands in respect to bidding, play and defense.  The following was my second hand out of the box (East-West vulnerable):


As South, I opened 1♠, West overcalled 2♥, my partner bid 2♠, and East competed to 3♥.  My best bid now?

With my American partners, I would not have bid 3♠ with my very nice hand.  3♠ by me would have shown no game interest.  Instead, I would have made a so-called “maximal” double of 3♥.  This is played by many experienced players as a general game try.  I did not do that here as I had no idea how Mr. Garbati would take the bid. So, I just gambled and bid of 4♠.

When this bid was passed out, West led the ♥A and the following dummy came down:


It is easy to that I have a sure loser in hearts, one in clubs and possibly two diamond losers — one too many.

After winning the 1st trick, West shifted to ♣9 (clearly a doubleton at most), won by East with the ♣A.  East continued a low club, I played my ♣K and West thankfully followed.  I cashed the ♠A, everyone following.  These are the cards remaining after 4 rounds:


Looking at the diamonds it appears that the only way to avoid a 2nd diamond loser is to go to the dummy and lead low to the ♦Q, hoping that the King is on my right.   If this is indeed the lies of the cards, no matter whether East plays the King immediately, or ducks and allows my Queen to win, the defenders can win no more than 1 trick in the suit.

But where is the diamond King?  And if it is West’s hand, is there any way that I can play the suit to avoid two diamond losers?  How would you play the hand?  Click the link below to see the solution.

In the particular hand I was playing, I judged that the ♦K was on my left, unfavorably placed behind my ♦Q.  Why?  Because West had made a 2-level overcall on a 5 card suit (his partner would not likely have bid 3♥ having only 2 of the suit) in unfavorable vulnerability and West’s partner had shown with the ♣AJ.  To give West the full opening values appropriate to a 5-card 2-level vulnerable overcall, West pretty much had to have the ♦K.    So things are not looking good.  Is there any possible way to play the diamonds with the ♦K offside to hold the diamond losers to one?  Think about it, but don’t think too long.

Why not think too hard about this?  Because it took 200 years for someone to figure this one out and so I would not expect anyone not already familiar with the technique I’m about to describe to deduce how to pull this off in 5 to 10 minutes.  While  bidding in the game of bridge has changed dramatically since the game evolved into auction bridge in the early 20th century, very little has change in the play of the cards since the early days of Whist, bridge’s precursor, first played in 1728.  The only major advance in card play I know of happening in the last 100 years was discovered by a Brazilian master, Gabriel Chagas.  Chagas published in 1974 an article describing the so-called “intrafinesse”, a type of double finesse made when the declarer is missing 3 key cards in the suit;  in the the hand we are playing, the diamond Jack, Ten and Nine.

Consider a possible layout of the diamond suit in the particular hand I was faced with:


Suppose I lead the ♦Q from my hand.  Does this work?  Certainly not:  West simply covered the ♦Q with is King, and if I take the ♦A, both the ♦J and ♦10 are promoted to winners;  If I don’t take the ♦A, I am still doomed to lose a diamond later.  Not good.

Suppose I lead, say, the ♦9, and duck on the board.  This doesn’t work either.  East wins cheaply with the ♦10, and I am still doomed to lose a diamond to the ♦J after West covers the ♦Q with the ♦K on the next play in the suit.

But what if I lead low from the Board and stick in the ♦9, East having played the ♦3.  West wins cheaply with the ♦J, yes, but looks what happens when I get back to my hand and play the ♦Q.  East’s ♦10 is pinned under the ♦Q.  Whether or not West covers the ♦Q with the ♦K, East/West never get another diamond trick, holding my diamond losers to one trick (the first trick having taken by West).

The above is the most basic position for an intrafinesse.  I learned about this card combination 4 years ago and have been looking for an opportunity to make this play ever since.  The first time it came up, I only recognized the position after I had misplayed the hand, and so I swore to myself I’d never fail to recognize the position again.  Here it came up in the beautiful land of Italy and there was no way I was going to miss the opportunity to pull this off.  So after drawing trump ending in the dummy, it was low to the ♦9, losing to the ♦J.  I ruffed the heart return, played the ♦Q, covered by the ♦K, closed my eyes after playing the ♦A and — yes!  down came the ♦10 from West.  Here were all four hands:


That same evening, I also had the opportunity to pull of an elopement, a squeeze and an endplay.  Why does this not happen to me when I’m in the States?  Perhaps it is an omen.  Anyway, we finished 2nd out of 32 pairs, adequate to establish a reputation at that club.  I had a partner for the next time I played, and hopefully I will be able to get a partner if I choose to return.

A review of the elements of this most basic intrafinesse:

  • You are missing the King, Jack and Ten in a suit in which you have at least 3 cards in each hand.  You must have the Ace, Queen, Nine and Eight with the Ace and Queen split between the two hands.
  • You have reason to believe that the King is behind your Queen (otherwise, simply play low to the Queen).  To avoid losing two tricks you must hope that the other defender’s hand has either a double Jack or 10, in which case ….
  • You lead low from the Ace to towards Queen, but instead of playing the Queen, insert the Eight or Nine.  Then, when you regain the lead, lead the Queen, finessing against the King and pinning the Jack (or Ten) in the other defender’s hand.

Obviously the lie of the cards has to be quite precise and so luck is required.  Success is far less than 50% since you need a doubleton in the hand not holding the King and the Jack and Ten split between the two defenders’ hands.   But  if you are missing the King, Jack and Ten and you are convinced the King is on the wrong side of the Queen, this is typically your only hope — so go for it!  We would love to hear from anyone among who has an opportunity to pull off this unusual and beautiful play.

A presto! Ciao, ciao!

— Tom Hunt










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