Discovery Plays: Finding the Honor

Last week we discussed the importance of improving your inference-making skills at the bridge table on defense.  We invite you to challenge your inference-making skills again this week, but this time as the declarer.

Here are two hands from a recent Saturday game at the club.  For each hand, you are West.  How would you play the following 4 contract after the bidding and opening lead shown?  On North’s lead of the ♣K, South plays the ♣5, discouraging.



Unless you are extremely lucky in spades, you must find the Q to make the hand.  How do you proceed?

For the 2nd hand, you are playing 3♠ after the following auction and opening lead.  Opponents open a convenient minor, with a club opening promising at least 3 clubs.


North leads the ♣2.  South wins with the ♣A and returns a low club.  You take your ♣K, North following low.  You play the  ♠K,  North the ♠2 while South takes the ♠A.  South returns the 8.  You try the Q, but it loses to the King.  North then plays the ♥J.    These are the cards remaining when you take the K in hand:


What do you do next?  You have lost 3 tricks already and must also lose a club.   You must pick up the ♠J to make the hand.

Click on the link below to see the answer to both problems.

Each of these hands has a similar issue:  there is a missing honor which you must find to make the contract.  In Hand 1, it is the heart Queen; in Hand 2, the spade Jack.

Consider Hand 1 first.  It’s a complete guess who holds the Q.  Right?

Only if you let it be.  You can markedly improve your chances of finding the Q by finding out who has the A.   If North, the opening leader, shows up with that card, North has now shown the A, ♣K, ♣Q (since he likely led from the top of touching honors) and probably the ♣J, giving South’s discouraging signal (♣5) on the opening lead.  That makes 10 high card points accounted for.   If Q were in North’s hand, he would have 12 high card points and almost everyone opens a 12 HCP hand nowadays, particularly holding a chunky suit.

So how do you find out how has the A?  You can ask your opponents, but they probably will not tell you.  So the only way to find out is to discover it for yourself by leading a diamond.   When you do so, North takes his Ace and so you now know that North started with the diamond Ace in addition to the club honors.  So you decide to play South for the Q, and finesse against the queen in South hand.  Your judgment is validated when the finesse wins, making 4.  These are all four hands:


In the second hand, you can figure out who has the ♠J by getting a count on the spade suit.  If North started with only 1 spade, then he has already played it, and you must finesse the ♠10 to pick up the Jack.  How can you get a count of the spades?

You get a count of the spades by counting the 3 other suits.  First of all, you know that South has at least 3 but no more than 4 clubs.  North led the ♣2 and then followed to the 2nd club.  With only 2 clubs, North would have led top of a doubleton.  North has at least 3 clubs, and so South could not have started with 5.

Since South has no more than 4 clubs, South can have no more than 3 diamonds.  If South had 4 diamonds, he would have opened 1, and not 1♣.

South can have no more than 4 hearts.  With 5 hearts, South would have opened 1.  So South has either 3-4-3-3 distribution or 2-4-3-4 distribution, and thus holds either 2 or 3 spades.

Which is it?  The key is who has the 4th club.  If South has it, then South has 4 clubs and 2 spades, and you must play for the ♠J to drop.  If North has the 4th club, then South has 3 clubs and 3 spades, and you must finesse to the ♠10.

How do you find out?  Play another club and find out what happens.  When you do so, North plays low and South wins the ♣Q.   So who has the fourth club?

South’s winning the ♣Q gives the game away:  the ♣J is still missing, and North must have it.  Why?  Because if South started with both the ♣Q and ♣J, he would never have dared to lead a low club on the 2nd trick, seeing the ♣10 on the board, for fear you would duck and win a trick cheaply with the ♣10.  Instead, he would have led the ♣Q on the 2nd trick to promote his Jack, having started with ♣AQJx.

Placing the ♣J with North, you know you will have to finesse for the ♠J.  So you cash your A, ruff a diamond and play a spade from the dummy, finessing. North shows out of spades, and you are home.  Here are all four hands.


The general type of play illustrated by these two hands is called a “discovery play.”  A discovery play is a play made by declarer involving the loss of a trick that declarer knows he must eventually lose anyway, to discover something about the honor placement or distribution of the opponent’s hands.  In the 1st hand, the play was the lead of a diamond before drawing trumps.  In the 2nd hand, it was the loss of a club trick designed to divine the count in the spade suit.

Look for opportunities to make discovery play whenever you have a critical guess to make in a suit and don’t yet have enough information to narrow your choices.  Ask yourself whether you can safely loose a trick in a manner which will tell you something useful about the hand.

Discovery plays don’t always work:  for instance, in the first hand if South, not North, had the diamond Ace, no inference could be drawn one way or the other about the whereabouts of the heart queen.  Moreover, they are not always absolutely safe:  had North held up taking the diamond Ace for a round (thereby not giving away its position), it might have been dangerous to lead a 2nd diamond for fear that you were exposing yourself to a diamond ruff had diamonds split 5-2.  But they are very useful tool in your bridge arsenal, and can be the key to avoiding a nasty guess and making a hand in which most of the other declarers go down.  Happy discovering!

— Tom Hunt


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