Being a Pessimist: The Avoidance Play

Enough bidding problems for the time being.  Let’s discuss a play problem.  We have had several articles in which our readers have been presented with a shaky, even hopeless, contract, and the issue was how to play the hand to maximize your chances.  The “big idea” of those articles was that you place the cards in defenders’ hands in the most favorable manner that would give you the best change — i.e., you put on your optimist’s hat.

This article presents the opposite.  How should you plan a hand that appears to be rock-solid?

Here is a hand which illustrates the point.  How would you play the following 3NT contract after the auction shown.



West leads the ♦10.  You play the ♦Q which wins.  How many sure tricks do you have once the ♣A is driven out?

I count 8:   2 clubs; 2 diamonds; one heart and 3 spades.   You need one more.

Knowing that you have to drive out the ♣A eventually, you lead a low club from dummy to the ♣Q, which holds.

You are playing matchpoints, and so you should be prepared to take reasonable risks to maximize overtricks.

How would you play the hand going forward to maximize your chance of overtricks that does not unduly risk the contract?   Click on the MORE button below for the answer.

With 29 HCP points between the two hands, this looks like about as easy a no-trump contract as you could hope for.  Figuring that either spades were 3/2 or clubs 3/3 (about a 85% chance), you might conclude that you can just continue working on the club suit.

In my haste to roll up the contract while playing the the Silidor Open Pairs with Zach Brescoll, that is exactly what I did.  I played a club to the board, loosing to the ♣A.  East, of course,  returned a diamond.  Trusting either spades to break 3-2 or clubs to break 3-2, I did not hold up my ♦A.  Not good.  Neither black suit broke and I ended up down 1.  These are the four hands:


So, how would you have played the hand to avoid this disaster?

When playing a hand that looks cold, you need to be a pessimist and place the cards in the most unfavorable position, and then find a way to make the contract.

The key thing I missed was how to protect myself after the ♣Q won in hand.  Since I have reason to believe that the ♣A was with East (West not having taken the trick), I can protect myself against bad breaks by, before messing around any more in the club suit, simply testing the spades.  If spades break badly with West having 4 spades, I can simply lose a spade safely to West (West can lead a diamond productively into my ♦AJ) and take at least 9 tricks (4 spades, 2 diamonds, 2 hearts and a club).

This hand illustrates the idea of an avoidance play.  An avoidance play is a play declarer makes to keep a danger hand out of the lead, or alternatively, creates a situation where if the danger hand obtains the lead, he does so at the cost of promoting enough tricks for declarer to make the contract.  A hold-up play is an example of an avoidance play.

Here, East is the danger hand since if he gets in he can shoot a diamond through my ♦AJ tenace.  I need to play the hand in a way to keep East from gaining the lead in circumstances that would jeopardize the contract.

Here, my play of a low club from the board was a properly performed avoidance play.  It does NOT keep East out of the lead, but had East taken the ♣A, he would have promoted the rest of my clubs to winning rank and I would safely have 9 tricks even if he shoots through a diamond.   So East must duck or give me the contract on a silver platter.

But I had to make a SECOND avoidance play once I got into my hand to avoid the distribution that doomed me.  I needed to play a spade to the ♠K and then the ♠10 back to my hand.  If East shows out on the 2nd spade (as was the case here), I now know that I need to allow West, the safe hand, to win his Jack.  At that point West can NOT lead a diamond productively and so he must eventually give me my 9th trick in clubs or hearts.  Had I made this play, I would have gotten at least an average board instead of the disappointing and unnecessary 17% I made on this particular board.

Avoidance plays can be exceeding complex, but the thought process to executing them requires two steps:

  1.  Identify which of the defenders is the “danger hand”;
  2.  Figure out how to keep that defender out of the lead (or, alternatively, make it overly costly for him to gain the lead).

We hope to have have more examples of these types of plays going forward.  In the meantime, happy avoiding!

— Tom Hunt





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