Bridge Problems

Do You Know Your Card Combinations?

Every beginning bridge player learns quickly how to take a basic finesse.  Here are some common more advanced card combinations that are important to know: the cards represent a single suit in your hand and in dummy.  Envision this is your trump suit, or your “project suit” in NT.  Unless otherwise stated, assume that you have plenty of entries in each hand and so communication between the hands is not a problem.  The lead starts in the South (bottom) hand.  In each case, ask yourself how to best play the suit to take the number of tricks indicated.


1a:  Here, you are hoping for KQ(xx) in the West (left) hand or the two honors split between East (right) and West — well over a 75% shot.  Lead low from the South hand and if West does not insert an honor, finesse the 10 (or Jack), expecting it to lose to the King or Queen.  When the lead gets back to you, lead from the South hand and finesse again.  This is the layout of the cards you hope to find:


Note that this play pays off only to the KQ doubleton in the East hand, behind the AJ10 — if KQx(x) are in the East hand, there is nothing you can do so don’t worry about it.

1b.   This is a bit of a trick question!  There is really no way against proper defense you can necessarily take even two tricks absent defensive error unless KQ(xx) lies in the West hand — less than a 25% chance.  It does not help to have the honors split between East and West — when the 10 is led from the South hand (either on the 1st or 2nd play of the suit), West simply covers and honor with an honor and South is held to 1 trick (absent a 3-3 break).  Note that the placement of the 10 changes everything.  The 10 is known as a “pusher” card because you use it to “push” an honor into the jaws of a waiting tenace.  Here, the tenace is not quite strong enough to guarantee an extra trick.

1c.  This position is like 1a, but more favorable to you since you have both the 10 and the 9, so you could lead the 10 from the South hand intending to finesse.  But the even better play is to lead low from the south hand intending to finesse.  If West has a singleton honor, you will get 3 tricks in the suit as you won’t waste the 10 crashing West’s honor.


2a.   Many competent players get this one wrong.  At first blush, it seems right to go the board and take the finesse.  But think about it — missing the 10, 9 and 8 there is simply no lie of the cards where you can take all 5 tricks.  And so your thoughts should go to making sure you can take 4.

You will take four tricks any time spades are 3-2 (in which case it does not matter how you play the suit), but there is is one 4-1 break you need to be careful to guard against —  K(10xx) in the West hand.   If this is the situation, taking the “finesse” will limit you to 3 tricks.


Consider the card placement in all four hands above.  If you finesse the Queen, the King will take your honor.  After you then cash the 2 spade honors, the spade 10 will stand up as defenders’ 2nd trick in the suit, limiting you to 3 tricks.

The correct way to play this combination is lead low towards the Q (West does best to duck); then low from the dummy to your Ace, East showing out.  Then low to the Jack pickles West.  You have 4 tricks assuming you can get back to the Board if West rises with the King.

2b.  What a difference a 10 makes!  Here, you might be able to take 5 tricks.  Your best chance of doing so, obviously, is to go to the Board and finesse the spade Queen, hoping that the King is onside and that spades break 3-2.

But if you have a strong belief that East has a singleton, be careful.  Cash the Ace first!  The only way you can take 5 tricks on a 4-1 split is if the King is singleton in either hand.

2c.  Here the placement of the 10 does not make a difference since you have the Queen and Jack.  But there is a subtle difference — it is slightly better to play low from the board and finesse the 10 if you have adequate board entries.  If East has a singleton King, you pick up the entire suit since you have not wasted the 10 to push out the King;   if you start by playing the Queen from the board, West’s Nine will eventually be promoted to a winner.


3a.  Here, you have about a 75% chance of taking the trick in the suit, as you will take a trick if either the Ace is in front of the queen or the ace and queen are in the same hand on either side of the king.  To do so, lead low from your hand to the King.  If the King wins, you have your trick.  If it loses to the Ace, when you regain the lead get to the dummy and lead low to the Jack.  You are hoping for a position such as this one.


Basically, if either the Ace is in front of the King or the Queen is in front of the Jack you get a trick.  If you start on the board, you can accomplish the same thing by leading low to the Jack.  Of course, if the Ace is behind the King and the Queen is behind the Jack, things don’t go so well.

3b.  There is really nothing here.  Play your tricks in any convenient order and in the worst case the 10 will set up after losing two tricks.  Why did we include this example?  Because  some declarers forget to count their tricks and try, say, to set up a 4 card suit or some other source of tricks unsuccessfully before setting up the sure winner in a weak suit such as this.  So long as you can afford to lose the lead twice, if one trick in this ugly suit is all you need to make your contract — go for it!  Don’t try anything fancy.

Note that without help from the opponents you can never get two tricks out of this suit.  Even if West has the Queen, s/he need only cover the Jack and eventually defender’s Nine is promoted.

3b.  Now you have the K, J, 10, 9 and so you can try for 2 tricks in the suit by finessing the Jack, hoping that the Queen is in front of the King.  (You don’t care where the Ace is).


4a.  You must lose a trick to the King (unless it is singleton, which does you no good because then you can only take 2 tricks, not 3), and so the trick is to avoid losing a trick to the Jack.   The best way to proceed is to cash the Ace (in case the King is singleton on your right which avoids losing 3 tricks) then play low.  Hopefully, the King pops up doubleton on your left.  If the King does not appear, you may have a nasty guess what to play from the dummy.  If the K-x-x is on your left, you must play the Queen.  But if it is J x x on your left, you must play low, as the  doubleton King is on your right and the King will be forced to win the trick.  (If there K-J-x or K-10-x to your right, don’t worry about it — there is nothing you could ever do).

Combo_4_Full   Play the Queen! (if West ducks)                                   Play the 10! (or low)

A strong player with K-x-x on your left will smoothly duck your play of a low card after cashing the Ace, as s/he hopes that you will then misguess by playing low from the dummy, losing to the Jack.  Seeing the 10 on the board, it will be obvious to your LHO that you are missing the Jack else you would have finessed starting with the queen — so it costs her nothing to duck and hope you guess wrong.  Meanwhile, as declarer, you should look for any “hitch” by your left-hand opponent — this “tell” suggests they have the King and have a moment of indecision about what to do (or perhaps you are being “coffee-housed”*).

4b.  Here, the presence of the 10 does not help you much — you still have a  guess to make.  But if you have no information to go on to place the King, playing the 10 is best since if the suit breaks 4-1 with K-J-x-x on your left, this avoids 2 losers in the suit.  Playing the 10, however pays off to doubleton Jack on your right — if that happens, you can only hope that you have a sympathetic partner.

4c.  The presence of the AQ109 makes the superior play (but not necessarily the correct play as the cards lie) to finesse the Queen from dummy — if it is covered by East, you cover with the Ace and your troubles are over (assuming a 3-2 break).  If the finesse loses, return to the dummy and finesse again against the Jack.  You have about a 75% chance to get it right.   This play only pays off to K-J-(x-x) in the West hand.  That can certainly happen.  It is especially embarrassing when the KJ is a doubleton on your left — but, hey, that’s bridge.

Of course, all of these analyses depend on you not having clues that would clue suggest the placement of the missing honors and/or the distribution.  If you conclude that the King is likely on your right, for instance, it makes no sense to ever fly Queen from the holdings shown here.

* “to coffee-house” — when defender makes an unnecessary pause in a situation when defender has no real choice to make, suggesting that the defender holds a card that s/he in fact does not hold.  If this happens, you should call the director.  The director should not adjust the score in your favor (since you make inferences based upon opponents’ behavior at your own risk), but may assess a procedural penalty against the opponents.

A misplayed hand

See if you can play the following hand better than Tom did while playing with Peter Shwartz about a year ago at the club.  Tom, South, held:
With no one vulnerable, West opened the bidding with 1♦.  Peter doubled for take-out.  East, known to be an aggressive bidder, passed.  Tom jumped to 2♥, showing hearts and 9-11 playing points opposite Peter’s takeout double.  West doubled for take-out.  Peter raised to 3♥.  East came alive with 4♦ , and Tom took a flyer at 4♥ . 
Summarizing the bidding, starting with West:
1♦ –  *  – pass – 2♥
*   – 3♥ – 4♦ – 4♥
West, after some thought, leads the ♣︎K.  Peter tables the following dummy:
Tom misplayed the hand and went down — and has been thinking about it ever since.  Can you play the hand better than Tom did?  As usual, the key is making inferences, both positive and negative.
This is how Tom thought (erroneously) about the hand at the table that day: 


Peter will not be happy that I competed to 4 with such balanced shape.  Perhaps I can surprise him and make the contract.  Well, let’s see.  I have two potential diamond losers, a club loser, and a possible loser in hearts — one loser too many.  I can get rid of the heart loser if the trump finesse succeeds.  If so, that’s 10 tricks and I make the contract.  A 50-50 chance is better than no chance at all.  No reason not to take the club Ace immediately.  Then take the trump finesse immediately.

Tom did just that.  With the trump king offside and defendants then finding the diamond switch, he lost 4 tricks for down 1.

Before reading on, take a moment to think how Tom’s superficial analysis cost him the contract.

Had he been thinking that day, the following is what Tom might have thought.

I have two potential diamond losers, a club loser, and a possible loser in hearts — one loser too many.  I can get rid of the heart loser if the trump finesse succeeds.  If so, that’s 10 tricks and I make the contract.  A 50-50 chance is better than no chance at all. 

Can I think of anything about the bidding, opening lead and conduct of the opponents that might lead to a better line?   Let’s think about that.  West opened the bidding, then, facing a passing partner, made a take-out double.  West should have a pretty good hand as she may be forcing her partner to bid at the 3 level having passed originally.  East passed originally, and then came in with a 4 diamond bid!  She’s crazier than I am.  What can she possibly have to justify such crazyness? 

The opening lead is a bit off — after some thought, West made the potentially dangerous lead from the KQx(x) of clubs which risks promoting my club jack if her partner does not have it.  Certainly, if she had an easy safe opening lead in diamonds, she would have led that suit instead immediately.  With AK or KQ of diamonds, a diamond lead is much, much safer.  So perhaps she does not have either of those holdings.  Yeah, that makes some sense.  The dangerous diamond holding she might have is A Q x x (x).  She might be like me — she hates to lead an ace without the king against a trump contract.  Actually, that makes a lot of sense.  To raise to 4 diamonds having passed, I would expect East to have something  in diamonds.  Let’s give East K x x x (x) in the diamond suit. 

What about the heart King?  West should have no more than 2 hearts for her takeout double.  If East has the heart King doubleton, that would give her at least a useful 6 high card points and at least 4 diamonds after her partner’s opening bid.  Is East the type of player that would have the nerve to come in on the 4 level having made an ultra-conservative pass at the 2 level?  I don’t think so!  So I’m giving West the trump king.  If West has the trump king, the only way I’m making this contract is by dropping the king singleton.  So I’ll close my eyes and just cash the trump ace.

Too bad Tom did not think this through, because this was the full hand:

Tom’s key mistake:  not asking himself the question “Can I think of anything about the bidding, opening lead and conduct of the opponents that might impact my chosen line of play?”  Don’t be mentally lazy like Tom was that day —  always ask yourself this question before you commit to a particular line of play.   Had Tom taken the time to think of exactly why West would chose not to lead a diamond — the obvious lead when partner supported your suit — he might (let’s not give him too much credit) have figured this out at the table.
If at this point in your bridge development you are despairing of ever being able to engage in this type of analysis — no worries.  Most A players would miss this.  Tom certainly did.  But the basic idea behind the problem — making a close inferential analysis of the bidding, opening lead, and any other information before playing the hand, is an essential skill to any aspiring bridge player and something each of you should work on, on every day you play bridge and on every hand you play.