Bruce's Bridge Basics #5

How To Take Tricks As Declarer

I am happy to note that our group of learners does not seem to have the wrong attitude I see in many experienced players, who focus on bidding so much that they neglect the other half of the game. When I fill in, I usually make far more matchpoints by getting away with tricks I shouldn't get, than in influencing the course of the auction to a favorable spot. As you learn the game, the most visible mistakes will be in bidding, but even in a bad contract an extra trick or two might save a few matchpoints. But if you get to the right contract and leave potential tricks for the opponents to snap up, that can be quite costly. So it's just as important to take as many tricks as you can, as to get to a good contract in the auction. Watching some people play, it seems their idea is that once you get to a contract, the number of tricks you make is almost pre-ordained as long as you make normal plays that declarers at other tables will make. That's a strategy that gets you the same score as others, and is designed to keep you from finishing near the bottom. But to win you need to try to make a better score than others, and you need to risk the occasional bad score to get a key extra trick here and there!

British expert player and prolific writer Terence Reese wrote that there are only four basic ways to take tricks. The easiest way is to play a card that is highest in the suit (and hope nobody trumps it). Next easiest is to trump an opponent's (or partner's) lead. Somewhat harder is to establish lower cards in a long suit as winners once everyone is out of that suit and nobody has trumps (if there is a trump suit) — note that you also need an entry to the hand that has the small cards in the established suit! These are basic plays and most players figure out how to run a long suit, trump losers, and set up long suits fairly quickly once they begin play. The fourth way is where all the fun is: playing for outstanding cards to be in particular positions. This covers almost every advanced bridge play:

On every deal you declare, your first job when dummy appears will be to count likely tricks, winners in notrump, losers in a suit, and then figure out what to do to improve the tally. There will be some suits where the play is obvious (I hope the trump suit is one of them!) and others where you may need to guess the best way to attack them. Don't guess if you don't need to. Watch for clues to help you out as you do the obvious things.

The key is good card-reading. You not only have to remember the cards played, but you need to develop an instinct for where the missing high-cards might be. Sometimes clues in the bidding will give you clues as to which opponent has more high cards than the other. Sometimes the lack of a bid by a player who has already played several high cards will reveal that a further missing card must be with his partner. Often the opening lead will give you clues about where missing high cards are. If the opponents both bid a suit and you declare and they for some reason don't lead that suit, the leader probably has KJxxx or AQxxx or some such holding that might give up a trick if led from, certainly not AKxxx or KQJxx. Sometimes you can even count out one of the defender's hands from the distributional clues you get when players show out of suits and discover that only one defender can be long in an unplayed suit. These types of clues are more reliable than the percentage plays you see in bridge books.

One famous fictional character in a serious of bridge books stated his goal: that his finesses should succeed not 50% of the time, but at least 60%! Stuck in 7NT against weak opposition missing two key queens, he found the winning play:

The opening lead was a club, and declarer counted eleven winners, with finesses possible in both red suits which, if taken the right way, would bring in two more. Which suit to try first? Our hero won the club lead in hand and led the J. The opening leader thought for some time before playing low. Since declarer held the Q, he knew this was not a finesse play, but his opponent did not. But now aware of his opponent's reaction to such plays, he overtook with the A in dummy, returned to hand with a club, and led the J, and the same opponent this time played low very quickly. If we hesitate when we expect declarer to finesse and partner to win, what must playing without hesitation mean? "Play low!" The jack won, and 7NT was made with four spades, four hearts, two diamonds and three clubs! Later in the bar, he chortled about making 7NT on one of two possible finesses. "Ridiculous," said a friend. "What if the first fails?" "Then I don't take it, of course!"

(I should point out that as a defender it is not proper to hesitate with no other reason than to mislead declarer. If the opposite had happened: the player had followed smoothly to the J and then slowly to the J, and the trick had lost to partner's queen, a Director would rule against the defenders and adjust the score.)

In the next BBB we'll again discuss trick-taking from the point of view of the other side: the defenders. Is defending harder or easier than declaring? (Hint: it's harder.) Are there any advantages the defenders have? Think about that question and we'll see if we agree...

35 Years of Trying!

It was a weekend morning and I was playing against my iPad's bridge program:

With five winners taken, RHO has the club winner and we have five hearts, the A, and the Q, which is twelve tricks. Can we find another trick for all thirteen?

Now is the time to give you the main point that Clyde Love discovered and taught in the 1950s. If you understand what you are trying to accomplish, you need not watch every discard as you run your long suits hoping for a squeeze. Players think the opposite and rack their brains trying to visualize the whole deck when they need only to watch for a few cards.

Can we make this, for example, if RHO has the K with his club winner? We could play the Q and five heart winners, and if East began with:
K 6 5 4   Q   K 7 5 3   T 6 4 2  
...the final heart from dummy, with three tricks left, will leave East in an impossible situation, having to choose a discard from this spot:

When the T is led from dummy, East has no winning play: a spade allows South to discard the 9 and make two spade tricks, a club allows South to discard the 9 and make the final trick with the 9. Well done. You made thirteen tricks on a squeeze! Now for the real problem: can you make it if the K is in the other hand, the one without the club winner?

Yes we can. In addition to the Q and the 9, there is a third card that might become the thirteenth trick: believe it or not, it is ... the 4! Yes, the 4! Watch (Hit the Next button below the diagram a bunch of times to go through the cardplay...):

When we played the final heart, both defenders were forced to pitch diamonds. We didn't need to count cards at all; if no defender coughed up the K or the T, our only hope was that they had each kept a black suit winner and only one diamond. We led a diamond to the queen and the 4 won the final trick! We squeezed both opponents!

I don't think there is a way to cater for both possibilities: if RHO has the K and the T, you need to cash the Q and abandon the 4 as a threat. If LHO has the K you need to cash the A and play for the double squeeze. I did so, and when it worked I had executed my first double squeeze in 35 years of playing!

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Next Up: BBB#6: Defense: It's All About Tricks!