I have sometimes tried to convince some of my friends to learn Bridge. I believe I am not a very good teacher.
I remember well how my great friend and mentor, José Dulphe Pinheiro Machado, defined the difference between the good player and the great player.
Good declarers are constantly drawing inferences from the cards played by the defenders...
Sometimes it is hard to distinguish between good technique and what is commonly called table presence, or a talent for guessing. There is nothing mysterious or supernatural about it -- it involves mostly the use of some basic notions of probability, and common sense.
You are playing 4 Hearts, after the lead of the Queen of hearts.
Should declarer presume that the lead was from QJ10?
Of course! It is purely common sense, coupled with the fact that you must find a good break in hearts to have any chance of making the contract. (Otherwise you would lose at least 2 Aces and 2 hearts).
So, your first plan is to draw two trumps with the Ace and King; then run all the spades, ruffing the 4th round, expecting to find them 4-3, and pitching one diamond from dummy; finally, you will play a heart, endplaying West, which must give you your 10th trick upon his return (you will make 3 spades, 4 hearts, 2 clubs, and the extra trick West will give you).
Quite simple and effective. However, after playing the two top hearts and running 3 spades, East pitches a diamond on the 3rd round. West had 5 spades originally. What now?
You cannot insist on your original plan, since West will have an exit in the 5th spade. Since you will have to breach clubs at some point, you do it now, playing a club to the King. East should duck that, but that is often not so easy, and he won it to push a diamond through. You try the Jack, losing to West's Queen, who cashes his trump trick and plays the 4th spade trick. You ruff in dummy and this is the position you face:
In actual play, declarer now played a club to his 8!
My reasoning (for I was declarer) was that West had already showed up with 8 major suit cards, while his partner had only 4. Any specific card missing was much more likely to be with East, which had a 2-2-?-? hand originally. The most likely distribution for these unknown cards would be 5-4, in which case the club finesse was odd-on.
Good guessing, or technique? I prefer to think of it as a little bit of both, with emphasis on the second.
If you found our last problem somewhat too easy, try your hand at this one.
But the lead was the Jack of hearts now.
Plan the play.
Let us recap the problem:
After the heart Queen lead, you can count 7 spades, 2 hearts, 1 diamond and 1 club = 11 tricks. Your best shot is a squeeze against East (you will need him to hold KQ of diamonds as well as his 5 hearts). The solution is simple, but not for those who play too quickly to trick 1. Duck the lead! Now your count will be rectified. You will win any return and run winners (including the Ace of diamonds -- a Vienna coup) to reach this ending:
And when you cash the last trump, discarding a diamond from dummy, East is squeezed.
Did you find this hand too easy? Unworthy of the intro about Berlusconi's talents as a composer of problems?
Check out next week's article then. (Mr. H, at the comment section of this problem, gets style points for ducking the heart lead while playing the 7 of Hearts... saving the 2 for winning the last trick)
Let us try our hand at another tough problem by the great Pietro Berlusconi:
The lead was the Queen of hearts. Plan the play.
The solution will be given in January 28th, 2020.
(Updated Jan 20, 2020 - Diego Brenner pointed out a winning line for the 2nd hand, even after the best defense)
I am not playing in the Trials this year, having moved to the US last July. But I am still following the results closely, and I ask my colleagues there for interesting hands. These are their first two hands.
Diego Brenner gave me the following play problem in 6 Hearts from North, with the Ten of diamonds lead:
My best shot is to establish diamonds in dummy, pitching the club loser in the spades. I'll need to avoid losing a trump and favorable diamonds. There are extra chances (such as a singleton club Queen), but it is important not to risk the main chances while pursuing unlikely positions.
In any case we should begin with a spade. West wins the Ace and leads the 6 of hearts. You cover with the 7, and West follows with the 2.
You will always go down if trumps are 4-1, so this trick is a bit of a trap. You need to keep on ruffing diamonds. So I said I would win in dummy, ruff a diamond, and if nothing weird happened, lead a club to dummy (picking up a singleton Queen), ruff the 3rd diamond, and draw trumps, pitching one or two losers from dummy on the spades first (depending on whether diamonds are established or not).
The Queen of diamonds shows up in the 2nd round of the suit, and so the hand makes easily:
Everything was so favorable (even the club Queen falls doubleton, in front of the AK!), that any sensible line wins the contract. One interesting variation is if, on West's trump lead, East plays the Jack. You should probably follow the same line, since trumps 4-1 are very hard to handle. Win in dummy, ruff a diamond, etc.
Marcelo Branco gave me this one:
South has a very tough bidding problem in the first round, after partner's (Gabriel Chagas) natural weak-two opening... Branco picked the right choice when he bid 3 Spades (many players passed), and now he was at the helm in 4 Spades. The lead was the 4 of clubs. East won with the King, and played the Jack of hearts.
When I was given the problem, I figured that the best chance was to establish diamonds, with some extra chances on the side (the hand might become a crossruff). The plan I announced to Marcelo was to win with the Ace, play Ace of diamonds, diamond ruff, and then play a club, pitching a heart. East would win and, if he had the heart King all along, he would be a bit stuck for a return. (Note that I would not be able to make this club play if the heart finesse lost). He would probably play back a club, or perhaps a trump, both of them being good for me. (If he played a heart and my Queen lost to the King, there was nothing I could do anyway).
I was rewarded by the actual lie of the cards:
Once the diamond King shows up at the 2nd round of the suit, the hand becomes easy.
Marcelo tried the finesse. It is always hard to eschew a finesse. Hard to second-guess such a great declarer, who was at the table. In any case if Marcos Thoma had played a club back he would have to play the cards in the right order (check Diego Brenner's comment below!) to make the contract. When he instead played a 2nd heart, Marcelo was able to make the hand without breaking a sweat.
So far my armchair playing has been OK... but these players have a knack for finding difficult problems. We will post other interesting hands as they come along.