August 27, 2011 Spade Suit 

I have gotten a lot of questions about a hand I played in the semi finals of the team trials this year.

I held: Spade SuitK9 JT8 8543 KJ83.

The auction went 1Spade Suiton my right, 1N (forcing) on my left, 2on my right, 3N on my left. My partner led the 3 (4th best), and I saw:

Spade SuitAQT74

Declarer won the K, and I played the J (unblocking in case partner had A9xxx), and he followed with the 4. Next, he crossed to his hand with the K, and led the jack of spades around to me, partner following low. Partner’s low spade was a suit preference play, asking for a club. I won and played a small club. Why?

Of course, I know what a surrounding play is. The standard play here is to shift to the jack of clubs, in case declarer has Qxx, to surround the ten and ensure four winners. By leading low, I give declarer the chance to run it around to the ten and score his queen later. Let’s rule out a brain-fart, and I’ll ask again; why did I not play the jack of clubs?

Say you are declarer. Say your competent RHO knows you have the queen third of clubs, and shifts to a small club. Dummy has Tx. You also know that RHO does not have 6 clubs. What do you play? Of course in that case, you should play the queen, because RHO would have shifted to the jack from HJ or Jxxx, so your only hope is that RHO is underleading AKxx, right?

Now say you have Q9x, and Tx in dummy. RHO knows that you have queen third, and you know RHO doesn’t have 6 clubs. They shift to a small club. You would just play for the jack onside, as it’s 50 %, rather than the AK onside which is 25 %, correct?

The problem here is that it is not a perfect information game, even in this simplified form. RHO, if he is not holding the 9, does not know who has the 9. So if he shifts to a small club, maybe you should play the queen from Q9x. In that case, maybe with HJxx he should shift to a small one, to pick up Q9x with you as well as Qxx.

So, the bridge media and my friends were correct, after moving to Las Vegas and playing more poker, I have started playing mind games with my opponents in surrounding play situations. Well, not exactly.

They made the same error many of you made, that I had perfect information about the club suit. Let’s go back and evaluate things from my perspective.

I know that declarer probably has about 12 points, and probably a good diamond fit from the auction. 1N is a strange bid to make even playing forcing NT for a good player with a game forcing hand. Most likely, he had a sound invite that got upgraded from the 2bid, like a 12 count with good diamonds.

Given partners signal for clubs, he probably has the ace of clubs. This means declarer has the KQ of diamonds, Spade SuitJ, A, and one more queen, either clubs or hearts.

What about his shape? He probably has 2 spades, 4 diamonds, and 4-3 either way in the round suits. Partner led the 3 of hearts and the 2 was out, if LHO was a weak player I would assume partner had it, but as it was a strong declarer I knew he was capable of hiding the 2 of hearts at trick one and playing the four (this is a VERY important technique). If my partner had 4 small hearts, he would have led the 2nd highest one. However, with 5 small we just lead our 4th highest one. So, if declarer has the AQ of hearts, his hand is definitely:

Spade SuitJx
?xxx (the 9 being unknown)

If he has the club queen, he could be 2344 or 2443. However, if  he has queen fourth of clubs, I will not beat the hand no matter what I do so let’s forget about that. This makes the relevant holding

Spade SuitJx
Q?x (9 unknown)

You see, in the first case, if I make the expert surrounding play I block the suit when declarer has 9xxx. I will survive if he has xxxx as my partner will unblock the clubs for me, but it is 4 times as likely when declarer has 4 small that it includes the 9 (an easy way to look at this is partner has AQx, and there are 5 possible x’s, 4 of them not being the 9).

In the second case I will not beat declarer if he has the 9 by playing the jack back. So I would have to think the second hand type is quite a bit more likely than the first to play the jack back at the very least, assuming declarer always guesses correctly when I lead a small one back. Is it?

With A9xx of clubs and Q9xx of hearts, partner might have chosen to lead a club. That said, I would expect my partner to have led a heart with that and consider it to be the expert standard lead, so that wasn’t much of a clue. With 9xxx of clubs, perhaps declarer would not bid 3N? It’s possible, but what can he do, his only options are 2N and 3N and his hand is too good for 3N. I believe anyone who would bid 3N with the first hand would bid it with the 2nd.

Can we read anything into declarer winning the K in dummy to cross in diamonds and finesse the spade, rather than just winning the heart in his hand? No, he was just trying to hide the fact that he had the A, in an attempt to get me to continue hearts. He might do this with either hand.

Would my partner do something like play his second lowest spade without the AQ, and the lowest with it? Perhaps if I was playing with Kevin Bathurst, as that is his style, but playing with Joe I know he would never do this, feeling that making a clear signal is more important than making a murky but more graded signal. Joe knows I have to play clubs to beat the hand, so he is going to play low.

Would declarer ever forget to hide the heart 2? However often he forgets makes it more likely that he has hand 1. No, I think he would play the 4 99 % of the time at least. It is a common error to give your opponent too much credit, but this is a standard play for a good player (this is why I said earlier that it is very important, even though I know he will always do it, he has protected his AQx holding where he simply followed with the 4).

So basically I viewed these hand types as equally likely, and I win more often on hand 1 than hand 2 (since if it’s hand 2 I need declarer to not have the club 9). So even if declarer will always guess correctly when I lead a low club back, I think it is right to play a small club. The fact that he might misguess clubs on a low club back from Q9x or Qxx is just a bonus. Was I surprised when he had Qxx and got it right?

Not at all. Some people have claimed had I played a low club in better tempo (I thought for a long time), declarer would get it wrong, and other arguments like that. The real story is that declarer knows our signalling methods too. The suit preference spade 2 was a great help to me, otherwise I would just continue hearts hoping my partner had A9xxx. However, declarer was also privy to that information. Joe might falsecard his suit preference, but it is possible declarer has Spade SuitJx Axx Kxxxx Kxx and I have to continue hearts to set him (he could make by playing a club up but he will test diamonds). Besides, it is hard to always figure out the entire hand enough by the time you have to give your suit preference or smith signal that you can confidently falsecard it. In reality, this just doesn’t happen.

Fred Gitelman said something about good players almost always carding honestly in the first few tricks as a general practice, giving your partner information is more important than falsecarding declarer. This has been my experience as well, and I’m sure declarer just took Joe’s play at face value.

Finally, I don’t think my tempo gave it away anyways necessarily, if I had AKxxx of clubs I would think long and hard before underleading, risking declarer having Qx (and having no chance of beating it if partner had Qx). I might figure everything out, but if I didn’t have 4 diamonds and wasn’t sure if declarer had 5 of them or not I would have to consider the possibility of cashing a high one.

So in response to this quote from Irwin Boris’s word document on Peggy Kaplan’s blog:

Lall took his time and shifted to a low club. Declarer guessed right and ducked. Since Joe had the nine, a shift to the jack would have beaten the hand. Bridge at a high level is a beautiful game isn’t it?

I would just say that it’s the same game that you, my readers, and everyone else plays. We are counting shape, points, and watching our partner’s signals carefully to try and make the best possible play. The beautiful parts of this hand were declarer’s play of the HK to leave the heart situation unknown, then his falsecard in hearts to leave the count unknown, then Joe’s ability to signal for clubs anyways. These little things matter a lot. I had a close technical decision that I still feel good about that didn’t work out this time. Don’t feel bad about not thinking about the AQx of clubs possibility though, many great players were blinded by looking at all of the hands and taking their minds where it wanted to go.

Hopefully that is not a disappointment, but I find it much more pleasing than some poker game with a lot of randomness!