One of the most frustrating things that can happen to a declarer is to have several good tricks in dummy (or in hand), with no way to get in and cash those tricks. This is why it is so important to plan ahead. Before playing to the first trick, we pause to count our winners and losers. We form a plan to establish enough winners to make our contract; this plan must include a way to take those tricks once they are established.
When planning the play of a hand, we must consider “how” as well as “how many”. In order to take tricks with established winners, we must be able to get to the hand with those winners. The means of winning a trick in a particular hand is called an “entry”. Managing entries is one of the most difficult aspects of declarer play. Some general principles of entry management:
1) Plan ahead at trick one. Count entries as well as tricks. Look for ways to create and preserve entries to the hand most likely to need them. There are many ways of creating entries. Playing unnecessarily high cards from one hand under the opponents’ winners can create an entry to the other hand; Discarding high cards or overtaking honors can also create extra entries.
2) Try to avoid blocking a suit unless absolutely necessary. One good way to do this is to cash honors in the shorter hand first. With a suit like A K J 7 3 facing Q T 6, play the Q and T first, winning the third round in the long hand. To win the third round in the shorter hand would require an extra entry to cash the two long cards.
3) Long strong suits can be a source of entries as well as tricks. With a suit that is solid, such as A Q 9 8 facing K J T x, consider not cashing out the suit right away unless necessary – this suit can provide several entries to either hand. Let’s look at some examples of communications:
1) North (Dummy): K 9 5 2 8 7 4 2 A K 7 6 3
South (Declarer): A Q 6 2 A 7 6 A T 3 9 5 2
The contract is 3NT. The opening lead is the 5. How should declarer plan the play?
Counting tricks, we see that we have seven top tricks (3 Spades, 1 Heart, 1 Diamond and 2 Clubs). We have no fast losers, although the opponents will likely switch to a red suit and can set up quite a few tricks there. We need two more tricks, and the only real source of extra tricks is the Club suit. If clubs divide 3-2 (about a 68% chance), Dummy’s two long clubs will be our eighth and ninth tricks. There is only one problem with this – there are not very many entries to Dummy. The only side entry was knocked out at Trick one. If we play the Ace, King and a third Club, We will have 2 good club tricks in Dummy, but no way to get to them. At trick two, we must play a small club from both hands. This maneuver is called a “ducking play” or “duck”. We duck the trick in order to preserve communications.
Incidentally, if Dummy’s clubs were AKQxx instead, we should still duck a round of Clubs. This would cost us an overtrick when Clubs are 3-2 – 68% of the time – but would guarantee the contract when Clubs are 4-1 – 28% of the time. This would not be right at Matchpoint Pairs, where overtricks are very important, but at IMPs or Rubber Bridge, making the contract is of utmost importance. This type of play, where we sacrifice potential overtricks to ensure the contract (or greatly improve our chances of making the contract), is called a “Safety Play”.
Just as Declarer needs to preserve communication between his hand and Dummy’s, the defenders must strive to maintain communications between their hands. It is usually more difficult for the defenders to do so, because 1) the defenders cannot see each other’s cards, and 2) the declaring side generally has the majority of high cards and/or trumps, cards which provide entries. An alert Declarer will try to find ways to disrupt the defenders’ communications.
2) North (Dummy): 6 3 K 5 2 A T 2 K J 6 3 2
South (Declarer): A 5 2 A 7 6 K 7 4 3 Q T 5
Again the contract is 3NT. West leads the K. How should Declarer plan the play?
We can count five top tricks (1 Spade, 2 Hearts and 2 Diamonds). We will need 4 more. We have several fast losers after the Spade Ace is gone. The only way to get the four additional tricks we need is the Club suit. We can take four tricks in the suit, and we have at least 2 entries to Dummy. But we will have to let the opponents in with the Ace of Clubs; we must hope that they cannot cash enough Spade tricks to set us. If Spades are 4-4 we will be safe, losing only three Spades and one Club. But what if Spades are 5-3 (or worse)? Is there anything we can do in that case? Yes, if the hand with the long Spades does not have the Ace of Clubs. All we need to do is play low from hand on the first Spade. If West continues Spades, we play low on the second Spade as well. We must “hold up” or Ace until the third round. Now we knock out the Ace of Clubs. If the opponent with the Ace has three or fewer Spades, he will not have any more Spades to lead to partner. Similar to the “duck”, which is used to preserve our own communications, the “hold-up” play is used to disrupt the opponents’ communications. It is vital to win a trick at precisely the right time. Of course, tactics like the “duck” and “hold-up” are available to the defenders as well:
3) North (Dummy): K 4 9 8 7 4 2 K Q J T 7 6
South (Declarer): A Q 6 A 7 6 5 3 A K 3 9 2
The contract is 3NT. West leads the 2. How should Declarer plan the play?
We can count three Spades, one Heart and two Diamonds for a total of six tricks. We will need three more. These will have to come from the Club suit. We should be able to take five Club tricks, more than enough for our contract. Are there any potential problems? While in most cases it is best to honors in the short suit first, in order to avoid blocking the suit, there are more important considerations here. The K is the only side entry to dummy. Of course, the defenders are allowed to use the hold-up play as well. They will probably hold up their Ace of Clubs until the second round. We will need that Spade King to get back to Dummy. So we must win the first Spade in our hand, temporarily blocking the suit, and lead Clubs. The opponents will win their Ace, and we will return to Dummy with the Spade King to run the rest of the Clubs. A careful Declarer makes use of every possible entry:
4) North (Dummy): J 3 Q 8 6 3 7 4 2 K Q 4 3
South (Declarer): K 6 J 5 2 A Q J T A J 9 2
The contract is 3NT. West leads the 7 to East’s Ace. East returns the 2. How should declarer plan the play? We can count six tricks (1 Spade, 1 Diamond, and 4 Clubs). We need three more. We have six or more losers (2 Hearts and at least 3 more Spades, in addition to the Spade we have already lost). We will have to win those three tricks without letting the opponents in. Those tricks can only come from the Diamond suit. We will need to find the Diamond King with East. We will need to take the diamond finesse, and will probably need to repeat the finesse several times. We have only 2 apparent entries to Dummy – the K and Q. This will be enough if East has no more than three Diamonds, but what if East has four or more? Perhaps the Club suit will give us that third entry. We can cash the A and lead the Nine of Clubs to Dummy’s King. If both opponents follow, we can get a third entry in the club suit. When in Dummy, we take the Diamond finesse. Assuming it wins, we lead the Jack of Clubs to Dummy’s Queen and repeat the Diamond finesse. Now we can get back to Dummy by leading the two of Clubs to Dummy’s three, and take one more Diamond finesse. If an opponents shows out on the second round of Clubs, we will only have two entries to dummy, and will have to hope for East to have no more than three Diamonds. But careful planning gives us an extra chance. About 15% of the time East will have four or more Diamonds to the King and two or three Clubs.
If Dummy’s Spades were Qx, we could assure ourselves of an extra entry by playing the King under East’s Ace at trick one – although East might counter this by not playing his Ace at trick one.
5) North (Dummy): K 4 9 2 A J T 9 8 3 5 2
South (Declarer): A 6 2 A 7 6 5 3 K A 9 4 3
The contract is 3NT. West leads a Spade. How should declarer plan the play?
We have four tricks outside the Diamond suit. We will need five diamond tricks for the contract. We have only one side entry to Dummy. If we unblock the K, go to Dummy with the K and lead Diamonds, we will need to find the Q singleton or doubleton – less than a 20% chance. Is there anything better? We actually have two entries to Dummy – the K and the Diamond Ace. We must win the A and lead the K, overtaking with the Ace in Dummy. Now we can lead Diamonds until the defenders win their Queen, and return to Dummy with the K to cash the rest of the Diamonds.
6) North (Dummy): 7 4 9 6 5 2 A K J 8 5 3 2
South (Declarer): A K Q J 6 3 Q J T 9 8 5 4
The contract is five Spades. (Not every hand is played in 3NT). West leads the Ace of Hearts and continues with the King of Hearts. How should Declarer plan the play? We have eleven winners and two losers. The problem is, the Diamond suit is blocked. If Spades are 3-3, there will be no problem – we can draw trumps and take the A-K of Diamonds. Now we can return to our hand with a Heart ruff and cash the rest of the Diamonds, making our contract. But what if Spades are 4-2? We have to trump the second Heart, leaving us with only four trumps. Now we must use up all our trumps to draw the Opponents’ trumps. After cashing the A-K of diamonds, we will have no way to get back to our hand to cash the rest of the Diamonds. If we cash the A-K of Diamonds first, we will be set if Diamonds break 4-1 or 5-0. Is there any way to handle a bad break in both suits? We don’t need the AK. The Diamonds in our hand are good enough. All we need to do is discard Dummy’s A-K of Diamonds on the third and fourth round of trumps. Now we are in our hand to cash all the Diamonds. We have not actually created an extra entry; we have avoided a “blocked” position, which saves the need for an extra entry – an entry we do not have on this hand. (If our Diamonds were slightly weaker, Q J T 4 3 2, we would have to cash one of Dummy’s honors first, draw trumps, discarding the other honor.)