A common card combination we see almost every time we play bridge is something like A432 opposite QT65. You need to play this for 3 tricks. We all learn early that the correct play is Ace and then small toward the Q-10. If your opponent follows with a small card on the second lead, then you are left with a guess as to the location of the King so your chances are 50-50 of getting your 3 tricks.
Louis Watson’s Play of the Hand at Bridge (1933) remains the classic reference for playing the bridge hands correctly. In a sub-part dealing with advanced finesses, Watson displays a hand that is somewhat similar to the one discussed in the above:
Again the object is to take 3 tricks. Assume no bidding or prior play that suggests the location of specific cards. If you apply what you know from the first example you would lay down the Ace and then play low to the queen-ten, again subjecting yourself to a guess on the location of the King. What Watson has done is add some middle cards his hand to create finessing positions in each hand instead of just one. Q-T in the dummy which we can use to finesse the jack and A-7 in the hand over the King once the Jack is played. If you start with the Ace you will give up one of these critical finessing positions so don’t lay down the Ace. If you remember just that, you will dramatically increase your chances for 3 tricks. But this is Watson’s hand and he wants you to start by leading the Queen from the North hand. Here is a summary of his explanation:
Scenario I: First, give East Kx and give West Jx. You can distribute the 5th card to either defender. West has the King and it makes no difference whether he covers or not. If he covers you play the Ace and you have the three tricks you need by simply smoking out the Jack. If West doesn’t cover the Queen wins, and since there are only 3 cards left in the suit after trick one, and you cannot lose more than 1 trick. Scenario II: Now switch the location of the King and Jack. If West has the King and captures the Queen, you are down to 3 cards missing the Jack. The next time South gets the lead he runs the 10 through East finessing the Jack. Scenario III. Give KJx to East. East can cover or not, but he will still only gets one trick in the suit. Scenario IV. Give West KJx. In this case we cannot prevent West from getting two tricks. We have three winning scenarios and one losing scenario. By leading the Queen first you have eliminated the guess on the finesse and increased your chance of making 3 tricks in the suit from 50% to 75%.
Hugh Kelsey in his book Bridge Odds for Practical Players (1980) has a little different take on the same combination. It is the same idea, but he says that if you start with the 10 from the North hand rather than the Queen, you increase your chances by another 2% to 77%. This is because you will win 3 tricks not only when the array breaks 3-2, but also when when East has KJxx as well. As usual, he is right.
Mike Lawrence recently gave this age old problem a different approach on his excellent web site Bridge Clues http://www.bridgeclues.com/. His co-host is Anne Lund, a bridge expert, director and teacher from California. If you have not visited the site, I urge you to do so. There are both bidding and play problems at 3 different levels and they change daily. Mike suggests rather than leading the Queen or ten from the dummy, that you start from the South hand and lead a small card toward the Queen.
We have now changed the orientation a little because declarer will win three tricks any time both honors are in the same hand and also when East holds the King and West holds the Jack. It will lose if East holds the Jack and West holds the King. But let’s examine that winning scenario a little closer.
You are West and hold Kxx. When I lead small toward the QT98 what are you going to play? Well I hope you didn’t go up with the King. If you ducked my plan is to put in the 10 which your partner will win with the Jack. I will now lose two tricks since you still get your King. If you popped the King, I am ducking and your partner’s Jack gets smothered on the next trick. You turned my 75% chance into a 100% chance. You screwed up the only combination that wins for you.
Let’s make the cheese a little more binding! You hold Kx and partner holds Jxx. I lead small to the Queen. You are one helluva bridge player if you ducked smoothly and held onto your King. If you go up with the King same result, wine into vinegar. If you duck it is correct for me to put in the ten which loses to pard’s jack. Now I finesse pard for the King the next time I get in (also the percentage play) and you smile and win with your stiff King. Fixed Again!!
A couple of observations. If you play small to the queen you are no worse off since against perfect defense you can win three tricks only 75% of the time. It is human nature to take tricks when offered and preying on natural instincts is often winning bridge. If you go into the tank with the Kx declarer might figure it out and drop your King doubleton on the second lead even though the a priori odds on the play are less than 3%. So don’t turn a 3% play into a 100% play either. Did I mention it is a tough play???
This may be a bit hard to follow in prose, so get out 13 cards and set them up in any of the hypothetical arrays that I have suggested. If I am wrong, feel free to write either Watson or Kelsey in Bridge Heaven. Please don’t bother Mike Lawrence. If you have figured out some 4-1 distributions or 5-0 distributions that produce nightmares, that is not what this blog post is about. The residue will split 2-3 2/3rds of the time and I am going with the odds. Did you catch that memory hook?