X-Clubs 41 - Vil's Xmas Special

Defending low level contracts is something few defenders seem to pay much attention to, despite the fact that there are many match points to be gained in these situations. 1NT is such a case in point, because usually the defenders will have as many, or even more, combined high card points, as declarer.

Defending low level contracts is not just a matter of taking what tricks you can and hoping declarer is not smart enough to take all that can come declarer’s way. An astute partnership on defence can create just as many, or more, tricks as declarer could given the same two hands. That is because the astute defenders can ‘see’ all four hands whereas declarer can see only two!

Board 2 from Tuesday 13/12/22
Dealer East NS Vul


This ‘uninteresting’ deal produced a number of interesting results and has many lessons to be learnt in every aspect of the game.

Bidding: Playing strict Acol, East’s opening bid is 1C and West raises to 2C. But a response of 1NT from West is also reasonable. And then again, some Souths might make a frisky takeout double, but let’s not go there.

I personally always deduct a point for a totally balanced (4333) hand so would open 1NT with the East hand. There should be no other contracts than 1NT by East, 1NT by West, and 2C by East. Would you rather be declarer in 1NT or defend? The answer depends on how you rate your declarer skills and how much faith you have in partner on defence. I personally much prefer to defend such low level contracts, as long as I have an equally minded partner on the same wavelength.

Declarer Play: Let’s say West is declarer in 1NT and North leads the D4, ‘fourth highest of longest and strongest’. Which card should declarer play from dummy? I believe that declarer should play low from dummy and hope that South plays the king or queen (“third hand high”). The only alternative is the jack in the hope that North has under-led the king and queen, which is unlikely. So, play low from dummy and hope....

Defence: South should always play the NINE if declarer plays low, because playing the queen will achieve nothing. The AJ in dummy will now be sitting over partner’s king. But, if North happens to have the ten as well as the king, as here, then South has not given a second stopper to declarer, and will also then be able to continue with the queen to drive out the ace. With this particular holding, South’s play should be a no brainer, but it takes much more courage to play the nine when South has the king not the queen, yet exactly the same principle applies.

Now let’s say the nine is played and it holds. Should South continue diamonds or try another suit? We should always remember that in a 1NT contract when both sides have about equal strength, the defence should be much more proactive than just taking tricks. There can be no hurry, from what South can see, to lead back a diamond. South can expect three diamond tricks for the defence when the nine holds, but there should be more to come given the level of the contract. Be proactive!

Looking at dummy and the weak hearts, a heart switch is inviting, so South switches to the seven of hearts (rather than the lowest, which would promise an honour) and when declarer finesses, North wins the king. Now another diamond (South obviously has the queen since declarer didn’t) and if declarer plays low again, the diamonds are continued to remove dummy’s ace. In desperation, declarer leads a heart to the ace and then runs the ten of clubs for a finesse. South wins and leads another heart to North and after North cashes his diamond, a spade to South’s ace and the final heart completes declarer’s misery.

Now let’s take a look at when East opens 1NT and plays there. What should be South’s opening lead? Based on the same premise as before, South should be thinking about defending with about the same card strength as declarer, therefore endeavouring to take as many tricks as possible while at the same time not giving declarer anything extra. “Fourth highest of longest and strongest” in this case is NOT a good idea if we look at South’s spades. Declarer is bound to have either the king or queen and if dummy has the other honour card then any spade lead from South will give declarer two stoppers (and two tricks) in spades. Much better to get partner to lead that suit through declarer. South does also have four hearts, so developing a fourth heart is not out of the question. South should lead the seven. Why? South does not want to suggest to North that South has an honour card in the suit, and the seven will be more meaningful if North sees more promise in another suit.

South, then, leads the seven of hearts and declarer, hoping it is a lead from an honour, finesses the queen which loses to North’s king. North can now continue with the jack which sets up two heart tricks, or, better still, looking at dummy’s weak diamonds, switch to a diamond, through declarer’s
strength (but also South’s possible honour/s).

The important thing to note with this deal is that by opening South’s best suit, spades, it also gives not just two tricks to declarer but also a vital tempo should declarer need to develop tricks. When South starts the defence with a heart and sees dummy, South should pretty well know to wait until a spade is led either from declarer or through declarer, and then let the queen make and preserve the AJ to take care of declarer’s king. Unless the defence has by then established tricks of their own without needing a second spade. Isn’t defence FUN?

Merry Christmas to all readers and I wish you all better bridge and better results in 2023.