Aces on Bridge — Daily Columns

The Aces on Bridge: Friday, February 17th, 2012

But if success I must never find,
Then come misfortune, I bid thee welcome,
I’ll meet thee with an undaunted mind.

Robert Burns

South North
Both ♠ A Q 8 5 2
 7 6
 10 6 3
♣ K Q 5
West East
♠ K 6
 Q 10 4 2
 A Q 5 2
♣ 9 8 2
♠ 10
 K J 8 5 3
 9 8 7
♣ 10 7 4 3
♠ J 9 7 4 3
 A 9
 K J 4
♣ A J 6
South West North East
1♠ Pass 2 NT* Pass
4♠ All pass    

*Game-forcing spade raise


My great friend Patrick Huang must be one of the strongest declarers never to have won a world team title. But today's deal from last year's NEC trophy in Yokohama shows that virtue is not always rewarded, and sometimes the best line of play can leave you with egg all over your face.

How would you play four spades on a heart lead? Huang followed a line that combined technical expertise with table presence. He won, advanced the spade jack, and went up with the ace when Louk Verhees (part of the Anglo-Dutch winning team) ducked smoothly. Now he stripped off the clubs and exited with a heart, confident that he would come home whenever the diamond queen was onside or he had an endplay. Alas, not tonight. With the diamond honors wrong, he had found the only lie of the cards where this approach would fail.

In the other room, after South had opened one no-trump and North transferred into spades, he jumped to three spades. That got him into a congruent position, and West here also led a heart. The difference was that when David Gold advanced the spade jack, Liu covered. That was the end of the story, with 10 tricks for declarer and a game-swing for his side.

Only five declarers out of 50 duplicated the unsuccessful line found by Huang. But if you switch the diamond queen and spade king, it looks like the only winning line, so it is really hard to criticize it unduly.

Some players might try to come to a perfect stop in three spades, but the practical call is to bid four spades at once, hoping to reach a sound game, or persuade the opponents to let it through. Since you have what passes for opening values and a good fit, bid four spades.


♠ A Q 8 5 2
 7 6
 10 6 3
♣ K Q 5
South West North East
1 Pass
1♠ Pass 2♠ Pass

For details of Bobby Wolff’s autobiography, The Lone Wolff, contact If you would like to contact Bobby Wolff, please leave a comment at this blog. Reproduced with permission of United Feature Syndicate, Inc., Copyright 2012. If you are interested in reprinting The Aces on Bridge column, contact


jim2March 2nd, 2012 at 1:42 pm

Covering the JS with teh AQ in dummy when the closed hand had shown five seems a weak play.

At the table, I think I would have tried ducking the opening lead (hoping for a continuation) and, if the KS did not show up, using that card as the endplay card.

That is, if West will eventually win the KS, the hearts will always offer a safe exit to transfer the lead to East. Thus, the only chance of an endplay seems to be to get the hearts out of play before trying spades, and essaying this as early as possible offers declarer the best chance.

RogerMMarch 2nd, 2012 at 2:37 pm

Far be it from me to criticize an expert declarer, but it seems that once you decide not to take the spade finesse, you must find the diamond queen onside. Either that, or rely on a mis-defense. Because of the mirror distribution, you will always lose two diamonds when the queen is offside – even in the case where East has the diamond ace and you have managed to strip everything else and put West on lead.

Consequently, it looks like the best you can do – percentage-wise – is to just take both the spade and diamond finesses and hope one of them works.

RogerMMarch 2nd, 2012 at 2:48 pm

Let me clarify – before it is pointed out – that playing the diamonds your self before the side suits have been eliminated does not work. So, given that, you would have to play clubs first and rely on a 4-3 split

As usual, more to the had than it might appear at first glance…

RogerMMarch 2nd, 2012 at 3:01 pm

I take it all back – the more I think about it, the more complex the possibilities… and the more I think Mr. Huang probably took the best line.

bobby wolffMarch 2nd, 2012 at 4:09 pm

Hi Jim2 and RogerM,

At the table where the King of Spades was covered South had opened 1NT, not 1 spade, making it not unreasonable for West to cover as he probably didn’t dream that declarer had five of them and declarer, after the cover and, if missing the ten (unlikely) might repeat another spade finesse for the ten.

A hand like this requires correct table presence more than technique and although Patrick has usually been as good as anyone can be, he guessed wrong on this hand, but against a quality opponent.

Perhaps the lesson which could be learned is a heretofore small blimp in the process. “The less one tells opponents about his hand (opening 1NT instead of 1S) the better the chance for a misdefense”.

Jeff SMarch 2nd, 2012 at 4:10 pm

I think the line chosen by the declarer was clearly best even if it was doomed. The reasoning has to be that if the QD is in the West hand, you need to keep East off the lead or not lose a spade trick. So, lead the spade towards the board and play the A hoping the K is singleton. Then lead a heart hoping West has to win the trick and also holds the KS. When East could win the heart tricks and the queen sat wrong, all was lost. Yes, the finesse would have saved the contract by not losing a spade trick, but if the 10S and KS were switched, you would lose when the declarer’s line drops the K and wins. And if you switched the 4H for one of East’s heart honors, again, the line chosen wins.

The only thing I don’t understand is the comment that if you switch the diamond Q and spade K, the line chosen is the only one that wins. If the diamond Q is in East’s hand, shouldn’t the contact always make regardless (within reason, of course) of the line chosen?

jim2March 2nd, 2012 at 5:03 pm

Per the bidding when the JS was covered, the column contains the following:

“In the other room, after South had opened one no-trump and North transferred into spades, he jumped to three spades.”

I presume the “he” in “he jumped” refers to South/declarer. It seems certain that such a jump must show four spades, even if not five.

Assuming the closed hand has four spades and the board has five to the AQ, is there any holding for the defense that gains when the JS is covered by the king doubleton?

jim2March 2nd, 2012 at 5:09 pm

Ah, I see what you meant now.

You’re saying that Liu hoped that his partner had the 10x of spades and that South might on the next round try to finesse Liu for it. Okay, I can see that, though South could easily have had J10xx for the jump.

Still, I understand now.

Jeff SMarch 2nd, 2012 at 6:16 pm

On further reflection, what I wrote falls apart because there wasn’t really any hope that West would win the second heart trick. If he had the JH, he would led from the top, not the bottom. And you can’t duck the first heart unless you believe East won’t find the switch. And, as it happens, even if he didn’t, hearts would still be a safe exit as declarer is still losing two diamonds even after the ruff-sluff.

Tough hand.

bobby wolffMarch 3rd, 2012 at 12:13 am

Hi Everyone,

The tale of this exciting hand played in Japan,
could be thought of similar to the “Murder on the Orient Express” especially with names like Huang and Liu among the main actors.

Instead of everyone being the murderer in the detective tale, everyone including the analysts had much to say, some right immediately, others right eventually. And its best feature, no one lost his life and everyone seemed to understand exactly what was involved, not to mention no one got in Dutch, except the hero who opened 1NT instead of 1 spade.

bobby wolffMarch 3rd, 2012 at 12:28 am

After further analysis, what should West lead, after ducking with the king of spades and having Patrick go up with the ace but then after stripping the clubs declarer leads a heart which you win, cash the king of spades and then holding either A98, A97, or A87 of diamonds West should then lead one of his low diamonds and with partner cooperating and saving his queen (unless declarer covers with the 10), back to down one goes the declarer.

There are many other combinations of diamonds as long as N&S have their exact same holding which also does declarer in, even though East has the queen and West the ace.

jim2March 3rd, 2012 at 1:34 am

Speaking of further analysis, what is the correct technical line if, with no entry issues, one holds J9xx in hand with dummy holding the AQ8xx?

Leading the JS concedes a trick to K — 10xx. Should the JS fetch the KS, one still has to choose – as you alluded – between playing for K10x — x and Kx — 10x.

bobby wolffMarch 3rd, 2012 at 3:16 am

Hi Jim2,

Yes, the jack is only the right card, if either the bidding or the play suggests that the defender sitting underneath the AQ is likely to have three instead of his partner. Of course, with the actual holding, the jack from J9xxx facing AQ8xx is 100% a necessary play and to not lead it, is a serious mistake, if one intends to finesse.

I suspect that Patrick never intended to finesse if his jack was not covered. At that high level of play, if West held the K10x, he should not cover, though many lesser players would, his thinking being that the declarer either just led the jack to tempt him into covering, so his only hope to score a trump trick is to have declarer decline the finesse altogether. The key for that thinking is that West was certain that declarer had at least 3 spades (probably more) so that his ten of spades was only window dressing and did not enter into declarer’s decision since he obviously held either 3, or more likely 4, or even 5 which makes the jack a mandatory play.