The 12 Habits of Highly Effective Bidders   (January 2014)

11.  They visualize the play. 


  RHO     You     LHO     Partner   
   2H         2S       Pass         3NT             

Vulnerable at matchpoints, what's your call holding   ♠AQJ1085   A   753   ♣1065 ?

In the last issue, we looked at how predictions about the play of the hand can often help you decide how high to bid. This type of analysis can also be valuable when you already know the level but have a choice of strain, as in the auction above. Can you see far enough into the future to determine whether 3NT or 4S will be the better contract?

Your heart stopper and good source of tricks make it tempting to pass 3NT. Nine tricks may be easier than ten, especially with so many losers in the minors. And then there's the lure of the extra 10 points -- and extra matchpoints -- if 3NT and 4S make the same number of tricks.

If you imagine the play to just the first trick, though, you'll see that 4S will usually be the better game. In notrump, you expect a heart lead, which will remove the only entry to your spades. If partner doesn't have the spade king, he'll need a very lucky layout to be able to run your suit.

Play considerations can also help you decide whether to investigate alternative game contracts. Suppose partner opens a strong 1NT and you hold  ♠KJ6  A754  Q6  ♣QJ102. Do you Stayman to try to locate a heart fit, or do you jump directly to 3NT?

With the extra high-card strength and honors in your short suits, this is the right type of hand for choosing notrump. The 1NT-3NT auction also offers the advantage of concealing your major-suit holdings. Still, if you have a heart fit, 4H could make more tricks, especially if partner has weak diamonds. 

You don't have enough information to predict the opening lead or make other inferences about the opponents' hands, but you can evaluate your cards in the context of how the play might develop. Assuming that you have a 4-4 heart fit, a 4H contract rates to earn more matchpoints than 3NT if partner scores a ruff in his hand or yours. It will do worse if the trumps break poorly or if the opponents negotiate a ruff.

Your suit quality will give you clues about the likelihood of those situations developing. In general, you should be most worried about bad breaks when your potential trump suit has top tricks (ace or king) without lower honors or spot cards. You're least likely to score an extra trick through ruffing if your side suits have slow tricks (lower honors) and good spot cards. Topless side suits are also more vulnerable to ruffs by the opponents.

Your suits match those descriptions, which suggests that 3NT is the winning bid. Give partner a typical 1NT opener -- ♠AQ4  K632  KJ92  ♣K3 -- and you can see the advantages. 3NT will always score higher than 4H, no matter how the suits divide, because partner also has an "empty" trump holding and no helpful ruffing value. 4H, however, will go down on a 4-1 trump break.

The play will be different if you switch the club and heart suits in responder's hand. Holding  ♠KJ6  QJ102  Q6  ♣A754, you'll often do better in the 4-4 fit because your hearts have enough body to survive a poor trump break. 3NT could actually go down on a club lead, while 4H should score an overtrick because partner can ruff a club loser in his hand.

Keep in mind that most pairs will use Stayman with both of these responding hands, so be prepared for a near-zero if you deviate from the field's choice and it's wrong. Even if you think you have the perfect hand to spurn Stayman, it could be a deal where you've missed a 9-card heart fit and the opponents run the first five diamond tricks.

Like other deliberations during the auction, predicting the play of the hand requires some guesswork, and you won't always be right. The opponents may not make the "obvious" opening lead and the play could take an unexpected, even illogical turn. Thinking through the scenarios, though, gives you another perspective on possible solutions, and no bridge player can have too many of those.

   2014   Karen Walker