A Nightmare on Opening Lead

Tom Kniest, St. Louis, makes a disastrous lead that only an expert would find.

Expert players put a lot of effort into analyzing clues from the bidding to help them choose good opening leads. Here's a particularly difficult problem that my partner, Tom Kniest, faced at the Spring national tournament in Dallas TX. See how you would do with it.

Your opponents appear to be a product of the partnership desk. On your left is a well-dressed young man who looks a bit nervous. On your right is an older man wearing a bright purple shirt, neon-red suspenders and a pair of size-56 blue jeans. He's humming and chewing something that's dribbling out of the corner of his mouth (you don't have the nerve to look under the table for a spitoon).

You pick up this hand
   Q54 A1093 J7654
and hear this auction, punctuated by numerous grunts and hesitations from your right:

    Red Suspenders   Nervous Young Man
         --            1H 
         2C            3C      
         3H            3S      
         4NT           5S      
         6NT           Pass

The 2C bid was natural and forcing to game, and 3S showed the ace (a cuebid for a possible heart or club slam). Red Suspenders' 4NT was Keycard Blackwood, and the 5S response showed two aces and the queen of hearts.

Even though this hand isn't breaking well for declarer, every opening lead looks dangerous. You can't lead a club into declarer's suit, and the singleton heart looks even riskier, as it could pick up that suit. And since the diamond king must be in declarer's hand, laying down the diamond ace is likely to give him his 12th trick.

That leaves a spade as the least of evils, and Tom chose the queen. He reasoned that if I held the spade king, any spade would work. But if I held the spade jack (without the 10) and was forced to play it on the first trick, two bad things could happen: Dummy could have A10x, and declarer would have a finessing position to pick up his queen, or Tom could be squeezed out of his queen later. Leading the queen, however, would transfer the spade guard to me, and would surely cause declarer to go wrong if he had to guess the suit later.

I thought Tom analyzed this well and that his lead was very thoughtful. It was all for naught, however, as this was the layout:


 Red Suspenders                   Nervous Young Man
   KJ1093                          A2
   KJ5                             AQ876
   K6                              J84
   A32                             KQ8


Red Suspenders had taken us to the cleaners. His logic in choosing to psych with a 15-count -- and never show his spades -- is known only to him, but I'm sure he now thinks he was brilliant.

If I had already stolen from my opponents this way, I would at least have the grace to claim my 13 tricks and put them out of their misery. But in the adding-insult-to-injury department, Red Suspenders took a full five minutes to play out all 13 tricks, one by one. He won the spade ace and began cashing tricks in random order -- pausing for thought with every card, shaking his head, and grunting and humming louder. This all served to convince Tom that his lead had given declarer a problem, and Tom had to put even more brain power into choosing careful pitches on the run of the hearts.

Needless to say, we got a zero for this board, and this man is off our Christmas-card lists. So does it all mean that the mental exercise wasn't worthwhile? This hand cost my partner several thousand brain cells -- and spiked his blood pressure -- but I was proud of the thought he put into his lead. And if we ever play Red Suspenders again, we've both had a good education in how to handle him! 

Copyright 1997 -- Karen Walker