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Handling the Diamonds
By: Fred Gitelman

Originally Published in Canadien Bridge Canadian, Fall, 1996


In each of the six problems below you are declarer in 3NT against silent opposition. Overtricks and extra undertricks are not to be considered - just make the contract. The opening lead is always a spade. To make your contract you will have to handle the diamonds properly. Pay close attention to the number of diamond tricks you need, the number of losers you can afford, and the entry situation. The first problem is very simple:

Problem 1:

Solution:

You have three spade tricks, and one heart trick. You are lucky to have escaped a heart lead. You are going to need even more luck to make this contract - you need five diamond tricks. Play a diamond to the K or Q. If East wins this trick you are dead. You cannot get enough tricks from diamonds anymore. Even if 4 diamond tricks were enough you would have no hope as the defense can knock out dummy's entry, the A, before the diamonds can be established. If we give declarer the K the problem becomes more interesting:

Problem 2:

Solution:

After winning the spade opening lead, duck a diamond trick completely. When you regain the lead (make sure to win the K if the defense plays hearts), you can play a diamond to the K or Q and continue the suit if necessary. You will succeed whenever diamonds are 3-2 or when either defender has a singleton A.

Playing a diamond honor from dummy on the first round doesn't work because East, holding ace third of diamonds, will duck leaving you with insufficient entries to establish and cash the diamonds. East should also duck holding ace doubleton, leaving you with a nasty guess on the second round (a guess you should get wrong).

In problem 2 you can afford to lose two diamond tricks - you only need four diamond tricks to make your contract. It is best to lose one of these two tricks immediately.

In problem 3 you get an extra diamond, but fewer high cards:

Problem 3:

Solution:

You can only afford one diamond loser as the defense is threatening to establish and run spades. Win the spade lead in hand (to preserve dummy's A as an entry) and lead a diamond. If West plays small you should play the J (or any of dummy's small diamonds). If East wins the Q you are finished. If, however, East follows small or wins the A, you can use the A as an entry to your hand to finesse in diamonds again. Don't even think about finessing in hearts. That is one finesse you do not need.

Why is it best to play a low diamond (and not the K) on the first round? You can see this for yourself on the following table of the defensive holdings in which each play wins:

Play small wins Play King wins
East has singleton Ace East has singleton Queen
East has doubleton Ace East has doubleton Queen
East has a small singleton  

In the above table, I have left out trivial holdings like West holding a singleton queen or ace-queen doubleton.

On the first 2 lines of the table, the holdings in the left and right columns are equally likely and cancel out. All that remains is one holding (East has a small singleton). Since playing low picks up this holding and there are no other holdings that playing the king picks up, it is best to finesse West for the Q, not the A on the first round.

Switch the A and 3 between the two hands and everything is different:

Problem 4:

Solution:

This time, the closed hand is short of entries. The correct play is to win the K and play a diamond to dummy's K. Here is another table to illustrate the correct play:

Play small wins Play King wins
East has doubleton Ace East has doubleton Queen
  East has singleton Queen

The top line in the table cancels itself out as before. This time the play of the king has a holding left on its side of the table - East having a singleton queen. You can no longer pick up East holding singleton ace or a small singleton (by playing low on the first round) due to your lack of another hand entry to finesse in diamonds a second time.

The previous two problems have shown that you don't always need a lot of high card points to make 3NT as long as you handle your diamonds well and get some luck. On the next problem you have some more high card points but you still have to be careful.

Problem 5:

Solution:

You only need 6 diamond tricks. Win the spade lead in dummy and duck a diamond completely. If diamonds are 3-1 or 2-2 there is not problem. If West has 4 diamonds, you can reenter your hand in spades, cash your other spade trick, and finesse in diamonds. The contract will always make unless East has all four diamonds. Changing the entry situation adds a cute twist:

Problem 6:

Solution:

Almost the same as the last one - duck the first round of diamonds. Just make sure you always duck, even if West plays the Q! Some Wests have been known to play the queen from Q1098 (or similar) in this situation in the hope that declarer will get greedy for overtricks. Don't let that happen to you!

In summary:

  1. If you need a particular distribution to exist to make your contract, play for it
  2. If you can afford to guard against a bad split, do so
  3. Always pay close attention to the entry situation
  4. Before you make a play, ask yourself, "what could go wrong?"

If you follow these principles and have your share of luck, you will usually be able to avoid the frustrating feeling of having a long suit (and not just diamonds) stranded in the dummy.

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