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Count Your Top Tricks

How do you play a notrump contract? When asked this question, some players would respond, “I work on my longest suit.” Unfortunately, this approach is no more accurate than replying, “I work on clubs because that’s my favorite suit.” Today’s deal, which I sometimes use as a lesson deal in my bridge teaching, illustrates the reasoning for attacking the proper suit.

3 NT S 5 3
H A 7 4 3
D A K J 10 9
C J 2
Both Vul

West

Pass
All Pass


North
1 D
2 D


East
Pass
Pass


South
2 C
3 NT
S K 10 8 6 2
H 10 8 5
D 6 5
C K 5 4
Table S J 9 7 4
H K J 9
D Q 8 2
C 8 7 6
Lead: S 6 S A Q
H Q 6 2
D 7 4 3
C A Q 10 9 3

After a routine auction, South becomes declarer in three notrump and West leads his fourth-best spade which is won by the queen. Some students now reason, “I have a combined total of eight diamonds and only seven clubs, so diamonds is the suit to establish.” The diamond finesse is taken, losing to Easts queen, and a spade is returned. After running the remaining diamonds, declarer cannot win nine tricks without trying the club finesse; and this is doomed to fail. (Finesses rarely work on lesson deals!)

It should be apparent by now that clubs is the suit to establish, but let’s explore why. In order to plan the play properly it is essential to count top tricks — those which can immediately be cashed as winners. Top tricks must be separated from tricks which need to be established. On this deal declarer should count six top tricks: two spades, one heart, two diamonds and one club. Observe that the ace-queen of spades is counted as two tricks because of the spade lead.

Examination of the diamond suit shows that declarer will gain only two tricks if the finesse loses (do not forget that the ace and king of diamonds have already been counted as top tricks). In the club suit, however, declarer will gain three tricks if the finesse loses. That’s all there is to it.

After winning the spade lead, declarer should cross to the diamond king and lead the club jack. West makes his king; but declarer makes his contract.

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© 1-5-1986 Richard Pavlicek