This topic came up last night at the table — not as a result of anything that anyone did, but as a side trail to another conversation. My example is a situation that happens all the time at the table, perhaps even once a session. And if you know in advance how to handle the situation, you’ll be a lot more difficult opponent to play against.
Let’s say you’re defending a contract of 6NT and here’s your hand: S xxx H xx D Kxxx C Jxxx.
You make the opening lead and declarer wins it in his hand (let’s assume here that you are pretty sure that you have established a spade trick in partner’s hand on the lead; dummy goes up with the ace and partner plays an encouraging eight). Declarer has made bids during the auction that suggest he has a six-card heart suit; dummy has come down with HAKx. And the only assets in your hand that might be of any use at all are the minor suit honours.
Now, you are about 99% certain that declarer is presently able to cash six heart tricks. You have two small hearts in your own hand, and that means you’re going to have to find four discards. Luckily, your hand is sufficiently terrible that you can easily identify three cards that you can spare, two little diamonds and a small spade, but that last discard might have to be one of your small clubs. If you do that and if declarer figures out what’s going on, he can bang down his CAKQ, drop your jack, and make 7NT. Your other alternatives are worse (let’s say, for instance, that you need to save at least one spade to lead to partner in case you ever manage to get in, and you don’t want to unguard DK by throwing your last remaining small diamond).
Here is what I see over and over again at the table. You lead that spade, declarer takes it, and starts cashing six heart tricks as fast as he can bang the cards down, peering intently at both you and your partner’s discards. You toss your two little hearts, then two diamonds and a small spade that you know you can spare, reducing your hand to S x H Void D Kx C Jxxx.
Then the sixth heart hits the table and you go into the tank. Should I unguard the clubs? Should I unguard the diamond king? Should I toss my spade and lose the ability to get to partner’s hand if I do win a trick? You chew your lip and give signs of distress and difficult mental activity, and declarer watches you with interest. Finally you decide to throw a small club. And, just as you feared, declarer immediately cashes CAKQxx, making seven.
The reason this didn’t work is because you “told” declarer the point at which you had a problem, and declarer knew exactly when to look at your discard carefully. (I’ve heard people actually say out loud, “Oh, I hate to throw any of these cards.” That’s like hanging a sign around your neck that says “Declarer, please squeeze my hand to a pulp, suit by suit.”) If you’d thrown a club, declarer knows that you were reluctant to toss a club, and the only reason must be that you’ve just unguarded jack-fourth. If you toss a diamond, he’ll drop your king. And if you throw a spade, he’ll throw you in with the fourth club and wait for your return.
Let’s rewind the hand back a bit and I’ll suggest the way you could have approached this. Let’s suppose that declarer has played a small heart from his hand towards the board, and you realize he’s about to cash six heart tricks and you will be coming up with some discards soon. There are two things you need to do; identify how many cards you have to throw away and what they will be, and figure out how to give declarer as little information as possible when you throw them.
It’s quite legitimate to stop before playing a card to the first heart trick — in fact, it’s a good time to do so. If you feel it’s right, you can say, “Sorry, I’m just thinking about the whole hand.” (Otherwise people will look at you funny when you pause for sixty seconds before following suit LOL.) Or you can just stop; no one can force you to play the hand faster than you want to except perhaps the director. If you stop at this point, you’re not giving any information to partner in particular, and that’s the only thing about which declarer can have any reason to complain.
Then, decide right now which six cards you’re going to play on the hearts. As above, you can easily identify two hearts, two diamonds, and a spade. So are you going to discard a diamond, a club, or a spade?
Here’s the thinking I’d use. The worst discard would be a spade, because that gives declarer two chances to make the hand. If he throws you in with DK, you have to lead away from your CJ; and vice versa. So it’s down to a club or a diamond. I think you will agree that it’s more possible that partner started with DQxx (and SKx) than that she has a guarded club honour — because if she has a guarded club honour, declarer was probably never making the hand anyways and it probably doesn’t matter what you do. That means that you’re probably in sole charge of protecting the clubs. If partner cannot protect the diamonds and keep her spade trick, well, again, you were never beating the hand anyway. So you have to throw a small diamond.
The principle that governs this is, you look for a suit where it’s likely that you have the only control between the partnership, and save that suit. Here, it’s more likely that you have the sole defense in clubs, whereas it may well be that partner has a diamond guard. You frequently just have to hope that partner has the right cards and is going through a similar thought process.
The second part of the exercise comes in the order in which you discard. When you make up your mind that you’re throwing two hearts, two diamonds, a spade and finally the small diamond that unguarded your king — don’t leave it till last. That’s still the same signal that you gave before, just a less obvious version than screwing your face up and grimacing. “Oh, I don’t really WANT to throw this club but I guess I have to…”
Obviously you have to follow suit with your two little hearts. But then the choice of when to throw what is up to you. I suggest that you throw the diamonds first, or perhaps second, and then the spade last.
Remember that declarer is watching your discards intently. If the diamonds come down early, he is likely to assume that you don’t have as much of a problem throwing it, and thus any diamond guard is either non-existent — then you score your king, because he’s wrong — or with your partner — then you score your king, because he’s wrong.
If you always play the crucial card immediately, that’s a pattern too — not an easy one to figure out, but good players against whom you play frequently will get to know your habits, especially if you play as their partner every once in a while. (That’s why the most dangerous opponents are former partners with a grudge LOL.)
So, to sum up, when you know you’re going to be faced with a string of discards and you have to pick something unpalatable to toss, here’s the flow chart:
- Stop at an early point in the hand and decide how many cards you’re going to have to toss.
- Decide what your choice will be for that card that you’re least happy about discarding, using the principle of guarding a suit that only you can guard.
- Discard that card at a random point — usually not as your last discard.
I’m not saying this will always work. Partner will sometimes just not have the right cards and declarer was always making seven. But at least you have a way to think about how to do the best you can in this common situation.
One further point. You should consider whether you can safely signal your partner the suit(s) that you’re guarding, just like you hope that she will indicate the suit(s) that she is guarding. I say “safely” because if you know that declarer is a keen-eyed Diamond Life Master and will pay attention to your signals, you’re much better off just hoping that partner figures it out rather than drawing declarer’s attention to what you’re doing. But if you can safely indicate by signalling the suit in which you could stand a lead, without ruining your hand by doing so, try to do that. For most partnerships that’s the point at which you first show out of the suit that declarer is running and, like I said, most declarers don’t start paying attention really until the fifth or sixth card in the running suit, because that’s when most defenders start giving away information. So use your judgment, but try to signal if you think it’s safe.