Winning Without the Hat

Author: Larry Cohen
Date of publish: 06/07/2005
Level: Intermediate

Originally published in Bridge Today 2005

A year ago at the Spring Nationals in Reno, after years of broken promises to Matthew Granovetter, I finally joined him for a Friday night Sabbath candle-lighting service (his room was next to mine in the hotel). After that religious experience (my first), David Berkowitz and I ended up winning the pairs event.

Hmm. I told Matthew I'd be back in his room the following Friday night for services. That second Friday, our team was at halftime in our semifinal Vanderbilt match. We trailed the powerful Nickell team by a huge margin. As Matthew lit the candles, I couldn't help but think that maybe there would be another miracle in the cards. There were no more Friday-night promises to make (this being the last weekend of the tournament), so instead, I vowed to Matthew: "If we come back and win this match, I will wear your big black Chassidic hat tomorrow during the finals!" Sure enough, we won the match, so I went to get the hat from Matthew to wear (on VuGraph with cameras!). My team captain thought it a bad idea. He didn't want any religious symbols or omens to ruin our team karma. (Little did he know, that it was my trip to Matthew's room that had us on this great roll). He forbade the hat, and we lost the match.

A year later, I found myself back in the Vanderbilt final in Pittsburgh.

Matthew was 7,000 miles away in Jerusalem, so we'd have to try to win again without the hat.

Before I get to two deals from the final, here are two interesting hands from our semifinal match. On the first, David and I reached 6NT on these North-South cards:


?A K 10 6 5
?9 4
?A K J 4 3
  ?Q 7
?A K 3
?Q 6
?Q 10 8 4 3 2

If spades and diamonds behave, you have 13 easy tricks. I received a heart lead, so I tested the diamonds first and saw everyone follow to two rounds. Now I could afford a safety play in spades (this was imps) to guard against RHO holding a low singleton. I played the ?Q and a spade towards dummy, but on the first round RHO had played the 8 (some sort of signal) and on the second round, LHO played the 9, so I no longer needed a safety play. I played spades from the top and when they split 3-3 I claimed 13 tricks for 1020. I assumed this would be a push board (they wouldn't bid seven at the other table, would they?).

No. The other table played a small slam, but in clubs! Declarer won the heart lead and played a club. LHO followed with the 9. What would you do now?

It turns out that when the ?9 dropped, declarer could have played LHO for J-9 doubleton (his actual holding) but didn't. After the ?A wins, declarer can come to hand and play the ?Q to pin the now-bare jack and make his slam. In retrospect, a better play by West was to falsecard with the jack on the first round of the suit. Then declarer has to guess if it is J-9 or K-J doubleton and could more easily go wrong.

The other semifinal deal of note was:

Vul: East-West
Dlr: West
?J 6
?7 2
?Q 5
?A K 9 7 5 4 2
?A K Q 10 4 3
?5 3
?9 7 6
?J 6
  ?9 8
?J 9 4
?K J 8 4
?Q 10 8 3
  ?7 5 2
?A K Q 10 8 6
?A 10 3 2

At both tables, after West opened with a weak two-bid in spades, South reach 4?.

West led the top three spades, RHO playing high-low. What should declarer do on the third round of spades? When faced with this problem, my table opponent, Mike Passell, found the solution. He discarded a diamond from dummy. Now the defense could do nothing. Even on a trump shift, declarer can ruff a diamond, take his discards on the clubs, ruff a club with the ?10 and draw trumps to make 420.

Our team lost 10 imps when, surprisingly, my expert teammate failed to find the winning line. He ruffed the third spade in dummy and East overruffed and the contract had to fail by two tricks on a trump return. I can't give my teammate all the blame. Had I led a trump at trick one, two or three, we could have defeated four hearts.

The Final

Our team grabbed a huge half-time lead in the match. The knock-out punch (from my point of view) was these back-to-back deals. First...

With both vulnerable, I held:

?3 2
?K 9 5
?A Q J 10 9 6 4

David opened 1?, Precision. This showed 11-15 HCP and at least two diamonds. RHO passed and I bid 2? (inverted raise). LHO doubled for takeout. David passed (typically indicating a weak notrump hand 11-13) and RHO jumped to 3?. What now?

1? Pass 2? Double
Pass 3? ?  


I had hearts stopped and the most likely game was 3NT, so I just bid it. What does partner rate to have? Probably a balanced hand with four spades and a doubleton heart. If he doesn't have clubs stopped, so be it — they will then have to find the right lead. Sure enough, that was the case. David's hand was:

?A K 8 6
?J 6 2
?K 7 3
?J 9 8

Opposite that hand, there is no game, but I received a heart lead, the queen, and when my king won the first trick I tabled my hand and scored 630. This was the full deal....

?3 2
?K 9 5
?A Q J 10 9 6 4
?Q J 5
?10 8 7 3
?8 5
?A K 5 2
  ?10 9 7 4
?A Q 4
?Q 10 6 4 3
  ?A K 8 6
?J 6 2
?K 7 3
?J 9 8

We can all see that East's ?Q lead wasn't such a good idea, but it's easier in hindsight. This deal turned out to be a problem for the defenders at the other table as well. South started with a standard 1?. North responded 1?, South rebid 1NT and North raised to 3NT. West led the ?3, a fourth best heart, and declarer (in desperation) put up dummy's ?K. How should the defenders figure out that they have the first seven tricks?

East should be suspicious (usually declarer won't play high from dummy at trick one in such situations). Probably declarer is afraid of a black-suit switch, but which one? East cashed the ?Q at trick two. Can West signal suit-preference? Would the lowest remaining card, the ?7, suggest a club switch? Or should West play the ?10 to deny the jack and make sure West at least shifts to something? Or maybe you prefer a high club lead at trick one from West? That would make things easy but leading the king of the opening bid suit is a rare lead.

Our teammates guessed wrong. West signaled with the ?8 and East shifted to spades, so the board was pushed at 630.

The next deal did produce a gain (and it stretched our lead to 60 imps):

Vul: Both
Dlr: North
?J 9 7 2
?K 8 7
?J 8 2
?A 4 3
?8 6
?A Q 10
?10 9 7 5
?J 7 6 2
  ?A K 4
?6 5 4 3
?6 3
?Q 10 9 5
  ?Q 10 5 3
?J 9 2
?A K Q 4
?K 8
Larry   David  
--   Pass  
1NT (14-16)   2NT  
3NT   Pass  


We both pushed a bit, but you know what they say about bidding close vulnerable games at imps. Again, we had no legitimate play (best defense also beats 4?), but opening leads and defense aren't always perfect. West led the ?9 (promising the 10 and maybe a higher honor). I won dummy's jack and played the ?J to trick two. East won and did not have an easy decision. Should he return his partner's diamond suit? This would be necessary on many layouts (for example, suppose that West holds: ?A-10-9-x-x or ?K-10-9-x-x and a side entry). East guessed wrong and continued diamonds. That was all the help I needed.

I drove out the other spade and when the ?A was right, I had the timing for nine tricks and 600. Our counterparts rested sensibly in a spade partial making nine tricks for 140 and we won 10 lucky imps. This built our lead to nearly 60 imps and the match never got close.


The entire first half went this way — we kept bidding pushy vulnerable games and they kept on making. David likes to go with the flow. If he sees that the games are not making, he gets conservative. Here, however, he saw that everything was making and he became aggressive. This may not sound so scientific, and maybe we should all follow the formula that has worked so well for Meckwell: Bid every close game, period. I recall reading in Bridge Today about the standards for 3NT declining each year. On the above two deals we had 22 and then 24 HCP, which seems about the norm these days. As long as they keep making, we'd better keep bidding them, hat or no hat.


Updated: March 2022