3 Hearts?


Author: Larry Cohen
Date of publish: 10/01/2015
Level: Intermediate

This deal comes from a knockout match at the 2015 New Orleans NABC. Declarer held: ♠95 ♥J85 ♦AK854 ♣AKJ. He opened 1NT and responded 2♠ to his partner's Stayman. His partner then jumped to 3♠. In "Standard" that would show 5 hearts, 4 spades and enough for at least game. Most experts use a popular convention here called "Smolen." The jump to 3♠/3♠ after 1NT-2♠-2♠ does show 5-4 game-forcing, but the jump is into the four-card suit (so that the strong hand is always declarer). So, this 3♠ jump showed 5 spades and 4 hearts. Opener knew of no 8-card major-suit fit, so retreated to 3NT. The ♠Q was led and declarer saw:

 

Vul:None
Dir: South
♠ J10832
♥ KQ72
♦ --
♣ Q876
 
     
  ♠ 95
♥ J85
♦ AK854
♣ AKJ
 

 What is the plan? Setting up spades is out of the question. After winning the diamond lead and playing a spade, the defense would play more diamonds. They would likely set up 2 diamond tricks to go with the ♠AKQ.  So, you are going to need to take 9 tricks without the spades. You have 4 club tricks to go with 2 diamonds. So, you will need 3 heart tricks. Also, there is the matter of being able to take dummy's ♠Q if the suit isn't 3-3 (you won't be able to overtake your ♠J). 

Will you need 3-3 hearts? If they are 3-3, the defender with the ace will hold up until the third round. So, you would then need an entry to the 4th heart. This means you can't unblock the ♠AKJ first, and would need clubs 3-3. You would have to win the diamond lead, play three rounds of hearts (they win the 3rd round), win the diamond return and then play the ♠AKJ and overtake (needing 3-3 or an unlikely ♠109 doubleton).

Is there anything better? Yes. The heart suit offers opportunities for 3 tricks without a 3-3 break. A doubleton heart ace is an interesting possibility. To get the best of all worlds, declarer should lead the ♠8 at trick 2. He puts up an honor from dummy. If East wins the ace (from A9 doubleton or A10 doubleton), declarer can later unblock the top clubs, lay down the ♠J and lead his low heart for a finesse of dummy's 7! This works when East started with A10 or A9 doubleton of hearts (but loses to a statistically less likely A109 of hearts). Restricted-Choice fans will appreciate what I am talking about.

Anyway, back at the ranch, let's say you win the opening diamond lead and play a careful ♠8 to the king and it wins. Now, you should cross back to your hand in clubs and lead a low heart. Why? West might have started with a doubleton ace. In fact, this was the real deal:

Vul:None
Dir: South
♠ J10832
♥ KQ72
♦ --
♣ Q876
 
♠ K76
♥ A6
♦ QJ976
♣ 954
  ♠ AQ4
♥ 10943
♦ 1032
♣ 1032
  ♠ 95
♥ J85
♦ AK854
♣ AKJ
 

Declarer wins the diamond lead and plays the ♠8 to dummy's king. He comes back to a high club to lead a low heart. When the ace pops up, declarer can later unblock his ♠J. With 3 heart tricks, he then has to rely on the clubs (needing to overtake the ♠J), but fortunately, he has 4 tricks when they split 3-3. In all, he takes 4 clubs (due to the needed 3-3 break), 3 hearts (due to the careful handling) and the ♠AK for 9 tricks.