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Diamond Article: Counting the hands

When we talk about “counting a hand” at bridge, we mean keeping track of the shape and the high cards or the HCP values in a hidden hand or hands. This is a vital skill for players but is difficult to develop. Like any difficult skill, it takes lots of practice to acquire and then improve.

I generally recommend starting with easier hands and focusing on one element (HCP or shape) and practicing when a lot is known. Hands where NT was bid by the declarer lend themselves to counting HCP and hands where preemptive or shape showing bids have been made lend themselves to counting shape.

On this hand, we are going to go through the defense and the play and I’d like you to focus on filling out the South hand in your mind as we go. We will go through it trick by trick through trick 9, when I will ask you what South’s last 4 cards are.

The auction:

North South

1NT

2♦ 2

3NT P

Contract 3NT by South. Lead: 5♣.

As a side note, this is not how I would have bid the hand, but this is what the partnership who had this hand actually did. As a result, East / West are defending 3NT.

North

(dummy)

♠ K

♥ AJ532

♦ A7532

♣ T2

West

(you)

♠ QT3

♥ Q94

♦ 96

♣ Q7654

You are holding the West hand and you begin the defense by leading the 5♣.

As we go through the first 9 tricks, see how good you are at keeping track of the hands. Ideally, after 9 tricks, you will have a complete picture of the South hand. In case you need some hints, I will show you the cards that remain in your hand and dummy as well as the cards that have been played by your partner and the declarer. At which time, you should know what you will discard on the next two tricks.

The play:

Trick 1: You begin with the 5♣, declarer plays the T♣ from dummy, partner plays the 9♣ and declarer the 3♣.

Trick 2: Declarer leads the 8♥, you play the 4♥, she plays the J♥ from dummy and partner wins the trick with the K♥.

Trick 3: Partner leads the 7♠, declarer plays the 2♠, you play the T♠, and North’s K♠ wins the trick.

Trick 4: Declarer leads the A♥ from dummy, partner plays the T♥, declarer follows with the 6♥, and you play the 9♥.

Question 1: What do you think the distribution of the heart suit is?

Trick 5: Declarer leads the 2♥ from dummy, partner plays the 9♠ (you are playing Lavinthal discards – Question 2: what does partner’s discard mean?), declarer plays the 7♥ from her hand, and you win the trick with the Q♥.

Answer 1: The hearts were 5-3-3-2 with partner having 2 and declarer having 3. I would have expected you to guess that partner had the 3 hearts and declarer had the 2 based on the bidding. With the South hand, I would have corrected to 4h holding 3. She did not, which can confuse the count of the hand. However, what is relevant here is whether or not the heart suit will come home for declarer and it really doesn’t matter who has the 7♥ of hearts, we can see that the suit is going to be good for declarer pretty early on (based on our 3 hearts). Why? If it’s 5-3-3-2, declarer can lose 2 tricks and take 3 tricks, regardless of where the 3 and 2 are.

Answer 2: Your partner’s 9♠ says she doesn’t like spades and prefers the higher of the two remaining suits (diamonds and clubs since she is out of hearts). There is more information here from the 9♠, but I’ll save that for later!

Trick 6: Being a good partner, you lead the 9♦, declarer plays the 2♦ from dummy, partner plays the T♦, and declarer wins the trick with the A♦.

Trick 7: Declarer leads the 4♦, you play the 6♦ perforce, and declarer plays the A♦ from dummy, with your partner following with the 8♦.

Trick 8: Declarer plays the 5♥, your partner plays the 8♣, declarer plays the 4♠. Question 3: what do you play?

Trick 9: Declarer plays the final heart from dummy, the 3♥, your partner plays the 5♠, declarer plays the 6♠. Question 4: what do you play?

Question 5: What does declarer’s hand look like, exactly?

To help you answer these questions, I’m going to first show you the cards remaining in dummy and your hand.

Cards in Dummy (North) and your hand (West) that have not yet been played after trick 7. On tricks 8 and 9, North will play the 5♥, and 3♥, East will play the 8♣ and the 5♠, and South will play the 4♠ and 6♠. You need to decide what to play on those two tricks!

North

(dummy)

♠ -----

♥ 53

♦ 753

♣ 2

West

(you)

♠ Q3

♥ -----

♦ -----

♣ Q764

Next, I’m going to show you the cards played by your partner (East) and declarer (South). These are the cards you’ve seen, because they have played them. They have 4 cards remaining in their hands:

East

(partner)

♠ 975

♥ KT

♦ T8

♣ 98

South

(declarer)

♠ 642

♥ 876

♦ K4

♣ 3

The questions to answer are:

Question 3: What do you play on trick 8?

Question 4: What do you play on trick 9?

Question 5: What does declarer’s hand look like after trick 9? (Probably easiest to start with this question.)

Question 6: What are the remaining 4 cards in partner’s hand?

Scroll down for the answers

*

*

*

*

*

*

*

*

*

*

*

*

*

*

*

*

*

North

(dummy)

♠ -----

♥ -----

♦ 753

♣ 2

West East

(you) (partner)

♠ 3 ♠ J8

♥ ----- ♥ -----

♦ ----- ♦ QJ

♣ Q76 ♣ -----

South

(declarer)

♠ A

♥ -----

♦ -----

♣ AKJ

Answer 3: You should play the 4♣. You don’t need this card. You only need 2 cards to protect the Q♣, from the A♣ and K♣. You know partner has spades, so ideally you will win the Q♣ and then lead a spade winning both those tricks. Of course, you know that declarer will almost certainly play the last heart from dummy, forcing you to make another discard and should plan for that.

Answer 4: You should play the Q♠ or 3♠. Either of these cards is fine, because declarer will play the A♠ after crossing her hand with a club. They are also equal value cards because we know partner has the J♠ and 8♠. Playing the Q♠ has the added advantage of letting partner know what’s going on in spades, which is why I have selected it in the above diagram.

Answer 5: You can see this in the above diagram and I will explain below.

Answer 6: You can see this in the above diagram and I will explain below.

Let’s break this down. One of the most illuminating tricks was actually the very first one. To review:

Trick 1: You begin with the 5♣, declarer plays the T♣ from dummy, partner plays the 9♣ and declarer the 3♣.

Partner could not beat the T♣. Partner would not let the T♣ if she could stop it. This tells us that the A♣, K♣, and J♣, are in the South hand. If we watch (and we should be watching for these specific cards), we observe that South never discards any of them.

Knowing this, it’s pretty easy to get most of the 4-card ending, as we already know 3 of those cards for certain.

How do we know about the A♠? Would partner have led a low spade from the A♠ with the K♠ singleton in dummy? No way! Thus, South must have the A♠. Which tells us South’s last 4 cards.

Which means we do not need to protect the Q♠, but do need to protect the Q♣.

If you kept the Q76♣ and a spade, give yourself a gold star! Well done!

As you watch the cards from partner’s hand, she helps you first by giving count in clubs (on the first trick), then with the spades telling you she doesn’t have the A♠, but does have the J♠. How? She played the 7♠, which turns out to be a small when she plays the 9♠. Playing a low card indicates she was leading from an honor. If she had no honors in spades, she would have led her top card, which we know she didn’t do, because she later showed us a card higher than the 7♠. Which means she didn’t lead the top of nothing, she led low from an honor, which can only be the J♠. Again, we are assuming she did not lead a low spade while holding the A♠ with the K♠ singleton in dummy.

Later when partner plays the 5♠, we know that partner actually had 5 spades (which makes sense because there was only 1 in dummy and 3 in our hand. But.. how do we know this? Because when we lead low from an honor we lead the 4th best card. Since partner had a card lower than one she led, this means she had least 5.

We also know that partner has the QJT8♦, from her cover of the 9♦ and subsequent play of the 8♦. Not to mention her Lavinthal signal for diamonds. All of which helps to reinforce what we already know:

Declarer has the AKJ♣ and the A♠.

You may ask, why does this matter since declarer is taking 10 tricks anyway? Well, playing duplicate bridge, the difference between declarer making 4NT and making 5NT could be the difference between a top board and a bottom board for us. Even playing social bridge, there is a point difference between the two. Why not prevent the opponents from taking a trick they shouldn’t take and thus collecting extra points?

Defense is often the hardest part of the game and the best place to focus to improve our score. It’s also a great place to practice counting the hand. Counting the hand will help us both on defense and declaring the hand, but it can be a bit easier to practice on defense when you aren’t having to worry about all the things declarer has to worry about.

Counting South’s hand and knowing what she has left on her last 6 cards and especially on her last 4 will help you discard properly. This will take a lot of pressure of a situation that can often seem impossible (knowing what to discard) and can dramatically improve your score.

Remember, practice, practice, practice! This is a skill that takes a lot of time and effort to develop and the only way to get there is to keep trying. Good luck and have fun!


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