The Self-Forced Declarer
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This is board 21 from the Mar 20, 2012 Tuesday evening game at the San Diego Bridge Academy. Most declarers were in 3♠. At our table the mundane auction went P P 1♠ 2♣; 2♠ 3♣ 3♠. North might get excited about his club shortage and nothing wasted trump holding and instead show a limit raise with a 3♣ cue bid. But cutting the third seat opener a bit of slack with a simple raise to 2♠ is quite reasonable.
I was the only West to make a matchpoint double of 3♠. Although I made the double dummy sufficient lead of the singleton diamond, the unanimous choice of the field, my defense wasn’t up to my matchpoint bidding. Declarer won the opening lead in dummy and led a club. Partner took his ace and tabled the ♦J. Declarer covered and I ruffed small, an essential trick for the defense. What do you lead now?
The defense is guaranteed four tricks. Declarer has won a diamond, has a top heart, a top club, and at least four more tricks between spades and diamonds, whether West ruffs the last diamond with the queen or lies in wait with the A-Q tenace. To make his contract, declarer needs to either ruff two clubs in dummy or ruff one club while establishing the fifth diamond or endplaying West in clubs or trump. Worried about club ruffs, I returned the ♠9 without stopping to realize this couldn’t prevent at least two club ruffs, thereby killing the defense. Declarer won, cashed the ♣K, ruffed a club, cashed the ♥A, ruffed a heart, ruffed his last club, and ruffed another heart, before leading the ♦A from ♠KJ ♦A to West’s ♠AQ ♣7 to ensure one last crucial trick.
West’s alternative at trick four is to lead a heart and hope declarer doesn’t have ♥Qx. This feels like a forcing defense and it does set the contract but not for that reason. Since declarer needs to ruff clubs and can only get to his hand by ruffing hearts we could say that declarer is “self-forced”. The impact of leading hearts is to change the end position to this one (with the lead in dummy, though that doesn’t matter).
With the ♠9 and ♠T still in play, West collects three tricks here. The tables have turned because if South uses a trump at trick ten, West gets to use the club master to promote a trump trick in exactly the same way South used the diamond master in the three card ending above. Call it a change of timing. And if dummy plays a diamond or a heart, pitching the ♦A, West ruffs and gets to use the club master as a safe exit to keep the ♠AQ tenace.
The heart return at trick four works not because it is a forcing defense but rather because it doesn’t give up a trick. The trump return fails as shown. A club return also fails because it is the equivalent of a leading away from a tenace in that declarer can setup the ♣T with only one club ruff, reaching the position below where declarer can simply work on trumps, starting from dummy. A surprisingly common theme in complicated deals is that the right play is right because it is the only play that isn’t wrong, rather than because it does something. In other words, the right play is effectively a passive exit. Often the specific card played doesn’t matter, as here, as long as it is in the right suit.
By the way, it is essential for East to lead a diamond at trick three. East might try to kill declarer’s club ruffs by leading a trump instead. This allows West to take two trump tricks and exit with a trump to eliminate dummy’s last trump. However, this comes at the cost of West scoring only two trump instead of all four. But it is worse than a trade because West gets endplayed in clubs. Declarer pulls West’s last trump and cashes two top diamonds. West has to keep at least three clubs; otherwise declarer simply concedes a club while retaining trump control. With West forced down to the position below, declarer cashes the ♥A and ruffs a heart to strip West before playing a low club to endplay West.
Nor can West take just one trump trick at trick four and then switch to a heart. Declarer will win the ♥A, ruff a heart, ruff a club, and ruff another heart to reach the position below. Here declarer must not play on clubs, lest West be able to force with the club master in the endgame as before. Instead, declarer plays a trump and West gets endplayed in clubs sooner or later. A diamond is the only winning defense at trick three. And a heart is the only winning defense at trick four.