Keep your guesses to yourself

Matthew Granovetter

When I asked my wife Pamela to suggest a tip for this year's competition, she reminded me of the one taught us by our bridge mentor, Victor Mitchell. He is known in New York as the expert's expert, and when he is not on the racetrack, this Damon Runyon figure of the bridge world is often teaching other good players how to improve their bridge game.

Once, during a Pairs event, he was playing with Pamela and advised: when you have to make a guess in a suit, don't give away the position by hesitating at the crucial moment.

Personally, when defending, I prefer a capable declarer who is slow at the crucial moments, to an average one who always plays his cards quickly. Victor's tip was illustrated during that Pairs event.


  South Dealer J 8 6 5    


E-W Game

 A Q 10 4 2





 8 7





 6 5









10 3 2     Q

  J 5


W                          E

 K 6

 A Q 9 5



 10 6 4 2

 A Q 9 3



 J 10 8 7 4 2









 A K 9 7 4





 9 8 7 3





 K J 3










Most Souths in the field declared a spade partscore against a major-suit opening lead. When a trump was led, the typical declarer drew trumps and led a heart to the queen. East won the king of hearts and often found the best shift of a diamond. Most Souths now thought about it for a moment, and made their guess, usually the jack. In either case, West cashed his other diamond honour, then the ace of clubs. Making three. At Pamela's table, Victor was declarer in Three Spades. Against the trump lead, Victor won, drew a second round of trumps and then led a heart for a finesse. When East returned a diamond, Victor played the king without a flicker. (He had already decided to make this play if the heart finesse lost and a diamond was returned.) When West won the ace, he took a reasonable inference that East held the jack of diamonds, based on the fact that declarer had no problem on the diamond return. Anxious to defeat the contract, West underled his queen of diamonds and Victor made two overtricks for a near top.  

A few years later it was my turn to watch Victor. I was dummy and he was declarer in 6NT. The opening lead was a diamond. How would you play it?  


  South Dealer  9 4    


Game All

 10 9 7





 A K J 10 2





 A K 2









A 8 7 6 5     Q 10 3 2



W                          E

 J 8 6 5 4 2

 9 8 6 4




 9 7 6



 4 3









 K J





 A Q 3





 Q 5 3





 Q J10 8 5

























If you use Victor's tip, you might do as he did : win the lead in dummy and play a spade immediately! When East plays low, however, you must be prepared for the guess and not hesitate even a split second. Let's follow the reasoning behind this technique.

Declarer can count five tricks in each minor and the ace of hearts for a sure eleventh. The twelfth trick can come from a correct spade guess or a successful heart finesse. If you lead a spade and put in the jack, forcing the ace, you will succeed. If you lead a spade towards the king and the ace was on your right, you will succeed. Or if you take the heart finesse and the king is with East, you will succeed. But which play is the best? Is it possible to give yourself more than one chance?

Yes, if you lead a spade towards your hand and make your play without hesitation. There is no use discussing the hand if you guess correctly in spades. But if you guess wrong, you may get another chance when the spade honours are split. For example, say that you lead a spade to the king, losing to the ace. West is very likely to continue diamonds, and you are now in a position to take the heart finesse your second chance.

Every once in a while your chances will improve further. On the actual layout, let us assume that you misguessed in spades, took the diamond return, cashed your clubs and then led out the rest of your diamonds. Because you know by inference where the queen of spades is (West would have cashed it if he held it), when you lead a heart towards your queen at trick twelve, East will follow with the jack and you will know that his thirteenth card is the queen of spades. Therefore you go up with your ace of hearts and make the slam even with the king of hearts offside!

As Victor Mitchell put it to me after the hand, sometimes your chances against 'experts, like the one sitting West' are even more remarkable. When Victor played the hand he misguessed in spades, but his king of spades held the trick! West was being clever, of course, holding off the first round of spades, but, as he tried to explain to his unforgiving partner, what was the likelihood that Victor was leading to the king without the queen at his second trick?

Notice, of course, what happens if declarer tries a spade lead at trick two and hesitates over his third-hand play. If he guesses wrong, West will know that East holds the other honour, and it is easy for him to return the suit and defeat the slam.


My BOLS bridge tip is to take Victor Mitchell's advice:  

If you have a guess to make, don't let the opponents in on the secret

do it smoothly!