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 Option Management by Ben Norton

Option Management

Flexibility is a valuable commodity in Bridge, although its importance is somewhat neglected. To be flexible is to be able to adapt to the proceedings at the table, such that you will be able to change your line of play depending on new information or the opponents’ (or partner’s) play. Options are the key to flexibility. By keeping your options open for later and thus not unilaterally dedicating yourself to a certain line of play you may be able to recover later on if your initial line fails.

Of course it isn’t possible to forever be passive until you can see the right play. A lot of the time you’ll only have one chance and you’ll have to go with the play that gains the most often. However if the situation allows it, you should strive to delay your decision for as long as possible until you know enough about the hand to make an informed choice.

This technique is very useful when on opening lead, since more often than not the winning defense is far from clear when only your hand and the bidding are there to guide you. By organising your choice of lead so that you don’t fully dedicate yourself to one particular line you may be able to change tack later at a point when you have more information and can draw more inferences. As South on these five problems see if you can find a lead which will keep your options open while not putting the success of the defense at risk.

Question 1

  Your Hand
 8 5 2
 9 8 3
 A 3
 A Q 10 9 4
Q: 1 - Which card do you lead against 3NT?



 Your choice:
A: A. Clearly your best hope of beating 3NT lies in the Club suit, but you don’t yet know how to tackle them.

Partner will hardly be contributing much to the defense since you hold a ten-count, so you can hardly rely on them to have an entry. As such you have to try and set up four Club tricks to cash when you get in with the A. If partner has a Club honor then you’ll most likely be able to cash four tricks in the suit no matter what, so think about the positions where the opponents have the King and Jack.

When you consider the possible layouts of the Club suit where you can beat the contract, the ‘normal’ lead of the 10 will gain when declarer has K x opposite J x x in dummy, or when there’s K x on table with J x x in declarer’s hand. The lead of the Queen will win when there’s J x on table opposite K x x (x) on your right, or J x with declarer and K x x (x) on dummy. Thus the lead of the Queen will gain more often because it works when the hand with longer Clubs has three or four cards, as opposed to the Ten which will only work when the longer hand has three cards.

The Ten would be better if the cards split 3-3 in the opponents’ hands, since the stronger hand is on your right and so is more likely to have the King. You’ll need partner to have an entry if this is the case though, to be able to lead through declarer’s Club holding. All in all the Queen seems best, but where’s the urgency to commit to a decision right away?

You can lead the Ace first to get a look at dummy and then plan your play in the suit based on that. Of course this will lose when the suit splits 3-3 but for the defense to succeed you’ll need partner to have an entry in that case, which isn’t very likely. Instead you should focus on the cases where you can immediately establish four tricks in the suit yourself, and by banging down the Ace you can keep your options open until trick two, when you can make the best play with complete certainty.

Your result so far:
Open Question

Question 2

  Your Hand
 K 7 6 4 2
 5 3
 9 7 4
 10 8 4
Q: 2 - It’s your lead against 5


 Your choice:
A: K. It’s best to try and cash a Spade trick now before declarer gets his loser away, and by leading the King you keep the lead.

If you can’t cash a Spade trick it’s quite unlikely that you’re going to beat this, besides you have no clue as to which minor suit to attack. As such a Spade lead is best, hoping to be able to make a damaging switch to a minor suit at trick two. However if partner wins the first trick he probably won’t be able to switch to any great effect, because he’s the one with all the high-cards.

You must be on lead at trick two so you can lead through dummy, picking up its holdings underneath partner’s strength. Therefore you lead the K, which will hopefully hold the first trick. Knowing that you probably won’t be able to cash a second trick in the suit, partner will give a suit-preference signal. In this way not only will you get to have a look at dummy to decide which minor suit to switch to, but partner will aid you with his spot card at trick one. As such by leading the King you maintain flexibility so you can make an informed decision at trick two.

Your result so far:
Open Question

Question 3

  Your Hand
 Q 5 2
 K Q J
 A 7 3
 8 6 5 2
Q: 3 - What are your thoughts?

*4 shows a solid six-card Club suit and four-card Heart support.


 Your choice:
A: A. With a solid Club suit known to be on your left you must hope to score two quick tricks in the pointed suits to go with your two trump tricks, before declarer can ditch his losers on dummy’s Clubs.

Since you hold four low Clubs and the trump length, there is a big danger that if you fail to cash your tricks, declarer will draw one round of trumps with the Ace before cashing the Club suit, to which you will have to follow four times before ruffing with a trump trick on the fifth round, by which time declarer will have ditched one if not both of his losers. Therefore there is no time to lose.

You must find partner with either the A or the K, but which one is more likely? If you had to guess you’d probably say the K, because that requires less from partner. But there’s no need to guess. You can find out by leading the A. If partner has the King he will play a high card as an attitude signal to encourage the suit, whereas if he has the A he will play a low Diamond to discourage. Of course if dummy hits with a singleton Diamond you will have to switch to a Spade anyway.

In this way you delay the crucial play until you can gather more information about which high-card partner has. Don’t worry he won’t encourage with the Q when you lead the Ace, mainly because against this type of auction where the defense needs to take their tricks you’re only interested in quick winners.

Your result so far:
Open Question

Question 4

  Your Hand
 9 8 5 2
 A 7 6 2
 8 6 3 2
Q: 4 - What’s your choice here?

*2 is forcing to game
**2 is a relay


 Your choice:
A: 7. Even though a Diamond lead is likely to give away a trick, it presents declarer with an extra option, to your benefit.

For his wild jump to 6NT declarer must have a very big hand with a semi-solid Spade suit, lots of tricks outside and surely a singleton Diamond. With more Diamond support he would have preferred 6 and with a void 6NT would be far too risky since there probably wouldn’t be an entry to his partner’s hand. Having drawn this inference a fantastic opportunity for some deception rears its head.

If you were to passively lead a rounded suit, both of which declarer must have well and truly sewn up, declarer will win and play his singleton Diamond. Either you win your Ace and put him back in his hand, giving him no choice but to shrug his shoulders and lay down the A, dropping your singleton King, or you duck and let dummy have the lead.

Even though declarer would now have the opportunity to take the Spade finesse, he wouldn’t do so, since there must be a reason why two defenders who use count signals, and thus know that declarer has a singleton, would present him with an entry to dummy. The reason could only be that they want him to take the Spade finesse.

This isn’t a hopeless line of thought though, it just needs refining. If you could give dummy an entry at a point where it looks like the defense don’t have a full count of the hand, you might not arouse declarer’s suspicion, causing him to take the Spade finesse. The way to do this is to lead a Diamond, specifically the Seven, feigning a second-highest lead from a suit without an honor.

From declarer’s perspective when dummy wins the first trick it will look like partner has held up his Ace to prevent the suit being run when declarer started with a doubleton, because the Seven hardly paints an accurate picture of your length in the suit. Declarer will probably nod his head, assuming an unfortunate mis-defense, and take the Spade finesse into your King, allowing you to cash the A for one off.

By granting declarer an extra option, thus increasing his flexibility in a subtle way, you can protect your singleton King. Flexibility isn’t always a blessing, it can be used to tempt an opponent into a failing line of play when the one which they would have been forced to take had the play gone differently would have worked.

Your result so far:
Open Question

Question 5

  Your Hand
 A 4 3
 J 10 7 6 4
 7 4 3 2
Q: 5 - Your opponents land in 5, causing you to prick up your ears and lick your lips like a hound on a rabbit’s trail. Your opponents are one level too high and you must take advantage of this.

*4 and 4 are both cue-bids, showing first or second round controls in the suits
**4NT is Keycard and 5 shows zero or three


 Your choice:
A: A. Thanks to partner’s lead directing Double of 4 it appears he has the A, so you can take an immediate ruff. However this might not be so easy to see from partner’s side of the table.

If you were to make the seemingly natural lead of the 8, partner could very well place you with a doubleton and may duck the first round in order to keep communications open for when you win the A. In fact that’s what he’s likely to do. The Eight is certainly a high enough spot card to be led from the top of a doubleton, and after all your partner did ask for a Diamond lead, so you’d nearly always lead your doubleton in the suit.

To resolve partner’s problem it is your responsibility to lead the A before switching to a Diamond. This way partner will know that you have a singleton (holding up would be useless when you no longer control the trump suit). He will waste no time in rising with the A and giving you a ruff. Thus by reducing partner’s options you can guide him to the winning defense.

The management and manipulation of options is a vital part of card play. It’s usually best to increase and maintain your own options and the options of partner so that you can make the key play when you have more information. In the same vein you'd normally want to decrease the opponents’ flexibility in an effort to suffocate them into a losing line of play.

However as shown by the last two questions in this quiz, when you can see the winning play for the defense, it can be a good idea to let partner in on it by limiting his options and almost forcing him to adopt the winning line. While if you can see that the opponents will succeed, try and offer them an extra losing option.

Your result so far:
Open Question

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