05 March 2011

Card Reading

Card reading is one of the most important skills of any good declarer or defender. Ignoring the little cards is like going hiking without a map. Or pants. You either get hopelessly lost and don't know why or someone seeing your crimes against decency is suitably taken aback.

Card reading is the art of using your or your opponents lead and carding conventions to best advantage. Here's a hand from an old tournament that I was replaying against Jack: You're the declarer after opening a weak 1NT:
4 2
J 7 2
A J 9 7 3
J 8 3

A T 8 7
A K 9 4
Q 4
6 4 2
The opponents are playing 4th highest leads.
The first thing to notice is that this problem is never going to be about guaranteeing a contract. Like so many weak NTs this will depend on a bit of luck and the defence starting blind.

Given the auction there's no reason to expect that West would lead from a 3 card holding so we can be reasonably assured that the 2 is a true 4th. Secondly the most superficial analysis indicates that there must be a higher expectation of tricks in diamonds by playing small rather than the Ace. We must always score two diamonds if we duck but may only score one if we rise.

That's all that card reading gets you at this stage. After than you need the discipline to use it. You play the 3 off the table and East plays the King. You can write down the diamond suit: Txxx - Kx! It's a simple matter to drop the Q under the King, win the heart return (that defensive error we needed) and finesse the 9 to take 4 diamonds, 2 hearts and a spade.

A chance to display your cleverness: the contract is doomed if East follows small to trick one rather than hoisting the King, is this merely a curiosity or should East get this right?


  1. East should get it right. Regardless of whether partner has lead from Txxx, or Qxxx, ducking can't cost, and may pay off big time(as here).

  2. er, that's only 6 tricks, four diamonds and two hearts. You'll still need to scrap for a 7th in hearts or spades (and a club switch may well see the defence rattle off the first 7 tricks...)

  3. Eek! Thanks Matt, hand corrected :-)