NEBridge - John Stiefel: Can't Cost #1

The Can’t Cost Method

by John Stiefel

Originally printed in the U126 Kibitzer

Some hands are “easy” and some are “hard,” so solving the hard hands is a goal we all share. Most of us use two methods to solve hard hands – random guess (RG) and deep thought (DT). Too often, people waste time with DT on easy hands, but that’s another subject. This article suggests a third method, Can’t Cost (CC) and includes a couple of examples to illustrate.

The CC principle is this: if you know a particular play can’t cost, just do it. You don’t need to figure out if or how it might gain, only that it can’t lose. Said another way, it’s often easier to figure out a “can’t cost” play to an early trick than all the details involved in thinking about what might happen later.

Let’s look at a couple of problem hands and analyze them using CC and DT. When looking at these hands, focus on the fact that CC is easier than DT especially when you consider all the details of DT. (I won’t discuss RG other than to make two observations: First, sometimes it’s the only way – even for the best players. Second, when you do use RG, don’t act unsure – play like you know what you’re doing even when you don’t.)

Hand 1 (you are South):

  North
A 10
K J 3 2
Q 8 6 4
A 3 2
 
     
  South
9 7 5 3
Q
K x x
Q 10 6 5 4
 

You reach 3♣ after RHO doubles your partner’s 1 opening bid, and LHO shows a five-card heart suit. The defense starts with a low heart to RHO’s ace, the 10 to LHO’s ace, and a low spade. Plan the play.

Hand 2 (you are East):

  North
A x x x x x
10 x x
x x
Q J
 
    East
Q x x
J x
Q x x x x
x x x

Opponents reach 6 after South opens 2, rebids 2, and drives to slam (via RKC) after North raises. Partner leads the ace of clubs, dropping declarer’s king, and continues with a low club, dummy’s queen winning and declarer throwing a diamond. Then he leads a low heart from dummy. Plan the defense.

Solution to Hand 1:

Hand 1 – CC method: Play a low spade at trick 3 because it can’t possibly cost. You have one sure spade loser (the ace of spades and two heart winners will take care of three of your spades, but there’s no place to put the fourth) and RHO (East) can’t possibly do you any harm when he wins trick 4. Go from there. When you do, you’ll find yourself +110 via ace of clubs, king, jack of hearts gives you spade pitches; club to 10 with LHO showing out, back to dummy in spades or diamonds, and third round of clubs.

Hand 1 – DT method: The bidding and play suggest that RHO has 4 3 2 4 distribution (LHO bid hearts twice and didn’t try to give RHO a diamond ruff when he won his ace). So, because your club spots are weak, you’ll have to play ace and another club and then when RHO ducks, return to dummy to lead another club. If you win the ace of spades right away, however, the only re-entry to dummy is the diamond queen; but playing a second round of diamonds allows RHO to win the third round of clubs with his king, put LHO in with a spade (you still have one loser left in that suit) and get a third round diamond ruff. So, to counter this, execute a “scissors coup” by ducking the spade at trick 3. This is a bit complicated, but you don’t have to do all this DT if you make the much easier CC play.

The complete hand:

  North
A 10
K J 3 2
Q 8 6 4
A 3 2
 
West
Q x x
10 x x x x
A J x x
J
  East
K J x x
A x x
10 x
K 9 8 7
  South
9 7 5 3
Q
K x x
Q 10 6 5 4
 

Solution to Hand 2:

Hand 2 – CC method: Play the J. This can’t possibly cost regardless of what the trump position is. See what happens. You end up setting the hand.

Hand 2 – DT method: Somehow visualize the actual layout including partner having the 9 of trump. With this layout, declarer will go down if he believes the J false card. From his point of view, playing the second high trump runs the risk of a third round uppercut in spades at trick 10, after king of spades, ace, king of diamonds, diamond ruff, ace of spades to pitch the last diamond. This is a serious risk if RHO has a stiff jack and LHO has 9 x x of trump. Not playing the second high trump at trick 4 avoids the uppercut risk by preserving a trump re-entry to declarer, and only loses if someone has a singleton diamond. If you can figure out layouts like this, call me as soon as possible. I’d like the opportunity to play with you – anytime – anywhere.

In the real world of a National Knockout, my partner, Mel Colchamiro, didn’t try to visualize this exact layout, but he did make the CC play of the J, and declarer went down when I ruffed his A. Teammates made the slam easily at the other table by playing ace, king of trump and claiming after RHO played low from the jack, x, and we went on to win the match by two IMPs.

The complete hand:

  North
A x x x x x
10 x x
x x
Q J
 
West
J x x
9 x
x
A 10 x x x x x
  East
Q x x
J x
Q x x x x
x x x
  South
K
A K Q x x x
A K J x x
K
 

Conclusions:

1. We make more mistakes on “hard” hands than on “easy” hands.

2. One way to cut down mistakes on hard hands is to improve our DT. (Indeed, there are hands where DT is the only method that works.)

3. Another way is to convert “hard” hands to “easy” hands by using CC.

4. It’s all in your mind. The more hands you think are “easy,” the better you will play.