by Stephen Rzewski
Originally posted in Stephen's blog
This play problem came up at a club game. Suppose you find yourself in a heart slam, with a possible auction shown above. South’s 5♥ call was intended to show a very strong trump suit, and North, figuring that declarer could not lose more than one minor-suit trick, hoped that his spades were good enough to solidify his partner’s second suit.
The lead is a small club. How would you plan the play (trumps are 3-1)?
If you draw trumps and drive out the ♦A, the contract would seem to depend on finessing against the queen of spades, as you will always get two discards from dummy’s ♣A and extra diamond honor for your two small spades. There is also a possible squeeze – which does not exist on the actual layout – if LHO had started with length in both diamonds and spades.
However, there is a significant extra chance if you are careful: DON’T play dummy’s ♣A at trick #1. Instead, play a low club and ruff in your hand (as an aside, it would be good technique to ruff with the 7, just in case the trumps are 2-2, in which case that lowly deuce might provide you with a needed entry to the dummy at some later point). Now draw three rounds of trumps and lead a LOW diamond from hand – not the jack. If LHO has the ♦A, he will have a choice of ways to let you win: if he plays the ace, you will be able to score two diamond discards, thus enabling you to throw away all three of your low spades and avoid the spade finesse altogether. And if he ducks the ace, you will win the trick with one of dummy’s honors, then discard your diamond loser on the ♣A. Now you will only need to play the spade suit in a way to avoid the loss of two tricks there, which is a very high-percentage proposition.
With this combination:
K J 2
A 9 8 7 6
the standard safety play if you can afford the loss of one trick is to start with the king, then lead low from the opposite hand up to the J-x; however, that can not be done unless there are sufficient entries to both hands, a luxury you do not have on the actual hand. In this particular case, your best play is to lead low to the jack to start. You will probably go down when this loses to a singleton queen, but you will make the hand whenever the spades are 3-2, or all other 4-1 splits, such as when either opponent starts with Q10xx. If that hand should be RHO, LHO will show out on the second spade play to dummy’s king, and you will be able to lead from the dummy and take the marked finesse through RHO’s 10-x.
The play of the low diamond from J-x toward dummy is called a “Morton’s Fork” coup. The name is derived from Cardinal Morton, Chancellor under King Henry VII of England, who raised money for the king’s coffers by taxing the merchants. If those merchants lived an ostentatiously lavish lifestyle, Morton felt that he could tax them with a heavy hand, since they obviously could afford to pay. And if others of the time lived an outwardly frugal lifestyle, he figured they must be saving and amassing wealth, and so concluded that they could equally afford to pay. So however you lived, you were doomed to be impaled on “Morton’s Fork.”
The play of the same name in bridge is used to describe the lead through a defender’s honor – in this case, the ace of diamonds – whereby the defender loses whether he wins or ducks the trick, essentially a “damned if you do / damned if you don’t” choice. Notice that it is essential to resist the impulse to play dummy’s ace of clubs at the first trick. If you play the ace early, you will be forced to take an immediate discard of a diamond or a spade. Leaving the ace in dummy affords you the flexibility of deciding how best to use that discard later in the hand, depending on the ensuing play.
There is one further point worth mentioning: if there had been additional entries to dummy, you could execute the Morton’s Fork against either opponent. In fact, since the placement of the ace of diamonds is a guess, you might be inclined to play RHO for that card, on the basis that many players in the opposite hand, when on opening lead against a slam, will tend to lead an ace if they have one. To illustrate the point, let’s place the queen of trumps in the dummy in exchange for one of the spots, and have the trumps divide 2-2, so that the ♥2 also allows an additional entry to dummy. If you as declarer decided to play RHO for the ♦A, you would ruff the club with the 7, play the ace and queen of trumps (saving that deuce), ending in the dummy, and play a low diamond toward the closed hand. RHO, if holding the ace of diamonds, would face the same dilemma as the one described earlier. If he were to duck and the jack held the trick, you could lead a spade to the king, discard your low diamond on the ♣A, ruff a minor-suit card to get to your hand, and lead up to the jack of spades. If LHO showed out, the jack would force the queen, and you would still have a trump entry to dummy to take the remaining spade play through the 10. On the actual hand, you would have gone wrong, as the ♦J would lose to the ace, and you would have to fall back on the spade finesse, resulting in down one.
Sometimes it’s better not to have an option.