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Aces Were Meant to Take Kings (10/10/03)


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One of the oldest sayings in bridge is that "aces were meant to take kings", referring to the useful idea of not wasting aces. However, there are often times where aces cannot take kings, like when the king is behind you and your ace is being led through.
In many books, defenders are often described as "hopping up with the ace" to do something, when they play the ace as declarer leads towards a king in dummy. This is actually a fairly good description. Often times, defenders in a trump contract are so worried that declarer's card may be a singleton, they play their ace quickly and without thought. Now, I can understand if you play low quickly because you don't want to give away any information, but if you're going to play the ace anyway, shouldn't you pause to consider the consequences?
Here are two hands from the World Youth Team Championships in Paris where the defender "hopped up" with an ace too quickly, only to find that such a move had already killed the defence.
On this first hand, I was at fault. I chose to pass the South hand as I'm an advocate of relatively sounder initial actions and I do not open flat 12HCP hands where my longest suit has the least points. My opponents were playing Polish club, and so the auction continued 1C by West, pass by North, 1H by East, 1S overcall by me, support double by West, and a final jump to 4H from East ending the auction.
Board 3
EW Vul
Dealer S
S  T32
H  973
D  QT53
C  Q42

S  A6
H  KJ5
D  986
C  KT765

S  KQ8
H  AT642
D  KJ2
C  83

S  J9754
H  Q8
D  A74
C  AJ9

I led the S4 playing 3rd and 5th leads, and declarer won my partner's ST with the SK. He then led a small club towards the table and I erred by "hopping the ace". After I won the trick, I could see that the only hope for defeating the contract was to score my two aces, a heart finessed into my queen, and another diamond trick before it goes away on the club suit. Therefore, I switched to the ace and another diamond, but to no avail.
Now, let's go back to the point where I had the CA in my hand. If I had stopped to count out everything, I would have realized that declarer had the SK and SQ, and most likely the HA. I am looking at two aces and the HQ which declarer will probably misguess since I did not open the bidding. Now, if declarer had the singleton club that I feared, he must have at least the king and jack of diamonds to make up his jump to game (although in junior bridge you can never be sure about these things). So the best chance to defeat the contract must be to hold up the CA. Although we'll never know, it is highly likely that declarer will misguess everything and go down because I didn't open the bidding with my 12HCP.
On this second hand, it was my partner who played his ace too quickly. The auction was fairly straightfoward after East passed as dealer. I bid a weak 2S as South and this was followed by 3H, pass, 4H ending the auction.
Board 6
EW Vul
Dealer E
S  7
H  J6
D  AJT763
C  Q763

H  AK432
D  54
C  K9

S  A2
H  T975
D  KQ2
C  JT82

S  K86543
H  Q8
D  96
C  A54

My partner led his singleton S7 which declarer won with the SA. Declarer then drew two rounds of trumps and led a low diamond from his hand. My partner played his DA, and as he had no spade to return, declarer can now discard a club on the diamond winners and not have to guess clubs.

This hand is much harder than the first one, because to realize the importance of ducking, my partner had to notice that declarer was trapped in dummy and had to guess clubs immediately (or allow me to win a spade and put him to the club guess). This was only because declarer had all the lower trump spots. Also, it is easy to fall into the trap of worrying that declarer has a singleton diamond, but in most of those cases the contract cannot be defeated anyway.

There is an issue that needs to be addressed, however, regarding thinking out the position instead of "hopping up" with an ace in front of dummy. Take the first hand for example. Even after I duck the CA, my partner still has to play the CQ if declarer follows by playing another club from the dummy. This is by itself not an easy play. Therefore, there is a problem of unauthorized information if I took some time to think before ducking the CA.

Now, tempo problems in defense are always tough because the defenders are usually the ones who really need to take extra time to work things out. My question is, how obvious must the suggested play (in this example the play of the CQ on the second round) be before we consider the possibility of using unauthorized information? This is an important consideration in applying my tip about thinking before "hopping up" with an ace.

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