The Thinnest of Small Slams

Playing in a regional teams game, unfavorable vulnerability, I’m the dealer and pick up:
♠ 9
AQ954
43
♣ AQ976

I open 1H, and LHO overcalls 1S. Partner bids 2S, showing a limit raise or better in hearts, and RHO passes. I’ve got good distribution: I have shortness in LHO’s suit, and my points are all in my long suits. So, I figure I can bid 3C and still sign off in 3H if my partner has a minimum.

Undeterred by his partner’s pass, LHO tries 3D. His hand must be as shapely as mine! My partner bids 3S over that. He must have game-going points (since the lowest we can sign off is now 4H), and some kind of interest in slam (since he didn’t jump straight to 4H). I’ve got great shape, but don’t have any extra strength that would be necessary for slam.

RHO pipes up with a 4D bid; the opponents have found their fit. Now I definitely don’t have interest in slam, so I try to sign off in 4H. LHO competes to 5D, presumably a sacrifice, and my partner starts to think. At IMPs scoring, we really don’t want to settle for doubling 5D and setting them a trick or two. but if we take the contract and go down, that’s even worse. It looks like the opponents have enough strength that outbidding them won’t be easy, and a big enough fit that 5D might even make. What to do?

Partner eventually jumps to 6H(!), and everyone passes. LHO leads the 5 of diamonds, and I get to see dummy:
♠ A652
KJ82
6
♣ K1084

Wow, two different 9-card fits! I play dummy’s singleton, and RHO takes the trick with the King (implying that RHO also has the Ace, but LHO has the Queen). RHO switches to a spade, but I have the rest. I take the Ace and play a heart to my hand, preparing for a 4-0 trump split (I’d ruff a diamond, play 2 more trump from dummy, ruff a spade, pull the last trump, and then work on clubs). Trump actually split 3-1, so I finish pulling trump before ruffing the diamond.

There is a small detail to playing the club suit. We have a 9 card fit missing the Jack, which means there is a 100% line of play. The trick is to cash the top card in the hand with 2 face cards, preserving a 2-way finesse in case the suit splits 4-0. So, I start clubs by playing the Ace. It turns out this was important: LHO started with a void! I cross to the King on the second club trick and lead back towards the Queen-Nine, taking the rest of the tricks. Here’s the whole deal:

♠ A652
KJ82
6
♣ K1084
♠ Q108743
3
QJ9875
♣ –
♠ KJ
1076
AK102
♣ J532
♠ 9
AQ954
43
♣ AQ976

Partner did very well to bid the slam. Even though we only have a combined 23 HCP (normally you want at least 25 for game and 32ish for slam), he could see we had a 9-card heart fit and at least an 8-card club fit, and his strength in these suits is well-placed. If I had bid clubs with a 4-card suit after the opponents have intervened, I should have some extra strength (at least 15 HCP), since I’m not just signing off in 3H (and thus am interested in game). If I only have 4 clubs, we’re likely to take 1.2 spades, 5 hearts, lose a diamond on the lead but get 1.5 diamond ruffs, and 3.8 clubs. These will shift around depending on my strength and distribution, but the slam looks plausible, especially since I already have a good idea of how each suit is going to break. and at IMPs, you want to bid thin slams.

Partner would also consider the case where I don’t have extra strength, but make up for it with extra shape, as in the actual deal. Now, we’ve got a double 9-card fit, and are likely to take 1 spade, 5 hearts, and 5 clubs, while losing the diamond lead. I should have 3 cards in spades and diamonds combined: if at least 2 of them are diamonds, they can be ruffed to make the contract, but if at least 2 are spades, we’ll be down 1 unless they’re the King-small or the Queen-Jack (at which point LHO is marked with the King and I have a Chinese finesse). but again, at IMPs you should bid slams even if they only have a 50% chance of making.

My RHO did poorly on this hand. After winning the diamond lead, he knows from the bidding that I have at least 4 clubs, he has 4, dummy has 4, and thus his partner has at most 1. LHO has bid several times, and it’s not based on strength because I have at least 12 HCP, dummy has 11, and he (RHO) has 12, so LHO can have at most 5 HCP. Thus, LHO must have really unusual distribution. Furthermore, LHO has shown a hand with spades and diamonds, so even if I only have an 8-card club fit and a club return can’t be ruffed, I’m going to play the suit to protect against a 1-4 split with RHO having the long clubs (i.e., leading away from the Jack isn’t going to give up a trick). Consequently, it doesn’t actually cost RHO to return a club, and on this deal it would be the setting trick when LHO ruffs.

It is difficult for my partner to see the potential club ruff and avoid it during the bidding. Distribution like 6=1=6=0 is very rare, and if clubs split 3-1 or better, the slam is cold. LHO is likely to be 5-5 or maybe 6-5 in his bid suits, but even if you decide he is 6-6, the slam is good if he has a singleton club.

At the other table, north bid 5H over west’s 5D, and east doubled, reasoning that the opponents didn’t even have game-going values and surely couldn’t make 11 tricks. The play went similarly, and our teammates were crestfallen to give up an overtrick, scoring –1050. Our slam scored +1430, though, and we picked up 9 IMPs on the board. If my RHO had found the club switch, we would have been –100 and lost 15 IMPs.

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