Hand of the Week, Vol. 3 No. 11

Here's a nice simple opening lead problem, from the Tuesday evening pairs game at the Midnight Sun Regional (22 June 2010). You hear 1NT on your right, 3NT on your left, and you are looking at:

S 9 8 4
H Q T 4 3
D T 9 3
C A T 6

Submit this hand to a panel of experts or beginners alike, and the verdict will be unanimous: a small heart. Not only is it "fourth best from your longest suit," there is also a presumption that, all else being equal, you should lead a major suit against a notrump auction rather than a minor.

Now, think about that same hand, and ask what you would lead if the bidding went 1NT-2C-2S-3NT. Opener told you he has a 4-card spade suit. Since responder asked about the majors but didn't raise spades, he must have a 4-card heart suit sitting behind you. On this auction, you can rule out the majors, and the safe DT is the standout lead.

Dealer North
None vul
S T 5 2
H 5 2
D K Q J 8 2
C 9 5 3
S K 6 3
H A J 7 6
D 7 5 4
C Q J 8
[table marker] S A Q J 7
H K 9 8
D A 6
C K 7 4 2
S 9 8 4
H Q T 4 3
D T 9 3
C A T 6

This was the full hand. Almost every East pair is going to open 1NT. Some Wests mechanically used Stayman because they had a 4-card major; other Wests remembered hearing a piece of advice to "never use Stayman with a 4-3-3-3 hand, just raise notrump." On a diamond lead, a good guesser in hearts can still come to nine tricks, but eight is more likely. On a heart lead, thanks to the 3-3 club break, you'll take at least eleven.

"Never use Stayman on 4-3-3-3 hands" is an illustration of a more general principle: Stayman gains only when it helps you find a major suit fit and that major fit plays a trick better than notrump does. But Stayman costs you something every time you use it: describing opener's distribution enables thinking opponents to defend more accurately, to the tune of about 1/4 of a trick per time it comes up. That's a fair price to pay on deals where you are very likely to gain a full trick from finding a fit, but a reason to think carefully about whether you want to play in a 4-4 major fit even if one exists. For advanced readers, Kit Woolsey's book Matchpoints covers reasons other than 4-3-3-3 shape for preferring notrump; for beginners, just remembering not to use Stayman with 4-3-3-3s is a good start.

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This page last updated 02.07.10
©2009 Gordon Bower