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Holdup Play Backfires

  by Richard Pavlicek

Today’s deal occurred in a local team-of-four competition. The same contract was reached at both tables after an identical auction: South opened one diamond (customary practice with both minor suits) and North showed his four-card major; South rebid one notrump to show a minimum balanced hand and North carried on to game.

3 NT South
Both Vul
S 10 4
H A 7 6 2
D A 9 4
C K J 6 3


1 H
3 NT

1 D
1 NT
S K J 9 2
H K 9 3
D 6 5 3
C 10 9 4
TableS Q 7 6 3
H Q J 10 8
D K 8 2
C 7 5

Lead: S 2
S A 8 5
H 5 4
D Q J 10 7
C A Q 8 2

Both West players led a spade, but the play followed different paths.

At table one declarer allowed East to win the opening lead with the spade queen. This tactic, known as the “holdup play,” is usually sound technique. Its purpose is to break up the enemy communication so, if a trick is lost, the opponent to gain the lead may be exhausted of the dangerous suit. Unfortunately, it backfired miserably on this deal.

East was abreast of the situation and did not routinely return a spade; instead he shifted to the heart queen, attacking on another front. This left declarer without recourse, as East was bound to win three heart tricks in addition to his diamond king and spade queen — down one.

At table two declarer was wiser. He recognized that West’s lead of the spade two was probably from a four-card suit because the standard practice is to lead one’s fourth best card (hence, the two would not be led from a five-card suit).

In that event the contract was safe by winning the first spade lead. Even if the diamond finesse lost, the enemy could win only one diamond and three spade tricks. And so the play went.

Before losing one’s faith in the holdup play, let’s look for a principle here. The crux of this deal is that declarer is weak in two suits (spades and hearts), in which case it is usually correct to win the first suit led. This eliminates any chance of a whipsaw attack.

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© 1985 Richard Pavlicek