Kibitzing a touch-and-go bridge hand can be like watching a duel. In bridge, however, the lunges, parries, feints and delicate maneuvers for position are in slow motion—which should make them easier to follow and understand. Yet, unless the kibitzer watches with an educated eye, he may go away shaking his head over the miracles performed by the experts.
He shouldn't be that impressed. Often, as in the hand below, victory is simply a matter of counting tricks and points. You do that every time you bid a hand.
First let me describe the play without any explanations. East put the heart 10 on the first trick, and South let him keep the lead. East shifted to the spade queen and won the trick when the others played the 3, 2 and 4. East continued with the jack of spades, and dummy won with the ace. returning a low heart. East climbed up with the ace of hearts and led the 5 of clubs. Declarer let this run to the board's 10, but West won with the club jack and got out with a spade.
The defenders had won four tricks; declarer could take his king of hearts and four diamond tricks, but the club finesse had to succeed if he were to win a ninth trick. West's king of clubs won the setting trick.
Why did South play as he did? How did East know he should abandon his best suits and shift to his singleton club? Let's take it in slow motion.
To begin, South knew he could count on eight tricks, including the king of hearts. With a club finesse, he could make nine. But his problem was to make sure he could make nine, even if the clubs fell badly. Thus, when East played the 10 of hearts in hopes he could force South's king, South ducked. This insured that if East continued the suit and knocked out declarer's king, West would not be able to lead hearts if he won a later trick. East, undismayed, shifted to spades, probing for a weak spot. His partner's deuce was discouraging. Obviously, South held the king, but East hoped West might hold four spades, and he continued that suit.
When the second heart lead put East in with the ace it was time for him to do some figuring. South's no-trump overcall showed the same as an opening no-trump bid—16 to 18 points. His high cards in three suits were known because if he did not hold the ace of diamonds he would have led that suit at once. So East counted 10 points and knew that South must hold at least six in clubs. It was unlikely these were king-queen-jack or South would have tried to knock out the ace immediately. If he had ace-king, he had nine tricks regardless. So it was right to assume that he had the ace-queen—but not the jack, else he would have taken a club finesse. This is the way East figured the hand—and set the contract.
What would have happened had East not shifted to clubs? Assume that he continued spades. South would win, cash his king of hearts and run four tricks in diamonds. Then he would lead the 10 of clubs from dummy and let West win the trick. With nothing left but clubs, West would have had to yield the last two tricks to South's ace and queen.
Even the most erratic players usually stick to the required points when they bid no trump. When declarer has opened or overcalled in no trump, at some point in the play you will be able to call his exact hand simply by counting up the value of what he has already played.