It is never easy to answer the question, "Which is more important in bridge, the bidding or the play?" any more than it is to answer, "Is so-and-so a good player?" The answer to the latter is another question: "Compared to whom?"—which I have also heard offered in reply to "How's your wife?"
In top-class bridge circles the difference between one player and another of almost equal ability is the way he plays his cards. But in most cases playing a little better than the other fellow doesn't really make much difference in the result for the reason that the superlative play is so seldom required. Another way may work just as well.
It therefore gives me rare pleasure to report this case in which my friend Lee Hazen, sitting South, caused his partner, Sam Stayman, to remind him that it was growing late, only to apologize later, because this turned out to be the one hand in a thousand that needed superlative treatment.
After the opening lead, Hazen surveyed his partner's hand with some satisfaction; at least he and Stayman had stayed out of a losing slam. Unless one of the defenders held three trumps and four diamonds, giving declarer a chance to get rid of both of dummy's heart losers after drawing two rounds of trumps and running four good diamonds, South would surely have to lose a heart and a spade trick. But being the exceptionally fine player that he is, Hazen also considered whether there was any possibility that he could lose his five-club contract. It looked ironclad. In fact, he was tempted to draw the trumps and lead his singleton up to the spades in dummy, hoping that West might hold out the ace and let declarer steal a spade trick. Or possibly he could try for that combination previously outlined, cashing only two rounds of trumps before leading out diamonds. Instead, Hazen took the gloomy view: What if the diamond suit were divided 5 to 1 against him?
Suppose he drew the trumps and led up to the spade. West could climb up with the ace and lead a second heart. Thereafter, with no reentry to dummy, Hazen could never get there to cash the king of spades and, eventually, because of the horrendous break in diamonds, he'd lose a diamond trick as well. So Hazen came up with the play that would give him an extra chance to make his contract even if the diamonds were stacked against him. He took the heart ace, came to his hand with a trump and, without drawing another round, led a spade toward North's king. West was hooked. If he ducked the trick, dummy's king would win and Hazen would have no spade loser. Then if he did have to lose a diamond trick it would not be fatal. But when West jumped in with the spade ace and returned his singleton diamond the defense was no better off. Hazen won the trick, drew trumps in two more leads, ending in dummy, and discarded a heart on the king of spades. Now if the diamond suit broke he would actually have made an overtrick.
West, of course, could have led a heart instead of the diamond and cashed a trick in that suit, but that would have been his side's last trick. As soon as Hazen got in, he would draw trumps, ending in dummy, and this time he would discard his 2 of diamonds on the king of spades to make his 11 tricks.