Sacrifices not just a stab in the dark, or The dark art of sacrificing

Bidding in the expectation of going down to prevent the opponents making a contract is, to many, a dark art, shrouded in mystery. What would you do with the following hand, after your left hand opponent opens 1H, partner doubles, and right hand opponent raises to 4H?

Q98764
9
J432
♣ 53

A crude guide for competitive bidding is to bid to the level of your fit. For example, with eight trumps (and insufficient values for game) you ought to be happy to play at the two level, while it is usually wrong to allow the opponents to play at the two level in their fit. There are, however, many other factors involved in deciding whether to allow the opponents to make a contract or whether it will be better to sacrifice.

There are strategic levels to aim for in the bidding. Just as it is appealing to “play at the two level, defend at the three level”, so too do you aim (when both sides have a major fit) to “play at the four level, defend at the five level”.

Of course vulnerability plays a big part too. At favourable vulnerability (not vulnerable against vulnerable opponents), you can afford to go three down, doubled, and still show a profit against their game contract. By contrast, the adverse vulnerability sacrifice is a rare bird indeed – you can only afford to go one down doubled and vulnerable if you are still to show a profit against their game.

Another factor to consider is the location of your honours. Strength in partner’s suit makes a sacrifice more appealing. Honours in the enemy suit or suits suggest defending. Consider this hand:

WEST NORTH EAST(YOU) 
3H   4S    ?

 A43
 KQT
 A9
 87543

Bid 5H. The K-Q of hearts solidify partner’s suit and the outside aces are winners too. Against a spade contract your K-Q of hearts would be trumped; your hand would take only the two aces.

However, if the major suit holdings were swapped (so you have the K-Q-10 of spades and the A-4-3 of hearts), then you should double because the K-Q-10 in the enemy suit are likely winners if they play the hand.

One other point is that unbalanced hands make a sacrifice more appealing.

Dealer South, nil vul.

          NORTH
          
 2
          
 QJT83
          
 K87
          
 T874
WEST                EAST
 AJT3               Q98764
 76                 9
 AT5                J432
 K962               53
          SOUTH
          
 K5
          
 AK542
          
 Q96
          
 AQJ

WEST  NORTH EAST SOUTH
                 1H
Dble  4H    4S   Dble
All pass

East’s hand improves after West’s takeout double suggests spade support while the opponents are marked with a big fit in hearts, East’s singleton. The 6-4 shape and possession of the boss suit, spades, seduces East into bidding to cut the opponents out of their 4-level game. 

With all round strength, South doubles, although without enthusiasm. 

Hearts are led. East ruffs the second round, then leads the SQ. Looking at dummy, South sees there is no point in covering. East should run the queen anyway and might throw the SJ underneath as an unblock. It would not hurt to finesse to the CK now, while the lead is in hand.

The key play is in diamonds. If East leads the DJ, South must cover, thereby promoting the D9 so the contract goes one light.

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