We all know how important it is to stop and think when defending a hand. There’s just one problem with that advice: sometimes it’s equally important not to stop and think. Every hesitation gives something away — and although it often doesn’t cost you anything, it can prove fatal. I regularly find myself having to decide in a heartbeat — before I’ve managed to work out what’s going on — whether I can afford to pause and consider my actions, or whether to duck smoothly and hope for the best.
Declarers who draw inferences from our hesitations are acting perfectly legitimately; it’s all part of the game. You may not be aware, though, of the extent to which some experts do it. They don’t just take note of our obvious dilemmas during the play; they are on full alert for every pause and fumble from the very moment we pick up our cards. The late John Collings was an absolute master of ‘reading’ his opponents. Take his analysis of this hand:
West led the ♠J. Collings won in dummy and led a diamond to the ♦K and ♦A. West continued spades. Collings won, cashed his three clubs and his third spade, then the ♥K and ♥A. On these, West played the ♥9 and ♥J. Collings then cashed the ♦J and ♦Q, East discarding the 13th spade. Collings was now in dummy, with ♦7 ♥7 opposite ♥Q8. Would he go with the principle of restricted choice, and finesse? No: he confidently played for the drop. Why? Because, he later explained, West had paused before his opening lead. If he had held ♠J109 and ♥J9 he would have led the ♠J like a shot; the reason he hesitated must be that he held J109 in two suits, and had to decide which to lead!