Ted's Bridge World Dante's Infernal

The Merrimac Needed a Monitor

Last week we explored a rare and unusual play that got away from a good declarer at the table.  Board #2 from the recent Tuesday night duplicate offered an equally exciting opportunity that was — at least in retrospect — easy to find:

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Contract: 3NT
Opening Lead: 10


Had west led a heart, or had North-South bid to the unbeatable 6 (yes), then this story might have gone unnoticed.  West, however, opted to try his long suit.  Winning the opening lead with the queen, declarer finessed the queen of clubs.  East took his king, and... returned a diamond, thereby forgoing his opportunity for brilliance.

As defined in the Encyclopedia of Bridge, a Merrimac Coup is the deliberate sacrifice of a high card with the object of knocking out a vital entry in an opponent's hand (usually, the dummy).  Today's setup offered several defenders a chance to execute this beautiful play, by returning the K!

That defensive maneuver would have killed dummy's long suit, holding declarer to just one club trick instead of six.  Should declarer grab the heart ace, then she still would come to ten tricks in the form of five spades, two hearts, two diamonds, and one club.  With the actual diamond return she had no trouble collecting the remainder with three tricks to spare, for a total of twelve and a matchpoint top.

The irony of this situation is that the Merrimac Coup, albeit special and somewhat mysterious, was nevertheless a no-lose play in this situation.  As long as the potential loss of a heart trick saves at least two tricks in return, then the gambit is productive.  Had declarer held, say, Qxx, then she could have preserved dummy's club tricks by allowing east to win the heart lead, then taking the next lead in hand.  But even at that, the defender would have collected a "free" trick with the heart king.

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A note for purists:  The Merrimac Coup was named after an American coal-carrying ship, sunk intentionally in Santiago Harbor in 1898 in an attempt to bottle up the Spanish fleet.  The bridge play often is misspelled as Merrimack out of confusion with the Civil War ironclad, which fought its famous battles with the Monitor.

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