The hallmarks of good declarer play are technique and judgement. A competent declarer recognises problems before they occur and knows how to handle them. Recognition of the technique required on any hand, of the potential problems, yields success. Judgement tells you when to depart from the technically best line. Brilliance and flair are not required for competent declarer play, all that is required is a knowledge of standard techniques.
Experience is a valuable asset that is not only gained at the bridge table. It can be gained by tackling, solving, and mastering the problems presented in books, adding to your storehouse of experience.
There are two broad approaches to books on declarer play. Either a theme is developed in an orderly manner or hands are presented at random. The disadvantage of the former is that the reader knows what is expected of them, for instance in a chapter on simple squeezes the quiz questions will involve... simple squeezes. The advantage of the latter is that it more accurately reflects the randomness of actual play. However, you will only benefit from a random selection if your technique is already good enough to identify the problems on each hand.
Kambites and Klinger have written a series of books (Card Play Made Easy), each of which covers an area of declarer play. The format of the books is consistent. Each chapter contains a discussion of a basic theme based around example hands, followed by quiz to test your new knowledge and to increase your confidence. With the exception of the second volume each book is finished by a quiz covering the material presented in the preceedings chapters.
Although there is naturally some overlap between the books, they do not have to be read in order. Thus the reader can decide which area of their declarer play most needs improving and read the appropriate book.
Know Your Suit Combinations [KK97] shows how to handle common card combinations, covering the correct plays to either maximise your tricks or secure a certain number of tricks. This theoretical knowledge is often fundamental for success. However, clues from the bidding, the opening lead, and the approach taken by the defence must be taken into account when considering how to play a hand. The theoretically correct way to play a single suit in isolation might not be the best practical shot when considering the complete hand. Thus Kambites and Klinger also develop your judgement in when to deviate from the technically correct play.
The five chapters are: `Lucky breaks', `To catch a king', `The search for a queen', `When two key honours are missing' and `Precautionary Plays'.
Much of the material in this book is theoretical, consequently it is least `exciting' of the titles in this series.
Beginners are taught to draw trumps as soon as possible, least defenders make undeserved tricks by trumping their winners. Yet there are many hands where drawing trumps and playing your winners leaves you with not enough winners! The presence of a trump suit presents declarer with more options than play in no-trumps, more opportunities to overcome adversity and more opportunities to snatch defeat.
Trump Management [KK98] gives you an understanding of when to draw trumps and when not to. The topics include the creation of winners and the elimination of losers, the detection and subsequent of thrawting of defenders' plans and how to choose the best line when you have a number of options.
The chapters are: `Winners and losers', `Making your trumps separately', `A matter of choiuce', `Out of harm's way', `It's under control', `The care and handling of losers', `Extensions and reductions', `Unnatural and devilish acts', and `The final quiz: 40 problems'.
The great chess player Bobby Fisher once gave the following advice. "You've found a good move, great! Before playing it look for a few more minutes to see if there is a better one". Fisher's advice applies equally well to bridge. If a contract appears straightforward, re-examine the basic questions: `How many winners do I have?', `How many losers do I have', and `What could go wrong?' By clearing thinking through the development of the hand before you play to trick one you may notice unforseen dangers and consequently be able to plan accordingly.
In bridge `timing' refers to maximising your chances by playing the suits in the best order, `communication' means being in the right hand at the right time by correctly using your entries. Timing and Communications [KK99] expands upon the theme `of what could go wrong'. Is a key suit blocked? Should trumps be tackled first or is there a more pressing task? Do you have enough entries or do you need to create them? How can you destroy the defenders entries? If there is more than one possible line of play, which presents the beter chance?
The chapters are: `Winners, losers and entries', `Cherishing your entries', `Entry magic', `Sabotaging defenders' entries', `Following the right order', `Practical squeeze play', and `The Final Quiz, 60 problems'.
Declarer is often faced with the problem of deciding which hand has a specific card. In Card-Placing for You [Kam95] Kambities shows how to process clues from both the bidding and the cards played to obtain the distribution of the suits and the location of missing honour cards. What might appear to be a complete guess is shown not to be black magic but merely the appliance of science.
There are seven chapters covering the various situations which arise in card-placing: `Percentages in Bridge', `Simple Counting', `Making Necessary Assumptions', `They Can be Made to Talk', `Interpreting the Play', `Leads, Signals and Discards', and `Squeeze or Finesse?'. Each of these contains a discussion of the basic themes based around example hands, followed by a short quiz. The final chapter is a 40-hand quiz covering the material presented in the earlier chapters.
Improve Your Game [Lam99] contains 50 hands: 10 elementary, 30 advanced, which become progressively harder, and the final 10 which are described as being "entertaining, sometimes far-fetched". The hands arise from rubber bridge, teams, and matchpoints.
The format of the book is to have one hand per page with the solution on the next (unseen) page. Some of the solutions require further analysis which is presented in an appendix. All the problems have hints, which are upside down on the same page as the problem. Puzzles 1-40 are concluded by a tip.
The key to success on a number of hands requires careful scrutiny of the pips played by the defenders in a key suit. Do you take their cards at face-value or do you suspect that they are false-carding? In either case how should you proceed? How useful you'll find these hands will depend upon how good your usual opponents are! Discounting the frivolous final ten hands, and even the false-carding hands, this collection still represents value for money at 4.99.
Bridge: Case for the Defence [Mol85] consists of three parts, each containing 50 quiz hands. The first part introduces common themes in defence. The last two parts can be read in any order, Mollo predicts that whatever the order you will score most on the one you do last. By carefully going through each hand the standard of your defence can't help but improve.
The material covered in the quizzes starts with the opening lead and then goes through common defensive techniques. The key to success is identification. On some hands you must identify the cards required from partner to defeat the contract and play accordingly. On others you need to identify declarer's strategy and block it. Will this book improve your defence? To benefit from it you require the experience to identify the clues available from the bidding and play. This book is not appropriate for the less experienced player who would benefit from a more descriptive approach.
You will find it advantageous to revisit the quizzes every-so-often to see if you have maintained your new level of defensive awareness. However, by it's nature it is not a book that you can dip into at regular intervals to refreshen your knowledge of defensive play.
Did my score increase on the second test? Yes it did.