Thursday, July 10, 2008

Opening Leads Against Suit Contracts (Part 3)

In suit contracts I mark one change from the standard leads shown on the convention card.. If I have a suit headed by the AK, KQ, or QJ, I lead the Ace or Queen if I want partner to signal me with attitude (high card asks for a continuation and low card asks for a shift) and I lead the King when I want partner to give me his card count in the suit led (high-low for an even number and low high for an odd number). The short hand name for this is “Ace is for Attitude and King is for Kount.” Get it? Did I just invent this. No, it is recommended in a short monograph by two leading bridge experts. The book is Defensive Signaling (Masterpoint Press 2000) by bridge experts David Bird and Marc Smith. This book is out of print and not available from the publisher, but a few copies are available used at Amazon at $7.60.

Selecting an opening lead at a suit contract is much more complicated than leading against a no trump contract. When opponents reach a suit contract unmolested it is necessary to base your lead on the type of defense you decide to employ. Since we have not bid, we need to listen to the opponents’ bidding to gain insight. We listen to what they bid, the sequence in which they bid it and take what inferences we can from their failure to make certain bids. Propped up by the bidding and a view of our 13 cards we select from one of 5 primary lines of defense.

There is an excellent discussion of the 5 Primary Lines of Defense in How the Experts Win at Bridge (1996) by Burt Hall and Lynn-Rose Hall. This is an excellent read for Intermediates. Here’s an overview of their listing:

Force Declarer to Lose Control of the Hand (“Pumping Declarer”)
Go Active When Tricks Can Disappear
Remain Passive When Your Tricks are Safe
Cut Down Declarer’s Ruffing Power
Creating Trump Tricks (Upper Cuts and Trump Promotion Plays)

Since we are going to discuss leading trump and trump tricks separately, we will concern ourselves here with the first 3 defenses.

1. Forcing Declarer. This is an awesome defense. You may not recognize it by name, but I’m sure you know how it feels. It ain’t fun to lose control of your trump suit and not be able to draw trump to cash side suit winners. Worse yet, sometimes opponents actually draw your trumps and cash all their side suit winners. How does opening leader know to start a forcing defense. You sense that partner has long trumps since you are short in trumps and they sound like they are on a 7 or 8 card fit. It can also be reversed, you can have long trump, it works both ways. Finally, if you hear declarer bid two suits he probably has shortness somewhere in his hand and may be vulnerable.

How do you force declarer? You lead your longest and strongest suit and keep leading them at every opportunity. If partner has bid a suit, you can lead that suit rather than your own. The object is to make declarer trump your long suit winners in his hand and cut down on his trumps. Note that forcing declarer to trump tricks in the dummy only works if dummy has the long trump. This most often occurs where there has been a transfer after a no trump opeing bid. Ideally you sense a situation where dummy has 3 small cards and declarer only one or two cards in your suit. If the trump suit are divided 1-3-4-5 (WNES), declarer only has to be forced to trump only once to get him down to our size, and if you can force him again, he loses control. This is also an explanation why it is bad to lead trump when you either have trump length or a trump singleton. You are usually helping declarer maintain control of the hand. You don’t always know on the opening lead that a forcing defense is going to work, but usually there is little to lose by starting out with that in mind. If it sounds like a forcing defense will work, it pays to make aggressive leads to get it started, even leading away from tenaces may be worth the risk.

2. Going Active. Make aggressive leads so you can get your tricks before they go away. It is particularly important in matchpoints to get your tricks so that declarer doesn’t get an overtrick. Sometimes you only get one chance to “cash.” So what does it sound like when your tricks are about to disappear? How about this auction 1h/2c/2h/4h. The trump suit sounds solid and responder didn’t make a 2/1 club suit bid on thin air. To me this sounds like declare may be ready to draw trump and play clubs to pitch losers from his hand. It is worth a risky lead to get a trick if you have one or can quickly promote one. Aside from laying down your tricks or leading honor sequences, it is worth the risk of under leading a suit of Kxx or QJx or even Qxx (as I did recently). Another time to get active is where opponents bid two suits and you can see from your hand that a key honor in the side suit is "on side" or that the side suit is going to break favorably for declarer. Another “go active" sign is when opponents make a slam try and then back off. It usually means they are close to slam and loaded and you should thing about grabbing your tricks or starting to set up a quick trick in some suit.

3. Remaining Passive. Make safe leads when your tricks are safe and will not go away. The best indicator of staying passive is when you do not find a reason to go active. You don’t want to be snatching winners, breaking suits for declarer or otherwise solving his problems for him if there is no urgency. Often there are two lines for declarer to attack a suit or contract, and you want to make him guess. With less experienced players, when they have to solve the problem for themselves, they often get nervous and make a needless mistake. Indicators of a passive approach are (i) no evidence of a side suit strength, (ii) dummy very weak and declarer very strong (2NT/3NT), (iii) a misfit hand or (iv) defending 6NT or a Grand Slam. Good passive leads are partner’s suit if he has bid one, honor sequences, top of nothing in a long suit or as a last resort, lead through dummy’s strength and not up to declarer.

You don’t have to worry too much about finessing partner since his high cards are likely to be finessed anyway. What you want to avoid if you can is under leading an unsupported honor and finessing yourself. If you have to underlead an honor, prefer a King to a Queen. Partner needs to have only one of two cards to promote a 2nd round trick for you.

Leading doubletons is probably the most abused lead by novices. Don’t do it unless you have reason to believe that it is going to be effective to produce a trump trick that you will not get naturally. Unless partner has bid a suit or otherwise indicated power in a suit, the likelihood of you getting a quick ruff from a doubleton lead is remote and the damage you can do is irreparable. One of the usual by-products is that you give declarer a “tempo”, since it is not an attacking lead. He will be grateful that you gave him time to get his house in order! Leads from doubleton honors are even more ridiculous. You would have a better chance with the lottery. A positive indicator to lead from a doubleton is where you have the top honor in trump so that you will get in again to lead the suit a second time before all your trump are pulled.

Are you left in doubt? Well, leading trump is coming up next.

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