LESSON 4: Introduction to Defender's Play

There is no question that defense is the most difficult aspect of playing bridge. Many players become adequate bidders by simply memorizing the point count for various bids; others find that playing a dummy becomes easy with practice. But defense is a matter of logic and thus separates the men from the boys and the women from the girls.

If you are a strong defender it is almost impossible to be a losing player. At least half of your opponents' contracts can be defeated with a good defense, but the sad truth is that about eighty percent of contracts are fulfilled. Why?

Because most players have not been well drilled in the fundamentals of defensive play. You should know the suit and the card in that suit to lead that will give partner the maximum amount of information, when to signal, when to play an attacking defense (taking your tricks as quickly as possible) as opposed to a passive defense (sitting back and waiting for your tricks) and be able to decide what the declarer is trying to do based on his manner of play. This is the blocking and tackling of bridge. You cannot be a good bridge player unless you can do these things with reasonable skill.

The Opening Lead Against Notrump

In order to be a good defender you must have some objectives in mind. What are they?

Go back and ask yourself how you play as declarer. You try to establish your tricks before the defense can establish theirs. You are fortunate in that you can see the dummy and can usually tell which suit to establish. But even so you are almost always involved in a race.

The defenders, on the other hand, cannot see each other's cards and often will waste time trying to establish the wrong suit. However, the defenders have one great advantage that overshadows all—they have the opening lead.

In other words, in the great "establishing race" the defenders always get off to a head start; and if you consistently make the correct opening lead, you will go down in history as one of the world's greatest players, even though your bidding and other defense may be just average.

Why is it so hard to make the best opening lead? Opening leads are based on the bidding and your hand. Sometimes the bidding makes it clear which suit to lead, other times you will have a clear-cut lead in your own hand, but much of the time you will be forced to make an intelligent guess because the bidding will not have given much away. Consider these two bidding sequences by your opponents:

1 NTPass3 NTPass

as opposed to:

1 Pass1 Pass
3 Pass3 Pass
3 NTPassPassPass

In both cases you, as West, have to make the opening lead. In the first case your partner hasn't bid and the opponents have given away very little information. They may have a weakness somewhere but you cannot be sure where.

Now take the second case. South has excellent clubs and North good diamonds. As West, you can eliminate a club or a diamond as a possible opening lead because you don't want to waste your lead establishing one of the opponents' suits. You would select either a heart or a spade lead depending upon your hand.

The important point is to listen to the bidding. You must listen to the bidding; you can't even begin to defend unless you do.

As a general rule, the declarer will try to establish his longest suit first, and the defense tries to do the same—the most logical way being to lead it. That is why, with nothing else to go by, the opening leader leads from length. Notice the key words, "with nothing else to go by." However, many times you are provided with plenty of information: your partner may have bid, or the opponents may have bid your longest suit. In such cases you would probably select another lead.

Assume, for the sake of argument, that after listening to the bidding you have decided to lead your longest suit; this is by far the most common lead against notrump. Which card do you lead? Now look at a hand.

Sitting West, you hold:

A 8 6 5 3     J 7 4 2     Q 3     8 2

The bidding has proceeded one notrump on your right and three notrump on your left. It is your lead. Now, if you could peek into your partner's hand and see that he had only one spade and five hearts you would lead a heart because that is your side's combined longest suit. Unfortunately, the rules do not permit this, so you must assume, because you have more spades, that spades is the longest combined suit. So you are going to lead a spade, but which spade?

Normally, when leading a suit that has four or more cards you lead your fourth highest card. Fourth highest means starting at the top and counting down four places. In this case your fourth highest spade would be the five. Don't make the mistake of starting at the bottom and counting up. Start at the top and count down.

That's simple enough, isn't it? What's the catch. The first catch is that your suit may have a three-card sequence, which simply means three equal cards at the head of the suit. For example, Q J 10 4 2 would be an example of a suit headed by a three-card sequence.

Whenever you hold a three-card or longer sequence at the head of your suit you always lead the top of the sequence. The sequence rule takes precedence over the fourth highest rule.

If the third card (the lowest card) in the three-card sequence is missing by one spot (for example, Q J 9 2), it is still considered a sequence and the queen is led. However, if the third card drops off by more than one spot (for example, Q J 8 2), you revert to the fourth best rule and lead the deuce.

Simply, the rule for leading from a suit of four or more cards is this: lead fourth highest unless the suit contains a sequence; if it does, lead the top of the sequence instead.

Which card would you lead from each of these combinations?

(a) K J 7 6 5
(b) A 8 7 2
(c) K Q J 2
(d) K Q J 10 2
(e) K Q 10 8 5
(f) K Q 8 4 3 2
(g) J 10 7 6 4
(h) Q J 8 7 3 2
(i) J 10 8 5 3

(a) The six. Fourth highest.
(b) The deuce. Fourth highest.
(c) The king. Top of a sequence.
(d) The king. Top of a sequence.
(e) The king. Top of a sequence (third card missing by only one spot).
(f) The four. Fourth highest (you must have a three-card sequence before you can lead an honor card).
(g) The six. Fourth highest.
(h) The seven. Fourth highest.
(i) The jack. Top of a sequence.

Sometimes you will have a choice of suits to lead. For example, sitting West you hold:

Q 7 6 3     J 10 9 2     A 3     5 4 2

The bidding goes one notrump on your right, two notrump on your left, and everyone passes. It's your lead and you have two four-card suits. Which one should you lead? You should lead a heart—the jack, to be more specific. When holding two long suits, one of which contains a sequence, you should lead the suit with the sequence.

As a matter of fact, sequences are such fine leads that if you had the two of spades rather than the two of clubs you would still lead the jack of hearts, even though you had five spades and only four hearts.

Another possibility on opening lead is that your opponents may have bid your longest suit. Let's say you hold this hand:

K 7 6 4 2     Q 10 4 2     J 10 7     2

Again, you are West and your right-hand opponent bids one spade, your left-hand opponent two clubs; then, two notrump on your right, and three notrump on your left. Your partner has been as silent as a mouse and it's your lead.

Had the opponents simply bid notrump without mentioning any suits, you would have led the four of spades. But spades have been bid, and it is usually a bad idea to lead suits the opponents have been bidding unless you have a sequence. So, we rule out a spade lead and lead our next-longest suit, hearts. The correct lead on the bidding would be the deuce of hearts.

Now let's keep the same hand but assume that your left-hand opponent had bid two hearts (instead of two clubs). Once again, you are leading against notrump, only this time your opponents have bid both of your long suits. When you do not have a sequence in either of the bid suits, you normally select a lead from a three-card suit. In this case you would lead the jack of diamonds. But why the jack when you don't have a sequence?

When leading from a three-card suit, you must keep a few important points in mind. Recall that the ten, jack, queen, king, and ace are called honors. If you hold two touching honors and exactly three cards in the suit you should lead the higher honor. (One exception to this is that from ace-king-small you lead the king.)

Let's take a look at all the holdings that have three cards with two touching honors, using the standard notation of “x” to designate any low card: A K x, K Q x, Q J x, J 10 x, 10 9 x. (Even though the nine is not an honor the ten-high short sequence is included in the list.) Remember that these are three-card holdings. If you have four or more cards in the suit you should lead fourth highest or top of a sequence, depending upon how close the third highest card is to the touching top cards.

If you are leading from three cards headed either by one honor or by two non-touching honors, you must lead your lowest card. For example, if you were to lead from Q 10 4, you would lead the four. You have two non-touching honors, and from this type of holding you lead low.

Also, if you had A x x, K x x, Q x x, J x x, or 10 x x, you would lead your smallest card.

Finally, if you have three spot cards, such as 8 4 2 or 9 7 5 or 6 5 3, lead the top card. This is called "top of nothing." The usual leads may be easier to remember if you repeat "top of nothing," "low from an honor," "top of a sequence," and "fourth highest" a few times.

The easiest of all rules to remember when making an initial lead covers which card to lead with a doubleton. With a doubleton, always lead the higher card first. Very often partner will have thrown in a bid and you will be leading his suit. When you have exactly two cards in that suit, lead the higher card.

The time has come to do a little reviewing. Which card would you lead against notrump from each of the following holdings?

(a) J 9 7 5 3
(b) J 7 5
(c) 5 3
(d) Q J 9 7 3
(e) A 2
(f) K Q 3
(g) K Q 3 2
(h) K 10 4
(i) A K 3
(j) A K 7 5 2
(k) 10 9 3 2
(l) 10 9 4
(m) K J 8 6 4 3
(n) Q 3
(o) 9 6 2
(p) Q 7 4 2
(q) 10 6 3
(r) 4 3 2
(s) K J 9 3 2

(a) The five. Fourth best.
(b) The five. Low from an honor.
(c) The five. Top of a doubleton.
(d) The queen. Top of a sequence.
(e) The ace. Top of a doubleton.
(f) The king. Top of two touching honors, when holding exactly three cards.
(g) The two. Fourth best, when holding two touching honors and more than three cards.
(h) The four. Low from two honors when they are not touching in a three-card suit.
(i) The king. This is the exception. When you hold exactly three cards, the king rather than the ace is led. (The opening lead of the ace in an unbid suit has a special meaning at notrump.)
(j) The five. Fourth best.
(k) The two. Fourth best.
(l) The ten. 10 9 x is considered the same as two touching honors even though the nine is not an honor.
(m) The six. Fourth best.
(n) The queen. Top of a doubleton.
(o) The nine. Top of nothing.
(p) The two. Fourth best.
(q) The three. Low from an honor.
(r) The four. Top of nothing.
(s) The three. Fourth best.

These rules apply to the opening lead only. Common sense dictates you play after you see the dummy. For example, if dummy contains a singleton ace and you have K Q 10 6 in that suit, you should lead the six and not the king.

The reasons behind these opening leads are quite logical. Keep in mind that when you lead against notrump you will usually be leading a suit that has four or more cards. Your partner is aware of this and knows that you are leading from you long suit. Therefore, when you lead a low card from a holding such as K J 9 4 3, your partner wll protect your holding by playing his highest card:

7 6
WEST (you)
K J 9 4 3
EAST (partner)
Q 8 5
A 10 2

Assume that you, West, are defending against a notrump contract and you lead the four of spades. Dummy plays low and your partner must play his queen. This potects your holding. If your partner refuses to play his queen and plays, say, the eight instead, declarer makes two tricks rather than the one to which he is entitled.

You may wonder why you as West are leading fourth best from a holding such as:

9 8 6
A K 7 5 3
4 2
Q J 10

If you were to lead the king, the ace, and then a third spade, South would win the trick. You would be left with two good spades, but your partner would not have a spade; if he then gained the lead he would not be able to retum your suit. In contrast, if you first lead the five of spades, the declarer wins the trick; however, if your partner regains the lead he can return your suit and you can take your ace, your king, and your two little ones.

You must remember that at notrump you cannot lose an ace; since aces cannot be trumped, you don't have to take all of your aces and kings immediately. You will recall that when you are playing a hand at notrump you seldom have enough sure tricks to make your contract; generally, you must establish and make good your lower honors as well as your lower cards. The same applies to the defenders. They, too, must establish their lower cards if they wish to defeat most contracts, and the best way to do that is to lead fourth best from their longest suit.

We now have a few more combinations that we have not discussed and that simply must be memorized. These holdings include sequences in the middle of the suit, called "interior sequences." These are holdings such as K J 10 9 3, A J 10 8 3, K J 10 5 4 or A J 10 6. With any K J 10 or A J 10 holding the jack is led.

This can result in a little confusion, because the jack is also led from J 10 9 or J 10 8 combinations. The only thing that can be said is that when partner leads the jack you must be aware that he can conceivably have A J 10 or K J 10.

Similar holdings are A 10 9, K 10 9, and Q 10 9, with or without extended length. From these three holdings the ten is led. In other words, if you were to lead from K 10 9 6 3 you would lead the ten. Incidentally, these leads do not always work well. Sometimes it turns out better to lead fourth highest from these holdings, especially if one of the opponents has bid the suit and you decide to lead it anyway. Nevertheless, most of the time the ten-lead works out best.

If you have an inside sequence (interior sequence) beginning with a nine or lower, you lead fourth best. For example, from A 9 8 7 2, K 9 8 7 3, Q 9 8 7, or J 9 8 7, lead the seven. In order to lead from the top of an interior sequence there must be at least one honor card in the sequence.

Finally, we come to the lead of the ace in an unbid suit. The lead of the ace against notrump is a special signal, asking partner to drop any high honor he may have in the suit.

Therefore, the lead of the ace shows one of these holdings (with, perhaps, additional length): A K J x x x, A K J 10, A K Q 10, A Q J 1O.

In other words, when you have all the honors but one in your suit and you want your partner to unblock by throwing his honor, you lead the ace; obviously, this is an unusual lead against notrump.

7 5 3
A K J 10
Q 4
9 8 6 2

West leads the spade ace against notrump and East throws the spade queen as requested. If East does not throw the queen, West must assume that South has it, and West may make a mistake in the subsequent play.

Now that you know which card to lead from a good many holdings and you realize how important it is to listen to the bidding, you are going to have a chance to test your new-found ability.

In each of the following problems you are to decide which card you would lead. You will always be West, and hold this hand against each of three different auctions:

K J 7 5     Q J 9 6     7 6     J 10 4

The bidding has proceeded:


1 NTPass3 NTPass


1 Pass2 Pass
2 NTPass3 NTPass


1 Pass2 2
2 NTPass3 NTPass

For each of the following five hands, assume you have to lead against this auction:

1 NTPass3 NTPass

  (1)    A K J 10    9 7 5 3 2    4 2    8 7

  (2)    Q J 10 6    K 8 6 5 3    5 2    J 7

  (3)    8 6 3    Q 8 4 2    K 5    Q 10 4 2

  (4)    J 8 6    K 10 9 3 2    J 7 6    K 6

  (5)    7    J 9 8 7 6    A 10 7 6    Q 3 2

(a) The queen of hearts. The sequence lead is preferred over the non-sequence lead in spades.
(b) The jack of clubs. Both of your suits have been bid, and unless you have a perfect sequence (such as Q J 10) you normally do not lead a suit that an opponent has bid at his first opportunity. Dummy will almost always have at least five hearts and you will be wasting your time leading a heart.
(c) The seven of diamonds. This time your partner has told you what to lead.
(1) The ace of spades. This asks your partner to unblock the queen if he has it.
(2) The queen of spades. A sequence lead in a four-card suit takes precedence over a broken five-card holding.
(3) The two of clubs. When both suits look about the same, lead the stronger of the two.
(4) The ten of hearts. The ten is led from holdings that include A 10 9, K 10 9, or Q 10 9.
(5) The seven of hearts. Do not be misled by the sequence in hearts. To justify a lead from the top of an interior sequence, the sequence must be headed by the queen, jack or ten. A lead of the nine would deny an honor.

Summary: Key Pointers About Opening Leads Against Notrump

(1) In order to select the correct opening lead you must listen to the bidding.
(2) With no clues from the bidding the opening leader normally leads his longest suit.
(3) Sequence leads are better than fourth-best leads and take precedence over them. A four-card suit headed by a sequence is usually a better lead than a longer suit without a sequence.
(4) Avoid leading suits that the opponents have bid unless you have three-card or longer sequences in those suits.
(5) Aces, kings, queens, jacks, and tens are honors. The more honor cards you have in a particular suit the more apt you are to lead the suit. A lead from K 10 4 2 is preferable to a lead from K 8 6 2.
(6) If partner has bid, especially if he has overcalled, tend to lead his suit. An exception occurs when you happen to have a very strong opening lead of your own (K Q J x x, for instance, with a way of gaining the lead in another suit).
(7) When leading from length you lead (a) fourth highest or (b) top of a sequence, or (c) the jack from a holding that includes A J 10 or K J 10, or (d) the ten from a holding that includes A 10 9, K 10 9, Q 10 9, A Q 10 9, or A K 10 9, or (e) the ace from a holding that includes A K Q J, A K Q 10, A K J 10, A Q J 10.
(8) When leading from a three-card holding headed by one honor (A x x, K x x, Q x x, J x x, 10 x x) lead your lowest card. When leading from a three-card holding headed by no honors 9 x x, 8 x x, 7 x x, etc., lead your top card.
(9) When leading from a three-card holding that has two honor cards, lead the top honor if they are touching and the lowest card if they are not. (Exception: king from A K x.)
(10) When leading from any two-card holding, lead the top card.
(11) The rules for opening leads do not necessarily apply to leads later in the play, when common sense may dictate a deviation.
(12) As a general rule, honor leads show sequences, high middle cards tend to be top of nothing, and low cards tend to be fourth best. The lead of the nine always shows the highest card in that suit.
(13) Always keep your objective in mind. You are trying to set up your suit or your partner's suit before declarer can set up his suit or suits. You have a head start because the defense makes the opening lead. Don't waste your opportunity.

This article is an adapted excerpt from "Introduction to Defender's Play" by Eddie Kantar.
Copyright © 1968 by Prentice-Hall Incorporated. Used by permission.

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