Better Bridge

Making an impact on defense with the weakest hand at the table

Defenders are typically at a disadvantage compared to the declarer. The defender on opening lead can see only 13 of the 52 cards. Even after dummy comes down, neither defender can see all the partnership’s combined assets.

However, the auction, the opening lead, and the sight of dummy can help defenders visualize how they might get the tricks needed to defeat the contract.

Consider this deal in which the weakest hand at the table can make an impact.

North is dealer with neither side vulnerable. You are South holding:
♠9 7 5   J 10 9 7 3   7   ♣10 8 7 2

West North East South (You)
1 1♠ 4(1)
4♠ All Pass

1. You have a 10-card fit in hearts and a weak hand. Despite only 1 high-card point, the singleton provides extra dummy points. Applying the Law of Total Tricks, respond with a preemptive jump to 4.

West advances to 4♠. Everyone passes.

You are now on lead against 4♠.

The Opening Lead

As South, holding the weakest hand at the table, you have two critical decisions on this deal. The first is the opening lead.

The normal lead is the heart suit. However, knowing your partnership has at least 10 hearts and the opponents have three hearts, it’s unlikely you will take more than one heart winner. To defeat the contract, both defenders need to visualize how to take sure tricks and get extra tricks — through promotion, length, defensive finesse, or ruffing opponents’ winners.

With that in mind, now may be a good time for you to lead the singleton 7, with the hope of ruffing one or more of declarer’s winners if partner has entries.

West
♠ K 10 6 2
K 4
J 10 9 4 3
♣ K Q
South
♠ 9 7 5
J 10 9 7 3
7
♣ 10 8 7 2

West is dummy and comes down with 12 high-card points. With the two-card heart suit in dummy, it is likely declarer has at most one heart.

Recommended Defense

South is fortunate to find partner with the A.

It’s unusual for partner to lead a diamond rather than a heart. Also, with the long diamond suit in dummy, North suspects the 7 is a singleton. Declarer plays low from dummy, and North wins the A. North leads back a diamond for partner to ruff. North-South now have two tricks.

South is at a critical point in the defense. If South could get back to partner’s hand for a second diamond ruff, the 4♠ contract will go down. South could lead either a heart or a club. Which is the right suit?

Lead a heart?

Since partner opened 1, South might try leading the J.

That does not work. Declarer wins the A. Declarer now plays a spade to dummy’s ♠K, followed with two more rounds of trumps. After giving up the ♣A, declarer claims 10 tricks and makes the contract. Your side took the A, a diamond ruff, and the ♣A, but failed to get a second diamond ruff.

What should the defenders do?

The decision on what suit to return actually starts with North. After winning the A, with the ♣A in hand, North’s plan is to return a diamond for partner to ruff and hope that partner will next return a club so North can give partner a second diamond ruff. This needs to be done before declarer draws trumps.

But how does South know to return a club? This is a typical suit preference situation.

Suit preference signals

After winning the A, North has the 8 2 in hand. To show a preference for clubs, the lower-ranking of the two remaining suits, North returns the lowest-ranking diamond, the 2. To show preference for hearts, the higher-ranking of the suits, North returns as high a diamond as South can afford, in this case, the 8.

On this deal, North has the ♣A. Returning the 2 for partner to ruff, signals for partner to lead a club after the ruff.

Here is South’s second critical decision. South must recognize the suit preference signal and return the ♣10 (top of nothing). The full deal:

Dlr:
North
Vul:
None
North
♠ Q
Q 8 6 5 2
A 8 2
♣ A J 5 3
West
♠ K 10 6 2
K 4
J 10 9 4 3
♣ K Q
East
♠ A J 8 4 3
A
K Q 6 5
♣ 9 6 4
South
♠ 9 7 5
J 10 9 7 3
7
♣ 10 8 7 2

North wins the ♣A and returns a second diamond for a ruff. That’s four tricks for the defense — A, ♣A and two diamond ruffs. Down one for declarer.

Without using the suit preference signal, South would have to guess which suit to return after ruffing the first diamond. Returning a heart would have been the natural thing to do since
partner opened the bidding with hearts. Partner doesn’t have the A, and a heart return would have allowed declarer to make 4♠.

Summary

The challenge as a defender is that you can’t see the cards in partner’s hand. However, there are clues from the auction, the dummy, and from the cards partner plays during the play. Use
them to “play detective” and develop a Defenders’ Plan.

On this deal, South has two critical decisions – the opening lead and the suit to return after the diamond ruff.

The general opening lead guideline is to lead partner’s suit. However, the auction helped South visualize how they might get the tricks needed to defeat the contract – by ruffing opponents’ winners. Knowing there cannot be more than one heart winner for the defense, South is rewarded with an excellent opening lead of the singleton 7. Partner wins the A and returns a diamond for a ruff. South’s next critical decision is to find an entry back to partner’s hand for another ruff.

Defenders can make use of the suit preference signal to remove the guesswork on which suit you would like partner to return after a ruff.

  • ♣ To show a preference for the higher-ranking suit, return the highest card you can afford.
  • ♣ To show a preference for the lower-ranking suit, return the lowest card.
  • ♣ If you don’t have preference for either suit, return a middle-ranking card, like a 6 or 5 in the suit.
  • ♣ Suit preference signals do not apply to the trump suit.

Both defenders need to be on the same wavelength to take advantage of suit preference signals. One partner must give the appropriate signal and the other must be looking for it.

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Audrey Grant is a noted bridge author and teacher. She is a member of the ACBL and Canadian Bridge Federation Hall of Fame.