First, Do No Harm

Defending a bridge hand can be a difficult task because your goal as a defender is not always clear. Should you play aggressively to defeat the contract, or should you take a more relaxed approach so that you don’t unnecessarily give declarer any extra tricks?

To a certain extent, this question is often answered by the bidding and the level of the contract. Passive defense is frequently suitable when the opponents are in a lower-level contract, because you know your partner has some high cards. In addition, passive defense is suitable when there is no “dangerous” long suit in dummy waiting to be developed. This approach might be called “first, do no harm.”

Say you pick up the following hand as West:

♠K 7   J 10 8   A 10 9 8   ♣A 9 5 4.

South, on your right, opens 1. Your hand is not suitable for entering the auction, so you pass. Left-hand opponent bids 1♠, and your partner passes. RHO bids 2, and everyone passes. What do you lead?

The answer here can be arrived at by process of elimination. Because LHO has bid spades, a spade lead is unattractive and can easily cost a trick. Unless you have a powerful holding in a suit bid on your left, you should generally refrain from leading that suit.

Diamonds and clubs also have a problem. It is usually unwise to cash unsupported aces on the opening lead because it can too easily give declarer a trick. Imagine, for example, that declarer has the guarded king of the suit; banging down the ace on opening lead allows declarer to score a trick he wouldn’t ordinarily be entitled to. Another reason that leading unsupported aces against partscores is frequently poor is that it can give up control of the lead later in the play. And under-leading aces is a dangerous strategy that can easily blow a trick, sometimes by fooling partner who won’t think that you’ve done such a thing.

So that leaves the heart suit. Although leading a trump for declarer can often be unattractive, it’s the safest option on this particular hand. Which heart should you lead? This one is easy. You have a sequence, and top of a sequence is a standard lead: The J is your best shot. Here’s what you see:

Dlr: South ♠ Q 5 4 3 2
Vul: E-W 9
Q J 6 4
♣ Q J 10
♠ K 7
J 10 8
A 10 9 8
♣ A 9 5 4
West North East South
Pass 1♠ Pass 2
All Pass

Declarer plays the 9 from dummy, and partner plays low, as declarer wins the king. Could partner have ducked with the trump ace? Certainly. Partner cannot go up with the A because that would let declarer draw trumps with her K and Q next and only lose one heart to partner’s ace. At trick two, declarer plays a low diamond toward dummy, and you duck. There’s no reason to go up with the ace, as this could easily cost a trick if declarer has the king. The Q holds, and the ♣Q is called from dummy. Partner and declarer both follow low, so you win the ace. What do you do now?

You must study and consider your options with the aim of first doing no harm. What is declarer’s trump holding? She likely has the Q, but not the ace, or she would probably have played a second round of trumps immediately. In addition, declarer has the K because your partner did not win the Q in dummy. With South rebidding 2 over one spade, she is likely to have the ♣K or the ♠A, but not both, because then she would have a medium opening hand of 15-18 HCP with six hearts and might likely have rebid 3 rather then 2.
So what should you play in the West seat? You should play a club. If declarer has the ♣K, it does not hurt the defense. But if declarer has the ♠A and you played a spade away from your king, he could win in the dummy with the ♠Q.

Your partner wins her ♣K, and returns a diamond. You win and play another diamond which your partner ruffs. She returns the ♠J. Now declarer has a spade loser whether she wins with her ace or ducks and let’s your king win.

Here’s the full deal:

Dlr: South ♠ Q 5 4 3 2
Vul: E-W 9
Q J 6 4
♣ Q J 10
♠ K 7 ♠ J 10 9 8
J 10 8 A 3 2
A 10 9 8 3 2
♣ A 9 5 4 ♣ K 8 6 3
♠ A 6
K Q 7 6 5 4
K 7 5
♣ 7 2

Thus your careful and passive defense results in six losers for declarer: the A, the A, a diamond ruff, the ♣A K and a spade.

Success! You followed your principle of “first, do no harm” and did not set up any additional tricks for declarer in the trump suit or in the spade suit.

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