Some Leading Questions


Pat Harrington

You are on lead versus a notrump contract. Partner has not bid. What suit are you likely to choose to lead? Your own long suit. What is the rationale for doing this? In a notrump contract, you hope to drive out any stoppers the opponents might have in that suit and regain the lead in time to cash winners.

Which card do you lead from your long suit? “Fourth from your longest and strongest” is a familiar guideline. But is fourth best always the right card to choose? Let’s look at some long
suits you might hold and decide what card to lead. You will see only the suit you are leading, not your entire hand. Let’s assume the following: your long suit is spades, South’s 1NT opening
bid was raised to 3NT, and your hand is not so strong that partner is likely to be broke. Choose your lead:

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

Fourth best is the suggested lead in (a) through (c): the 5, 6 and 4, respectively. In each case, you would love to find partner with an honor. Partner’s job as third hand is to play that honor in an attempt to win the trick. The opponents have more strength and are more likely to hold the missing high cards, so there is a good chance partner will not be able to win the trick. Don’t despair. You have told partner where your length and strength lie. If partner gets the lead, the return of your suit could trap declarer’s remaining high cards. Here’s a possible layout for example (c):

♠ 7 6 5
♠ A Q 9 4 2 ♠ 8 3
♠ K J 10

You are disappointed to see partner follow with the ♠8 at trick one, but there is still hope. Declarer seldom has enough tricks to reel off to make his contract. Suppose declarer has to set up tricks to make 3NT, and partner gains the lead. With one spade trick played, these are the remaining cards:

♠ 7 6
♠ A Q 9 2 ♠ 8
♠ K J

What will happen when partner (such a good partner) returns your lead? Declarer’s K-J might as well be the 3 and 2. That disappointing start resulted in four spade tricks for the defense — just what you wanted. Sometimes it takes a bit more work to set up your suit, but you have the idea.

Leading fourth best is not always winning strategy, as with (d). Here’s a possible scenario:

♠ 7 4 2
♠ K Q J 9 6 ♠ 8 3
♠ A 10 5

If you lead the fourth-best 9, declarer wins with the ♠10, a trick he is not entitled to. How do you avoid being so generous? Don’t lead fourth best. That lead is for players \who need partner’s help to set up their long suit. You can do the job yourself by leading a high spade. With a sequence of three or more touching high cards, lead the top — the ♠K. Now declarer gets the ace and only the ace — no cheap tricks here. You can follow this same guideline to lead the ♠Q from holding (e).

In a suit contract, you often lead the top with only two touching honors. In notrump you generally wait for three honors. You can usually afford to be a bit patient in notrump. When there is
trump, you have to build your tricks quickly before declarer or dummy runs out of that suit, so you try to promote your meager high cards quickly.

What do your instincts tell you to lead holding (f)? The ♠K will avoid giving away a cheap trick, but suppose you lead the ♠K and it wins? Will you be able to continue
leading spades safely? Declarer frequently holds up on winning the opening lead. I hope you are wondering where the ♠A and ♠J are located. Here are two possibilities
where you have led the ♠K:

♠ 7 4 2
♠ K Q 10 5 ♠ 9 8 3
♠ A J 6

If declarer ducks at trick one, it is correct for you to continue leading pades because partner has the ♠J. But how do you know that?

♠ 7 4 2
♠ K Q 10 5 ♠ 9 8 3
♠ A J 6

This time, declarer holds up on the ♠A. Leading another spade gives declarer a trick with the jack.But how do you know that?

In both cases, partner is going to have to signal you about his spade holding. We’ll talk more about that next time. (Don’t you hate cliffhangers?) This time, our concern is choosing the best card to lead and the best card is the king — even without three touching high cards. With enough power in the suit we chose to lead, the lead of a high card can prevent declarer from winning a trick he doesn’t deserve. When your suit includes two touching cards, one of which is the 10 or higher plus another non-touching honor, your best choice is usually the top of the touching high cards.

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