Improve Your Opening Leads  (Part 1)

     Originally published in the March & April 2009 issues of the ACBL Bridge Bulletin

What’s the most difficult skill to master in the play of the cards? To a beginner, it may be a finesse. More experienced players might answer that it’s executing endplays or coups or squeezes.

Those are among the many challenges of our game, but their impact on our scores is minimal because they just don’t come up all that often. The skill that most agree is extremely difficult and absolutely critical to our success is the one we need an average of six or seven times every session: making a good opening lead.

Fortunately, some opening leads are relatively easy, even routine. If you're on lead after the opponents bid 1NT-3NT, the old standby of "fourth down from longest and strongest" works well on most deals. You may also have an obvious lead after partner has overcalled or when you hold a suit with a strong honor sequence.

It’s the hands where the choice isn’t so clear that test us, and it seems those occur most often. In these situations, your playing experience may give you a good sense of what works and what doesn’t. More important, though, is the ability to listen to the auction and use the clues to visualize the hidden hands. As the late Terence Reese once said, "There is no such thing as a blind opening lead. Just deaf opening leaders."

Three-step decision

The conventional wisdom is that selecting an opening lead is a two-part decision: you choose the suit first, then the specific card. The “which card?” decision is usually automatic once you’ve decided on the suit, so the main challenge is “which suit?”.

This decision will be easier – and more successful -- if you back up and ask yourself a broader question: Does this auction call for a passive lead or an aggressive lead?

Some auctions will tell you that it’s best to make a safe, passive opening lead that isn't likely to give declarer an extra trick. These leads are often from topless suits such as 86543 or 10982. On other deals, it will pay to make an aggressive lead – one that might give declarer a “gift” if partner has no help in the suit, but offers your best chance to beat the contract if partner has an honor or two. Aggressive leads are usually from suits with unprotected honors (low from Kxxx, for example).

Aggressive leads

How do you know when an aggressive lead is the best choice? One of your strongest clues comes when the opponents’ auction identifies a long side suit that can be set up as a source of tricks. For example, suppose you're South holding   7654  A3  KJ952   J7  and it's your lead after your opponents have this auction:

       West     East
        1S         2H
        3H        4H

Your best opening lead rates to be the 5 (fourth best). You hope partner has either the A or Q, but even if he doesn't, your risky lead may not cost. Dummy has shown a 5-card spade suit, and your holding suggests that declarer won’t have problems establishing it to pitch his losers. It's important to set up possible tricks for your side right now, while you still have the A as an entry to cash them.

How about leads to higher-level contracts? When the opponents bid a small slam, your natural instinct may be to make a safe opening lead, but on some deals, being passive can give away the contract. An aggressive lead may be your only chance to beat a slam, especially if the opponents have shown great strength or a fit in a side suit. For example, your opponents bid to 6H via this auction:

      West      East
        2D         3D
        3H         4NT
        5H         6H     

And you're on lead with   109876    762   A3   K102.

The 10 looks safe, but it doesn't rate to set up a trick for your side. That would require partner to have the K and dummy the A (or partner to have KJ and dummy the Q), and for declarer and dummy to each have at least two spades. It's better to set your sights lower and play partner for the Q. Lead the 2 and hope you can set up and cash a club when you’re in with the A. If it happens that you've led into declarer's AQ, you may have lost nothing, since it's likely he would have pitched his club losers on dummy's diamonds.

“Tapping” strategies

It can be especially important to adopt an attacking defense when you have length in the opponents' trump suit.

     West     East
        2S        4S

What’s your lead as South holding  10865    987   AJ962   10 ?

Avoid the temptation to lead your singleton club. Even if partner has the A and returns the suit, you’ll be ruffing with what could be a natural trump trick. You may also be doing declarer’s work for him by shortening your trumps and setting up his club suit.

The main advantage you can see for your side is that declarer’s trumps are breaking poorly, so try to exploit it. If you can force declarer to ruff, you may be able to reduce his trumps to your length or shorter and take control of the hand.

Once you’ve decided on your general strategy (aggressive) and your specific tactics (shortening or “tapping” declarer’s trumps), the A lead stands out. An unsupported ace isn’t normally an attractive lead, especially with the strong hand on your right, but here, it’s your best chance to find declarer’s short suit. The full deal may be:

   4S by South






















On the 10 lead, declarer will play dummy’s Q and take the marked finesse of partner’s J, losing only a club, a club ruff and a diamond. If you instead attack diamonds – and if partner cooperates by leading another diamond when he wins the A – you’ll set the contract one or two tricks.

Attacking notrump contracts

Notrump contracts usually call for aggressive leads, which is why it’s standard to lead from your longest suit. Does this situation warrant making an exception?  

     West     East
       1S        1NT
      2NT      3NT

What’s your lead as South holding   1072    K3   Q10865   J64 ?

Declarer has shown at least four diamonds, so you might allow the old advice of “never lead into declarer’s suit” to overrule the “lead your longest and strongest” guideline.  The problem here is that the non-diamond alternatives don’t offer good potential for establishing tricks, and none are really all that safe. 

A diamond lead is ambitious but not unreasonable, as all you need in partner’s hand is any diamond honor. Partner rates to have an entry or two, and if he can return your lead, your good tenace over declarer’s remaining cards may allow you to run the suit.

High Roller Leads

Another type of lead that’s often thought of as aggressive is the High Roller Lead – a gamble that will reap a big reward if you hit the perfect layout, but rates to be a zero if you don’t. These include “anti-field” leads that are flashy (king from Kx), deceptive (underleading an ace to a suit contract) or unusual (refusing to lead an AK of an unbid suit).

There’s a line between aggressive and reckless, and these leads can cross it. Experienced players dislike blind decisions, so they try to avoid making an impulsive choice on the one trick where they know the least about the hand.

Passive opening leads

In other situations, you’ll want to be more patient and make declarer work for all his tricks. Your goal on these hands is to make a safe opening lead that won't give declarer a “cheap” or undeserved trick.

A safe lead may also be an attacking combination -- such as a suit headed by AK, KQJ or QJ10 -- and these are usually good choices for a lead to any contract. If you aren’t dealt these easy holdings, you’ll sometimes have to select a passive lead. Passive leads include:

How do you know when a passive lead is your best choice? Here are some of the contracts and types of auctions that call for a safe, non-attacking opening lead:

The opponents are in 6NT or a grand slam. 

An exception is if the opponents bid 6NT after an auction that suggests that their main source of tricks will be a long suit. In this case, you may want to make an aggressive opening lead (away from an honor) to try to set up a trick you can cash if you get the lead later.

The auction tells you that declarer has a strong hand and dummy (and/or partner) will be very weak. 

Suppose your RHO opens 2NT (20-22 pts.) and LHO raises to 3NT. What's your lead from
      986  AQ62  KQ43  Q6 ?

If you follow the “fourth from longest and strongest” rule, you’d choose the 2 or the 3. But with almost all the outstanding honors on your right, either of these leads has a high risk of giving declarer a gift. Partner can't hold more than 2-3 high-card points, so it's not a good idea to count on him for help in a specific suit.

A more attractive choice is a passive 9. This is unlikely to set up tricks for your side, but it probably won't help declarer. You’ll be on lead again soon, and if your spade lead was indeed safe, you should consider continuing the suit. If a switch is necessary, you'll have a better idea of which suit to choose later.

Note that you should not lead a diamond honor. A diamond will probably be right only when partner has the J (or the unlikelyA), so if you do choose a diamond lead, it’s better to lead low (the 3). If partner has no honors (declarer and dummy have any combination of the A, J, 10 and 9), leading the K will give declarer three eventual tricks. If you instead lead low, declarer can't take more than two tricks in the suit.

You’re defending a suit contract where the opponents are fairly balanced.

On these hands, declarer will usually have to play the side suits himself, so it's best to sit back and wait for your tricks. Suppose you're on lead as South holding   Q74  108432   KJ64  after this auction:

        West     East
         2NT*     4H      * (Jacoby 2NT, forcing heart raise)

The opponents have shown game-level strength and their hands rate to be semi-balanced. Opener’s 4H rebid showed a minimum with no singleton, and responder might have chosen a different way to raise hearts if he had a very distributional hand. You expect that declarer will have to lead the side suits himself, so you want to avoid leading any suit that will make it easier for him to find missing honors.

The singleton trump is probably the most dangerous lead (partners always seem to hold Qxx). It's also risky to lead away from your club or spade honors. That leaves your  "nothing" suit -- diamonds -- so try the 3.

IMPs vs. matchpoints

If you’re not sure about whether to adopt an aggressive or passive strategy, consider the form of scoring. Passive leads tend to be more attractive in pair events, where saving an overtrick can have a big impact on your matchpoint score. In team events, the cost of an overtrick is tiny compared to the potential score for beating a contract, so there’s a greater incentive for making an aggressive lead. At IMPs, if there’s a realistic layout of the cards that will result in a set, choose your lead to cater to that possibility.

There’s an old bridge adage that advises, “Lead from nothing, get nothing”, and that should be your expectation with most passive leads. Your main goal is to do no harm, not to establish tricks. When considering a passive lead, keep this advice in mind:

2009  Karen Walker

Continued in Part 2: Trump leads & lead conventions