Improve Your Opening Leads  (Part 2)

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

Trump leads

In Part 1, we looked at the types of auctions that provide clues about whether to make a passive or aggressive opening lead. You have a different type of decision when considering a trump lead, which, depending on the auction and your hand, may be an aggressive or a passive choice.

Aggressive trump leads

On some hands, a trump lead can actually be your strongest attack because it shortens declarer's or dummy's trump length. The types of auctions that will give you the strongest clues about this possibility include those where:

Declarer has shown a two-suited hand, especially if you have strength in declarer's non-trump suit. Many players consider it virtually mandatory to lead a trump to an auction such as:

       West     East
         1H         2C
         2D        Pass     

If you’re South holding  1098  KQJ   643   AJ96 , lead the diamond 3. There’s a strong possibility that dummy will be relatively short in declarer's second suit (clubs), and you expect declarer will try to use dummy's diamonds to trump his club losers. Both opponents have shown minimum values, so they may not have enough in high-card power alone to make their contract.

A trump lead can also be an effective attack in other situations where the weaker hand shows limited trump support. These include auctions where responder takes a preference after opener makes a two-suited bid (Flannery 2D, for example) or a three-suited bid (Roman 2D opener).  The same principle applies to two-suited overcalls:

        You        LHO        Partner     RHO
         1S         2NT *       DBL          3D             * (both minors) 
         Pass      Pass          DBL        All Pass

You don’t even need to see your hand to know that a trump lead must be right. Partner’s first double showed values (around 10+ high-card points) and his second double showed a desire to defend. Even if you don’t have a strong holding in the other minor, it’s likely that partner does, so you want to prevent the short-trump hand (declarer) from using his diamonds to trump dummy’s club losers.

The short-trump hand (usually dummy) is marked with shortness in another suit. You can almost see dummy's singleton club after this auction:

        West     East
         1D        1H 
         1S        1NT
         2H        4H

Opener's sequence here typically shows some extra values with 3-card heart support. Since opener pulled out of 1NT, he should have an unbalanced pattern -- probably 4-3-5-1. If you hold  109    865   QJ76   AK82 , resist the temptation to cash a high club, which may give declarer the tempo to eventually trump two club losers in dummy. You want to lead trumps as many times as possible, so start with the 5. If declarer wants to set up ruffs in dummy, he'll have to lead clubs himself, and you'll be in again for a second trump lead.

You have a clear advantage in overall power. This may be especially important if you've doubled the contract.

        You      LHO     Partner   RHO
         1NT      Pass       2C         2S 
         Pass      Pass      DBL      All Pass

After this auction, a trump lead is a good idea, even if you have an unattractive holding such as    Q84    QJ10   KQ102   AJ6

Although partner should have moderate spade length and strength, his double may be partially based on knowledge that your side owns significantly more than half the high-card strength. In this case, declarer's only prayer may be to score tricks with a few of dummy's trumps. Every trump lead you can make could cost him a trick.

You have a clear advantage in trump length and strength.

        RHO      You      LHO     Partner    
          1D         DBL     All Pass

Holding  QJ102   KJ76  8   AK63 , lead the 8. Partner rates to have better trumps than declarer, so start attacking declarer's suit. Partner may even be able to draw all of declarer's and dummy's trumps. This is one of the rare exceptions to the "rule" about never leading a singleton trump.

Passive trump leads

“When in doubt, lead a trump” is an old guideline that tends to be invoked too often. Ideally, you’ll have a good reason and a clear strategy when you choose a trump lead. Sometimes, however, the good reason will be that no other lead is safe.  

After a 1S-2S auction by your opponents, you have an unappealing choice of leads from   754   A1082   KJ32   J4 . There are dangerous honor holdings in all the unbid suits, so try the spade 4. You don't necessarily expect this to hurt declarer, but you hope it won't help. Since partner has only one or two trumps, probably the worst that can happen is that you’ll locate his doubleton queen -- and that's something declarer may have found for himself anyway.

A few caveats:  You should avoid leading a trump when:

Third, fourth, fifth, MUD?

Choosing the suit for your opening lead is an individual judgment. The specific card you lead from that suit, however, is a partnership decision, and it’s an important one. With so many different lead conventions available, how do you determine which work best? Here’s a quick rundown of popular methods and some pluses and minuses of each:


Plus: Familiarity (since it’s what most of us learned first) and conservation of spot cards. The Rule of 11 tells you how many higher cards are in declarer’s hand.

Minus: The same card is led from a 3-card or a 4-card suit, making it difficult for partner to determine leader’s length and rely on the Rule of 11.

Note: Most pairs lead second-highest from an honorless suit of four cards or more (the 6 from 8643, for example). The 10 is commonly treated as an honor.

Third and fifth:  Third-highest from three or four cards, fifth-highest from five or more cards. A variation is third from an even number, low from an odd number. Both are used mainly for leads to suit contracts. The Rule of 10 or 12 is used to count higher cards in declarer’s hand.

Plus:  The same card is led from a 3-card or a 5-card suit, and this disparity makes it easier for partner to determine leader’s length and choose the Rule of 10 or 12.

Minus:  Third-highest may be a relatively high spot, which can cost a trick (the 8 is led from Q1082). Some pairs try to fix this problem by agreeing to lead fourth-best if the third-best card is an 8 or higher (some agree 7 or higher), but the more exceptions you build in, the less reliable the spot-card leads will be.

Coded 10s and 9s:  A 10 or 9 shows zero or two higher honors – if two, the card led is the bottom of an interior sequence (10 from KJ10x, 9 from Q109x). A jack shows the 10 and denies a higher honor. This convention is sometimes called Journalist or “Jack denies, 10 or 9 implies” (erroneously, since the 10 or 9 promise either zero or two higher honors). 

Plus: The coded card gives a clearer picture of leader’s honor holding, which can help partner make a better decision about which card to play to the first trick and whether to continue the suit the later.

Minus: Declarer has the same information and can use it to his advantage.

Attitude leads: The lower the spot card, the more interest leader has in partner returning the suit. Used mainly for leads to notrump.

Plus:  The spot card communicates honor strength and the potential for running the suit. It also avoids the ambiguity of a length lead that happens to be a high spot card (playing attitude, you would lead the 2 from KJ9732 instead of the fourth-best 7).     

Minus: The lead tells partner little or nothing about length in the suit. Leader sometimes has to make a subjective evaluation of a suit’s potential, which can be misread by partner.

Rusinow:  Second highest from touching honors (Q from KQ, K from AK, etc.). Generally used only on the first trick to suit contracts, in a suit partner has not bid.  

Plus:  On an ace or king lead, there’s no guessing about the location of the other high honor, which makes it easier for third hand to choose the correct signal. 

Minus:  Not recommended for casual partnerships, as there are many exceptions to discuss.

Ace from AK to suit contracts: (vs. the standard king from AK):

Plus: A king lead always shows the queen, so third hand can make an encouraging signal when he holds the jack.

Minus: An ace lead doesn’t guarantee the king, so third hand has to guess which attitude signal to make when he holds the queen. 

Note: Regardless of your agreement, you should lead the king from AK if partner has bid the suit or if you’re defending a contract at the 5-level or higher. In these situations, an ace lead asks partner for attitude regarding the king.

MUD leads:  “Middle-Up-Down” from xxx (middle card first, then follow high and low) of a suit partner has not bid.

Plus: The middle spot may be high enough that partner won’t read the lead as low from an honor.

Minus:  The middle spot may be high enough that partner mistakes it for a doubleton, but he won’t know for sure until you follow to the second trick.

Note:  MUD is aptly named, but the two alternatives – leading high or low from three small – are also easily misread. Look for another suit to lead whenever possible.
Note:  If partner has bid the suit and you haven’t raised, always lead low from xxx. If you’ve raised, lead high.

Honor leads to notrump:  There are several different schemes for communicating your exact strength. Here’s one that covers most possibilities and is easy to remember (A=Attitude; K=Count):

Ace asks partner to make an attitude signal regarding the queen. You make this lead from a suit such as AK43.

King asks partner to unblock his queen or jack (first priority) or give count. This lead is always from a very strong suit (headed by AKJ10 or AKQ10).

Queen asks partner to unblock of the jack or make an attitude signal regarding the ace or king. Lead the queen from KQ1092 or QJ95.

Still can’t decide?

There’s a story from the 1960s about an expert who published an article titled “Why third and fifth leads are better” in a major bridge magazine. It featured many examples of the problems with standard fourth-best leads and showed how they could be solved by leading third and fifth from length. The writer was regaled with praise from enlightened readers who said they had always known standard leads were inferior, and now they had proof.

The following month, the expert published another article titled “Why fourth-best leads are better”. It offered the same number of examples and equally compelling evidence that third and fifth leads were confusing and ineffective.

This story is probably a bridge “urban legend”, as the articles can’t be located, but it’s easy to understand how they could have been written. Many players will offer fervent arguments about the merits of their favorite lead conventions, but don’t believe anyone who claims one method is clearly superior to all others. Whatever leading scheme you choose, the only critical issues are that you and partner feel comfortable with it and have clear agreements about which card you’ll lead from all possible suit holdings. 

2009  Karen Walker

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