Declarer Play I -- Forming a Plan

A good declarer relies on a variety of skills, strategies and techniques to help him make his contracts. One of the most basic is knowing how to handle common card combinations. You also need some knowledge of how long suits are likely to divide in the opponents' hands, and you need to learn how to detect and use clues from the opponents' bidding and play.

The most important of all declarer-play skills, though, is the ability to look at the entire hand -- all 13 tricks -- and develop an overall plan for making your contract. You should never just cash tricks randomly and hope you'll know what to do later -- ideally, you want to have a reason for every lead and play. Here are some basic guidelines for how to form your plan for suit and notrump contracts:

Playing Suit Contracts

1) Count your losers as soon as dummy comes down. If  you have a 5-3 or a 6-2 fit, focus your counting on the hand with the longer trumps.  If you have too many losers to make your contract, don't give up. There are a number of plays you can use to turn losers into winners:

2) Make a plan for which of these plays you will use to develop extra tricks in each suit.

3) Decide which suits you'll attack, and in what order. On many (but not all) hands, you'll want to exploit your advantage in the trump suit by leading trumps first -- your plan will be to take all the opponents' trumps away and still have trumps remaining in your and/or dummy's hands to handle your losers. To be sure that this will be the right plan, count your losers first, then try counting winners (honors and potential long-suit tricks) in your outside suits. Add these winners to your tricks in the trump suit to determine whether or not you have enough "natural" tricks to make your contract.

If you DO have enough "natural" winners to make your contract, lead trumps right away. Plan to collect all the opponents' trumps, even if you have to lose the lead to do so. This will make it possible for you to cash your outside winners without worrying that an opponent will trump one of your good tricks.
If you DON'T have enough "natural" winners to make your contract, you'll usually want to postpone leading trumps. This may depend on your estimate of how many leads it would take to draw trumps and whether these leads would remove all the trumps from your hand or dummy's.


     You're in a 2H contract and the opening lead is the spade queen. You have only three obvious losers (two spades and one heart). When you count actual winners, though, you have only six -- three natural trump tricks and the three aces. None of the outside suits offers a chance to develop quick natural winners, so you'll have to find extra tricks from the trump suit. 
     Since you need to score trumps separately, don't lead hearts. Instead, play a cross-ruff. Win the spade ace, cash dummy's diamond ace, and lead a small diamond, trumping it in your hand. Now cash your club ace and trump a club in dummy. Continue trumping diamonds in your hand and clubs in dummy. Eventually, an opponent will be able to over-ruff with the heart ace and lead another heart to stop the cross-ruff. By then, though, you'll have scored the extra trump tricks you needed, and you should finish with at least 8 tricks. 

4)  After you've made best use of your trumps -- by trumping losers and/or drawing trumps -- plan to attack your longest side-suit fit next. This is usually the suit that offers the greatest number of natural tricks. As you lead the suit, count the opponents' cards so you'll know when your small cards in the suit become winners.

5)  If you have shorter suits with top tricks that can be taken at any time, plan to use these tricks as entries to get back and forth between your hand and dummy's. If you don't need them for entries, then plan to cash these tricks last.

In general, don't be afraid to lose tricks and give the opponents the lead. You'll often set up extra tricks for yourself by forcing the opponents to win their tricks early in the hand.

Playing Notrump Contracts

1)  Count your winners as soon as dummy puts his hand down. Don't play a card until you've formed a plan for making your contract.

2)  If you don't have enough top winners to make your contract, make a plan to create more winners. You have two main ways to develop extra tricks:
3)  Decide which suit offers the greatest number of potential tricks and lead it first. In most cases, this will be your longest fit. Don't be afraid to give the opponents their tricks in your long suit if you can set up tricks for yourself by doing so.

4)  Cash winners in your short suits last. Don't set up the opponents' small cards in these suits by cashing your tricks too early.

In general, be cautious about leading the suit the opponents chose for the opening lead. At least one opponent has length in that suit, so don't set up his winners for him. They opponents will usually attack that suit again when they get the lead.

Copyright   Karen Walker