Declarer Play: The hold-up play

The hold-up play is a strategy that can prevent your opponents from cashing tricks in their long suit. It's usually used when declaring notrump, but can also be used when playing a suit contract.

The most common situation is when the opponents lead a suit where you have the ace but no other honors. If you will have to surrender the lead later (because you need to drive out a high card in another suit), you "hold up" (duck) the opponent's lead at least once and allow him to win the trick. The purpose is to try to void one opponent in this suit. Later, if that opponent gets the lead, he won't have any cards left in the suit to lead over to his partner's good tricks.

In the typical hold-up play, you duck your ace twice, then win the third lead. Here's an example.


♠ 87



♣ 105


  As South, you're declaring 3NT and West leads the ♠K. Before you play, count your sure tricks, suit by suit:

  • Spades: One sure trick the ♠A.

  • Hearts: Three sure tricks the AKQ.

  • Diamonds: No sure tricks (yet) because you don't hold the ace.

  • Clubs: One sure trick the ♣A.

  You have only five sure winners, but you need nine tricks. Diamonds is the only suit that can provide four extra tricks, so you need to drive out the ace.

  How can you stop the opponents from running spades when they get the lead with their A?

♠ KQJ102   



♣ Q832


♠ 654



♣ K974


♠ A93



♣ AJ6


You have to hope that the player who wins the A will have no more spades to lead. The only way to make that happen is to run one opponent out of spades.

If you win the first or second spade lead, both opponents will still have spades when you lose to the A. If you wait until the third lead to win your ♠A, then lead diamonds, you'll make your contract. East will win the A, but will have no spades to lead to his partner.

Other hold-up plays

Your hold-up honor does not have to be the ace. Suppose you have ♠K32 in your hand and ♠654 in dummy. Your left-hand opponent leads a low spade to his partner's ♠A, and he leads another spade. You should play your low spade and let him win the second trick. This guards against a spade break of 5-2 or 4-3 in the opponents' hands. In both cases, your right-hand opponent will be out of spades when you win your ♠K on the third trick.

You may want hold up even when you have two stoppers in the opponent's suit. You'll need to do this when you can see that later in the hand, you'll have to lose the lead twice to establish tricks in other suits. If you have ♠AK2 opposite ♠54, for example, let the opponents win the first lead of the suit.

Some hold-ups will prevent the opponents from leading the suit a second time. If your left-hand opponent leads the ♠K (showing a suit headed by the ♠KQ) and you hold ♠AJ2, play your ♠2 and let the opponent win the first trick. If he leads spades again, he'll be leading into your remaining ♠AJ, giving you two tricks. This is often called the "Bath Coup".

When not to hold up

  2016 Karen Walker