Ever wonder why good bridge players seem to be able to see through the backs of your cards? Why they are so successful in finding the right lead, locating missing honors, guessing the distribution of their opponents’ cards? The answer is that they are usually not guessing. Whether they’re defending or declaring, good players are constantly gathering clues from the bidding and play and using them to make logical assumptions about the location of the unseen cards.
This exercise – some call it a talent  is often called card reading, and it’s a skill that even beginners can develop. It involves determining the overall layout – the length and strength (honor holdings) of each suit in each of the two hidden hands. The first and most important step in card reading is counting the hand, which focuses on figuring out how many cards each player holds in each suit.
At its most basic level, counting involves keeping track of the cards your opponents play as you’re leading one suit. If you're declaring a suit contract, you use this simple count when you’re drawing trumps. If you’re declaring a notrump contract, the first suit you count is the usually one that offers you the greatest number of potential tricks. This is probably your longest fit, and the suit you lead first.
Most players find #1 the easiest, but it doesn’t really matter which approach you use. Anything you're comfortable with will work fine.
You can use the same counting technique as a defender, with only minor variations. Start your count with the number of cards you and dummy hold in the critical suit. In some cases, you'll already know how many cards partner holds in that suit (from his lead or from the bidding), so you’ll have a full count on the suit before any cards are even played.
Once you master counting one suit, you’ll want to move on to figuring the distribution of two or more suits. To do this successfully, you need:
From the bidding:
Whether you're defending or declaring, use what you
know from the bidding to come up with an initial picture or one or both
opponents' hands. You can start with very simple assumptions, such as the
minimum length promised by an opening bid or response. If an opponent opens 1H,
for example, you can "see" at least five of his 13 cards. If that
opponent makes subsequent bids in the auction, you'll learn more about his other
8 cards and you can often build a fairly accurate  or sometimes perfect 
picture of his hand pattern.
You can also use the bidding to determine what a player does not hold in a suit, which will lead you to conclusions about his length in other suits and, in some cases, his partner's length in a suit. For example:
Before you lead or make a critical play during the hand, try to process
everything you know from the bidding. Count one hand at a time, and keep your focus on the
number 13. Mentally repeat each fact you've learned about that hand and
ask yourself what logical conclusion you can make from it. Then apply what you
know to the other unseen hands. Your thought process may go something like:
"Declarer opened 1S and then bid clubs twice, so he has
10 cards in those two suits. That gives him 3 cards in the red suits. If
he's 21 in those suits, that means my partner has ... . If he's 30, then my
partner has ...".
From the opening lead:
The opening lead will
sometimes pinpoint the leader's exact length in the suit. If it's a notrump
contract, for example, and your partner or an opponent leads the 2 of spades (or
the lowest spot card), you'll know he has exactly 4 spades (assuming 4thbest
leads). The opening lead can also tell you something about the leader's holding in other suits.
A defender will usually choose his longer, stronger suit for an opening lead to
a notrump contract, so if there are other unbid suits, you can figure that the
leader's holdings in those suits are shorter (and/or weaker) than the suit he
led.
Other
leads can suggest:
Shortness in a suit  a high spotcard lead to a trump
contract, for example.
A specific honor holding  the lead of a queen from a QJ
holding.
The lack of
an honor combination  a lead of a low card (especially to a suit
contract) usually suggests that the leader does not hold touching honors (AK, KQ, QJ,
J10).
From the play:
As each trick is played, look for
evidence and clues that will help you refine your picture of the hand (or hands) you're counting. Many
of these are obvious, such as when a player shows out of
a suit. Others are more subtle and require you to make negative inferences 
why declarer isn't leading hearts, why an opponent didn't return his partner's suit, why he's
pitching clubs instead of spades.
Watch the defenders' count and attitude signals. They will be signaling each other about their length and honor holdings in specific suits, and you can use this information to count their hands.
Discovery plays: If you're declaring and you have an important guess to make in one suit, you may be able to collect extra information by using a discovery play before you attack the critical suit. A discovery play involves leading another suit (cashing its high cards or trumping its low cards) and keeping track of how many cards each opponent holds in that suit. This will help you complete your picture of the opponents’ length in other suits and lead you to a more informed decision about how to play the problem suit. See "At the Table" below for an example of how to use a discovery play.
Memorize the common patterns of the 13 cards in a suit  4432, 4333, 4441, 5332, 5431, 6322, 7321, etc. (Note that all the patterns of four numbers fall into one of two evenodd combinations: three even numbers and one odd, or three odds and one even.) Drill yourself on the patterns and become so familiar with them that you won't even have to think once you get a partial count. If you discover that each opponent has 4 cards in a suit and you hold 2 cards, you won't need to do any arithmetic to know that partner holds 3. The 4432 pattern will instantly pop into your head.
Concentrate on how the unseen cards divide. Once you become adept at recognizing the common patterns, start thinking not just about the number of outstanding cards in a suit, but about how they might break. If your hand and dummy have 8 total cards in a suit, try to focus on the possible divisions of the 5 missing cards. With practice, it will become second nature for you to go beyond thinking "5" and start thinking "32, 41, 50".
Memorize the original layout. Whether you're declaring or defending, study the dummy at trick one and create a mental picture of its distribution. Commit it to memory by repeating the pattern in your head (for example: 3532, or 3532). Do the same with your own hand. Later in the play, if you can't remember how many cards have been played in a suit, you can often reconstruct the play  and figure out how many times the suit has been led  by recalling your mental picture of the number of cards you and dummy originally held in the suit.
Mentally review the bidding before you play to the first trick. If possible, come up with a picture of each player's general hand pattern and highcard strength. Consider not just what the hidden hands actually bid, but what they did not bid.
Focus your count on just one unseen hand. The easiest hand to count will usually be the player who made the most bids during the auction, or who made the opening lead. Use what you know about that hand to figure the distribution of the other hidden hand.
Consider the skill of your opponents. The more experienced they are, the more reliable their bidding and carding will be ... and the easier it will be for you to make accurate assumptions about their hands. Popular bridge author Eddie Kantar observed, "A madman's hand is particularly hard to count, but he's usually in the wrong contract, which evens things out."
Practice, practice, practice. It will take time and lots of practice before you can process all the information available and make the right conclusions. You can speed your progress by making a concentrated effort to count at least one or two suits on every deal you play, even on those where it appears you can't affect the result. The more hands you play and the more suits you count, the more adept your brain will become at remembering the cards.
Study the opening lead. Try to make some conclusions about the opening lead. Does the card led suggest length or shortness in the suit? Does it pinpoint the leader’s exact length (and therefore his partner's length)? Does it show an honor combination or the lack of one? What does it tell you about the leader’s possible length or honor holdings in other suits?
Play on one suit at a time. Once you begin drawing trumps or establishing a suit, stick with that suit. If you have to lose a trick, resume leading and counting the critical suit as soon as soon as you regain the lead. Resist the temptation to cash high cards in other suits unless you have a clear purpose in doing so (you need them for entries, for example). When you're done cashing tricks in the first suit you’re counting, move on to the next suit and start a new count.
Watch the defenders’ count and attitude signals. Be aware, however, that you can’t trust these implicitly. If an opponent thinks a signal will be of more help to you than to his partner, he may not give an accurate signal, especially late in the play.
If possible, delay your important decisions. Collect all the information you can about the defenders' distributions before you decide how to attack a critical suit. Run your long suit or cash a few extra trumps (if you can do so safely) and see what you can learn from the opponents' discards. Use discovery plays to get a count on side suits. If you have tricks to lose, consider giving the defenders the lead to see if they'll provide you with a discovery play.
Watch partner's signals. They tell you about his length and possible highcard holdings in key suits.
Give partner good signals so he can count out the hand, too. Use your judgment here, though. Some signals help declarer more than they help your partner, so it’s sometimes right to withhold a count signal if you think it will tell declarer how to play a suit.
Find a time to add up what you know. Think while declarer or partner is thinking or when it's your lead. If possible, avoid long thought when it’s your turn to follow suit. Make your decisions early and be ready to follow smoothly when declarer or dummy leads.
Your stint as dummy is the perfect time to practice your counting skills. Even though you can see only your own hand, you can work on developing a mental picture of the distribution in the other three hands. Analyze the bidding and opening lead and add up what you know about each player’s suit length. Then watch the played tricks and the defenders' signals and try counting the number of cards each player holds in each suit. This is great practice because there's no pressure; if you make any errors, they're "free", and no one will know.
Here's an example of how to use a simple inferential count to make an intelligent guess:
Dummy: ♠K6 You:
♠A643 You Partner Opening lead: ♥3

RHO wins the ♥A and returns the ♥9. You win the king and LHO follows with the ♥2. Your only hope for 9 tricks is to score 4 diamonds, and that will require you to find the ♦Q. You can finesse either opponent for that card. Is it a pure guess, or do you have a clue that will help you make the decision? There's no discovery play available here, since cashing your other tricks first is unlikely to give you any helpful information. All you have to go on is your count in the heart suit, which you've already determined by watching the cards played to the first two tricks. Here, LHO led the ♥3 and then followed with the ♥2, so he's shown that he holds 5 hearts (♥Qxx32). RHO therefore has 3 hearts (♥A9x). When you're in doubt about the location of a specific card, the odds favor it being in the hand that has the most "room" to hold that card. Your count in the heart suit tells you there are 8 chances that LHO has the diamond queen (he had 5 hearts, so has 8 unknown cards) and 10 chances that RHO has the queen (he had 3 hearts, so has 10 unknown cards). So your best play is to cash the ♦K and lead the ♦10, planning to finesse RHO for the ♦Q. 
Here's a defensive quiz where you can use the opening lead and the bidding to come up with the right play:
Dummy (RHO): You: ♠
J1082 LHO RHO 
Opening lead: ♣2 Declarer plays low from dummy and you win the ♣A. Now is the time
to add up all the evidence. It's often right to return the suit partner
led, but you'll change your mind if you stop to count
out the hand. Try to answer these questions before you make your decision: 
Focus your count on declarer's hand.
How
many clubs does he hold? Exactly 4 (because
the lead shows that partner holds exactly 4 clubs).
How
many diamonds? At least 4 (because he
didn't raise spades).
How many hearts? Exactly
4. Declarer didn't open 1H, so he has fewer than 5 hearts. It appears that
partner also has fewer than 5 hearts, since he surely would have led a 5card
heart suit rather than a 4card club suit. The 8 hearts that you can't see must
therefore be divided 44 in partner's and declarer's hands. (Note that you also
have a clue that partner doesn't hold a heart honor. Since partner is 44 in
hearts and clubs and he chose clubs for his opening lead, his clubs are probably stronger
than his hearts.)
How
many spades? You've counted
declarer's hand to be 444 in the other three suits, so that leaves him with
one spade. That
means partner has three spades with at least one honor.
Note that without a count, you probably wouldn't have
expected opener to have a singleton for his 1NT rebid. Many players, however,
prefer this approach when they have a 1444 pattern. The alternative with this
hand is to bid 2C (showing a minor twosuiter), which is also a
distortion.
You can also add up the highcard points here. Declarer's minimum notrump rebid tells you he has 12 to 14 points. (If he had 15 pts., he would have opened a 1517 1NT.) Add declarer's points to the 20 total points in your hand and dummy, and you can determine that partner holds from 6 to 8 highcard points.
Did you find the killing shift? It's right to lead a low spade at trick two. Partner wins the spade ace and returns a spade for down one. Your side will eventually score seven tricks  three spades, the AK of clubs and the two red aces.
Declarer's hand was: ♠Q ♥KJ109 ♦KQ106 ♣Q1085
Partner's hand was: ♠A43 ♥8432 ♦83 ♣K972
Here's a deal where you can use a discovery play to collect extra information:
Dummy:
♠AQ9 You:
♠K10865 RHO You LHO Partner 
Opening lead: ♥J RHO overtakes his partner's ♥J and cashes the ♥AKQ. LHO pitches two small clubs on the second and third hearts. RHO exits with a spade and you cash the ♠AKQ. RHO follows three times with ♠J74. LHO follows with the ♠32 and pitches a small club on the third spade. Your contract depends on guessing the location of the ♣Q. With nothing else to go on, you might finesse RHO for the queen just because he opened the bidding and is therefore more likely to hold the missing highcard points. If you're counting the opponents' cards, though, you might come to a different conclusion. And if you use a simple discovery play, you may be able to guarantee three club winners. 
Your thought process:
Focus your count on opener (RHO).
So far, you know 9 of his 13 cards  6 hearts and 3 spades.
You've seen 10 of his highcard points  the
♥AKQ of hearts and the
♠J.
Did he need the
♣Q to open the bidding? No. He could hold the
♦Q or ♦QJ, which would give him 12 or 13
points.
Extra insurance  the discovery play:
Before you make the critical play in the club suit, play on diamonds to gather more
information about RHO's distribution. Cash the ♦K and ♦A and trump one of dummy's small
diamonds. RHO will follow to all three diamonds, so you now have
all the information you need to take three sure club tricks. You may also
see more of RHO's highcard points on the diamond tricks, but the most
important information here is his distribution.
You now know 12 of RHO's 13 cards  3 spades, 6 hearts
and at least 3 diamonds. That leaves him with a void or singleton in clubs, so
you have a "marked" finesse. Cash the
♣A, just in case RHO has
the singleton
♣Q. If the
♣Q doesn't fall, finesse LHO for his known
♣Q by leading a low club to dummy's
♣A10.
Read bridge books. One of the best books on this subject is How to Read Your Opponents' Cards by Mike Lawrence. His descriptions of how experts think at the table will give you insights into the "secrets" of counting. Lawrence has also authored Counting at Bridge, an interactive computer program. Another good book on counting is Countdown to Winning Bridge by Tim Bourke and Marc Smith.
Copyright © Karen Walker