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The Declarer's Toolkit
Introduction
Introduction There's quite a variety of tools in the Declarer's Toolkit. Some, like hammers and screwdrivers, perform pretty basic functions and you'll find yourself using these all the time. Others are more specialised and are used more sparingly, for particular tasks. The trick is, of course, twofold:
 
  • to know how each tool works and how to operate it, but also
  • to select the right tool at the right time for the right job.
 
If that seems complicated, it isn't really. All the tools described below have evolved as common-sense ways of dealing with the basic requirements of play, with which you're already familiar. Just to refresh your memory:
 
  1. A trick consists of four cards, one from each player, and is won by the player who plays the highest-ranking card in the suit led (or the highest-ranking trump - see 2).
  2. Any trump has a higher rank than any non-trump.
  3. Players must follow suit if they can. If they can't, they may play any other card they wish.
  4. (Crucially) the player who wins a trick leads to the next trick. So if you win a trick in dummy, you now have to lead from dummy, not from your hand.
 
And that's it, really. Simple stuff, but then that's what evolution is all about. Like DNA, you start with just 4 bases, and end up with ... well, let's see.

Two fundamental tools
Tool 1: Counting
Tool 1: Counting
Counting - of a pretty rudimentary kind - underlies pretty well everything you do as Declarer (or as a defender, for that matter). There are three things worth counting: tricks, cards and points.



 Counting tricks 


The first thing you count, before you play a card, is the number of tricks you have between you and dummy. You will then know the number of extra tricks you need (if any) to develop to make your contract. And in suit contracts, it pays to count your losers as well. This will give you a basis for a plan of attack: how to establish the extra tricks and/or reduce the number of losers you hold.

 Counting cards 

You're in a no-trump contract. If you have 8 cards in a suit, the defenders started with 5. Once they've played them all, you have all the remaining cards in that suit - and therefore all the remaining tricks in that suit. So keep a count of those 5 cards as they appear. Similarly, in a trump contract you'll want to remove all the defenders' trumps. All you have to do is work out how many they had to start with and count them as they're played.

 Counting points 

If you add together your and dummy's points and take it away from 40, that's how many points the two defenders started with. It can provide useful insights. For example, suppose you're South in 3NT, with a combined total of 27 points.
  • Did West open the bidding? If so, he must hold pretty well all the defenders' points, so it's pointless speculating that the all-important missing K is with East - it isn't!
  • Or maybe West started with a pass, and began his defence by leading ♣AKQ6. Who has the K now? It must be with East - if West had it, he surely wouldn't have started with a pass.

I know, I know, you have a lot to think of as declarer, and you can't spend all your time counting everything that's played, let alone remembering it. I agree. You have to be selective. Concentrate on the suits where the opponents' holding are important - and their trump holding is always a priority. It'll pay rich dividends.

Tool 2: Remembering
Tool 2: Remembering
You've obviously got a better chance of selecting the winning play towards the end of a hand if you can remember what's happened so far. But memory's a bit like counting: there's a lot going on when you're playing a hand, and you can't remember everything. Nor do you have to: a lot of it isn't worth remembering! What's important is to select the things that are worth remembering, and to make an effort with them.

Here are a few things that you should try to remember:

  • The things you've bothered to count. Not a lot of point in doing the counting in the first place if you can't recall it later when you need it.
  • The auction. You can infer a lot about the defenders' holdings from what they bid (or failed to bid), as we saw in Counting (above).
  • The opening lead. As we found in the first lesson on Defence, the opening lead is designed to set up winners for the defence, and also to pass information to the leader's partner. You'd be foolish not to listen in to their conversation. West led the K? She probably has the Queen, and maybe the Jack too. Or maybe she led the ♠2 against your no-trump contract? If that's her fourth highest, then she started with exactly 4 spades. Store that away as useful information for later.
  • Defenders 'showing out' (that is, failing to follow suit). East showed out on the 2nd round of clubs? If he started with only one club, then West must have started with 5 ...
  • The fall of defenders' high cards. There's no point in leading your K and forcing out the A if you then forget that your Q is now the highest heart! Or maybe you have ♠KQ1092, you play your ♠K, West wins with the Ace ... and out comes the ♠J from East. Hey - you have not only the top spade now, but the top three spades. That's got to be worth remembering.
  • Your plan. You made a plan at trick one. Try not to forget what it was! If things don't work out exactly as you imagined, it's easy to get side-tracked and lose your way.

A lot of the above is to do with making inferences - a skill which is crucial to good play at bridge. You can only make inferences if you have evidence, and you only have evidence if you take the trouble to remember it! It's hard at first, but it quickly gets easier with practice. Honest.

Tools for No-trump Contracts
Actually, these tools are not restricted to no-trumps. They're mostly just as useful in suit contracts as well. The point is that (unlike the tools in the next section) they don't specifically involve trumps. They're 'trump-free' tools. Does that make sense? Hope so.

Tool 3: Managing a suit of winners
Tool 3: Managing a suit of winners Nothing particularly tricky here - we first came across this early in Term 1 - but managing suits is what declarers do for a living and it's important to get it right. We noted earlier (fact 4, Introduction, above) the inconvenient fact that the hand that wins a trick leads to the next: you can't win a trick in your hand and then lead to the next trick from dummy. So you have to be careful not to get stuck with the lead in the wrong hand. Take this suit, for example:
 
dummy  AKQ62         hand  J3
 
You hope to make 5 tricks from this suit and - provided the 6 missing diamonds split no worse than 4-2 - you will. How are you going to do that, without involving any other suits? Let's have a go.
  • Suppose you lead your A and then the K (the J falling under it). Fine if the opponents' diamonds are 3-3, but not if they're 4-2, as now you'll eventually have to lose a diamond trick. So that can't be right.
  • OK. You lead the A, as before, but then lead the 2 and win with the Jack. Trouble is, it leaves you stuck in the wrong hand. After winning the 2nd trick with the Jack, you don't have a diamond left to lead from your hand.
The way to do it is, of course, to win trick 1 with the Jack. It makes no difference which hand you start in, provided you play the J from your hand and a low diamond from dummy. Now you can lead the last remaining diamond in your hand - the 3 - to the A, leaving the lead where you want it - in dummy - to take three further diamond tricks.

What about this one?
 
dummy  AK104         hand  QJ
 
A bit similar, really. You hold the top 5 diamonds, so can easily make all 4 tricks - provided you treat the suit well. As before, whichever hand you start from, take the first trick in your hand (playing the 4 from dummy). Then lead the remaining diamond from your hand, making sure that you win trick 2 in dummy with the Ace or King. Now you have the lead where you want it - in dummy - and can take 2 further tricks.

So what's the rule? You take tricks with the high cards in the short hand first, then transfer the lead to the long hand to take the rest of the tricks. So with
 
dummy  A5         hand  KQJ109
 
win the first trick with the Ace, then lead the 5 to your hand, where you can enjoy the rest of the tricks.

Simple enough. Sometimes, of course, it's not important, as you'll have some other way of getting back to the 'long' hand. But sometimes you won't. And then you'll need to take just a moment to work out how you'll get the lead into the right hand at the right time.

Establishing extra tricks
The first thing you do as declarer in a no trump contract is count your winners (or 'quick tricks'): that is, the tricks you can make 'off the top' without losing the lead. Here are some examples:

  • ♠AKQ. This suit has three winners.
  • AK843. This suit has just two winners - so far: the Ace and King.
  • ♣KQJ109. This suit doesn't have any winners - yet. The Ace is missing.

Once you've counted your winners, you will usually need to find a way to establish the extra tricks you need to make your contract. Which is where Tools 4, 5 and 6 come in ...

Tool 4: Establishing tricks using strength
Tool 4: Establishing tricks using strength We've just described 'winners' as tricks you can make without losing the lead. It follows, then, that when you set about establishing the extra tricks you need, you're probably going to lose the lead along the way. Learners tend to be reluctant to lose the lead, as they feel they're losing control, but it ain't necessarily so. Losing the lead is an essential - on occasions, even desirable - strategy in creating extra tricks, and we'll see later how we can keep control of the hand even when a defender is on lead.

Meanwhile, have a look at this suit:
 
dummy  J106         hand  KQ9832
 
Not a winner in sight. Why? Because you haven't got the Ace. But once the Ace is gone, what a lot of lovely tricks you've got. Think of your heart holding as a bottle, and the A as the cork: to get at the tasty tricks inside, you need only to get rid of the cork.

Like any good corkscrew, this tool is a doddle to operate: you simply lead hearts, losing just one trick to the Ace. And once you've won back the lead, the other five heart tricks belong to you.

A rather obvious word of caution: the purpose of leading hearts is to force out the Ace. So don't play the 2 from your hand and the 6 from dummy: you'll lose the trick to the 7, and the Ace will still be out there somewhere! One of the cards you play must be big enough to force out the Ace. And just as with Tool 3, it's best to start with the high cards in the shorter hand - in this case, dummy - so you don't end up being stuck in the wrong hand. So start with the J, and then the 10.

Just as a check, how many tricks do you expect to make with these holdings? (Triple-click the red bits to see the answers.)

dummy  KQ10         hand  J932
Three, after you've forced out the Ace.

dummy
  Q10864         hand  J9
Three. But you'll have to lose the lead twice (to the Ace and the King) to set them up.

dummy  65432         hand  ♣KQ
Only one. But maybe more in the fullness of time - see the next tool.

Tool 5: Establishing tricks using length
Tool 5: Establishing tricks using length Let's give declarer back an Ace:
 
dummy  32         hand  AKQJ654
 
How many winners do you have in this heart suit? The answer is not 4, but 7. If you can't see why, think about it before reading on.

The reason is (see Introduction fact 3, above) is that the defenders have to follow suit. By the time you've taken your first 4 tricks with the AKQJ, the opposition don't have any hearts left. Count it up: you have 9 hearts between you and dummy, so the defence have only 4. Even if they were divided 4-0, they'll all be used up by the time you've taken your first four tricks:  the 10987 will all have disappeared, and that means that your 6, 5 and 4 are worth a trick each. They aren't very high cards, but they're the only ones left, so they can't be beaten.

Things aren't quite as clear-cut with this spade suit:
 
dummy  AK6532         hand  874
 
Again, you have 9 cards in the suit, but this time you can't predict how many tricks you're going to get. It depends on how the remaining 4 spades are divided between the defenders. If they have two each, you can make all 6 spade tricks. The ♠QJ109 will drop harmlessly under the ♠A and ♠K, and the remaining spade tricks are all yours.

If they're divided 3-1, however, you have only 5 tricks, and only after you have conceded trick 3 to the defence can you claim your remaining spade tricks. And if they're divided 4-0 you will lose two tricks - to the ♠Q and the ♠J - and you'll only make 4 spade tricks yourself.

With this holding, you have only 8 of the suit:
 
dummy  A54         hand  K7632
 
This time the opposition have 5, and again, the number of tricks you can make will depend on how they are divided. You'll be glad to know that when 5 cards are missing, they'll be divided 3-2 around 65% of the time, so usually you'll make 4 tricks with this holding (winning the A and K, then losing a trick to the defenders' last diamond. By then, your remaining 2 diamonds will be the only ones left and so will be worth a trick each.)

Less often (28% of the time, if you're interested) they'll divide 4-1, leaving you with only one extra 'length' trick. And now and again, they'll be 5-0 - yuk!

One more, this time with a combined holding of only 7 cards:
 
dummy  AQ63         hand  K64
 
What are your chances of making 4 club tricks here? Well, with 6 cards missing, the most likely division turns out to be 4-2 (48% of the time), with the more friendly 3-3 trailing at 36%. So the odds are you'll only make 3 tricks from this holding. But hey - more than one time in 3 the missing clubs will drop in three tricks, so it's worth having a go: if they do, that little ♣3 in dummy will earn a trick every bit as big as the trick you won with the ♣A.

You get the idea. With a long suit, you establish extra tricks by exhausting your opponents' holding in that suit, so that the cards you have left - however tiddly they are - become worth a trick each. Sweep away the cards that stand in your way, and then you can clean up!

This tool is, of course, exactly what the defenders are themselves using against you in no trumps: they would like to clear away your holding of their long suit, so they can get tricks with all their tiddlers, too. Hence their lead of 'the 4th highest of their longest and strongest suit'. You need to be aware of that, and keep yourself protected - more of which later.

More soon ...