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I have decided to suspend the Tuesday lessons until further notice in slight anticipation of me being gated.

16: Opening Leads
More Competition and Opening Leads

16 Opening Leads & More Competition

Takeout Double

We have already covered two-suited overcalls, Michaels and Unusual NT. 

In competition, if you have something to say you should probably say it. To overcall with a suit promises, guarantees except in exceptional circumstances, a 5 card suit. More, it suggest that suit for an opening lead if partner has that task. So the suit will be good; not every suit which might warrant an opening bid is good enough for an overcall; conversely a hand worth an overcall might not be strong enough for an opening bid.

In pairs, it is usually winning bridge to compete vigorously when partner has overcalled, invoking the law of total tricks to raise immediately to the level of fit. That is, you know partner has a five card suit, raise to promise as many tricks as your believe the partnership has trumps

We looked at a hand


S: Q T 8 5 4

H: 7 5

D: K 8 6 5

C: Q T


S: 2

H: 8 6 4 3

D: J T 7 3

C: K 8 5 2


S: A K 9 6

H: A 2

D: Q 4

C: J 9 6 4 3


S: J 7 3

H: K Q J T 9 

D: A 9 2

C: A 7

South dealt and, not quite having the usual balance for 1NT, opened 1C. West overcalled 1H and N bid 1S. Now East’s bid should be 3H. Not many HCP but a known 9-card fit in Hearts; if we have a fit, they have a fit so lets make their life hard. Now South has something of a problem. He would surely have bid 2S without the East bid. If he stretches to 3S could N with a slightly stronger hand judge whether to go to game or not? In fact 3S is the NS limit (losing a heart, a diamond and two clubs) while EW could have made 3 Hearts, losing a spade, a heart and two diamonds. If non-vulnerable, EW would do better to save in 4H for a good result even doubled; he knows E has few HCP because E has not made a value raise cue-bid; 2S by E would have shown the spade control and enough HCP to raise to at least 3H. There is a lot of fun to be had in competitive auctions. 

A balanced hand worth about 15-17 HCP and with at least half a stop in the opposition suit should overcall 1NT. FOr some reason, it’s easy to overlook this possibility.

An unbalanced hand with no overcallable suit (ie no 5+cards with a good honour holding), about ordinary opening strength and shortage in the opponents suit can make a takeout double. This bid is the least helpful to partner and the least obstructive of the opponents and so should only be used when neither of the earlier bids, the overcall or the NT bid, is appropriate. A double pretty much promises 4-card support for very unbid major and enough HCP for an opening bid.

Exceptionally strong hands can compete with a double or a Cue bid and correct partner’s understanding on the next round. More later.

Suit Choice for Lead Against NT

Recall the auction. How much do the opposition have to spare? The book says an auction like 1NT, 2NT (invitational raise), 3NT indicates the opposition have little to spare; yet another reason why we use 2NT after 1NT as a transfer to diamonds, but not everyone bids this way. If the auction suggest the contract may be a stretch, prefer a passive lead, make declarer work for his own tricks. Whereas the strong auction 1NT 3NT suggest an active lead, even at some risk. 

The usual advice is to lead the highest from your side’s longest and strongest suit. Negative inferences from the auction may suggest the best active lead is to try and find partner’s suit. Have they opponents maybe tried to find a major fit? If they haven’t, and you have a short major, perhaps partner has length? You’ll probably avoid a 5-card suit shown by a transfer!

A five card suit is often a good lead, the trick you perhaps give away may come back as 2 length tricks, or you may prefer a good 4-card suit, like Q J T x as safer. 

With 2 four card suits, it may be safer to lead from a weak 4-card major than a fair (eg A J x x) minor when the opponents haven’t tried for a major contract; the minor lead is more likely to give a trick away. 

If you are guessing partner’s suit, attention to the auction is most important. You are on lead after an auction 

“Pass, 1D, Pass, 1H, 

Pass, 1NT, Pass, 3NT” holding S: 8 7, H: Q T 5 3, D: K J 3 2, C: J 8 2. The red suits are broken and leading one will probably give a trick away for little gain; however neither opponent has bid spades so it is probable partner has at least 4.

If partner has bid a suit, especially if he has bid it as an overcall where we expect fair or good suit quality, he will expect it to be lead. Trust your partner not the opponents who may call NT with a flimsy stop or a single stop. 

If you have to lead a suit the opponents have bid from a broken honour combination, it may be better to lead declarer’s suit than dummy’s. If you hold K T 9 8, and declarer has A J x x while dummy has Q x, you have lost a tempo but not a trick.

Partner doubling 3NT is a convention called the Lightener Double, “Make the right lead and this contract is going down”. Of course, the opponents may run, but this will often be to a minor part score. The Lightener Double meaning depends on what the defenders have bid. 

  • If only partner has named a suit, he is reemphasising that he wants that suit lead. 
  • If both defenders have bid suits he is asking you to lead yours; that is, avoid your normal lead which would be his suit. 
  • If neither defender has bid, partner is asking for dummy’s first bid suit; eg after an auction of “1D, pass, 1H, pass, 1NT, pass, 3NT, double” lead a Heart. 
  • If no-one has bid a suit, partner is promising a strong suit and asking you to guess which it is.

Suit Choice for Lead against Trumps

Review the auction and formulate a strategy. Mutually exclusive possibilities in no particular order include:

  1. lead trumps to cut down ruffs;
  2. try and force the long trump hand so it loses control;
  3. lead from a strong sequence;
  4. lead a singleton or doubleton hoping for a ruff;
  5. attack when the auction suggests have a good side suit which you can see is breaking well;
  6. be passive and try and give nothing away.

Use strategy a) when you expect dummy to be short in your side’s good suit, maybe if there has been a splinter bid.

Use strategy b) when you have long trumps or such short trumps that you expect partner to have long trumps. Declarer has avoided the premium for a NT contract, but forcing might leave your high cards making tricks.

If you happen to have a strong sequence like K Q J (and maybe more length), strategy c)will give nothing away; if declarer has the ace in one hand or the other he was always going to make it.

Strategy d) includes when you expect partner to be the one with the shortage. But it tends to work badly unless one of you has a key trump to get the lead back before trumps are exhausted. And even then, you may score a ruff but save declarer the trouble of drawing a third round of trumps; for this reason, the short suit lead should be far less popular than it is. Robson has the doubleton lead as one you should almost never make!

Strategy e) is risky. You have to hope partner has a key card or two. But if he doesn’t, you expect the contract to make anyway. At pairs, such a risky lead may depend on how the session so far is going for giving away an overtrick is perhaps a bottom.

Card Choice for Opening Lead

The general advice is choose your suit first then make the conventional lead from that suit. It’s not quite as linear as this, because if the conventional card from your preferred suit will mislead partner, you may want to reconsider the choice of suit. As the book says: “… you lead a particular card because it is customary to lead that card from that holding.

The Orpington EBU card shows the customary leads. This is unchanged from the EBU default. From a high sequence such as K Q J or K Q T, lead the top. With one high card then a sequence, such as K J T, lead the top of the interior sequence but underleading an ace is rare. With a single honour lead 4th highest (but against a suit contract, strongly consider another suit). From a weak 3-card or 4-card suit lead second highest intending to play the highest on the next round, unless the sight of dummy and the subsequent play shows that to be wasteful. But if you are leading trumps, lead the lowest.

The card doesn’t say what to do with holdings like K Q x x. At NT, fourth highest gives the better chance of establishing the suit without a blockage; at a suit contract you risk giving a trick away for no reward but if every other suit is less appealing, you’ll probably choose the highest honour.

When leading partner’s suit, pick the same card as ever. Only lead highest if that’s what you would have done anyway had partner not bid and you chose that suit to lead.