Source: Improve Your Opening Leads  (Part 1)

Originally published in the March & April 2009 issues of the ACBL Bridge Bulletin


Karen Walker
Karen Walker

What’s the most difficult skill to master in the play of the cards? To a beginner, it may be a finesse. More experienced players might answer that it’s executing endplays or coups or squeezes.

Those are among the many challenges of our game, but their impact on our scores is minimal because they just don’t come up all that often. The skill that most agree is extremely difficult and absolutely critical to our success is the one we need an average of six or seven times every session: making a good opening lead.

Fortunately, some opening leads are relatively easy, even routine. If you’re on lead after the opponents bid 1NT-3NT, the old standby of “fourth down from longest and strongest” works well on most deals. You may also have an obvious lead after partner has overcalled or when you hold a suit with a strong honor sequence.

It’s the hands where the choice isn’t so clear that test us, and it seems those occur most often. In these situations, your playing experience may give you a good sense of what works and what doesn’t. More important, though, is the ability to listen to the auction and use the clues to visualize the hidden hands. As the late Terence Reese once said, “There is no such thing as a blind opening lead. Just deaf opening leaders.”

Three-step decision

The conventional wisdom is that selecting an opening lead is a two-part decision: you choose the suit first, then the specific card. The “which card?” decision is usually automatic once you’ve decided on the suit, so the main challenge is “which suit?”.

This decision will be easier – and more successful — if you back up and ask yourself a broader question: Does this auction call for a passive lead or an aggressive lead?

Some auctions will tell you that it’s best to make a safe, passive opening lead that isn’t likely to give declarer an extra trick. These leads are often from topless suits such as 86543 or 10982. On other deals, it will pay to make an aggressive lead – one that might give declarer a “gift” if partner has no help in the suit, but offers your best chance to beat the contract if partner has an honor or two. Aggressive leads are usually from suits with unprotected honors (low from Kxxx, for example).


Aggressive leads

How do you know when an aggressive lead is the best choice? One of your strongest clues comes when the opponents’ auction identifies a long side suit that can be set up as a source of tricks. For example, suppose you’re South holding  Spade Suit7654  Heart SuitA3  Diamond SuitKJ952   club suitJ7  and it’s your lead after your opponents have this auction:

   West     East
1Spade Suit         2Heart Suit
3Heart Suit         4Heart Suit

Your best opening lead rates to be the Diamond Suit5 (fourth best). You hope partner has either the Diamond SuitA or Diamond SuitQ, but even if he doesn’t, your risky lead may not cost. Dummy has shown a 5-card spade suit, and your holding suggests that declarer won’t have problems establishing it to pitch his losers. It’s important to set up possible tricks for your side right now, while you still have the Heart SuitA as an entry to cash them.

How about leads to higher-level contracts? When the opponents bid a small slam, your natural instinct may be to make a safe opening lead, but on some deals, being passive can give away the contract. An aggressive lead may be your only chance to beat a slam, especially if the opponents have shown great strength or a fit in a side suit. For example, your opponents bid to 6H via this auction:

  West      East
1Heart Suit
2Diamond Suit       3Diamond Suit
3Heart Suit       4NT
5Heart Suit       6Heart Suit

And you’re on lead with   Spade Suit109876    Heart Suit762   Diamond SuitA3   club suitK102.

The Spade Suit10 looks safe, but it doesn’t rate to set up a trick for your side. That would require partner to have the Spade SuitK and dummy the Spade SuitA (or partner to have Spade SuitKJ and dummy the Spade SuitQ), and for declarer and dummy to each have at least two spades. It’s better to set your sights lower and play partner for the club suitQ. Lead the club suit2 and hope you can set up and cash a club when you’re in with the Diamond SuitA. If it happens that you’ve led into declarer’s club suitAQ, you may have lost nothing, since it’s likely he would have pitched his club losers on dummy’s diamonds.

“Tapping” strategies

It can be especially important to adopt an attacking defense when you have length in the opponents’ trump suit.

West     East
1Spade Suit
2Spade Suit      4Spade Suit

What’s your lead as South holding  Spade Suit10865    Heart Suit987   Diamond SuitAJ962   club suit10 ?

Avoid the temptation to lead your singleton club. Even if partner has the club suitA and returns the suit, you’ll be ruffing with what could be a natural trump trick. You may also be doing declarer’s work for him by shortening your trumps and setting up his club suit.

The main advantage you can see for your side is that declarer’s trumps are breaking poorly, so try to exploit it. If you can force declarer to ruff, you may be able to reduce his trumps to your length or shorter and take control of the hand.

Once you’ve decided on your general strategy (aggressive) and your specific tactics (shortening or “tapping” declarer’s trumps), the Diamond SuitA lead stands out. An unsupported ace isn’t normally an attractive lead, especially with the strong hand on your right, but here, it’s your best chance to find declarer’s short suit. The full deal may be:

Contract:
4Spade Suit by South
Spade Suit A 3 2
Heart SuitQ 5 2
 10 8 5
 Q 9 7 6
Spade Suit 10 8 6 5
Heart Suit 9 8 7
 A J 9 6 2
 10
Spade Suit9
Heart SuitJ 6 4 3
Q 7 4 3
A J 5 4
Spade SuitK Q J 7 4
Heart SuitA K 10
K
K 8 3 2

On the club suit10 lead, declarer will play dummy’s club suitQ and take the marked finesse of partner’s club suitJ, losing only a club, a club ruff and a diamond. If you instead attack diamonds – and if partner cooperates by leading another diamond when he wins the club suitA – you’ll set the contract one or two tricks.

Attacking notrump contracts

Notrump contracts usually call for aggressive leads, which is why it’s standard to lead from your longest suit. Does this situation warrant making an exception?

West     East
1
1Spade Suit      1NT
2NT      3NT

What’s your lead as South holding   Spade Suit1072    Heart SuitK3   Diamond SuitQ10865   club suitJ64 ?

Declarer has shown at least four diamonds, so you might allow the old advice of “never lead into declarer’s suit” to overrule the “lead your longest and strongest” guideline.  The problem here is that the non-diamond alternatives don’t offer good potential for establishing tricks, and none are really all that safe.

A diamond lead is ambitious but not unreasonable, as all you need in partner’s hand is any diamond honor. Partner rates to have an entry or two, and if he can return your lead, your good tenace over declarer’s remaining cards may allow you to run the suit.

High Roller Leads

Another type of lead that’s often thought of as aggressive is the High Roller Lead – a gamble that will reap a big reward if you hit the perfect layout, but rates to be a zero if you don’t. These include “anti-field” leads that are flashy (king from Kx), deceptive (underleading an ace to a suit contract) or unusual (refusing to lead an AK of an unbid suit).

There’s a line between aggressive and reckless, and these leads can cross it. Experienced players dislike blind decisions, so they try to avoid making an impulsive choice on the one trick where they know the least about the hand.

  • When considering an aggressive opening lead, your best approach is to be hungry but not greedy, hopeful but not foolhardy. Keep this advice in mind:
  • Don’t shoot for a top on opening lead. If there’s an “obvious” lead that will be the field’s choice, go with it and give yourself an opportunity to make good defensive decisions later in the hand, when you have more information.
  • Be realistic about partner’s possible hands, and don’t set your sights too high. If the success of a risky lead requires partner to have a perfect but unlikely holding in the suit, look for an alternative, especially if the opponents’ auction hasn’t shown extra strength.
  • A deceptive lead will burn you more often than the opponents, as partner is usually paying closer attention to your lead than declarer is. A “dishonest” card may fool declarer about the layout of that suit, but he won’t mind the temporary confusion if your lead talks partner into blowing a trick.
  • If you do choose an unusual or deceptive lead, always have a logical reason. Partner may express a strong interest in hearing it later if your lead doesn’t work.
  • More wisdom from Terence Reese:  “Underleading an ace is a good idea . . . as long as you want to look for a new partner.”

Passive opening leads

In other situations, you’ll want to be more patient and make declarer work for all his tricks. Your goal on these hands is to make a safe opening lead that won’t give declarer a “cheap” or undeserved trick.

A safe lead may also be an attacking combination — such as a suit headed by AK, KQJ or QJ10 — and these are usually good choices for a lead to any contract. If you aren’t dealt these easy holdings, you’ll sometimes have to select a passive lead. Passive leads include:

  • A lead from a topless suit (such as 8762), especially one in which you don’t expect partner to hold an honor. When in doubt, lead through strength by choosing a suit dummy (rather than declarer) has bid.
  • A lead from length — such as fourth best from Q9653 or K87432. Even though underleading an honor is standard to a notrump contract, it can be risky against a suit contract. Length, however, gives you a margin of safety. The longer your suit, the less likely it will be that declarer needs to develop his own tricks in that suit.
  • A trump, in some cases.

How do you know when a passive lead is your best choice? Here are some of the contracts and types of auctions that call for a safe, non-attacking opening lead:

The opponents are in 6NT or a grand slam. 

An exception is if the opponents bid 6NT after an auction that suggests that their main source of tricks will be a long suit. In this case, you may want to make an aggressive opening lead (away from an honor) to try to set up a trick you can cash if you get the lead later.

The auction tells you that declarer has a strong hand and dummy (and/or partner) will be very weak. 

Suppose your RHO opens 2NT (20-22 pts.) and LHO raises to 3NT. What’s your lead from
Spade Suit986  Heart SuitAQ62  Diamond SuitKQ43  club suitQ6 ?

If you follow the “fourth from longest and strongest” rule, you’d choose the Heart Suit2 or the Diamond Suit3. But with almost all the outstanding honors on your right, either of these leads has a high risk of giving declarer a gift. Partner can’t hold more than 2-3 high-card points, so it’s not a good idea to count on him for help in a specific suit.

A more attractive choice is a passive Spade Suit9. This is unlikely to set up tricks for your side, but it probably won’t help declarer. You’ll be on lead again soon, and if your spade lead was indeed safe, you should consider continuing the suit. If a switch is necessary, you’ll have a better idea of which suit to choose later.

Note that you should not lead a diamond honor. A diamond will probably be right only when partner has the Diamond SuitJ (or the unlikelyDiamond SuitA), so if you do choose a diamond lead, it’s better to lead low (the Diamond Suit3). If partner has no honors (declarer and dummy have any combination of the Diamond SuitA, J, 10 and 9), leading the Diamond SuitK will give declarer three eventual tricks. If you instead lead low, declarer can’t take more than two tricks in the suit.

You’re defending a suit contract where the opponents are fairly balanced.

On these hands, declarer will usually have to play the side suits himself, so it’s best to sit back and wait for your tricks. Suppose you’re on lead as South holding   Spade SuitQ74  Heart SuitDiamond Suit108432   club suitKJ64  after this auction:

West     East
1Heart Suit
2NT*     4Heart Suit      * (Jacoby 2NT, forcing heart raise)

The opponents have shown game-level strength and their hands rate to be semi-balanced. Opener’s 4H rebid showed a minimum with no singleton, and responder might have chosen a different way to raise hearts if he had a very distributional hand. You expect that declarer will have to lead the side suits himself, so you want to avoid leading any suit that will make it easier for him to find missing honors.

The singleton trump is probably the most dangerous lead (partners always seem to hold Heart SuitQxx). It’s also risky to lead away from your club or spade honors. That leaves your  “nothing” suit — diamonds — so try the Diamond Suit3.

IMPs vs. matchpoints

If you’re not sure about whether to adopt an aggressive or passive strategy, consider the form of scoring. Passive leads tend to be more attractive in pair events, where saving an overtrick can have a big impact on your matchpoint score. In team events, the cost of an overtrick is tiny compared to the potential score for beating a contract, so there’s a greater incentive for making an aggressive lead. At IMPs, if there’s a realistic layout of the cards that will result in a set, choose your lead to cater to that possibility.

There’s an old bridge adage that advises, “Lead from nothing, get nothing”, and that should be your expectation with most passive leads. Your main goal is to do no harm, not to establish tricks. When considering a passive lead, keep this advice in mind:

  • When in doubt, choose a safe, passive lead if the opponents have struggled to a game contract. If they’ve bid strongly to game, you may need to find specific cards in partner’s hand to beat it, so there’s more incentive to take a risk and lead away from an honor.
  • Don’t choose a passive lead solely because you’re superstitious about your holding in a suit that offers a better attack. “Every time I lead the queen from QJxx, dummy hits with K10x and declarer has the ace.” If the auction tells you it’s right to lead that suit, do it.
  • Avoid going overboard with the give-them-nothing strategy at matchpoints. If others holding your cards will be leading from their KJxxx suit to 3NT, don’t try to out-think them by choosing a “brilliant” lead from your xxx suit. Like other unusual leads, going passive when you know the field will be aggressive is a gamble that rates to lose in the long run.
  • A top-of-nothing lead should promise at least a two-card sequence. From 9873, lead the 9. From 9643, you’ll want to retain the 9 (it could be a winner), so lead the 6 (second-highest). Partner will see that two low spot cards are missing from the first trick, which should help him determine that you’re leading from an honorless suit.
  • A lead from xxx should be your last choice, especially to a suit contract. This is the most difficult lead for partner to read. If you lead low, partner will think you have an honor. If you lead the middle or top card, it may look like a doubleton. The exception is if partner has bid the suit, in which case you should lead low (unless you’ve already shown three cards by raising the suit).