Source: The Bridge World

The Opening Lead

Much more could be said about declarer play; many volumes have been written on this topic. An introductory bridge lesson, however, must talk of many things, and the time has come to switch sides and follow the defenders as they try to prevent declarer from making his contract. just as the declarer’s primary obligation is to make his contract (and not to worry about overtricks unless the contract is absolutely safe), the defenders’ sole objective is to defeat the contract (and not to worry about extra undertricks unless the contract is certain to go down). Let’s begin at the beginning with the first blow struck by the defense—the opening lead.

To be a truly expert opening leader you must be a good bidding analyst. Since the opening lead is made without sight of the dummy, you must use the bidding to determine the composition of the enemy hands and make your choice accordingly. As bidding has not yet been discussed in this book, this chapter can deal only with general principles about opening leads. However, these principles alone can guide you to the correct lead on a majority of hands, and when you learn more about bidding you can, at the same time, improve your opening lead technique.

On the surface, opening leads may seem absurdly simple. When the auction has ended, the player to declarer’s left plays a card, and that’s that; unlike declarer play or defense, the opening lead involves only one trick (the first). Actually, opening leads are frequently the cause of victory or defeat on an entire hand and are treated with respect even by experts, who know well how challenging they can be. Opening leads are important for several reasons. Declarer’s side usually holds the majority of the strength (else the other side would be playing the hand), so you are facing the disadvantage of superior firepower in your attempt to set the contract. To compensate, however, the defending side has the right to make the first play, and a well-chosen lead may well provide the head start that negates declarer’s advantage in strength. Also, the defenders have the least information at their disposal at the time the opening lead is made, because only then are they unable to see the dummy. Thus, if you are on opening lead, you must use all your skill to garner whatever clues are available from the cards in your hand and the bidding so as to find the lead most likely to wreck the contract. Not even the best players in the world can make the right lead on every hand, but those “in the know” are aware that vast numbers of points are won and lost by the opening lead. It would take an entire book to give opening leads the attention they deserve but we can look at some useful general principles.

Selecting the Card to Lead

Let’s postpone for the moment the question of which suit to lead and consider the card to choose once the suit has been selected. In addition to competing for the first trick (and, hopefully, paving the way for the defeat of the contract), the card that you choose will convey information to your partner about your holding in the suit. For example, you could lead either the king or the queen from K Q 8 5 with equal effect insofar as the first trick is concerned, but consistently leading the king will help your partner figure out what you hold.

SUIT CONTRACTS

If you are leading anything other than trumps against a suit contract, the following guidelines will prove helpful:

1. Lead the top card from any doubleton, such as 8 5 or A 3.

2. Lead the king from any combination including the ace-king (and at least one other card). With A K 10 7 3, lead the king; take your tricks before declarer starts ruffing. Leading the ace would tell partner that you don’t have the king.

3. Lead the king from any combination including king-queen, such as K Q 7 2, to set up a quick winner before declarer can ruff.

4. Lead the top card from solid or nearly-solid honor sequences. With Q J 10 6 or Q J 9 5, lead the queen; with J 10 9 8 3 or J 10 8 7, lead the jack, and so on. However, holdings such as Q J 5 3 or 10 9 3 2 are not solid or nearly solid, so look for an alternative plan (see below).

5. Lead the top card from a three-card holding with no honors, such as 9 8 7 or 6 3 2.

6. Lead low from three cards including one or more honors that do not form a sequence. From  Q 10 6 or  K 8 3, lead the lowest card.

7. Lead the fourth-best card from four-card or longer suits (with no solid or nearly-solid honor sequence). With Q J 5 3, 10 9 6 3, K J 5 3 2, or 9 8 7 3, lead the three-spot; with J 9 7 5 3 2, lead the five.

8. Usually, don’t underlead an ace.

9. Lead the top of an interior sequence. With  K J 10 9 4, the king is not part of the sequence since you do not hold the queen, but you do have an interior sequence (J 10 9); lead the jack. Interior sequences include K J 10, K 10 9, and Q 10 9. Leading low from long suits allows you to retain your high cards to use later in the battle, when partner is likely to be out of the suit and you must carry on alone. Also, declarer is likely to find the lead of unsupported honor cards a welcome aid to his battle plan. For example:

DUMMY
 K 7 4
WEST (you)
 J 9 5 2
EAST
 Q 8 3
DECLARER
 A 10 6

If you lead the jack, declarer wins with dummy’s king and subsequently finesses his ten, taking three spade tricks. A much better plan is to lead the deuce. If dummy plays small, East puts up his queen, and declarer cannot make more than two tricks in the suit if you defend properly. With solid or nearly-solid sequences, however, you can well afford the lead of an honor. If your suit is strong enough, there is no need to take the risk of allowing declarer to win an undeserved trick, as in the following situation:

DUMMY
 6 5 3
WEST (you)
 Q J 10 4
EAST
 8 7 2
DECLARER
 A K 9

Lead the queen and declarer gets only his ace and king; lead the four and you present him with a third spade trick.

The card chosen by the opening leader carries a message to a partner skillful enough to draw the appropriate inferences. For example, if your partner is on opening lead and plays the king, he should also have either the ace or queen. (Leading a singleton or doubleton king is usually best avoided.) If partner leads the queen, he should also have the jack (but not the king or ace); the lead of the jack usually shows the ten and denies the queen. If partner leads the deuce, he must have either (a) a singleton, (b) three to an honor, or (c) exactly four cards in the suit (he cannot have five or more because his fourth-best card, the proper one to lead, would not be the deuce). If partner leads a high spot (such as the 9, 8, or 7) and follows with a smaller one, he is likely to have a doubleton or three small in the suit; if he leads the 4 and follows with the 2, he could have 4 2 doubleton or a long suit such as K J 8 4 2.

NOTRUMP CONTRACTS

Against notrump contracts, lead the fourth-best card from long suits except for solid sequences. From A K 6 4 2, A Q 8 4 2, Q 10 9 4, or Q J 6 4 3 2, lead the four-spot; declarer cannot ruff, so you need not rush to cash your winners. With Q J 10 9 3 or K Q J 9 5, lead the top of your sequence; with A J 10 9 2, lead the jack (top of an interior sequence). Notice that it is acceptable to underlead an ace against a notrump contract. Shorter suits are usually less attractive leads against notrump contracts, but if you are going to lead one lead the top from a doubleton, three small cards, or a sequence, and lead low from three to an honor. Lead the 7 from 7 4; lead the 3 from K 10 3, Q 6 3, or 10 4 3; lead the 8 from 8 6 2; and lead the queen from Q J 6 and the ten from 10 9 3.

Leads Against Suit Contracts

Solid sequences are particularly delightful to lead from. If you lead the king from K Q J 10, you immediately establish the lower honors once the ace is driven out, and there is no possibility that you will hand declarer an undeserved trick. A lead from a slightly weaker holding, such as K Q 10, is also attractive, but somewhat more risk is involved:

DUMMY
 J 4 3
WEST (you)
 K Q 10
EAST
 7 6 5 2
DECLARER
 A 9 8

If you lead the king, declarer will win with the ace and score a second spade trick by leading up to dummy’s jack; if you refuse to lead the suit, declarer cannot get more than one spade trick. Of course, it is unfortunate to find the cards distributed in just this fashion; had partner held an honor or had the jack been in declarer’s hand, your lead would have helped instead of hurt. With weaker sequences, you are more likely to be unlucky:

DUMMY
 10 4 3
WEST (you)
 K Q 5 2
EAST
 9 8 6
DECLARER
 A J 7

If you lead spades, declarer easily scores a second trick.

Tend to lead partner’s suit if he has bid one. The information provided by his bid offers a ray of light in the darkness as to where the defenders’ strength lies, and it is usually best to heed it barring a strong indication to the contrary.

Generally, don’t lay down an unsupported ace (e.g., from A 6 3 2). It may be comforting to have the odds of winning the first trick all in your favor, but the ace lead is far more likely to lose in the long run:

DUMMY
 Q 8 5
WEST (you)
 A 6 2
EAST
 J 10 9 7
DECLARER
 K 4 3

If you lead the ace the declarer gets two spade tricks; if you save your ace to capture declarer’s king he can get only one trick in the suit.

Don’t be afraid to lead from three or four small cards, such as 8 6 3 2. Any high cards held by partner may get gobbled up by declarer, but if this happens partner’s honors could usually have been finessed anyway.

Once you have learned what the various bids mean, keep a close ear to the bidding. In the process of exchanging information with each other so as to arrive at the best contract, the opponents must also allow any alert defender to tune in on their conversation. (Unfortunately, many defenders become bored when holding poor cards and don’t listen.) If the opponents bid three suits and steadfastly refuse either to mention the fourth or to play in notrump, they may very well be weak in the unbid suit and you should seriously consider leading it. Conversely, they are likely to have strength in the suits they do bid, and you will usually do well to look elsewhere for a lead. If the opponents bid and raise their trump suit, a trump lead may work well by cutting down on the opponents’ ruffing power.

With a singleton, you may be tempted to lead it to try to turn the trump power against declarer by obtaining ruffs in the suit. However, take a look at the rest of your hand before deciding. Singleton leads are particularly desirable when you have a quick trump entry with some surplus trumps for ruffing, i.e., a trump holding such as A 6 3 or K 8 5, which will enable you to regain the lead before declarer can exhaust your side of trumps. Singleton leads are also likely to strike oil if partner is marked with strength with which to gain the lead and give you your ruff, as might happen if he has bid strongly or bid the suit in which you have the singleton. Avoid leading a singleton when you have no surplus trumps to use for ruffing (with Q J 3 of trumps, you will have to follow twice to declarer’s probable ace and king, so your queen needs the protection of the two other cards), or when you have four or more trumps (try to make declarer run out of trumps by leading a long suit and forcing him to ruff your winners). Doubletons are relatively poor places to look for ruffs unless you have a quick winner in trumps.

Leads Against Notrump Contracts

Against notrump contracts, your best bet is to try to establish some length winners. To further this aim, it is usually a good idea to lead fourth from your longest and strongest suit (unless it has been bid by the opponents). Five-card or longer suits, such as A Q 8 6 3, are particularly desirable to lead from, because the small investment of allowing declarer to win the first trick may allow you to run the entire suit when your side regains the lead:

DUMMY
 7 2
WEST (you)
 A Q 8 6 3
EAST
 10 5 4
DECLARER
 K J 9

When you lead the six of spades against declarer’s notrump contract, East will put up the ten and declarer will win cheaply with the jack. However, the next time East gains the lead, he will play a spade through declarer’s king and you can cash four tricks.

Sequences such as Q J 10 8 or J 10 9 5 also make good leads; they build up tricks for your side without giving declarer anything he does not deserve. Near-sequence holdings such as Q 10 8 2 are also reasonable to lead from. Broken four-card suits, however, should be regarded with less enthusiasm; leading from A Q 6 2 or J 9 4 3 is likely to give declarer a trick without establishing much for your side.

As was the case against suit contracts, listening to the bidding is essential for success. For example, a lead from K J 8 6 5 should be avoided if an opponent has bid the suit; unless you have a solid sequence such as Q J 10 9 6, you will be better off not leading suits bid by the enemy. If the opponents have bid all of the suits (or you have an extremely undesirable holding to lead from in the unbid suit, such as K 4) and you are in doubt, lead through strength, i.e., lead a suit bid by dummy.

Illustrative Examples

(1)

Contract: 4
You hold:  A 8 6     K Q J 5     7 6 3 2     9 4

Lead the king of hearts. Attack from your solid sequence.

(2)

Contract: 3
You hold:  Q 6 5     8 4 3 2     A 7     J 10 9 6

Suppose that your partner has bid spades. Without this clue, the proper lead would be the jack of clubs; but you should heed partner’s advice and lead the five of spades. (Don’t lead the queen, or declarer will score two spade tricks with  K J 2.)

(3)

Contract: 3
You hold:  A Q 6 2     K J 3     7 6 5     K J 4

If you lead a spade and declarer has the king, he will win an undeserved trick. Similarly, if declarer has A Q of hearts or clubs, your kings will win if you leave well enough alone and wait until he tries a finesse. By elimination, the trump lead is the best choice.

(4)

Contract: 2
You hold:  Q 10 8 5 3     A 9 4     J 5 3 2     7

Lead the five of spades, the fourth-best card in your respectable spade suit. If partner has as little as the jack, you will be well on your way to building up a winner in the suit.

(5)

Contract: 4
You hold:  K Q 8 4     Q 6 5     8 7 3     J 8 2

Suppose that the opponents have bid spades before electing to play with hearts as trumps. Don’t lead their suit with such a shaky holding. Leading away from the queen of trumps is also likely to prove disastrous. An unsupported jack is not overwhelmingly attractive to lead from, so your best choice is the eight of diamonds.

(6)

Contract: 3
You hold:  A K 7 4     Q 8 2     6 5     8 7 6 5

Lead the king of spades.

(7)

Contract: 4
You hold:  8 6 3     Q J 10 9     7 4 3     6 5 2

Lead the queen of hearts, choosing the top card of the sequence.

(8)

Contract: 4
You hold:  7     A 8 5     J 10 8 6 3     8 6 5 2

With a quick entry in trumps, the lead of the singleton spade is likely to prove fruitful.

(9)

Contract: 4
You hold:  J 8 4 2     10 8 5 4 3     K 6 5     K

Don’t lead a singleton honor in most cases; declarer cannot see your cards (if you hold them properly) and may well lose a finesse to your king of clubs. Lead the four of hearts.

(10)

Contract: 3
You hold:  K 9 7 5     6     K J 6 4 2     8 6 3

Don’t lead a singleton with four or more trumps; try to make declarer ruff your winners and use up his trumps. Your best chance to carry out this plan is in the diamond suit, where you hold both length and strength, so lead the four of diamonds.

(11)

Contract: 3NT
You hold:  A Q 7 3 2     Q 8 5     J 10 9 8     7

The three of spades is an ideal lead against a notrump contract. If the opponents have bid spades, however, you should change your plans and lead the jack of diamonds.

(12)

Contract: 3NT
You hold:  A Q 4 3     J 10 9 8     6 5 3 2     10

Here, a spade lead is much less likely to be successful in establishing length winners because you have only a four-card suit, and the risk of giving declarer an undeserved trick with the king does not stand to gain enough to be worthwhile. Lead the jack of hearts.

(13)

Contract: 3NT
You hold:  6 5 3     A 7 4     K J 10 9 6     8 2

Lead the jack of diamonds (top of an interior sequence) even if the opponents have bid the suit.

(14)

Contract: 3NT
You hold:  Q J 10 8 4     10 7 2     A 6     K Q J

Lead the queen of spades. A club lead would establish two tricks more quickly, but your goal is to build up length winners.

(15)

Contract: 1NT
You hold:  K J 7 4 3 2     8 6     A 5 3     Q 7

Lead the four of spades.

Leads Against Slam Contracts

If the opponents bid a small slam, a great deal may well be riding on your opening lead. If you see a quick route to two tricks, follow it; with

 A 8 3     7 4 3     K Q 6     8 6 4 2

lead the king of diamonds against a six-spade or six-notrump contract. However, it is usually a poor idea to lay down an unsupported ace against a small slam unless you have an excellent idea as to where your setting trick is coming from (for example, if you also have the king of trumps and will beat the hand unless the ace is in dummy and your king can be finessed). Declarer usually has some work to do in order to build twelve winners and make his slam, and you should investigate the possibility of building up a defensive winner in a side suit before your ace is driven out. Usually avoid the lead of suits bid by the opponents; an unbid suit may well be where declarer’s Achilles heel can be located. Play safe against all notrump slams; don’t lead away from unsupported honors unless the bidding provides a very strong clue to the contrary. Remember that you need only two tricks to defeat the contract; the bonuses for making a slam are so high that your usual objective is particularly appropriate—just try to set the contract by one trick.

Against grand slams, you need only one trick to set the contract, so there is no need to try and build winners; if your side regains the lead at any point, the contract is automatically defeated. Make a safe lead; a trump is often a desirable choice against suit grand slams, for it is unlikely to help declarer.

Capsule Summary: The Opening Lead

I. Choosing the Card

Holding Suits Notrump
A K Q    A K Q 2    A K Q J    A K Q 7 4 K K
A K 2    A K J    A K 10 3    A K J 3    A K J 10 K K
A K 10 5 2    A K 6 5 3    A K 6 5 3 2 K 5
A K 10 9 3    A K 10 9 6 2 K 10
A Q 8 6 3    A Q 8 6 4 2 A 6
K Q 2    K Q J    K Q J 3    K Q J 10    K Q J 9 2    K Q J 10 6 3 K K
K Q J 4 2    K Q 10 4 3 K K
K Q 7 5 3 K 5
Q J 2    Q J 10    Q J 9 7    Q J 10 2    Q J 9 8 3    Q J 10 9 6 Q Q
Q J 5 3    Q J 5 3 2 3 3
J 10 2    J 10 9    J 10 8 6    J 10 9 5    J 10 8 7 4    J 10 9 8 2 J J
J 10 6 3    J 10 6 3 2 3 3
10 9 2    10 9 8    10 9 7 5    10 9 8 3    10 9 7 6 4    10 9 8 6 3 10 10
10 9 7 4    10 9 6 4 3 4 4
K J 5    K 10 5    K 6 5    Q 10 5    Q 6 5    J 7 5    10 8 5 5 5
7 4    7 4 2 7 7

II. Leads against Suit Contracts
1. Listen to the bidding. Tend to avoid suits bid by the opponents.
2. Solid or nearly-solid sequences offer the possibility of building tricks with safety.
3. Usually, don’t lay down an unsupported ace, and don’t underlead an ace.
4. Usually, lead partner’s suit if he has bid one.
5. Play for ruffs by leading a singleton when you have a quick trump entry and surplus trumps.

III. Leads against Notrump Contracts
1. Listen to the bidding. Tend to avoid suits bid by the opponents.
2. With a five-card or longer suit, lead fourth best from your longest and strongest suit.
3. A four-card suit that forms a solid or nearly-solid sequence is often a worthwhile lead; leads from A Q 4 3 and J 6 5 2 are generally unattractive.
4. Lead a short suit if all other leads are very risky, but don’t lead a singleton (unless partner has bid the suit).
5. Usually, lead partner’s suit if he has bid one.

IV. Leads against Slam Contracts
1. Listen to the bidding. Avoid suits bid by the opponents and usually lead a suit bid by partner.
2. Don’t cash an unsupported ace against a small slam unless you have a probable second trick.
3. Play safe against all notrump slams; don’t lead away from unsupported honors. When in doubt, play safe against suit slams.

REVIEW QUIZ

On each hand, the contract is specified. What card do you lead?

(1)

Contract: 4
You hold:  K Q 6     8 3 2     J 10 8     J 6 5 3

(2)

Contract: 2
You hold:  A K J 3     7 4 2     Q 10 5     9 7 2

(3)

Contract: 3NT
You hold:  Q J 10     8 7     K 10 7 6 5     K 4 3

(4)

Contract: 4
You hold:  J 10 8 6     Q 9 5 3     7     J 6 4 2 (partner has bid diamonds)

(5)

Contract: 3NT
You hold:  A Q 4 2     6 3     6 3     Q 9 8 6 2

(6)

Contract: 3NT
You hold:  Q 10 8 5     Q 10 8 6 3     A 7     3 2 (the opponents have bid hearts)

(7)

Contract: 3
You hold:  7     K J 8 5 2     J 8 4 3     A 6 5

(8)

Contract: 3NT
You hold:  Q J 10 9     8 6 3     2     J 8 7 5 3

(9)

Contract: 3
You hold:  8 6 4     K 7     9 4 3 2     J 10 7 6 (partner has bid hearts)

(10)

Contract: 2NT
You hold:  A K Q     A Q 7 6 3     4 3     6 3 2

Solutions

1. Jack of diamonds. The sequence is nearly solid and you should be able to try and build up some tricks in relative safety.

2. King of spades. Even if you suspect that declarer has the queen after seeing the dummy, you can shift suits next time and keep the A J to capture the queen.

3. Six of diamonds. Attempt to build length winners against no-trump contracts.

4. Seven of diamonds. Ordinarily, you would not lead a singleton with four trumps; but matters are different when partner bids the suit.

5. Six of clubs. The five-card suit is a better choice than A Q x x.*

6. Five of spades. Since the opponents have bid hearts, look elsewhere for a lead. With  Q J 10 9 3, you would lead the queen of hearts despite the bidding, but here your heart suit is not strong enough.

7. Seven of spades. You have a quick trump entry and extra trumps to use for ruffing.

8. Queen of spades. Prefer the solid sequence to the mangy five-card suit.

9. King of hearts. Lead partner’s suit, choosing the top card from a doubleton.

10. Six of hearts. Attempt to build length winners in hearts, using the high spades as entries.

*In bridge literature non-honor cards are often written “x.”

This article is an adapted excerpt by Alvin Roth and Jeff Rubens.