Some auctions (such as those where the opponents have shown a good source of tricks outside the trump suit) call for an aggressive, potentially risky opening lead — one that will probably give away a trick if partner has no honors in the suit, but may set the contract if he does. On other hands, you need to be more patient and let declarer work for all his tricks. Your goal on these hands is to make a safe opening lead that won’t give declarer an 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. You won’t always be dealt these easy holdings, though, so you’ll sometimes have to select a “passive” lead. Passive leads include:

  • A lead from a topless suit (such as 8754), 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 is that declarer will need to develop his own tricks in it.
  • A trump, in some cases.

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

1 – The opponents are in 6NT or a grand slam. An exception is if the opponents bid 6NT after an auction that suggests that declarer’s main source of tricks will be a long, strong 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.

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

Suppose your right-hand opponent opens 2NT (20-22 pts.) and left-hand-opponent raises to 3NT. What’s your lead from:

9 8 7  A J 9 2  K Q 5 4  Q 7 ?

If you follow the “fourth-down-from-your-longest-and-strongest” rule, you’d choose the 2 or the 5. But with almost all the outstanding honors on your right, either of these leads has an unusually high risk of giving declarer a “free” trick. Partner can’t hold more than 3 high-card points, so it’s not a good idea to count on him for help in a specific suit.

A better choice is a passive 9. A spade is unlikely to set up any quick tricks for your side, but it probably won’t help declarer. Declarer will have to give you the lead soon, and if your spade lead was indeed “safe,” you should probably continue leading them. If a switch is called for, you’ll have a better idea of what suit to choose later.

Note that you do not want to lead a diamond honor. A diamond will probably only be right if partner has the J or A, so if you did want to lead diamonds, the correct lead from this holding would be low (the 4). If partner has no honors — and declarer has a holding like
A J 10 9 — leading the K will give him three eventual tricks. If you instead lead low, declarer can’t take more than two tricks in the suit.

3 – The auction suggests that both 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. For example, suppose you’re South holding: Q 7 4  5  10 8 4 3 2  K 10 3 2 and it’s your lead after your opponents have the following auction:

West East
2NT* 4

* (Jacoby 2NT, forcing heart raise)

With the Jacoby 2NT convention, East’s 4H bid showed a minimum opener with no singleton and no interest in slam. Although the opponents have game-level strength, they rate to be fairly balanced — opener had an opportunity to show a singleton over 2NT, and responder might have chosen a different forcing bid if he had a very distributional hand. You expect that declarer will have to lead the side suits himself, so you want to avoid any suit that will make his job easier.

The singleton trump is probably the most dangerous lead you can make (partner won’t be happy if he holds Qxx !). It’s also risky to lead away from your club or spade honors. That leaves you with your “nothing” suit — diamonds — so try the 3.