The Five Lines of Defense

  • Forcing Declarer
  • Being Active
  • Being Passive
  • Cutting Down Ruffing Power
  • Creating Trump Tricks

Supporting Tools of Information

  • Inferences from Bidding or Play
  • Counting Points
  • Counting Distribution
  • Counting Tricks
  • Defensive Signal

There are five primary lines of defense. They are the recurring themes that transcend every hand. We will take you through each one and show you how the expert chooses which defense to employ. Supporting those lines of defense are several informational tools that can be put to work for you as the hand unfolds. They will help you choose the correct line of defense.


The most powerful line of defense is the force. It causes declarer to lose control of the han and to abandon side-suit winners (you may even completely take over the hand). The goal is to get control of declarer’s own trump suit. The force is an ideal defense in matchpoints because it maximizes your potential for defensive tricks. Therefore, the force, when the right conditions are present, has priority over any other line of defense.

Conditions for Forcing Declarer

  • Declarer has a two-suiter
  • Any time you have 4 trumps or believe partner does
  • 4-3 trump contracts
  • Any time long trump hand can be forced early

These are the various conditions that permit the forcing game to work. The purpose of the forcing game is to make it impossible for declarer to draw trumps and safely cash his side-suit tricks. This is particularly applicable to a two-suited hand where the forcing defense is easy to apply and achieves maximum results. It is easy to apply because declarer usually does not have longer than a five-card trump suit. Maximum results are achieved because the winners in the rest declarer’s hand (the second suit) can’t be cashed if declarer loses control. Almost equally vulnerable to the force are contracts in which declarer is playing in a 4-3 trump fit or a 4-4 trump fit that breaks badly (4-1).

When one or more of these conditions exist, the expert leads the partnership’s most powerful suit. If it means leading from tenaces (such as AQ10, KJ10, AJ10) this is still the proper lead. Experts take the risk because it often pays off and the rewards are great.


To do well at matchpoints you must take all the tricks that belong to you — irrespective of whether the contract can be defeated. On many hands, if declarer is given enough time he will set up winners to pitch his losers on. Experts become very active whenever they think declarer is going to dispose of losers.

Conditions for Going Active

  • Any time tricks can go away
  • Declarer’s side suit is breaking
  • Vigorous bidding (slam interest)
  • Long running suits (e.g. Gambling 3NT)

The important thing to remember about active defense is that usually you have everything to gain and nothing to lose. In other words, you can take high or even absurd risks because any tricks you might have had were going to go away anyway.


There are a number of other conditions which dictate just the opposite approach, that is, remaining passive. When such conditions exist, that main idea is to relax and not snatch winners, break suits for declarer or otherwise take him off the guess. The defender instead just sits back and waits for his tricks. When defenders are on lead (and they would rather not be), they must choose worthless suits, or top from sequences, or some other suit that will not give declarer anything. If experts initially are unsure about what to do, they will resist the temptation to go active. They would rather not risk doing the declarer’s work for him.

Conditions for Remaining Passive

  • No evidence of strong side suit for declarer
  • Declarer very strong, dummy weak
  • A misfit or bad split in key suits
  • No real suit to lead against notrump
  • Defending 6NT and grand slams

The basic situation for electing to go passive is the absence of any outside source of tricks on which declarer can throw off his losers. Usually, the defender can tell from the bidding and a view of his cards and the dummy that (1) no side suit exists, or (2) if one exists it is breaking badly or (3) there is no entry to use the side suit. Experts are passive also when the dummy is flat and weak with little help for declarer. The expert will simply return declarer’s leads or otherwise endplay him at every opportunity. Similarly, on misfits experts will make the most innocuous lead possible or remove what little ruffing power there is in the dummy.

Against notrump contracts, ragged 4-card suits usually are not useful for attack with the possible exception of an unbid major. Experts, instead, will try to find partner’s suit or make a passive lead.

“Against notrumps…be very reluctant to lead from a 4-card suit with only one honor. Even with two honors 4-card suits present significant risks without great counterbalancing gain.”


Knowing when to cut down the declarer’s ruffing power is a sure way of reducing his tricks and getting a good matchpoint score. There are several conditionswhich should automatically trigger a trump lead. When these conditions arise you must lead trumps no matter how much it hurts.

A expert will, for example, lead a trump from queen third when he knows it is right.

He realizes that, at worst, the loss of a potential trump trick will be an even exchange but more often he will gain tricks.

Conditions for Cutting Down Declarer’s Ruffing Power

  • Partial/Total Misfit
  • Mere suit preference taken
  • Your side has trump stack (control)
  • Misfits in general
  • Bidding Suggests Dummy Shortness
  • Dummy denied notrump due to flaw
  • Dummy bid two suits and raised a third
  • You Are Strong in Other Suits
  • You control opponents’ side suit
  • You control all other suits
  • Opponents are sacrificing

Notice that missing from the conditions above is the old adage “When in doubt lead trumps.” This theory was disproved many years ago. To the contrary there should be a specific reason for leading trumps and there should be no doubt about it.

Your Side Has a Trump Stack

There are distinct advantages to taking ownership of the trump suit whenever you have a strong holding, and the way to do this is to simply lead trumps. Once you own the trump suit you are now the declarer and control the hand. It is important to lead trumps early before the declarer can ruff losers in the dummy or take ruffing tricks with small trumps in his own hand. Leading trumps, as opposed to other suits, on these types of hands can make a great difference in the final result — as many as 4 or 5 tricks.

The usual conditions for leading trumps at the very outset are when your partner converts your one-level take-out double to penalty (by passing) or when one of you risks a two-level double of the opponents’ suit because a lot of your values are in that suit.

Your Hand — Opponents Are Sacrificing

Whenever you as defenders have control over all three of the other suits or the opponents are sacrificing, the best thing to do is immediately reduce declarer’s ruffing power. You must do so to protect your own tricks; otherwise, some of them will be ruffed out. When opponents sacrifice, laying down a trump on opening lead is almost automatic.

Trump Leads Are Not Always Easy to Predict

In time, you will become familiar with the conditions that dictate trump leads. However, trump opening leads are not always predictable. In those cases, defenders can recover after the pening lead and still do serious damage. For example, when the shortness appears as the dummy goes down and there is no source of tricks to dispose of declarer’s losers — a trump lead is the obvious switch.


Both ruffing out declarer’s tricks and promoting trump tricks of your own are excellent ways to develop defensive tricks.

Conditions for Creating Trump Tricks

  • Ruffing Declarer’s Tricks
  • You are short in any unbid suit
  • You are long in opponents’ side suit, both bid and raised
  • You have weak hand, no better line of defense
  • Promoting Trump Tricks of Your Own
  • Trump promotion
  • Trump uppercut

The practice of leading short suits and ruffing out declarer’s tricks is the most widely practiced line of defense in bridge and needs no further explanation here, except to say the practice is abused. Too often your short suit is declarer’s long side suit. Unless you use this line of defense discretely, you will give the declarer both timing in the play of the hand and assistance in developing his side suit. Experts tend to go for ruffs under three conditions:

When they have no natural trump tricks of their own.

When they can reasonably expect an entry to bring off the ruff (possession of a high trump honor, for example).When the situation is desperate and there is no better line of defense.

Used less, but a more effective weapon, is the magic of creating trump tricks where none exist! This practice involves the trump promotion play and the uppercut.

In a trump promotion play, declarer is placed in a position where he must ruff high and, in so doing, promote a trump trick for the defenders.Another popular way among the experts to create a trump trick is by way of an uppercut. Here, a defender ruffs in with his highest trump to weaken declarer’s holding, in the hope that it will create a trump trick for partner.