Source: BBO

On Sunday, June 24, at 1PM US Eastern Time (7PM Central European Time), we had a special 1 hour teaching session with star player BBO Star JDonn (Josh Donn). The lecture focused on declarer play, with the topic being “When not to draw trumps”. For the BBOers who were not able to attend the lecture, let’s dive into the review now.

Hi everyone. One of the first pieces of advice we are all given when we learn how to play bridge is, draw trumps immediately. Or as it was explained to me, “get the kids off the street”.

Of course, that advice makes a lot of sense. You invariably have more trumps than the opponents do (or else what are you doing playing in that suit!). So you can generally get rid of all the trumps that are outstanding against you, preventing the opponents from getting any ruffs, while you remain with a few trumps to prevent the opponents from taking too many tricks in other suit.

Of course, as with all advice, there are exceptions. In fact, there are so many exceptions to that particular advice that it’s probably fair to see the advice itself is misstated. More accurate would be to say, draw trumps as soon as you can afford to do so.

Today I will talk about some of the reasons you might not draw trumps right away when declaring a hand.

One possibility is that you need ruffs in dummy, but dummy will be out of trumps if you draw them too quickly. That theme is very common, so it’s important to understand.

Another likely possibility is that you need to use the trump suit for entries later.

Let’s start with a simple hand.

You Need Ruffs in the Dummy

Suppose you open 2on this textbook weak two bid, and the auction goes all pass. The opponent on your left leads the king of hearts, and when that holds the lead he switches to a spade. Before you decide where to win the trick, you should take stock of the hand. You will take 6 spade tricks off the top, and a club trick. There might be a second club trick by way of the finesse, which would be enough to make your contract. But what if the club finesse is offside? Are there any other chances for another trick?

Yes there are!

You can arrange to ruff a heart in dummy, helped along by the heart opening lead. So having decided all that, suppose you win the trump switch in hand and decide to keep drawing trumps. If they break 2-2 there will be no problem, since you will remain with a third trump in dummy in order to ruff your heart loser.

But suppose they break 3-1 or 1-3. Now you might stop drawing trumps, realizing that drawing a third round would leave dummy without any trumps for the heart ruff. Therefore, you instead lead a heart, but unfortunately when the opponents win that heart they might be in a position to play the third trump, removing the last trump from dummy. That would cost you your heart ruff, and if the club finesse if offside, your contract.

Of course, I’m sure you see it. After winning the trump switch at trick 2, simply stop drawing trumps and give up the second heart immediately. The opponents may win and play a second trump, but you are in control of the situation. Win in your hand, ruff the heart, and you will eventually return to hand with a diamond ruff to draw the last trump and attempt a club finesse for an overtrick.


Click NEXT in the diagram to follow the play.

Using the Trump Suit for Entries

A second potential reason to postpone drawing trumps is because you might need to use the trump suit for a later entry.

Take a look at this hand

You are the dealer and open with 1. Partner will make a three card limit raise however your system calls for. Let’s suppose you play 1NT forcing one round, so partner bids that. You rebid 2, partner raises to 3, and you have enough to go on to game. The opponent on your left leads the AK of clubs, and hopefully to find his partner with a spade trick or two he switches to spades. This goes around to the king and ace. Where do you stand now?

Well, you have 2 spade tricks with the help of the finesse which has already won, and 6 heart tricks. You are also sure to get a diamond trick, making 9. The tenth will obviously have to come from the diamond suit as well. So let’s say you decide to draw trumps, which are 3-1. After three rounds, you lead the king of diamonds, expecting it to lose to the ace and you can claim the remaining tricks.

But those dastardly opponents can see that dummy lacks any entries to the diamond suit, and they can duck the trick! Now you are toast. They will win the next diamond, and with no way to reach those beautiful winners you will go down.

Of course, this could easily have been avoided. Drawing one round of trumps, and even a second round as well, were perfectly safe. But at that point you should have played the diamonds right away, so that dummy could remain with a third trump to reach the long suit after the opponents win the ace.

Now, I didn’t mention it explicitly, but I’m sure you noticed that when you are drawing trumps you will want to leave one of the high ones remaining in dummy to function as your later entry. Therefore, you might think that after winning the spade switch, you could play ace of hearts, heart to the queen, and the king will be your entry to the diamond suit. That will be just fine if trumps are 2-2 or 3-1.


Click NEXT in the diagram to follow the play.

But you just blew it if trumps were 4-0, on your right anyway! You should play the queen of trumps first. Look what happens. As soon as you see the opponent on your left show out, give up on the trumps and play diamonds immediately.

Best defense is for the opponents to win the second diamond and play a spade. Win that, play a trump to dummy, and lead a good diamond. If the opponent on your right ruffs that, you can overruff, play a heart to dummy drawing the last outstanding trump, and you are where you want to be for another diamond winner.

So as you can see, you might even need two entries in the trump suit. Always consider if there is anything you can do against bad breaks.


Click NEXT in the diagram to follow the play.

Count the Hand

There is a third potential reason to delay drawing trumps. You may not know how to play the trump suit right away, and you want to go fishing for more information first.

Take a look at this hand.

The opponent on your left opens 1NT showing 15-17 high card points. Two passes follow to you. Now, I am not necessarily recommending that you should bid with this hand since it is a rather defensive hand (being balanced and with the honors so slow), but some players would, so suppose that’s what you decide to do. To keep things simple I will say you aren’t playing any fancy convention here, and you just bid a natural 2. Everyone passes.

The opponent on your left leads out the three top spades, then plays ace and a diamond to exit safely.

Where do you stand now?

Well, you are in a position to finesse either opponent for the queen of hearts, should you decide to do so. Having 5 outside losers if the club finesse loses, you can’t afford the loss of a heart trick.

Luckily, there is a very important clue. Always remember the auction. 1NT was opened on your left. So you know there are 15-17 high card points in that hand. He has so far shown the AKQ of spades and the A of diamonds, making 13, so he has 2 to 4 more points. The high cards you haven’t found yet are the king of clubs, jack of clubs, and queen of hearts. That means he must have either the king of clubs or the queen of hearts on your left, but not both.

So go ahead and figure it out. Lead a club to the queen right now to find that king!
If the finesse wins you can lead the jack of hearts and run it, then heart to the king, throw your club loser, club to the ace, and try to drop the queen of hearts for an overtrick. But if the club finesse loses, you win the (let’s say) club return, heart to the king, throw your club loser, finesse the heart coming back, and hope the suit breaks well enough for you to make your contract.


Click NEXT in the diagram to follow the play.

I hope this has been informative. Always remember that drawing trumps is a good idea, but you have to make sure you can afford to do so first. Check to see if you will needs to arrange ruffs, if you will need the entries, or if you can gain a clue for how to play the suit.

Thanks everyone, it’s time for questions now.


Q1: How do you explain that it’s usually not a good idea to trump in the hand with long trump; i.e., you are declarer in a 5-3 fit.
A: Ok that’s a good and important question.

So let’s say you are in a 5-3 fit. For simplicity, suppose you have all the high trumps, although the point is the same either way. You start off with 5 trump tricks simply by running the suit. If you take a ruff in the hand with 5 trumps, you still have 5 total tricks. The ruff, and the 4 remaining trumps.

But if you take a ruff in the hand with 3 trumps, you get that ruff, plus still all 5 trumps, total of 6 tricks. Now if you ruff in the hand with 5 trumps, it’s true you break even, but you might lose control.

Suppose the trumps break 4-1. You ruff in the hand with 5 trumps, and if you draw all four remaining trumps you won’t have any left. If you lose the lead the opponents might have tricks to take.

So generally speaking, you want to avoid ruffing in the long hand unless you have to. Then if you draw the opponents’ trumps in 4 rounds, you still have a trump remaining to deal with the rest of the hand.

Q2: When is it better to play NT vs trump?
A: Another important question.

You want to play in a trump suit when you will gain tricks by ruffing. Ruffing in the short hand usually, as we just discussed.

Another possibility is you have an unstopped suit. You play a suit contract instead of notrump so the opponents can’t run too many tricks in that suit.

Generally speaking, if you have an 8 card fit you take at least one more trick by playing in that suit than by playing in notrump. There are exceptions of course, but that’s what usually happens. Like if you have a 4-4 fit, a ruff in either hand gives you 5 tricks in that trump suit, compared to 4 if you were playing in notrump.

I hope that helps but it’s really general guidelines. Especially in major suits, play a fit if you have one, since majors score better than minors, and since game in a major is 4 instead of 5 of a minor.

Q3: Relates to the last hand: Taking the club finesse first risks losing a trump ruff if clubs are 5-1. Presumably the opening NT bid gives some comfort – are there circumstances where you would prefer to guess rather than risk a ruff?
A: That is very true. Any time you delay drawing trumps, you are taking some risk of a ruff. But often there is a greater risk.

A 5-1 break is not particularly likely, compared to figuring out for sure where the heart queen is. If you play trumps right away it’s pretty much 50-50 since you know one player has the heart queen and the other has the club king.

A ruff in clubs will happen much less often than 50-50, so it’s clearly the lesser risk.

So it goes back to the general theme. If you can afford to draw trumps then do it, to avoid a ruff anywhere. But if there is something more important or more likely to help, do that first.

Q4: What about drawing trumps from a defensive stand point?
A: If the question is whether the defenders should draw trumps if they can, it’s usually a good idea. Let’s look back at the first hand.

Remember how the defense started.

Now if the defenders had kept playing side suits, it would have been that much easier to take the heart ruff in dummy. But they did the best they could, and switched to a trump. So they are doing what they can to draw trumps.

If they could have seen the whole hand, they could have prevented the ruff altogether by leading trumps on opening lead. Declarer would have to give up the lead in hearts twice, and they could lead two more rounds of trumps.

Declarer might still make it by setting up the long club instead, but that doesn’t change the point. If the defenders have a high trump then even better.

Often something like this happens. Declarer is in a 4-4 fit and plays AK of trumps. They break evenly and one defender remains with the queen. If that defender gets on lead, in almost all cases he should play the queen of trumps right away.

Otherwise there are risks. Declarer might take two ruffs in one of the hands, when you could have prevented one of them.

Another possible risk is being endplayed, that you can be thrown in with your high trump later when you don’t want to be on lead, like you might have to give a ruff and discard.

I hope that I understood the question correctly.

Q5: Can you give us a hand (4-4 trump fit) where it’s better to draw two rounds of trump. Leave the third little trump outstanding in order to try for four more tricks by cross ruffing.
A: I have no doubt I could create such a hand, but I don’t have one prepared, sorry.

Imagine something like this:
You have Axxx of trumps in dummy, Kxxx in hand. In another suit you have AKxx in hand, xx in dummy. You hope to ruff this suit twice to get rid of both losers.

You would usually want to play AK of trumps, AK of the side suit, take a ruff, come back to your hand another way, and take the last ruff. Trying to take a ruff before playing AK of trumps might sometimes be necessary due to entries, but is dangerous because you might be overruffed by a hand with a doubleton trump.
That would be the typical scenario.

Q6: When I have all high trumps, I tend not to take out trumps. Is is ok? Sometimes I get in the trap that opps ruff one of my good trick. How do I avoid it?
A: You want to check if there is anything else more important to do before drawing trumps. Like the examples I gave.

Do you need a ruff in dummy, but if you draw trumps first then dummy will run out?

Do you need to keep trumps around as entries, like on the second hand?

If none of these are the case then draw trumps. If you have all high trumps, and you have an ace to give up in another suit for example, and there are no entry problems or anything like that, then draw trumps right away.

Obviously there is always a chance of the opponents getting a ruff if you don’t draw trumps immediately.

Q7: In the robot MP games, I’ve noticed that I frequently get to what seems to be a perfectly normal 4H or 4S contract, with 25+ points and 8+ trumps, but I get a poor matchpoint score because other players are beating me in 3NT. How can you tell when 3NT will yield a better score even though you have an 8-card or better fit in a major suit?
A: I can give some things to look for, but it’s not a simple topic. It really is a hand by hand judgment.

If you have a void or singleton in either hand, then almost always play in the major suit fit.

If you have a small doubleton in either hand, then you usually do better playing the major suit fit. Partner needs to be quite strong in that suit for notrump to be better.

Here is a good tip. When you are 4333 it’s often a good idea to not bid stayman when partner opens 1NT, even if you have a 4 card major. 4333 hands often do better in notrump, since they can’t ruff anything. Also sometimes you have a card to protect.

Maybe you have KJx of spades, spades were bid on your left, and partner has bid hearts where you have a fit. If you aren’t sure, consider playing in notrump to protect your spade holding. If partner plays in hearts the opponents may lead a spade through the KJ to the A, Q, and a ruff.

So those are some general thoughts.

Ok I’ll be doing two other sessions in July so stay tuned. Thanks for coming everyone.