Lesson 4D   Main

Suit Play Technique

  by Richard Pavlicek

Declarer play at a suit contract is more complex than at notrump because of the added dimension of the trump suit; i.e., the ability to ruff. This lesson explains the planning strategy and essential ruffing techniques.

I recommend counting winners at all contracts. Winners take tricks, and a constant awareness of them will make you a better player.

Count Your Trump Winners

Estimate how many trump tricks you will win assuming a normal break of the enemy cards. Do not count tricks that can be made only by ruffing or by a finesse.

Add Your Side Winners

Add the number of cashable tricks in each side suit just like you would at notrump. This will tell you how many additional tricks you need.

Look for Additional Tricks

Examine each suit for sources of additional tricks. These can be from honors, long cards, or ruffing tricks that may be obtained in the play. Be sure to note all the possibilities.

Analyze the Opening Lead

Does the lead suggest a long suit? A short suit? An honor sequence? Does it threaten your contract? It may help to recall the bidding.

Develop a Plan

There are more things to consider in planning the play at a suit bid. Everything available at notrump is applicable, plus the various options that pertain to ruffing. The most important decisions are:

Will you draw trumps immediately? If so, how many rounds?

Which side suit will you attack first?

Lesson 4D   MainTop   Suit Play Technique

Ruff in the Short Hand

One of the most common ways to gain an additional trick is to ruff in the hand containing fewer trumps — typically dummy since declarer usually holds longer trumps. This gains a trick because the trumps in the long hand remain intact. Note that ruffs in the longer trump hand do not gain a trick.

Hi, shorty!

Hi, mister. Wanna play?

Okay, but let me warn you! I’ll be doing a lot of ruffing in your hand.

Do not draw trumps if it might allow the enemy to lead an additional round of trumps to curtail your ruffing ability.

1. S K 8 5
H K 8 6 3
D 10 2
C A Q 8 2
S J 9 2
H Q 10 5 4
D A Q 9
C 10 6 5
Table S 10
H J 9 7
D J 8 7 6 5
C K J 9 7
4 S South
Lead: H 4
S A Q 7 6 4 3
H A 2
D K 4 3
C 4 3

You count 6 trump tricks (barring a 4-0 break) and 3 top tricks in the side suits. Your 10th trick might come from leading toward the D K, ruffing a diamond in the dummy, or by finessing the C Q. On a lucky day all three possibilities might work and you could win 12 tricks.

You should work on diamonds first before drawing any trumps. Win the H K and lead a diamond to your king. Win the trump shift (best) with the king and give up a diamond. Win the trump return in hand and ruff your diamond.

This is not a difficult deal, but note that you would fail if you led just one round of trumps before leading a diamond.

Do not overlook the possibility of ruffing a side suit containing four cards opposite three.

2. S 10 8 2
H A 9 6
D K 6 3
C Q 9 7 4
S 7 6
H J 4 3
D Q J 10 7
C A J 10 8
Table S A 9 5
H 10 8 7 5
D 9 8
C K 6 5 2
4 S South
Lead: D Q
S K Q J 4 3
H K Q 2
D A 5 4 2
C 3

You have 4 trump winners and 5 side winners. Your best chance for a 10th trick is to ruff your long diamond (if necessary with the S 10). Win the D K-A (preferably in that order) then concede a diamond to West. No defense can prevent you from succeeding as long as you did not lead a trump early on.

With equal trump length (4-4 or 5-5) either hand may be treated as the short hand.

3. S A 5 4 2
H A 7 3 2
D 7 6
C 8 6 3
S J 10 9
H J 9 8 5
D A 9 2
C 7 4 2
Table S Q 3
H Q 10 6
D K J 10 3
C J 10 9 5
4 S South
Lead: S J
S K 8 7 6
H K 4
D Q 8 5 4

You have 3 trump winners (a 3-2 break is normal) and 5 side winners. The two additional tricks you need will come from ruffing. It is easier to ruff hearts in your hand than to ruff diamonds in dummy, so treat your own hand as the short hand.

Win the S K (save the S A for an entry) then play the H K, H A and ruff a heart. Cross to the S A and ruff dummy’s last heart with your last trump.

Lesson 4D   MainTop   Suit Play Technique

The Dummy Reversal

On some deals it is inconvenient to ruff in the short hand and easy to ruff in the long hand. Unfortunately ruffing in the long hand generally does not gain a trick unless the long hand becomes the short hand.

The technique of converting the long hand into the short hand is called a “dummy reversal.” This is perhaps easier to understand if you consider the principle of ruffing in general terms:

A trick is gained by ruffing only if the hand that ruffs remains with fewer trumps.

4. S J 10 3
H Q 5 3
D A 9 7 6
C A Q 4
S 7 2
H A 10 8
D Q 10 8 2
C J 9 8 2
Table S 9 6 5
H K J 9 2
D K J 5 3
C 10 3
4 S South
Lead: S 2
S A K Q 8 4
H 7 6 4
D 4
C K 7 6 5

You have 5 trump winners and 4 side winners. It looks like your best chance for a 10th trick is the long club. If clubs break 3-3 this card will be good, but a 4-2 break is more likely. What about ruffing your fourth club in dummy? This would work if the opponent who is short in clubs held no more than two trumps, but most of the time it would fail — one of your club winners would be ruffed.

A much better plan is to ruff diamonds in your hand. This requires three ruffs to gain only one trick, but it is convenient to do and there are adequate entries to dummy. Win the trump lead in your hand and lead a diamond to the ace; ruff a diamond high; lead a trump to dummy; ruff a diamond; club to the queen; ruff a diamond; club to the ace; draw the last trump.

Note that the recommended line of play would produce an overtrick if the clubs happened to break 3-3.

Lesson 4D   MainTop   Suit Play Technique

Establishing Long Cards

Additional tricks in the form of length are often easier to obtain at a suit contract than at notrump. You may be able to use your trumps to ruff out the stopper(s) held by the enemy, after which the remaining card(s) may be good, depending on how the suit breaks.

Anytime you have a five-card or longer side suit in either hand, consider the possibility of establishing that suit by ruffing.

Establishing the long card(s) in a side suit often requires a lot of work, so you must begin early.

5. S A K 7 3
H 9 7 6 4 3
D J 2
C 7 3
S 9 2
H A Q 5
D K 10 8 3
C J 10 9 5
Table S 10 6
H J 10 8 2
D Q 9 5
C K Q 6 4
4 S South
Lead: C J
S Q J 8 5 4
D A 7 6 4
C A 8 2

You have 5 trump winners and 2 side winners. You might hope for three more tricks by ruffing a club and two diamonds in dummy, but this plan is defective: The opponents can defeat you outright by leading trumps at each opportunity.

You can reduce the ruffing requirements in dummy if you are able to establish the fifth heart into a winning trick. This can be done if you start right away. Win the C A and lead the H K to West’s ace. Assume a trump return; win the S K (it is critical to win in dummy), ruff a heart and exit with a club. Assume another trump return; win the S A, ruff a heart, ruff a club and ruff a heart. Cash the D A, concede a diamond and dummy is good.

You needed a 2-2 trump break and a 4-3 heart break to succeed — but there’s nothing wrong with a little bit of luck when you overbid. If the trumps were 3-1 you would fail with any line of play.

Conserve entries to the hand that contains the side suit you plan to establish.

6. S 10 6 4 2
H 8 5 4 2
D A 7 4
C K 7
S Q 9 8
H K 7
D J 10 8 3
C Q 8 6 4
Table S J 7
H A J 10 9 3
D Q 9 6 5
C J 9
4 S South
Lead: D J
S A K 5 3
H Q 6
D K 2
C A 10 5 3 2

You have 3 trump winners (assuming a 3-2 break) and 4 side winners. The club suit offers the only chance for 3 more. Your plan is to ruff clubs in dummy until the suit is established.

Win the D A (key play) to save entries to your hand. Cash the C K-A and S K-A (else East will overruff) then ruff a club. Return to the D K and ruff another club. Ruff a diamond then lead your last club to force West to ruff with his high trump.

7. S K 8 6 3
H A 3
D A J 6 5 4 3
C 3
S Q 10 4
H Q J 9 7
D K 8
C Q 10 8 4
Table S J
H 10 6 5
D Q 10 9 7
C K 9 7 6 2
6 S South
Lead: H Q
S A 9 7 5 2
H K 8 4 2
D 2
C A J 5

You have 4 trump winners (a 3-1 break is normal) and 4 side winners. An attempt to get 4 ruffs in dummy (crossruff) would fail because your trumps are too weak. The only hope is to establish the diamonds.

Win the H K (save dummy’s entry), lead a diamond to the ace and ruff a diamond. Next draw two rounds of trumps ending in dummy and ruff a diamond. It makes no difference if or when West overruffs with his natural trick. Continue by winning the H A and ruff another diamond to establish the suit. Dummy is now good (except for a trump loser if West did not overruff).

Lesson 4D   MainTop   Suit Play Technique

© 1990 Richard Pavlicek