Main     Lesson 4L by Richard Pavlicek    

Second Hand Play

The defender who is second to play when declarer leads from either hand has a very important role. In my experience this is the weakest area for most defenders — a good declarer is able to steal tricks left and right.

To be a successful defender it is crucial to learn the techniques explained in this lesson.

Second Hand Low

The basic strategy as second hand is to play low. The object is to force third hand (declarer or dummy) to waste a high card, then fourth hand (partner) has an opportunity to capture that card with a higher one.

As second hand do not try to win the trick unless there is a strategic reason to gain the lead.

1. South leads

Q 7 3
K 9 5TableA 10 2
J 8 6 4

West should play the five. This lets East capture North’s play and the defenders get three tricks. Note that a trick would be lost if West played the king or the nine.

2. North leads

J 5 4 3
8 7TableQ 10 2
A K 9 6

East should play the two. It is true that South could win the nine, but he is unlikely to do this. Further, it would not help to play the 10 anyway (South would win, cross to North in another suit, then finesse).

Nines are “Honors”
In bridge terminology the term “honor” normally refers to the ace through 10 of a suit. In this lesson, however, it should also include the nine, which is an important card in the play of many card combinations.

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Honor Led from Dummy

If declarer leads an honor from dummy, it is often correct to cover with a higher honor — then again, it may be wrong to cover. Knowing which card to play in this situation is an important technique in card play, yet few players have mastered the principles.

There are two basic rules depending on how many cards you have higher than the honor led.

With two cards above the honor led, play your highest card.

3. North leads

J 10 8 6
9 4 3TableA Q 2
K 7 5

East should play the ace, after which declarer must lose another trick. Note that if East ducks the jack or covers with the queen, declarer can gain a trick.

4. North leads

10 9 7
A 8 3TableK J 4
Q 6 5 2

East should play the king. If North later leads the nine, East should play the jack. This is the only sequence of plays to give the defense three tricks.

5. North leads

9 8 2
K 5 4TableQ 10 3
A J 7 6

East should play the queen. Declarer can always hold the defense to one trick, but the queen play is most troublesome.

Exceptional Cases
If the bidding indicates that partner has a singleton or void in the suit led by declarer (common in the trump suit), the rules in this lesson do not apply. You should cover or split honors only if it will benefit your own hand.


Meet Harold. He always covers an honor with an honor.

With only one card above the honor led, cover if the honor led is unsupported. Do not cover a supported honor.

6. North leads

10 5 4
Q 9 6TableK 7 2
A J 8 3

East should play the king because the 10 is unsupported, and declarer must lose two tricks. Note the loss if East plays low.

7. North leads

J 3
9 7 2TableQ 8 6 4
A K 10 5

East should play the queen because the jack is unsupported. This holds declarer to three tricks instead of four.

8. North leads

J 10 8
K 2TableQ 9 4
A 7 6 5 3

East should not cover because the jack is supported. Declarer must lose two tricks instead of one if East had covered.

9. North leads

Q J 8 6
10 4 3TableK 7 2
A 9 5

East should not cover because the queen is supported. If East covered, declarer could win all four tricks.

Playing in Tempo
Good defenders do their thinking about whether or not to cover an honor before declarer actually leads the suit. This way they can play in tempo and not give away the location of a high card by huddling over what to do.

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Honor Led by Declarer

When declarer leads an honor from the concealed hand, the same principles apply as to whether or not you should cover. This should be apparent since the play of any suit holding is symmetrical around the table. The perspective, though, is different because you cannot see the holding from which the card is led; what you see is the dummy which plays after you.

The rule about covering with two higher honors is virtually the same, although it may not be necessary to play your highest card:

With two cards above the honor led, always cover. Play your highest card unless your second highest will promote a sure trick for your highest card.

10. South leads

A K 8 2
Q J 7 3Table5 4
10 9 6

West must cover every card South leads to hold declarer to three tricks. Note the sneaky play of the nine by declarer. Would you be caught napping?

11. South leads

A Q 3
K J 7Table5 4 2
10 9 8 6

West cannot win a trick legitimately, but the king conceals the layout best. If the play went 10-jack-queen, declarer would know that West also held the king.

12. South leads

A 10 6 2
K J 5TableQ 7 4 3
9 8

Here West should play the jack since it guarantees a trick for his king. Note how East’s seven eventually comes into play provided West covers the 9-8.

With only one card above the honor led, cover if there is a card in dummy that touches the card led. If there is no touching card in dummy, do not cover.

The logic here is that, if dummy has no touching card, then declarer surely has one in his hand; hence the lead is supported and you should not cover.

13. South leads

A J 10 6
K 5 2TableQ 8 7 3
9 4

West should play the king since dummy has a card touching the nine. This holds declarer to two tricks, instead of three had West played low.

14. South leads

Q 9 7 4
A 8 3TableK 10 5
J 6 2

West should play the ace since dummy has a card touching the jack. This ensures three tricks as the cards lie.

15. South leads

A 8 6 4
K 7 2Table10 5 3
Q J 9

West should not cover since there is no touching card in dummy; hence declarer should have the jack in his hand.

16. South leads

K 4 3
Q 7 2TableA 9 6
J 10 8 5

West should not cover since there is no touching card in dummy. The defenders will get two tricks instead of just one if West had covered.

Cover the Second Time
In cases where you do not cover, you should usually cover the second time if an equivalent honor is led.

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Splitting Honors

Sometimes your holding is strong enough to play an honor even when dummy or declarer leads a low card. This may be necessary to prevent declarer from winning a trick by finessing an intermediate card. This is called “splitting honors” and the general rules are:

Split with three honors, at least two of which are touching.
When splitting honors, play the card you would lead.

Note that it is usually an error to split holdings with two honors such as K-Q-x-x, Q-J-x-x or J-10-x-x. You should generally play low and hope to use your honors to better advantage later. Exceptions occur, though, depending on the contract and other factors.

17. North leads

4 3
8 5 2TableQ J 10 7
A K 9 6

East should play the queen, just as if he were leading. This prevents South from finessing the nine.

18. South leads

A J 8
K 10 9 7TableQ 2
6 5 4 3

West should play the 10, after which declarer can win only one trick. Note that if West played low, declarer could finesse the eight.

19. South leads

A 9 7 2
Q J 8 3Table10 6
K 5 4

West should not split his honors with only two honors. If West were to waste the queen (or jack) declarer could establish the nine in dummy.

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© 2013 Richard Pavlicek