Lesson 4N   Main

Trick One Tips

  by Richard Pavlicek

It is amazing how many times declarer’s play to the first trick is crucial to the outcome of the contract. One small card can mean the difference between success and failure. A common mistake is to play too quickly. Winning advice: Take a little extra time before playing to the first trick even when the contract looks easy.

This lesson illustrates some of the problems at trick one, and how to avoid the pitfalls.

About Holdup Plays

Average players use the holdup play too often at notrump, perhaps without even thinking. Always ask yourself, “What is the reason for holding up?”

Avoid using a holdup play if you have no specific reason for it.

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

A weak player would hold up his H A on the first trick out of habit, yet it is clearly a mistake. East leads a second heart then, if South holds up again, West overtakes with the king and clear the suit — down one.

If declarer stopped to think he would realize the futility of the holdup. The suit to establish is diamonds; if that finesse loses, West will gain the lead directly so a holdup play would not matter.

Note that if declarer wins the first trick, he will succeed because of the blockage in the heart suit. Declarer, of course, does not know the hearts are blocked. But he should know that a holdup play is useless.

Just as the holdup play is overused at notrump, it is underused at suit contracts. This is often due to the misguided fear of “having your ace ruffed on the second round.”

Besides breaking the enemy communication the holdup play at a suit contract gives declarer better control of the play. It often allows him to ruff when he wants, not when a defender wants him to. It may also force the defenders to decide on a specific attack, after which declarer can adjust his line of play.

Consider holding up an ace at a suit bid when you have an inescapable loser in the suit led.

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

Assuming a 3-2 trump break declarer has eight sure tricks, and the best plan is to ruff two hearts in dummy. Declarer would like to draw two rounds of trumps first.

Suppose you win H A and return a heart. Best defense is to play a third heart forcing dummy to ruff. If declarer next tries to ruff his last heart, East will overruff. If instead he plays the S A and another spade, West will win and lead a third trump. Ducking a spade does not help either, as West can lead a fourth heart while East has the S J.

Suppose you win the H A and duck a spade. No good either. The defenders can win and return a spade to knock out your ace. Then when you give up a heart, West will draw a third trump.

The correct play is to hold up the H A at trick one. If another heart is led, you will win the ace then duck a trump. Later you will cash the S A before ruffing your last heart in dummy.

Lesson 4N   MainTop   Trick One Tips

Win in the Proper Hand

An important consideration on the opening lead is which hand to win the trick in when you have a choice. The answer usually depends not on the suit led but on your general plan for the entire deal.

This emphasizes the need to plan the play well ahead. Remember: A card played is gone forever; while a card played only in your mind can be changed.

If you can win the first trick in either hand, consider where you want the lead now and where you may need an entry later.

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

The instinctive play is to win the S A in dummy in order to finesse in trumps. But this is a shallow plan — you would be defeated with accurate defense no matter what you did next.

The urgency here is to attack diamonds. If West has the king, you can establish an early discard to avoid a spade loser. The trump suit can wait. For this reason you should win the first trick in your hand and lead a low diamond.

Assume West wins the D K and returns a spade to dummy’s ace. Cash the D Q, lead a heart to your ace (finessing would allow West to cash a spade) then cash the D A to discard a spade. Ruff a spade in dummy and exit with a trump.

Look at this! You are rewarded with an overtrick because East is endplayed. (The defenders could have prevented the overtrick — West could shift to a club or East could unblock the H K.)

Lesson 4N   MainTop   Trick One Tips

Read the Lead

Declarer can often derive specific information about the lie of the suit led. If the lead is an honor card, it typically shows a touching lower honor and denies the card above. If the lead is a spot card, the rule of 11 may be helpful.

The “rule of 11” applies when the lead is expected to be fourth best. Subtract the card led from 11; the difference is the number of cards in the remaining three hands that can beat the card led.

When an opponent leads a suit, do not routinely play the suit as you normally would. Consider where the missing high cards are likely to be.

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

Your normal play in spades is to finesse the 10, but consider the opening lead. West is undoubtedly leading fourth best so the “rule of 11” applies. Subtracting six from 11 tells you there are five cards higher than the six; you can see four of them so East has only one card above the six.

You do not know, of course, which card East has. His spade above the six could be the king, jack, nine or seven. If it happens to be the nine, your best play is the 10. But if it happens to be the king, jack or seven, you will gain a trick by playing low from dummy. Thus the odds are three to one in favor of playing low.

Note that if East held S 9-5, the ducking play would lose a tempo but not a trick. You could still win three spade tricks by later finessing the 10 then the queen.

Lesson 4N   MainTop   Trick One Tips

Low from Dummy

A common error by declarer is to waste a useful card in dummy on the opening lead. In the majority of cases it is better to play low to make your right-hand opponent produce a high card. “Second hand low” is a sound general principle.

Playing low from dummy also has a psychological advantage. Even if you have no significant card in your hand, the opponent may think you do and win the trick with a higher card than necessary.

When dummy has two or three cards in sequence, consider the effect of playing low. This may allow you to benefit from the sequence later.

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

You have nine tricks and the 10th might come from the C Q or by establishing a heart in dummy. Did you play the H 9 (or 10 or jack) to force an honor? If you did you can say good-bye to your contract — East will win and shift to the C J, then you will be defeated with routine defense.

The correct play is the deuce of hearts at trick one. It is true that East now could win with the five; but such a play would be impossible, even for an expert (you might have a singleton seven or eight). Assume East wins the H A and returns the C J; queen, king, ace. Lead the H J; if East plays low, discard a club as West wins the king. The opponents now can cash a club trick, but later you will lead the H 10 for a ruffing finesse against East to establish the H 9 for a diamond discard.

Lesson 4N   MainTop   Trick One Tips

Cover the Lead

When the opening lead is an intermediate card — typically an eight through jack — it may benefit declarer to cover with a card from dummy. The purpose is to force your right-hand opponent to spend an honor at trick one, then you may be able to develop an extra trick later in the play.

The tactic of covering the opening lead is most useful when the lead is a short suit.

Don’t move card! I’ve got you covered!

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

With the friendly spade lead you have nine tricks. You might make a 10th trick by leading up to the C K or by establishing dummy’s fourth spade. What is the spade situation? West apparently has led from a short holding — either a doubleton or singleton — and East is marked with the king and 10. Your spot cards can be promoted with proper technique.

The key play is to cover with the jack in dummy; East plays the king and you win the ace. Draw three rounds of trumps ending in dummy and lead the S 7 (better than a low spade to tempt East to cover); East covers with the eight and you win the queen. All that remains is to lead the S 6 to force out East’s 10. The defenders can take their two club tricks, but the S 5 is established for a diamond discard.

Lesson 4N   MainTop   Trick One Tips

© 1994 Richard Pavlicek