Lesson 4T   Main

Timing the Play

  by Richard Pavlicek

As declarer it often makes a difference in which order you play different suits, and when you give up the tricks that you must lose. In bridge parlance this is called “timing the play.”

This lesson explains some of the important principles. If you understand them, it will improve your overall sense of timing.

The Principle of Control

A suit is “controlled” by the side that has the ace or highest unplayed card. The more suits declarer has controlled, the better his chances are of success.

Early in the play keep control in as many suits as possible.

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

You have 10 top tricks, and you need the heart finesse to work to have any chance. The other trick you need might come from a 3-3 heart break, a doubleton D Q, or a squeeze if the defender with longer hearts also has the D Q.

If you took the heart finesse directly, you would fail. When you later give up a heart, West would return a third heart to remove your heart control completely. The key is to retain all the control you can, and duck a heart early. The best play is to cross to dummy with a club and lead a low heart (if East held K-x, he might hop up).

Regardless of the return, declarer is able to finesse the heart without losing his heart control. With the proper play West will be squeezed on the last club winner.

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

There are nine top tricks, and you must hope for a 3-3 break in clubs or diamonds (probably both if the defense is accurate). The key to success is to keep control in each minor suit.

Assume you win the H K, draw trumps in three rounds, then choose to duck a diamond (you could equally well duck a club). Whoever wins must shift to a club (else you will succeed easily) and you duck again. (If you win the C A and return a club, the defenders switch to diamonds.) Now whichever minor is led next, you can establish that suit to provide a discard for your loser in the other minor suit.

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

You have eight top tricks and need to establish one more in diamonds. If you win the first trick, you can be defeated (East wins the first diamond to continue spades) so you duck. West is a clever defender and he shifts to a heart at trick two. Now you have another problem.

If you win the H K, West will take the first diamond and lead his last heart (East overtakes) then East will have the setting tricks to cash. You must duck the heart as well. Now whichever suit West leads, you will lose only the top diamonds.

If you have a close decision as to which suit to attack, choose the least controlled suit.

Don’t worry partner, I have everything under control.

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

Declarer has seven obvious tricks and it appears he needs a 3-3 club break to make his contract. But there is the same chance that spades will break 3-3 as there is in clubs — the probabilities of suit breaks are independent of the high cards held.

The best play is to lead spades because it is the least controlled suit. This technique retains your control in clubs, and it may give you an additional chance to make your contract in the end.

Win the H K (ducking is optional); give up a spade; duck the second heart; win the H A, and lead another spade. This appears to be a waste of time with spades breaking 4-2, but watch what happens.

If East wins the second spade, he can cash two more spades; but he cannot reach West for the 13th heart. Declarer then can make his contract by a squeeze play: West cannot keep both the D Q and his club stopper as the spades are cashed.

If West wins the second spade, he can cash his 13th heart; but he cannot reach East for the remaining spades. If declarer guesses correctly, he can make his contract by a throw-in play: West is thrown in with the last club to lead a diamond.

Note that by leading spades before clubs declarer is able to make his contract even though neither suit broke 3-3.

Lesson 4T   MainTop   Timing the Play

Breaking the Link

In the previous example declarer led a weak suit to pursue a chance to develop a trick. While doing this he also happened to break the link between the enemy hands, and this allowed him to succeed.

Breaking the enemy communication is so important that you will often benefit even when there is no hope to set up a trick in that suit.

When you are on lead and cannot see a clear path to success, consider leading a weak suit to give the lead to the opponents.

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

West’s opening lead is helpful although you notice that East signals with the D 8 — surely a doubleton or singleton. Assuming a 3-2 trump break your contract is secure, but you would like to establish dummy’s fourth diamond to discard a club in case trumps are 4-1 (or for an overtrick).

If you play three rounds of trumps, West will hold up his D Q until the third round and you will be unable to reach dummy. If you don’t draw trumps, not only will East get his ruff but he can lead a heart to West who will lead a fourth diamond. In short, there is no clear path to success; the defenders can counter any play you make.

Except one! You should win the D A and lead a heart. East can obtain his diamond ruff (this is harmless with his natural trump trick), but West cannot gain the lead again to play a fourth diamond. Regardless of the defense, you will be able to draw trumps ending in the dummy and discard your club loser on the fourth diamond — making an overtrick.

Lesson 4T   MainTop   Timing the Play

The Smoke Screen

The tactic of leading a weak suit also has psychological advantages. The defenders are likely to misread the position, expecting you to have a stronger holding. Therefore, they will often misdefend by leading another suit that will help you.

This backdoor approach is strong in another regard, as it retains your control in your stronger suits.

If you see little hope to succeed legitimately, consider the tactic of leading the suit the opponents should be leading.

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

You have nine easy tricks, but prospects are not good for a 10th. If you draw trumps and establish clubs (ducking a club to keep communication) the opponents can set you by cashing three hearts. You need help, so give the opponents some rope.

Cross to dummy with a trump and lead a heart to the jack and king. If West errs by trying to cash his D Q or by leading clubs, you will succeed easily, so assume he leads a second trump to dummy. Lead another heart. East wins and cashes a third heart as all follow. Ruff the diamond return, lead all your trumps, and look at what happens: West gets squeezed in the minor suits.

The smoke screen of leading hearts not only provided opportunities for an error, but in this case led to an ending that could not be defeated. If East returned a diamond before you lost three hearts, you would just sluff a heart to establish the D J as your 10th trick. Also, note that neither defender could lead clubs safely, and retaining your control allowed the squeeze to operate.

Lesson 4T   MainTop   Timing the Play


As declarer you are not bound by any partnership agreements as to which card to play from any holding; partner is the dummy so it does not matter if he is fooled. Honesty is not your best policy. Every time you lead or play, select the card that will conceal your holding as much as possible. The less the opponents know, the better your chances are to succeed with your plan.

Winning a trick with an unnecessarily high card may cause the opponents to waste their time by leading the suit again.

Following suit with an unnecessarily high spot card may cause a defender to misinterpret the signal by his partner.

In general, the best falsecard is the card immediately above an opponent’s card. Extreme falsecards can usually be read as such by a clever defender.

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

Your bidding gave away no suit information and West does not find the killing spade lead. In order to make your contract you must knock out the C A and establish the diamonds, which gives the opponents a second chance to lead spades.

Your best prospect is to duck the first trick and hope West continues diamonds. To boost your chances you should falsecard with the D 7 (the card above East’s). West will see the two is missing, and he is likely to think East is signaling.

Lesson 4T   MainTop   Timing the Play

© 1996 Richard Pavlicek