Lesson 6B   Main

Matchpoint Strategy

  by Richard Pavlicek

This lesson is about the play of the hand at matchpoint scoring, the method that is used regularly at virtually every duplicate bridge club.

At matchpoint scoring it makes no difference by how much your score differs from other scores. You get one matchpoint for each score you beat, whether the difference is 10 points or 1,000 points, and one-half matchpoint for each score you tie.

You need not be concerned with a huge loss like you might at rubber bridge. What you want to do is beat the other pairs more often than they beat you.

Normal Contracts

How does the strategy at matchpoints differ from rubber bridge or other forms? Mainly in the play. There are some differences in the bidding, but these are subtle and less important. My advice is to bid your hands the same way at any form of scoring. Only in the play of the cards is it important to know the different strategies.

Most of the time you will play in the “normal contract” — the same contract that should be reached by other players. It may surprise you that your true goal at matchpoints is not to make your contract. All that matters is how your score stacks up against the other scores.

In a normal contract, your goal is to do as well as or better than the other players.

I made 10 tricks!

I made 11 tricks!

Guess what, folks… I don’t give a damn!

Lesson 6B   MainTop   Matchpoint Strategy


Because of the significance of any score difference, a simple overtrick can mean a “top board.” If you are in a normal contract, you should usually try to win the maximum number of tricks.

It is all right to risk your contract for an overtrick if the chance of success is at least 50-50.

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

An easier 10 tricks would be hard to find, yet a good matchpoint player would not settle for that. With a normal 3-2 trump break, 11 tricks can be won by a dummy reversal. Of course, you might be defeated if the trumps break 4-1.

The proper play is to win the C A and ruff a club; cross to dummy with a trump and ruff another club; cross to dummy with a trump and ruff the last club. Finally, cross to the D A and draw the last trump for an overtrick. Below are the scores one might expect (8 is top, 4 is average).

4 H by S44203
4 H by S44203
3 NT by N34000
4 H by S54507.5
4 H by S44203
4 H by S44203
3 NT by N44306
4 H by S54507.5
4 H by S44203

Avoid using a holdup play if you have a reasonable chance to win the rest of the tricks.

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

The proper play at matchpoints is to win the first spade. A holdup play would be beneficial if the diamond finesse lost and the spades were 5-3; but it would be wrong any time the diamond finesse works. You can win all 13 tricks as the cards lie.

If there is a risky finesse for an overtrick, try to postpone it until the very end.

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

You have 11 easy tricks, and the problem is whether you should take the club finesse. If it wins you make 12 tricks, but if it loses you make only 10. The answer is yes but not until the last possible moment.

Duck the first trick and win the second. Cash the D A-K and ruff a diamond with the H 10; lead a heart to your hand; ruff your last diamond with the H Q, then lead all your trumps coming down to two cards. East will probably keep K-x in clubs, so if you take the losing club finesse you will get the trick back at the end.

Lesson 6B   MainTop   Matchpoint Strategy

Going Down

Nobody likes to go down, but at matchpoints this is usually nothing to worry about. If you are in a normal contract that cannot be made, everyone else will be going down also. Your score should be close to average. In fact you have a chance to get a good score if you go down less than other players.

The strategy of always trying to make your contract does not apply at matchpoints.

Do not play for a long shot to make your contract if doing so means being set an extra trick.

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

With the spade lead the only chance to make your contract is that the diamond suit runs. This would require West to hold the D Q-J, which is about a 25-percent chance. At rubber bridge you should lead a diamond and finesse the 10.

The problem with this play at matchpoints is that every time it loses you will go down an extra trick — the opponents will win the diamond, run their spades and cash the H A. Therefore, you will get a very poor score 75 percent of the time.

The correct play at matchpoints is to lead a heart, conceding any chance to make your contract. The end result is that you will go down one instead of two, and your score will beat all the miracle workers who tried the diamonds.

Of course, if the D Q-J were both in the West hand, your score would be poor. But it all comes down to numbers: Would you rather get a good score 75 percent of the time or 25 percent of the time?

Lesson 6B   MainTop   Matchpoint Strategy

Abnormal Contracts

Everyone gets to the wrong contract occasionally, perhaps through a bidding accident or misjudgment. When this happens at matchpoints, you might still get a good score.

Ask yourself, “What is the normal contract, and how is the play likely to go?” This will give you an idea what the normal result should be, and that is the score you would like to beat if possible.

In an abnormal contract try to equal or beat the normal result, even if this involves an unusual play or extra risk.

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

Oops! Your bidding went awry (partner, of course) and you reached 4 S with only a seven-card trump fit. You can be sure that almost everyone else will be in 3 NT.

How will the play go in 3 NT? It looks routine: Declarer will establish the spades by cashing the king then finessing the jack. He will win 11 tricks if the spades run, or 10 tricks if a spade is lost.

If you play spades in the same manner, you will also win 11 tricks or 10 tricks, respectively. Your score will always be 10 points lower than normal. This means you will always get a zero or close to it.

What you should do is to play the spade suit differently. Win the D K, cross to your hand in hearts, lead the S J and let it ride. If West holds Q-x-x or Q-x in spades, you will win 11 tricks when all the notrump bidders are making 10. A top for you!

Of course, if East held the S Q, you will win 10 tricks versus their 11; but then you could not beat their score anyway.

If you cannot beat the normal result, try to go plus and hope the normal contract fails.

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

Horrors! You are in 4 D (partner, again) with 26 HCP and a 4-4 spade fit. The field will be in 4 S, and there is nothing you can do to equal that score if it makes. You must hope that 4 S fails and you make 4 D.

Grab the H A and lead trumps. Note that if you duck the heart, you could be set with a spade ruff. Also note that 4 S can be set with a diamond lead and accurate defense, so a plus score may salvage something.

If an abnormal contract is great, play safe to make it; do not risk it for an overtrick.

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

By a stroke of genius (yours, naturally) you reach the superb contract of 4 S. The normal contract is 3 NT with 10 tricks, but you can ruff a heart for 11 tricks.

It is tempting to be greedy and try for two ruffs: Win the H A; ruff a heart; diamond to hand; ruff a heart; cash the S A and lead a diamond — sorry, East ruffs and you get a zero. The proper play is to ruff only one heart then draw trumps.

Lesson 6B   MainTop   Matchpoint Strategy

© 1990 Richard Pavlicek