Lesson 6H   Main

Counting on Defense

  by Richard Pavlicek

As a defender one cannot just sit back, relax and follow suit. It is necessary to keep track of the play and have a plan to try to counteract declarer. Usually this requires some investigation of the two unseen hands.

This lesson will explain how to do this with the least amount of effort. You may be surprised how easy it is to be a great defender.

Counting the Points

As soon as you see the dummy, you should try to get an approximate idea how the high-card points are divided. This is especially important if partner has not bid.

Add your HCP, dummy’s HCP and declarer’s minimum HCP. Subtract this from 40 to obtain partner’s maximum HCP.

1. S 6 4
H 9 7 6
D A Q 8 7 2
C K J 10


3 NT

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

East wins the S A and returns the two; 10, jack. West can resolve his problem by adding his 10 HCP, dummy’s 10 and declarer’s minimum of 15 (assuming a 15-17 range for 1 NT) to total 35. This leaves a maximum of 5 HCP for East.

Since East has already shown the S A, he cannot have more than another jack; so South has the guarded S Q as well as the other significant high cards. Don’t panic! Proper defense is to exit with a club and wait for the setting tricks in the majors.

Lesson 6H   MainTop   Counting on Defense

Counting the Tricks

As the play develops you should be aware how many tricks declarer is able to win (or has already won). I use a “grand total” method based on the deal from the start.

This is one of the reasons I emphasize counting winners (as opposed to losers) when you are declarer. The procedure will improve your defense as well.

If you count that declarer has enough tricks for his contract, it is time to act quickly. Attack!

If you count that declarer does not have enough tricks, tend to play safe. Avoid risky leads.

2. S A Q 2
H J 10
D J 10 9 7
C Q 6 4 3


3 NT

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

South wins the H K, crosses to dummy with the S A and leads the D J for a losing finesse. West now counts that declarer can win three heart tricks (indicated when East could not beat the dummy), at least three diamonds, and at least three spades (the play of the suit marks South with the king). That is nine tricks so West should immediately shift to clubs as the only hope. The proper lead is the C J, then continue with the king. This sets the contract.

Note that West could also determine that East held the C A by adding his 8 HCP to dummy’s 10 and declarer’s 15, leaving East with 7 maximum (5-7 range). Based on the play so far this would have to include the C A.

3. S K 4
H K Q 2
D Q 9 4 2
C A 9 7 3


4 S

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

Declarer plays the H Q at trick one (an attempt to conceal the jack) and East wins the ace. Many defenders would now shift to the C K, the instinctive play. Stop!

East counts South for seven spade tricks (the king must solidify his suit), two hearts (he is known to hold the H J) and one club — 10 tricks. The only way to stop this is to take four tricks before he gains the lead. East should shift to the D 7.

4. S J 10 8 5
H 7 4
D A 9 3
C K Q 5 3


2 C
4 S

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

Dummy wins the D A and East signals with the queen (a good play). Declarer leads the S J, losing to West. Now is the time to count declarer’s tricks.

From West’s viewpoint declarer can win three spades, three clubs and two diamonds — eight tricks. Declarer also can score a ninth trick with a ruff, but that’s one short. Therefore, West should exit safely with a trump to avoid giving declarer a 10th trick in hearts or clubs.

Lesson 6H   MainTop   Counting on Defense

Counting the Suits

It is obviously important to know how many cards remain in a suit after it has been played one or more times. This would be a formidable task if you tried to count each card in each suit as it was played.

There is an easier way! All suits must conform to one of 39 patterns, of which some are too rare to worry about. Near the end of this lesson the 20 most common patterns are listed in order of frequency. Memorizing these numbers will greatly improve your bridge game.

Do not count cards as they are played. Try to associate each suit with a common pattern.

5. S Q J 10
H 7 3
D A Q 9 4 3
C K Q 4

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

West’s lead of the ace demands East to unblock the queen, else give count; East plays the H 2 to show an odd number. West should immediately know without counting that the hearts originally were 5-3-3-2; hence South’s queen is guarded.

What West should be doing is counting declarer’s tricks: probably five diamonds, possibly three spades (South should not have a four-card major) and possibly four clubs. None of these counts is certain, but good defense often depends on reasonable assumptions early in the play.

On this analysis the proper defense by West is to shift to a spade because declarer could not come to nine tricks if East held either the D K or the C A, but might if East held the S A.

Lesson 6H   MainTop   Counting on Defense

Counting the Hands

The final aspect of counting is to determine the shape of declarer’s and partner’s hand. Actually this is just a summary of the information you obtain from counting the cards in each suit. Piecing it together will often reveal the winning defense.

Hand patterns are identical to suit patterns (including the frequency each one is held). Therefore, the easy way to count the hands is also to go by patterns. This emphasizes the importance of memorizing the common patterns.

Do not try to count the pattern of both unseen hands. Concentrate on declarer’s hand.

6. S Q 9 5 3
H A 10 8 2
D 4 3
C A K 5


3 S

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

East wins the D A and pauses to think about the best defense. The fall of the D Q makes it clear South is short in that suit, so diamonds are 5-4-2-2. On the bidding the spade suit is also probably 5-4-2-2. The other two suits are a mystery.

Now let’s consider the South hand. Holding five spades and two diamonds, South’s pattern is 5-3-3-2 or 5-4-2-2 (conceivably 5-5-2-1). If he is 3-3 in hearts and clubs, he will be able to set up dummy’s long heart for a club discard. Therefore, East should switch to a club at trick two, attempting to build a club trick before declarer has time to establish hearts.

Note that if South were 4-2 in clubs and hearts (either way) the club switch would be harmless.

Most Common Patterns

1. 4-4-3-211. 7-3-2-1
2. 5-3-3-212. 6-4-3-0
3. 5-4-3-113. 5-4-4-0
4. 5-4-2-214. 5-5-3-0
5. 4-3-3-315. 6-5-1-1
6. 6-3-2-216. 6-5-2-0
7. 6-4-2-117. 7-2-2-2
8. 6-3-3-118. 7-4-1-1
9. 5-5-2-119. 7-4-2-0
10. 4-4-4-1 20. 7-3-3-0

I counted the points, the tricks, the suits and the hands!

And you still blew the defense. Next time count your marbles!

7. S Q 8 2
H J 10 9 7
D 8 3
C Q J 10 8

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

South ruffs the second diamond (high) and draws trumps ending in dummy. He next leads the C Q losing to West’s king. Many defenders would now switch to the S J because it is the only suit left. Alas, it gives away the contract.

Let’s count the hand. South is known to have started with five hearts and one diamond, so his shape is almost surely 5-4-3-1 (possibly 5-5-2-1). Note that South’s total length in clubs and spades (seven cards) is exactly equal to dummy’s length in those two suits. This means that declarer cannot benefit from a discard.

This knowledge should guide West into a passive defense. Simply exit with a club and force declarer to lead spades himself — down one.

Lesson 6H   MainTop   Counting on Defense

© 1994 Richard Pavlicek