Main   Study 8C41 by Richard Pavlicek  

Running Your Suit

When defending a notrump contract, enjoying long-suit tricks is sometimes complicated by not knowing partner’s specific honor holding or length. Standard carding agreements will usually suffice, but problems remain that only special methods can solve. Here I will explain some solutions.

This study applies only when the leader of the suit is known from the auction to have at least four cards, or if he opened one of a minor (3+ cards) and leads that suit with no indication of support from partner, or if he has already led fourth-best and continues that suit upon regaining the lead. In practice the suit led will usually be five cards.

In standard practice, after the initial lead of a suit, continuing top down warns partner not to overtake or unblock; continuing with a lower card welcomes an overtake or unblock. Commonly this is used to differentiate short versus long holdings, e.g., Q-J-x vs. Q-J-10-9-x. When leader is known to have length, this distinction is useless, and a better treatment will be implemented in this study.

King Lead

The opening lead of a king requests standard attitude (right-side-up). More specifically, partner should signal positive attitude with the ace, queen or jack; otherwise negative attitude.

 1.  NT 2 
A K Q 9 6Table 10 7 3
West leads J 8 5 4 

East routinely discourages with the three, but the important thing is which card West leads next.

Continue with the card immediately below the lead to demand present count.

West next leads the queen, on which East plays the 10 (present count from 10-7). This clarifies to West that South has the guarded jack, so on most deals West will shift to another suit hoping East can gain the lead.

If East instead held 10-7-5-3, he would play the five (present count from 10-7-5). West then knows South’s jack is falling* and continues with the ace, on which East unblocks the 10. Five fast tricks.

*Not guaranteed of course, as it’s possible East has 5-3 doubleton, but surely the logical path barring specific information that South has four or more cards.

Weak spot card

What if West is not so fortunate as to have the nine-spot? The plot thickens!

 2.  NT 2 
A K Q 7 6Table 10 5 3
West leads J 9 8 4 

The play begins as before, but West now knows he cannot benefit from East unblocking 10-x-x, which in fact would only help South. Therefore, a different strategy applies:

Any other honor continuation (besides the next lower) forbids present count.

West continues with the ace, on which East simply follows suit with the five. Nothing may be gained of course, but it prevents the donation of a trick. Unless West has an outside entry, he’ll usually abandon the suit. If South is wise enough to lead the jack out of his hand, more power to him; but the point is not to give it away.

What if East held 10-8-5-3? No problem! East is forbidden to give present count, remember, so he does the opposite, playing the 10. Not only does this alert West that South’s jack is falling, but it unblocks the suit. Under the queen East unblocks again, and the first five tricks go West.

Only four cards

What if West has only four cards? Everything is the same, according to whether West’s spot card allows East to unblock safely from three.

 3.  NT 10 2 
A K Q 8Table 9 5 3
West leads J 7 6 4 

West leads the king, and East discourages with the three (denying the jack). West next leads the queen (card below) to demand present count, effectively an unblock, so East plays the nine. West now knows to exit and hope East can gain the lead to finesse through South.

If East held 9-7-5-3, he would play the five next (present count from 9-7-5), and West can deduce the suit is running.

Four cards, weak spot

 4.  NT 10 2 
A K Q 6Table 9 5 3
West leads J 8 7 4 

The play begins the same, but this time West’s spot is too low to have any rank value, so he continues with the ace (not the card below) to forbid present count. This warns East not to waste the nine, and West will (usually) switch suits. South of course is able to establish a trick by leading the jack to smother the nine, but he is not gifted this by sloppy defense.

If East held 9-7-5-3, he would play high on the second round — remember, present count forbidden — and West knows South has no stopper.

Reminder and Warning

These rules do not apply when a king or queen might be led from a short suit. Continuing with the card below then indicates shortness (standard practice).

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Queen Lead

The opening lead of a queen requests standard attitude (right-side-up).* More specifically, partner should signal positive attitude with the ace, king or 10; otherwise negative attitude.

*Unless East, to his surprise, holds the jack. Then he must throw the jack (dummy’s holding notwithstanding) since West’s lead must be from K-Q-10-9-x to flush out that card immediately.

The queen lead does not deny the king. From K-Q-J-x-(x) the queen is the lead of choice to obtain attitude about the 10; whereas the king would not help (you know where the jack is).

 5.  NT 2 
K Q J 8 5Table 9 4 3
West leads A 10 7 6 

West leads the queen, and East plays the three to discourage (no ace or 10). West then continues with the jack (card below) to obtain present count, and East plays the nine. If South ducks twice, West knows not to continue.

If East held 9-6-4-3, his second play would be the four (present count) and the suit is quickly established. East of course unblocks the nine on the third round.

Weak spot card

 6.  NT 2 
K Q J 6 5Table 9 4 3
West leads A 10 8 7 

Here West’s spot cards have no rank value, so he continues with the king (not the card below) to forbid present count. East then keeps his nine, and South is not gifted a trick. Yes, South could capture the king with the ace and lead the 10 (now or subsequently) to smother the nine, but make him earn it! If instead South ducks twice, West knows not to continue.

If East held 9-7-4-3, his second play would be the nine — present count is forbidden so he must do the opposite. West then can establish his suit directly, East tossing the seven next to avoid blocking it.

Only four cards

Now suppose West has only four cards. Everything works the same, depending on whether West’s spot card is high enough to permit East to unblock safely from three.

 7.  NT 9 2 
K Q J 7Table 8 4 3
West leads A 10 6 5 

West leads the queen, and East discourages (no ace or 10). The nine-spot in dummy makes West’s seven material, so he continues with the jack (card below) to obtain present count. When East plays the eight, West knows to shift if South ducks twice.

If East held 8-6-4-3, his second play would be the four (present count) and the suit is established forthwith.

Four cards, weak spot

 8.  NT 9 2 
K Q J 5Table 8 4 3
West leads A 10 7 6 

The play starts the same, but West’s spot card has no rank value, so he continues with the king (not the card below) to forbid present count, effectively warning East not to unblock. If South wins the ace and fires back the 10 to smother the eight, sign him up — but don’t make it a gift. If South ducks twice, West shifts suits.

If East held 8-6-4-3, his second play would be the eight (opposite of present count) and West is alerted that South has only one stopper whether he wins the ace or ducks.

Normal queen lead

If the queen is led from a Q-J sequence (no king) there is rarely a problem, but the same rules apply:

 9.  NT 2 
Q J 10 8 5Table 9 4 3
West leads A K 7 6 

When South ducks the first trick, West continues with the jack (card below). East plays the nine (present count) which alleviates West’s concerns about South having that card.

If West instead held Q-J-10-6-5, he would continue with the 10 (not the card below) and East would not waste his nine.

After an Encouraging Signal

If partner gives positive attitude on a king or queen lead, the rules are unchanged. That is, continuing with the card below demands present count (overtake or unblock with two left), and any other honor forbids present count; so there is no problem if a signal is ambiguous. In most cases, however, leader will heed the signal and continue with original fourth-best.

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Other Applications

The same principles apply if the leader loses the first trick, then subsequently leads the second round of his suit from equivalent cards. In these situations the “card below” will be defined as the second highest of the outstanding honors. For example:

 10.  NT 2 
A J 9 6 5Table Q 8 3
West leads K 10 7 4 

West leads fourth-best to the queen and king, then suppose he regains the lead at trick two in another suit. The ace and jack are the two highest outstanding honors (unseen by partner) and West of course could lead either.

Holding the key nine-spot, West leads the jack (second highest) to demand present count, and East plays the eight. West now knows South has the guarded 10 and will usually exit elsewhere, hoping to get a lead-through from East.

If East held Q-10-3, he would play the 10, allowing West to cash the remainder.

If East held Q-8-7-3, he would play the three (present count from 8-7-3). West then knows South’s 10 is falling and easily banks the rest.

Weak spot card

When West’s spot card is insignificant, an element of uncertainty may arise, but general principles remain the same. Even when there’s no perfect solution, you have to do the best you can.

 11.  NT 2 
A J 7 6 5Table Q 10 3
West leads K 9 8 4 

West leads fourth-best to the queen and king, then regains the lead in another suit at trick two. West’s seven-spot has no rank value, so leading the jack would be futile. West has two options: (1) Lead low hoping East has the 10, or (2) lead the ace (highest) hoping East has four cards. Neither is obvious barring clues from the bidding, but if West chooses Option 2, East must keep his 10 (present count is forbidden). This time Option 2 was wrong, but continuing with the jack on the third round would only make it worse; West should either lead low hoping East has the 10 or shift suits.

If East held Q-9-8-3, Option 2 would be the winner. Under the ace, East would play the nine (opposite of present count), then the jack would drop South’s 10 as East unblocks the eight.

One more and we’re outta here

 12.  NT 2 
Q 10 8 5 4Table J 9 3
West leads A K 7 6 

West leads fourth-best to the jack and ace, then regains the lead in another suit at trick two. In this case the king and queen are the two highest outstanding honors (from East’s viewpoint) so West continues with the queen (second highest) to demand present count. East dutifully contributes the nine, and West has the spots to drive.

If East held J-7-3, he would play the seven under the queen, and West would know not to lead a third round if South ducks.

If West held Q-10-6-5-4, i.e., useless spot cards, he would have two options: (1) Lead low hoping East has the nine, or (2) lead the 10 (not second highest of the missing K-Q-10 from East’s viewpoint) to forbid present count. If Option 2 is chosen, East would play low (keep the nine) — unless he held four cards, then highest of the remaining three with present count forbidden.

[Thanks to Jim Munday, Mississippi, for suggesting the definition “second highest outstanding” (rather than second highest held) to avoid ambiguity in cases like Example 12.]

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© 2019 Richard Pavlicek