What card to lead?

In the game of Duplicate Bridge the defence's first lead of a suit, particularly the opening lead of a hand, is often critical. Below we explore some guidelines that help the defence maximise their chances and avoid the worst mistakes. You can try this quiz before or after you read below.

The first question is what suit to lead and this is handled separately. Here we explore the second and more straight-forward question: the choice of card once the suit has been chosen.

The objectives are twofold: firstly to maximise the chances of gaining extra tricks in the suit (or avoiding the loss of unnecessary tricks), and secondly to give partner as much information as possible about your holding in the suit. Of course, declarer may also gain additional information, but given declarer's advantage at the start the information conveyed will more often than not be of greater advantage to your partner (unless you expect your partner to never gain the lead), particularly as it concerns a suit in which you think you have some advantage.

The following guidelines are based on achieving these two objectives:

1. Sequence Leads

With a solid sequence of three touching cards including an honour, lead the top card. Eg: K Q J x, 10 9 8 x.

With a near sequence of two touching cards and then a single card gap, lead the top card. Eg: K Q 10 x, J 10 8 x.

With an interior sequence, that is an honour card, a gap and then another honour and the next card, lead the top card of the interior sequence of touching cards. Eg:K J 10 x, K10 9 x.

Why? Sequence leads are amongst the safest leads in that they rarely give declarer an extra trick (this does sometimes happen with interior sequence leads). They also tell your partner of your strength in the suit. The real joy comes when your partner has a top honour, wins the trick and can lead back to you trapping whatever honours declarer may have. Note that leading top of sequences tells your partner (and declarer) that you do not have the immediately higher card. It doesn't deny a higher card but does deny the immediately higher one. The exception is that some partnerships lead K from AKx(x) holdings so that they can lead A from AK doubletons to clearly indicate the doubleton.

2. Broken or Single Honours

Lead low in a suit to indicate you have one or more honour cards (not in a sequence). Eg: K J x, Q 7 3 2.

Many partnerships modify this guideline and use conventions such as leading 4th highest (assuming you have at least four), or leading 3rds and 5ths (fifth if you have five plus, third if you do not have five) to help partner estimate how many cards declarer has in the suit. Eg: if the 4th highest is an agreed convention then the lead of the 2 would tell partner that you hold no more than 4 cards in the suit and allow him to add this to his and dummy's holding to see the minimum number declarer has.

Why? In the absence of an honour sequence that allows an honour to be led without waste, we need a conventional way of showing that we have at least one honour - leading a low card is this convention. Any additional meaning (such as the number of cards you hold in the suit) that can be conveyed without getting in the way of this fundamental information is extra gain. Leading away from broken honours can certainly give declarer extra tricks if he holds the remaining honours - but if a lead of this suit is called for, then this is safer than leading the honour itself!

3. Length without Honours

Unless the suit has particular length (that is as significant as having an honour) it is best to avoid leading low from a suit without an honour. Some partnerships lead the second highest then highest as per Middle Up Down or MUD even with four cards, while others try to play 2nd then 3rd highest to show an even number of cards in the suit. Eg: 9 7 4 3, 85 3 2.

Why? The principal aim is to avoid indicating an honour that might affect the way partner might play to the suit. Once this goal is achieved the secondary goal is to tell partner how many cards you hold in the suit by giving count, provided you retain any cards that might be useful, particularly defending against a NT contract. (Count is generally given by playing high-low to show an even number of cards and low-high to show an odd number.)

4. Three Card Suits without Honours

MUD or Middle-Up-Down. Lead the middle card, then play the higher card on the second round showing partner that you had an odd number of cards in the suit.

Why? Hopefully the middle card is high enough not to convey any suggestion that you have an honour. If this is the case and the suit has some interest to your partner, then the most valuable infomation you can give him or her is the original length of your suit holding. This count is given by your second round play being higher than your first round.

5. Doubleton Leads

Lead the higher of the two cards, even if one or both is an honour. Eg: Q x, K J, A x, 9 4.

Why? The lead may not be safe and may give a trick away. But if the suit is the appropriate lead, then it may also gain tricks and the sooner partner realises you have a doubleton the better. Leading high then low traditionally shows an even number of cards, reduces the chance of blocking the suit on the second round and also increases the likelihood of winning the first trick, partner winning the second and being able to give you an immediate ruff.

6. Singleton Leads

Duh.

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