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 Leading from Honor Cards by Ben Norton

Leading from Honor Cards

When you have a choice between leading a touching honor card or a small card in a suit it can sometimes be difficult to tell which will have the best outcome.

There do exist some guidelines and common inferences that help in making these decisions though. Try your hand at these five questions and see if you can come to the best conclusion and follow the recommended thought processes.

Question 1

  Your Hand
 A Q J 5 2
 10 5
 9 7 5 2
 9 6
Q: 1 - The opponents have a simple auction to 3NT and the spotlight turns to you to get the defense off to the best possible start.

What do you lead?

 Your choice:
A: 5. When considering whether or not to lead an honor card, it's a good idea to weigh up the advantages and disadvantages of each lead, and this scenario is no different.

Many will look at this hand and immediately fish out the Q lead, citing a desire to knock out the King in an opponent's hand. However when you consider the positions in which the Q will gain it becomes apparent that the only one of note is when there's K x x on the dummy and declarer has the Ten, or if there's K 10 x on table. In this case you need to start with the Queen to stop declarer scoring the Ten while dummy's King still stops the suit.

However the Q will serve only to block the suit when any of the three other hands have K x while dummy or declarer has four Spades. Because your Spade intermediates are so bad it will be impossible to bring the full trick potential out of the suit when you lead the Queen, instead leading a small one will ensure that you take all the tricks that are due to you.

If partner has K x then the 5 lead will allow you to cash five tricks in the suit, as opposed to the three if you kick off with the Queen. While if either East or West have K x you'll be sure to take four tricks as long as partner doesn't have a singleton, but then you won't do any good by leading the Queen if that's the layout anyway. Again a lead of the Q in this situation would reduce the amount of tricks you take by two.

In this way it's clear that leading a small Spade is superior when any hand holds K x in the suit, but the Queen works better when dummy has K x x (or K x x x, for then you will make sure of two defensive tricks).

When you come to this conclusion the only matter remaining is to determine which of these two circumstances is the more likely to actually exist. The case of any hand having K x along with a 4-2 break in the opponents' hands rates to happen more often than that of K x x or K x x x in the dummy while declarer holds the Ten.

If your had held the Nine of Spades then the tables would turn to leading the Queen, for then your chances of bringing home the suit when any hand has K x are much better.

It's also worth noting that it would be more attractive to lead the Queen if you had a good deal of strength in your hand, for then partner would be unlikely to have an entry, thus he would never be able to lead through declarer's K x x to pick up the suit. You'd have to tackle the suit from your side of the table at every opportunity, so the lead of the Queen to force the King or pin the Ten becomes the better action on frequency grounds.

If you had all the defensive strength you might even consider leading the Ace of Spades, so as to determine which card to continue with when you get a look at dummy. This would work wonders if K x or 10 x x x appears on the table.

Your result so far:
Open Question

Question 2

  Your Hand
 J 7
 K Q 10 7 3
 9 8 6
 7 5 3
Q: 2 - East-West have yet another auction to the No-trump game.

Which card shall you brandish aloft to strike the killing blow?

 Your choice:
A: 7. This is not a time to lead the K, for you have no outside entry, thus you want to give yourself the best chance of cashing the Heart suit.

Leading a top Heart here only gains when dummy has exactly A x and declarer holds the Jack (or the unlikely scenario wherein declarer has A x and dummy J x), but loses when partner has A x and the suit splits 4-2.

Holding x x x in the suit bid on your right is rarely a good sign, for this means the cards are lying well for declarer and any finesses he takes in the suit will work. With this in mind it seems like a time to urgently cash your defensive tricks, and the only major source of tricks for the defense is Hearts, therefore your focus should be to take as many Heart tricks as possible.

In this way you should play partner for a good Heart holding, here this holding is J x x (when it doesn't matter what you lead) or one headed by the Ace. In the latter case there is a danger of blocking the suit by leading the King if partner has A x, therefore it's best to kick off with a low one, allowing the suit to be cashed out whenever it can be.

Your result so far:
Open Question

Question 3

  Your Hand
 Q J 7 2
 9 7 2
 7 6 2
 Q 8 4
Q: 3 - Your opponents have a somewhat convincing auction to 4.

Which lead do you think gives the defense the best chance of success?

 Your choice:
A: Q. This is a good time to lead a Spade honor.

Not only is it traditional to lead the top of two touching honors against a suit contract, for fear of giving away a cheap trick that you won't be able to make up for by cashing the suit later, unlike in No-trumps, but when you have very little the lead of a high card can often trap dummy's holding.

By leading the Q you ensure that you are on lead again if you need to play through dummy's King twice. It may seem an unlikely situation but there is very little downside to leading the Q, except when dummy hits with H 10 x, but then a lead of a small card will hardly help you either.

Holding a five count with almost no potential of being on lead again you must make the most of this opportunity by trying to find partner's high cards, after all he might be left to play away from them or not make the desired number of tricks in the suit at all if you passively lead a red suit.

Your result so far:
Open Question

Question 4

  Your Hand
 8 7 5 2
 7 5 3
 A K Q 9 6 2
Q: 4 - After a lively contested auction your opponents land in a small slam.

After asking yourself how you plan to beat this contract, which card do you pull out of your hand?

 Your choice:
A: 2. Here you need not only examine the repercussions of the card you lead in a suit in isolation, but as part of the hand as a whole.

East has taken a shot at slam which can only mean that he has a good, shapely hand with the potential for making lots of tricks.

If this is the case your chances don't look too good. East rates to have at most a singleton Diamond for his leap to slam, so you can see only one defensive trick, where is the other likely to come from? Clubs? Unlikely, for declarer will probably have fitting high cards to justify his aggressive bidding.

No, your best chance is to take a Club ruff to go with your Diamond trick, but this will only work if partner can get on lead before trumps are drawn. Therefore you try a lead of the 2, giving partner the lead to return a Club.

Partner won't get it wrong at trick two. Not only will he question why you've strained to get him on lead by under-leading your A K Q, but he will recognise which Diamond you led. The Two carries suit preference connotations that will help guide partner to the right answer if he is unsure as to which black suit you are void in.

There isn't much risk attached to leading a small Diamond. For partner's energetic raise he rates to hold the J, but even if he doesn't and you are left in the embarrassing place of having to nod slowly when declarer asks 'did my Jack win?', you are unlikely to have another trick anyway.

Your result so far:
Open Question

Question 5

  Your Hand
 10 9 4 2
 J 6
 A K
 A J 10 5 2
Q: 5 - Despite picking up a good opening hand you soon find yourself on lead to the all too familiar contract of 3NT.

What do you lead?

 Your choice:
A: 5. Upon reflecting on the likely layouts of the Club suit here it becomes clear that the lead of a small card is superior to that of the Jack.

Knowing that you hold the vast majority of defensive strength it is up to you to set the course for your side's victory. East's primary suit is Diamonds, so it's likely that he'll have to turn to that suit for his game-going tricks. With this in mind it seems that you'll be be on lead twice more during the play, when you're in with both Diamond honors.

Your aim should be to set up three tricks and the Club suit is the prime candidate. Knowing there to be four cards in the dummy you must consider the various positions. Dummy could have both honors, in which case you're unlikely to be able to establish three Club tricks because your two low cards won't serve as tricks without partner coming to your aid with the Nine.

Even if this were the case, you'd need to lead a low card rather than an honor, for after winning the first trick with the King and giving up a Diamond, declarer could play low on the second round of Clubs, destroying communications in the suit because partner won't be able to return one if he started with 9 x.

Declarer could have a singleton honor, then a lead of the Ace or a small card would be best, for the Jack would blow the suit.

An altogether more likely layout is that of East holding H x and dummy H x x x though. In this scenario leading a small card would ensure you exercise the full potential of your holding. No matter how cheaply declarer can win the first trick, when in with a Diamond you'll be able to cash the Ace of Clubs, felling East's honor, and continue with the Jack to promote your 10 2.

If this is the position leading the Jack will only serve to either block the suit or gift dummy with a third stopper.

In this way the lead of a small Club is much better than the seemingly normal Jack, for you can pick up almost all the holdings wherein dummy has four cards in the suit and declarer has at most two. The Ace would actually serve better than the Jack, although it would block the suit if partner holds 9 x and dummy K Q x x, for it at least allows you to bring in three tricks when declarer has H x or a singleton honor.

Leading the Jack will block the suit the vast majority of the time, and will be a waste of a crucial asset if declarer has an honor.

When considering whether to lead an honor from a sequence or a low card in the suit, bear in mind these factors:

- the auction (what is the likely layout of the suit?)
- your intermediate cards (or 'pips')
- your outside strength/number of side entries
- what you require from partner for your lead to be successful
- your overall plan to beat the contract

If you ponder on these and weigh up the amount of positions where the lead of a low card wins as opposed to an honor and vice versa, you will find that you are making the winning choice much more often.

Remember to always draw inferences from the hand as a whole though, for the technically correct lead in a suit in isolation could very easily be the wrong lead in the circumstances. Before you send that card careering onto the table because it's the 'textbook' lead, take some time to step back and think.

Your result so far:
Open Question

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