Techniques as declarer
Techniques in the play of the hand
Terence Reese, a prolific author of bridge books, points out that there are only four ways of taking a trick, and two of these are very easy
- playing a high card that no one else can beat
- trumping an opponent's high card
- establishing long cards (the last cards in a suit will take tricks if the opponents don't have the suit and are unable to trump)
- playing for the opponents' high cards to be in a particular position (if their ace is in front of your king, your king may take a trick)
All trick-taking techniques in bridge can be reduced to one of these four methods.
The optimum play of the cards can require much thought and experience, and is too complicated to describe in a short article. However, some basic ideas of probability may be considered:
Some of the most important probabilities have to do with the position of high cards.
- The probability that a given opponent holds one particular card, e.g. the king: 50%
- The probability that a given opponent holds two particular cards, e.g. the king and the queen: approximately 25%
- The probability that a given opponent holds at least one of two particular cards, e.g. the king or the queen: approximately 75%
When developing long cards, it is important to know the likelihood that the opponents' cards in the suit are evenly divided between them. Generally speaking, if they hold an even number of cards, they are unlikely to be exactly divided; if the opponents have an odd number in the suit, the cards will probably be divided as evenly as possible. For example, if declarer and dummy have eight trumps between them, the opponents' trumps are probably (68% chance) divided 3-2 (one opponent with three trumps, the other with two) and trumps can be drawn in three rounds. If declarer is trying to play with a seven card trump suit, it is more likely that the outstanding trumps are divided 4-2 (48%) than that the cards are evenly divided 3-3 between the opponents (36%).
Basic techniques by declarer
When new to the game, a player should be familiar with these strategies for playing the hand:
- establishing long suits
- General suit management
- holdup (mostly at NT contracts)
- managing entries
- when to draw trumps
When playing as declarer in a trump contract, you should hopefully have chosen a trump suit in which you have the majority of the trumps—ideally 8 or more trumps between your two hands. Even so, your opponents will have at least some trumps between them, and they can disrupt your contract by ruffing cards you were hoping to win. It's therefore often wise to lead trumps for a few rounds early in the hand. Since your opponents are forced to follow suit, you can exhaust them of trumps and play the rest of the hand safe from being ruffed. This is called drawing trumps.
Drawing trumps prevents you from losing otherwise winning cards that get ruffed by your opponents, but it also exhausts your own trumps, which means you can't use them for ruffing. The key question is to look at the length of the trump suits in your two hands: you can generally reckon to score one trick for each trump in the hand with the longer trump suit (minus any missing trump honors). However, if you draw trumps then the trumps in the hand with the shorter trump suit don't score, since they have to be used to follow the led suit. If instead you lead a card from one hand in which the other is void, you can use the short trump suit for ruffing, gaining extra tricks.
In general you will want to draw trumps as soon as you can, unless you can see a specific reason not to. Good reasons to delay drawing trumps are:
- You need to score extra trump tricks by using the trumps in the hand with the shorter trump suit to ruff.
- You need to use trumps to provide extra entries to one of the hands (usually dummy)
- You need to discard losing cards quickly.
Setting up a long suit
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If you have all the top cards in a suit, you can make them score however you play them (provided your opponents are unable to ruff). If you hold the Ace and Queen and your opponents have the King, it may seem like you can't make two tricks with them. However, if you lead correctly you can score with the queen 50% of the time.
Suppose you are declarer (South) and dummy (North) has AQ♥. If you play the ace then the queen, the opponent holding the king will take the trick (unless the king is singleton). On the other hand, if you lead a low heart from your hand (South), then you may be able to win the queen. Suppose West holds the king. If West plays the king on your low heart, you play the ace and the queen is a guaranteed winner in the next round. If West doesn't play the king, you play the queen and win it. Of course, if the king lies with East then things won't work out so well. You'll play the queen and lose.
This is the basic concept of a finesse. Note that whether the finesse works depends entirely on which hand holds the missing card. Once you play for the finesse, there's nothing your opponents can do about it if West holds the king, and nothing you can do to win if East holds the king.
How do you know whether to play a finesse? Occasionally there will be a clue in the bidding (say East has already shown he has ace and king in another suit, but his bidding rules out him having 10 points or more). More often though, it's a straight 50% gamble.
Even if you can't tell whether a finesse is going to win you a trick, it often pays to consider how bad the situation will be if the finesse doesn't work out and you lose the lead. Often there is one defender that represents more of a threat than the other, perhaps because they have a suit with lots of winners that the other opponent is void in and can't lead. A finesse into the "safe" hand will lose at most a single trick, while a finesse into the "danger" hand might lose three or four.
The hold up
Suppose your opponents hold strength in a particular suit and you're worried that they can make enough tricks in that suit to defeat your contract. In such a situation, it's often to your advantage to deliberately lose one or two tricks in the suit before you play a winner. Hopefully this means that one defender will have no more cards in this suit, so if they get the lead later on they can't make any tricks: though their partner has winners, they can't lead to them.
Suppose spades are trumps, and you have the following hearts:
West leads the 9♥ (top of a doubleton), East playing the Queen. You win with your Ace. If West regains the lead before you've drawn all the trumps (for example, by playing the A♠), West will be able to play the 2♥ to East's King. East can then return the 3♥ for West to ruff. Two heart tricks have been lost.
If instead of playing the Ace on the first round you duck, East will return a K♥ that you can win. It doesn't matter if West later gains the lead, since the third round of hearts can only be ruffed if it is led by East.
Advanced techniques by declarer
Someone who plays regularly in tournaments should be familiar with these concepts:
- counting the hand (tracking the distibution of suits and high cards in the opponents' hands using inferences from the bidding and play)
- coups and elimination
- dummy reversal
- safety play
Techniques as defender
Basic techniques by defenders
- opening lead
- when to lead trump
- suit management
Advanced techniques by defenders
- avoiding an endplay or squeeze
- counting the hand (tracking the distibution of suits and high cards in the unseen hands using inferences from the bidding and play)
- opening lead - using information from auction
The best explanation for various bridge playing techniques, is to first explain a playing technique, as used by the declareer, and then explaining a defender technique used to thwart that particular declarer technique.
The most basic technique is using long suits.
Suppose you are playing 3NT and you are holding the following two hands:
Dummy: ♠AKQxxx ♥xxx ♦xxx ♣A
Declarer: ♠Jx ♥KQJ ♦KQJ ♣xxxxx
West starts by cashing his heart and diamond aces. He now plays another heart, and you have to plan the play. You can immediately see two heart tricks, and two diamond tricks, no matter what you chose to discard on west's two aces (you probably discarded the two jacks, which is not always optimal, but that's deception, so we shall deal with it later, for this hand, it makes no difference.)
So, counting four tricks is good. you can also see another four in dummy, so that's almost the nine you need. Where are you going to get more tricks from?
Let's see. there are only thirteen spades, and you are holding eight of them. that means that you opponent are hoding only five. Chances are they are divided 3-2 between the two of them. but you can make you contract even if they are divided 4-1, providing that you play carefully enough. you should cash all your hearts and diamonds from the declarer hnd, than cash the spade jack, which would hold the trick. You then play a small spade to the AKQxx left in dummy. You play the high cards first, and unless you are very unfortunate, the low spades will take tricks too. the opponents will have no spades left by that stage. Oh, don't forget to take the club ace too. You will end up with two overtricks.