Defence Basics

Playing Defence – Basics

When you play bridge you will be defending on average 50% of the time. This means that your score can go up or down a lot depending on the quality of your defence.

As with anything in bridge there are many different tactics you can learn to help with your defensive play. This guide covers the basic things you should be thinking about when you are playing defence. For more advanced information including defence systems check out some of our other defence guides. 

Opening Leads

Your choice of opening lead can make a huge difference to your defence. There are some basic rules which can help you choose a lead but these should not be used automatically.

Think about what you know before you lead. Bids should always be visible until the lead is made so make sure to pay attention to what happened in the auction.

Leading Against a Suit

**1# Rule: NEVER LEAD A SUIT WITH AN UNSUPPORTED ACE AGAINST A TRUMP CONTRACT!!**

Priority 1 – If partner has bid a suit, lead that suit.

Priority 2 – Establish a sequence

Priority 3 – Lead a shortage

Priority 4 – Lead a trump

Priority 5 – Lead the unbid suit

Which card to lead from a suit?

Whatever suit you lead your choice of card should tell partner something.

  • Leading an honour promises the next honour down. E.g. leading a king promises that you also have the queen in that suit
  • Leading a small card says that you have an unsupported honour in the suit e.g. just the king
  • Leading a middling card like the 8 or 9 is usually the top of rubbish. You are not showing any honours in the suit but have chosen to lead it for another reason

Remember that any card might be a lead from a shortage if you are in a trump contract. Don’t worry, you will usually lead back whatever partner leads so if they lead a small card and you lead back expecting an honour then they wont have one, but they can trump instead!

If you are still stuck after going through this list then some more thought is going to be involved! For now let’s look at these steps in a bit more detail.

  1. Lead partners suit

If your partner has bid a suit you can never be blamed for leading that suit. It is important to note that this relies on your partner bidding reliably. This is one of the main reasons we insist on having 2 of the top honours for overcalls and pre-empts. If you overcall a suit and partner leads it you will have to hang your head if you can only offer 9 high.

2. Establish a sequence

If you have touching honours in your hand then you should lead the top one. This will act to drive out the larger cards and turn your smaller honour into a winner the next time that suit is played.

There are a couple of things to take note of if you lead top of a sequence. Keep an eye on dummy, if they show up with a shortage in your suit then you might not be able to establish your tricks.

You should be more attracted towards leading sequences if they are longer, as this will mean more potential tricks.

3. Lead a shortage

If you have a short suit (a singleton or doubleton) then leading that suit may provide a chance for an early trump. The chances of this working are fairly slim as you usually need partner to turn up with the ace in order to trump a trick before the opposition can get in and draw trumps.

If your shortage is a doubleton then lead the top card first. If you can then lead the lower card, it will tell partner that you were leading from a doubleton.

4. Lead a trump

If you have no good card to lead, then consider leading a trump. It will rarely establish tricks, but it will avoid giving them away. It also means that by the next time you have to choose a lead, you will be able to see dummy.

5.Lead the unbid suit

If there is a suit that opposition has not bid then try leading that. There is a slightly higher chance that partner will have something in that suit.

Example:

The opposition have bid 1♥ – 3. You are on lead with this hand-

You don’t want to lead a suit with an unsupported ace, so that rules out spades and hearts. You have a decent club sequence, so the best lead from this hand is the J♣.

Leading against No Trumps

Priority 1 – Lead partners suit

Priority 2 – Lead top of a good sequence

Priority 3 – Fourth highest of your longest and strongest

Your first 2 options are the same as in Trumps. Note however that leading 4th highest is lowest priority; this should be a backup. If you are going to lead 4th highest remember that you must have a 5 card suit and a chance of getting back in control of the hand. There is no point in trying to set up tricks if you can never get on lead to win them!

Example:

The opposition have bid 1NT – 3NT. You are on lead.

You have a long suit here, with a good chance of regaining control with the ace of spades. Hearts is the right suit to lead, but with a sequence lead the queen of hearts rather than the 4th highest.

This time you have a long club suit, but no likely entries into your hand. With jack high it will take a few rounds to establish any club tricks. You will be lucky to get on lead once, let alone enough to cash any clubs. You are better here to lead the 3 of hearts. The opposition have not mentioned any majors during the bidding and leading a small heart will signal an honour in the suit.

If partner is the one making the opening lead make sure that you take note of what they play. They will often want the suit led back to them at some point.

Leading as the Hand Goes On

These rules  apply NOT ONLY to the opening lead, but every time you lead a new suit as the hand goes on.

Every time you lead a new suit as defence, you run the risk of giving away tricks to declarer. Following the same rules, such as leading from the top of a sequence, will help to minimise your risk.

This means that it may often be the right thing to do as defence to continue an already played suit, even if you will lose the trick. At least you won’t run the risk of giving a trick away in a new suit.

Using Information from Dummy

The one advantage you have when choosing your defensive play as the hand goes on is that you can see dummy. If you are stuck for a lead then you can often make a guess based on the contents of dummy.

Your tactics will depend on whether dummy is your right hand opponent or left hand opponent.

If dummy is your LHO, then the rule is LEAD THROUGH STRENGTH. This relies on a similar mechanic to finessing, but with more guesswork. Imagine than you are West, and North is dummy. If they have AKxx in diamonds then when you lead diamonds the hope is that partner has the queen. If opps take their top diamonds then partner can win their queen. As ever, your chances of partner having the queen are 50% barring extra bidding info. If you are defending a trump contract though your actual chances of setting up tricks with this manouvre are slimmer than this as declarer may have a shortage.

In the following example South is playing in 4 hearts. West lead the queen of clubs at trick 1. 

Now they are back on lead. They can see that dummy is out of clubs, so they will be trumped in they lead another club. The strongest suit in dummy is spades, but it is missing the king. If west leads a spade then they are gambling on partner having the king. If partner does have the king then leading towards it through the ace will establish the king. Either opposition will play small and partner can win their king or they will play the ace and partners king is a winner next time.

If dummy is your RHO then the rule is LEAD INTO WEAKNESS. This time dummy is the last hand to play to the trick, so the hope is that if you lead towards a weakness in dummy, partner will be able to play a big card, and dummy will be unable to overtake. 

In the following example South is playing in 3NT. West led a small diamond at trick 1. East wins the ace, but they can see the queen sitting in dummy. It would be better to hold onto the king of diamonds for now to cover the queen. Really what you want is to get the lead back to partner so they can lead diamonds again.

The weakest suit in dummy is hearts, so East’s best chance is to lead the 9 of hearts (top of rubbish). On this hand a heart lead will establish an entry into west with the king of hearts. They can then lead another diamond and defence can take 3 more diamond tricks.

Trump Play in Defence

If you are defending against a trump contract, make sure to use your trumps to their full.

Leading Trumps

Leading trumps is often a safe thing to do, but don’t do it if you might be able to trump something!

Trumping in Defence

If you have a chance to trump opponents trick and you are the last to play to the trick then go for it!

If you are second in hand you need to be more cautious. It is easier if declarer has lead towards dummy. Then you can see the trump holding in the dummy hand. In this position you should only trump if you can see that you will not be overtrumped by dummy.

The same applies if declarer leads from dummy towards their hand, but you cannot see the situation. Think about the bidding!

Manipulating the lead

Sometimes the most important thing in defence is to make sure that the lead is kept in the right place.  This might mean that you need to overtake partners winners or lead a suit knowing that opps will have to take it in a certain hand.

Most often you will need to manipulate the lead if you are trying to establish trumps/long suit tricks in defence and need to make sure the correct hand can lead them.

The other time is if you can see that declarer has winners that they are having trouble getting to, make sure to lead a suit that will not end them back in that hand!

Think about your discards!

There will always come points in a hand when you have to throw away cards. Do not just throw your smallest cards without thinking!

If you are playing a discard system then your first discard in a suit should be used to send a message to partner. Usually though you will reach a point where you can say nothing more of use, or where you need to discard to match opps rather than send signals!

Keep length with dummy/declarer

When you need to choose a discard it is usually a good idea to keep enough cards in your hand to match the number of cards in dummy (i.e. if dummy has 3 spades, keep 3 yourself). This will prevent declarer from winning with small cards in dummy late in the hand.

If you have information from the auction about the shape of declarers hand then you can also think about keeping cards to cover the suits in declarers hand. This is more difficult as you cannot simply see the situation as you can if covering dummy.

Protect your honours

Make sure that if you have vulnerable honours in your hand you keep enough smaller cards to protect them. For example if you have K3 in a suit then you need to hold onto the 3 to play when the ace is played, allowing you to win your king rather than losing it under the ace.

Be As Awkward As Possible!!

Remember, that when you are defending a hand, your job is to make life as hard as possible for declarer. So, if you can see declarer establishing a tactic, try to interfere!

The best example of this is when declarer is playing in a trump contract but has chosen not to draw trumps. If you get in control you should play trumps if you can. This will use up the trumps before declarer wanted to, usually meaning that they cannot trump as many times as they want.

There are more subtle ways in which you might interfere. If you can see that declarer is having issues getting into a hand then make sure not to lead into it.

Try and put yourself in declarers shoes. What is the thing you would least like defence to do? Do that!