Plan the Play NT

Planning the Play in No Trumps

Planning how you are going to play your hand is an essential part of playing the game well. If you start to play a hand without taking the time to plan you will often find yourself stuck in the wrong hand, without stops in the suits you need or falling into one of the many other pitfalls hidden in a bridge hand.

You should plan your play AS SOON AS DUMMY GOES DOWN. Before you play a single card take the time to evaluate your hands. There will be time when the card you play to the first trick will determine whether or not you make the contract. If you wait to think about strategy it will be too late!

Don’t worry about taking the time to plan. If you take a minute at the beginning it will speed up the rest of your play and (hopefully!) avoid long thinking periods halfway through the hand. 

Counting Winners

In a no trump contract your first move should be to count how many top tricks you have straight away.

Only count cards which are in sequence from the top. If you have AKQ76 in a suit then that is 3 tricks, but AQJ76 is only one.

Do not count any card which MIGHT require you to lose the lead in order to establish it. 

Remember to count your winners from both hands. If you have AKxx in spades and dummy goes down with Qxx then that is still 3 tricks. Be cautious only if you have lots of winners in a short suit. For example if you have AK3 in your hand and partner has QJ10, you have 5 top honours but they will have to be played at the same time so you will only ever make 3 tricks. 

This hand is being played by south in 3NT. As soon as dummy goes down they count their top tricks. Here you can count 4 spade winners and 2 hearts. Although you can see a good opportunity to set up more tricks in clubs, you cannot count these right away as they will take some work to establish.

Once you have counted your top tricks you can work out how many more winners you need to establish. If you are playing in 3NT and can count 6 top winners in your hand at the start then you need to find 3 more to make your contract.

Establishing More Winners

So you have worked out how many tricks you need to establish for your contract. Where are they going to come from?

There are certain features you should look for in your hand which indicate the possibility of extra tricks.

Long Suits

If you have 7 or more cards in a single suit then you may be able to turn the small ones into winners. This is achieved simply by playing the suit until the opposition have run out. Once opponents can no longer follow suit your small ones will be winners AS LONG AS YOU CAN LEAD THEM.

The more cards you have in a suit the more likely it is that you will be able to set up more tricks in that suit. Whether or not you are successful also depends on the split of cards between the defenders. If you have a good long suit with top honours and opponents have given no cause for worry then this will give you a really good chance of making extra tricks. If you have a 4-3 split in a suit then the chances of establishing the 4th trick are slim, but if you can see that this is your only chance to make your contract then you must try!

This time South can count 7 top tricks. With 9 diamonds between the hands the opposition can only have 4. So even if the split is 4-0 between the defenders, you can definitely establish 1 trick. The likelyhood is that you will make at least 2 extra tricks out of the diamond suit, maybe even more with some savvy finessing!

This hand also has 7 top tricks. This time though there is no nice long suit. You do have 7 cards in both minor suits though. You will hopefully get 1 more trick from the diamond finesse, and there is a slim chance you may be able to set up the 4th small club in the south hand if the opposition are 3-3. This hand has so few chances for extra tricks that you will have to try.

Finesses

Another way to establish winners is to try a finesse. There are several different kinds of finesse you should be looking out for. For more information on finessing, click here.

Establishing a Sequence

If you have a suit like KQJxx then you can turn some of them into winners by forcing out the ace from opposition. Once that has gone this suit will be worth 2 tricks.

Remember that this tactic will always require you to lose the lead at least once, so make sure you can afford to do so. 

DANGER!

Once you have worked out where your extra tricks are coming from it is time to see if there is anything that might cause you trouble. These include –

  • A suit bid by the opposition – be careful of any suit that the opposition has bid (or led). In general the best play is to leave that suit alone as much as possible
  • Entries – we have all been in the position where we have winners we cannot get too. Make sure when you are planning that you have a way to get to your planned tricks.
  • Losing the lead – You will almost always have to lose the lead to set up enough tricks in no trumps. Check that your plan does not require you to lose the lead more times than you can afford.

General Tips

  • If you need to lose the lead to set up tricks then you MUST do this as soon as possible, while you still have controls in the other suits.
  • Think about the bidding. Did the opposition say anything that would give you a clue as to the point distribution?
  • What was the opening lead? What does this tell you?
  • Think about your discards. Don’t just automatically throw away your lowest value card. There may be times when it is necessary to throw an honour in one suit to win a small value card in another.

Example Hands

Here are a few hands with commentary to help you learn the sorts of things you should be thinking about. 

North is playing this hand in 2NT. They can count 5 top tricks; 1 spade, 2 hearts and 2 clubs. This means they need to make 3 more tricks from somewhere. 

There is no chance of extra tricks in spades or hearts. North has a nice run of top diamonds between the hands, only missing the ace. Once that has gone there will be 3 definite tricks in diamonds. 

There is also a chance of extra tricks in clubs. North has 8 total clubs so they may be able to establish some of the smaller ones if they can draw all of oppositions. Opposition have a total of 4 clubs between them so barring the worst possible 4-0 split you should make at least 1 extra out of clubs.

East leads the 7 of spades. Against a no trump contract this is probably 4th highest. This should make north very cautious of the spade suit as they have only 1 sure stop.

With only 1 sure spade north should opt for a plan which involves losing the lead the fewest possible times. Diamonds is the best choice, once the ace is gone the 3 tricks north needs to make the contract should be set up. 

DANGER!

With opposition leading spades north knows that they will have to use their ace at some point to gain control. If they then lose to the ace of diamonds they have no protection against the spade suit in the east hand. 

Think about the spade distribution. North has 5 total. East leading a middle spade means that they are likely leading 4th highest of at least a 5 card suit. This means that west can have a maximum of 3 spades. If north ducks the first 2 rounds of spades and only wins their ace on the 3rd then there is a good chance that west will not have any spades left to lead back to partner if they get in control.

This gives north a 50% chance of making this contract. It all hinges on the position of the ace of diamonds. If the ace of diamonds is in the east hand then north will always go down in this contract. When they lead a diamond to force the ace, east will win it and cash in any remaining spade tricks.

If however, the ace of diamonds is in west then when north forces it west will have no spades to lead back to partners winners. They will instead have to lead something back into the control of north/south.

Once north is back in control they can cash the rest of their diamond tricks and any other remaining top tricks. Contract made!

The contract here is 3NT by south. They can count 5 top tricks; 2 spades, 2 hearts and a diamond. They need to find 4 more from somewhere. 

Forcing the ace of clubs will provide south with 2 more. The other 2 must come from setting up smaller cards in hearts or diamonds. The shape of this hand makes things tricky though.

Declarer has 1 certain entry into south with the ace of diamonds and 1 possible one with the king of spades. Even if the defenders diamonds split 3-3 they will have to lose 2 rounds of diamonds to establish the rest. They do not then have enough entries into south to both set up and cash in the diamonds.

South is better to try the hearts first. They should keep their fingers crossed that the hearts split 3-3 and they can make 2 extra tricks out of the suit.