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Better Notrump Leads Part 2

My last article discussed clues from the auction that could help you choose an opening lead at notrump. In this article, we will look at another source of clues--your hand--that may direct your thumb away from that automatic fourth-best card.

The usual purpose of a fourth-best lead is to develop long suit tricks. There are exceptions--a lead from a weak 5+ card suit is sometimes made as a safe choice. But far more often, your fourth-best lead is away from a tenace hoping to develop your spot cards into tricks. When I discuss a fourth-best lead, assume that I mean one of these risky leads.

Why does anyone take a risk? For a chance to earn a reward of course. When you lead away from a tenace holding, the primary risk is conceding an undeserved honor trick. It isn't the only risk; if your side has the first six tricks in some other suit, the lead may give up the tempo that allows declarer to run 9 tricks even if it doesn't give up a trick. But, that is rare while giving up an undeserved trick is common. We take that risk because when we catch a fitting honor or two we can develop and run our long suit for tricks.

What if our hand suggests that leading 4th best won't let us reap a reward?

Long Suit Tricks Are Worthless If You Can Not Cash Them

West
xx
QJx
Qxxxx
xxx
W
N
E
S
1NT
P
3NT
P
P
P

When opening leader has no entry cards, leading from a long suit is counterproductive. Why lead away from an honor when even if the lead "works" (i.e., you catch partner with the ace or king of your suit) you don't have entries to cash your long suit winners later on?

Partner could hold AKx, but simulations suggest it happens extremely infrequently. Does this means you should lead passively instead? Not necessarily. Even though diamonds is not a viable source of long suit tricks, the auction suggests that long suit tricks will be required to beat the contract.

If we can't score long suit tricks in our hand, maybe we should try to develop them in partner's hand. Partner probably holds a couple of entries. A heart lead, while speculative, has good chances of hitting 4+ cards in his hand. Since you have a top heart honor, a heart lead needs only a moderate suit from partner to be effective. For example,Kxxxxwould usually beenough to establishhearts with one lead. EvenTxxxxcould develop into three cashable long suit tricks. Is it a gamble to lead hearts? Sure. But it is a much better gamble than a diamond. Strangely enough, on this hand, the trick you might blow by leading a diamond is not your worry. It is the tempo you blow that may kill you. If you need to establish the heart suit, leading diamonds may cost you the tempo to develop the suit before declarer can get his 9 tricks.

RULE: When you have don't have entries to run your long suit, try a short suit lead to find partner's suit instead. Long suit tricks do not have to lie in your hand.

Four Card Suits Offer Few Long Suit Tricks

West
KQx
xxx
KJxx
xxx
W
N
E
S
1NT
P
3NT
P
P
P

When your goal is to set up spot cards, the fewer long suit tricks a suit offers, the less valuable that lead is. The worst suit length is 4. A 5+ card suit sets up an extra trick. A 3-card or shorter suit often gives you a reasonable chance of catching a 5+ card suit in partner's hand. Not only does a 4-card suit minimize potential long suit tricks, but even if you catch the magic layout, 4 tricks is not enough to beat the contract.

Think of your opening lead like a wager at the race track. A lead fromKJxxxis a wager that pays 10-1 when it succeeds (i.e, when you take the first 5 tricks). You don't mind losing that bet often because your big IMP wins more than compensate for the more frequent small IMP losses.A lead fromKJxxis like a bet that only pays 1-1. It loses (by giving up a trick) almost as often asKJxxxbut it doesn't provide thereward of defeating the contract when it succeeds.

A lead from a broken 4-card suit is particularly weak against a 1NT contract. Why blindly risk blowing a trick on the lead when even if you are right, you will still need to develop 3 additional tricks to beat the contract? If you are going to risk blowing an honortrick against 1NT, do it when you can score5+ tricks if your bet pays off.

So what to lead when you don't have a 5+ card suit?

1. Lead the suit if you have a solid 3-card honor sequence (AKQX, KQJx, QJTx)

2. If the auction suggests aggression, lead a short suit. Your best short suit leads contain 2+ honors (AKx, KQx, QJx, JTx, KQ, QJ) because when you do catch a 5-bagger from partner, partnerwon't need much strength in the suit to run the suit.

3. If your short suit leads do not look promising, go passive instead.

RULE: Make risky bets only when the reward is large enough to justify the risk.

Six+ Card Suits Are Difficult to Establish

West
Qx
xxx
KJxxxx
xx
W
N
E
S
1NT
P
3NT
P
P
P

We just saw that four-card suits don't offer a big reward because they offer few tricks when you establish them.

Six-card and longer suits do offer a nice reward when you establish them. There is just one flaw--they usually cannot be established. When you hold a 6+ card suit and both opponents have suggested balanced hands, your partner is likely to hold a singleton in your long suit. Unless you hold plentiful entries, your suit is often dead, since when partner gets in, he can not lead it back to you. Asix-card suit is often a bad risk because the defense has little chance to both establish and cash long suit tricks.

On my example above, I'd rather attack with a spade than lead a diamond. Our chances of cashing diamonds is too small, and partner is a big favorite to hold 4+ spades.

RULE: Lead a 6-card suit only if you can see the entries to establish and run the suit. In general, do not lead from a broken 6-card suit with a weak hand. Your chances are better trying to set up partner's suit than your own.

High can be better than low

West
AQ109x
Axx
xx
xxx
W
N
E
S
1NT
P
3NT
P
P
P

From some broken honor holdings, leading an honor offers a better chance of establishing your suit than 4th best.

For example, with AQT9x, leading theAce often gives you a much better chance of getting the suit going with the loss of only one trick. Perhaps dummy has Jx and declarer Kxx.If you lead low, declarer can win a trick with the jack and he still has a spade stopper. He can knockout your heart ace and you won't be able to run your suit. If you lead ace, you can continue with the queen to establish the suit immediately.The ace also retains a tempo in case there is another way to beat the contract (not likely, but possible).

RULE: When you have outside entries, consider if leading an honor rather than low.

Holding Down An Overtrick Can Be Worth As ManyMatchpointsAs A Set

West
KJxxx
QJ10x
xx
Qx
W
N
E
S
1NT
P
3NT
P
P
P

Earlier, I discussed why we take risks (for a chance to earn a large reward). However, different forms of scoring will reward the same outcome on a hand differently.

Consider what could happen in this 3NT contract:

At IMPS,the difference between

+50 and -400 is 10 IMPs

-400 and -430 is 1 IMP

At Matchpoints the difference between

+50 and -400 rates to be 6 Matchpoints (on a 12 top)

-400 and -430 rates to be 6 Matchpoints (on a 12 top)

If the entire field has bid 1NT -- 3NT, -400 will score a top just as certainly as +50 will if the field has scored -430. When it isn't necessary to defeat the contract to earn a big score, a safe lead, like a heart in this example, mayearn a reward far more often than a spade.

Many times a dangerous lead that provides a chance for +50, like a spade in the hand above, vastly increases your chance of giving up an overtrick.

In my example above, leading the Qtrades a relatively small chance of a set for a much larger chance of defending a trick better. Since the reward for holding the overtrick is as much as the reward for beating the contract at matchpointsscoring, you should make the play that succeeds more often. You can bet a heart lead will lead to a top significantly more often a spade lead.

The same reasoning would not be true at IMPs.A heart lead "succeeds" versus a spade when declarer scores one fewer trick. at IMPs, this "success" is normally rewarded with 1 IMP when you are -400 instead of -430. A spade lead succeeds when it develops 4-5 spade tricks. That success occurs pays 10 IMPs when it occurs. With a 10-1 reward ratio, it is easy to see why a spade is preferable at IMPs.

RULE: At Matchpoints, a safe lead that holds downovertrickscan provide a more certain path to a goodscore.

Conclusion

Rather than than simply looking for your longest suit, try thinking about these factors:

1. Does the auction suggest active or passive defense? 2NT and 4NT+ normally suggest passive.

1a. If it suggests passive, avoid any lead away from a tenace.

1b. If it suggests active, look for the partnership's best source of long suit tricks.

2. Is my long suit the partnership's best chance to cash long suit tricks?

2a. Do you have a reasonable chance to both establish and run the suit?

2b. Does the long suit offer enough tricks to justify its risk?

2c. Do I have attractive short suit lead possibilities?

3. Given that I have decided to lead my long suit, could an honor lead be safer than fourth best?

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