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This example is from Victor Mollo's "Test Your Defense, Where the Points are Won."

You are East. The bidding has been 1NT pass 3NT pass. West leads what looks to be the fourth highest spade. You hold:

(s) Axx (H) KQJ9 (d) Kx (c) xxxx.

Dummy shows (s) Kxx (h) Txx (d) Axxx (c) Kxx.

You take the ace of spades. Normally you would return a spade, partner's suit. But Mollo recommends establishing the hearts for a "set."

The key features are: 1) Dummy's T falls under your J, making the 9 good 2) you have the guarded K of diamonds "offside" the ace, hence a sure entry and 3) You have 13 of your partnerhip's HCP. West has the J of spades at most (Q if South has only 15 HCP).

So is your strength the reason you should deviate from the usual rule of returning partner's suit? Should you return your partner's suit if you didn't have the heart honors (meaning that partner has about 7 HCP), or if you had only the A of spades (partner has about 10)?

Conversely, if you were "West" (on lead), would you lead differently with the three different hypothetical hands?

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2 Answers 2

Yes, defensive strategy can vary considerably depending on where the points are in your partnership. Your real goal is to look for tricks, of course, but often points are a good guide as to where the tricks are going to be. There are exceptions, of course, so you must take each hand by itself, but generally if one defender has many more points than the other, that is where the bulk of the tricks will be.

The hand you describe is a typical example. Partner's spades will be difficult or impossible to set up because partner is weak, whereas your hearts are easy to set up because you are strong. Generally to set up a long suit against no-trump, you need one of the following to be true:

  • Running suit
  • Suit can be set up and you have an outside entry
  • Suit can be set up, partner has entries, and partner has some length in the suit

The first two cases usually (though not always) require that you have some points. Occasionally you get the third situation where the weak defender has 5 or 6 of a suit and partner has 3 or 4, enough to set up the suit and then lead to be overtaken by the weak hand.

A consequence of this is that if you are very weak against no-trump, it is rarely worthwhile trying to set up your own suits, even on the opening lead (unless you have reason to believe partner is also strong in your suit). Generally you are better off looking for partner's suit to attack. And if you are the strong defender and your partner is very weak, don't continue partner's suit unless you have help for him. If the two partners are comparable in strength, the one who leads their suit first has taken the first step to setting the suit up, so it is often advantageous to continue it unless you have a clear alternative.

At suit contracts, matters are less clear-cut, although defenders' points can still serve as a helpful guide. High cards remain a good source of tricks, and the defender with more points has more of them. However, a weak defender with a lot of trump or just useful distribution can often take multiple tricks.

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Basically, if I didn't have 6 HCPs in the heart suit, I'd return the spade suit and hope that partner had some of those 6 HCPs in say, QJ of spades, right? –  Tom Au Feb 15 '13 at 17:00
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@Tom I still think you're fixating on points where you should be thinking in terms of tricks. If you don't have any tricks in your hand, you're hoping to set the contract by partner making some tricks. You make an educated guess as to where those tricks might be had. If partner led what appears to be a fourth-highest spade, you have at least some indication that spades might end up being a source of tricks for him. –  thesunneversets Feb 15 '13 at 18:04

I don't think the number of points in your hand it the relevant feature here at all.

Essentially, you look at your hand, and see that you can easily take down the contract if you establish your 3 hearts winners before your opportunity to regain the lead with the KD is removed.

Returning a spade isn't going to help much as we're pretty certain partner isn't going to win that trick with his Jack. As such, you have to forget the "usual rule" of returning partner's lead, which isn't going to help in the current situation, and just make the best play for beating the contract instead. Partner has basically nothing, and you have an excellent defensive hand here: it's not up to him to dictate the whole play of this contract via his lead, just because of the seat he happens to be sitting in.

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HCP count is fairly relevant here -- when the opponents bid 1NT-3NT they essentially always have 25+ HCP between the two hands, so you know for sure that you're not setting up partner's suit by returning a spade. Of course, it's also important to see that you have a sure set in your hand, but there are some cases that are not so clear cut and knowing that your partner has at most a Q is important information when planning how to continue the defense. –  ruds Jun 9 '13 at 15:43

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