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One example is when you (West) lead a singleton against a trump contract, hopefully to your partner's ace, s/he takes it, and then East leads back a spot card in the suit for you to ruff.

Besides the led suit and the trump suit, there are two side suits, so partner will lead a high spot for a return lead the higher side suit, and a low spot spot for the lower side suit?

In what other situations would people would use a suit preference signal. I once read a Marty Bergen book that said the suit preference signals are used mainly by Easts. Is that true?

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Don't sit North-South then, as you will be defending half the time and unable to use one of the defence's key weapons. Of course it is not true - Bergen is making a joke on the fact that play problems are usually set for publication with declarer in the South seat. – Forget I was ever here Sep 15 '13 at 22:56
@PieterGeerkens: Victor Mollo wrote a book entitled something like "Defense, Where the Points are Won." I've taken that message to heart. – Tom Au Sep 15 '13 at 23:12
To explain Bergen's comment slightly: the only trick where the defenders are not symmetrical is the first. As suit-preference opening leads are very rare, and East may be in a position to make a suit-preference signal once Dummy comes down, it is very slightly true due to this one asymmetry. – Forget I was ever here Sep 15 '13 at 23:13
Stop memorizing the aphorisms, and learn when they do, and more meaningfully don't, apply. – Forget I was ever here Sep 15 '13 at 23:15
Then preface your question with "How does a novice or early-intermediate player learn when to make (and read) a suit-preference signal?" – Forget I was ever here Sep 16 '13 at 0:00
up vote 4 down vote accepted

There are LOTS of suit preference (abbrev: SP) situations, as well as many agreements as to when SP applies. I'll see if I can cover at least a few of them.

The classic one is as you have described. On opening lead, you lead an obvious stiff in a side suit against a trump contract. (Of course, there is little reason to do this if you have a void in trumps.) Partner, who happens to win the trick, returns a card, expecting you to ruff.

When you do ruff that card, which suit do you return? Look at it like this, if you ruffed, you don't have any more of that suit, and trumps seem like a bad idea. After all, you are hoping to get partner in for a second ruff! So essentially there are other two suits of potential interest as an entry. Ranking them in the standard order from low(clubs) to high(spades), partner can indicate their re-entry suit.

The idea is, partner will give you a low card to ruff with an entry in the low side suit, and a high card for you to ruff with a high side suit entry. If partner has NO entry at all, then they should (if possible) return an intermediate card, suggesting no preference.

By the way, suit preference applies for you too! In fact, both sides of the partnership will often be giving suit preference signals. Let us see how this would all work on an example hand.

Your opponents are in a 4S contract, played by that hapless fellow in the South seat.

Perhaps the bidding went: 1♦ - 1♠ - 2♠ - 4♠, with you never having an opportunity to show your diamond length.


You        Partner
73         Q52
KJ8        642
A98432     J
A7         T98642


You have few good good looking leads here, so with a prayer in mind, you pick the diamond ace for your lead, partner playing the jack. (Yes, I know that aces are terrible leads, but that is not the point of this hand, and your other leads are equally bad). Anyway, if declarer has diamond length from the bidding, the chances are very good that your partner is short in that suit.

If partner had a stiff diamond jack, she will be able to ruff the next trick, so what return are you looking for? A club is your quick entry, so at trick two, you lead the deuce of diamonds.

Partner ruffs of course. Your diamond deuce is a clear signal, asking for a club return. At the same time, partner is looking for a third diamond lead. That card gives partner a second ruff, promoting the queen of trumps back into a winner. See that partner had a natural trump trick, but the ruff would allow declarer to draw trumps with the ace and king. So a third round of diamonds will be a trump promotion for partner.

How does partner indicate a suggestion for you to lead a third diamond? When partner returns the indicated club card, she will lead the DEUCE. The low return tells partner to lead the LOW suit when they are in at trick 3, so diamonds!

You have taken the first 3 tricks in a flurry now. At trick 4, when you lead a card for partner to ruff, what diamond do you play? You don't want to see a club return. Instead you would prefer a heart, hoping to set up a heart trick. The way to ask for hearts is to play the 9 of diamonds on that third round of diamonds. The high card asks for the high suit. While declarer gets two pitches on the club winners, there is still a heart to lose, so you set 4S two tricks. This is a top score at match-points of course.

Note that there were several SP plays in the defense of this one hand, made by both opponents.

The classic SP situation discussed so far is not the only case where they can apply. Visualize a hand where we have bid and raised a suit, but the opponents end up as the declarer. As the opening leader, imagine that your hand is


As dealer (West), you open the bidding 1♦, only to see the bidding go:

1♦ - Dbl - 2♦ - 4♠
All pass

So partner has raised your diamonds, but the opponents still found game. It looks like South has bid game on shape, since there are simply not enough points to go around for South to have bid it on power. Your hope is to beat this contract, but when they bid game on shape, all bets may be off.

You lead your 4th best diamond, partner winning the king. Dummy comes down with a decent hand, as it has top tricks, but still a basic minimum for a takeout double.


Partner then cashes the diamond ace as declarer followed suit with the 8 and 10. You don't expect to see much more in partner's hand, but you really want a club switch through the probable king in declarer's hand. After all, if partner had the AK in diamonds, plus the club king, they might have found a different bid than simply 2♦. So on the second diamond, what card do you play to ask partner to continue with a club? Your choices were {Q,9,7,2}. You and partner both know that a diamond continuation is not right. Partner sees you play the deuce, so your 4th best lead indicates that declarer had only a doubleton.

There are two side suits here, hearts and clubs. If you play a clearly low diamond (the deuce), then this must be SP for clubs. You get your 4 tricks to defeat the contract. It turns out that the hands were like this:


You        Partner
J          5
K85        9642
Q9762      AKJ5
AQT8       9643


If you don't get a club switch at trick 3, Declarer can draw trumps, then take the heart finesse to make game.

But, now suppose the hands were slightly different?


You        Partner
J43        52
KJ8        9642
Q9762      AKJ
A7         9643


With South still in a 4♠ contract, after East wins the first two tricks, what should he return? A club, diamond or spade return gives declarer the contract, by allowing her to set up clubs for three heart pitches. Only the heart switch through declarer sets up a heart trick in time to set the contract.

Can West ask for a heart switch? Of course. On the second diamond, play the QUEEN. This is a stand up and shout suit preference play, asking for a switch to the higher side suit.

Finally, I might change the hands yet again. (I tried to get the spot cards right on all of these hands.) Again, assume that South is declaring 4♠, although the bidding is surely not the same as it was before.


You        Partner
QJT        32
K87        9542
Q976       AK5
T87        K643


On a 4th best diamond lead, East wins the king, then the ace of diamonds. Clearly, they must cash the third diamond trick, at which point West will have a natural trump trick. But from East's point of view, should he switch to a club, a heart, or continue diamonds? On the last two hands, with very similar looking hands for East, he had to switch to one of the other suits, and NOT continue diamonds to defeat the contract! Declarer has played the same cards each time, the 8 and ten spot.

On this hand, you led the 4th best 6. By continuing with the 7 at trick 2, partner will expect that you had a 4 card suit, so will hopefully continue diamonds. Any other continuation will allow declarer to take the heart finesse for a diamond pitch, so this was necessary.

Those were the classic suit preference situations, but there are others. One agreement I have with several partners is that when you lead a card and it is absolutely clear that you don't want to continue that suit, then partner will signal with suit preference. For example, in a trump contract you lead a winner, and dummy has a stiff in the suit. Continuing the suit seems not to be useful, so what side suit do you switch to? Partner should signal with suit preference. Or, perhaps, your lead of a stiff ace discloses a solid unbid side suit in dummy that you have just set up. Again, partner should indicate suit preference for your next lead.

There are several suit preference discarding agreements that many pairs use. The most common are Lavinthal discards, and odd/even discards. While I've never been a fan or either agreement, they are commonly employed.

Lavinthal: On your FIRST discard in the hand (and only on your first opportunity to discard) you throw a card in a suit that you are NOT interested in. A high card indicates interest in the higher of the other suits, and a low spot indicates interest in the lower suit.

Odd/even: Again, at your first opportunity to discard, you pick a side suit to play. An odd card indicates that you like the suit. An even card is suit preference, with a low even card suggesting a preference for the lower of the other suits. A high even card is a preference for the higher suit.

A serious problem with both of the above discarding agreements, is that sometimes you have no spot cards that you can safely throw away that show your true holding. Then what happens is a defender tanks, agonizing about which card they should play, which lie to make. Partner can read what is happening of course, so they will discount your signal, since a card played in tempo will not carry any inference. Of course, it is COMPLETELY illegal to use tempo information from your partner, but there has been many a director called, many a committee formed over just such an occurrence.

And finally, there are trump suit preference signals, where the order that you play your spot cards in trumps tells partner about your side suit holdings.

Of course, these are dangerous territories to enter into, as a good declarer can also read your signals, often to disastrous effect. Don't make a signal if it will tell partner nothing useful, but give the hand away to declarer. And don't agree to any such agreements if you cannot play your cards in tempo, as that is simply asking for problems.

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In this example (and mine), it was the NON-ruffing partner who used a suit preference signal, which the ruffing partner should respect, so s/he gets a second ruff and the defenders defeat the contract with two ruffs, the ace of the suit, and the side entry. Makes sense. – Tom Au Sep 20 '13 at 15:00
A very satisfying defense is when you use SP back and forth to set up a flurry of tricks, communicating with partner exactly what to do. – user3264 Sep 20 '13 at 15:30

The priority of defensive signals is Attitude, then Count, then Suit Preference. Alphabetical order for those of us who speak English. The key on defence is that every card played should be one of those signals when possible, which usually means whenever a choice of equivalent, or apparently equivalent, cards is available. Therefore in all cases below, interpret signal as played-card.

If a signal can sensibly be interpreted as Attitude, treat it as an Attitude signal; if a signal cannot sensibly be interpreted as an Attitude signal, then interpret it as a Count signal; when it cannot sensibly be interpreted as either an Attitude signal or as a Count signal, then interpret it as a Suit-Preference signal.

Some special cases apply when it is almost certainly common knowledge that one defender is not interested in one or two of those signals:

  • Defenders do not give attitude in the trump suit, so the first signal is count and the second is suit-preference.
  • When leading for a likely ruff by partner, partner needs to receive suit-preference as a priority, so this signal is given each time rather than either of the others.
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One suit-preference situation that frequently comes up when you lead an A or K (whichever you have agreed to lead from AKx(xx)) against a suit contract, and dummy comes down with a stiff in that suit. Most partnerships play that partner's spot in this situation is suit-preference for the other side suits.

As you mentioned, when you expect partner to ruff your lead, it should be suit preference.

When you have solid honor sequences in a suit, the order in which you cash the honors should give suit preference.

Many partnerships agree to play "trump suit preference" signals; in this agreement, when you follow to the trump suit, you play your spots in suit preference order (e.g. a low spot first to show preference for the lower side suit). This agreement arises out of the sense that giving count in the trump suit often helps declarer more than partner.

Some partnerships play suit preference signals at No Trump whenever declarer appears to be cashing out a long suit, in order to help partner choose discards.

Some partnerships give suit preference much more often. In the Granovetters' obvious-shift agreement (described in the book "A Switch in Time"), the signal to the first trick is a modified attitude signal (encourage when you like the opening lead or can't stand a switch to the "obvious shift" suit, which is determined by looking at dummy and applying certain rules), and all remaining signals are suit preference, with specific exceptions carved out for count signals. They argue that this agreement helps them find the right defense more often than more standard agreements.

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@I agree with you that suit preference deserves a higher priority than under "standard" agreements. IMHO, "attitude" and "count" should be somewhat obvious from the context. And even if they aren't they might be less valuable. – Tom Au Sep 15 '13 at 23:22

As I now understand it, a suit preference signal is made by the giver of a desired lead.

Example: You are West, defending a major suit trump contract. East has doubled to ask you to lead dummy's first bid suit (a response). So you lead the suit, and dummy comes down KJ93 in the suit. Declarer plays the king from dummy, and East the ace. Then what does he lead back?

You, West, are giving East a desired lead (into his tenace), so the suit preference signal should have come from you. Your opening lead should have been low if your entry is in the lower of the two side suits, and high if your entry is in higher of them. East leads a card to your entry so you lead another card into East's remaining QT, and your side takes three tricks in "dummy's" suit. Your entry trick defeats the contract.

In the example I gave in the question, East is giving, and West is receiving ruffs (the desired leads) so East should give a suit preference signal to signal his entry.

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