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Follow-up question to Why is the King of Spades the best opening lead with this hand?

In the next example cited by the website, the board and auction is:

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What would you lead with the North hand?

It’s not the most challenging lead, and I would guess 99 out of 100 experts would lead the jack or ten of hearts depending on the honour lead agreements. Ron Schwartz led a club, which I still haven’t found any other expert to do. If partner had heart honour, I would say that Ron was number 57 in that line of 100 experts and just made a creative lead. When partner turns out to have two small hearts I get suspicious.

I can understand why most players lead the Jack or 10 of Hearts from the answer to the linked question. However, I cannot understand the last few sentences. Why would anyone lead a Club, and why is a Club lead especially effective if partner has two small hearts (and creative if partner has heart honors)?

I have no knowledge about Bridge except for the rules & the strategy from the answers in the linked question, so I'd appreciate an elementary explanation.

4 Answers 4

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Absolutely a matter of scale. This is much less obvious than the other example - but that's because the other example was deliberately designed to be 1 in a million to make it screamingly obvious. As I said in my answer to that other question, in order to show anything with "less obvious" cases that will happen in real life, you have to show a pattern of "lucky guesses". This is the first link (only) in the pattern.

There are two basic styles of defence, active and passive. Part of the skill of the game, especially on the opening lead, is to work out which one is best for this hand. Again, as I mentioned in the other question, the best of the best make a trick-conceding mistake here one time in 5; if someone could somehow get that down to one time in 8, say, just that could vault an ordinary world-class player into a multiple world-champion.

Active defence means "pushing declarer around to set up tricks you're entitled to before she sets up hers". Passive defence means "play as safely as possible, avoid giving declarer a trick she wouldn't get without help, and force her to generate the tricks she needs on her own".

The time for active defence is when declarer might be able to set up her tricks and not have to give you yours if you don't set them up in time. The risk of active defence is giving declarer a trick she isn't entitled to. The time for passive defence is when declarer likely doesn't have enough tricks on her own, provided you don't give her any. The risk is that you may have enough tricks to set the contract, but you don't get to them in time.

There is no single right solution, but the auction gives hints (and seeing dummy gives more hints, and partner's signals help, and declarer's play pattern also helps. But by then it might be too late to switch).

Here, the fact that they have stopped low (especially in 1NT, for reasons too complicated to get into here) and the fact that your hand isn't especially good, means that partner is marked with some cards, but the opponents likely have more between them than your side does. It is likely that partner will have "honour doubleton" (Qx or Ax) in hearts, just because he'll have "some cards" (as opposed to if the contract was 6NT, needing 12 tricks instead of 7, where if the opponents are to be believed, partner will have no card higher than a ten). If he does have honour doubleton, then leading a heart will set up the rest of the suit as soon as declarer is forced to take the other honour. That's 4 of the 7 tricks your side has to take to set 1NT, and you have cards in the other suits that will get you in to take them.

So that, in itself, leans the balance in favour of the active lead. The downside, of course, is when partner has two small and the declaring side has both A and Q. Now, you're giving them two tricks where, if declarer had to lead hearts, she would only get one. Which is right? There's no way to know on this hand; you just have to play the odds.

If you're going to go passive instead, best to lead a club (the other suit the opponents haven't explicitly stated they have some of). It still has risks, but that's the least likely lead to give up a trick. It is not likely to develop any for your side, of course, you're just hoping declarer can't find a way to 7.

Now that you have your options, what do you do? Well, now we go to the quote in your question - he thinks that 99/100 would go with the heart. So does Forget... I might be a bit less secure here - there are reasons beyond the scope of this question that I'm more likely to lead passively - but I'd still guess that maybe 80/100 would choose the active lead. The chance of success is high, and the reward of success is also high; and the cost when it's wrong is acceptable (details of the Risk-Reward analysis is fascinating, but well beyond "non-bridge audience").

This time, the opening leader led passively. And this time, it turned out that the active defence would cost. That in itself doesn't say anything obvious - it's an unusual lead that was right this time. I'm sure I make tens of those a month, and even experts who are much better at opening leads than I likely make "not normal" leads 5ish% of the time - and 40% of the time the 40% play is right (and the 60% play is wrong)!

But if we can show 20 hands, say, where there were unusual actions taken, and 17 of them were "right", and the other 3 it didn't matter, but would have with a different lie of the opponents' cards, then - well, maybe that's suspicious.

Again, the defence to this is "look at all these 'unusual' leads we made that did cost us! We're just differently aggressive to 'standard expert', it's our style, and it works for us." So this is enough to set suspicion - only by analyzing every hand can we move from suspicion to "nobody gets it right that often without help".

Note: The other answers (especially Forget...'s last paragraph) explain why a spade or a diamond, even if they knew it was the right lead "somehow", would be too suspicious even to attempt.

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  • Thanks for answer. When you write The downside, of course, is when partner has two small and the declaring side has both A and Q, does it matter that partner has two small? Would things change if they had three small or one small? Similarly, If he does have honour doubleton, then leading a heart will set up the rest of the suit as soon as declarer is forced to take the other honour -- if partner has three hearts headed by an honour, does this conclusion change?
    – Allure
    Commented Nov 1, 2021 at 8:37
  • Not really. There are similar entry issues with three (not with 4, but that's not likely on this auction) as with two, either way; and it's "giving up the second heart trick" that's the risk (versus giving up the ability to run the suit that is the risk of not leading hearts. And, in this case, potentially conceding another trick by underleading the club Q).
    – Mycroft
    Commented Nov 1, 2021 at 16:36
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Observations:

East-West have failed to make a game try. Even Non-Vulnerable (risk-reward in team play says bid games aggressively Vulnerable and passively Non-Vulnerable) they are limited to the combined 23 HCP they actually hold. Further, West is limited to 14 points as he would have opened 1NT with 15 or more and distribution such as his bidding showed. Therefore partner has anywhere from the 10 actually held up to perhaps a so-so 12; almost as good a hand as Declarer.

This means South has entries, in addition to the possible Club Q entry in North's hand. If Partner has at least 3 Hearts (more likely a priori than his actual 2) or a doubleton honour then there is a chance of getting at least 6 defensive tricks on a Heart lead by establishing:

  • 3 Heart tricks in North;
  • 3 more tricks (outside Hearts) between North's Club Q and South's honours;
  • possibly a heart trick in South; and
  • possibly even a Spade T trick, also providing an entry to North's established Hearts.

Wander into virtually any Bridge club in the World, and at least the top 1/4 of those players will give you the same analysis. To be regarded as a strong intermediate or better Bridge player, one simply must lead a Heart (either J, T, or 9 depending on lead agreements with partner).

Further, even in the absence of his own Heart suit, North will be considering a Heart lead because of its absence from mention in the bidding by East-West. There is a strong reward for finding playable Major suit contracts in preference to Notrump. When he knows, as here, that South holds the majority of the partnership assets, it is highly likely that North will lead a heart from any holding of even 3 small.

Analysis:

So the only reason to not lead a Heart here is: unauthorized information.

If North knows that South has only 2 small Hearts he can try to avoid giving away a trick to West's Q by looking for another suit where North-South might hold 7 or more cards. He can take a flyer.

But since East-West have bid Spades and Diamonds, that really only leaves Clubs for this - to avoid attracting too much attention to his unauthorized information. As pointed out in later episodes of the saga, there is a burden borne by cheaters at Bridge: They must work to avoid being too obvious. They cannot always use the information they have, as on occasion it would be too obvious.

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  • Thanks for great answer. By "doubleton honour" do you mean two honours in Hearts? If so wouldn't that be very ambitious since North is holding two Heart honours? Also, why would South holding more Hearts improve the odds of taking Heart tricks? Wouldn't all the Heart tricks come from North leading Hearts when nobody else has them?
    – Allure
    Commented Oct 24, 2021 at 0:44
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    @Allure: No; the phrase "doubleton honour" refers to a two-card (ie doubleton) holding headed by one honour. South holding 3 Hearts significantly increases the chance that there is a Heart entry back to North's hand, by having the Heart ace doubleton in East, while South having doubleton honour means the single stopper in the suit can be removed by leading and continuing the suit at tricks 1, 2, and if needed 3. Finally: honours are the Ace through Ten in each suit; so North startde with three Heart Honours plus the 9. Commented Oct 24, 2021 at 6:25
  • Thanks for answer. Can I clarify the second sentence: are you saying that if East had a "doubleton honor" (Ace + x of Hearts), and South also had doubleton honors (Q + x of Hearts) then North/South can play around the Ace stopper by "continuing the suit at tricks 1, 2, and if needed 3"? If so, how would this work? Presumably once East wins with the Ace, they would not play another Heart (?)
    – Allure
    Commented Oct 25, 2021 at 8:04
  • @Allure: What part of "... means the single stopper in the suit can be removed by leading and continuing the suit at tricks 1, 2, and if needed 3" was unclear? Surely it's clear that the Defense cannot continue leading Hearts on the trick immediately following that on which Declarer won his Heart Ace - and that my statement does not claim otherwise? Commented Oct 25, 2021 at 9:11
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    I'll try a different way to phrase the same thing. A stopper is the card that "stops" the opponents from running the suit - a trick for your side. Declarer wants to hang on to her stopper until one opponent doesn't have cards in the suit any more - so if they get in, they can't lead them to the other hand. The opponents want declarer to take their stopper so that they can run the suit later. Here, it is obvious (reasoning elided) that you want to not play the ace the first two times it is led. So let them win the first two tricks - and yes, they'll keep leading Hearts "tricks 1, 2 and 3".
    – Mycroft
    Commented Nov 1, 2021 at 16:45
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It's really about looking at the hand from South's perspective. His best suit is diamonds but they have been bid on the left, so that North would be leading into strength is forseeable. The spade length is on the right, so that might work better (and is actually the best double dummy lead) but the suit isn't that great. His best bet looks like hoping North has club length and the ace will fill a gap.

The point isn't that a club lead is effective here (it isn't). It's that North picked an offbeat lead that lined up with his partner's preference.

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  • What do the hearts have to do with the lead, then? Also, what is "length" and "double dummy lead"?
    – Allure
    Commented Oct 21, 2021 at 15:10
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    @Allure: Thank you for the quality question. I may have time after work to contribute another answer. However Bridge is a deep and complicated game, with endless domain-specific terminology. One of the most elementary of those domain-specific terms is double-dummy: a call or play made as though from knowing locations of all 52 cards before those cards could reasonably be located from previous bidding and play. Comments are not really the place for this. Here is a Bridge Glossary by Wikipedia. Commented Oct 21, 2021 at 16:57
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    @Allure "Length" in this context refers to the number of cards in a suit, and particularly to the player holding the most cards in that suit. When the answer says "the spade length is on his [south's] right" it means that east holds longer spades than west does (4 vs 2 here). In general a lead where the 2nd player to the trick has longer or especially stronger cards than the 4th player tends to work better than the other way around. The saying is "Lead through strength into weakness." Of course there are plenty of cases where this very general advice does not work well. Commented Oct 21, 2021 at 22:13
  • If South had something like Qx in hearts and xx in clubs, the obvious lead of the heart would also be the one that is the most effective. A normal North player who lead a club runs the risk of it backfiring badly. So was North taking a risk, or did he know something he shouldn't? It's very far from conclusive evidence on its own but might cause one to think twice.
    – richardb
    Commented Oct 23, 2021 at 12:51
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I think it is exactly like the other hand, except for a matter of scale.

In the other hand, you have:

S: KQJT9
H: xxx
D: Kx
C: xxx

Here you have 4 winners and an entry, against 3NT. The primary way you defeat 3NT is by setting up 4 winners and an entry, right? So you lead any of those spades (the K is the conventional lead, so you choose that, but it doesn't really matter). Force out the A, then hope to win the K later to get back in.

In this hand, you have a lesser version of the same. Instead of 5 straight spades, you have KJT9x of hearts; and instead of Kx diamonds, you have Qxxx clubs. But otherwise you have, more or less, some winners and an entry. You're only facing 1NT, also, but odds are your partner has more in this hand than they did in the other one by a good bit.

In NT, it's vital that you use your opportunities to set up your running suits: so doing anything other than leading away from your suit is a bad idea, on balance. Even though this isn't a truly runnable suit - it's broken up slightly - it's sufficiently close to a sequence such that anyone would lead from that, barring any other information.

But what's worse here is the lead of the low club, leading away from your only entry. Now, this isn't as wild as leading Kd from doubleton diamonds, which would be totally insane; but leading a low club does two things.

  1. Makes it more likely that opponents will win with a lower card than the Q - finessing yourself!
  2. Reducing the number of clubs in partner's hand by one, making it harder for partner to lead to your entry!

Further, you fail to convey important information to partner - the existence of the sequence and length. Since the standard is for you to lead from long sequences like this, parter will assume you don't have it. This will totally mess up their ability to defend the hand - they'll think you have a totally different shape! Maybe they'll think you have more diamonds than you do, for example.

All that together makes it a terrible lead. The post's point is that terrible leads happen, sometimes people do odd things - but when the person is an expert, and that person benefits from the terrible lead, it makes them suspicious.

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  • In this analysis, why does the number of hearts in partner's hand matter?
    – Allure
    Commented Oct 25, 2021 at 7:56
  • @Allure For the most part I'm not too worried about how many hearts partner has - this is bad for other reasons. I'm not addressing why the heart lead at the table turns out bad - it's for the reason that partner has two low hearts (so your suit does not set up). Partner needs either 3 hearts, or Qx/Ax, for the lead away from the KJT9x to work out. That doesn't really matter to what you ought to do (that's ends-based thinking), but it does matter to why they might "cheat" here.
    – Joe
    Commented Oct 25, 2021 at 16:33
  • Are you saying that if South had either 3 hearts or Qx/Ax of hearts, then the club lead is incorrect because leading hearts would have been better, but since South has two small hearts the club lead is correct and that is why it is suspicious?
    – Allure
    Commented Oct 27, 2021 at 8:58
  • Right. If south has either of those, then the heart suit sets up. Only with two small does it not set up and leading it costs a trick.
    – Joe
    Commented Oct 27, 2021 at 13:51

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