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Sort of a follow-up question to Why is this club lead suspicious when partner has two small hearts? and Why is the King of Spades the best opening lead with this hand?

In both those examples, the contract is No Trumps. I vaguely remember reading that in No Trumps, the 'standard' lead is the 4th highest card of your longest suit. That would mean leading with the 9 of Hearts in the first example and the 10 of Spades in the second example. However, the "expected" lead in both cases is a higher card (the J or 10 of Hearts in the first example, and the K of Spades in the second).

Whatever happened to leading with the 4th highest card? A first guess is that I remembered wrong, but a quick search reveals that leading the 4th highest card is still something that's taught (example).

Alternatively, leading a high card indicates you are not following the "4th highest" convention - for example if I lead the K, then I obviously can't be leading the 4th highest card since there is only one card higher than the K, and this indicates to partner that I am using an alternative convention. However, in this case the J or 10 of Hearts lead in the first example would be ambiguous, since I can conceivably have the AKQJ. A thought would be, if I did actually have the AKQJ, why didn't I bid Hearts? But even then there are lots of possibilities ... maybe my other suits are dismal, for example.

I'm looking for an explanation why the "4th highest" convention doesn't apply to these hands, especially since none of the answers to either question mentioned it so it is apparently not relevant.

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  • 1
    You may want to get a copy of the Mike Lawrence book on Opening Leads. Also, there are two books from a few years ago: "Winning Notrump Leads" and "Winning Suit Leads" by Bird & Anthias; they used computer simulations to determine the best leads in many situations.
    – Barmar
    Nov 2 '21 at 15:13
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Fourth highest is from a suit with no sequence - four small, or one honor and three small, that sort of thing. It’s a good lead, it gives you some chance to promote one or more of the small to a trick.

However, when you have a se quence it’s important to lead from that sequence for two reasons. First, you may give up a trick if you don’t - in the absurd example you have AKQx, you can see that - but KJTx would also possibly give up a trick if you lead x.

Second, though, is that you communicate the sequence to partner. KJTx is very powerful - partner will definitely lead it back. xxxx, maybe partner doesn’t lead it back - maybe they have a better choice. Since the agreement is that you lead away from the sequence in a particular way, leading low denies the sequence.

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When selecting an opening lead, there are two decisions that you must make. First, which suit should you lead? Second, which card should you lead from that suit?

Most of the "rules" about leading address the second question. "Fourth highest from your longest and strongest" addresses both. It's an easy rule to remember, and it's usually not a terrible choice, so it is taught to beginners as something to do while they gain enough experience to learn when other choices are better.

In the particular cases you've linked to, leading from the longest and strongest suit is likely the best choice, but the standard lead is not fourth highest. Why is that? Experience has shown that, when leading against no trump from a suit with a (possibly broken) honor sequence, you are most likely to get your full share of tricks by leading one of those honors. Let's look at your examples.

From KQJT9 xxx Kx xxx, you are on lead against 3NT. You have an excellent 5-card suit and at least half (and likely more) of your side's high-card strength (opponents likely have 24-30 high card points combined based on the 1NT-3NT auction). Leading a spade means that you will defeat the contract if any of the following is true:

  • Partner has a stopper in a suit they need to play on and enough spades to play one back at that time.
  • Declarer has the diamond ace and needs to play on diamonds to get to nine tricks (the finesse into your hand will give you the DK and now you can enjoy the rest of your spades).
  • Partner started with the spade ace and at least one more spade.

Two of these depend on partner knowing what to do in whichever situation you find yourselves in. If they have Ax in spades, they have to know to go up with the A at trick one and continue another. If they win a trick in another suit, they have to know that continuing spades is correct. The way they know this is that you've played the SK, which shows a suit with a lot of honors. Leading the ten does not give this signal - you would have to lead the ten from Tx, T9x, QT9xx, etc (we'll see why next in the last case, but just trust me on the others) - so partner may decided that the best prospects for the defense are in another suit.

In the other example, you hold T87 KJT92 J Q852 and are on lead against 1NT. Even though your partner has the bulk of your partnership's high cards (opponents are limited to at most 24 points by their auction), you are most likely to defeat the contract if you can score some heart tricks. One way to make sure that partner knows this is to lead a heart. But which one? Well, let's think about some honor layouts. Let's ignore signaling for a moment, and just consider how many tricks you can take in double-dummy play. If partner has the HQ, it doesn't matter too much which heart you lead - partner will play the Q and you will eventually force out the ace. If partner has no heart honor, it also doesn't matter which heart you lead - if declarer haS the Q you've already blown a trick, and if dummy has the Q it was always scoring. The situation where it does matter is when partner has the A but not the Q. Here, if you lead one of your middle cards (J, T, or 9), and dummy has the Q, you are running a finesse. Partner will duck if a small card is called from dummy so that you can repeat the finesse, or win the A if the Q is called. If declarer has the Q instead, partner wins the A and returns a heart so that you can finesse against the Q. In this way you are likely to take five heart tricks off the top, sending you well on your way to defeating the contract. Suppose you had started with KJT32 - now leading the 3 is ineffective when dummy holds the Q and partner the A because partner will have to play the A regardless of dummy's play.

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I would strongly suggest, if you are interested in this, or the arguments on the site you're getting the other questions from, that you find a second-hand copy of Watson's The play of the hand at bridge, and read until your mind explodes (it will. Even if you're an experienced bridge player, it ramps from "an Ace is higher than a King" to compound squeezes Very Quickly. In fact, when I recommend Watson to bridge players I tell them to start from page 1 and read until it stops making sense, then put it aside for 6 months. Then do it again - from page 1! They'll find that there were things they didn't notice last time that are "oh yeah, that" now, things they weren't sure of that make sense on second reading, and they'll get farther. Probably not to the end, though. Repeat every 6 months - always from page 1.)

Bridge leading and carding theory has advanced since it was written in the late 1950s, but the introductory chapters on defence will answer your question better, and more completely, than we ever could.

The other answers have given the basics - a sequence lead from three connected (AKQ, KQJ, QJT) or one gap (AKJ, AQJ, KQT, KJT) is a higher chance to set up the suit than low, so it's "standard". (what card to lead from those sequences is arguable, but "one of the sequence" isn't.)

Apart from "what's most likely to win the most tricks", the benefit of fourth-best leads, when that's "standard", is that partner can work out the count of the suit and the location of the missing cards. Look up "rule of 11" if you want to see that in action. With that information, partner can decide what card to play, and whether your side should continue the suit or not. But "I have a long suit to one of two or three sequences" is much more useful to work out what card to play and whether to continue the suit than just count - and when you do lead fourth best (or top of nothing, which you use at notrump when fourth best is also wrong), partner can use the fact that you don't have one of those sequences in using the rule of 11 to determine what cards declarer has (or work out that you can't be leading fourth best, therefore top of nothing).

A final reminder that first, you decide what suit to lead, then you lead the "standard" lead from that suit. But KQJT9 or KJT86 in an unbid suit is a really good argument that that's the suit to lead.

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  • I would suggest Card Play Technique ; Or, The Art of Being Lucky by Nico Gardener and Victor Mollo instead of or in addition to Watson, I think it is better written and more useful. But aside from that I fully agree with this answer. Nov 1 '21 at 19:56
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    I don't know that one, but anything on play by Mollo is going to be good. I like Watson because of his rigour and deep explanations, especially at the "beginner" end (which he then uses at the "next-to-beginner" chapters to good effect). But yes, Watson is a textbook, as bland and dry as any other textbook. Fair warning.
    – Mycroft
    Nov 1 '21 at 20:27
  • Card Play Technique Unlike most of Mollo's works is a textbook, but one written with all the style and wit Mollo is known for, as well as the bridge skill both he and Gardener were known for. I still find it enlightening after 40 years of playing and trying to learn. Still in print and deservedly so. recent edition has an Intro by Mollo & Gardner's joint daughter/stepdaughter. (The authors were married, in succession, to the same woman, and remained partners) Nov 1 '21 at 20:40
  • Louis Watson's book is very good but also very old -- published January 1, 1959. My advice is that you get a regular partner, if you haven't already, and try and agree what specific leads the partnership will use. Nov 13 '21 at 18:46
  • 1) If you don't know why "standard", then your partnership agreement will be inferior, even if the agreement itself is not inferior. And Part 1 of Watson explains "why standard" (along with the basics of play) better than anything else I've ever read. 2) I would agree with you in general, but this question thread is written by someone who doesn't play bridge, but wants to understand the basics of the 2015 scandal. They don't need to be up to date on Rusinow/intra-finesses/Lavinthal/3rd-and-low... just understand the basics, which really have not changed since the 1950s.
    – Mycroft
    Nov 15 '21 at 2:49

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