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After playing bridge for several months, I feel my declarer play and bidding have improved to a beginner-intermediate level. However, I think my skill at making an opening lead is that of a novice at best. I have memorized some basic rules about evaluating my hand and inspecting the bidding for clues (and plan to do plenty of additional reading), but I'm curious if there are any good ways to practice my opening leads. With bidding and declarer play I can get quick feedback on whether my choices were good or bad, but with opening leads I rarely have any idea if my lead was brilliant, average, or terrible even after the hand is over.

How can I tell if I made a good lead or a poor lead?

I could examine what gives the best score after recording the cards of all players, but I still won't be able to tell if discovering that lead would be possible without knowing everyone's cards.

Is there slightly more guesswork in opening leads than in the rest of bridge?

When I find two leads that seem to be equally good, sometimes I just pick one at random. Obviously professionals would be able to evaluate leads far better than I could, but do they sometimes encounter the same situation and do a mental coin-flip?

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Evaluating opening leads objectively can be very difficult. In fact, it would be hard to do so without doing an extensive computer simulation in many cases (which in itself, is a hard problem). Of course, there will also be situations where one call tell what a good/poor lead is, without any simulations.

To answer your other question, yes there is more guesswork in opening leads, than in the rest of the play.

That said, when thinking of opening leads, you need to listen to the bidding, look at your hand, try to decide what might happen during the play and then come up with a general strategy before deciding what suit/card to lead. (Note: scoring might also change the way you think).

Some typical categories of the general strategy are:

1) Active Defense:

Do you think you need to get your tricks in a hurry? Then you might want to consider an Active lead, like underleading Kings/Queens in order to set up your tricks.

For instance you hold Kxx, Axxx, xxx, xxx. Opponents are in a small slam in clubs, after a normal auction. Many good players will consider leading a spade (from Kxx), hoping partner has the Q and setting up a spade trick before the heart A gets knocked out.

2) Passive Defense:

Does declarer need to work to make his tricks? Then you consider a lead which is less likely to blow away tricks.

3) Forcing defense :

In game or lower level contracts, if you know that the trumps split badly (like 4-1), you might consider a strategy where you lead your suits, forcing declarer to ruff and lose trump control.

4) Trump leads :

Does it look like declarer will use dummy's trumps to ruff out his losers? A trump lead might be called for.

There are lots of good books on opening leads which teach you to think in these general terms (the link in thesun's answer is good with examples, and overlaps with this answer partly).

  • 1
    It's interesting that you mention computer simulations -- in fact, that's the approach that David Bird and Taf Anthias took in writing their book, "Winning Notrump Leads." They have an appendix that describes their approach to computer simulation (essentially, evaluating double-dummy play after each possible opening lead) and their justification of the approach. – ruds Jun 9 '13 at 15:50
  • @ruds: I see. It is on my reading list now. Thanks! – Aryabhata Jun 11 '13 at 21:43
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Also, the opening lead decision for a given contract and auction can vary depending on whether one is playing IMPs or matchpoints. Because it is the least informed action of the hand, one should take care in matchpoints to not give away the hand with the lead. Leading "with the field" is often advocated, on the premise that in most hands one gets another chance to at least obtain an average.

Alternatively in IMPs more aggressive leads are less risky, and employed by experts more often. The loss of an overtrick is inconsequential if any measurable chance of setting the contract ensues.

As always, visualization of the opponent hands is paramount in making good lead choices. Understanding whether the opponents have stretched to the current contract, or failed to investigate higher, can assist one in evaluating the appropriate level of risk for a given lead situation.

Update:
Richard Pavlicek has an excellent online site addressed to Beginners, Intermediate Players, and Experts. Here is a link to his Beginner lesson on Opening Leads: http://www.rpbridge.net/1u29.htm

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A potentially massive question, this. I could recommend the almost-goes-without-saying-stuff, like: play a lot of bridge, make a note of the different leads that you considered before choosing one, asking your partner afterwards if another lead might have been better.

Definitely read up on opening leads as much as possible and try to correlate what you learn with how various leads work out for you in practice. I'm sure there are a million essays out there on the art of the opening lead, but here's one to start you off. Maybe other people will turn up even better expert advice!

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It is difficult to objectively analyze opening leads, due to the temptation to assess accuracy on the specific individual results. If you can actually assess your leads objectively, you are probably already the best leader in your club. Focusing on that is the wrong approach to improvement.

A far better practice is to assess the accuracy of the information on which you made your lead decisions. If you are creating an accurate mental image of all four hands before making your lead decisions, both of point count and distribution, then you will be making significantly better lead decisions than most players.

In a typical evening's bridge, of 24 or 26 hands, you can expect to be on Opening Lead 6 or 7 times. Set yourself the goal of determining your partner's shape and strength accurately (see below) at least 4 times a session. Once you can do this consistently you will, in doing so, have also created an accurate image of the hands held by Declarer and Dummy. From here, accurate and deadly opening leads will start to become a habit for you.

So, how accurate is the goal. Aim for strength to be within plus-or-minus one point, and the sum of outages (unsigned) in all four suits to be <= 3. This counting exercise will improve every aspect of your game in addition to opening leads, eventually also opening up the expert territory of squeezes and endplays, as well as their defence, to you.

Make an informed deadly lead against the better players of your club a few times, with sound reasoning and counting to back it up, and you will start to receive game invitations from players you can currently only dream of having as a partner. Defence is the most difficult aspect of the game, and very highly regarded by expert players.

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