Lesson 4C   Main

Notrump Play Technique

  by Richard Pavlicek

Notrump contracts generally involve a race between the defenders and declarer to establish a suit. This lesson explains the proper planning and strategy as the declarer.

In notrump play you will be confronted with a variety of situations. To be skillful it is essential to have a general strategy that will get you off to a good start on every deal. I recommend these steps:

Count Your Top Tricks

Count the number of tricks that you could immediately cash “off the top.” Then you will know how many additional tricks you need.

Look for Additional Tricks

Examine each suit for sources of additional tricks. These may be in the form of honors or long cards that can be established. It is important to note all the possibilities.

Analyze the Opening Lead

Does the lead appear to be fourth-best from a long suit? Or top-of-nothing from a short suit? Or an honor sequence? Does it threaten your contract?

Develop a Plan

It is important to have a specific, overall plan of attack. Playing a contract “one card at a time” will not work. Below are some things to consider in making your plan:

Which card will you play from dummy at trick one?

Will you use the holdup play?

Is it desirable to prevent one defender from gaining the lead?

Which suit will you attack first?

What is the best way to play the suit you plan to attack?

Lesson 4C   MainTop   Notrump Play Technique

The Holdup Play

The purpose of the holdup play is to break up the enemy communication. Then if you must give up the lead, the defender who wins may have no more cards in the suit originally led. The holdup play is most useful at the first trick.

Guess what, dear! I just learned the holdup play.

Just learned my foot! You’re so pokey you hold up every game we play in.

Consider the holdup play if you have only one stopper (usually the ace) or two stoppers (usually the ace-king) in the suit led.

1. S Q 2
H J 7 4
D A K 3
C 9 6 5 3 2
S J 7 6 5 3
H Q 8 6
D 7 6
C Q 10 8
Table S K 10 8
H A 9 5 3 2
D 9 8 2
C J 4
3 NT South
Lead: S 5
S A 9 4
H K 10
D Q J 10 5 4
C A K 7

You have 8 top tricks and there are three chances to gain additional tricks: spades, hearts and clubs. West’s lead looks like fourth-best from a four- or five-card suit.

Your best play on the opening lead is the S Q from dummy but East produces the king. A holdup play is in order so play the S 4; duck the spade return and win the ace on the third round.

Choosing between clubs and hearts is based on this logic: You cannot establish the clubs without losing the lead, in which case you will be set if West has either a club entry or the H A. By playing on hearts you will be set only if West has the H A. Hence the proper play is to cross to dummy with a diamond and lead a heart to the king.

The ideal time to win the lead is on the trick that exhausts one opponent of his cards in that suit.

2. S 7 6 2
H A 4 3
C 10 5 4
S 10 5
H Q 8 7 5
D 10 4 2
C Q J 6 2
Table S K Q J 4 3
H J 10 9
D 9 7 6
C K 3
3 NT South
Lead: S 10
S A 9 8
H K 6 2
D 8 5 3
C A 9 8 7

Assume East overcalled 1 S (showing five) and West leads the S 10. You have 8 top tricks and your only chance for nine is in clubs. You should win the S A on the second round, then play clubs by finessing into West who has no more spades.

Observe that if you held up twice in spades East could defeat you by switching to a heart. Don’t give him that chance.

Avoid using the holdup play at trick one if a shift to a different suit would be dangerous.

3. S A 6 4
H 9
D K Q 10 8 6
C K 6 4 3
S Q J 8 2
H K 5 3 2
D J 7 3
C 9 5
Table S K 7 5
H Q J 10 8
D A 9 5 4
C 10 2
3 NT South
Lead: S 2
S 10 9 3
H A 7 6 4
D 2
C A Q J 8 7

West’s lead of the S 2 indicates a four-card suit (with five he would hold a card below the card led) so the enemy can win only three spade tricks — not enough to set you when you lose the D A. Win the S A quickly before East shifts to a heart.

Next cross to your hand with a club and lead the D 2. Since you need two diamond tricks and can lead the suit only once from your hand, you should finesse the D 10.

Lesson 4C   MainTop   Notrump Play Technique

Avoidance Finesse

An avoidance play is an attempt to avoid losing the lead to the dangerous defender — the one who has a long suit to cash or who can make a damaging lead. This kind of play is easy when you take a normal finesse (as in Example 2). In some cases the standard finesse will not achieve the objective, so you have to improvise a different play.

If a normal finessing play would lose to the dangerous defender, consider a backward finesse in the same suit.

4. S Q 3
H K 8 7 3
D K 9 5 2
C A 3 2
S J 9 7 5 2
H Q 10 2
D J 3
C Q 8 7
Table S K 10 6
H J 9 6 5
D Q 10 8 6
C 10 6
3 NT South
Lead: S 5
S A 8 4
H A 4
D A 7 4
C K J 9 5 4

You count 7 top tricks, and the club suit is your best chance for two more. West’s lead looks like fourth-best from a four- or five-card suit.

At trick one you hopefully play the S Q, but East covers with the king and you hold up the ace until the third round. The normal play in clubs would be to cash the ace and finesse the jack; but in this case it would be poor because West would gain the lead whenever he had the queen.

A much better play is to lead the jack from your hand, letting it ride if West does not cover. In the actual layout this not only keeps West off lead, but you are rewarded with an overtrick. Note that if East held the C Q you would still make your bid.

Suppose West covered the C J with the queen, and when you next led a low club from dummy East did not play the 10. The proper play then would be to win the king to guard against Q-10 doubleton in West. Observe that if West held Q-10-x, there is no way to succeed with any play.

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Avoidance Duck

Occasionally your holding in the suit you want to establish does not contain a finessing combination, or it contains only a finesse that would lose to the dangerous defender. One possibility is just to cash your top cards and lead another, hoping the dangerous opponent does not win. But this method can be improved upon with this strategy:

If you cannot finesse through the dangerous defender, try to force his partner to win by ducking at a safe opportunity.

5. S Q 3
H K 8 3
D A K 10 8 2
C J 4 3
S A J 9 6 2
H 10 5 2
D Q 3
C Q 8 7
Table S 10 7 5
H J 9 7 6
D J 6 5
C K 10 6
3 NT South
Lead: S 6
S K 8 4
H A Q 4
D 9 7 4
C A 9 5 2

You count 6 top tricks and obviously will get one more in spades. The diamond suit is the only hope for two additional tricks. West’s lead appears to be fourth-best.

You correctly win the S Q at trick one. Clearly West has the S A so, in order to protect your S K, you must avoid losing the lead to East. The normal play in diamonds would be to finesse through West — not good, as this puts East on lead.

The correct play is to return to your hand with a heart and lead a diamond to the king assuming West plays low. Return to your hand with another heart and lead a second diamond. This time West must play the queen and you duck to force him to win.

Observe that you had to lead diamonds twice from your hand. If you carelessly led a high diamond from dummy, West could defeat you by unblocking the queen.

If West held D Q-x-x and followed low on both diamond leads, you should win the ace and lead a third diamond hoping West is the defender with three.

Lesson 4C   MainTop   Notrump Play Technique

Establishing Two Suits

Sometimes your contract will depend on establishing two suits — not an either-or situation but a case in which you need additional tricks from both suits. The order in which you attack the two suits may be important. In general, you should work on the weaker suit first as this will give you greater control of the play later on.

If you may need to establish two suits to make your contract, lead the suit in which you have less control first.

6. S 9 5
H A K 7 2
D K 9 6 2
C Q J 2
S K 10 8 4 3
H J 8
D J 8 5
C A 7 6
Table S J 7 2
H Q 10 9 5
D Q 4
C 10 9 5 4
3 NT South
Lead: S 4
S A Q 6
H 6 4 3
D A 10 7 3
C K 8 3

Counting the free finesse offered by the spade lead you have 6 top tricks. Two of the three additional tricks you need will come from clubs, and the other will come from diamonds. (The heart suit also is a possibility but it is clearly inferior.) You must establish both the clubs and the diamonds to succeed.

Players who always work on their longest suit would go astray here. You should first attack clubs — the suit in which you have less control — to force out the C A. If West ducks his ace, lead another club.

Assume West takes the second club lead and returns a spade. You will hold up your S A until the third round. Next lead the D 3 and finesse the nine as an avoidance play to keep West off lead. (If East held a fourth spade you would still succeed as the spade suit would divide 4-4.)

Be sure to observe that you would fail if you worked on diamonds first. You cannot control the play of the club suit and West would gain the lead to run his spades.

Lesson 4C   MainTop   Notrump Play Technique

© 1990 Richard Pavlicek