Lesson 4J Main

Signaling Methods

 by Richard Pavlicek

Unlike declarer play, defense is a cooperative undertaking between two partners, and some method of communication is necessary. This is done with various signaling agreements in the play of the cards.

The attitude signal and the count signal are by far the most important, and they are used at all contracts — notrump or suit. Accurate defense requires a thorough understanding of these tools.

The Attitude Signal

The attitude signal is by far the most widely used signal. A high card (or high-low sequence) is encouraging — it asks partner to lead that suit again. A low card (or up-the-line sequence) is discouraging — it suggests that partner lead some other suit.

The attitude signal applies when partner leads a suit.

1. S Q J 9 6TrickLead2nd3rd4th
H 5 31. WH K376
D A K 92. WD 8!K4!6
C 6 5 3 23. NS Q52K
S K 4TableS 7 54. WD 7A210
H K Q 9 4 2H 10 8 7Lose 2 more tricks, down 1
D 8 7 5D Q 4 3 2
C K 8 7C J 10 9 4
S A 10 8 3 2
H A J 6
D J 10 6
4 S SouthC A Q

On the H K lead East plays the seven and South plays the six, a clever ducking play. West can see the two through six of hearts so the seven is East’s lowest card, hence East is discouraging a heart continuation, and West should not be fooled.

West should shift to the D 8, dummy wins the king and East should play the four to encourage another diamond lead. West should read the D 4 as encouraging since the two and three are missing.

Lesson 4J MainTop Signaling Methods

Signals with Discards

The attitude signal also applies when not following to the suit led by partner or declarer. Discarding a high card is encouraging, typically showing at high honor in the suit discarded. Discarding a low card is discouraging, suggesting weakness in the suit discarded.

Unfortunately, discard signals are widely misused. Many players feel they must discard a high card to ask partner to lead a particular suit, but in doing so they weaken their holding in that suit or give up a potential winning trick. Instead they should be discarding their low cards in the remaining suits.

Avoid discarding high cards to tell partner what to lead. Instead
tell partner what not to lead by discarding low from weak suits.

2. S Q 7 4TrickLead2nd3rd4th
H 9 6 31. WH 532K
D Q J 8 22. SH 10A6S 3!
C K Q 93. WC 7!K8!3
S J 10 2TableS 9 6 5 34. ND Q34K
H A 8 7 5 4H 25. WC 49J5
D K 10D 7 6 5 36. EC A102Q
C 7 4 2C A J 8 6Lose 1 more trick, down 1
S A K 8
H K Q J 10
D A 9 4
3 NT SouthC 10 5 3

South wins the first trick and leads a heart back to West’s ace. East would like a club shift but cannot spare the C 8 as a positive signal — this would burn the setting trick, a gross error. East should discard the S 3, meaning “Don’t lead a spade.”

West now must stop and think. East does not want a spade lead, so the choice is between clubs and diamonds. Dummy’s diamond holding makes a shift to that suit hopeless — even if East held the D A the defenders could win only two tricks — so he shifts to the C 7 and dummy plays the king. East should duck and play the eight as an attitude signal. When West wins the D K, a second club sets the contract.

Can you read this signal, partner? It means “Lead my suit or you’re a dead man!”

The concept of “negative discard signals” is also important when you lead a suit at notrump and discover there is no future in it. Just throw it away and partner should realize you want some other suit led. If you wanted your original suit returned, you would hold on to it.

Hold on to what you like. Throw away what you don’t like.

3. S 6 5 4TrickLead2nd3rd4th
H 9 71. WH 4710K
D A J 9 7 42. SD K245
C J 9 33. SD 3H 3!JQ
S A Q 9 8TableS J 10 34. ES J!294
H J 8 5 4 3H 10 6 25. ES 10KA5
D 2D Q 10 5Lose 2 more tricks, down 1
C 8 6 2C Q 10 7 5
S K 7 2
D K 8 6 3
3 NT SouthC A K 4

When East plays the H 10 at trick one, it is obvious (to West) that South has the A-K-Q; hence it is futile to continue hearts and a spade shift is desirable. But East does not know this. West must tell him.

Declarer wins the D K and leads another diamond. West’s first discard should be a heart implying “I am no longer interested in hearts.” If West’s hearts were something like A-J-x-x-x, he logically would hold on to every one of them.

Assume declarer ducks the second diamond lead to East. The normal return by East would be a heart, his partner’s suit; but not when West throws that suit away. The choice is between spades and clubs. A club lead is unattractive from the queen with the jack in dummy, so East shifts to the S J — now it is curtains for declarer as the defenders run four spade tricks.

Note that if West discarded the S 9 as a signal for a spade lead, he could no longer set the contract.

Lesson 4J MainTop Signaling Methods

The Count Signal

The count signal is less widely used than the attitude signal, but it is crucial to skillful defense. A high card (or high-low sequence) shows an even number of cards in that suit; i.e., two, four or six. A low card (or up-the-line sequence) shows an odd number of cards in that suit; i.e., three, five or seven.

In order not to confuse the count signal with the attitude signal it is necessary to have distinct conditions under which it applies. The basic rule is:

The count signal applies when following to a suit that was led by declarer.

4. S J 7 3TrickLead2nd3rd4th
H 8 41. WH 389A
D K J 10 32. SD Q7!35!
C J 8 5 33. SD 4210A!
S Q 10 4TableS A 9 54. EH 7K64
H J 10 6 3H 9 7 55. SC K?234
D 9 7 6 2D A 8 56. SC A?1056
C 10 2C Q 9 6 47. SC 7D 689
S K 8 6 28. EC QS 2D 9J
H A K Q 29. EH 5Q10S 3
D Q 410. SH 2JD JD 8
3 NT SouthC A K 7Lose 2 more tricks, down 2

South wins the opening heart lead and leads the D Q. West has four diamonds (an even number) so he should play the seven to begin a high-low sequence. (The seven is better than the six on the general principle of making signals as easy to read as possible.) East ducks this trick.

East should win the D A on the second round based on this logic: West’s high-low must be from two or four cards. If four cards, declarer will have two and he will be shut out from dummy; if two cards, declarer will have four (the same as in dummy) so a further holdup is useless.

Note that if East holds up the D A twice (as many players would do), declarer can make 3 NT easily by switching to spades. Actually, the contract can always be made, but declarer must play well and guess the ending. Don’t give it to him!

5. S K 5 3TrickLead2nd3rd4th
H 8 7 41. WH 249A
D 5 32. SC 32!K10!
C K Q 8 7 63. ND 37!KA
S Q 8TableS J 7 24. WH 3710K
H Q 6 3 2H J 10 95. SS 68K2
D A J 8 2D 9 7 6 46. ND 5410?J
C 9 5 2C A J 107. WH Q8J5
S A 10 9 6 4Lose 2 more tricks, down 2
H A K 5
D K Q 10
4 S SouthC 4 3

On the heart lead East plays the nine and South wins the ace. At trick two declarer leads the C 3; West should play the two, his lowest card to indicate an odd number of clubs, and dummy plays the king.

If East wins the C A, declarer is able to establish and use the club suit — the C Q would become a key entry to ruff a club. Instead East should duck since he knows from his partner’s signal that declarer cannot have a singleton club.

Assume declarer next leads the D 3 from dummy. East plays the seven (count), South the king and West wins the ace. West leads another heart to force out the king, and declarer must fail.

6. S K J 5TrickLead2nd3rd4th
H Q J 10 71. WD JA82
D A 62. NS 52103!
C J 7 6 43. SH 36Q8!
S A 4 3TableS 6 24. NS K67A
H A 9 6 4H 8 25. WS 4!JD 48
D J 10 9 5D K Q 8 7 46. NH 72K4!
C 3 2C Q 10 9 8Lose 3 more tricks, down 1
S Q 10 9 8 7
H K 5 3
D 3 2
4 S SouthC A K 5

Dummy wins the D A and East plays the eight. A spade is led to the 10 which West ducks (a good play), then the H 3; six, 10, eight. Observe that East’s D 8 was attitude because West led diamonds, and the H 8 was count because declarer led hearts.

Declarer now must fail. If he continues hearts, West can win the H A and give East a ruff. If he leads a second trump, West can win the S A and return a third trump to remove dummy’s entry (West then will hold up his H A until the third round).

Lesson 4J MainTop Signaling Methods

Signaling with an Honor

It is absurd to throw away a trick, so the use of an honor (A-K-Q-J-10) as a signal shows enough strength in the suit to safely play the honor. Typically this requires a sequence of touching cards.

When signaling with an honor, play the highest of equal cards.
Hence, an honor signal denies the card immediately above it.

Many players misuse the honor signal when holding a doubleton. Do not high-low with 10-x or J-x unless you are sure it will not cost a trick. Further, it is accepted practice never to high-low with Q-x.

7. S Q 10 8TrickLead2nd3rd4th
H 8 4 31. WH K3Q!6
D A 10 8 42. WH 2!4107
C J 9 53. EC 6!K85
S 4 3TableS 7 5 24. SS 63Q2
H A K 9 2H Q J 10 55. NS 85A4
D 9 6 3D K Q 26. SD 5310Q
C Q 8 7 3C 6 4 27. EC 4!A39
S A K J 9 6Lose 2 more tricks, down 1
H 7 6
D J 7 5
3 S SouthC A K 10

On the H K lead East drops the queen. West would rather have East on lead (to get a club lead through declarer) so he leads the H 2 to East’s 10. East reasons that declarer will have no more hearts so he shifts to the C 6 — note that leading a high card (top of nothing) during the play is not the same as signaling with a high card.

Eventually, East will gain the lead in diamonds and lead a second club to establish West’s C Q before declarer is able to set up dummy’s long diamond.

The Trump Echo

Count is shown differently in the trump suit — the practice is reversed. Playing high-low
(a trump echo) shows an odd number, usually three. Up-the-line shows two or four.

Lesson 4J MainTop Signaling Methods

© 1994 Richard Pavlicek