Lesson 4K   Main

Third Hand Play

  by Richard Pavlicek

Winning all the tricks you are able to on defense requires a firm knowledge of card-play principles. This lesson explains the strategy by the defender who plays third to any trick — the partner of the defender who leads. Observe that these rules apply not only on the opening lead but throughout the play.

Third Hand High

The general strategy of third hand is to try to win the trick or to force fourth hand (declarer or dummy) to spend a higher card.

As third hand play your highest card.

1. 5 4 3
Q 10 9 7TableK 6 2
West leadsA J 8

East should play the king. Don’t make the mistake of playing low and letting South win the jack.

2. A 8 5
J 7 4 2TableQ 9 3
West leadsK 10 6

East should play the queen. Observe that declarer can win only two tricks provided the defenders do not lead the suit again.

3. J 5 4
Q 8 6 3TableA 9 7
West leadsK 10 2

East should win the ace (then return the nine on most deals). Note what happens if East mistakenly finesses the nine.

Trivial Exceptions

Do not waste your highest card if you cannot beat the cards played so far; or if partner’s lead is equivalent to your highest card (do not fight partner).

Lesson 4K   MainTop   Third Hand Play

Lowest from Equals

When playing from a sequence, third hand should play the lowest card. This is the exact opposite of the strategy used by the player who leads a suit.

The reason for playing low from a sequence is that partner can often determine the exact honor holding of third hand by the effect of the card played.

Before this lesson I was bee-fuddled. Now I’m only bee-wildered.

As third hand play the lowest of equals when trying to win the trick.
(This does not apply when you are signaling.)

4. 8 5 3
Q 9 6 2TableJ 10 4
West leadsA K 7

East should play the 10. When this forces the king (or ace), West will know that East has the jack.

5. K 6 2
7 4TableQ J 10 9
West leadsA 8 5 3

East should play the nine. If North instead played the king, East should play the queen because then he would be signaling instead of trying to win the trick.

6. A 7 2
K 6 5 4TableQ 10 9
West leadsJ 8 3

East should play the queen. The 10-9 sequence is not equal to East’s highest card so he follows the general strategy, playing third hand high.

Lesson 4K   MainTop   Third Hand Play

Unblocking Plays

Occasionally it is necessary for third hand to waste an honor to avoid blocking the suit led and let the defenders win all the tricks they are due. This is common when the lead is an honor and third hand has a doubleton. Each situation must be evaluated at the table.

It is usually right to overtake a king with A-x; often right to overtake a queen with K-x; and sometimes right to overtake a jack with Q-x.

7. 7 5 3
K Q 10 9 4TableA 2
West leadsJ 8 6

East should overtake with the ace. If the contract were notrump, this is the only chance to run the suit. If the contract were a suit bid, East could ruff the third round if West did not have at least K-Q-10.

8. K 4 3
J 10 9 7 5TableQ 6
West leadsA 8 2

At notrump East should overtake the jack with the queen. If East failed to unblock, declarer could win the ace and later duck when East played the queen, leaving East with no more cards to drive out the king.

At a suit contract, however, East should usually play low since the defensive goal is just to establish one trick in the suit.

Do not unblock if dummy has a card that is likely to be promoted into a trick for declarer.

9. A 9 3
J 10 8 7TableQ 6
West leadsK 5 4 2

Here East should play low regardless of the contract. The presence of dummy’s nine would allow declarer to gain a trick by finessing if East wasted his queen.

Lesson 4K   MainTop   Third Hand Play

Finesse Against Dummy

If dummy (second hand) holds an honor in the suit led, third hand should usually finesse against it. The object is to capture dummy’s honor at a later trick. Often this is obvious (e.g., A-Q behind the king) but in many cases it is not clear-cut. Here are two helpful rules:

If your honor is one step above dummy’s honor, finesse an eight or better if dummy plays low.

10. A Q 4
J 7 5 3TableK 10 2
West leads9 8 6

East’s king is one step above the queen so he finesses the 10. This wins, and East will get another trick later.

11. A 10 4
K 9 5 3TableJ 8 2
West leadsQ 7 6

East’s jack is one step above the 10 so he finesses the eight. This gives declarer two tricks instead of three.

If your honor is two steps above dummy’s honor, finesse a nine or better if dummy plays low.

12. Q 7 3
J 9 6 2TableA 10 4
West leadsK 8 5

East’s ace is two steps above the queen so he finesses the 10. Declarer can win only one trick after this play.

13. J 4 3
10 8 7 2TableK 9 6
West leadsA Q 5

East’s king is two steps above the jack so he finesses the nine, thus holding declarer to the minimum.

Lesson 4K   MainTop   Third Hand Play

The Rule of Eleven

The standard practice of leading fourth-best (fourth highest) from a four-card or longer suit lends itself to a rule that is sometimes helpful. It works like this:

If partner leads an eight or lower, subtract the card led from 11. If partner has led fourth-best, the difference is the number of cards in the other three hands that are above the card led.

14. 3 NTJ 5
A 10 8 7 4TableK 9 3 2
West leadsQ 6

Normally East would finesse the nine (compare Example 13) but the rule of 11 shows that South has only one card above the seven. Therefore, the king cannot cost, and the result is gratifying.

15. 3 NTK 10 3 2
Q 9 8 6TableJ 7 4
West leadsA 5

East usually would not finesse in this situation because he lacks an eight-spot or higher, however, South is marked with only one card above the six. That card is surely the ace or queen (West is unlikely to lead from A-Q-x-x) so East plays low.

The rule of 11 is also helpful in a negative sense. If you apply it and get an illogical answer, this indicates that partner has led a short suit.

16. 3 NT10 9 8 4
5 3TableQ 7 6 2
West leadsA K J

A quick calculation indicates that South cannot beat the five (11 minus 5 = 6 cards, and you can see them all). Is this logical? Would partner lead small from A-K-J-x? Hardly. The conclusion is that West has led a short suit, so save your queen.

Lesson 4K   MainTop   Third Hand Play

Where Is the Ace?

On the opening lead against a suit bid it is not advisable to underlead an ace in a side suit. This tactic fails more often than it gains, so experienced players do not do it.

Consequently, if third hand does not see the ace in this situation, he should assume declarer has it. This conclusion together with the rule of 11 often reveals a superior play.

If declarer is marked for the ace, consider the merits of not playing third hand high.

17. 4 HK 10 6
J 9 7 5 3TableQ 8
West leadsA 4 2

West leads a spade. Using the rule of 11 East knows that South has one card above the five. This must be the ace (unless West is being a clown) so finesse the eight.

If the contract were notrump, East should play the queen since West would often hold the ace. Notice how this abides by the rule before Example 12.

18. 4 HQ J 9
10 6 5 2TableK 8 4
West leadsA 7 3

East should play the four. South is marked with the ace, and playing the king would surrender three tricks immediately. Ducking gives up only two tricks provided the defenders do not lead this suit again.

Note that declarer could win three tricks legitimately by inserting the nine at trick one, a dubious play.

19. 4 HQ 9 8
3TableK 7 6 5 4
West leadsA J 10 2

An expert East would instantly read the lead as a singleton (or 3-2 doubleton) and play low without a flicker. Declarer might then conclude that West holds the king and misplay the hand.

Lesson 4K   MainTop   Third Hand Play

© 1994 Richard Pavlicek