Lesson 4U   Main

General Winning Tips

  by Richard Pavlicek

This lesson is a general overview of card play, with a number of tips to improve your performance at the table. As a bridge player since 1964, I have played a lot of deals (no, I have not kept count) against a wide variety of opponents. This advice is based not only on my own practices, but also on my observances of other leading players.

The Right Attitude

Many players are intimidated, or at best insecure, if they feel their opponents are better players. Did it occur to you that your opponents may have the same feelings?

Play with confidence, even if it is only on the outside.

A confident attitude has several advantages. It doesn’t advertise that you are “easy game” for your opponents, and it will help overcome your feelings of insecurity. Before long you will have the confidence both inside and out.

Suppress your emotions.

Just as in poker, a player who can be read like a book will be a loser. For example, when dummy comes down, do not indicate your delight or disgust with the contract — just offer a polite “Thank you, partner” even if you don’t mean it.

Do not let one bad result affect another.

No matter how good you are, you are bound to get bad results. Keep in mind that a bridge session is a string of independent deals — one deal has no effect on the next. (This is not entirely true at rubber bridge in which the vulnerability and partscores are carried over.)

Lesson 4U   MainTop   General Winning Tips

Watch the Table

During the bidding you will have ample time to look at your hand, but once the play begins keep your eyes on the table. Watch each card as it is played. Only look at your hand when it is your turn to play a card.

The game is played on the table, not in your hand.

This advice may sound trite, but it might be the most important. You will be surprised how your ability to recall the cards improves as your eye contact with them increases.

This practice also alleviates the most common instance of a revoke: A player plays the same suit as his right-hand opponent, instead of the suit that was led.

Lesson 4U   MainTop   General Winning Tips

Querying Partner

How many times a session do you hear questions such as “No spades, partner?” Chances are, you hear it a lot; but hopefully, you are not one of the perpetrators.

Do not ask questions to partner during the play.

Asking questions is an indication of inexperience, and it will boost your opponents’ confidence. Very few experts do it, so do not label yourself as a novice. If your partner revokes a lot…, well, this lesson is not going to matter much anyway.

In most other countries and in the World Bridge Federation it is in fact illegal for a defender to ask questions to his partner. The American Contract Bridge League has opted to allow it (an error in my view) to cater to existing bad habits.

Lesson 4U   MainTop   General Winning Tips

Table Presence

Good card players develop the ability to make winning decisions based on the opponents’ apparent problems, hesitations, or reluctant plays. This is simply applying your understanding of human nature.

Try to rely more on psychology and less on mathematical odds when choosing your play.

Proper Ethics

The use of information based on mannerisms is proper only if obtained from an opponent. It is very unethical to be influenced by partner’s mannerisms.

It helps to know, or at least have some idea, about the nature of your opponents. Are they experienced? Do they have a regular partnership? Are their hesitations apt to be genuine, or might they be embellished for your benefit?

This brings to mind a deal from a past tournament:

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

After winning the S J, I cashed the D J then the D A (unblocking the queen) as West threw a club. When I led the D 3, West hesitated noticeably before letting go another club. Obviously, I had to guess the layout of the heart suit to succeed.

My first thought was to play West for the H Q (he had overcalled 1 S and he had not thrown a heart) but then I reflected. If West held the H Q, would be draw attention to himself? I thought not. After winning the D 9, I led the H J and let it ride.

Lesson 4U   MainTop   General Winning Tips

The Opening Lead

The opening lead is, by far, the most determining factor of the outcome of a deal — often with a swing of several tricks depending on the choice made. This play should be considered carefully, and not just on the basis of your own hand.

Mentally review the bidding before selecting your lead.

The purpose of this lesson is not to cover the topic of opening leads (see Lesson 4G or 4H for that) but to emphasize its importance. Think of it like a serve in tennis — if you get it just right, the rest of the play could be over.


Swinging, in bridge parlance, is an attempt to achieve a different result than would occur at most other tables. Occasionally, this is appropriate in the latter stages of a session to try to salvage a winning game out of a mediocre start.

Few people realize that the most dynamic swings (not necessarily favorable) are created by the choice of opening leads. As West, assume you hold this hand:

2. N-S VulWest

1 D
3 NT
All Pass
2 NT
S Q J 10 4
H Q J 9 3
D 8 5 4
C 3 2

The best-percentage lead is the S Q, and you can be sure it would be chosen by most if not all other players. Indeed, this is the lead I would make myself under most circumstances.

If I wanted to create a swing, however, I would lead the H Q. While slightly inferior, this could reap a bonanza if successful, or it could be a disaster. In any event, my result is likely to be different.

Lesson 4U   MainTop   General Winning Tips

Pause at Trick One

Overwhelming evidence reveals the importance of planning the play at trick one, immediately after the dummy appears. Most often this is cited as a good practice by declarer, but it also applies to the defender who plays after dummy.

Take a little extra time before you play a card at trick one.

If you are third hand, and declarer plays quickly from dummy, do not be rushed. You are entitled to plan the defense. To avoid controversy as to your huddle, simply say you are thinking about the entire deal, not your play to the first trick.

Playing in Tempo

One of the most difficult abilities to develop is to play your cards in tempo — to make all your plays in the same time span (or nearly so). Obviously, some plays need more thought than others, so the key to playing in tempo is to plan your plays in advance.

Anticipate potential play problems, especially on defense.

As East, assume you are defending against 4 H and see this layout in the spade suit:

3. 3
TableA 10 8 2
North leads

You should decide in advance whether you will win the ace or duck when declarer makes the inevitable play of leading the singleton from dummy. (The proper play cannot be stated in isolation but depends on the bidding and the full deal.)

If you were to wait until dummy’s three were led to do your thinking, you might as well tell declarer you have the ace.

Enemy Carding

If you are declarer, it is generally your own responsibility to be aware of the defenders’ carding methods. “Alerts” are not required (except in very unusual cases) so you cannot assume the opponents play the way you do. I recommend this habit:

After the opening lead is made, look at the carding agreements on the enemy convention card.

The reason to wait until after the lead is psychological. If an opponent sees you studying his convention card before he leads, he may choose a deceptive lead because you are so interested.

Unusual Carding

When you play against a pair that uses unusual carding methods, do not be intimidated. Even if you do not understand their methods, it is better to pretend you do than to let the opponents think they have the upper hand. Here are some terms you are likely to encounter:

Attitude Leads — Instead of fourth best, a high card is led from weak holdings; a low card is led when the leader wants the suit returned.

Third & Fifth — The third best card is led from an even number of cards; the lowest card is led from an odd number of cards.

Rusinow Leads — With touching honors, the second highest card is led (Q J 10 x) except from doubletons (Q J).

Upside-Down — Reverses the meaning of any signal; for example, “upside-down count” means that a high-low sequence shows an odd number of cards.

Lavinthal Discards — The first discard shows no interest in the suit discarded and indicates suit preference between the two remaining suits.

Odd-Even Discards — The first discard, if an odd card (3, 5, 7 or 9), shows interest in that suit; if an even card, shows no interest and may be suit preference.

Lesson 4U   MainTop   General Winning Tips

© 1994 Richard Pavlicek