018: Which card from touching cards?

20121109_023001-718487It’s a common situation, but one which I see all the time at the table;  it’s not difficult to know what to do, it’s just that most people have never been taught.  When you’re playing the hand, and you did not lead the suit (we’ll come back to this later, but remember, you’re not on lead), which card do you select to play from touching cards or a sequence? (Touching cards means KQ, or 98, or 54 — two cards that are side-by-side in rank. A sequence, for this post, will be three or more touching cards in the same suit, like KQJ of hearts.) So partner leads a small heart, small from dummy, and which card do you pick from KQJ?

In this case, you should play the J.

There are two principles that govern this choice if you’re considering the most basic situation.  The first one is, if you are declarer, you play the highest of touching cards or a sequence; if you’re a defender, you play the lowest of touching cards or a sequence.  Here’s why.

As a defender — and I am pretty sure that more than half the people I play against in the 299er section at my local club have never been told this — if you play a card in 2/3/4th position, you deny the card below it. That makes sense, right? As a general principle, you wouldn’t play the 8 if you could take the trick with the 7, you wouldn’t play the Q if you could take the trick with the J. So it logically follows that if you play the Q you are denying the J. It’s also logical that by selecting a particular card, you try to give as much information to your partner as possible about your holding, even if that’s only a tiny scrap of information like “I don’t have the J”. So bridge players have a rule of thumb that playing a card in second, third or fourth position denies the card below it.

If that’s the case, as a defender, if you have to select a card from a sequence of KQJ — the only possible card is the J. The J denies the T, and you don’t have the T. If you play the Q you deny the J, and if you play the K you deny the Q. So you can only play the J. On the next round, from your holding of the KQ, you play the Q — because playing the K would deny the Q.

The second important factor to consider in this situation is the old saying, “Don’t finesse against partner.” So if you have a holding of KJT9x in hearts, defending a no-trump contract, and partner leads the H6, small from dummy — yes, you have a sequence of JT9, so you might think you’d be playing the 9, but actually you must play the K. If you play the 9, you’re probably allowing declarer to score an unjustified trick with her Q. If you play the K and win the trick, you’ll next lead the J through declarer’s Q into partner’s A, right? Declarer doesn’t seem to be entitled to any tricks in this suit, so don’t let her make her queen. By playing the 9, you’d be “finessing partner” for the Q. Don’t do that. Play the highest card you’ve got, sequence or no sequence.

And of course, just to make bridge players crazy — the other part of the agreement is that, when you lead the suit, you lead the highest from a sequence. Because when you lead a card, you deny the card above it. Again, a little shred of information. When you and your partner are on the same wavelength about these ideas, it can be very revealing.

Consider the example above from the point of view of the partner making the lead: defending a NT contract, you lead a small heart from A8xx, small from the table from xx, and your partner plays the K. You think to yourself, “Well, partner does not have the Q, because she plays the lowest of touching cards,” and that means that declarer has the Q — must have it. So you know that partner has to lead through declarer’s Q in order to pick it up with your A. And that will guide the rest of the defense; you have to keep putting partner in to lead towards you.

As a defender, if you lead from a sequence or touching cards, lead the highest card: K from KQJ. The card you lead always denies the card above it, so partner will have a clue as to who has that card.
If someone else leads the suit and you have to play from a sequence or touching cards, play the lowest: J from KQJ. The card you play always denies the card below it, so partner will have a clue as to who has that card.

And now — I bet you thought this would never arrive LOL — what card do you play from touching cards or a sequence as declarer? The answer is, of course, that the guidelines are just about the opposite of being a defender. Because bridge is a frustrating game.

So suppose you are declarer in a no-trump contract, and your heart holding is KQJ. Your left-hand opponent makes the opening lead of H5 — you play small from 43 in dummy. RHO plays HT. What do you know, and what do you do?

Well, all you can guarantee is that RHO doesn’t have H9, because he would have played the lowest of touching cards. So LHO has the 9. You aren’t sure if RHO has 4 or 5 cards in the suit, or therefore whether LHO has 3 or 4. In fact, RHO’s highest card in the suit is almost certainly HT, because he wouldn’t finesse against partner by withholding the A. So LHO has the A. It’s looking like LHO has led H5 from A975(2) and RHO has played HT from T86(2).

As to what you do — you play the highest of touching cards: HK, concealing HQJ from the defenders. For various reasons, from the point of view of each defender it’s possible that the other partner has either or both of those cards, and the natural tendency of defenders to continue suits rather than break new ones will get them to lead another heart if they get in.

See what happens if you play the J. RHO would have played a higher card if he had it, so LHO is not fooled as to the location of the KQ — and if LHO had started with AKQ5 or similar, she would have started with a different card than the 5, so RHO knows that LHO is missing at least one of those cards. Either way, both of them will be aware that you are not telling the truth.

If you play the Q, it becomes possible that RHO has the J, but otherwise all the above deductions are pretty much the same. But playing the K leaves all the options open. LHO might think that his partner played HT from HTJQ — lowest of touching cards. RHO might think that her partner started with AQx5 and you’ve just used up your only stopper. Both those situations are entirely consistent with all the evidence, and you’re the only one who knows the truth.

As a declarer, if you lead from a sequence or touching cards, lead the highest card, K from KQJ if you want LHO to cover, and the lowest card, J, if you don’t want LHO to cover. If you don’t care whether anyone covers, it doesn’t matter what card you lead. Mix it up.
If someone else leads the suit and you have to play from a sequence, play the highest: K from KQJ.



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