029: When to lead a trump

card-hand_1778113cOver the years, I’ve spoken to quite a few players who regard the opening lead of a trump as the equivalent of … say, parking in a handicapped spot without a permit. They seem to think it’s vulgar, rude, and unnecessary. “Never pays off!” they say. “You’ll give declarer a free finesse if he has a trump loser!”

This is frequently true, actually. If the auction goes 1S / 2S / 4S or equivalent and you’re on lead, if you’re looking at two small trumps, that’s the last thing you should lead. On the auction, declarer is likely to have eight trumps between the two hands, which when added to your two leaves three in your partner’s hand. And, as noted above, it’s when partner has Qxx in trumps that you’ve given declarer that free finesse. Find another lead to save your partner’s possible honour.

Some players look no further than a singleton trump as an opening lead, which I have found is even worse; it rolls up partner’s potential Qxxx or even QJxx when no other lead is as harmful.

However, if the auction has gone 1S / 4S, declarer clearly has ten trumps between the two hands.  Your xx is facing a singleton in partner’s hand (or your singleton is facing xx) and, regardless of its value, it will be useless; a trump is usually not an unsafe lead in that situation. Perhaps not best, but it’s not actively harmful.

One time to lead a singleton trump is if it’s the ace. This is because, as you will learn, it’s actually more of a liability than an asset. The singleton ace of trumps makes it terrifically easy to throw you in at any point the declarer finds convenient. Declarers love to find an opponent with a singleton trump ace because — well, let’s say you have S A H xxxx D Qxxx C Kxxx and you lead, say, a small heart. Declarer will follow a familiar pattern; three rounds of diamonds, ruffing the third in her hand, three rounds of hearts, ruffing the third in dummy, and then lead a trump. If you lead a red suit, you give declarer a ruff-and-discard, and when you lead a club it runs around to her AQ. Ugh. They get the overtrick and you get the bottom board. Much better to get the stiff ace out of the way as soon as you can. It gets it out of the way — have you ever clung onto a stiff ace until you manage to crash partner’s queen or king? — and it still takes the same one trick that it’s always worth. And partner has a hint that it’s a singleton and not to look to you for more.

There are two times when even die-hard “never-lead-trumpers” should agree that a trump is best, though. The first is well known; if declarer is in a grand slam, the time-hallowed lead is a trump. This may not do you any good — let’s face it, it’s hard to imagine you’re going to be building a trump trick if the opponents have freely bid a grand — but it won’t do any harm, it gets dummy on the table and declarer has to solve any problems she has without help from your lead.

The other time to lead a trump is harder to recognize but, when you think about it, it will make sense. You’ve probably encountered the situation at the table frequently. Say the dealer’s opening bid is 1S and you’re looking at a nine- or ten-point hand with nothing distinguished about it. You have nothing to say, of course. You pass and the next bid is 2H. Your partner passes and declarer bids 3D. This is met with 4D from the other opponent and 5D from the dealer — sometimes they even end up in 6D.

To recap: opponents have bid two suits and settled in a third. THIS is the time to lead a trump from almost any holding. Where are declarer’s tricks coming from? You don’t even need to see dummy to know that this is likely to end up as a cross-ruff. Declarer’s five spade cards might be facing a singleton in dummy, just as dummy’s five heart cards might be facing a singleton in declarer’s hand. If you were in that auction, wouldn’t you be supporting your partner’s major if it was at all possible? Neither partner can support the other’s major, so those suits are likely to be misfits. Another clue is that you have nine or ten HCP and yet the opponents have bid game just like you’re not even at the table; they’re not basing their bidding on HCP, they’re basing it on a combination of HCP and distribution.

Let’s say you don’t lead a trump but a side suit. Declarer takes that trick and, without cashing any trump tricks, cashes a few aces and kings in the side suits and then begins to merrily ruff spades in dummy and hearts in her hand. Any values you have in those side suits get ruffed out and your trumps seem to be too small to overruff at any point. Game bid and made, sometimes with overtricks.

Instead, lead a trump, and another one every time you get the lead. That forces declarer to try to make bricks without straw; she can’t ruff her suits good and ends up giving you the last three or four tricks at the end.

As an aside, here’s a strategy I’ve learned over the years that can be very effective. If you’ve decided you must lead a trump, and you have precisely Axx — start with a small one. Sooner or later you’ll get a chance to grab the first trump lead with your ace, and then you can lead your third, which allows you to draw three rounds instead of only two, as is usually the case if you start with ace and another. This can even be a good strategy in the case where the auction has gone 1H / 4H. If you get to draw three rounds, you can sometimes really ruin declarer’s plans.

Leading a trump is not always the right thing to do, but in certain situations, it’s absolutely the best thing to do.  Learn to recognize that situation where the opponents each bid a suit and end up in a third, and realize that THAT is the time to lead a trump, and you’ll find yourself setting contracts that make in the rest of the room.  One thing you can do is keep track of what happens when you lead a trump; make a note of whether you get a top, a bottom, or an average. And if partner still insists on leading his singleton trump and occasionally ruins your Qxx or even Qxxx — now you have some ammunition to change his habits.  Good luck!






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