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Listening to the Auction by Brent Manley

The language of bidding is meant to convey information. That's how partners find out their best contract and how high they should go in the auction. At the same time, the opponents are listening — or they should be — and they are privy to the same information. On many occasions, they can use that information to ferret out the best opening lead, best for you meaning the most damaging to the declarer.

One of the most common ways that “listening to the auction” can help you is when the declarer has bid two suits and his partner has preferred the first one. Here's an example:

Suppose this is your hand:

♠ 43 ♥ KJ109 ♦ J1098 ♣ K54

Normally, that ♦ J stands out as the opening lead because you have such a good sequence. You dream of finding the king in dummy and your partner with the ace and queen. You might start off with the first three tricks.

Cut Down the Ruffs

That heart suit is also tough looking, and your right-hand opponent, the declarer, has announced that she has at least four of them. You have the declarer's suit under control for sure, but let's look at what you know about the dummy.

For starters, North (the dummy) bid 1NT after his partner opened 1 ♠. That means the dummy probably has no more than two spades. If he had more, he would have raised spades. When South showed her second suit, the dummy went back to the first one. There's a good chance the dummy will have a doubleton heart to go with the doubleton spade. The dummy's hand could easily be:

♠ J5 ♥ 86 ♦ AK432 ♣ 8752

If you start with the ♦ J, the declarer will win with the ace and play a heart to the ace and another heart. If you don't play a trump right away, there's a good chance the declarer will get to ruff both of her heart losers in dummy.

Do you see where this is going? You have strength in the declarer's second suit and you have a means of keeping her from getting rid of those losers by ruffing them. If you start with a trump, you can win the second round of hearts and play another trump, eliminating spades from the dummy and keeping the declarer from using them to ruff hearts. This might or might not defeat the contract, but it will certainly save at least one trick.

Attack Small Slams

You were told earlier that when the opponents bid a grand slam, that is one occasion that usually calls for a passive lead if you don't have a sequence such as KQJ or QJ10.

The philosophy of leading against small slams is the exact opposite. The reason: Many small slams are bid because of the likelihood that a long side suit in one of the hands will produce a lot of tricks. When the side suit is not headed by all three top honors (AKQ), it is often necessary to develop that suit by knocking out a high card held by the defenders.

Even if you have an ace and the opponents have bid to a grand slam, be careful about leading it unless you are certain that the opponents have had an “accident” in the bidding. It would be devastating if you led the ♣ A against 7 ♠ only to find that the dummy had the ♣ KQJ765 and the declarer a void in the suit.

Here's a good “listening to the auction” case to study:

You are West. Your hand is:

♠ 98 ♥ K8732 ♦ A6 ♣ 10986

The opponents have had a strong auction to the small slam. They need twelve tricks to make their contract. What do you know about the entire deal?

You know that North's bidding shows spade support and a good diamond suit — in bridge parlance, the diamond suit is a “source of tricks.” Now, you know the diamond suit is not running yet because you have the ace. So what can you do about it? What's your plan?

Get Yours First

You know that if you start out passively, the declarer will pull trumps and start working on the diamonds, which will eventually produce four or five tricks. There's probably not much you can do about the establishment of the diamond suit, so what you must do is try to build a trick for your side before the declarer has a chance to go after the diamonds.

Are you closer to making your decision about your opening lead? You should be.

Ask yourself: What is our best chance for developing a trick for our side before the declarer starts working on the diamonds?

A club could work out, but the declarer didn't get excited until he heard about his partner's great diamonds and trump support, then he launched into Blackwood and sailed into the slam. He is probably pretty well heeled in clubs. The declarer almost surely has the ♥ A — he wouldn't bid Blackwood with two or more quick losers in the suit — and is counting on dummy to have an entry to diamonds once they're set up. That puts the ♣ A in dummy, so the declarer almost surely has a strong holding in that suit. Even if your partner has the queen and jack of clubs, you don't have “time” to get that suit going. The declarer will be drawing trumps and playing on diamonds any second now.

That leaves you with only one choice: a heart. Oh, but what if you lead right into the ♥ AQ in your partner's hand? You are still virtually certain to take your ♦ A anyway, and you will have taken your best shot at building a trick for your side. Leading into the ♥ AQ is not likely to be the difference maker. It would mean only that the slam was unbeatable.

What you are hoping for is that your partner has the ♥ Q so that the declarer will have to play his ace, leaving him at least one loser in hearts when you come in with your ♦ A. You hope the entire deal looks like this:

You can see the devastating effect of your heart lead. Your partner will play the queen, knocking out the ace. When the declarer plays on diamonds — he has no choice and can do no more than hope for a miracle or a huge mistake by you — you will win the ace and cash your ♥ K.

What happens without a heart lead? The declarer wins, pulls trumps, and plays a diamond. After you take your ace, the declarer will have three discards coming — remember, he has only two diamonds and dummy has five really luscious ones. Those diamonds will be used to get rid of the ♥ 109. He won't even need the third discard because his hand will be high and he will make the slam.

Your Partner Can Help

There will be many occasions when you will find yourself on lead with no obvious choice for your first shot. You might have no honor to lead from — or you might have virtually identical holdings in two or more suits. Is there a way to find guidance? Yes, if you continue to practice listening to the bidding.

You find yourself on lead with the following hand:

♠ K95 ♥ J874 ♦ J75 ♣ J96

You don't want to lead a heart — that's the dummy's five-card suit — so your choices are from the ♠ K or one of your minor-suit jacks. Is there a clue to help you decide which suit to lead?

Clearly, if the opponents have stopped in 1NT, they don't have a lot of extra high-card strength. Your hand is not particularly robust, either, so that means that your partner has a few high cards over there. Yet she took no action. She could have bid spades at the one level, but she passed. That should dissuade you from leading a spade from a three-card holding. You might only be helping the declarer.

What about minors, then? Well, your partner might well have a five-card minor but not enough strength to have bid at the two level. Remember, if you enter the auction at the two level, you must have a suit good enough to keep from getting killed if the opponents double you. If you lead a diamond or a club, you might hit your partner's suit. It's a better chance than trying a spade.

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