Second-Hand Play

Bridge players tend to put things into aphorisms with singsong lilts, making them easy to remember. One of the most well known is “eight ever, nine never.” This is in reference to a nine-card holding in a suit missing the queen. To wit:

DUMMYAJ43

DECLARERK765

If you need four tricks from this suit, your best percentage play in most cases is to play the king and then low from your hand, putting in the jack if West plays low. Add another card to the mix and the situation changes.

DUMMYAJ43

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Now, conventional wisdom is that you should play the king, then low to the ace in a manner that is known in bridge vernacular as “playing for the drop.” In other words, you are counting on West to play the queen on the second round of the suit — or for East to “drop” the queen when you play the ace from the dummy. This gives you about a 53 percent chance of success.

That is the origin of “eight ever” — always finesse when you have eight cards — and “nine never” — don't finesse when you have nine. Play your top cards and watch the queen “drop.”

There is a common situation when the queen of a suit is missing and it must be “picked up” or found — it's called a two-way finesse. Such a situation exists when the two hands possess at least the ace, king, jack, and 10, divided in some way between the two hands: for example, AJ7 opposite K104. The declarer may finesse either of his opponents for the queen. The two-way finesse can also be referred to as a “two-way guess.”

It's okay to adhere to “eight-ever, nine-never” early on in your bridge development. Just be aware that you will eventually learn to rely on yourself to spot clues to the correct plays rather than depending on a rigid formula.

Go Low

Another ditty is “second-hand low, third-hand high.” This works best when you are starting out and need some handy, easy-to-remember reminders of what to do.

Look at this suit. South is on play and leads the 3 from hand. You are West and must play next. You are “second hand.” It probably would never occur to you to play the jack — and that's good. There is no reason for you to play the jack and every reason to play the 2.

Look what happens if you play the jack. The declarer covers with the ace in dummy and all of a sudden has no losers in the suit. Why? Because she can play her next heart from the dummy, and when your partner plays the 9, cover with the 10. You will have to follow helplessly with the 2. The king will capture your partner's queen and the declarer will thank you for your generosity.

If you play the 2, the declarer can put up the ace in the dummy and play another one, but if she puts in the 10, you will win your jack. If South plays the king, it will capture your jack, but your partner's queen will then be high.

When playing second to a trick, it is seldom correct to play an honor when it is “unsupported” — that is, not backed by a touching honor — unless it is the only card in the suit you possess. For example, playing the jack from J4 or the queen from Q4 when the declarer leads to a suit with a higher honor might allow the declarer to finesse against any honors your partner might hold.

Play from Equals

Let's take a break from second-hand low for a second to discuss the cards you play from “equals.” Equals? What does that mean? Well, let's look at a suit, spades for example:

Say South is the declarer and plays the ♠ 6 from the dummy. You are East here. If you play the 9 and South wants to win the trick, he will have to play the ace or king, right? South has only two cards higher than the 9 in his hand, so he has to play one if he wants the trick. Can you see, therefore, that the 9 is “equal” to the queen. The 9 will force the ace or king just as well as the queen would. Let's let South trade the ♠ 4 for the ♠ 9. Now which card must East play to force a high card from South's hand? Right, the 10. Still, the 10 is equal to the queen.

Why is this important to know? Well, here's another general rule about playing your cards: You almost always play low from equals. That is, you play the lowest card in a sequence such as in the example. What difference does it make? A lot, as you shall see.

Important Information

Say you are on defense against a no-trump contract, and your partner has led the ♦ 4 (you remember — fourth from your longest and strongest, another aphorism).

You are East and can see your partner's ♦ 4 on the table (your partner is the dummy). The 5 is played from the dummy and now it's your turn. You are going to play one of your face cards. Does it matter which one you play? It matters very much.

If you play the jack and South wins the ace, it sends a very clear message to your partner — that you have the queen. How? Think about it. If South had the ace and queen, why would he win the ace when the queen would do? Of course, he wouldn't. So when the jack drives out the ace, West can draw only one conclusion — South doesn't have the queen. West can't see it in his hand or in dummy, so it must be in your hand.

West now knows that your side can take a lot of tricks in diamonds if he can just get in. Is it really that bad if you play the queen? You bet it is. If you play the queen, you are denying the jack. West will therefore think the declarer started with something like AJ8 instead of the A8 he actually has. West might get in and, fearful of giving South a trick with the jack by playing the king, go messing around trying to get you in the lead so you can play a diamond back.

Splitting Honors

Now that you know about playing the lowest card from equals, you are ready for some exceptions to the second-hand low rule. In the following sequences, you are West.

Declarer is on lead (playing South) and plays the ♥ 6. It's your turn. Now what? If you have “second-hand low” going through your head, you might play the 5, giving the declarer a chance to make a trick where none was available. You must be alert and put the ♥ Q out there, forcing the ace from dummy. Later, your king will capture the jack. This is known as “splitting” your honors, playing the lowest in sequence to force out a higher card. Don't forget that you must play the queen. If you play the king, your partner may think the declarer has the queen, and there could be an accident.

This is a tricky situation. If the declarer can easily get back to her hand, you may give the show away if you play the jack. The declarer won't have a difficult time figuring out why you played the jack. If she can get back to her hand, she will be able to play low to the 10 the next time clubs are led. If this situation is near the end of the play, however, and the declarer is known not to have any way back to her hand, you must play the jack or the declarer can get away with no losers in the suit by putting in the 10.

Don't Duck the Setting Trick

Do not duck the setting trick. What does that mean? Well, here's an example:

You hold the West hand. The opponents, for better or worse, have arrived in 6 ♦. If you look at all four hands, you will say that the diamond slam is not such a good one, but over the years bridge players have bid literally millions of slams with worse prospects — and many of them have come home because of inattention by the defenders.

Say you lead the ♣ J against the slam and dummy comes down. The declarer wins with the ♣ A. Let's just look at those two hands while you contemplate the situation.

These are the cards that are left.

If you're living up to your potential as a bridge player, you will have noticed that the declarer has at least one loser in the diamond suit. Since it's the trump suit, this is an unavoidable loser.

If the declarer plays the king from dummy and then another one to the jack, you will win your queen. If the declarer leads a low diamond from his hand toward the K9 in the dummy, you will be smart enough to play the 10, forcing the king and assuring you of a winner in the diamond suit.

It's your turn to play. Don't even think about second-hand low. That ♥ A sitting in your hand is the setting trick. If you play that card right now, the declarer will go down because of the unavoidable loser in diamonds. If you play low, what do you think the declarer will do? He's going to put up the king and come waltzing home with that slam that he wasn't supposed to make. Don't let that happen.

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