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Play low towards high

Start long towards short

Open towards hidden

Lead a highish card if, in defeat, it can promote a subordinate


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«  1003  »

Play basics. The Finesse

Playing low towards high

The three fundamentals of general play are:

  1. Play low towards high
  2. Attack your length
  3. Keep winners, throw away losers

It is the first fundamental which is most frequently overlooked by novices. Failure to play low towards high accounts for half the errors a new player makes.

Most of us have heard the advice to play "2nd player low" and "third player high". For example:

The opening leader leads the 2heart. Dummy plays the heart3 (2nd player low). The next defender plays the heartKing. . .. third player high, to force out Declarer's Ace. Notice that both pairs have played a low card towards a high one (heart2 to heartKing, heart3 to heartA). The maxims about playing "2nd player low" and "3rd player high" are simply applications of the basic guideline "play low towards high".

Take this common situation

Dummy club K 5
Declarer club 4 2

If a Club is played from Dummy we will never take a trick. The defence will simply beat the clubKing whenever it is played to them. But, if Declarer leads from his hand and plays low towards Dummy's high card (i.e. the clubKing) we will make a trick whenever the clubAce is in the West hand.

Now revise the hand slightly

Dummy club A Q
Declarer club 4 3

Here we will take one trick with the clubAce but might get a second trick if we come to our hand and lead a Club towards Dummy, playing the clubQueen (if and only if West has the clubKing, a 50% chance). We have, in effect, increased our chances of taking two Club tricks from 0% to 50%. This simple plan is called a "finesse" but, like "2nd player low" and "3rd player high", is nothing more than another application of our simple "play low towards high" rule.

This same plan pops up again when we have a holding such as:

Dummy clubAQ10
Declarer club32

One Club trick is all we get if we play from Dummy. But if we lead towards our big Clubs in dummy and insert the club10 (on the first round) and then again towards the clubQueen we might win three tricks in the suit if West (LHO) has the clubKing and the clubJack (a 25% chance)! Because we are hoping West has two cards (i.e. clubKing and clubJack here) this is called a "double finesse".

We occasionally have to lose a trick in a suit in order to finesse later.

Dummy club A J 10
Declarer club 4 3

Once more, playing the clubAce from Dummy will win us only one trick. But if we lead towards the club10 and, when that loses to the clubKing or clubQueen, repeat this finesse we can make two Club tricks whenever West has the clubKing and/or the clubQueen (a 75% chance). Note that we can only make these two tricks if we lead towards our big cards (i.e. Dummy's clubAJ10) twice here, finessing each time.

Playing the club10 on the first round here is called a "deep finesse".

There are two corollaries to this basic "play low towards high" tenet.

a) Start long towards short

When we have high cards in both hands it's best to play towards the shorter hand first. This helps unblock the suit so that we can run it later. It also helps us to finesse in the suit later if an opponent has no cards in this suit, or "shows out".

Dummy spade Q 2
Declarer spade A K 10 4 3

If we play the spadeAce or spadeKing on the first round we will block the suit. If we play the spadeQ first we can run the suit whenever the spadeJ falls doubleton or tripleton. If West shows out on the first round we can finesse for the spadeJ on the second round.

Dummy diamond Q 2

West diamond K J 8. East diamond 9 7 6

Declarer diamond A 10 5 4 3

Again, we start with a Diamond from the long hand towards our diamondQ2. If West plays the diamondKing our troubles are over when the enemy holding splits 3-3. If West ducks the Diamond, though, we will still win with the Queen. So, when the suit breaks 3-3 we will take four Diamond tricks.

b) Open towards hidden

Dummy heart K 10 4 3 2

West heart J 9 8. East heart A 7 6 5

Declarer heart Q

If Declarer were to lead the heartQueen here East would usually take it with the heartAce. But if we play from the "open" (i.e. visible) hand, Dummy, East might duck and allow our heartQueen to win this trick.

c) When to first play a top card

Dummy diamond 9 4 3 2

West diamond Q. East diamond 10 8 7 6

Declarer diamond A K J 5

Here you have two top cards, the A and K. The finesse can still be played if one of them has been used. So play the Ace first, in case the Queen is bare, as in this example. Otherwise you will lose this finesse unnecessarily. There's nothing to lose, and by discovering the distribution (e.g. if one player shows out) you can sometimes adjust the play to your advantage.

But beware playing a top card from the long hand if that should create a blockage, see (a) above.

A "Sandwich" Finesse

This describes the situation where the missing honour card is sandwiched by honours in your two hands, AND you have at least two honours below the missing card. By playing this finesse, the extra card below the missing card becomes promoted.

In the following example the King is missing, but you can make 2 tricks if the King is with West.

Dummy heart A 5

West heart Kxxxx. East heart 7xxx

Declarer heart Q J

The method. Lead from the WORSE holding, leading the Queen. If the Queen holds, play the 5. If it doesn't hold, cover it with the Ace. The Jack is now promoted.

In the following example, leading the Jack has the effect of promoting the 10 if it's covered by the Queen then King: if it's not covered the Jack wins anyway.

Dummy diamond A K10 2

West diamond Qxx. East diamond 9xxx

Declarer diamond J 3

(Good defence will play the Queen, so that at least the 4th trick wins with the promoted 9).

When not to finesse

When . . .

  1. it's more likely that the missing card will drop (see 1006),
  2. you have a singleton (in trump contracts),
  3. you know (from the bidding or the play) that the finesse will lose,
  4. losing the finesse will put the lead into dangerous enemy hands, leading to certain trick loss.



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