The Key to a Successful Defense: the Defensive Plan

All bridge players know that defense is the most difficult part of the game.  Defenders are advised to make, as early as possible, a “defensive plan” as to how they intend to set the contract or limit declarer to the minimum number of tricks.  This is by no means easy.  To form a defensive plan, the defender must first try to count declarer’s (and partner’s) points, distribution and tricks before forming a plan.  The opening leader must do so with very little information — the bidding and his own hand.  When dummy comes down and the play proceeds, the plan may be followed, modified or abandoned, but there should always be a plan.

See how well you can defend against the following 3NT contract that was reached at a recent common game.  Playing 2/1 with vulnerability unfavorable, your partner,  sitting East, opens up a natural 1♦ bid.  RHO passes.  You have the following paltry collection:


Your bid?

Yes, you partner could have a 3-card diamond suit and 4 cards in spades, but if you bid 1♠ here, partner must bid again absent a bid by your LHO, and you are likely to get too high.   It is rare for distributional hands to be passed out a low level, so you pass, hoping LHO will bid and so you can maybe bid a spade later.

LHO bids a heart, partner passes, and RHO quickly jumps to 3NT, followed by 4 passes.

Form your plan.  First count declarer’s dummy’s and partner’s high card points, placing as many of the high card cards as you can.  Then, count as much of the other players’ distribution as possible.  Try — even on the opening lead — to get a rough count of the tricks declarer can take.  Proceed to make your plan, and, then, and only then, decide on your opening lead.  Think carefully before proceeding.  Here is a review of the bidding:


You have 3 reasonable opening leads here, a diamond, spade or a club.  Which one should it be?  You really have no idea, until you form a plan.   First, let’s count points, distributions and tricks:

Points:  Give partner on average 13 high card points (HCP) for his opening bid.  You have 3 HCP.  So opponents have between them about 40 – (13 + 3) = 24 HCP.   This is a bit thin for 3NT (we would prefer to have 25-26 HCP) but opponents should have play for the contract.

Distribution:  Count on declarer to have diamonds locked up for his confident jump to 3NT so perhaps 3 to 4 diamonds with a double stopper.  Declarer probably has only 2 hearts, since he did not support his partner’s suit.  Distribution of clubs and spades around the table is at this point unknown.  Your stiff heart then suggests partner has exactly 4 hearts.  With 5, partner would have opened a heart.  If partner had 3, either RHO would have 3 and would have raised hearts or dummy would have 7 hearts and would have taken 3NT out to 4 hearts.  That means you can pretty much count on dummy  having exactly 6 hearts [13 – (1 + 4 + 2)]!  This is very helpful information.

Tricks:   It is a bit early to exactly count declarer’s tricks, but it is pretty clear that with you having clubs and spade and your partner presumably having a little something in diamonds, the heart suit will be declarer’s only real source of extra tricks to make up for the slight deficit in high card points.

While things are still a bit hazy, a  defensive plan is strongly suggested.   That 6-card heart suit in dummy is a clear and present danger and the only real source of declarer’s extra tricks since you have clubs and spades under control.  With you having a stiff heart and partner a hopeful honor in hearts which he can hold up (without a heart honor, you are unlikely to set the contract), the plan should be to knock any outside entries off the board to kill dummy’s heart suit.  (Once you count points, distribution and tricks, this is as clear as day.  Without this preliminary analysis, it is all a muddle.)

So a diamond lead here is definitely NOT called for.  Declarer, not dummy, has the diamonds.  Your choice is a heart or a spade — this is where dummy’s outside entry is likely to lie.  Which should it be?

Given the relative quality of your spade and club suits, a top club is called for.  So out comes your ♣J and this is what you see when North tables her hand:


About as expected.   Declarer plays the ♣K, partner takes the ♣A, and shoots back the ♣3, declarer playing 1st the ♣2 and then the ♣5 you taking the ♣6.   What next?

The club suit is an open book.  Declarer has the ♣Q.  Had partner had it, he would have cashed it, knowing that you have the ♣10. The return of ♣3 shows your partner started with a doubleton, since he would have continued with the ♣8, not the 3, had he started with ♣A83.    So declarer has 13 – (5 + 2 + 2) = 4 clubs — it looks like declarer’s most likely starting distribution was   ♠ ???     ♥ ??    ♦ ????  ♣ Q852, with his remaining strength concentrated in diamonds.   Declarer almost certainly has a spade honor also.

What next?  You know you can establish a club trick by returning a high club, but is there any point to this?  Where is your outside entry to run the club suit if you get back in?  You don’t have any!  Moreover, partner would have to discard on this trick and it could be awkward for him to find a safe discard.  No reason to put partner under pressure so early.

There is nothing to be gained by playing another club and in fact it could hurt the defense.  A shift is called for.

A diamond now?  No reason to — you are likely to set up declarer’s long diamonds.  A heart?  Declarer will have to lead that suit himself — no reason to risk finessing your partner.  A spade?  Yes, that works — dummy has a possible secondary spade entry and not playing a spade could allow declarer to end play your partner into leading a spade later, allowing declarer and undeserved board entry.  Give, for instance, partner K x x of spades and you can see that he is at grave risk of being thrown in with a heart or diamond, and being  forced to lead away from his King into dummy’s spade Queen.

So you lead the spade 3 — a low spade suggesting you have an honor in the suit.   Dummy plays low and partner carefully inserts the spade 10, retaining his spade honor to crunch dummy’s queen.  Declarer takes the ♠K and it is all downhill for declarer from there.   This was all four hands:


Declarer, of course, tried finessing the ♥J.  East held up.   Declarer then tried a heart to the King, sighed when West showed out, cashed the heart Ace, and, on the board for the last time, tried the deep finesse of the ♦9.  This did not work out well — West took his ♦J, played another spade to his partner, who then cashed the ♠A, the ♥Q, a spade back to the Jack.  On the run of the spades, South pitched his ♦A instead of his ♣Q, allowing East to score the ♦K.  Declarer ending up scoring just 3 heart tricks and 1 spade trick, for down 5.

Admittedly, on this hand, the lead of the club Jack might have suggested itself without any real planning in light of the strong club sequence.  But some players might have simply automatically led their partner’s suit — diamonds — which would have allowed South to eventually end-play East.   In the long run, forming a defensive plan after first counting the best you can declarer’s points, distribution and tricks will yield superior defensive results.

— Tom Hunt



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