Third Hand High — Or Not

“Third hand, high as you can …” is a defensive adage learned by all beginning players.   While generally true, these words of wisdom should never substitute for careful thought.  There are many situations where third hand should not play high.   Before making a decision whether to “go big”, the defender needs to ask herself  questions such as:  “will playing high be useful in promoting tricks for the defense?”  “If I have the choice of winning the trick or ducking, is it better to win or to duck?”

See how you do on this quiz about third hand play.

1 Hand1_NE Following the auction shown on the left your partner leads the diamond 4.  After declarer covers in dummy with the 7, which diamond do you play from your hand? (Your partner never leads away from an Ace against a suit contract)

2 Hand2_NE Against this 3NT contract, partner leads the spade 5.   Dummy, holding ♠Q4 originally, plays the 4.  Your turn.

3 Hand3_NE Another 3NT contract.  Partner leads the spade 6. Dummy plays the 3. Which card do you play?

4 Hand4_NE Another 3NT contract.

What do you play when partner leads the ♠5 and a competent declarer plays low from dummy?

This hand looks like hand 2.  Is it?

5 Hand5_NE You play that an opening lead of partner’s lowest card in the suit promises either 3 or 5 of the suit  (so-called 3rd and 5th leads).  Declarer plays the ♦10 on the lead of the ♦4.  Your play.

The answers follow.

Hand 1


The observation that partner never leads away from an Ace against a suit contract was a bit of a trick as it is not really relevant to your decision.  Whether or not declarer has the Ace, you should play the King.   You are hoping that partner has lead away from his Queen and so the play of your King will promote his Queen.  Looking at the hand above, you see that not only playing the King will promote partner’s queen, but also his 10, since on gaining the lead with the spade King, you will then return the diamond nine (lead top of two remaining cards) and partner will score both the Queen and 10.

Ducking allows declarer to win with the Jack, giving declarer an undeserved diamond trick and the contract.  Even if partner does not have the queen, but rather only Jack, you might eventually promote partner’s Jack by returning a diamond if declarer has 3 diamonds.  And playing the King costs the defender’s nothing if declarer has ♦AQ, as declarer could have taken the finesse for himself.

There is no real decision here — play the King.

Hand 2


It looks right to play the Ace hoping partner has led from KJx5x of spades but let’s see if that stands up to scrutiny.  Assuming that partner has lead 4th best as usual, he can have at most 5 spades.  Why?  because you can see between dummy and your own hand all spades lower than the 5 save one — the 3 of spades.  Had partner led 4th best from 6, hidden from view would be two spades lower than the 5.  This means declarer has at least 3 spades.

Applying the Rule of 11 declarer (see blog “The Rule of 11” below [Nov 19, 2017]),  there are 11 – 5 = 6 spades higher than the 5 in all hands other than West’s.  You can see 3 higher spades and your hand and dummy, so declarer has 3 spades higher than 5 in hand.  If the 3 spades do not include an honor, you can play the 10 and win the trick.  If the 3 spades include the Jack but not the King, it does not hurt to play the 10 since declarer is assured of one spade trick no matter what you do.  If declarer holds the K J x, it does not hurt to play the 10 since declarer always has the suit double stopped, whether you take your Ace now or later.  The real benefit comes when declarer has K x x of spades.  Declarer is assured of 1 spade trick, but if you play the Ace, he now gets 2 — the King and Queen.  Playing the 10 holds him to one, the King, because when you gain the lead, your Ace will pin the dummy’s queen.  Moreover, playing the 10 preserves communication with partner’s hand in a holding such as above.  When you get in, presumably with your club Queen, you cash the ♠A and then shoot a spade back to partner’s now-running suit.

Generally in a no-trump contract, it is right to keep your high honors over dummy lower honors — Aces are meant to catch Kings, Queens and Jacks, not low cards.

Hand 3


This hand presents a very important exception to the 3rd hand high rule — with touching top honors, play the lowest of the touching honors.  Partner will expect this.  If you play the Queen, it denies that you hold the Jack.  Playing the Jack in this case denies the 10, but you could still have the Queen.

How does partner know you have the Queen?  He doesn’t, but you may have it.  If you want to learn how to signal that you also have the queen, you are encouraged to sign up for my defense course — “Defend Like an Expert” starting this January.

Hand 4


At first blush, this hand looks like Hand 4 — there is Qx in dummy and you hold a high honor.   You duck, correct, to keep communications with partner and keep your high card over dummy’s?   Indeed, if declarer has the Ace and partner the Jack, you will give declarer a trick by playing the king since it establishes dummy’s queen.

True?  No.  Why?  Because you know declarer does not have the Ace.  How can you possible know that?

First, you know declarer has 3 spades.  Partner has  leads the 5, and can have no lower spade (assuming he led 4th best) since you can see the 4 in dummy and 3 and 2 in your hand.   So partner can only have 4 spades which means declarer has 3 [13 – (4 + 2 + 4) = 3].

Second, declarer holding the ♠Axx, would have played the Queen from the dummy.  This is the only way declarer could possibly ever win 2 spade tricks.   If partner led from the King, the queen will win, and if you have the King, you would cover, but no harm done since playing low you would insert the 10 and the queen would die under the King on the next spade trick.  So holding A x x  opposite Q x, declarer will always play the Queen.

So you might as well play the King since you know it will win the trick, and it gives keeps the lead with the defenders.

At this point, it looks right to continue spades to promote up to 2 more spade tricks.  But hold on — yes, you are assured of getting the club King plus 3 spade tricks but 4 tricks does not set the contract.  You need one more.  Where is that trick coming from?  It must come from either the heart or diamond suit.

Seeing the diamond Ace in dummy, so hearts look best here.  Since you want your partner to continue spades when he gets in, play the ♥9, pretending for the moment to be playing from top of nothing so that if partner gets in, he will return a spade.

Look what happens in this hand.  On the lead of the ♥9 declarer has a hobson’s choice.  If he plays low, partner will win and can return a spade and set up a total of 3 spade tricks, a heart trick and a club trick for down 1.  If declarer plays the Ace of hearts, when you get in the the club King, you may abandon spades and continue hearts — this time leading a low heart saying that you want them returned.  Now you get 3 hearts, 2 spades and a club for down 2!

This is a very difficult hand but everyone should remember the basic position of A x x  v.  Q x means that declarer will always “fly Queen.”  So if declarer does not do that, he does not have the Ace.

Hand 5


Playing so-called 3rd best and 5th best leads (partner leads his lowest card from either three or five in a suit, his 2nd lowest from 4 cards in a suit), partner leads the ♦4. Upon seeing the dummy in North’s hand, you should duck smoothly and in tempo, playing the 9, not the 2.  Why?

Since the ♦4 is the lowest diamond partner could possibly have (you see the ♦3 in dummy and ♦2 in your hand) you know partner has exactly 3 diamonds or exactly 5 diamonds.  Furthermore, partner would never be leading away from the diamond Ace.  (Leading away from an Ace is one of the worst leads you can make against a suit contract — it is almost never right).  So that means declarer had the ♦A.   If partner has 5 diamonds, declarer has 13 – (5 + 4 + 3) = 1 diamond, which must be the Ace, and so you can duck, knowing that declarer will have to win the Ace.   If partner has 3 diamonds, declarer has 13 – (3 + 4 + 3) = 3 diamonds, meaning if you play the queen, declarer will take the Ace, setting up his 4th diamond on board for a discard.   So there is absolutely nothing to be gained by playing the Queen.

Your only hope is to pretend that your partner has the Queen by ducking smoothly and in tempo.  Then declarer is likely to win with the ♦10, draw two rounds of trump, noting your established ♠Q, cash the ♦A and then finesse your partner for the diamond queen trying to arrange a quick heart discard.  Surprise!  You have the ♦Q!  Now a heart shift sets the contract.

If you played the ♦2 on the 1st trick, an observant declarer should also deduce your partner led from 3 or 5 diamonds, and figure you have the queen when you do not show out on the next round.  Even playing the 9, he should still figure it out since he will see you play the 2 on the next diamond play.  But most declarers just don’t notice the cards as well as you do.

* * *

Summarizing what we have learned about 3rd hand play:

  1.  If dummy has no appreciable honor strength, it is (almost) always right to play third hand high (Hand 1).
  2. Play the low honor from touching honors (Hand 3).  And by the way, include any honors you see in dummy in your determination of touching honors.  So, for instance, if dummy has 10 x x and you have QJ9, play the 9, not the Jack, essentially finessing against dummy’s 10.
  3.  If you have A 10 x or K 10 x over dummy’s Q x (x), it is usually right to play the 10, keeping your honor above dummy’s queen (Hand 2), but there are exceptions (e.g. Hand 4).  There are other patterns like this you should come to know.
  4. If specifically Q x appears in dummy,  partner has lead 4th best against a notrump contract, and you can count 3 of the suit in declarer’s hand, play the King since partner, not declarer, is likely to have the Ace (Hand 4).
  5. If dummy has alot of honor strength in the suit led (Hand 5), consider ducking with the queen, as it probably does no good to cover.

But the overarching lesson here is that there are no fixed rules in bridge — third hand high is just another “guideline” — and that there is no substitute for thoughtful analysis before playing in third position.

— Tom Hunt




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