An Introduction to 3rd & 5th Leads

Players who are relatively new to the game of bridge are typically taught to lead 4th best when leading from a broken honor sequence.  This has the advantage of simplicity as it standardizes the card led against both suit and no-trump contracts.

However, playing against suit contracts, 4th best leads have a serious drawback.  Let say you chose to lead a diamond having the following diamond holdings, perhaps because your partner bid the suit:

a)  ♦ K 10 2                  b)  ♦ K 10 3 2

What do you lead in each case?

In case a) you lead the ♦2 (low from a three-card suit).    In case b) you also lead the ♦2 (4th best).  No big deal, correct?

Actually, it is a very big deal — if partner wins the trick, s/he does not know whether you started with 3 or 4 diamonds, and accordingly may not know what to play next.  Should she continue diamonds when instead a shift would be better (declarer having a singleton, for instance)? or should she play a diamond back before declare can pitch his 2nd losing diamond on a high card in dummy?

To overcome this conundrum, many experienced players play so-called “3rd & 5th” opening leads when defending against suit contracts.  How this opening lead convention works is this:  when leading a low card against a suit contract, you lead your 3rd best or your 5th best.  So when holding K 10 2,  you lead the 2 [3rd best]; with holding ♦ K 10 3 2, you again lead 3rd best — the ♦3, not the ♦2.  (If you had 5 diamonds, you would lead 5th best, which would be your lowest diamond).

This style of lead typically permits partner to  tell whether you have 3 (or 5) diamonds, as opposed to 4.  If partner knows you have led your LOWEST diamond, he knows you have an odd number of diamonds, since with 2 diamonds you would have led top of a doubleton (so you have one lower diamond), and with 4 you would have led 3rd best (so again, you have 1 lower diamond).  Had you led the ♦3 from ♦K 10 3 2, and partner took the Ace, she would have noted that the ♦2 was missing after declarer follows with a card other than the ♦2, and would conclude that you probably have the ♦2, and hence you led 3rd best from a 4-card suit.  Thus, she will deduce you started with 4 diamonds and can make an appropriate defensive decision based upon this potentially important information.

Let’s see how this works in practice.  Here is a hand based upon a recent club game.  The bidding is straightforward:


Playing 3rd best and 5th best leads, West, your partner, leads the ♦4.  Dummy comes down and this is what you see as East:


Following the ♦4 lead, dummy plays low and you take your ♦A.  Declarer follows with the ♦J.   What do you play next?  Click the link below to see the solution.

Playing 3rd and 5th leads, the answer is very clear.   Partner’s lead of the ♦4 is his lowest diamond, since you see the ♦3 in dummy and ♦2 in your own hand.  Since it is his lowest diamond, it must be from a 1, 3 or 5 card suit.  The bidding rules out a singleton, as South with 6-5 would have likely bid diamonds at his second turn; it can not be 5 since then partner would have KQxxx of diamonds, and would have led top of a sequence.  So partner must have led from exactly 3 diamonds.  It follows then that declarer has 13 – (3 + 4 +3) = 3 diamonds exactly.

Based upon the play of the ♦J on the 1st trick by declarer, it is probable that declarer started with ♦KQJ.  Now the problem becomes clear:  the 4-card suit in dummy is a threat since you know diamonds are breaking 4-3-3-3 around the table.  Once declarer pulls trump, he can establish the ♦9 for a discard.  So something must be done to kill dummy’s “long” suit  — his empty 4-card diamond suit!

The way to do that, of course, is to attack dummy’s outside entry — the ♣A.  So lead a low club and hope that partner has something helpful.   In this case he has the ♣K.  That forces dummy’s Ace.  Now the 4th diamond is dead since there is no board entry to the winning 4th diamond once trumps are drawn.  Here are all four hands:


The hand can not be set, but holding the contract to 4 is an excellent matchpoint score.  Any return other than a club permits declarer to draw trumps, cash his winning diamonds in hand, and go to the board with the ♠A for a heart pitch on the ♦9, making 5.

Note that when playing 4th best leads, you would not know what to do when partner leads the ♦4.  He could be leading from 10 x 4, Q 10 x 4, or some similar combination.  But playing 3rd & 5th leads, you can rule out him having 4 diamonds.  Partner would have led the ♦8 from, say Q 10 8 4 (or from a double ♦84), not the ♦4.  If he leads ♦8, then you don’t have to worry about declarer establishing the 4th diamond on the board as partner will have the board’s last diamond covered.

3rd and 5th leads are not for beginner players.  Only when a player’s deductive skills are developed enough so that s/he notices, for instance, the spot card played declarer on the 1st trick, and can make appropriate inferences based upon that play, will this lead convention help.   But being able to count how many cards partner (and hence declarer) has in a suit is often the key to defeating  contract (or holding declarer to a minimum number of tricks).  3rd and 5th leads can help you accomplish that elusive and difficult task.

If you are interested in learning more about 3rd & 5th leads, click here for additional information our scroll down past the advertisements to the next article.

— Tom Hunt




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