The Many Faces of the Suit Preference Signal

At this past Saturday’s game at the club, the North hand had an AVERAGE 13.02 HCP and so Peter Shwartz and I, playing East/West, had plenty of opportunities to practice our defense.  I, playing West, picked up the following hand:

180630_Suit_Pref_West_Only

The bidding proceeded as follows:

180630_Suit_Pref_Bidding

I led the obvious lead of the A and the dummy below came down:

180630_Suit_Pref_Dummy

Peter then played the  2 declarer following low.  What was Peter trying to tell me?  (We play upside-down count attitude signals).

Typically, partner’s obligation when you lead the Ace of a suit is to give an attitude signal, but there are several exceptions to this, this hand illustrating one of them:  when the dummy shows up with the protected Queen, there is typically little point in continuing the suit, since the play of the King will just promote dummy’s Queen to winning rank.  An attitude signal is useless here and so Peter’s signal defaults to the 2nd signal in the signalling hierarchy — count.  So the 2, playing upside-down count, gave EVEN count (HoLe — HIGH odd, LOW even).  But which is it?  Did Peter start with 2, 4 or 6 diamonds?

Well, it can’t be 6 since else declarer would have ruffed but did not.  2 or 4?  Sometimes this is a tricky determination to make but here it is easy.  I know from the bidding the Peter is void in hearts and so if he had only 2 diamonds, he would have been 6-5 in spades and clubs and certainly would have bid something.  Moreover, even if for some reason, he did not bid this 6-5 hand, he has no hearts and so there is no point trying to give him a ruff.  I might as well assume he has 4, not 2, diamonds.

I’m still on lead.  What do I do next?

Since Peter has 4 diamonds, declarer has another diamond and so I am at a grave risk of allowing the declarer to quickly promote the diamond Queen on the board.  It’s time to “go active” and try to promote our tricks before declarer can promote hers.   So I must shift — but to what?  Spades or clubs?

If partner has the KQJx of spades, I must knock out declarer’s spade Ace right now;  but if partner has AJ(10)x of clubs, I don’t have to act immediately as I will get back in the with the ♦K soon enough.  So a spade shift is best.  I shift to the ♠6, my middle spade, planning to play the ♠8 on the next round of the suit to show 3 of them (MUD — middle up down to show 3 without an honor in the middle of the hand).

Dummy ducks, Peter plays the ♠9 and declarer the ♠A.

Now declarer plays the inevitable 9, dummy following low and Peter playing the 5.  What do I do after winning the K?  The following cards remain between my hand and dummy:

180630_Suit_Pref_Aft_4

Click the link below to see the answer.

I have a very difficult decision to make — Peter may have very well started with ♠KQJ9 of spades, in which case I must continue spades.  However, Peter’s first play of the spade nine was equally consistent with having ♠QJ9x in which case a club shift is called for.

Did Peter intend to convey anything by playing the 5?  Absolutely he did!  A cardinal rule among good defenders is that unless the defender is intending to deceive the declarer, every card played by the defender conveys meaning.   What meaning does the 5 convey?

The third signal given in the signalling hierarchy is suit preference, and this is what Peter intends to tell me.  The 2, 3 and 4 of diamonds have already been played, and so the 5 is Peter’s lowest diamond.  Peter wishes me to switch to a club — the lower ranking of the remaining side suits — and so out came the ♣Q.  This results in a 3-trick set of this unfortunate contract, all four hands being:

180630_Suit_Pref_All_4

Had Peter had started with the KQJ9 of spades, he would have played the 10 on the 2nd diamond, telling me to continue spades.

The suit-preference signal is the most under-utilized and under-appreciated signals in the game of bridge.  The instance given here is one of many situations where suit preference applies — indeed, there are far more general situations where suit preference comes up than the other two signals (attitude and count) apply.

Many times aspiring players despair of using this signal as they feel it requires prodigious feats of memory — every small card must be exactly remembered.  Not so:  in this particular case, it is true, I made a special point of noting Peter’s first play of the 2 and declarer’s first play of the 4 (so that I knew that Peter’s play of 5 on the 2nd diamond trick was his lowest remaining diamond) — but I only did so BECAUSE of what I saw on the board when the dummy game down, and because I knew Peter would be giving me suit preference when declarer next played the suit.  So in this particular instance I knew the precise spot cards would be important, and I made a point of retaining this information in memory for — let’s see — the next 2 tricks.  Not so hard, actually.   It’s as if I’d met someone at a party and I needed to remember their name for the next 10 seconds to introduce them to my wife.  That I can manage — much longer, not so much.

Aspiring players may take solace in the fact that not even most expert players make a point of remembering every single small card played — were they to do so, they would mentally exhaust themselves very quickly.  But there are times when it is important to remember small cards for at least one particular suit, and so in this circumstance, try to make the effort.  The improvement in your game will be immediate and exponential.  Happy suit preferencing!

— Tom Hunt

 

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