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March 17, 2002
Opening Lead Strategy

Opening Lead Strategy

The Scorecard is the publication for ACBL District 16. I was asked and consented to write a regular column aimed at the 0-299 masterpoint player. I will post my columns here as they may be of benefit to the same readers that benefit from my newsletter.

Scorecard, Volume 34, No 2 - March/April 2002

How good are you at opening lead? It is probably the single most difficult thing that any defender must do during the course of the entire hand. You are charged with the job of getting the defensive plan off on the right foot. It is an area where many players struggle. However, if you can master the job, potential partners will beat a path to your door. You will be in demand.

Why is opening lead so difficult? It is difficult because there is such a fine line between success and failure. Good judgment is what differentiates a good and poor opening lead. Since the average 0-299 player is still working on judgment, perhaps a few solid guidelines will help until the judgment is developed.

The first consideration, above all other, is the form of the game that you are playing. At matchpoint play your goal is to do the "normal" thing. You are simply trying, right or wrong, to match what the other opening leaders will do. That achieves the A/A+ result. At IMP play your goal is to defeat the contract at all costs. There is no "normal" or average result with which to be compared.

As with most difficult jobs it becomes easier if you break it down into smaller pieces. Assuming there IS a good opening lead, you start with 1 in 13 chance of finding it. Rather than stare at 13 cards and try to decide which is the proper choice, start by considering the suits. You have a 1 in 4 chance of just guessing the proper suit. Can you eliminate one or more of the suits? Most of the time the suits bid by the opponents can be eliminated unless your holding is a very strong one. Which suits are the best candidates? Here is my priority list:

What influence does the quality of suit have? Well, that depends on the situation. If partner has bid a suit or raised your suit, then suit quality has little to do with it. I recommend leading partnerís bid suit unless you are certain that another lead is going to defeat the contract. Those are pretty strong words. If partner does not lead my suit I pretty much assume that either (1) she does NOT have any of my suit, or (2) that she is sure that the lead will result in down one. On the other hand, if you are leading a suit that you bid but was not supported by partner then more care must be taken. I would lead my suit if it looked like this:

I would still think strongly about leading it if my suit looked like this:

I would likely not lead it if my suit looked like this:

The obvious difference is that the latter holdings are more likely to give up any positional advantage I have with my honor cards. The earlier examples are strong sequences where there is little danger of giving up any positional advantage.

Does the contract have any influence on the choice of leads? The obvious answer is yes. In a no trump contract you are not likely to defeat the opponents by just taking tricks with honor cards. You must work to establish winners out of the spot cards. That generally means leading the suit that is the longest and strongest in your and partnerís hands combined. In a trump contract you can go on the assumption that any side suit will not go around more than twice without someone running out. Also a trump contract is more of a race. In the early game you must establish and cash any side suit winners that your side has coming. If you wait too long declarer will find a way to dispose of his losers (your winners). Once the side suit potential has been depleted then the remaining defensive tricks will have to come from the trump suit.

Let me close by trying to convince you to remove two opening leads from your repertoire. I see and hear about them often and both occur against trump contracts. The first is a trump lead because "I didnít know what else to do." And the second involves suits headed by the ace without the king. There are good reasons to lead a trump on some hands, but NONE of them involve not knowing what else to do. Never, ever, ever admit to anyone within hearing range that you did not know what to do. Everything you do must have a reason. At the very least agree to say that you GUESSED to lead a trump. You should lead a trump as a counter measure whenever the bidding suggests that the declarer is likely to trump his losers (your winners) in the dummy. A trump lead helps to remove the potential that the dummyís trumps represent.

Against a trump contract just stay away from suits that are headed by a lone ace unless partner has bid them or supported them. Lead another suit. Cashing the ace is rarely right and under leading the ace is usually even worse. Wait for partner or declarer to lead the suit. The best value for your ace is to capture a king or queen from declarer and they will seldom be as kind as to throw one underneath your ace.

Think of opening lead a multiple choice quiz. If you can eliminate one or more of the choices then even a guess will be better. Try listening to the auction and selecting the suit first. Your opening leads will improve.

Let me hear from you.

-Gary King

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