Opening Leads against Suit Contracts

Our chapter for today — ACBL’s Heart Series, 2nd Ed., Ch. 2 — explains opening leads against suit contracts. In Week 1, we studied opening leads against NT contracts. That is, this chapter assumes you are Declarer’s LHO, sitting West against a suit contract, and you are charged with selecting the Defense’s opening lead. You may download this lesson in one of the two following formats:

  1. Paragraph: bridge-lessons-spr-2017-week-2-para
  2. Outline: bridge-lessons-spr-2017-week-2-note


The most important factor for selecting an opening lead against suit contracts is strength. Length is less important. If Declarer has reached game but not slam, then Declarer and Dummy have a combined 25-33 PVP[i] . Your defensive team should have the remaining 7-15 PVP.

If West (W) has few of Defenders’ points, then W can assume their team’s points are with East (E) and that E could win an opening lead in E’s best suit. If W has most of Defenders’ points, then W can assume that E is incapable of winning any lead. In either case, W’s lead is likely to be in one of Defenders’ stronger suits and Declarer’s weaker suits. For a test on Strength, go to Exercise 1.

Choosing the Suit

Defenders want to take some early tricks in their stronger suits, without assisting Declarer in the development of offensive tricks. Here are West’s best choices for a lead:

  1. East’s Suit: The Official System of Contract Bridge (TOS, p.194), published in 1931, said, “[I]t is better to open the suit that partner has bid, instead of opening leader’s best suit.” As a guideline, W should lead any suit bid by E. For example, W holding xxxxxxxHxxxxx where Declarer bid 6after E opened 1, W should ignore their own singleton suit and their own long strong suit in favor of the lead that E implicitly requested.
  2. Not a Declarer Suit: The Heart Series prefers the lead of an unbid suit to any lead from one of Declarer’s bid suits. Declarer will develop their stronger suits in order to discard losers from their weaker suits. W must win quickly the tricks the Defenders deserve in the unbid suits before Declarer can discard such tricks. For example, W holding KxxxxxJT9Kxxx where Declarer has bid and , the Heart Series prefers 4th best in an unbid suit to a sequence in Declarer’s suit. If W were holding KxxxxxQ9xQJTx, AG would prefer the unbid sequence. For a test on unbid suits, go to Exercise 3.3.
  3. Not a Dummy Suit: If Dummy has not supported one of Declarer’s suits, then Declarer may be long and Dummy may be short. Declarer will ruff their long suit’s losers in Dummy. W should lead trumps to prevent such ruffing. W should not lead an Ace or other honor from the suit. Declarer is certain to open their bid suits, at which time Defenders can win their ranking card and lead a second trump. For example, holding xxxHHHHHxxxxx where Declarer has bid but Dummy has placed as trumps, W should lead trumps and wait for Declarer to break . For a test on Declarer-bid suits, go to Exercise 3.1-3.2.
  4. West’s 3c Sequence: When E has not bid and W must choose a lead, some leads can inadvertently help Declarer. For example, any lead from a non-sequence could be from a frozen suit, in which W’s lead runs up to Declarer’s tenace, giving Declarer an undeserved trick. Consequently, The Official System (p. 192) recommended that W’s lead be from one of 4 specific solid or broken sequences:
  • Second from an A: Lead the K from AKQx.
  • Top from a K: Lead the K from solid KQJx or broken KQTx.
  • Top from a Q: Lead the Q from solid QJTx or broken QJ9x.
  • Top from a J: Lead the J from solid JT9x or broken JT8x. 
  1. West’s 2c Sequence: The Heart Series likes a strong 2c supported sequence such as KQx, saying that such a sequence is likely to develop at least one trick even if E has none of the other honors (ie, A or J). In contrast, The Official System did not like a KQxx lead, nor did it like a KJTx lead from an interior sequence. The correct lead probably depends on whether W can set Declarer’s contract by winning a Queen trick alone, or whether W will need both King and Queen tricks to set the contract. Be cautious with leads from KQ or KJT.
  2. West’s Short Suit: If W leads a singleton, E may be able to return the suit for a ruff. This works best if W is weak with low-spot trumps (ie, these trumps would not win high-card tricks) and E has strength in W’s short suit (ie, E will win the lead and return the suit to W for a ruff). Another favorable situation is that either Defender has a ranking trump (ie, that Defender will win a trump trick when Declarer starts to pull trumps) and E is known from the bidding to have an entry suit (ie, if W has the ranking trump, then W also has an entry to E so that E can lead W’s void suit for a ruff). For example, holding xAxxxxxxHxxxx where Declarer has bid ♥, W leads a singleton , takes the first trump trick, and sends a or to E for E to return a ruff. Short of these two situations, The Official System (p.193) said, “Such [singleton] leads, as a rule, will not average to produce the best results.” Be cautious with singleton leads in other than the two favorable situations. For a test on ruffs, go to Exercise 2.1.
  3. West’s Long Suit: The Official System (p.193) said, “[W]hen holding four or more trumps, headed by one of the high honors and no advantageous lead …, it is usually best to open your longest suit, regardless of tenace holdings, hoping to establish the suit and force declarer to ruff, thereby shortening his trump holdings and placing him at a disadvantage.” The Heart Series calls this tactic a “forcing defense” in which Declarer loses control of the hand when Defenders force out Declarer’s last trump; a forcing defense is often more effective than the lead of a singleton. For example, holding xHHxxHxxKQJ98 where Declarer has bid ♥, W leads a long strong sequence to take control of both and . One caution with a forcing defense is that W should play very high to every trick, otherwise a sleepy void E might trump, only to be overtrumped by Declarer. For a test on when not to lead trumps, go to Exercise 2.2-2.3.
  4. West’s QT: Declarer may have stolen the bid with the intention of using their team’s numerous trumps to crossruff their spots. In this situation, Defenders will have HCP and QT while Declarer will have spots and trumps. W should lead trumps to prevent any crossruffing and to protect Defenders’ HCP. For example, holding QTxKJxxxxxxJx where Declarer has bid 5♦X, Defenders should lead trump at every opportunity, including the opening lead.
  5. West is in Doubt: With no good aggressive lead, W should make a passive lead of trumps. For example, W may have 3 suits of 3c or 4c each, with each suit headed by an honor or an honor tenace. The Official System said these were “undesirable” leads. Any aggressive lead is likely to give up a trick. A passive lead is best. For example, holding QT9xxxKTxxKxx where Declarer has bid 4 suits and ended in , W should make a passive trump lead.

For a test on Choosing the Suit, go to to Exercise Four.

Choosing the Card

Partner’s Suit

W should make the same lead as in NT except W shouldn’t lead away from an Ace. Here are the suggested card leads when leading Partner’s suit:

  • From an Ace: Lead is Axx from a non-sequence or AJTx from an interior sequence.
  • From a Doubleton: Lead high from xx or Hx.
  • From Touching Honors: Lead high from KQx, QJx, JTx, or T9x.
  • From 3c or 4c: Lead low, MUD, or 4th from Kxx, Qxxx, or xxx. (MUD and 4th leads are underlined.)
  • Leads Approved by The Official System: Singleton such as x; doubleton such as xx or Hx; honor 2c sequence such as HH, HHx, HHxx, HHxxx; ten or lower suit such as Txx, Txxx, xxxx; other-honor 3c suit such as Axx, Kxx, Qxx, Jxx; Ace 4c suit such as Axxx. From 4c+ Kxxx, Qxxx, Jxxx, The Official System said it was partnership agreement whether to lead the honor card or the 4th best; without a partnership agreement, West should lead 4th best as underlined. 

Own Suit

W should make the same lead as in NT except W shouldn’t lead away from a long Ace. W should lead from a 2c sequence, as this may establish E with a 3rd-round ruff. For example, holding QTxxxAKxxxxxx where Declarer has bid ♥, W leads with the hope E will ruff on round 3. Obviously, if W leads the K, Dummy has a 2c suit, then W should abandon this strategy: Dummy, not E, will get the ruff. With other 4c+ suits, W should lead 4th best. Here are the suggested card leads when leading one’s own suit:

  • From an Ace: The Heart Series says to lead the Ace when the Ace is not with a solid sequence. The Official System did not like an Ace lead from 4c+ (eg, Axxx or Axxxx) so be cautious with such a lead.
  • From Touching Honors: Except for some Ace, J, or T combination, lead the top of touching honors from a 2c solid sequence (KQxx, QJxx) or 3c interior sequence (KJTx, QT9x). The Official System did not like leads from a short KQ sequence (eg, KQxx) nor from an interior-Jack sequence (ex, KJT) so be cautious with those leads.
  • From 3c or 4c: Lead low, MUD, or 4th from Kxx, Qxxx, or xxx. The Official System did not like a lead from a 4c+ suit headed by K, Q, or KJ (eg, Kxxx, Qxxx, or KJxx) so be cautious with those leads.
  • Modern Leads: Axx, AKx… (ie, any number of following cards), AQx…, AJT…, AT9…, KQxxx, KJTxx, KJx, KT9xx, Kxx, K987, QJTxx, QJ9xx, QT9xx, QTx, JT9xx, JT8xx, JTxxx, Jxx, T98, T87x, Txx. 

For a test on Choosing the Card, go to Exercise Five.

End of Discussion


  1. Ch.2: For a test on Ch. 2, go to Exercise Six.
  2. Bidding: For a test on Responses to Opening Bids in a Suit, go to Exercise Seven.
  3. Play: For a test on Declarer’s Plan, go to Exercise Eight.

Hands to Play, from Hearts = “ACBL Defense in the 21st Century”

Deck Hands Declarer Dealer Bid Lead Hints
Hearts P. 84 #2-1 S N 4 2 A
Hearts P. 86 #2-2 E E 4 K B
Hearts P. 88 #2-3 N S 2 4 C
Hearts P. 90 #2-4 W W 4 9 D


  • A: N=13 PVP[i]. S=13 PVP. North (N) does not have a 5cM, so opens a 4cm. E overcalls with an opening hand and a 5cM. South (S) stays low with spades, knowing that S is Captain and that RoNF. N has a 4c fit, but not a Med hand to jump. S goes to game. W leads MUD in E’s suit. E can defeat the contract. Down 1. Any other lead allows Declarer to succeed at 3NT or 4.
  • B: E=20 PVP. W=8 PVP. E opens 2NT to show points. W bids Stayman and E shows a 4c+ major. W with a fit and points goes to 4 game. South leads top of a sequence. Declarer has 9 QT. Declarer does best with an endplay, taking the high before putting Defenders on lead with a . N should have the ranking , otherwise S would have the points to overcall 1. If N returns Partner’s ¨, then Declarer makes. If N switches to , Declarer fails. Down 1.
  • C: N=15 PVP. S=8 PVP. N opens a 5cM. S has limited points and suits, so bids 1NT. N is happy with 1NT, so could pass but contract does not make. If N mentions 2, then S passes. The contract is easy as long as Declarer crossruffs. E consequently leads trumps at every opportunity. If W cooperates, the contract fails. If W switches to a finesse in , the contract makes. With Defenders cooperating, down 1.
  • D: E=12 PVP. W=19 PVP. W opens a 5cM. E could show support with a limit bid of 2NT. Game in 3NT makes but a return to 4 fails. In , N leads a singleton and gets a ruff. Eventually S wins A and gets another ruff. Down 1. 

Student Notes:

[i] PVP = Partnership Valuation Points = the sum of HCP, length points, Dummy points, and any other additions and subtractions.

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