Our chapter for today — ACBL’s Heart Series, 2nd Ed., Ch. 1 — explains opening leads against NT contracts. In Week 2, we study opening leads against suit contracts. That is, this chapter assumes you are Declarer’s LHO, sitting West against a notrump 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-1-para
  2. Outline: bridge-lessons-spr-2017-week-1-note


Bridge is a game of exchanging information with your Partner. In Defense, this exchange is limited to signaling. In Ch. 1, these signals are primarily Opening Leads. With South as Declarer, LHO West uses the Opening Lead to signal to East what suit West believes will be the partnership’s best opportunity to set the Declarer.

West leads the first card. In NoTrumps, both sides are in a race to develop their winners. West has an advantage in this race since West plays first. West should begin with Defenders’ longest suit, which might be an own suit held by West or a bid suit held by East. If there is a tie in choosing the longest suit, then West should choose the strongest of the two equally long suits.

Defenders may signal additional information by their card choices. Either West or East may show preferences, such as by playing Hi/Lo, even/odd, top of touching honors, middle-up-down (MUD), Bottom-of-something-top-of-nothing (BOSTON), 4th best, an unexpected suit (perhaps a singleton, hoping for a future ruff in a suit contract), other than an expected suit (perhaps a tenace, hoping for a return from Partner), or discards (perhaps the discard reveals the location of an entry).

Choice of Suits to Lead

If either Defender has bid, that Defender might have a rebiddable suit (eg, HHHxx or HHxxxx), some strength (eg, 8+ HCP and 10+ PVP*), and a side-suit entry (ie, a ranking card that will win a trick). Look no further than this bid suit for West’s best lead.

Knowing West will be on lead, East may have bid only to alert West to Defenders’ best lead. East may be weak, with just one good suit, and needs the advantage of being first in the development race. West should make the lead that East is requesting, the same as West would do if East had made a strong opening, response, or overcall.

West should consider a hierarchy of five possible opening leads. First choice should be a suit bid by East, followed by (2) West’s own best suit, (3) an unbid suit, (4) Dummy’s bid suits, and lastly (5) any suits bid by Declarer. Without Defenders’ own length, the best lead is a suit unbid by Opponents (Option 3). If West has strength in this unbid suit, good. If not, then the unbid suit might be East’s best suit. For a test on Listening to the Bidding, go to Exercise Six.

West’s lead to a suit bid by Dummy (Option 4) is not great but it does have the attribute that it might finesse Dummy. East has a chance to win any card played by Dummy. A NT Declarer might not have sufficient strength in Dummy’s best suits to overtake East’s ranking card.

West’s last choice of leads should be a suit bid by Declarer (Option 5). Such a lead would force East to play in front of Declarer’s strength.

A NT Declarer generally does not care that Defenders might have a good opening lead. Declarer heard any bids made by West and East, yet continued in NT. West should expect the NT Declarer to have stoppers in Defenders’ suits. But even if Declarer has one or two stoppers, the Defenders might have a few outside entries so that Defenders can re-start their strong suit.

West may not need to develop a suit. West may have sufficient Quick Tricks (QT) to defeat Declarer’s contract. At any point during play that West or East gain the lead and can run sufficient QT to defeat Declarer, then they should do so. The only exception would be the rare case where Defenders have 4-suit controls and one of these suits could win additional tricks if it were developed for another round. This attempt for additional setting tricks would be especially true if Declarer were vulnerable doubled.

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

West Leads East’s Suit

West must pick the order in which to play the lead suit, with this order optimizing Defenders’ chances to run the suit. Foremost, West must unblock in East’s suit, meaning that the last card West plays in East’s suit must be one of West’s smallest spot cards so that there is no doubt that East can win the trick and continue playing the suit.

Like in “Play of the Hand,” West plays their high cards first because West has the short side of the partnership’s suit. Also, West must give count. With an even holding, playing a low card last is easy because West signals a Hi/Lo count meaning that West doesn’t start with their lowest card. But for odd holdings where count is Lo/Hi, West must be careful not to begin with their absolute lowest card. West should be preserving their absolute lowest card to play as their last card in East’s suit. Here are possible West holdings:

  1. Singleton: West leads their only card. East might be misled as to whether this is a Hi/Lo card until West shows out in the second round.
  2. Doubleton: West should save their lowest card. Consequently, West leads their highest card. East will assume from the “Hi” size of the lead that West began with an even number of cards.
  3. Tripleton+: West should play Hi/Lo with 2c or 4c, and Lo/Hi with 3c or 5c, using their 2nd lowest card as their “Lo” signal and their lowest card as their final card. When West leads their tripleton cards as middle, up, down, they are signaling their count as MUD.
  4. Touching Honors: If West has touching honors, West should play the highest honor regardless of being a doubleton or longer. If Declarer ducks rather than rises to take West’s lead, then West should continue with their 2nd honor, again saving their lowest card for their final play.
  5. Leads Approved by The Official System of Contract Bridge (1931), p. 194: Doubleton such as xx or Hx; honor 2c touching sequence such as HH, HHx, HHxx, HHxxx. From 4c+ Axxx, Kxxx, Qxxx, Jxxx, lead the 4th best.

Declarer may intend to break West’s communication with East. Remember that a Player’s high honor cards are supposed to capture their RHO’s lower honor cards. If Declarer ducks East’s return, West may have to delay playing their highest honor card until Declarer plays their highest honor card. If Declarer is successful in their duck, then Declarer and West will become void simultaneously. West will need a signal from East to tell West what side suit East has as an entry; we study such signals in later chapters.

For a test on Choosing the Card in Partner’s Suit, go to Exercise Two.

West Leads Own Suit

When East gives no clue as to the lead they desire, West should lead their own 4c+ suit. East may or may not be able to determine West’s count, but East should be able to use the Rule of 11 to determine Declarer’s count of ranking cards. East should play the high cards from their short hand first, driving out or capturing the calculated number of Declarer’s ranking cards.

West might have a 5c+ suit with honors. If this suit includes a 3c Honor sequence (eg, HHHxx), then West won’t care what cards East has. West has the strength and length to run the 5c+ suit without East’s help. But if West’s suit has only a 2c Honor sequence (eg, HHxxx), West should lead low to East so that East can play their high cards from their short side first, before returning the lead to West’s 2c Honor sequence.

When West leads their own best 5c+ suit, The Official System, p.191, said there was a 97% accurate formula for determining which card, “Holding three or more honors of the suit to be led, two or more of these honors touching, … invariably lead the top of such touching honors. …Holding fewer than three honors in the suit, lead the fourth-from-the-highest card.”

At times, West may hold three out of four cards in a sequence. The gap card is held somewhere else (hopefully Partner, but perhaps with the Declarers). As long as the first card West plays is one of the touching cards, West retains a tenace to trap the gap card. West won’t lose more than one trick that Defenders deserve, and West may be able to trap later tricks that Defenders did deserve.

West’s honors could be in one of the following sequences:

  1. Broken Sequence: West’s “sequence” may have gaps towards its low end (eg, QJ9, missing the Ten). In bridge, these gaps reveal a broken sequence, but a sequence nevertheless. If the top two cards in West’s sequence are honors, then the correct lead is the top honor. This play forces Declarer to either play high (and unblock the Defenders) or duck.
  2. Interior Sequence: West’s “sequence” may have gaps at its high end (eg, KJT, missing the Q). Again, bridge considers this a sequence. The correct lead is the highest honor that touches another card (eg, the J in KJT or AJT, as the J touches the T and is higher than the T). This play encourages (but doesn’t force) Dummy to cover West’s honor with the gap card, and then encourages East to play 3rd-hand high to win the gap card. If Declarer holds the gap card, then Declarer can either win immediately (and unblock the Defenders) or duck. Neither choice is good for Declarer, as ducking will put Declarer at risk of a later lead from East up to West’s tenace.
  3. Modern Leads: AKx, Axx, AKQJ, AKQx, AKJT, AKJx, AKQxx, AKJxx, AKT9x, AKxxx, AKQxxx, AKT9xx, AKxxxx, AKJxxxx, AQJxx, AQT9x, AJT8x, AT97x, AQxxxx, KJx, K7x, K987, KQJxx, KQTxx, KQxxx, KJT7x, KT9xx, QTx, QJTxx, QJ9xx, QT97x, Jxx, JT9xx, JT8xx, JT7xx, T98, Txx, T97x.

Fourth Best

When not leading East’s suit or one of West’s touching honors, West plays 4th best. The hope is that East plays 3rd-hand high and returns the lead through Declarer. East can use the Rule of 11 to determine precisely how many higher cards Declarer has in the lead suit. The Rule of 11 says the lead suit’s number of higher cards not held by West is 11 minus the lead card’s spots. For a test on Leading a Low Card, go to Exercise Four.

Sometimes one Defender does not have sufficient entries to set up Partner’s long suit. The Rule of 11 may show that Declarer has length in the chosen suit. With inadequate entries, the short Defender should duck the early rounds so that their last cards can finesse Declarer. Like so many Defensive plays, this desperate finesse is the same as Declarer would do in Play of the Hand if Dummy were long, Declarer were short, and Declarer had inadequate entries to develop Dummy.

3rd Hand High

East Can Play 3rd Hand High

If West is on lead and Dummy covers, then East must play 3rd-hand-high to cover Dummy. This is the fastest way for West to have their remaining cards promoted to winners. There is a danger here that Dummy doesn’t have a high card, East doesn’t play 3rd-hand high, or Declarer wins the trick. After this worst case, any future continuance of the lead suit should be by East, in case both West and Declarer are frozen, meaning whichever one plays the suit first, the other wins an extra trick. For a test on Leading the Top of a Sequence, go to Exercise Three.

East Can’t Play 3rd Hand High

Sometimes East is no help in setting up West’s suit. East can’t play 3rd-hand high and West can’t lead up to their own tenace. The suit may become frozen between Declarer and West. This is bad if Declarer is just one trick shy of making their contract. But if Declarer is two tricks or more shy of their contract, then Declarer needs additional time to develop more winners. The race is still on. West may succeed best by conceding (or “sacrificing”) the frozen trick if this wins the race, and West can develop their long suit before Declarer does the same.

End of Discussion


  1. Ch.1: For a test on Ch. 1, go to Exercise Five.
  2. Bidding: For a test on Opening the Bidding, 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” (404p)

Deck Hands Declarer Dealer Bid Lead Hints
Hearts P. 38 #1-1 E N 3NT 9 A
Hearts P. 40 #1-2 S E 3NT J B
Hearts P. 42 #1-3 W S 3NT 6 C
Hearts P. 44 #1-4 N W 3NT 2 D


  • A: W=10 PVP. E=16 PVP. East overcalls in 1NT showing 16-18 HCP. West does not have a GF or a 4c major, so bids 3NT directly. When Dummy has a 5c suit, there is hope. E knows hope, so develops ASAP. E has 7 QT, 3 slow tricks, and 1 finesse. However, N/S take their 5 winners first. Down 1.
  • B: N=14 PVP. S=15 PVP. S opens 1D. S rebids 1NT, showing 12-14 HCP. N raises to 3NT. W leads an interior sequence and E wins the lead. The race is on. E/W have 5 sure tricks. Down 1.
  • C: W=22 PVP. E=6 PVP. W opens 2♣ Strong and the team arrives at 3NT. N leads a low ♥. W wins the 1st round. W has 7 QT and 4 slow tricks. However, N/S develop their 5 winners first. Down 1.
  • D: N=15 PVP. S=17 PVP. N opens 1♦. S soars with two 4c majors. N ignores S’ majors to bid 1NT showing 12-14 HCP. S bids 3NT game. E leads the 2♣ to the J-K-A. N has 5 QT, 7 slow tricks, and 1 finesse. However, E/W take their 5 winners first. Down 1.

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

Student Notes: (nb: The latest version of DRC@Spr17Week1 may be downloaded at BetterBridge.blog.)

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