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Counting Winners - Part 1 Spade article

Counting Winners – Part 1

Playing a hand can be overwhelming for any level of player, but particularly for newer players. Declarer (the player on the side that won the auction who bid the final contract first) has to come up with a strategy to take enough tricks to make their contract.

One of the most effective ways to begin planning the play of the hand is to count winners (in no trump) or losers (in a trump contract). These techniques help you assess where you are in your goal to take enough tricks and help you see what you need to do to achieve that goal.

They narrow the focus of the hand down from a completely overwhelming 52 cards to 10 or so cards in 1 or 2 suits.

I like to begin by teaching students to count winners, because counting winners is significantly easier than counting losers. The average student picks up the concept of counting winners in one to two sessions, whereas learning to count losers takes most students 6-12 months of study.

To begin, let’s define a winner: A winner is a card that can take a trick right now. For example: an ace. If you have an ace, you can take a trick with that card the moment you gain the lead.

A card is not a winner if something needs to happen in order for it to take a trick. In other words, if you find yourself using words like: if, after, and when, the card is not a winner.

Let’s look at a sample hand:


Using the parameters I gave you above, take a moment to see how many winners you come up with on this hand. Then continue reading to see the answer.

When we count winners, we count by suit. We can do that in any order. I like to go from left to right. Since clubs are on the left of my hand, let’s start there. Although we have 8 clubs between the two hands, only one of them is guaranteed to be a winner, so we count 1 club winner.

Looking at the diamonds next, we have the A and then the K. After that, all of our diamonds are little. So I would count 2 winners (the A and the K).

In spades, we have the top three. Which gives us 3 winners.

In hearts, we have 0 winners. Why? Because we are missing the ace! Remember that a winner is a card that can take a trick right away. Not after something else happens, not if something happens, right now. Because we are missing the ace, we can only take a heart trick if the defense chooses to not play the ace when we lead the suit or after the defense has taken their ace.

Most students have a very hard time with this and when people make mistakes counting winners, this is generally where it happens.

The purpose of counting winners is to give you a sense of what work you need to do in order to make the hand.

Let me give you a little perspective. On this hand, you are in 3nt. Which means you need to take 9 tricks. (Your bid of 3 + 6 = 9.) If we tally up the winners outside hearts, we have 6 (1 club, 2 diamonds, and 3 spades). That means that after the very first trick, we can immediately take 6 tricks. But that’s not enough to make our contract.

Where are the other three tricks going to come from? Hearts! But making the hearts good is something you need to do. Unless the defense makes a mistake, they are not going to make your hearts good for you. You need to play hearts. When you lead a heart, the defense will have two options: 1) Take the trick with their ace (in which case your remaining hearts will be good) or 2) Let you win the trick (in which case you are one trick closer to your goal.

Making the hearts good needs to be a part of your plan. If you count them as winners already, it won’t be.

Practice counting winners on the following hands (answers will be below):








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  1. Starting with the diamonds, 0. We do not have the ace, so we can’t take any tricks right away, which means we have 0 winners. In clubs, we have 2, the A and the K. In hearts we have 0 as we are again missing the ace. In spades, we have 4, the A, K, Q, and J. For a total of 6.

  2. Starting with diamonds, we have 2, the A and the K. Since we are missing the Q, none of the rest of the diamonds are winners. We might be able to make them winners, but right now, we shouldn’t count them. Spades we have 0, because we are missing the A. In hearts we have 2, the A and the K. In clubs, we also have 2, the A and the K. For a total of 6.

  3. Starting with hearts, we have 4. Even though we have the top 5 hearts, we can only take 4 tricks because we can only lead the suit 4 times. With a suit that isn’t trump, we can only take as many tricks as the number of times we can lead the suit. The number of times we can lead the suit is limited by the number of cards we have on our longest side. (Don’t forget that when we play hearts from one hand, we will have to also play hearts from the other! Sooner or later two of our high hearts will play on the same trick. We will touch on this more next time.) In both spades and diamonds we have 0 winners because we are missing the A. In clubs, we have 2 winners, the A and the K. In this hand, we have 6 winners.

  4. Starting with the heart suit, we have 0 winners because we are missing the A. In spades we have 2, the A and the K. In diamonds we have 2, the A and the K. In clubs we have 0, because we are missing the A. This hand has 4 winners.

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