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Diamond Article - Hold up? Take that ace!

The process of learning bridge typically begins with learning a particular technique and incorporating it into your toolbox. Once you’ve done that, you then need to when not to use it.

As a teacher, I will spend months teaching finesses. Once the student understands finessing, they try to solve every problem with a finesse. To the man with a hammer, every problem looks like a nail!

Almost always, after successfully teaching a student how to finesse, I will then have to teach them to not finesse.

This is also true of the hold up play. In notrump, we will frequently hold up (not play) our A. This is a valuable and powerful tool in our toolbox, but it should not always be used. To diagnose when not to use it, let’s first discuss why we do use it.

We will use the hold up play to create an additional stopper in the suit by running one of the defenders out of the suit. Consider the following hand:


We only have one stopper in diamonds and the defense isn’t going to stop leading diamonds until we take it. If we take the A on the first trick, the moment we lose the lead, both defenders can and will lead diamonds. If we hold up (wait) and take the A on the third trick, our RHO will now be out of diamonds and we can safely lose the lead to her. This creates a second stopper as our RHO has been stopped from leading diamonds because she is now out.

Let’s talk about why we wouldn’t do this.

1. When you can create a second stopper by taking the A.

If the act of taking the A promotes one of your cards, you are creating a second stopper by creating a second trick. When faced with the choice of creating a second stopper by losing or creating a second stopper by winning, we obviously choose winning.

Consider this holding:


If we wait to take the A on the third trick, we will only get one trick. If we take the Q with the A, the opponents will only have one card higher than our JT and we will eventually be able to take a second trick.

Before making the decision to duck, ask yourself if you can promote your cards by taking their high card with your A.

2. When you are planning on losing the lead to the danger hand.

Before you ever play a card, you should have a plan for the hand that you can state in 1-2 sentences. For example this hand:


My plan for this hand would be to take the club finesse. The only place I can generate the winners I need is in clubs and the finesse is more likely to succeed than playing for the drop.

Ducking isn’t going to help me, because it runs East out of the suit and my finesse goes into West’s hand. (How do we know which defending hand is the long heart hand? If the auction hasn’t told us, we generally assume that the hand leading is the longer of the two. While this is not always correct, it is more often than not.)

If West wins the Q of clubs, the fact that East is out of hearts isn’t going to help us much. Running East out of hearts only helps us if our plan involves potentially losing the lead to East.

3. When the opponents can lead something worse.

When you duck, you have to face the possibility that the opponent isn’t always going to keep leading the same suit. If there is something much worse that they can lead, you will probably want to just bite the bullet and take the A.


In this case, we cannot afford the defense to lead clubs and just have to hope the diamond finesse works. Why can’t we afford a club switch? We do not have a stopper (the QJ which are visible and doubleton will fall to the AK, leaving us vulnerable to the rest of the suit). Since the opponents have eight clubs, if we let them take a spade trick, they could immediately take a minimum of four clubs tricks (if the clubs are 4-4), setting the contract.

4. When the suit is not a threat.

If you know from the auction that the each opponent has four cards in the suit, then they can only take three tricks. There is no advantage in ducking, because you are losing the three tricks either way.

The suit may also not be a threat because of how many you have or because of the level of the contract. Consider this hand:


The auction was:

1s - x – p – 1NT


Since the contract is 1NT, we can afford to lose four spade tricks without any worry. If the spade suit is 5-2, you will only lose three spade tricks. As an added consideration here, East’s spades won’t outlast your high spades anyway, so even without ducking you are already running the short hand out. (How do we know that? We know from the auction that West has at least five spades, giving East a maximum of two.)

If you make the mistake of ducking on this hand, a savvy defender may stop leading spades altogether and you may find yourself unable to take either the A or the K (the spades are the only real transportation to your hand.)

The best way to decide if you should duck or not is to come up with a complete plan for the hand. Once you’ve decided what the best line of play is, you can then determine if ducking aids that strategy or hurts it.

Let’s put this into practice! For each hand state a line of play and then determine whether you will take the A or not:

1. Your contract is 3NT.


2. Your contract is 3NT.


3. Your contract is 2NT. The auction went:

1d – 1h – x – 1NT

2s- 2NT – AP


4. Your contract is 3NT. The auction went:

1c – 2d – x – p

2NT – p – 3NT - AP


5. Your contract is 3NT. The auction went:

1c- 2d – x – p

2NT – p – 3NT - AP


1. We have seven winners and need two more. We consider the diamond suit and realize that though there is potential for an extra trick or two, there is no guarantee and we don’t really have the ability to control which defender will win the diamond tricks we will need to lose. In order to generate two diamond tricks, we would need the defenses’ diamonds to be 3-3. If this is the case we can almost certainly not prevent West from winning one of the two diamond tricks we would need to lose.

There is no guarantee of the winners we need from diamonds and in fact, it seems likely that the suit will not work out for us. Spades, however, promises to generate a minimum of two winners and hopefully three. Since the spade finesse goes into the longer club hand we have no reason to duck the A.

We take the A of clubs and hope that either the spade finesse is working or that the club suit is 4-4. In either case, we will make the hand. If we make the mistake of ducking the first two club tricks, the defense could now switch to a diamond making us as vulnerable in diamonds as we were in clubs (but now we’ve already lost two tricks). There is also no benefit to running East out of clubs if we are planning on taking a finesse into West's hand anyway.

Remember that the odds the spade finesse will work is slightly higher than 50% (it’s 50% the finesse will work, but then you still have an additional chance of success if the clubs are 4-4) and the odds that the diamonds are 3-3 is far less than 50%.

My plan for this hand would be to take the A of clubs and take the spade finesse.

2. We have eight winners and need a ninth. In order to get the last winner, we will need to take either a diamond or spade finesse. Which one would you take? Why? The answer comes from the heart suit. While it might be tempting to think if we duck twice and take the A on the third trick East might be out of hearts. If so, we could take the spade finesse and even if it lost be fine, because East wouldn’t be able to lead a heart.

The trouble is that the opponents have nine hearts. If the hearts are 5-4 and the spade finesse loses, East will still have a heart and we will lose four hearts and the K of spades.

If we play the A of hearts on the Q, we now have J5. Our J now has the potential to take a trick. In fact, we can actually guarantee the J will act as a stopper if we put the correct opponent on lead. Who would we want leading hearts now?


West. If West leads hearts, the J plays fourth. If West leads the K, we play the 5 and the J is now the high heart. If West leads low and East doesn’t play the K, the J will take the trick. Even if West leads low and East plays the K, we can still play the 5 and the J will take the next trick. As long as West is leading, we are guaranteed to take a trick with the J. This makes the diamond finesse better than the spade.

My plan for this hand would be to take the A of hearts on the first trick and then take the diamond finesse. This line of play guarantees the contract.

3. We have four winners and we need four more. Our only hope for more winners is the heart suit. We must take a heart finesse. There is no point in ducking the spade A because we know the distribution of the spade suit is 4-4. Thus, even if we lose the heart finesse, we will only lose three spade tricks and the K of hearts. The spade suit is not a threat because of it’s 4-4 distribution. Not only is the spade suit not a threat, but we know that ducking won’t help as we are certain East has four spades.

My plan for this hand is to win the A of spades and take the heart finesse (repeatedly if it works).

4. You have seven winners and need to generate two more. You can do this with either the heart suit or the club suit. You know the distribution of the diamond suit is six in your LHO’s hand and two in your RHO’s hand. The diamond suit is a threat and you have to potentially lose the lead (by taking one of the finesses). In this hand, we should duck the A of diamonds taking it on the second trick. Why the second trick? Remember our goal is to run East out. We know that East has only two and therefore if we take the A on the second trick, he will be out. Waiting until the third trick means we will have to discard from dummy and there’s no advantage to doing so.

Which finesse should you take? The clubs. Running East out of diamonds means you can safely lose the lead to East. If you take the club finesse, there is no way West can win the trick. If, instead, you take the heart finesse, if West has the K, she will win and cash five diamond tricks.

My plan for this hand is to win the second diamond trick and lead the J of clubs finessing in clubs.

5. You have ten winners! Not only do you not need to generate anymore winners, but you couldn’t if you tried (unless West holds the T of spades.) There are multiple reasons to take the A of diamonds on the first trick, see if you can list all three. (Scroll down for the answers.)

-East doesn’t have any diamonds! He’s already out, so there’s no reason to duck.

-Your plan doesn’t involve losing the lead and there is no benefit in running the short hand out (especially since he’s already out).

-If you duck the diamond, West could switch to a spade. If East has AKQJT of spades, you will now lose five spade tricks, plus the diamond you ducked!

Next article, we will discuss ducking with a K, which is very different!

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