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Diamond Article: How do we know when to force declarer to trump?

Let’s start the conversation with the easy answer and then work our way through the more difficult one. As a general rule, forcing declarer to trump in the long trump hand is good for the defense and forcing her to trump in the short trump hand is bad for the defense.

Why? It has to do with losers and declarer’s plan for setting up the hand. One of your best tools as you try to figure out the optimal defense for the hand is to try and figure out what declarer’s plan is (or at least should be).

Count her losers as best you can and see if you can come up with a plan for getting rid of them. You won’t always have enough information to do this, but piece together what you can, watch how she plays the hand, and do your best to counter her plan.

Let’s start by reviewing a couple of key elements of counting losers:

We work with the losers in only one hand – not both.

We always choose to work with the losers in the long trump hand – never the short.

When we run out of a suit, we assume we have no more losers, because if it is led, we can trump it.

Look at the following hand:

If you were the declarer, what would your plan be? First, you’d have to pick a hand to set up. I’d pick the South hand. You’d count losers (one spade, one heart, one diamond, and three clubs for a total of six losers). You’d compare your losers to what you can afford (we are in 3s, so we can afford four losers and have to get rid of at least two to make the hand).

Next you’d come up with a plan: draw trump by playing the A and K of spades and then trump two clubs.

Since declarer’s plan is to trump two clubs, the defense leading clubs so that declarer can trump them in dummy would only be helping her. To counter her plan of trumping clubs, the proper defense would be to lead trump at every opportunity.

Defense at its most basic is: “Whatever declarer wants to do, I want to do the opposite.” So, if declarer wants to trump clubs, the defense wants to do everything in their power to prevent that from happening.

Watch what happens if I make a small change to the hand:

The most significant part of this change is that as declarer I am now setting up the North hand. Why? Because it is the long trump hand. I touched on this before, but let’s cover it in a little more detail.

We stop counting losers when we run out of a suit, making an assumption that after we run out, we won’t lose any because we will be able to trump. This will frequently be true for the long trump hand (as we often don’t run out of trump in the long trump hand) and infrequently be true for the short trump hand (as we often run out of trump in the short trump hand).

Setting up North dramatically changes the plan because now I have no club losers. I have one club and I have the ace, so I should never lose a club trick. This means that trumping clubs will not help me at all, because it won’t change the number of losers I have!

As a defender, you could lead clubs again and again on this hand and it would never help the declarer, only shorten the amount of trump she has. We call this defensive technique tapping, which simply means running declarer short on trump by forcing her to use them.

However, if you look closer at this hand, what is my plan going to be? It’s possible (but unlikely) that I could make my fourth diamond good and discard a heart from dummy. Alternatively, I could simply try to trump a heart.

Trumping in the short trump hand gets rid of a loser for declarer (as you can see here) whereas trumping in the long trump hand doesn’t (because if she’s out of a suit in the long trump hand, she doesn’t have any losers in it!).

To prevent the declarer from trumping hearts, the defense must employ the same strategy as before we changed the hand – lead trump. If the defense can lead trump enough times to force declarer to have played all of the little trump in the short trump hand, before she can trump a heart, the defense should be able to set this hand.

When you find yourself thinking: “I know declarer is out, should I lead it anyway?” The first two things I want you to consider are:

Is this a ruff and a sluff?

Is this getting rid of a loser for her (is she trumping in the short trump hand)?

A ruff and a sluff occurs only when declarer can trump a suit in both hands. This means that she is out in both hands and can use trump from either hand. If she has the suit in one hand or does not have trump in one hand, it is not a ruff and a sluff.

Ruff and sluffs are damaging because they give declarer the chance to discard something she might not have otherwise been able to discard. Because it gives her the choice of which hand to discard from, she will likely choose the hand she is setting up, which means it will get rid of a loser for her. I would generally discourage you from giving declarer a ruff and a sluff, though there are exceptions to this “rule”.

As for the second consideration, your shortcut is – is she trumping in the short trump hand? If she is, she’s getting rid of a loser. If she’s trumping in the long trump hand, she is not.

Why might we want to force declarer to trump?

There are a couple of good reasons to force declarer to trump:

  • It is an excellent passive lead. If you are forcing her to trump in the long trump hand, you know you aren’t giving her anything. She will be able to do so herself whenever she wants anyway, so it is a perfectly safe lead. This might be preferable to breaking a new suit where little is known.

  • You can actually run declarer out of trump. In these cases, forcing declarer to trump (tapping her) is devastating. Trumps control the hand. Without them, declarer may lose complete control of the hand.

  • Transportation. Declarer might use trumping your suit later as a way to get to the other hand. If you force her to trump now, she cannot do so later when she needs too.

There is more to this decision, but almost always you can achieve the right answer by putting yourself in declarer’s shoes and figuring out what her plan is.

Give the following hands a shot! Should you force declarer to trump? State why or why not. By the way, I’m giving you the declarer’s hand and dummy rather than your own, because I want you to be in the habit of looking at things from declarer’s perspective. Think it’s cheating you get to see both hands? You have to be able to figure things out knowing where the cards are before you can figure them out not knowing where the cards are. This is a valuable learning technique and I recommend you employ it on your own, laying out hands, seeing if you can figure things out looking at all four hands and then working out how you could have figured it out without seeing all four hands.

  • 1. In this hand, the contract is 3c. A heart was led and won with the ace in dummy. The declarer took a club finesse which lost to West. West led a heart which East won. Should East continue hearts forcing declarer to trump? Why or why not? If not, what should East lead? Would your answer change if West were on lead?

  • 2. The contract is 4h. West led the king of diamonds, which declarer won in dummy with the ace and then led a heart, losing to West’s ace of hearts. West knows the heart break is 3-1. Should West continue leading diamonds? Why or why not? If not, what should West lead?

  • 3. The contract is 2s. West opened with the queen of diamonds which South won with the ace. South played a round of spades losing to East who led another diamond. South won the second diamond with the king and led another spade, losing to West’s king. Should West lead another round of diamonds? Why or why not? If not, what should West lead? Would your answer change if East had won the trick?

  • 4. The contract is 2s. West began by cashing the ace and king of hearts. West knows the spade break is 3-2. Now what should West do? Why?

  • 5. The contract is 4s. West led the queen of diamonds which South won with the ace. South played two rounds of spades winning both with dummy’s ace and then king. South now cashed the king of diamonds and then led a club which East won with the ace. Should East continue diamonds? Why or why not? If not, what should East lead?

Answers:

  • 1. Looking at dummy, East should never lead a spade or a diamond. Both of these suits have strong cards in dummy with a gap. If East leads these suits, she will be allowing declarer’s high cards to play fourth. East could lead a trump (there isn’t much value in this choice since there aren’t any trump left in the short trump hand – though it is a passive lead). A better choice would be to continue hearts. There are several things that make hearts a good choice here. Trumping hearts doesn’t get rid of a loser for declarer (she’s trumping in the long trump hand and doesn’t have any heart losers there). It is a safe lead (like the trump lead, hearts is a safe exit, not giving declarer anything). It also uses up a resource (forcing declarer to trump here may eventually run her out, especially if the club split is bad). And lastly, West might have only had two hearts and now may be able to over ruff South. If West is on lead, it might be advantageous for her to lead a spade or a diamond, forcing declarer’s high cards to play second and giving partner a chance to win a trick she might not otherwise get. While leading a heart is still safe, West’s opportunity to attack a pointed suit (spades or diamonds) might be too good to pass up. Also, whereas West being out of hearts is great for the defense, if East is out, it’s not as helpful because South can over trump her.

  • 2. No! Not only should West not force declarer to trump a diamond, but West shouldn’t even take the diamond trick she can take! Let’s break that up into it’s individual parts. Trumping a diamond helps declarer get rid of a loser! She is setting up South (the long trump hand) and has two diamond losers. If she draws trump and then drives out the ace of clubs, she should now lose both diamonds. If West leads a heart, South still can’t trump a diamond because she must lose the lead again in diamonds before she can and West can then lead another heart. If you are going to set this hand, it’s because you get the second diamond trick. Unless declarer is foolish enough to take the spade finesse (which she should never do), you need the second diamond to set the hand. West should lead a trump to try to prevent South from trumping diamonds. (South can still make this hand by immediately losing a club, but at least you’ve made her work for it.)

  • 3. Yes, West should absolutely lead another diamond. Again, there are several factors here that indicate a diamond lead is correct. The first is that declarer should be setting up dummy and as dummy has no diamond losers, trumping diamonds doesn’t help her. Secondly, you can actually run declarer out of trump on this hand putting her in a very precarious position. Next, it is a passive lead. Leading diamonds cannot hurt you (it’s not a ruff and a sluff because South cannot trump diamonds – remember you have to be able to trump in both hands). If West doesn’t lead diamonds, she has to guess which round suit (hearts or clubs) to lead and if she guesses wrong and leads clubs, she’s made the hand for declarer by finessing her partner. Lastly, it’s possible that East is now out of diamonds and can over trump dummy. If East had won the trick, it might be better for East to lead a heart or a club (taking the defenses two heart tricks or forcing declarer to choose whether or not to finesse on your terms). Since dummy’s cards in both suits are weak, this could be a good thing. But most of the reasons for West to continue diamonds are true for East as well, even the possibility that West is out of diamonds as she might be able to beat the little trumps in dummy.

  • 4. Yes! West should lead another heart. Leading another heart is not a ruff and a sluff because South still has a hearts. Although this may be getting rid of a loser for South, it’s a loser she can always get rid of on her own. Knowing that the spade break is 3-2, when declarer is done drawing trump, she will always be able to trump her last heart. Thus, West isn’t doing anything for South that she can’t do on her own. There are two great reasons to lead a heart here, forcing declarer to trump. The first is that it’s a perfectly safe lead. It doesn’t risk giving declarer something. If West leads something else, what is she going to lead? If she leads diamonds, she will make the king good (because it’s playing fourth). If she leads clubs, that happens to be safe as well, but West has no way of knowing that. The second reason is that trumping a heart is a way that declarer would be able to get to dummy later. Let’s say that declarer doesn’t play the clubs right and ends up with a good club in dummy, but has won the lead in her hand. If she still has the heart, she can solve this problem by trumping the heart to get to dummy. If West forces her to trump the heart on the third trick, if South screws up the clubs she will not be able to get to dummy (without losing the lead and potentially losing the three diamond tricks).

  • 5. East should absolutely not lead a diamond! If East leads a diamond, South will trump the trick on the short side, getting rid of a diamond loser! If East has the high trump, that is her best lead. This will remove the trump from the South hand and now East can lead a diamond safely to her partner who will win the trick and set the contract. If East doesn’t have the high trump, she should lead a heart, hoping her partner has the ace and can cash the high trump and then her winning diamond.


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