Spade Article - Counting Losers Part 1
When you are playing in notrump, you count winners. When you are playing in a trump contract (a contract where there is a trump suit), you count losers. There are almost no exceptions to this.
Counting the proper thing (winners or losers) will help you correctly assess the strengths, weaknesses and potential in your hands. Count the wrong one and you’ll be looking in the wrong direction and will likely not make your contract.
Most newer bridge players find it much easier to count winners than to count losers. Why? Well, in part because winners are strictly and clearly defined. If you can’t take a trick with it right now, it’s not a winner. The second reason counting winners is easier than counting losers has to do with the fact that when we count winners, we go by suit, examining how many cards in each suit can take tricks right away.
When we are counting losers, we have to pick a hand and only count the losers that that hand has.
Honestly, that’s where I lose most students when I teach them to count losers. Yet, as tempting as it is to discuss that first, I think you need some grounding in what a loser is, before can discuss why and how to count the losers of one hand and not the other.
Since we will not have discussed looking at one hand versus the other, all examples and exercises will consist of only one hand.
There are three types of losers:
1. Cards that can’t be guaranteed to take a trick.
2. High cards that the opponents have.
3. Trump cards that the opponents have.
It is important to understand all three, because you will need to employ different methods of counting for different suits. Before we get into them, it bears mentioning that the length of your suit (just like when counting winners) can affect the number of losers. We will cover this in a different article.
1. Let’s begin with the first one: cards that can’t be guaranteed to take a trick. It’s easy to understand that low cards are losers. Consider the following suit:
I have five hearts and only one of them can take a trick, so the other four are losers. Notice that I am not considering what I’m missing in hearts, beyond the fact that I know that my little hearts are not going to take tricks.
Let’s look at another similar suit:
I have three diamonds. I can win one, the other two are going to lose. Why won’t it be more than two? Because we assume that after we run out of diamonds, we won’t lose diamond tricks because we can trump.
We will discuss this more later in a future article, but for now, just assume that when you run out of a suit, you won’t have losers (because you have trump).
Where this technique becomes tricky is when the cards in question aren’t low. For example:
It’s tempting to think that the K will take a trick and therefore that he isn’t a loser. However, we can’t guarantee that the K will take a trick. Taking a trick with the K is likely something we are going to have to make happen. Since we will need making the K good a part of our plan, it’s best to count him as a loser.
If you do not count the K as a loser and then he does in fact lose, you will be caught unprepared and likely will not make the hand.
When you are missing a high card, start by assuming that the opponents’ high card will play on your high card and not on your little card. So here, assume that they will wait to play their ace on your king and will not simply play their ace on your 2.
If you hold:
You have one loser, regardless of the fact that the Q may take a trick. She has a 50% chance of not taking a trick and therefore is a loser. We count this way so that taking a trick with the Q is something that we make happen. We include making the Q a good card as a part of our plan. Again, assume the missing high card will play on your vulnerable high card for the purposes of counting losers.
2. High cards that the opponents have. Generally speaking, high cards are likely to take tricks. The high cards that we are missing represent possible losers for us. As we discussed above, when we are looking at little cards, we consider the number of little cards we have to be the losers, rather than thinking about what high cards the opponents have.
Look at the K2 again. We consider this two losers because we have two cards in the suit. We don’t count all the missing cards as losers. We only have two of the suit, so it makes sense to say we can only lose two tricks.
This is fine for suits that are not solid. But suits where we have sequences, where our cards are equal value because they are touching, in these suits, the number of cards we have is no longer relevant. The deciding factor in how many losers we have is what we are missing.
Let’s take a moment to discuss what I mean by equal value cards. Consider that the value of a card is determined by the number of cards in the opponents’ hands that can beat it.
K2 is stronger than Q2, because there is only one card that can beat a K, but two cards that can beat a Q. This is why we value our kings more highly than our queens, because the greater number of cards that can beat a card the less likely the card will win a trick.
When your cards are touching, they become linked in their strength, because the same number of cards in the opponents’ hands can beat them.
Consider the following suit:
Because you have all of the cards above the 8 except for the A, the only card that the opponents’ have that can beat your 8 is the A. Your sequence (the fact that the cards are consecutive) supports itself. Each touching card promotes the strength of the touching cards below it.
When holding a suit like this, it would not be reasonable to count more than one loser because you simply can’t lose to any card other than the ace. Unlike counting winners, where we have to automatically win the trick to count it as good, we are looking at this suit and understanding that it is not possible to more than one club trick. The only card that the opponents have that is capable of taking a club trick is the A.
When your cards are not touching, count the number of cards that cannot be guaranteed to take a trick and that’s how many losers you have in that suit.
When your cards are touching, count the number of cards the opponents have that are above your cards as losers.
Sometimes we need to combine methods one and two because our suit has a combination of little cards and high cards. In that case, we begin by assuming that the opponents’ high cards will take our high cards. Next, we figure how many high cards can beat our high cards, and then we count however many little cards we have as losers.
3. It is important to understand that trump losers are different from the losers we have in any other suit. Why? First and foremost because when we run out of trump, if the opponents still have trump, we will lose those tricks. In counting a suit that isn’t trump, we assume that when we run out, we won’t lose more tricks. But remember that that assumption is based on our ability to trump when the opponents lead the suit. That won’t work with trump. If we are out of trump but the opponents still have trump, they will certainly still take those tricks.
Thus, being out or short in trump is not a defense against losing trump tricks like it is in a side suit (a suit that isn’t trump).
Another consideration is that even if all of our cards are high in trump, this doesn’t prevent the opponents from taking tricks with their little trumps.
If this weren’t a trump suit, we would count zero losers and that would always be true. When counting this suit as trump, you will also count zero losers, but in the case of trump, you are making an assumption that you will have a chance to draw all of the opponents’ trumps before they have a chance to take a trick.
Most times, that will be true. But, should you fail to draw trump or simply not have a chance to do so, the opponents’ little trumps can and will take tricks if a suit is led that they are out of.
Lastly, because we almost always have at least eight trumps between our two hands, we frequently have to consider how our length affects the number of losers that we have, when we often do not need to do so in our side suits. We still have to sometimes do this with side suits (any suit that has at least eight between the two hands needs to be considered for length), but not as often. We won’t be covering length losers in this installment, but if you read the length portion of the counting winners, you’ll have an inkling of where this is headed.
In the next installment, we will discuss counting the losers from only one hand (otherwise known as setting up one hand).
For the following hands, count the losers (for the purposes of these exercises, don’t worry about which suit is trump):
1. 10 losers: 3 spades (we have four spades, only one of them can take a trick, so we count the other three as losers). Even though the spades are a sequence, they aren’t high enough to be meaningful. 2 diamond losers (we have solid diamonds and so we look for what we are missing: the A and the K). 3 club losers (again, we are solid, so we look for what we are missing: the A, K, and Q). 2 heart losers (we have two hearts, neither of them can take a trick so they are both losers.
2. 7 losers: our diamonds are solid, the only one we are missing is the ace, so that will be one losers. We have four clubs and none of them are certain to take a trick, so all four are losers. Remember that the K of clubs has only a 50% chance to take a trick and we want to have making him good as a part of our plan. We have two hearts and we can win one trick, which makes the other one a losers. We have two spades, only one can take a trick for certain, the other has a 50% chance to not take a trick. Just like with the clubs, we want to count the Q as a loser so that making her good is a part of our plan.
3. 9 losers: We have four hearts only two of which are certain to take a trick. The other two are losers. We have a 50% chance to take a trick with the J, but because we need that to be a part of our plan, we count him as a loser. We have four spades, three of which can only be beat by the A and the K. The third spade can be beat by the 9, so we would count 3 losers. We have two diamonds, neither of which can take a trick and therefore both are losers. We have three clubs. We can take one trick for certain (either the K or the Q will be good) but the other two are losers. With this suit, it’s tempting to assume that after the opponents lead the ace we will play the 2 and then take two tricks, we don’t want to assume our opponents are going to do something that foolish. A good defender will not lead an ace when they don’t have the K. A good defender will wait to take either the K or the Q with his ace. Because of this, we want to start by assuming that the defense will play the ace on the K or the Q. We might be able to prevent that, but again, that’s the sort of thing that needs to be apart of our plan, so anticipating it helps us plan for it.
4. 8 losers. You have two spades, both of which will lose and both of which are therefore losers. You have four hearts. Because the Q and J are touching, both cards can only be beat by one card, the K. The 7 however, is definitely a loser, which means we count the suit as two losers (the K that can beat the Q and J, and the 7, which stands next to no chance to win). In clubs, we have four clubs. Three of our clubs can only be beat by the A. The other club, the 2, is certain to lose. Again, we do not assume that the missing high card will play on our low card (this is true for hearts in this hand as well), we assume the missing high card will play on the highest card it can beat. This means we are likely to lose two tricks, one to the A (on our K, Q, or J) and the other with our 2. Notice that we are combining some of our techniques here to determine what the suit is likely to lose. In diamonds, we have three diamond tricks and are missing two high cards, both of which we will count as losers.
5. 9 losers. In diamonds, we can count the suit either way. We can figure that the T will lose to the Q and the 9 to the J, or we can just say that we have four diamonds, only two of which we are certain we will win. In clubs, we have two little clubs, both of which are losers. In hearts, we have solid hearts missing only the ace, so we count only the ace as our loser. In spades, we have four spades, not one of which we can be certain to take a trick with. We should count all four of these as losers. Remember, we assume that the opponents’ high cards will take our high cards. So, if we assume the A will take the K, the Q will take the J, the T will take the 9, and the 8 will take the 7, we have four losers.