Is it Safe, Partner?

Pat Harrington

When partner leads a king versus your opponents’ notrump contract, what possible holding do you picture in partner’s hand?

Assuming that the bidding has not suggested the lead of this particular suit, you expect partner to have length in the suit led. We tend to lead our own long suit versus notrump. We don’t waste honors, so you also expect partner to have additional high cards in the suit.

The king might be a top of sequence lead from K-Q-J-x (x) or from K-Q-10-x (x). But the standardlead from A-K-J-x is also the king (more about this next month). This month, let’s focus on those first two possibilities.

You will be third to play to the trick – third hand. Does “third-hand high” apply? One of the reasons for playing third-hand high is to attempt to win the trick. If the card partner led is
already doing as good a job as you could do, it may not be necessary to play your high card. In these examples, West leads the ♠K against 3NT. How should East play?


♠ 6 5 3
♠ K Q J 10 2 ♠ A 8
♠ 9 7 4

East-West are entitled to five spade tricks. If West has no entry to his hand outside of spades and East does not play the ace on partner’s king at trick one, the suit will be blocked,
and the defenders could end up winning only two spade tricks. East must make the unblocking play of the ♠A on partner’s king so he can return a spade at trick two. West’s
spades don’t have to be this strong, but unblocking with a doubleton is still East’s best play.


♠ 6 5 3
♠ K Q J 9 ♠ A 8
♠ 10 7 4 2

Luckily, declarer’s ♠10 will be trapped by East’s spade return at trick two, and the defenders will win four spade tricks.

Notice that declarer holding the East-West cards wouldn’t need this kind of luck. Declarer can see his hand and dummy and knows that the best way to avoid blocking a suit is
to cash the winners in the short hand first.

Declarer would have led the ♠9 to the ace on the first spade lead. The defenders also have to make sure that they don’t get stuck in the short hand while the longer hand still
has tricks coming, but they are at a disadvantage because they can’t see their assets.

This disadvantage makes the unblocking play necessary even though it could cost a trick. Give East one more spade and such extravagance is not needed.


♠ 6 5
♠ K Q J 2 ♠ A 8 3
♠ 10 9 7 4

When your partner leads an honor, your job is often to signal attitude. Rather than risk setting up a trick for declarer by playing the ace on East’s ♠K, East gives an encouraging signal. Using standard signals, a high spot card is encouraging, a low spot card is discouraging and warns partner to continue leading the suit at his own risk. After winning the ♠K and seeing West’s 8 on trick one, how should West continue at trick two? East appears to have a high card in spades, and the defenders have to find a way to avoid playing the winner in the short hand last.

West should lead the ♠2 next. East wins the ace, and the defenders take the first four tricks. Notice that continuing with a second high spade will make things awkward for East. If
East unblocks, declarer gets a spade trick. If East doesn’t unblock, West needs an outside entry to get the fourth spade. Newcomers frequently lose tricks on holdings like this where
they do not cash their winners in the correct order.

Paying close attention to partner’s attitude signals can help you untangle your long suits by cashing winners in the short hand early. East was fortunate to have been dealt the ♠8,
a relatively high card to use to signal encouragement. In some cases, your cards won’t let you make such a loud encouraging signal.


♠ 9 6 5
♠ K Q 10 7 ♠ 8 3 2
♠ A J 4

The king is the suggested opening lead from West’s holding, but West must be cautious about continuing the suit — even when the king holds the first trick. Declarer often holds up the ace, hoping West will lead another spade. If that happens, declarer will win the ♠A and the ♠J. How can East stop West from being so generous? East signals with the discouraging
2. West should recognize that it is unsafe to continue leading spades and switch to another suit.

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