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Opening Leads

By Ralph Welton

The opening lead is the one advantage defenders have over declarer. It provides a head start in your campaign to set up and cash tricks before declarer can do the same.

Choose opening leads that tell partner something about your hand and she will be able to make appropriate plans and follow-up plays, which leads to better results and a happier partner.

Standard agreements for opening leads

1. An honor lead shows the higher of touching honors.

♠ K Q 6 Lead the K.
The K and the Q are "touching" or "in sequence."
♥ Q J T 4 2  Lead the Q.
The Q is the higher of the QJ.
♦ J T 6 Lead the J.
The ten is an honor.
♣ K J T 7 Lead the J.
The J and T are touching.
♠ T 9 4 2 Lead the T.
Yes, the T and 9 in sequence are treated like honors for the opening lead.
♥ Q T 9 4 2 Lead the T.
The Q and the T are not touching, so don't lead the Q. The T and the 9 are in sequence.
♦ A T 9 8 5 Lead the T.
Again, the ten and nine are in sequence.
♣ A K 9 5 Lead the A.
Many partnerships lead the K from both an AK combination and a KQ combination. That leaves partner in doubt. She can't tell if a king lead is from an A-K or from a K-Q. It's important for beginners to remove doubt whenever they can, so I recommend you ask partner to adopt the agreement that you will lead A from AK.

2. A spot card shows if you have an honor or two in the suit...

  • low spot says "Yes, I have an honor."
  • high spot says, "No, I do not have an honor."

It's up to Partner to figure out if the spot card you lead is low or high. She'll have to consider all the spot cards she can see after the first trick is over.

♠ K 7 6 Lead the 6.
You would like to have a lower card than the 6 so it would be easier for Partner to tell that your card is indeed "low."
♥ Q T 4 2 Lead the 2.
♦ J 5 3 Lead the 3.
♣ K J 8 7 Lead the 7.
You have to lead a "low" card that might not look "low" to Partner.
♠ 8 4 2 Lead the 8.
♥ 8 7 6 5 4  Lead the 8.
♦ K 9 8 5 Lead the 5.

3. If you have more than 4 cards in a suit with an honor, lead the 4th best.

♠ K 7 6 5 3 2  Lead the 5.
♥ Q T 4 3 2 Lead the 3.
♦ J 9 8 7 5 3 2  Lead the 7.
♣ K J 8 6 5 Lead the 6.

4. Lead high from any doubleton.

♠ 9 6 Lead the 9.
♥ Q 2 Lead the Q.
When partner sees the Queen, she may think you have led from touching honors (from the QJ). She may not be sure what you have until you play another card. Or maybe she'll see the J in her own hand or the Dummy. Then she'll know what your lead means.
♦ 3 2 Lead the 3.
You would prefer to have been dealt a higher spot card than the 3. But you have to make do with what you have. Partner may think the 3 is "low." It will be clear after you later play the 2 that your 3 was not your lowest spot card.
♣ K J Lead the K.
This is another lead that might look like "higher of touching honors" to Partner. It's not good to confuse Partner. So you should seriously consider leading another suit.

stuffed bear

Little Bear says, "I know about all those leads, but my problem is I don't know which suit to lead. With four suits, I've got four choices. It makes my head spin. Can you help me with choosing the right suit?"

That's right, Little Bear, knowing the right card to lead from any suit isn't much good if you don't know the right suit.

Let's start with...

The suit to lead against notrump contracts

On many hands, success goes to the side that establishes and cashes their tricks first. In short, it's a race to establish your long suit or your honors before declarer establishes his. We call opening leads that try to establish tricks attacking leads or active leads.

On other hands, what's required instead is patience, leading passively from a suit that has neither length nor honor cards.

Active leads

When your opponents have settled in a notrump contract, you may not be able to defeat them based on your high cards alone. But if you can establish extra winners in a long suit (skaters), your chances improve greatly.

So our first rule for opening leads is...

Lead the suit that is the longest and strongest in the combined hands of the partnership. Save your high cards in other suits to recapture the lead after your long suit has been established.

You can't always tell which suit is longest and strongest because you see only your own hand, and not partner's. Even so, the guesswork involved can be greatly reduced if you pay attention to the bidding.

example 1

A Q 8 6 4  
9 2
5 4 3
K 7 2

The contract is 3NT. Partner has not bid.

If partner has not bid, lead spades. You hope spades is the longest and strongest suit in your hand and partner's hand combined.

But if partner has bid, make your opening lead in partner's suit. Yes, even if partner's suit is hearts, lead it, despite having only a doubleton.

Remember, it's better to lead toward honors than to lead away from them. In the heart suit, you'll be leading toward partner's honors instead of leading spades away from your spade honors.

example 2

A Q 8 6 4  
K J 3
9 7 6 2

The contract is 3NT. Partner bid hearts.

With a singleton in partner's heart suit, and a likely side suit winner for an entry (diamonds here), lead your own long, strong suit.

example 3

K J 8 6 4  
J 3
A 8 3
T 6 2

The contract is 3NT.

Partner has bid hearts and raised your spades.

Lead spades, the suit partner raised. You have an entry (A) for your spade skaters after you have established the suit.

example 4

8 4 3
8 7 5
K Q J T 9  
A 7

The contract is 3NT. Partner has bid hearts.

When you can defeat the contract without partner's help, make an opening lead in your own suit.

Lead diamonds to drive out the A. Then recapture the lead with the A to cash the setting tricks.

stuffed bear

Lead partner's suit in preference to your own, unless...

✔  Partner raised your suit, or...

✔  You only have a singleton in partner's suit, or...

✔  You can defeat the contract without partner's help

It would be nice if we were always dealt a long, strong suit. It would make opening notrump leads easy. But some hands just don't fit our guidelines. For example...

example 5

Q 8 6 4 3  
8 5
9 3

The contract is 3NT. Partner didn't bid.

What kind of opening lead do we make when our long suit is not our strong suit?

It's usually better to lead the strong suit. You can take three tricks in clubs after the A is gone, but you may not take any tricks at all in spades.

example 6

A 3
K Q 9 6 5  
9 8 7
Q T 6

The contract is 3NT. Partner didn't bid. Declarer bid hearts.

Does it matter that declarer has bid our best suit?

Yes, it definitely does matter. We'll get to what you should lead in a minute. But what I want you to focus on now is that you should AVOID leading declarer's suit. Hearts would be the worst suit to lead.

What if dummy bid hearts? Would we still AVOID an opening lead in our long heart suit?

Yes! The main reason for an opening lead in our longest and strongest suit is we hope to take tricks with our small cards after the opponents run out of the suit – we want skaters. But when they have bid the suit, they are unlikely to run out.

In addition, declarer will have the advantage of playing last with whatever honors he has in our suit.

Opening leads to avoid...

✔  Suits bid by your opponents, especially declarer.

✔  Weak long suits when you don't have enough entries to establish and cash them.

✔  3-card or 4-card suits with only one honor.

✔  3-card or 4-card suits headed by A-Q or K-J. This kind of broken honor sequence is called a tenace.

stuffed bear"Hey wait a minute! If I avoid all that, what's left to lead?"

Good question, Little Bear! What's left is an entirely different style of opening leads, called passive leads.

Passive leads

example 7

9 7 3
T 6 5 2  
Q 8 7
A 9 6

The contract is 3NT. Partner didn't bid. Declarer bid hearts.

Little Bear says, "Yuck! I don't have a longest and strongest suit. And partner didn't bid. Now what?"

First of all, don't lead hearts. That would only help declarer establish his main suit.

Second, don't lead away from either of your lonely honors. If you do, you might present declarer with an extra trick. For example, declarer might plan to take a diamond finesse, losing to your Q. But if your opening lead is a diamond, declarer will play last. That means no finesse, and no trick for your Q. There are similar problems with leading away from the A.

So the recommended opening lead is the 9. If partner has any spade honors, you'll be leading toward them. And if she doesn't have any spade honors, declarer was going to make all the spade tricks on this hand anyway. No harm done!

The 9 is a passive lead, sometimes called a protecting lead because you are trying to protect your honors by waiting for someone else to lead those suits.

example 8

7 5 3 2
Q T 5 2  
7 5 3
A 9

The contract is 3NT. Partner didn't bid. Declarer bid hearts.

Which is a better passive lead – a three card suit or a four card suit?

Longer suits make safer passive opening leads because they are less likely to help declarer establish skaters.

Lead 7 in preference to the 7.

example 9

7 5 3
K 7 5 3  
7 5 3
A 5 3

The contract is 3NT.

Declarer opened 1N. Dummy raised to 2N, and declarer went on to the 3N game. What's your opening lead?

Avoid leading three or four card suits headed by only one honor. So a passive opening lead is indicated. Your spades and your diamonds are identical, so it might seem to be a toss-up which to choose. But it's not.

Look again at the bidding. Why didn't your opponents make bids to look for a major suit fit? Because, after looking at their hands, they knew they don't have enough cards in the majors to have a fit. That increases the chances that partner has more spades than diamonds.

Your opening lead should be the 7. Sometimes it's just as important to notice what wasn't bid as it is to notice what was bid.

example 10

A T 4
K 8 5 3  
K 9 6
Q J 2

The contract is 3NT. Dummy bid hearts.

We have no longest and strongest suit. It looks like we need a passive opening lead to protect our honors.

Actually, a three card suit headed by two honors in sequence is OK, if nothing better is available. Lead the Q.

The safest passive opening leads...

✔  a worthless 4 card suit.

✔  a worthless 3 card suit.

✔  a 3 card suit headed by two honors in sequence.

✔  a low doubleton.

Sometimes the bidding will suggest which of these is best. We'll get to that in a minute, but first...

Review and practice for notrump opening leads

example 11

7 2
A J T 7
K T 6 5 4  
9 8

The contract is 3NT. Partner did not bid.

Partner did not bid, so lead your own suit.

What is your opening lead, the J or the 5?

plush toy bear You have a long suit, and a side suit entry to recapture the lead after your long suit is established.

Lead the 5.

example 12

A Q T 7 5  
8 4 3
K T 8
7 6

The contract is 3NT. Partner bid hearts.

You have a long strong suit, and a side suit entry to recapture the lead after your suit is established.

Is your opening lead the 7?

plush toy bear No! You have no reason to shun partner's suit, and you cannot defeat the contract without partner's help.

Lead 8.

example 13

Q 9 5 4  
K Q T 7
Q 9 5 4

The contract is 3NT. Partner bid spades. Declarer bid diamonds.

Avoid a diamond lead. That's declarer's suit.

Do you lead from one of your other four card suits, or do you lead your singleton in partner's suit?

plush toy bear Don't help declarer by leading away from your lonely queens. Lead J. You don't know how good partner's suit is. But you do know that the other suits are bad leads.

example 14

7 6
Q 9 4
J 8 7
K 9 7 5 4  

The contract is 3NT. Partner didn't bid.

When no suits have been bid, your opening lead can be your own longest suit.

Do you lead the 5, or something else?

plush toy bear Your clubs are weak and you have no certain entry, even if you could establish your clubs as skaters.

Don't lead away from any of your single honors. Instead, your opening lead should be the 7, a passive lead. If partner has any spade honors, you'll be leading toward them.

example 15

T 2
8 4 3
K J 8 7
A Q 6 5  

The contract is 3NT. Partner didn't bid.

Clubs and diamonds are your longest and strongest suits, though they are only four card suits.

What are our guidelines for opening leads from four card suits not bid by declarer's side?

plush toy bear Avoid opening leads from four card suits headed by a high tenace (two honors with a hole in their sequence).

That leaves the majors. Make a passive (protecting) opening lead with the 8, your longer major.

example 16

K 2
7 3
A J T 7 4 2 
K Q 5

The contract is 3NT. Partner didn't bid.

Nice hand! There's a good chance you'll be able to set this 3N contract – if you get off the the best opening lead.

What's your choice?

plush toy bear You have a fine suit, with side suit entries.

Lead the J, and start driving out declarer's stopper(s).

Do not lead fourth best – the 7. Declarer might then win the trick cheaply and save his diamond honors for later.

example 17

A K 9 5 4  
T 7 4 2
Q 7 5

The contract is 3NT. Partner didn't bid.

You have a nice spade suit, but you only have a mild hope of a side suit entry.

I've peeked at the cards, and I can tell you that partner doesn't have any high cards in spades. I can also tell you that you have a good chance to set up and cash spade skaters.

What has to happen for you to get four spade tricks?

plush toy bear First, your opening lead has to be a low spade (4th best is the 5), saving your top spades for later.

When partner wins a trick, she'll return a spade and you'll cash your two honors. If the spades divide evenly around the table, you will have two skaters to enjoy.

Since you owned the master spades, your entry was in the spade suit itself.

Listen to the bidding

example 18 – the unbid suit

West North East You
P 1 P
1 P 2 P
2 P 3N P

What do we know from the bidding? Well... we know a lot, actually.

Why did East choose notrump and not a spade contract?

plush toy bear East is short spades. Even with a doubleton, it would be normal to choose spades after responder has rebid them.

In addition, East has shown two suits and must also have a diamond stopper for his NT bid, so there isn't much room in his hand for spades.

You inquire what the 2 call shows, and West explains that in their partnership it shows a medium strength hand. A 3 rebid would have shown a maximum.

Interesting. That means East-West do not have enough power to bid game. So where does East think his tricks are coming from?

He's expecting to be able to cash skaters.

Which suit will East's skaters come from?

plush toy bear Not spades because he doesn't have spade support.

Not hearts. With long strong hearts, he wouldn't open the bidding in clubs.

So declarer has long strong clubs.

What would be the only reason to lead a heart instead of the obvious diamond suit?

plush toy bear Only lead hearts if you have such strength in the suit that you can force out declarer's stopper and still have three or four winners for yourself.

In addition, avoid a heart lead if you don't have a solid sequence of honors.
T 4
K J T 9 8  
8 5 2
9 7 5

After considering the bidding (example 18, above), let's look at your actual hand. What's your opening lead for this hand?

plush toy bear If you lead hearts, you may give declarer the gift of taking two tricks with the AQ. (There's no honey in that tree...)

Lead 8, the unbid suit.

When your opponents have bid three suits and settled into a NT contract, it's usually right to lead the unbid suit. This is especially true if it's a major.

example 19 – no suits have been bid

West North East You
P 1N P
2N P 3N P

Responder invites game and opener accepts. They bid no suits along the way, so it might seem that there are no clues as to what suits they actually hold. Not true!

Opener doesn't usually have a five-card major when he opens 1NT, though he often has a five-card minor. Rarely, he might have a six-card minor. So opener's holdings are biased towards the minors.

Why didn't responder bid stayman?

Responder usually doesn't have a 4 card major when he fails to bid stayman.

Responder often raises NT with a long minor, but almost never does he bid NT while concealing length in a major. So, responder's holdings are strongly biased towards the minors.

Without even knowing what your hand is, what should be your opening lead?

plush toy bear You should bend over backwards to lead a major suit.

If you don't have length in a major, there's a high probability that partner does. And it's good to lead partner's suit.

example 19 (continued)

8 6
K J 8 6 2  
K Q 7 6 5

Remember, 3NT – no suits have been bid.

The major suit bias tells us that the best lead is not one of our suits, but 8. This is only true because the opponents have told us (with their bidding) that they have the minors and not the majors. Avoid leading declarer's suits.

example 20 – stayman

West North East You
P 1N P
2 P 2 P
3N P P P

Responder must have been disappointed not to find a heart fit. Now his use of stayman has given the defenders extra information about both declarer and dummy. A wise defender will consider the information before choosing an opening lead.

Is the major suit bias for leads against 3N so strong that it overrides the fact that declarer and dummy each have a four card major? Should you still prefer an opening lead in a major when the decision seems close?

plush toy bear Absolutely not!

The disclosure that declarer and dummy each have a four card major creates a minor suit bias for your opening lead.

Even if you don't hold a good minor yourself, it's likely that partner does.

Opening leads against suit contracts

Many of the considerations for opening leads against suit contacts are the same as for opening leads against notrump. There are, however, two main differences.

  1. Don't bother trying to set up your long strong suit for skaters. Even if you succeed in setting it up, declarer will trump your skaters.
  2. The defenders can trump too. So leading short suits, trying for an early ruff, holds promise that doesn't exist for notrump contracts.

Good opening leads against a suit contract...

✔  lead a singleton, preparing to trump the second round. Note that this is only good if you have a trump card to use for ruffing, and if partner can lead the suit back for you to ruff.

✔  lead partner's short suit so she can ruff before declarer pulls trump. For this to work, you may need an early round trump winner so you can lead the original suit again before declarer finishes pulling partner's trump cards.

✔  lead your own suit if partner raised it.

✔  lead partner's suit

✔  lead the top of an honor sequence. An ace-king sequence is among the best opening leads because you will win the trick and get to see both the dummy and partner's attitude card to the first trick, either of which may guide you to the best defense. Other two-card sequences are risky, while three-card sequences are far safer.

✔  make a passive or protecting lead in a side suit where you have no honors.

example 21

K Q 3 2  
Q 8 6
A J T 9
7 3

The contract is 4. Partner didn't bid.

Decide if each of these opening leads is good or bad. Then read the comments for each one.

plush toy bear The top of a sequence of honors can be a good opening lead, provided your opponents haven't bid the suit.

Leading the K carries a risk. If declarer holds the A, he will squish your king and you will get only one trick from your KQ. If you lead something else instead, you may get two tricks from this well-placed combination.

If you have nothing better, an opening lead from a KQ sequences is OK. On this hand, you have something better.
plush toy bear This is a terrible opening lead!

You want to play last with your Q, as you will if declarer finesses.

Leading away from a single honor loses a trick when declarer holds the missing honors and no longer takes a losing finesse. This is especially likely in the suit declarer has chosen as trump.
plush toy bear Yuck!

Don't lead away from aces. This allows declarer to make a trick with an honor you otherwise might be able to squish with your ace.

An opening lead from a JT9 combination without the ace would be safe.
plush toy bear Leading from a worthless doubleton is a good protecting lead.

If partner has any honors in this suit, you will be leading towards them, which is good.

This opening lead protects your honors in the other three suits. It's the best available this time.

example 22

9 7 6
Q J T 7 3  
8 7 4 3

The auction was 1 – 3 – 4. What's your lead?

plush toy bear A singleton in a side suit is one of the best opening leads, if...

1. You have a small trump that you don't need to protect a trump honor. If your trumps were Kx, Qxx, or Jxxx, this would not be a good lead.

2. You can get the lead over to partner's hand for a second lead of this suit. In this case, your hand is so weak that partner could well have the A or an early trump entry. If partner has two entries, you can dream of getting two spade ruffs.

The 5 is the best opening lead on this hand.
plush toy bear No. There are only three times when it's good to lead trumps, none of which apply this time.

1. The bidding tells you that dummy is going to trump your winners in side suits. Trump leads cut down on dummy's ruffing power.

2. Declarer has overbid, and the only way he can make his contract is by scoring extra tricks with ruffs. This is very similar to #1. The best clue that declarer has overbid is when partner doubles the final contract.

3. All the other suits are bad leads and you have two or three small trumps. This may turn out to be a good protecting lead.
plush toy bear A sequence of three honors is usually a fine opening lead. It's certainly safe in that it won't give away a trick.

But with this hand there's a better opening lead.
plush toy bear Leading from a worthless suit is a good protecting or passive lead.

There is always the unfortunate possibility that declarer, who plays last to this trick, may be able to avoid taking a finesse he would have lost to partner.

So the Q is a better protecting lead. And there's an even better opening lead than that.

Be sure to read the comments for all four opening leads.

example 23

J 8 5
Q J T 8  
7 3
K Q 4 3

The auction was 1 – 2.

You have honor sequences in hearts and clubs, and a good passive lead in diamonds. What do you think of each of these opening leads?

Leading away from a minor honor in the trump suit is a poor opening lead.
plush toy bear I hope you recognized that the Q is the best opening lead.

A three card sequence is safer than most two card sequences. (Do you remember the only two-card sequence that is better? – an AK sequence.)
plush toy bear Opening leads from weak doubletons are good passive leads. But you should prefer a good attacking lead like the three card honor sequence in hearts.
plush toy bear Two card honor sequences make risky opening leads.

If declarer holds the A, your KQ are well placed. You'll make two tricks from your two honors so long as you avoid leading one and getting it squished.

example 24

K 4 3 2  
A 4 3 2
Q 4 3 2

The contract is 4. No side suits were bid.

A singleton trump makes a poor opening lead. And you should avoid opening leads from suits headed by a single honor.

But you have to lead something, even when none of your choices are good.

The higher the honor you lead away from, the more likely that you give away a trick. So the 2 is the worst opening lead and the 2 is the least bad. (I don't want to call it the best.) Whatever you choose, it will go poorly unless you're lucky enough to find partner with a helpful honor.

One additional note for example 24...

If, for whatever reason, you decide to lead diamonds, you should choose the A, not the 2. At least you'll get a trick out of your bad opening lead. And you may be able to shift to a better suit for the next trick after you see partner's attitude card and the dummy.

Don't confuse this with a "good" opening lead. It's not. It's just better than the 2.

Listen to the bidding

Sometimes the bidding tells you what opening lead to make. Let's look at some examples.

example 25

West North East You
1 P
1N P 2 P

Declarer has 5 spades, yet responder chose clubs as trumps. That means dummy is short in spades. Declarer may well plan to trump spade losers in dummy. So...

Lead trump. And if you can recapture the lead, lead trump again.

example 25 (continued)

A Q T 8  
Q J T 6
5 2
T 8 2

Normally a lead from a three card honor sequence, like QJT, is good. But not on this bidding. Your hand confirms that declarer has spade losers that he would like to trump in the dummy.

Lead clubs as many times as you can. Each club lead saves a future spade trick for you.

example 26

West North East You
1 P
2 P 2 P
3 P 4

Declarer has a spade suit he bid three times. If he gets the lead he will pull trump and discard his side suit losers on dummy's strong diamond suit.


example 26 (continued)

T 5
A Q 8 2
Q 7
K T 5 3 2 ; 

Forget the warnings about not leading away from certain honor holdings in the unbid suits. If you don't cash your winners in clubs and hearts right now, you may never get them.

Lead the A, and look closely at partner's carding. If she has the K, she'll play an encouraging card, and you will continue hearts. If she discourages hearts, you'll shift to clubs.

The bidding told you to take such wild chances with your opening lead.

A compromise for opening leads...

Defense is easier when you can quickly figure out who's got the high honors in each suit. To that end, beginners should only lead low from a high honor, not from a jack or ten.

When you hold a suit like J 8 7 3, look for a different suit to lead. You don't want to lead low from this and have Partner assume you have a higher honor than you actually hold. And you can't lead the J because that promises the T, which you don't have.

The solution is...

So if you must lead from a suit headed by the J or T, lead the second highest. Partner will see the high spot card and know you don't have a high honor.

From J 8 7 3, lead the 8. And tell Partner your opening leads of a low spot card promise a high honor. (Tell her before the game starts, not after you've looked at your cards.)

plush toy bearGo to the next topic:

Third Hand Play

Ralph Welton with BuffyBridge Bears is run by a retired teacher and ACBL life master who has 35 years teaching experience and who's been playing bridge for over 50 years. I don't claim to be one of the top players, but I do understand how slowly beginners need to go when they are trying to learn how to play bridge.