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Long Suits

By Ralph Welton

This is one of a series of Declarer Play articles. These articles build upon each other, so I recommend that you study them in order.

One of the first things we do as declarer is count winners. Most hands won't have enough winners to make the contract, so we look for ways to develop more.

On this page we'll look at suits where we hope to take extra tricks with small cards. To do that we need to play the suit enough times so the defenders run out. This establishes our remaining cards as skaters.

Testing for Skaters

example 1

4 2

A K Q 8 6 5  

How many winners?

Correct. With a favorable 3-2 split, you will have 6 winners. But you don't know the split yet, so you can only count your AKQ as winners.
With a favorable 3-2 split, you will have 6 winners. But you don't know the split yet, so you can only count your AKQ as winners.

When you start playing your masters, watch to see when someone discards.

If someone discards on the first round, what is the split?


If someone discards on the second round, what is the split?


If no one discards on the second round, what is the split?


How many of your masters will you have to cash to confirm that you do indeed have 6 winners?

No, if they both follow suit to your first heart master, there might still be a 4-1 split where you cannot win the fourth round. So you will not yet know how many skaters you might have.
Yes. Good counting. If they both follow suit, that means a 3-2 split. Your third master will be able to capture their final heart and your three spot cards will all be skaters. That means 6 heart winners can be counted. However, if an opponent discards on the second round, you will know that you do not have 6 winners.
Oops... no honey for you this time. Actually, you will know before the third round. If they both follow suit to your first two masters, you will have 6 winners. And if one of them discards on either of the first two rounds, you will not have 6 winners.

example 2

K 4 2

A Q 6 5  

How many winners?

3 winners

Is there any hope for a skater?

Yes. If their 6 spades split 3-3, you will have a fourth round skater.

How many of your masters will you have to cash to confirm that you have a skater?

All three of them. If they follow suit to the first two of them, you won't know if the split is 3-3 or 4-2.

Testing this suit for skaters is not risk-free. If spades don't split in three rounds, their remaining spade will be higher than your 6. In other words, playing your AKQ may establish a winner for the wrong team. Ouch!

Even if there is a 4-2 split, there may still be hope for a skater. But you have to be a little sneaky about it. Since your four-card holding is concealed in your closed hand, you may do well to delay playing this suit as long as possible. Maybe the defender with the four card holding will make the mistake of discarding one of his spot cards. That reduces the original 4-2 split to a 3-2 split, which your three master cards can pick up. Then you will have a skater that wasn't possible early in the play.

example 3

K 4 3 2

A Q 6 5  

This example is almost the same as the last one. I've given Dummy an extra spot card.

You have 3 winners, and you want to know if you have an additional fourth round skater.

The best spot card you can save for the fourth round is your 6. If either defender has four or more diamonds, his best card will outrank yours. So you will not have a fourth winner if either defender has a 4 or 5 card holding in this suit.

Count how many diamonds they have. What are the possible splits?

5-0, 4-1, and 3-2. A 5-0 split means no skater. A 4-1 split means no skater. But a 3-2 split is good news.

How many of your masters must you cash to confirm that there is a 3-2 split so you will have a skater?

Just 2. If no one discards when you cash your first master, that rules out a 5-0 split. And cashing your second master without seeing a discard rules out 4-1.

So when both follow suit to two rounds, the split must be 3-2 and your third master will pick up the single outstanding card. Then your 6 can enjoy a fourth round skate around the table – holding hands with a spot card from Dummy.

Many players prefer to simply count cards rather than thinking about splits.

In example 3, the defenders have 5 diamonds. If both follow suit when you cash your first master, that's 2 of the 5. Then you lead another master and (if they follow suit) add 2 more = 4. So there's only one of the original 5 left, and it will fall under your third master.

example 4

A K Q J 4  


Dummy has a nice club suit – 4 winners.

The defense holds more clubs than you do. But what about your fifth round 4? Might that be a skater?

Yes! If the outstanding clubs split 4-3, they won't have any left for the fifth round. Your low spot card will then be a winner.

What are the possible splits for their 7 cards?

7-0, 6-1, 5-2, 4-3

How many of your master cards must you play to be sure you have 5 club winners?

plush toy bear Three. If there are no discards in three rounds, they will have played six clubs, leaving only one outstanding. Your fourth master will remove that last card, and your 4 will be a skater.

An alternate way to arrive at the same conclusion is to eliminate the 7-0 split when there is no discard on the first round. Eliminate the 6-1 split when there is no discard on the second round. Eliminate the 5-2 split when there is no discard on the third round. There is only one possible split left: 4-3.

A short cut...

When you're hoping for a favorable split that gives you skaters, think of the numbers for the split you want (3-2, 3-3, 4-2, etc.). The smaller number is how many rounds of the suit must be played to confirm you get what you are hoping for.

  • If you want a 4-3 spit, you must play the suit 3 times.
  • If a 4-2 split is good enough, you must play the suit 2 times.
  • If you need a 3-3 split, you must play 3 rounds.
  • If you need a 2-2 split, you must play the suit 2 times.

Following this shortcut does not create skaters. It just tells you whether or not you have them. If the suit doesn't split as you hope, you don't have the skaters you want.

Losing Tricks to Create Skaters

example 5

9 8 6

5 4 3 2  

A very weak heart suit.

No honey in this suit... or is there?

Is there any chance you could develop a skater?

Yes! If their six hearts split 3-3, your fourth round 5 will be a winner.

Can you test for skaters?

In our first four examples, all of our "testing for skaters" was about cashing our winners in a given suit while watching for discards to see if the split is what we are hoping for.

With this weak heart holding, we're going to lose the lead every time we lead the suit. Then we'd have to recapture the lead (in whichever suit they lead) before we could lead the next heart.

But it is possible to have enough high cards in each of the other suits that there are no worries, and all you are concerned about is trying for one heart winner.

example 6

9 8 6

A 4 3 2  

I've added a winner to our lousy heart suit.

Since you have the master card, you can choose when to win a trick.There is an advantage to winning at a specific time – the round when you know if you have a skater or not.

When should you win your A?

This choice does not stop them from cashing all the winners they have when you lead a second heart.
After this second heart trick, you don't know if you have a heart skater. Then when you lead a third heart, you cannot stop them from cashing all their heart winners.
plush toy bear Yes. Well judged. On the third round you will discover if there is a 3-3 split. If there is, you have the lead to cash your skater. If there isn't, you have the lead to try something else.

If you never lose the lead again, they will never cash their fourth-round heart winner. Or if you are lucky and you only lose the lead to the defender who doesn't hold their heart winner, he can't lead it. Either way, you don't lose that last heart trick.

For the question you just answered, I didn't give you a choice to win your A on the 4th round. Why would the 4th round be an awful time to win your ace?

To win the 4th round with your A means you have chosen to lose the first three rounds. If there is a 3-3 split, your A is a skater. You could have won an earlier round with your A and had a spot card as a skater.

Just thinking about this unhappy choice of saving your ace for the fourth round makes me want a bit of toast and honey to help me feel better. Would you like some too, Little Bear?

When you intentionally lose a trick by playing low cards from both hands, we call that "ducking." For this hand we play the suit like this:

  1. Duck the first round. Watch for a discard. If no discard...
  2. Duck the second round. Watch for a discard. If no discard...
  3. Win the third round with your A.
    • If no discard (a 3-3 split), cash your skater.
    • If someone discards, abandon hearts and hope they never cash their remaining heart winner.

example 7

9 8 6

A K 3 2  

I've improved our heart suit with a second winner.

Think about what you learned in example 6. The worst time to win one of your masters would be the fourth round. That would waste a master card when a spot card might be a skater.

So we're going to win our two masters before the fourth round. That means we're going to duck once.

Would it be OK to duck the first round and win the next two?

Yes. You will keep the lead on the third round and be able to cash your skater if there is a 3-3 split.

Would it be OK to duck the second round, winning the first and third rounds?

Yes. You will retain the lead on the third round and be able to cash your skater if there is a 3-3 split.

Would it be OK to duck the third round, after having won the first two rounds?

You need to win your last master on the third round. That's when you discover who has the fourth round skater. If it's you, cash it. If it's them, be glad you still have the lead so they can't cash it. You can hope the bad guy with the heart skater never gets the lead to cash it.

example 8

A Q 8 4 2  

6 3  

How many winners?

Just one.

How many cards do the defenders have?

You have 7, so they have 6.

How do you hope they split?

3-3, which would give you two skaters.

You want to win the trick on the round that confirms you have skaters. Which round should you win your A?

You find out if the split is 3-3 on the third round, so that's when you win your A.

Assuming you have entries to the dummy in other suits, it won't matter whether you duck the first or the second round. And of course you will lead toward your AQ and finesse before the third round.

You can lead from either hand when ducking or cashing your A. But you must lead from your own hand when finessing. So if the lead is in your hand, you might as well begin with the finesse, and duck the second round.

yellow duckyBut if the lead is in the dummy, begin with a duck.

What is the maximum number of winners you might get from this suit?

Four. A, Q, and 2 skaters. No matter how lucky you are, you must duck at least once to establish skaters.

What is the minimum number of winners you might get from this suit?

Just one. If the K is off sides, and there is a 6-0 or 5-1 split, all you can win is your A.

Many suits are like this, where you can't tell how the opponents' cards split, so you can't tell how many winners you can develop.

example 9

A Q T 6 4 3  

8 2

How many winners?

Just one.

Is it possible to have a lucky lie of the cards where you could win all six club tricks?

Yes. A 3-2 split, with both the K and J on sides, would allow you to finesse twice and win six tricks – three of them skaters.

How should you play the first club trick?

Lead low to Dummy's T. If you finesse with your Q on the first round, you will always lose at least one trick because they would still have two big clubs and you would only have one ace.

Instead, you must save your A to squish their K, and save your Q to squish their J. If their big honors are both on-sides, you can win the first trick with your T.

example 10

A J T 3
Q 7 2
K 9
A J T 5

A K J 9
A Q 6 5 3  
Q 9 4

How many winners?

2 spades, 4 hearts, 3 diamonds, 1 club = 10 winners

Your contract is 6N. How many more tricks must you develop?

2 more tricks

How many extra tricks might you get from each suit? (Try to work it out before peeking...)

2 extra tricks, but you have to be incredibly lucky for the Q to be singleton or doubleton, so it falls when you cash your AK.
No extra tricks. You already have 4 masters.
2 extra tricks, if there is a 3-3 split.
3 extra tricks, by repeating a winning finesse.

You can play for an honor to drop in spades, play for a 3-3 split in diamonds, or finesse in clubs. You could pick any one of these options, and make your 6N contract if it works.

But one of them guarantees that you make your contract, even when all three "fail."

Go back and recount winners, assuming the Q doesn't drop, the diamonds don't split, and the club finesse loses. One of them gives you 12 tricks, as long as you do it first. Which one?

Take the club finesse first. After it loses, you will have 2 spade winners, 4 hearts, 3 diamonds, and 3 clubs =12 tricks. And if the club finesse wins, you will make an overtrick.

What could go wrong if you first try spades and the Q doesn't drop, and then you take the club finesse?

When they win the finesse with their K, they could cash their Q and defeat your contract. The same disaster happens if you test diamonds and they don't split before losing the club finesse – they cash their diamond skater as the setting trick.

To ensure your contract, you must take the club finesse first.

Little Bear says, "I like overtricks. The club finesse might give me an overtrick."

Yes, Little Bear, overtricks are nice. But don't risk your contract in hopes of making an overtrick.

plush toy bearGo to the next topic:

Count Defensive Winners

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.