Second Hand Play
By Ralph Welton
Second hand play is more difficult than third hand play.
We will still rely on general guidelines for choosing most of our plays, and that's simple enough. But difficulties arise because there are more exceptions to second hand guidelines than there are for third hand play.
General guidelines for second hand play
 Cover an honor with an honor
 Play Second Hand Low
For example...  
Dummy leads... ♠ Q 5 2  Cover the honor... ♠ K 9 7 
Dummy leads... ♥ Q 5 2  Second hand low... ♥ K 9 7 
Dummy leads... ♦ J 8 6  Cover the honor... ♦ K 5 3 
Dummy leads... ♣ J 8 6  Second hand low... ♣ K 5 3 
Dummy leads... ♠ 8 2  Second hand low... ♠ Q T 6 3 
As you can see, our two guidelines are easy enough to follow. Following them results in the best plays most of the time, but an understanding of WHY they are best will help us figure out when a specific hand is an exception. It all boils down to how many tricks declarer can take...
Partner ♥ T 8 6 4 

Declarer ♥ A J 3 
Dummy ♥ Q 5 2 

You ♥ K 9 7 
Declarer leads the ♥Q from Dummy. You are in second seat, and our guideline advises you to cover the honor, even if you expect Declarer to have the ♥A.
If you cover, how many tricks will Declarer win?
If instead you don't cover, how many tricks will Declarer win?
Whether you cover or not, your ♥K will not win a trick because it's poorly placed with Declarer's ace ready to capture it. But if you cover the honor played from Dummy, you can hold Declarer to only two heart tricks. Covering the queen forces Declarer to play two of his honors (♥Q and ♥A) on the same trick, promoting Partner's ♥T to a third round winner.
At the table you cannot see Declarer's cards, so you might hope he doesn't have the ♥A. If that's the case, would it be better to play or withhold your ♥K?
Let's move Declarer's ♥A into Partner's hand and take a closer look...
Partner ♥ A T 6 4 

Declarer ♥ J 8 3 
Dummy ♥ Q 5 2 

You ♥ K 9 7 
If you squish the ♥Q, Partner's ♥AT plays after Declarer's ♥J. There will be no tricks here for Declarer.
But if you fail to squish the ♥Q, Partner will have to play his ♥A on the ♥Q, and Declarer will later make a trick by leading toward his ♥J.
Comparing examples 1 and 2, we see that it doesn't matter whether Declarer or Partner holds the ace. Either way it's best to cover the honor.
Partner ♣ T 5 4 

Declarer ♣ A J 8 3 2 
Dummy ♣ Q 6 

You ♣ K 9 7 
Once again Dummy leads an honor.
Suppose you suspect that Declarer has the ace.
What card do you play?
Partner ♦ ? 

Dummy ♦ Q 7 2 
Declarer ♦ 4 

You ♦ K T 3 
This time Dummy is on your left, and Declarer leads low toward the ♦Q. You can be sure of winning the trick if you rise with the ♦K.
Why is it best to play low? You want to give Partner a chance to squish the ♦Q, and you want to retain the chance to squish Declarer's ♦J, if he has it. Covering honors promotes lesser honors, and – good news – you own the ♦T!
The next diagram reveals Declarer's actual holding.
Partner ♦ A 8 5 

Dummy ♦ Q 7 2 
Declarer ♦ J 9 6 4 

You ♦ K T 3 
You play low on the first round, and Declarer puts up Dummy's ♦Q, losing to Partner's ♦A.
After Partner's ♦A captures the ♦Q, how many additional diamond tricks can you win?
If instead, you win the first trick with your ♦K, Partner's ♦A will be the only future diamond trick for the defense. So sad. Partner will then scribble a note on her scorecard, reminding herself to ask you later why you didn't play Second Hand Low with your ♦K. You will have no good answer...
"OK, I get it. If I can't cover an honor then I play low. But you said there are a lot of exceptions. Can you show me an exception?"
Yes, Little Bear. The main exception is when Declarer leads from equal honors. The next diagram shows what I mean.
Exceptions to the cover an honor guideline
Partner ♠ ? 

Declarer ♠ ? 
Dummy ♠ Q J 9 

You ♠ K 5 3 
This is our first exception to the general rule cover an honor with an honor.
Exception: When Declarer leads from equal honors, cover the last one.
Declarer's ♠Q and ♠J are equal honors, so play low now and cover the second one.
If declarer leads from three honors (like ♠ Q J T 6), play low for the first two honors and cover the third one.
Partner ♥ ? 

Dummy ♥ A Q T 2 
Declarer ♥ J 

You ♥ K 5 3 
Declarer owns the ♥Q, ♥J, and ♥T. But this is NOT leading from equal honors. None of the equal honors are in the hand he is leading from.
Why is it correct to cover? Well... to figure that out, try to imagine what cards Partner could hold so covering promotes a future winner for her.
If you cover the honor, Dummy will hold the heart masters for three rounds of the suit.
But what about the fourth round? What must Partner hold to win the fourth round?
This hand illustrates an important truth about second hand play. You should make the right play even though it may not matter.
Partner may not hold the cards you are hoping for. But you cover the honor anyway, just in case she does. If Partner turns out not to hold ♥9xxx, you lose nothing by covering because Declarer was going to make four heart tricks no matter what you play. But you would lose both a trick and Partner's trust if you play low and it turns out that Partner does indeed hold the promotable ♥9xxx.
Partner ♠ ? 

Dummy ♠ A 8 7 4 
Declarer ♠ J 

You ♠ Q 5 3 
Now let's move on to our next exception to the general rule cover an honor with an honor.
Exception: Don't cover when Declarer owns all the promoted honors.
If you cover the honor, what cards that you can't see are promoted?
Suppose Declarer has opened the bidding with 1♠, promising 5+ spades. What is the maximum number of spades Partner could then hold?
Our second exception tells us to play low. Don't cover the ♠J.
There are two ways playing low might save a trick. First, if Partner holds a singleton ♠K, you won't crash your two honors under Dummy's ace. That would be embarrassing!
Second, if Partner holds only a spot card, Declarer might decide to go up with the ♠A, planning to cash the ♠K next. Declarer's hope is that the 4 outstanding spades divide 2 and 2 with the ♠Q dropping. On this deal, he will be disappointed – as long as you don't cover.
Exceptions to the play low guideline
Partner ♦ ? 

Declarer ♦ ? 
Dummy ♦ Q 7 4 3 

You ♦ A 9 6 
So far we have treated our examples as if they were the only suits in each deal. When you learn to play bridge, that's a good way to begin.
But sometimes considerations of the hand as a whole are more important than what's best for just one suit.
Our guidelines suggest that you play low when Dummy leads the ♦3, waiting to play your ♦A later when you can capture Dummy's ♦Q. If diamonds were the only suit that mattered, that would be correct. It would save a trick whenever Partner holds a diamond honor that can be promoted. And you'll be able to take your ♦A later if it turns out that Declarer holds all the other diamond honors.
Now let's put this diamond suit into a whole hand...
Partner (N) ♠ A Q 8 7 4 2 ♥ Q 6 4 ♦ J 5 2 ♣ 2 

Declarer (W) ♠ K 6 3 ♥ A K ♦ K T 8 ♣ A Q J 5 3 
Dummy (E) ♠ T 5 ♥ J 7 5 2 ♦ Q 7 4 3 ♣ K 7 6 

You (S) ♠ J 9 ♥ T 9 8 ♦ A 9 6 ♣ T 9 4 
Partner opens the bidding with a weak two, promising a 6 card suit, and West decides to guess that he can make 9 tricks in notrump.
Partner  East  You  West 
2♠  P  P  3N 
Partner leads a spade, won by Declarer with the ♠K.
The second trick is a club to Dummy's ♣K, and the ♦3 is led from Dummy. Our guideline says to play low. But consider the hand as a whole before playing.
How many tricks can Declarer take if you play low?
How many tricks can Partner take if you fly with the ♦A and return his long suit?
Hmmm... Follow the play low guideline and Declarer takes 9 tricks. Or, fly with your ♦A and Declarer only gets 7 tricks. That's an easy choice.
Exception: Don't play low when you can take the setting tricks.
"Wait a minute. How did you know Partner's spade suit was established? Couldn't Declarer have another winning spade honor?"
No he couldn't, Little Bear. We use "the rule of 11" in situations like this.
Playing fourth best leads, subtract the card led (7♠) from 11, and the answer is how many cards in the other three hands are higher than the card led.
11  7 = 4. Four cards higher than the 7.
Dummy has 1, you have 2, and Declarer has played 1. There are none left for Declarer. Smile... then rise with the ♦A and beat the contract by returning Partner's spade suit.
Splitting honors
Partner ♣ ? 

Declarer ♣ ? 
Dummy ♣ 9 7 2 

You ♣ K Q 6 
If you need to make two club tricks, follow the general guideline and play low.
But if you need to capture the lead before Declarer scores two club tricks and makes his contract, play one of your honors.
This is called "splitting your honors." When you split honors, choose your card as if Partner had led the suit (lowest of equals).
Some partnerships don't make the agreement to split with the lowest of equal honors. They either split high or vary their play based on table position or specific honors held. I believe "splitting low" is best for beginners because it can be played the same way in all circumstances, and it's easy to remember. That's important for beginners.
Partner ♥ ? 

Declarer ♥ ? 
Dummy ♥ 7 3 2 

You ♥ Q J T 6 
Your honors are strong enough to play one even though Dummy has led a spot card.
Partner ♠ ? 

Dummy ♠ A T 7 4 
Declarer ♠ 5 

You ♠ Q J 6 
If Declarer has the ♠K, there is a danger than he will insert the ♠T, winning a trick cheaply and dropping your ♠QJ when he later cashes his ♠AK.
The only flaw in this plan is if Partner holds a singleton ♠K, splitting would crash two of your honors, and make only one trick when you should have made two. So when The ♠5 is led, you must consider what you know about the hand and judge the likelihood of Partner holding a singleton ♠K.
Partner ♣ ? 

Dummy ♣ A 9 7 4 
Declarer ♣ 5 

You ♣ Q J 6 2 
This is similar to example 13, except Dummy has the 9 instead of the T. In addition, you have a four card holding.
If you split your honors you will make certain of one trick because your remaining honor will play after Declarer's imagined ♣K.
But splitting gives Declarer an easy path to three tricks whenever he holds the ♣Kxx. He'll win the ♣A, win the ♣K, and lead toward the ♣9 (Partner being then void).
Now suppose Partner's doubleton includes the ♣T. How can you prevent Declarer from making three tricks?
The differences between examples 13 and 14 are subtle. A beginner may not solve such positions the first few times they arise at the table. But if you play through them carefully here, the correct patterns will take root in your memory.
Partner ♦ ? 

Dummy ♦ A J 8 
Declarer ♦ 4 

You ♦ K T 9 3 
Suppose Partner holds the ♦Qxx. The danger is that Declarer will insert the ♦8, forcing the ♦Q, and later finesse your ♦K for two tricks.
And if Declarer holds the ♦Q, splitting your honors holds him to two tricks instead of three.
Partner ♥ ? 

Dummy ♥ A 8 7 4 
Declarer ♥ J 

You ♥ Q 6 
This is the trump suit, so you know Declarer holds a 4 or 5 card suit.
He would not lead the ♥J if he didn't also have the ♥T, so you know he can finesse your ♥Q.
Would covering the ♥J give you or Partner a chance of making a trick from a promoted honor?
In general you should assume that Declarer holds the immediately promoted honor whenever he leads a Q or a J toward Dummy's A or K. And you should wait to cover the second honor, not the first one.
Partner ♠ ? 

Declarer ♠ ? 
Dummy ♠ J 4 2 

You ♠ Q 6 
This looks like example 16, except the lead comes from the Dummy.
You should cover whenever you can't see the promoted card. Your hope is that partner holds it.
Unlike example 16, it would be silly to assume the lead comes from equal honors. One look at the Dummy confirms that's not true.
Summary for second hand play
1. Cover an honor with an honor.
If the lead is from equal honors, cover the last one
Don't cover if Declarer owns all the promoted honors.
2. Play Second Hand Low.
Don't play low when you can take the setting tricks.
Split honors to prevent Declarer from winning a trick cheaply.
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