Defensive Basics

You will defend half of the time. You will declare only a quarter of the time — but books about declarer play are a lot more popular than books about defense. Yet, as any good player will tell you, games are won and lost mostly on defense, especially at matchpoints.

Key Ideas

Here are some things you can do to play good defense:

  • Take the setting trick. You have to be aware of how many tricks you have so far.
  • Guess how many points partner may have. You have some idea about the opponents’ holdings from their bidding. You can see yours. Subtract yours plus theirs from 40 and that gives you some idea of what partner may have. The more the opponents seemed to get all excited about their shape, the fewer high-card points they may have, but you can estimate. When partner has played high cards you’ll have a pretty good idea if he does or does not have some key missing honor.
  • Learn which card to lead from a given holding. There is a table of them on the convention card.
  • If you never lead their suit, you’ll be much better off. Even if you think partner can ruff it, setting their suit up will usually cost tricks. (But of course, take the setting trick, right?)
  • Identify the kind of dummy you have, or expect to see, using the LSD method. Plan your defense accordingly.
  • Don’t break new suits without a reason. Being the first to lead a suit often costs a trick. You have to decide if you’re in a hurry or not. If not, you can always just give the Declarer tricks he’s going to win anyway.
  • Try to take your tricks before Declarer can set up and run a long suit in the dummy, but don’t be too anxious to take them before that.

Here’s an example of the last point. The dummy has a ♠K52 and Declarer leads a small one past your Ace in a heart contract. Do you take the Ace?

You don’t want to take a little card with your Ace. You’d like to wait until he leads back and catch his Queen with it. Are you worried that the little one is a singleton? Even if you know it for a fact, realize you may not gain a trick by taking the Ace. After you take the Ace, Declarer will go to the dummy in another suit, play that King, and throw a loser in another suit on it.

One reason to take it right away is if it is the setting trick. Another is that you are aware that he can take enough tricks to make the contract without leading the suit again. For example, there is a ♦AQJT98 in the dummy and you have ♦K6. You know the finesse is going to work. Declarer will draw trump, make his finesse(s) and run that long suit, and his spade losers will disappear as discards. It is time to take what you can get.


  • Signal attitude on partner’s lead. When partner leads a suit, and you are not needing to play high, you can choose a higher spot card to tell partner you want to continue that suit, or a low one show you don’t.

    Making a discouraging signal, especially on opening lead, does not deny some honor in the suit led. It is simply telling partner that you want to switch to a different suit, such as when your AQ is behind dummy’s KJ.

    After the first lead of the suit, if you’ve had a chance to show your “attitude” (like / don’t like) then next you show your count — high for an even number REMAINING, low for an odd number.

    If your attitude is already clear you can signal suit preference. A high card indicates you want a lead of a higher suit, a low card, a lower suit.

  • If declarer leads a suit, you give count rather than attitude. If the declarer wants to play the suit, you don’t, usually. Believe partner’s signals — but with a grain of salt. Keep in mind that sometimes people have no suitable signal card, or they don’t want to scream, “Hey, Declarer, you can finesse me!”.

I recommend that you do not try to play anything like Lavinthal or Odd / Even at first. Just get good at normal signals, and knowing when it is count and when it is attitude or suit preference.

Signals are just indications to partner. They still have to use their judgement.