We are on defense half the time. When we are on defense, we are at a disadvantage. The declarer can see 26 cards, while each of us can see only 13. We have to use a combination of looking at the dummy, remembering the auction, and using signals to each other, to help form a picture of the hands so that we can choose the proper defense.

Properly done, defense relies on:

  • Making a good opening lead (not always possible)
  • Estimating how many points partner and declarer have, and how many we know they have shown so far.
  • Counting the suits in order to know the shape.
  • Signaling to show both shape and our attitude in various suits.

Signals are of three types:

  • Attitude — do I want this suit continued, or not. We give attitude when partner leads a suit the first time, or when discarding a suit the first time. Some times you have to play third hand high but can clarify attitude on a subsequent trick.
  • Count — do I have an odd number or even number of cards remaining in this suit? We give count when the declarer leads the suit or in a suit where our attitude is known. You may wish to signal this again on a subsequent lead, to make it clear.
  • Suit preference — to which suit do I wish partner to switch. If the declarer is running a long suit and we’re going to have to come up with discards, you can play your cards in the suit top down or bottom up, to show which of the remaining suits you plan to keep. There are some other suit preference opportunities: if attitude is clear and count looks irrelevant, then it can be suit preference. You’ll hear even well established partners disagreeing about whether a discard should have been, or been recognized as, suit preference; but it is better to be mistaken than to not try to convey information.

Standard signals are:

  • Attitude: a high card shows a positive attitude to that suit; a low card is a negative attitude.
  • Count: a high card shows an even number, a low card an odd number. The number is the CURRENT count (before you play the signal card) of cards you currently hold in that suit, NOT the number you had to start with.
  • Suit preference is given when it is obvious we are not going to want to play this suit. For example, defending against 4 Spades, partner leads a small heart and the dummy plays the Queen from Qx. You can’t beat the Queen. Clearly Declarer has the Ace. On the lead , we can play a high Heart to mean, “Diamonds preferred” and a lower one to mean, “Clubs preferred!“.

On defense, play the lower of touching cards to a trick. Say you hold the QJ53, and partner leads the 2 covered by the 9. Play the Jack not the Queen. Your card DENIES the one above it. (Remember not to do this when declarer, however; the declarer would play the Queen to leave in doubt who has the Jack.)

Note that a signal is sometimes hard to come up with. For example, with K32 in a suit, not wanting to throw the King away, the 3 is “high”. Sometimes partner can figure it out since he can’t see the 2, but not usually. A smart declarer will not automatically discard his lowest card. And of course, you do not want to waste something too valuable on a signal.

A signal that will always get partner’s attention is a really big card. Declarer is playing a spade contract and when he draws trump you have to make a discard. You have ♣KQJ542. Seeing a 10x in the dummy, throw the KING. That tells partner that not only is that the suit you want, you have a top sequence (so you’re not setting up the 10). If you throw the 5, partner may or may not read you.

Upside-Down Signals

It is possible to play upside signals, reversing the meaning of high and low. A famous professional pair even play their suit preference upside-down, figuring I guess that consistency is a virtue. Granting that whatever method you use, you may not have a suitable card, there is something you should know about upside-down attitude, even if not playing it yourself.

When a player makes the opening lead of an Ace in a suit contract, his partner’s attitude will reflect whether or not he wishes the suit continued and in particular usually shows whether that player has control of the third round in the suit by virtue of having the Queen or having a doubleton to start with.

When having a doubleton or Qxx, then, playing upside-down attitude, third hand will play the smallest card he has in the suit. In particular, then, with a doubleton, he will end up playing low-high. Although that is logical, it seems to bother people trained to signal high-low with a doubleton that they play the low card whether it is from xx or Qxx.

Remember, though, we’re really telling partner if he should continue the suit he lead or not. Maybe you want a switch, to get a lead through the KJ on the board in another suit, into your juicy AQ. You win and can get back to partner in the led suit.

The flip side is when you’ve led your Ace from Ace-King, and partner makes a discouraging signal. You should listen. You should see if you can figure out what he might want. Sometimes, though, he does not mean it – particularly when his holding is short-ish, he just might not have had a good card to signal with.

Reading Signals As The Declarer

Do you believe their signals? The early ones tend to be the truth. However, they may try their best to convince you a finesse will fail when it will work, and vice-versa. I also tend to believe early count signals, but not in trump. Check if they are using special trump signals of some sort. There is a section on the convention card.

The time I really tend to believe them is when, early on, one partner has shown interest in ruffing and then he leads a low card trying to get to his partner for the ruff. If I have a holding like AQJ53 in that suit, I will not want to take the finesse because if it loses I’m going to give them that ruff also.

A canny defender holding K42 may therefore lead the 2 knowing I will feel pressure to put up the Ace, rather than letting me draw trump and finesse him out of his King later. Sometimes bridge is like poker. Having listened to the bidding, and inferred the location of some high cards already from the play, I might know if he could have the King or not. And, I might also know that if the finesse doesn’t work I’m going down anyway. At IMPS, making the contract is paramount. But then if it is matchpoints, is playing for down 1 instead of down 2 good bridge? The mind boggles.