A Look at Counting in Defence, Part 1

Before we get down to business, here is a suit for you to contemplate, discussed in “Bridge For Tournament Players”, by Terence Reese and Albert Dormer. You are playing no-trumps and there are no “issues” regarding timing or entries. For the purposes of this discussion, let us suppose the suit breaks 3-2. What you want is to take as many tricks by the end of the hand as is reasonably possible. Here is your diamond suit; the five cards are in dummy.



How would you go about this suit? We will consider that question later.

All aspiring players soon hear of the virtue of counting the hand. The diligent student will doubtless learn that counting comes in three forms: shape, high-cards and tricks. And those wanting to learn the art of counting are likely to be directed to certain textbooks.

When I started bridge in the early 1970s, the top-rated book of defensive bridge problems, with a heavy emphasis on counting, was Hugh Kelsey’s “Killing Defence at Bridge.” My father assured me that studying that book was sure to improve anyone’s defence, and I think he was right.

Every problem in Kelsey’s book has the same simple layout: North, dummy, is at the top of the page, a West or East hand is given, along with the auction and a description of the play up to the key point. We are then asked what we would do, and that is when we have to get to work with the abacus.

Here is a transcript of one of Kelsey’s problems from “Killing Defence.”


East South West North
1♠️ 2♣ 2♠️ 5♣
All pass

“West leads the two of spades against South’s five club contract. You win the ace and continue with a second spade, which declarer ruffs. A trump is played to the king, dummy’s third spade is ruffed and a second round of trumps won by South’s ace, your partner discarding the king of spades. Declarer now leads the queen of diamonds and runs it to your king. How do you continue?”

“If you have been counting you will realize that you can defeat this contract for certain. Declarer has shown up with six clubs and a singleton spade. He has therefore six cards in the red suits and cannot get rid of his heart loser unless you help him. A spade return will be all the help he needs if his shape is 1-4-2-6. He will ruff in hand and throw the small heart from dummy and ruff out your knave of diamonds to make dummy good. A heart return runs the obvious risk of declarer having the queen, therefore by a process of elimination you are left with the diamond suit. A recount shows that a diamond return is perfectly safe. Declarer is welcome to three diamonds, six clubs and the ace of hearts, for that adds up to only ten tricks.”



Note the effect of putting in the effort to count out the hand. What looked, at first sight, to be a horrible end-play is no such thing at all, and the path to victory is straight-forward.

Now, while it is true that your defence will improve markedly once you apply yourself to the business of counting the hand, it’s an unfortunate fact of life that, when you are declarer, the defenders may well be busy doing the same thing. So, as declarer, you should be doing what you can to interfere with this process.

As an example, let us return to that diamond suit mentioned earlier, in which it was given that the suit breaks 3-2.



Consider what happens if you set up the suit by playing from the top. The defenders know that you have:

  • seven points in diamonds
  • four diamond tricks
  • a three-card diamond suit
    and they will win the lead at a time when they may be able to make good use of those facts.

A further point is that the defender with a doubleton is provided with a discard that may well aid the direction of the defence.

Now consider an alternative way: Leading low from the AK. The opponents are denied all that useful information. They gain the lead at a time when they know much less about the deal.

We can make a general principle from this:
As declarer, lose the lead early and expose your shape and high-cards late.

Ths principle has many applications. Consider this suit at no-trumps:



Now, in 6NT, one should strongly-consider cashing the ace first – losing a first-round finesse to a bare queen is a horrible prospect. But things change at the part-score or game level. There, the opponents have more assets with which to work, and the more they know about the deal, the more effective their defence. There is much to be said for taking the finesse without cashing the ace. If the finesse loses, East will likely not know the location of the ace.

The principle of “asset concealment” applies to the bidding as well as the play.

Take the following method over 1NT:
4♣ – Gerber
4♢ – Transfer to hearts
4♡ – Transfer to spades

I hold that this is inferior to responder being able to choose which hand plays 4M. One is better-off having 4m as a transfer to 4M, and 4M as natural.

With a hand such as: xx Qxxxxxx xx Ax, we want partner to be declarer. But with many hands, such as those with a void or eleven cards in two suits, one is better off playing the hand. With: x Kxxxxxx x Q10xx, on a good day we will be able to gain the lead in the first couple of tricks and rattle off a heap of trumps while the opponents are in the dark about our second suit.

Posted ByAvon Wilsmore

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