THE essential bridge skill: Counting the hand (Part 2)

By Karen Walker

Courtesy of Karen’s Bridge Library:

     Originally published in the ACBL Bridge Bulletin, April 2010

When I take a 50-50 chance, I expect it to come off eight or nine times out of ten.”

That boast from Victor Mollo’s Hideous Hog character explains one of the reasons why successful bridge players are so committed to the task of counting out the hand. In the previous issue, we discussed ways to develop your counting skills and the basics of collecting and analyzing clues. There are also specific techniques that can help you visualize unseen cards when you declare and defend.

Whether you’re a declarer or defender, “getting a count” involves gathering and synthesizing information from the bidding, opening lead and the play. It requires paying close attention to every card and refining your picture of the layout as each trick is played. Basic counting becomes “card reading” when you can use all these clues to make logical inferences about the length and honor holdings in all four suits in the two hidden hands. 

Tips for declarers

Study the opening lead.  Ask yourself questions about that suit and why the leader chose it. 
   Does the card suggest length or shortness?
   Does it pinpoint the leader’s exact length (and therefore his partner’s length)?
   Does it show an honor combination or the lack of one?
   What does it tell you about the leader’s holdings in other suits?

Some of the strongest inferences may come from a suit that is not led. In a trump contract, if your auction suggested an “obvious” lead (an unbid suit, for example), but the leader chooses a different suit:
   If you’re missing the ace and king of that suit, assume the leader doesn’t have both. You can now “see” at least three or four of the high-card points in his partner’s hand.
   If you’re missing the ace and queen, the opening leader probably has the ace (the only holding that would make the lead unattractive).

Play on one suit at a time. Once you begin drawing trumps or establishing a suit, stick with that suit. If you have to lose a trick, resume leading and counting the critical suit as soon as you regain the lead. Resist the temptation to cash high cards in other suits unless you have a clear purpose (you need them for entries, for example). 

Collect information from the defenders’ signals. Be aware, however, that you can’t trust these implicitly. If your opponent believes that information about his count or attitude in a suit will help you more than his partner, he may not give an accurate signal, especially late in the play.

Opening leads and early signals are usually honest. If you need count information in a specific suit, try to lead that suit early in the play.

Consider the skill of your opponents. The more experienced they are, the more reliable their bidding and carding will be.

Try to disrupt the opponents’ signals. As declarer, you can falsecard at will, but be random. Clever opponents may spot a pattern.

If an opponent is cashing a trick and you want him to continue the suit, try to “signal” as his partner would. If they play standard attitude signals (high card is encouraging), follow with a high spot card. If you want the opponent to switch, play your lowest card.

Play the odds. “Eight ever, nine never” and similar guidelines should almost never be considered in isolation. The division of one suit affects the odds of how other suits will split, so use your picture of the whole layout to decide how to play a suit combination.

If you can determine from the bidding or play that one opponent has greater length in a suit, finesse that opponent for a missing queen. If you have a complete count – you know West has two clubs and East has four – the odds are 2:1 that East holds the Q.

If you don’t know how the suit is splitting, use the theory of “vacant spaces” to determine which opponent is likely to have greater length. Suppose you’re looking for the Q, but the only count information you have is that West has five spades and East has two. That means West has eight “vacant spaces” (unknown cards) in his hand and East has 11. There’s more room in East’s hand for club length, so finesse East for the queen.

Count the defenders’ high-card points to be sure your conclusion is consistent with their  bidding. If West opened and has shown up with only 10 points in other suits, you may want to finesse him for the queen.

If possible, delay your important decisions. Collect all the information you can about the defenders’ distributions before you decide how to attack a critical suit. Run another suit or cash extra trumps (if you can do so safely) and see what you can learn from the opponents’ discards. If you have tricks to lose, consider giving the defenders the lead.  

Use discovery plays to get a count on side suits. Here’s an example:

         (West)     K9873            AQ102    (East – Dummy)  
                         842                765   
                         K7                  A43 
                         AJ5              K103 

South opens 1 and you (West) become declarer in 4. North leads the Q, and after six tricks are played (three hearts and three rounds of spades), you learn that South started with  

654  AKJ1093   ?  ?

With nothing else to go on, you would probably finesse South for the Q because he opened the bidding. If you’re counting, though, you may come to a different conclusion. And if you use a simple discovery play, you might be able to guarantee three club winners.

Continue counting South’s hand by cashing the K and A and ruffing dummy’s small diamond. You may see more of South’s high-card points on these tricks, but the most important information is his distribution. If he follows to all three diamond leads, you’ll know 12 of his cards — 3 spades, 6 hearts and at least 3 diamonds. He therefore holds a singleton or void in clubs. Cash the A, and if the Q doesn’t fall, take the marked (guaranteed) finesse through North.

Tips for defenders

Give partner accurate count and attitude signals so he can count the hand, too. Use your judgment, though. Some messages help declarer more than partner, so it’s often best to withhold a signal if you think it will tell declarer how to play a suit.

Beware of falsecards — especially those that won’t fool declarer, but may mislead partner. If declarer cashes an ace-king and you hold QJ2, follow with the two, then the jack. If you play the queen on the second round, declarer will know he’s still missing the jack, but partner won’t. Partner will think Q2 was your original holding, and this may cause him to miscount other suits.

Watch partner’s signals carefully, but don’t read a deep meaning into every card. Recognize the situations where:

  • Partner may have decided it’s wise not to give you (and declarer) an honest count signal.

  • He doesn’t hold the right spot cards to give an accurate signal.

  • He may see the defense differently than you do — for example, you want him to show attitude, but he may have reason to believe you wanted a suit-preference signal.

Be aware that declarer will falsecard.  Trust partner’s signals rather than declarer’s bidding and carding. Popular bridge author Eddie Kantar observed:
    “A madman’s hand is particularly hard to count, but he’s usually in the wrong contract, which evens things out.”

Find a time to add up what you know. Think while declarer or partner is thinking or when it’s your lead. If possible, avoid long thought when it’s your turn to follow suit. Make your decisions early and be ready to follow smoothly when declarer or dummy leads.

Here’s a defensive quiz where you can use the opening lead and the auction to come up with the winning play:


Partner leads the 4 (fourth-best leads) to your A and declarer’s 5. It’s often right to return partner’s suit, but you’ll change your mind if you stop to add up the evidence. At this point, you should be able to deduce the exact suit distribution in declarer’s and partner’s hands. Give it a try, then check the answer below.

The club spots tell you that partner and declarer each have four clubs, so declarer must have four diamonds for his 1 opener (with five diamonds and four clubs, he would have rebid 2 instead of 1NT). You can also infer that partner and declarer each have exactly four hearts, and that partner’s hearts are probably weak (he surely would have led hearts if he held a five-card suit or four to an honor).

Declarer therefore has one spade and partner has three spades with at least one honor. Double check your theory by adding up the high-card points – you and dummy have a combined 20 points and declarer’s 1NT rebid showed 12-14 points, so there’s room in partner’s hand for 6-8 points.

You must shift to a low spade at Trick 2. Partner, who holds 

A43  8432   83  K974

wins the A and returns a spade. You eventually win three spades, two red aces and the AK for down one. Declarer’s hand is  

Q   KJ97  KQ106  Q1085

Additional practice

Read bridge books. One of the best books on this subject is How to Read Your Opponents’ Cards by Mike Lawrence. His descriptions of how experts think at the table will give you insights into the “secrets” of counting. Lawrence has also authored Counting at Bridge, an interactive computer program. Another good book on counting is Countdown to Winning Bridge by Tim Bourke and Marc Smith.