By David Neuman
A maxim dating back to the early days of contract bridge is to lead the “fourth highest” from your “longest and strongest” suit against a notrump contract. This maxim has been under attack in recent years, most vocally by the expert and theorist Kit Woolsey. Noting that expert practice is increasingly to shy away from leading broken four-card suits, Woolsey has theorized that such a lead is a losing tactic when trying to defeat the opponents’ 3NT contract.
If your objective is to defeat 3NT, Woolsey advises to look for a 5-card suit. If you see one in your hand, lead it. If not, look for one in your partner’s hand. Woolsey’s point is that trying to defeat three notrump by leading a broken 4-card suit is often futile. At its worst you are handing declarer an extra trick without gain, and even where the lead is successful in establishing the suit, it is unlikely that the lead will establish enough tricks to defeat the contract. As one example, suppose declarer’s side is wide open in the suit, so the lead enables the defenders to cash the first 4 tricks. The defense still need another trick to defeat the contract. So even if you had led another suit, if the contract can be defeated you will have another opportunity to run your 4-card suit.
The following deal, taken from a qualifying round in the recent California Capital Open Swiss Teams in Sacramento, is a good illustration of this principle. As West, I was on lead against 3NT, holding AQ94, 8742, 862, 103 (spots approximate), after the following auction:
West North East South
Pass 1D Pass 1H
Pass 2D Pass 2NT*
Pass 3NT (all pass)
*Alerted as forcing
Spurning the “obvious” spade lead, I led the 10 of clubs. This was the layout:
Declarer ducked the club in dummy. My partner, Bob Klein, won the king and, seeing no future in the club suit, shifted to the ten of spades, covered by the jack and queen. I returned a heart to Bob’s ace. Another spade through declarer’s K8 gave us four spade tricks to go with our club king and heart ace, to defeat the contract by two tricks.
This resulted in a gain of 13 IMPs. At the other table, my counterpart led the four of spades (fourth from longest and strongest!). Jennifer was the declarer and she now had eight tricks, and had the timing to establish her ninth trick in hearts to make the contract. The spade lead was “successful” in that it established the spade suit for the defense, but after the lead declarer had 9 tricks and made his contract.
One might say of the spade lead that the operation was successful, but the patient died.