Counting Stoppers

Pat Harrington

When you declare notrump, you often see the opponents attack your weakest suit on opening lead. It’s a relief to have a second stopper. Sometimes you can control whether or not there will be a second stopper. Let’s look at some examples.
How will you play this holding for two heart stoppers after your left-hand opponent starts with the 6?
Q 3
A 5 4
Play the queen from dummy, hoping that West led from a long suit headed by the K. If you play low, East could play low to force out your ace even when he held the king.
How should you play the next holding for two club stoppers on the lead of the ♣5?
♣ J 3
♣ A 10 4
As long as you play the ♣3 from dummy, you are guaranteed a second stopper. If East plays an honor, capture it with the ace and your ♣10 4, combined with dummy’s jack, are enough to drive out the other high honor and give you a second trick. You must play your ace on East’s honor, however. Holding up would cost you your second stopper. If East doesn’t have
a high honor to play to trick one, you win the 10 and have the ace for later. Another way to go wrong with this holding is to put up dummy’s jack at trick one. If East plays an honor, you can win the ace, but that leaves you with the holding shown below while your opponents still have one of the club honors.
♣ 3
♣ 10 4
Your ♣10 is protected from attack if West gains the lead, but not if East leads through it. Playing low from dummy at trick one gives you a second stopper no matter who gains the lead later.
What is the best way to play the next holding for two stoppers on the lead of the 7?
K 5 3
Q 4
Let the lead ride around to your hand. If East plays the ace, you have two sure tricks. If East plays a lower card, he forces out your queen. With the ace still out, do you have a second stopper? Here’s what’s left:
There’s a good chance that the opening leader has the A and the king will be a second trick. But it’s not guaranteed. East, holding the ace, might have finessed at trick one. If you can play to keep West off lead, you won’t have to worry about dummy’s king being attacked.
Switch declarer’s and dummy’s cards and you also have to switch your thinking. What’s the best play for two stoppers now?
Q 4
K 5 3
If you play low from dummy, East can easily force out your king, and the opponent’s A will pick up dummy’s queen. You are better off playing the queen from dummy at trick one. It wins if West has led from a long suit headed by the ace. There are two misconceptions I’ve seen applied in this situation. Players remember the advice “don’t underlead an ace,” but they forget that advice is for suit contracts. The second misconception is to think of the saying “second hand low.” That is sometimes good advice for declarer, but it is meant for the defenders, who do not know their combined assets. Declarer has the advantage of knowing all 26 of his side’s cards and can play them to his best advantage. Look at the previous examples and notice that we played low from dummy in some and high from dummy in others.
Back to the above example — you play dummy’s Q to trick one and it holds. Is there a dangerous opponent? Yes: East can lead a diamond through your king. It appears that West has the A. Try to keep East off lead.
One more example: How can you play for two stoppers when dummy’s ♠9 wins trick one (West led the ♠4)?
♠ J 10 9
♠ K 5 3
The fact that dummy’s 9 won the first trick should help you place the missing high spades. Where are they? East would have played “third hand high” if he could, so it appears that West has the ♠A and ♠Q. Is there a dangerous opponent?
If East gains the lead, he will send a spade right through your king. It’s dangerous to let East gain the lead with the above cards. Is West also dangerous? No. If West leads a spade, your king is protected from attack. Try to keep Dangerous East off lead.

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