Monday, September 11, 2017

A leading question

The problem of which card to lead from a sequence or near-sequence of honors has been with us since the early days of whist. "Standard" leads are the top of any sequence, except that from AK, the K is led. At first glance, this may seem inconsistent but of course there was a good reason, historically speaking. In whist, there was always a trump suit so, typically, only one or two rounds of a suit would be cashing (it's unusual in a suit contract that you happen on the lead of a suit where all follow to three rounds). So, therefore, it was important--if you held the lead--that you don't give up a trick on the second round in case there was a useful third round. That's why the "come on" signal was developed to help you know whether to continue or to switch.

Originally, this was called a "peter" after "Blue Peter," the flag that told sailors in port that their ship was about to set sail. Failure to heed the Blue Peter would result in a charge of desertion. Not good. At bridge (or whist) the consequences might be expensive but you wouldn't (normally) lose your life over it. These days, in North America, we call it an echo or, less poetically, an attitude signal.

A minor diversion on a subject I think I've addressed here before: sequences. Bridge (the play) and whist are, to a large extent, a game of sequences and position. If you are the last to play to a trick, you have the luxury of being able to cover whatever is the highest card (assuming you have such a card). You don't have to worry too much about it. But if you are one of the early position players, especially leader and third-hand, you want to try and make the best use of your sequences if you have any. You don't normally lead unsupported honors, at least not unless you have good reason to think your partner might have a touching honor (thus giving our side a sequence).

This is why defense is so much harder than declarer play. Defenders cannot directly see where they might, between them, have a sequence. A suit might be distributed KJ53 opposite AQ42. If declarer has that suit, he knows for sure that there are four tricks to be had, however he plays it. But if the defenders have that suit, each partner may be reluctant to lead the suit for fear of giving away a trick. Just last week I gained two overtricks in a suit contract because my LHO was twice reluctant to lead from KJTx (his partner having AQxxx).

Returning to opening leads: if the K is led, partner knows, holding the A, that he always wants to encourage a continuation because the K promises the Q (or perhaps Kx). This guards against the so-called Bath coup (a whist term) where fourth hand has AJx of the suit and holds off the first trick. But what if opening leader's partner holds the J but not the A? If partner led K from KQ, then the card will form a sequence with leader's remaining card and, therefore, another lead in the suit is safe. But what if partner holds the AK and declarer has the Q. A continuation would now be unfortunate because the declarer has the Q for the third round. But as mentioned already, the rules were set up to keep us relatively safe for just two rounds of any suit. Recall that in whist, there is no declarer. The hand playing last to the opening lead may not have sufficient high cards ever to draw trumps and cash that queen.

The problem with this cozy little scheme is that, in bridge, we do have a declarer. That player, fourth to play on the opening lead, likely does have sufficient high cards and/or trumps to eventually make use of that queen on the third round of a suit.

So, various schemes over the years have tried to clarify opening lead sequences. One rather complex scheme was developed by Norwegian Helge Vinje and was later reported by the Bridge Journal in 1964. Such leads became known as "Journalist" leads. They tend to be more popular as leads against notrump contracts, although Vinje actually described two somewhat different schemes for trump and notrump contracts. There is much to be said for these lead conventions, but they are too complex for most casual partnerships.

A very common revision of "standard" leads is always to lead the highest of any sequence, even ace from AK. One problem of course is that when you want to lead an ace, you don't always have the king and partner may well go wrong (this is more typically true of higher-level contracts). It's common, especially in Europe, to agree that against suit contracts at the five-level or above, ace still asks for attitude (but now it's only the king that is good) and the king asks for count. There's also a perhaps minor problem that has to do with UI (unauthorized information) when you agree to play ace from AK. How long does it take you to select a lead from a hand with an AK combination in a side suit? About half a second. So, when you quickly lead an ace, your partner knows that you have the king to back it up. But when you think for thirty seconds and then lead an ace, partner knows that you don't have the king. He's not authorized to know this and so must go out of his way to avoid taking advantage of such information. Is this really a big problem in reality? I don't know. But experts like to avoid giving their partners any kind of problem so that brings us to one more opening lead convention: Rusinow Leads.

Originally banned by the ACBL, they were adopted by Blue Team greats Belladonna and Avarelli and sometimes therefore called "Roman Leads." The principle is simple: you lead the second of touching honors. Typically, it is agreed to play this only against suit contracts and not in partner's suit. When asked about honor leads, the defenders will say "shows the honor above or shortness." Usually, the ten is considered the lowest "honor" for this purpose so that the 9 could be from T9(x) or it could simply be the 9 from 9(x). There will always be a little ambiguity with any such convention but isn't it much better to have the ambiguity over the 9 than over the ace?

It's easy to forget that you're playing Rusinow. We have all done it. Even though I've played Rusinow (or Vinje) leads perhaps more than any other lead convention, I've still forgotten it occasionally, sometimes with disastrous consequences. But, if you are part of a regular partnership that wants to improve, Rusinow leads are a very sensible and simple lead convention.

Incidentally, whether or not you play Rusinow yourself, you should be aware that some people play it. If you are declarer and you need to know the location of a particular high card (that's to say most contracts), you may need to know what their lead conventions are. You can simply ask "leads and carding?" or you can pick up their convention card and look for yourself. You probably shouldn't ask "is that lead standard or Rusinow?" as that tends to give away the fact that you don't have one of the adjacent honors.

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