Thursday, September 29, 2011

Mud in your eye

One of the most hotly debated issues of bridge defense is what to lead from xxx against a suit contract.  Some people like to play MUD (middle-up-down).  When I first came across this idea, it seemed eminently sensible.  Later on, I learned that no self-respecting expert ever agrees to play that way.  Exceptions?  Probably. Just like there are a few "scientists" who don't believe in anthropogenic climate change.

So, for the sake of examining the issue, let me divide the situations into two: partner has bid the suit; nobody has bid the suit.  I suppose you might think about leading it when dummy or declarer has bid the suit if the rest of your hand is something like Axx Axx Axxx.  But normally it will be partner's suit or an unbid suit.

Let's dispose first of the situations when this is an unbid suit.  Unless you happen to hit partner with a sequence of some sort, the very act of choosing the suit to be led is likely to be giving up a trick except when partner's honors in the suit just happen to be sitting over dummy's.  So, it probably doesn't matter which card you lead: you've blown a likely trick and the important thing is not to blow another when partner gets in.  Is that likely?  It's unusual for a side suit to stand up to three leads, although it's more likely if leader started with three.  So, there probably isn't a lot of scope for another trick to be lost in the same suit, although there certainly is the opportunity to lose another tempo.  Will partner get it wrong?  Probably not.  Partner knows almost for sure that declarer has the Ace if it hasn't appeared on the first round.  If the Ace has appeared, he can still probably tell just by the card declarer played from dummy - in almost every case, dummy will have played low without much apparent thought.  Unless, that is leader got lucky and found partner with well-placed honors, in which case he won't be returning the suit unless it was probably a singleton, which would require misguessing declarer's holding by two cards.

So, my conclusion is that on the rare occasions when you lead from an unbid xxx, it will probably not matter much whether you lead low or middle.  Leading the top card might be embarrassing if partner has AKx(x) and tries to give you a third-round ruff, but nobody is suggesting that.  No, the lowest is the proper count card whether you play fourth-best or third/lowest.

Now let's look at the situation where it is partner's suit and you have not supported it.  There's no problem if you have supported it because you will lead your highest card to show that you have no honor.  But if you have not supported it, the situation is a little trickier.  Think back to the auction.  Did partner bid the suit as part of a constructive auction, before being outbid by the opponents?  Or did partner bid the suit as a disciplined weak two or an overcall?  In the latter case, especially at matchpoints, there's a strong element of lead-direction, so when you lead the suit, you're not expected to have anything in it.  Count is the most important thing you can show because partner will want to know how many tricks might stand up, or may be looking to give you a ruff if his suit isn't solid.

So, again, there's seems little to be gained by playing MUD.

Indeed, the issue should not cause any lost sleep.  The situation is, in any case, extremely unusual.  Looking over the 26 boards from a recent club game, I could not find a single situation where a lead of an unbid side suit of xxx was anywhere close to being chosen.   There was one situation (the one that prompted this column) where partner had opened 1♠ and opening leader had to choose from an unsupported ♠xxx.  But this in and of itself is rare.  A major will nearly always be raised with three pieces -- only a very weak and flat hand is likely to pass throughout.

Comments, as always, are welcome.


  1. I agree with most of your post, to wit:
    1. MUD seems borderline unplayable (although many good players would disagree).
    2. Top of three small is best in partner's suit which you have not raised or against NT contract.
    3. Bottom of three small is best in partner's suit which you have not supported.

    I think there are good arguments either way when leading from three small in an unbid suit, either to lead high so as to convey not owning an honor or to lead low so as to convey count.

    The one inferential comment I would contest is that the choice of lead from three small is unlikely to matter if leader catches third hand with an honor but not an honor sequence. I think it can matter. When leading low, for example, and finding partner with Kxx, it can often simplify declarer's life if partner offers up the king and thus makes declarer's holding "solid". If partner can play such that declarer wins the first card cheaply but is still required to reach dummy and take a second finesse in order to set up the side suit, tempo loss to declarer can be important. In addition, if partner chooses to read the opening leader for a missing honor he does not possess, partner might unproductively continue the led suit when later in lead, erroneously believing that there is a second or third round winner available in such suit. OTOH, leading high from three small can cause partner to miscount declarer's distribution and that can lead to adverse consequences, too.

    My sense is that leading low from three small in an unbid suit is more popular than leading high from three small. Personally, I slightly prefer leading high ... but in a new partnership I will defer to partner, saying "anything is OK so long as it is not MUD!".

  2. Item 2. above should read:
    2. Top of three small is best in partner's suit which you have raised or against NT contract.

  3. Yes, indeed, Jeff. BTW, I had tacitly assumed that MUD was never a consideration playing against notrump contracts - I've always heard it discussed in the context of suit contracts. Generally speaking, expert standard leads against notrump are fourth best from a suit you want returned, second best from a suit you don't particularly want returned. Sometimes, second-best will just happen to be the middle of three small. When leading partner's suit against notrump, I believe we generally try to make our attitude as clear as possible - lowest from an honor, highest from small cards, although from four small cards, I think it might be a little quixotic to lead anything but the fourth best.

  4. I think you have both ignored the main value of MUD. Playing MUD, when you DO lead small, it promises an honor. Without an honor, you play middle. So, 3 from Q73 but 7 from 973. Helpful, no?

  5. Helpful, Bruce, only if partner can read the spot card led. You happen to pick an example where there are a lot of missing pips between the two lower spot cards held by opening leader. What if, instead, the pips were close, as say when opening leader has Q64 or 642, two holdings from which a MUD leader would lead the four (and without even considering the 42 and stiff 4)?

    If I were ambitious enough, I would look for the exact damning language I remember once reading from a Mike Lawrence book about MUD leads ... but the basic gist was that the same card is led from so many holdings disparate in honor card holding and in length, that third hand can be in a next to impossible position.

    Savvy declarers who read the opponents' agreements about lead conventions and know how to hide lower spot cards can, of course, complicate effective defense by masking both distributional and honor card attributes of leads. I think this is particularly easy to do against MUD where the opening lead pip spread between an honor holding and a nonhonor holding is minimized because of the second high lead from three small.

    Of course, every lead method has its ups and its downs, and on any particular hand one method can triumph.

  6. Robin,

    I would disagree about leading from three small in partner's suit when defending a notrump contract. I think low is standard, and generally best. I think it is often essential for overcaller to know how many cards has partner in the overcalled suit, as this information dictates the nature of communication between the two hands. If one hand has overcalled and declarer has still bid notrump, honor card position might be known ... but what is unknown is whether or not declarer's honor card can be withheld long enough to void partner.

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