Back to the Basics

Author: Michael Berkowitz
Date of publish: 01/28/2019
Level: All Levels

Hi Everyone,

I’m excited to be a part of the Bridge with Larry Cohen team. I grew up in a bridge playing household, but my sister and I hated bridge. We used to charge our parents a quarter every time they would start a conversation, “You hold…”.

Of course, eventually we both warmed up to the game. As with everything, my sister, Dana, went first. She is two years older than me and throughout our childhood was always ahead of me in every possible way... except one. She hadn't learned how to ride a bicycle. 

I, on the other hand, started fairly young and considered myself an expert. At age 14, my sister decided to learn. I was riding down the street, minding my own business, when a blur raced past me. I couldn't believe it. She had gotten better than me in a day. When I caught up at the house, I threw my bike towards her in disgust. She looked at it and asked, "Why is it in first gear?"

Just because we’ve all been playing bridge for a while doesn’t mean that it would hurt us to reexamine our technique. 

When we are playing as declarer, we can hear a thousand voices in our head. Bits of wisdom from teachers or past partners whispering “Think of transportation... don’t forget to ruff in the short hand… second hand low... remember the Alamo, etc.” We sometimes will play a card from dummy just to get those voices to shut up. However our first play from dummy is often the most critical. 

In order to get ourselves into the right frame of mind, it’s helpful to have a process. If we approach each hand in the same way, we’ll always be ready for whatever clever nastiness the bridge gods may have in store for us. 

For a suit contract, our plan should start with counting losers. Counting losers is much more difficult than counting winners. With winners, we can look at both hands and see the Aces/Kings/etc. With losers, we need to choose one hand to be the Master Hand. Why?

You are playing 4♠ on the Q♠ lead. 



♠ K73
♥ QJ54
♦ 98
♣ A532



♠ AQJ52
♥ K76
♦ T72
♣ K8


What's your plan?

If you count losers like you would winners, you look at both hands and say: no spade losers, one heart loser, two diamond losers and no club losers. So you would draw trump and be down when your opponents cash three diamond tricks. 

The reason we pick a master hand is so that we don't count shortness from both sides. Generally our master hand is the one with longer trump (and that will usually, but not always, be declarer's hand). If we count losers in declarer's hand here, we see the error of our ways: no spade losers, one heart, and THREE diamonds. We need to see those losers before we get to step two. When counting losers, you can peek at the non-master hand for high cards but do not think that just because you have a singleton or void in the non-master hand, that you don't have losers- you will use that information in the next step. 

Step 2: Make a plan for how to get rid of losers. Sometimes we can set up a long suit, sometimes we can ruff one of our losers in the non-master hand. On this example, we can ruff one of our diamonds in the dummy. 

Step 3: To draw trump or not? You'll refer to Step 2. If you need your trumps to ruff out a loser, then you can't afford to draw them. On this hand, if you play any trump before playing diamonds, you will find your opponents may draw the rest of your trump. 

Now that we have a system, let's try again on this hand. 

You wind up in 4♠ after opening 1NT. The lead is the ♠Q. 

Make your plan before we do it together. 




♠ 76
♥ KQ1082
♦ K42
♣ Q64



♠ AK84
♥ J96
♦ A765
♣ K6


You did it? No? I'll wait.


Ok. Let's check our work. 

Step 1: Count our losers. Here the master hand is the DUMMY, because it has longer trump. We will lose no spades, one heart, one diamond and TWO clubs. Why two clubs? If we lead towards the K and then towards the Q the Ace will capture one of our honors. That means we'll have won one trick, lost one trick and still have a low club in the master hand. Note, defenders, the importance of playing low as the second hand.

Step 2: What can we do about the losers? Our trump and diamond losers aren't going anywhere. The club loser might go away on the last round of diamonds, but that requires a 3-3 diamond split (an unlikely occurrence, it only happens about a third of the time). Instead we can simply ruff a club in our hand. While we may have heard "ruff in the dummy" taught to us as a simplification, we should move past that and instead realize that we can ruff in the short hand (the hand with fewer trump). 

Step 3: To draw trump or not? As is frequently the case when our plan involves ruffing, we want to postpone the drawing of trump until after we ruff our club. With all these lovely hearts, I would even ruff the third round of clubs with the J. 

If you take your time when dummy comes down, you may feel like you are slowing down the game, but you will play the rest of the hand much more quickly. Too often, we spend time thinking in the middle of the hand when it is too late. 


For more info on Declarer Play, check out Larry's Video Lesson on Declarer Play at Suit Contracts: