Bridge: Counting Losers and Extra Winners

When playing a hand at a trump contract, instead of counting sure tricks, a better strategy is to count how many losers you have. If you have too many losers to make your contract, you need to look in the dummy for extra winners (tricks) that you can use to dispose of some of your losers.

You may find this approach a rather negative way of playing a hand. But counting losers can have a very positive impact on your play at a trump contract. Your loser count tells you how many extra winners you need, if any. Extra winners are an indispensable security blanket to make your contract — extra winners help you get rid of losers.

In the following sections, we define losers and extra winners and show you how to identify them. We also explain when to draw trumps before taking extra winners and when to take extra winners before drawing trumps.

Defining losers and extra winners

When playing a hand at a notrump contract, you count your sure tricks; however, when you play a hand at a trump contract, you count losers and extra winners. Losers are tricks you know you have to lose. For example, if neither you nor your partner holds the ace in a suit, you know you have to lose at least one trick in that suit unless, of course, one of you is void (has no cards) in the suit. Extra winners may allow you to get rid of some of your losers. An extra winner is a winning trick in the dummy (North) on which you can discard a loser from your own hand (South).

Get ready for some good news: When counting losers, you have to count only the losers in the long hand, the hand that has more trumps. The declarer usually is the long trump hand, but not always.

For the time being, just accept that you don’t have to count losers in the dummy. Counting losers in one hand is bad enough; counting losers in the dummy is not only unnecessary but also confusing and downright depressing.

Recognizing immediate and eventual losers

Losers come in two forms: immediate and eventual. Immediate losers are losers that your opponents can take when they have the lead. These losers have a special warning signal attached to them that reads, “Danger — Unexploded Bomb!” Immediate losers spell bad news.

Of course, eventual losers aren’t exactly a welcome occurrence, either. Your opponents can’t take your eventual losers right away because those losers are temporarily protected by a winning card in the suit that you or your partner holds. In other words, with eventual losers, your opponents can’t take their tricks right off the bat, which buys you time to get rid of those eventual losers. One of the best ways to get rid of eventual losers is to discard them on extra winners.

You help yourself by knowing which of your losers are eventual and which are immediate. Your game plan depends on your immediate loser count.

Because identifying eventual and immediate losers is so important, take a look at the spades in Figures 4-5, 4-6, and 4-7 to spot some losers. Assume in these figures that spades is a side suit (any suit that is not the trump suit) and hearts is your trump suit.

Figure 4-5 shows a suit with two eventual losers. In the hand in this figure, as long as you have the ♠A protecting your two other spades, your two spade losers are eventual. However, after your opponents lead a spade (which forces out your ace), your two remaining spades become immediate losers because they have no winning trick protecting them. Ouch.

In Figure 4-6, you have one eventual spade loser. With the spades in Figure 4-6, the dummy’s ♠AK protect two of your three spades — but your third spade is on its own as a loser after the ♠A and ♠K have been played.

In Figure 4-7, you have two immediate spade losers. Notice that you count two, not three, spade losers — you count losers only in the long trump hand (which presumably is your South hand). You don’t have to count losers in the dummy. Actually, when you are playing a 4-4 trump fit, no long hand exists, so assume the hand with the longer side suit (five or more cards) is the long hand. When neither hand has a long side suit, the hand with the stronger trumps is considered the long hand.

Identifying extra winners

Enough with losers already — counting them is sort of a downer. You can get rid of some of your losers by using extra winners. Extra winners come into play only after you (South) are void in the suit being played. Therefore, extra winners can exist only in a suit that’s unevenly divided between the two hands and are usually in the dummy. The stronger the extra winner suit (that is, the more high cards it has), the better.

Figure 4-8 shows you two extra winners in their natural habitat. The cards in this figure fill the bill for extra winners because spades is an unevenly divided suit, and the greater length is in the dummy. After you lead the ♠3 and play the ♠Q from the dummy, you’re void in spades. Now you can discard two losers from your hand when you lead the ♠A and the ♠K from the dummy. Therefore, you can count two extra winners in spades.

By contrast, the cards in Figure 4-9 look hopeful, but unfortunately, they can’t offer you any extra winners. They don’t fit the mold for extra winners because you have the same number of spades in each hand. No matter how strong a suit is, if you have the same number of cards in each hand, you can’t squeeze any extra winners out of the suit. You just have to follow suit each time. True, the ♠AKQ aren’t chopped liver; although this hand has no spade losers, it gives you no extra winners, either. Sorry!

The cards in Figure 4-10 contain no extra winners, either. The dummy’s ♠AK take care of your two losing spades, but you have nothing “extra” over there — no ♠Q, for example — on which you can discard one of your losers. In Figure 4-10, your ♠A and ♠K do an excellent job of covering your two spade losers, but no more. You can’t squeeze blood out of a turnip.

Drawing trumps before taking extra winners

After counting your immediate losers (see “Recognizing immediate and eventual losers” earlier in this chapter), if you still have enough tricks to make your contract, go ahead and draw trumps before taking extra winners. That way, you can make sure your opponents don’t swoop down on you with a trump card and spoil your party. Figure 4-11 illustrates this point by showing you a hand where spades is your trump suit. You need to take ten tricks to make your contract. West leads the ♥A.

Before playing a card from the dummy, count your losers one suit at a time, starting with the trump suit, the most important suit. You can’t make a plan for the hand until your opponents make the opening lead because you can’t see the dummy until the opening lead is made. But as soon as the dummy comes down, try to curb your understandable eagerness to play a card from the dummy and first do a little loser and/or extra winner counting in each suit instead:

Spades: In your trump suit (spades), you’re well heeled. You have ten spades between the two hands, including the ♠AKQ. Because your opponents have only three spades, you should have no trouble removing their spades. A suit with no losers is called a solid suit. You have a solid spade suit — you can never have too many solid suits.

Hearts: In hearts, however, you have trouble — big trouble. In this case, your own hand has three heart losers. But before you count three losers, check to see whether the dummy has any high cards in hearts to neutralize any of your losers. In this case, your partner doesn’t come through for you at all, having only three baby hearts. You have three heart losers, and they’re immediate losers.

Diamonds: In diamonds, you have two losers, but this time your partner does go to bat for you with the ♦A as a winner. The ♦A negates one of your diamond losers, but you still have to count one eventual diamond loser.

Clubs: In clubs, you have two losers, but in this suit your partner really does come through. Not only does your partner take care of your two losers with the ♣AK, but your partner also has an extra winner, the ♣Q. Count one extra winner in clubs.

Your mental score card for this hand reads as follows:

Spades: A solid suit, no losers
Hearts: Three losers (the three cards in your hand)

Diamonds: One loser, because your partner covers one of your losers with the ace

Clubs: One extra winner

Next, you determine how many losers you can lose and still make your contract. In this case, you need to take ten tricks, which means that you can afford to lose three tricks. (Remember, each hand has 13 tricks up for grabs.)

If you have more losers than you can afford, you need to figure out how to get rid of those pesky deadbeats. One way to get rid of losers is by using extra winners — and you just happen to have an extra winner in clubs.

Follow the play: West starts out by leading the ♥AKQ, taking the first three tricks. You can do absolutely nothing about losing these heart tricks — which is why you call them immediate losers (tricks that your opponents can take whenever they want). Immediate losers are the pits, especially if they lead that suit.

After taking the first three heart tricks, West decides to shift to a low diamond, which establishes an immediate winner for your opponents in diamonds and an immediate loser for you in diamonds when the ♦A is played from dummy. You may be strongly tempted to get rid of that loser immediately on the dummy’s clubs — just looking at it may be making you nervous. Don’t do it. Draw trumps first. If you play the ♣AKQ from the dummy before you draw trumps, West will trump the third club, and down you go in a contract you should make.

You need to draw trumps first and then play the ♣AKQ. West won’t be able to trump any of your good tricks, nor will East — they won’t have any trumps left. You wind up losing only three heart tricks — and making your contract!

The most favorable sequence of plays, after losing the first three heart tricks and winning the ♦A, is as follows:

1. Play theAK, removing all your opponents’ trumps.

2. Play the ♣AKQ and throw that diamond loser away.

3. Sit back and take the rest of the tricks now that you have only trumps left.

Any time you can draw trump before taking your extra winners, do it.

Taking extra winners before drawing trumps

Sometimes your trump suit has an immediate loser. When you have more immediate losers in a side suit than your contract can afford but you also have an extra winner, you must use that extra winner immediately before you give up the lead in the trump suit (or in any other suit, for that matter). If you don’t, your opponents will mow you down by taking their tricks while you still hold too many immediate losers. Of course, if you can draw trumps without giving up the lead, do that first and then take your extra winner as in Figure 4-11.

Figure 4-12 shows you the importance of taking your extra winners before drawing trumps. In this hand, your losers are immediate — if your opponents get the lead, you can pack up and go home.

In the hand in Figure 4-12, your contract is for ten tricks, with spades as the trump suit. West leads the ♦K, trying to establish diamond tricks after the ♦A is played. After dummy’s ♦A has been played, West’s ♦Q and ♦J are promoted to sure winners on subsequent tricks.

After you count your losers, you tally up the following losers and extra winners:

Spades: One immediate loser — the ♠A
Hearts: One extra winner — the ♥Q
Diamonds: Two losers, which are immediate after you play the ♦A Clubs: One immediate loser — the ♣A

You win the opening lead with the ♦A. Suppose you lead a low spade from dummy at trick two and play the ♠K from your hand, intending to draw trumps — usually a good idea. (See “Eliminating Your Opponents’ Trump Cards” earlier in this chapter for more information on drawing trumps.)

However, West wins the trick with the ♠A and takes the ♦QJ, and East still gets a trick with the ♣A. You lose four tricks. What happened? You went down in your contract while your extra winner, the ♥Q, was still sitting over there in the dummy, gathering dust. You never got to use your extra winner in hearts because you drew trumps too quickly. When you led a spade at the second trick, you had four losers, all immediate. And sure enough, your opponents took all four of them.

If you want to make your contract, you need to play that extra heart winner before you draw trumps. You can’t afford to give up the lead just yet. The winning play goes something like this:

1. You take the ♦A at trick one, followed by the ♥AKQ at tricks two, three, and four.

2. On the third heart, you discard one of your diamond losers.
This play reduces your immediate loser count from an unwieldy four to a workable three.

3. Now you can afford to lead a trump and give up the lead. After all, you do want to draw trumps sooner or later.

If you play the hand properly, you wind up losing one spade, one club, and one diamond — and you make your contract of ten tricks. Congratulations.

You may think that playing the ♥AKQ before you draw trumps is dangerous, but you have no choice. You have to get rid of one of your immediate diamond losers before giving up the lead if you want to make your contract. Otherwise, you’re giving up the ship without a fight.

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Author: Billy Walters