Play Basics

By Kitty and Steve Cooper

Counting Out the Hand

Another important technique for declarer play is called counting out the hand; this is when you count how many cards your opponents have in each suit. Knowing that one opponent has two cards in a suit and the other has five means that it is five to two that a specific missing card is with the length. The classic example is KJ10 opposite Axx in a side suit, where you can finesse either way for the queen. When you have no other information you play the opponent with the most length for that card. Other important uses for the count are to overrule “nine never” or to drop a doubleton honor in your opponent’s hand.

How do you count the hand? First of all, if there has been any bidding - say that an opponent opens 1S playing five card majors - you know that he has five or more cards in that suit. Next, when an opponent shows out of a suit you know how many cards both he and his partner started with in that suit. After drawing trumps (and noting how many each opponent has), you cash side winners and ruff some losers, thus building a picture of the opponents’ distribution. If the opponents do not realize what you are up to, they are likely to give each other accurate count signals because on most hands they have to worry about keeping the right cards in the ending. In other words, frequently the defense cannot afford to lie to each other, so you can use their signals to help you count out the hand.

John Kranyak of Las Vegas, Nevada, playing on the Fireman team, USA2, used counting in the semi-finals of the recent world championships in India. On the first board of the final set he was declaring a spade game. He needed to lose only one trick in a side suit with this combination:   D K1086 opposite D Q53. The normal play, taken at the other table, is to play to the ten, hoping the jack is onside. Kranyak opted to count out the hand first, so he played off all his side winners. He was confident that the player in front of the king who had overcalled vulnerable at the two level held the ace. He also knew that the overcaller had six clubs, one spade, and at least three hearts. His judgement from the opponents’ carding was that hearts were four-four, which left only two diamonds in the overcaller’s hand. He backed that judgement by playing to the king and then ducking to the doubleton ace on the way back.  He won ten imps for his fine play. Sadly, it was not enough for his team to win the match and advance to the finals.

You can view all the hands from that set at

This month’s Improve Your Play has a good example of counting the hand after a preempt.


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