Play Basics: Do You Count Winners or Losers?

By Kitty and Steve Cooper

When you are first taught to play bridge you are told to count your tricks in notrump and count your losers in a suit contract, hopefully coming up with nine winners if you’re in 3NT and no more than three losers if you’re in four of a major. However, there are problems with this approach. If you only count winners in notrump you will find that sometimes the opponents get five or more tricks before your nine are ready. The problem with counting losers in a suit contract is that hands which require ruffing losers in dummy are easier to visualize by counting winners. A better approach, therefore, is to count both winners and losers.

Here is a hand played in 3NT.



D QJ1098

C K32


S 765

H K732

D 543


The opponents lead a heart and you can count nine winners: one spade, two hearts, three diamonds (once you have knocked out the ace and king), and three clubs. So what’s the problem? Well, if the hearts are 5-3 or 6-2 and the hand with the long hearts has one of the diamond honors, the opponents will be able to get three or four hearts and two diamonds before you have your nine tricks. Are there any other options? Yes - if the spade finesse works you have nine tricks via four spades, two hearts, and three clubs. Notice that these two lines of play are inconsistent; if you take the spade finesse and lose to the king when hearts are 4-4 you will lose five tricks (a spade, two hearts, and two diamonds), but if you start diamonds you will make your contract, losing only two hearts and two diamonds.

So how do you choose which way to play? You can actually postpone the choice by starting with a high diamond from dummy. Perhaps the enemy will err by ducking, in which case you shift to spades and now have nine tricks however hearts split - at least three spades, two hearts, one diamond, and three clubs. But if the enemy wins the diamond and clears hearts you will now have to choose between playing hearts to be 4-4 and taking the spade finesse; if you decide to do the latter you are conveniently in your hand to do so. Plus you have two club entries to your hand to repeat the spade finesse twice more so that you can take the four spade tricks you need.

Here is a hand played in 4S; there are no top losers (tricks the enemy can cash at once), but where do you find 10 tricks?

S J98

H 3

D AK43

C A9675

S AK1076

H A65

D 8765

C 5


For losers you may have one in trump (spades), two in hearts, and one or two in diamonds, so four or five losers. Sure winners are only six - two spades (the ace and king of trump), one heart, two diamonds, and one club. But wait! If you score your four little trumps by ruffing and add those tricks to your six high card tricks you get to ten; but to score your little trumps separately you must not draw even one round of trump. Instead of drawing trump you should cash all of your side winners - the ace of hearts, the ace and king of diamonds, and the ace of clubs and then ruff your two little hearts in dummy and three of dummy’s little clubs in hand.

Why do we advise you to cash all of your side winners before starting to crossruff? If you don’t do this an opponent may be able to discard one of the suits you will later be ruffing and thereby stop you from scoring a high card in that suit when he ruffs it.

Why not draw one round of trump since you only need two ruffs in dummy? You have great spots in trumps so if you get overruffed and they play a trump back, you still will have enough trump tricks to make this contract. If dummy is overruffed, it can only be by the queen, so you will make all five trumps in your hand plus one in dummy. If your hand gets overruffed, you still make two trumps in dummy and four in your hand.

Try the effect of counting both winners and losers when formulating your plan of play as declarer. We’re sure that you will be pleasantly surprised at the results.


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