Always play third Hand High? (Rule of 3, Part 2)
In Bridge, there is a axiom that goes, “play low in the second
seat – play high in the third seat.” After an opening lead, the
player in the second seat is in a prime position to become
finessed. By playing low in the second seat, the partner of the
leader (in the third seat) cannot be certain whether the player
in the second or fourth seat holds a crucial honor or
intermediate card; these cards may eventually be promoted to win
a critical trick. However, in third seat, either our partner
deliberately lead the suit or we called for the dummy card as
declarer. Either way, in third seat our predominant goal is to
promote a trick. So we generally play a high card in third seat.
Yet like most “rules”, there are several considerations
before automatically playing a high card in third seat:
1. Play the “lowest of equals” over dummy cards – playing the
higher of two touching honors misleads partner into thinking the
Declarer holds the lower of a touching sequence.
2. When appropriate, keep a “cover card” (usually higher
honor card) over the visible card in dummy – of course, the
defender must carefully consider factors such as transportation,
possible finesses, declarer’s short suits, etc.
3. Avoid winning a trick when gaining the lead at that moment
would ultimately lead to losing additional tricks.
4. Consider keeping suit communications open in Notrump
contract – playing low on the first round (ducking) to
subsequently promote the suit when regaining the lead.
Let’s look at some illustrative examples – this discussion
assumes fourth-best leads.
4 3 2
A 10 9 8 7 K J 5
West leads the 10, the top of a sequence. East must go
up with the King, otherwise declarer South will win the
trick and switch to another suit.
K 9 7
A 8 3 2 Q 10 4
J 6 5
West leads the 2, the fourth best and promising a four
card suit (otherwise West would lead a higher card, holding 5).
After declarer plays the 7 from dummy, East must play
Queen, otherwise South unnecessarily wins a cheap trick.
8 7 6
K 10 4 3 Q 9 2
A J 5
West leads the 3, the fourth best - as East, you can
deduce this fact since you hold the 2; if West held 5+
cards, the lead would have been a card above the 3. In
third seat, East must play the Queen, again third hand
high in order to hold the declarer to one winner.
Now let’s look at a few hands involving dummy finesses.
A 7 6 5 4 3 K 10 9
West leads the 5 to dummy’s 8. East must play
the King – third hand high. Incidentally, did you use the
Rule of 11 here? Here the formula is: 11 – 5 = 6
So after the lead of the 5, the remaining 3 hands have 5
cards above the 5. Sitting in the East seat, we can count
5 of the 6 so declarer South has only one card above the
leader’s 5. Playing the King ensures the defenders
get all their tricks. Now let’s modify the hand slightly.
Q 8 2
A 7 6 5 4 K J 9
After West’s lead of the 5 to dummy’s 8, East
must play the Jack, not the King. This is an example of “low
from equals” – since the dummy’s Queen is pinned, playing
the Jack will win a trick just as effectively as the
King and still keep the looming honor over the Queen
later in the hand. It would be wasteful to play the King
on the first trick and potentially give the opponents an
undeserved trick later in the hand.
Q 8 7
9 2 A J 10 6 5
K 4 3
During the auction East bids a long suit, so West leads the
9 – probably from a doubleton. East may play a low card
since the only outstanding honor above the leader's 9 is
the Ace. Here’s an exception to playing third hand high. East
should keep a “cover card” – the Ace honor over dummy’s
Queen. In addition to keeping the important cover card,
West can deduce that East has the Jack and 10. Now let’s
investigate third hand play when leader has a strong honor
J 3 2
K Q 10 5 4 A 6
9 8 7
West leads the King, the top of a broken sequence
(recall we should lead the top of the touching honors). In third
seat, East should play the Ace and return the suit. If
East played the 6, West will certainly play again; this
would force East to play the Ace, blocking the suit – a
most unfortunate situation. Next, let’s examine a situation
where third hand uses a ducking strategy to belatedly promote a
suit (opponents are playing a Notrump contract).
10 4 A K Q 6 5
J 9 8 7
Imagine East bid this suit, South overcalled Notrump and the
opponents eventually ended up in 3 Notrump. After West dutifully
leads the 10, should East win the trick and continue
playing the suit? The answer is, “it depends!” If East has an
outside entry, then going up with the top honor will work – East
loses the fourth trick to South’s Jack but later wins a
trick in an outside suit and cashes the fourth trick in this
suit to set the contract. But what about the situation where
West has the only winner in an outside suit? If East were to win
the Ace-King-Queen and East later gets in the lead, West
would not be able to return a card to East’s promoted suit. We
call this keeping the suit communication open. In essence, when
the long hand does not have an outside entry, be careful to
disrupt the vital suit communication channel. Finally, let’s
explore a ducking maneuver where the opponents are in a suit
contract and partner is hoping to gain a ruff.
J 8 6
9 2 A 10 7 5 4
K Q 3
West leads the 9; should East play third hand high
with the Ace? Again, the answer depends on who has an
outside suit entry. If East has an outside Ace of trump,
it would be okay to win the Ace here and return a low
card in the suit – when the declarer wins the trick and plays a
trump, East wins and plays a third card in this suit to give
West a ruff. However, if West potentially held the Ace
of trump or King-third “behind” the declarer, than
clearly East should not win the first trick. As we saw before,
when West regains the lead and returns the remaining singleton
in the opening suit, East wins the Ace and gives West a
well-deserved trump ruff.
In summary, third hand high is a useful axiom yet it does not
absolve the player from thoughtful play based on the big picture
- and that’s what makes our delightful game of Bridge so much
fun! Two good books covering third hand high (or not) are: “Defense”
(formerly known as the Heart Series) and “25
Bridge Myths Exposed.”