Recognizing Stoppers

Pat Harrington

When we play in notrump, we are often concerned about stoppers in the suit led by our opponents. Sad to say, some people make plays that waste those precious stoppers. Look at this layout:

10 4
K J 9 7 2 Q 8 3
A 6 5
  1. What heart will West play on opening lead against 3NT?
  2. No matter which card is played from the dummy (North), what will East play to this trick?
  3. Now comes the big question. What heart should South, the declarer, play?
  4. What might be the benefit of holding up?
  1. The 7, fourth best.
  2. The , third-hand high.
  3. The answer is you can’t tell me unless you know the complete deal. Do you have nine tricks at this point? Is there a suit that is even weaker than your heart suit? One thing you do know is that the A is your only stopper in the suit.
  4. If you win the third heart, East is out of the suit. East becomes the “safe” opponent who you can allow to gain the lead.

Most players overuse the holdup play. There are times when holding can cost dearly. See how one card change can completely change the picture. In the layout below, we traded South’s A for West’s K. Everything is the same up to South’s decision whether to win the first trick.

10 4
A J 9 7 2 Q 8 3
K 6 5

If South does not play the K at on East’s queen, it costs him his heart stopper! East will return the 8(top of his remaining doubleton) and South’s king is trapped.

As declarer, you not only have to worry about stoppers in the suit led by the opponents, you also have to be concerned with stoppers in other suits — suits that the opponents might switch to when they gain the lead. Look at this club layout:

Dummy: ♣6 5
Declarer: ♣K 3 2

  1. If clubs are led on opening lead, do you have a stopper?
  2. If a different suit is led on opening lead, should declarer be concerned about the club suit?
  1. Yes, your ♣K is a stopper no matter who has the ♣A. If East plays anything other than the ♣A, you must win the king right away to ensure your club trick.
  2. You should be concerned – but only if one opponent gets the lead. Which opponent can threaten your ♣K? East, who will be leading through your high card, forcing you to play it before you know whether West has the ♣A.

Switch declarer and dummy around and the problem becomes more difficult.

Dummy: ♣ K 3 2
Declarer: ♣ 6 5

Your chance for a club stopper now may depend on what club is led on opening lead. If West leads the ♣4, you have a stopper. You may never get the ♣K, but at least you can stop East-West from reeling off a number of club tricks immediately. What should you play to trick one on the ♣4 lead? Play a low card from dummy. East can win cheaply but cannot attack the ♣K. In fact, if East does return a club, the king will live to win a trick.

What if West leads the ♣Q on opening lead? You have no idea who has the ♣A. In notrump, the queen is the correct lead when West holds ♣A Q J x x. You are probably going to have to guess who has the ace, but don’t commit at trick one. Maybe East will have to win the ♣A to unblock the suit. Maybe West will be afraid to lead another time away from his ace. If West wins the ♣Q and continues clubs, play the ♣K and pray.

Dummy: ♣ K 3
Declarer: ♣ 6 5

West leads the ♣4 (or any club other than the ace). What is your only prayer? Put up the king. If you play low, East-West can take the trick with something lower than the ace and then crash the king under their ace. When such a small change can change your play, is it any wonder that making the most of your stoppers is a sticky problem?

Do you have a spade stopper in this layout?

Dummy: ♠ 6 5
Declarer: ♠Q 7 3

Your ♠Q will win the first trick if West led away from the ♠A K (at notrump we sometimes lead fourth best unless we have three high cards in sequence or close to it). It is also possible that East holds both high spades and the queen is positioned right to survive. But it’s more likely that one high spade is with East and the other is with West, poised to capture your poor queen after East wins the opening lead and returns a spade.

Change one card and it’s a different story – provided you play low from dummy.

Dummy: ♠ J 5
Declarer: ♠Q 7 3

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