What’s the most difficult skill to master in the play of the cards? To a beginner, it may be a finesse. More experienced players might answer that it’s executing endplays or coups or squeezes.
Those are among the many challenges of our game, but their impact on our scores is minimal because they just don’t come up all that often. The skill that most agree is extremely difficult and absolutely critical to our success is the one we need an average of six or seven times every session: making a good opening lead.
Fortunately, some opening leads are relatively easy, even routine. If you’re on lead after the opponents bid 1NT-3NT, the old standby of «fourth down from longest and strongest» works well on most deals. You may also have an obvious lead after partner has overcalled or when you hold a suit with a strong honor sequence.
It’s the hands where the choice isn’t so clear that test us, and it seems those occur most often. In these situations, your playing experience may give you a good sense of what works and what doesn’t. More important, though, is the ability to listen to the auction and use the clues to visualize the hidden hands. As the late Terence Reese once said, «There is no such thing as a blind opening lead. Just deaf opening leaders.»
The conventional wisdom is that selecting an opening lead is a two-part decision: you choose the suit first, then the specific card. The “which card?” decision is usually automatic once you’ve decided on the suit, so the main challenge is “which suit?”.
This decision will be easier – and more successful — if you back up and ask yourself a broader question: Does this auction call for a passive lead or an aggressive lead?
Some auctions will tell you that it’s best to make a safe, passive opening lead that isn’t likely to give declarer an extra trick. These leads are often from topless suits such as 86543 or 10982. On other deals, it will pay to make an aggressive lead – one that might give declarer a “gift” if partner has no help in the suit, but offers your best chance to beat the contract if partner has an honor or two. Aggressive leads are usually from suits with unprotected honors (low from Kxxx, for example).