To cover or not to cover?
Written by woody   

We have all learned that the 'right way' to play is to cover a honor from your opponents. Nothing is more irritating then giving your opponents no losers in a suit just by failing to cover. But there is no rule without exception, and this is something you as a declarer can use to your advantage. Many players have not learned when not to cover, and it is difficult for them to know, because they don't always see what's going on. We are therefore going to see how the declarer can manipulate his opponents to make a mistake. As a declarer we sometimes want our opponents to cover, and sometimes we don't want them to do it at all.

 

Let us say that you have these cards in a suit:

Ax (North)

QJT9 (South)

To get 4 tricks in this suit we must play the queen from hand, and hope that LHO covers with his king. This (of course) is a mistake, but let us look at what West might have:

With the king doubleton, it is always right to cover, because the king will fall on the next round anyway.

But what if West has Kxx or Kxxx? Now it is difficult to know what is right and what is wrong. If declarer has QJ9, it is right not to cover because the declarer might finesse the 10 after West covers with the king. With Kxx it would be right to cover, because the declarer may have QJxx (and can otherwise, after passing the queen, cash the ace and ruff out your king to set up the jack).

This is of course if you're playing a trump contract. In NT it is more difficult to know the right thing to do. If you have at least 4 cards in the suit with the king on top, you shouldn't cover. But why should we spend time agonizing over this? As declarer you want your opponents to cover, if you have Ax against QJT9. The point is that your opponents agony in these cases could be used in other situations.

What if you are playing 3NT with these cards:
 

  : KJ
: QJx
: Ax
: Jxxxxx
 
   
  : Ax
: xxxx
: QTxx
: KQx
 

 

WEST NORTH EAST SOUTH
- - - 1
1 2 2 Pass
Pass 3 Pass 3NT
Pass Pass Pass -

 

West leads a small spade, East covers the Jack on the table with his queen, taken by our ace. 8 tricks are assured by forcing out the ace of clubs, but what about the 9th trick? The heart suit offers no hope, so the only chance seems to be to make 2 tricks in diamonds. The chance of the king of diamonds being singleton is not too good, so is an endplay the only chance to make 9 tricks? The problem is that the opponents have Ace-King in hearts, ace of clubs and at least 3 spade tricks. If we play off the clubs, then our opponents will probably manage to signal their cards and find the right defence. The best chance is probably to push the queen of diamonds at trick two! Often West has Kxx(x), and doesn't cover. At least this should be our best chance.

It's said that a grand slam was made because the declarer played an unguarded queen to the Ace doubleton on the second trick.

There are many other examples where we don't want our opponents to cover. Lets look at this one:
 

  : Qxx
: xx
: xxx
: AK8xx
 
   
  : Axxx
: Axx
: AKx
: JT
 

 

South is playing 3NT and West leads a heart. We hold up the ace until the third round. What now? Of course, we have to play on the club suit, but the problem is that even if the clubs are 3-3 with the queen in West, the suit is blocked if West covers with his queen on the first round. The solution is to play the 10 of clubs, and give West a choice. West now has a difficult choice. With JT doubleton in South he should cover. But what if South has T9x or Txx? Then it would be wrong to cover. A wrong choice would give the declarer 5 tricks in the suit.

As you can see it pays off to play a low card in a sequence if you want your opponents not to cover.

Another example:
 

  AKJ5  
Q753   862
  T9  

 

If the dummy doesn't have an entry, or you want to save it for something else, the 9 from your hand will give you the best chance of slipping by West. If you play the 10, West will almost always cover.

In some cases, we can trick our opponents into thinking we are going to take a finesse. Suppose we are playing a trump contract and one of the side suits looks like this:
 

  JTx  
Qxxxx   Axxx
  K  

 

If we play the Jack from the dummy, East may believe that we have the king doubleton. A good East player will probably play a small card in a normal tempo, because a change of pace would reveal his ace. This kind of play should be done in a normal tempo, so that East doesn't have time to think about the situation.

Another example of this type of play:
 

  : KQx
: QJT
: Kxxx
: xxx
 
: Txx
: xx
: Axx
: JT98x
: Jxxx
: Axxx
: xx
: Kxx
  : Axx
: K9xx
: QJTx
: AQ
 

 

After a 1NT opener from South, N-S end up in 3NT, and West leads the Jack of clubs which goes to the King and Ace. You have 5 top tricks, and the possibility for 3 extra tricks in each red suit. The problem is that as soon as your opponents take one of their red aces, they will push out your last club stopper. The solution is to trick them into giving you one trick in one of the red suits without taking their ace. Then you can play on the other red suit. Don't play on the heart suit - the heart suit in the dummy is too good and the opponents have no reason to wait with the ace. Act like you are taking a finesse in diamonds. There is no reason to play the queen from your hand. Play a lower honor. Choose the 10 because this card gives West more choices. This card could be from QT9 or JTx. The odds are good that West will hold up his ace. When your 10 wins a trick, you will of course switch to the heart suit. Thus ensuring you 4 red tricks.

Another example:
 

  : Jx
: KJxxx
: Jxx
: AQx
 
: T8xx
: xx
: xxxx
: xxx
: Ax
: AQxx
: KQTxx
: xx
  : KQ9xx
: Tx
: A
: KJxxx
 

 

East opened 1 diamond and N-S wound up in 4 spades. West leads a small diamond to the 10 and Ace. With trumps 3-3 or the 10 doubleton, the contract is assured. The problem is if the 10 is sitting fourth. We can improve our chances by playing a club to dummy and leading the Jack of spades. There's a good chance that East will duck, playing his partner for something like Q9x (with the hope that West will play a small heart when he wins with the queen, giving East the chance to promote his partner's trump 9 with three rounds of hearts now and another when in with the trump ace). It's arguable that East should find the right defense, but the point is to give East a chance to make a mistake. If we don't, he will never make one. This is what makes Geir Helgemo one of the best players in the world - he is an expert on making your life a living hell at the bridge table.

We have now seen some examples of situations where you want your opponents to cover. Let's look at some examples where you want just the opposite:
 

  : Jx
: Txx
: AKxx
: Axxx
 
   
  : KQx
: A87xx
: xx
: KQx
 

 

You are playing 4 hearts with a spade lead to the ace and another spade. The contract looks rather boring. We have a spade loser and at least two trump losers. With the hearts 3-2 there is no danger, but what if the hearts are 4-1? The best plan is to cross to dummy with a diamond and play the 10 of hearts. If we are lucky then the 9 is singleton with West, but there is also a chance that East will cover with KJ9x or QJ9x. This is (of course) wrong, because the point of covering is to make your partners high cards better. But it's amazing how many people will cover in this position. Notice that there is no reason for not playing the 10, since it's never wrong.

Another example is if you have

Jxxx (North)

A97xx (South)

If you don't know how the suit splits it is best to play the ace, then play small to the Jack. This gives you the prize if East has a singleton honor, or the suit is 2-2. But let us say that the bidding or the play gives you the idea that West is short in the suit. Then the best thing to try is to lead the Jack from dummy. You will do well if East has KTx or QTx and covers! Stupid, you would say, but try it and be amazed at how may people do cover in this position. And if West has the 10 singleton, this is the only right play.

A new example:

Qxxx (North)

J987x (South)

Here you may actually get away with one loser by leading the queen from the dummy! If East has KTx he may cover, and the ace and king would fall on the same trick. And there is a position where its right to use the king. That is if the declarer has Axxx. You would probably argue that no declarer would play the queen in this position, but I have done it myself! East opened with 1NT (12-14) and showed at least two cards in each suit. I knew that at minimum he had 3 cards in the suit, and from his 12-14 he had to have the king. East had in this case KTx, but he could not have read his theory because he covered with the King!!

We can also look at these examples:
 

  Jxxx  
-   QT8
  AK9xxx  

 

We play the Jack from dummy. You have already decided to play Ace and King, but you give East the chance to cover. If he does, we will know the split, and can play the suit for no losers.
 

  9xx  
Q   JT8x
  AK76x  

 

Again we lead the highest trump from the dummy. We have nothing to lose, and East may cover. Stupid, okay, but many will.

Now you have seen some examples on how as declarer we can trick our opponents. Here is a board my friend Petter Osbak send me. Osbak writes:

Imagine that you as East have these cards, after South opens with 1NT (14-16) and North jumps to 3NT. Your partner leads the 2 of spades, invitational from an honor. This is what you see:
 

  : KQ
: Jxx
: AT
: QT9xxx
  : 98xx
: A9xx
: Qxx
: Jx

 

The declarer takes the trick with the king, and follows with the 10 from hand. Then he plays the Jack of hearts from the table. What do you do? Did it take you by surprise? Do you start to think? Without bragging too much, I was the declarer in the tournament SxlvCupen. We were 100 points below average, so I took this chance. East played low as fast as lightning, and this is what happened:
 

  : KQ
: Jxx
: AT
: QT9xxx
 
: Jxxx
: KTx
: KJxx
: xx
: 98xx
: A9xx
: Qxx
: Jx
  : ATx
: Qxx
: 98xx
: AKx
 

 

West was not psychic, so when he got in with his heart king he continued playing spades. What score do you think 11 tricks gave? Don't ask. What spade did you play on the lead? This was a lot of psychology, wasn't it?

Now you have seen how the declarer can manipulate his opponents to make a mistake by covering or not covering. To wrap this up I will give you some advice as a defender:

You should cover when:

- You can promote your partners honor.
- You can promote your own honor.

For every card you have in the suit (and fewer cards your partner has), the chance of it being right to cover becomes smaller.

Conversely:

The fewer cards you have in the suit (and for every card your partner has in the suit) the chance of it being right to cover becomes greater.

It is also important to find out how many cards that the declarer has in the suit. This is often the key to know if to cover or not to cover.

This is the last example, and a problem you often will meet:
 

  Axx  
Kx   ?
  Q?  

 

Let's say that the declarer has 5 cards in the suit, should we cover the queen? My experience tells me that it is best to play low! The chance of the declarer having QJ9xx is better then QJxxx. A good player would lead low from QJxxx, because he could get 2 losers against a singleton king. With QJ9xx, he will often play the J after the Q to kill the 10 doubleton (and in this example, won't be able to pick up the suit as he would if you covered orginally). If you disagree, just cover. The question is how good the declarer is.