How to Use the Bridge Hold-Up Play

In bridge, you have countermeasures to opponents with winning tricks in a notrump-contract suit. The hold-up play is a technique that may stop your opponents dead in their tracks. No, the hold-up play doesn’t involve robbing a bank. The successful hold-up play allows you to cut the lifeline between your opponents’ hands.

The typical hold-up play involves taking an ace on the third round in the suit your opponents have led. The idea behind the hold-up play is to try to void one opponent in this suit. Later, if the opponent who’s void gets the lead, he won’t have any cards left in the suit to lead over to his partner, who’s sitting over there champing at the bit with winning tricks.

Your opponents attack your weakest suit, in which you have the ace but no other significant honor cards. You have to drive out an opposing honor card to make your contract. In other words, you’re going to have to surrender the lead:

  1. To neutralize the suit that your opponents lead, you take the third round of the suit, allowing your opponents to win the first two tricks — your hold-up play in action.

  2. You drive out the opposing honor to establish your extra needed tricks.

    You pray that the opponent who wins the trick doesn’t have any more cards in the suit that was led originally.

This image shows a hand where you can commit the perfect crime — a successful hold-up play.

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In the hand shown in this image, you need to take nine tricks. West leads the ♠K with the intention of driving out your ♠A and then making the rest of his spades into winning tricks. After the lead, the dummy comes down, and it’s your turn to enter center stage by counting your sure tricks, suit by suit:

  • Spades: One sure trick — the ♠A

  • Hearts: Three sure tricks — the ♥AKQ

  • Diamonds: No sure tricks — no ace

  • Clubs: One sure trick — the A

You have five sure tricks; you need nine, and those diamonds in the dummy offer your only chance of making your contract. If you can drive out the ♦A, you get four diamond tricks just like that. But life isn’t quite that easy. You have that little matter of the ♠K lead to deal with.

The hold-up play opening lead

When you play a hand, the opening lead is a very important card because it tells you a lot about what your opponents are up to. Make sure to take a good look at the opening lead. In the case of the cards in the preceding image, the lead of an honor card by West, the ♠K, sends a special message around the table that he has the ♠KQJ or the ♠KQJ10.

The good news is that your spade stopper is the ♠A (a stopper is a card that at least temporarily keeps your opponents from taking their winning tricks). The bad news is that your opponents have attacked a suit in which you have only one stopper — the ♠A:

  • If you win the first trick with your ♠A, West remains with four winning spades and East remains with two spades.

  • If you win the second spade, West remains with three winning spades and East with one spade.

  • If you win the third spade, West remains with two winning spades, and East has no more spades.

So, let the bad guys have the first two spade tricks, and you’re going to win the third round of the suit with the ♠A. By holding up the ace until the third round, you’ve isolated the two remaining winning spades with West. East has none. Now you can turn your attention to diamonds, which increases your sure trick out from five to nine.

Dealing with the hold-up play danger hand

In bridge, when a particular opponent has winning tricks and can hurt you by gaining the lead, you call that opponent the danger hand. For example, in the preceding image, after you win the third round of spades, West is the danger hand because West has two winning spades. Stay clear of West.

Here’s some advice on handling several different danger hands:

  • Voiding one opponent to isolate the danger hand: When you make a hold-up play, your intent is to void one opponent in the suit that was led. Usually you’re trying to void the partner of the opening leader — usually, but not always.

  • Using a flexible stopper to your advantage: A flexible stopper is the highest remaining card in a suit. Aces are always flexible stoppers, but a king can be a flexible stopper if the ace has already been played. You can bide your time with a flexible stopper because you know will win any trick in that suit.

  • Avoiding a hold-up when you don’t have a flexible stopper: When your stopper isn’t flexible, grab the trick while you can. You can make a hold-up play only when you have the highest card or the highest remaining card in the suit. If you don’t have the highest card in the suit, just take the trick.

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