There is an important, but often overlooked, defensive area of bridge which needs to be covered or (in some cases) revisited.   It is the subject of suit preference signals (SP), a topic which can occur at almost anytime during the play of the hand, and sometimes even on the opening lead.  We will be dealing with SP “shift” signals in this discussion (as opposed to discard treatments), wherein such signals convey to partner that a shift to the highest ranking suit or lowest ranking suit (excluding the trump suit) is emphasized.


There are basically 4 cases in which SP can occur….. 1) at partner’s play to the opening lead, 2) as a message in your opening lead, 3) during “middle game” defensive leads, and 4) during declarer’s trump suit play. 


1.  Partner’s play to the opening lead


Let’s have a look at this one, where a great deal of confusion often occurs.  One of the partners is thinking “suit preference”, while the other one is thinking  “continue” or “stop”.  Even more confusing is when either situation could be right.    

As a rule, the first consideration should be “attitude”, meaning to convey to partner that you either want a continuation of the suit, or you don’t.     


So, let’s start with some ground rules.  When you’ve raised partner, with or without the Queen, and partner has led the A from AK…:


Rule 1. Tend to encourage the lead if a shift to any side suit holdings would be disastrous, or if we need to tap the dummy, or if it is important to “cash out”.

Rule 2. Tend to discourage the lead if a shift to a logical side suit appears to be critical, and tapping the dummy is not an issue, or it is likely that continuing will cost a trick, and there is no rush to “cash out”.

Rule 3.  A discouraging signal does not indicate a “suit” preference - it merely indicates a “shift” preference.    See Rule 4 premise, below.

Rule 4.  Premise: The opening leader will deem partner’s card played to be an SP signal when a continuation of the lead suit is hopeless*.  SP shifts are deemed to be a priority and request 1) the highest ranking suit, of the remaining suits, by playing an unusually high card in the suit led, or 2) the lowest ranking suit, of the remaining suits, by playing the most discouraging card in the suit led.  Reminder:  The trump suit is excluded as a shift suit.


*Whereas a high suit preference can be made anytime (unusually high card), a low suit preference is only do-able under the Rule 4 premise (hopeless to continue the opening lead suit), since a discouraging card played may be easily misinterpreted.




Some examples:


Partner leads the Ace of spades (A from AK…) against a 4H contract, which went

1H-(1S)-2D-(2S)-3D-P-4H and you see this dummy -   x  KQJ  Q10xxx  Qxxx


You hold – Qxxx  10xxx  KJx  Kx

Do you encourage partner to continue?  Why or why not?

[yes, to tap (shorten) dummy, promoting the heart 10]

What about xxx  10xxx  KJx  Kxx?  Why or why not?


You put on your glasses and the dummy was really this -


xx  KQJx  Q10xxx  Qx, and your hand really was –  Qxxx  10xxx  Ax  KJx

Do you do anything differently?  Why or why not?

[yes, play the most discouraging card in spades, to inform partner that you prefer a logical shift]


What if your holding was xxx 10xxx Ax Jxxx?  What now?

[Encourage, since you cannot stand a logical shift]


You clean your glasses and yet a different dummy – 

Jx  KQJx  Q10xxx  Qx, and your hand changed to – Qxxx  10xxx  A  Kxxx

Any changes in defense?  Why or why not?

[Play the spade Queen, an extremely high “alarm” card, requesting a shift to the Diamond suit, the highest ranking remaining suit, not the trump suit]


And, finally, this auction:  1S-(2H)-3D-(4H)-P-P-4S, and you lead the Heart Ace.

Here’s the dummy -      Axx   10x  AQJxxxx  A - Partner plays the Heart Jack.

What’s going on?

[This should call for a Diamond shift, since that suit is the highest ranking of the remaining suits; partner did not encourage for a possible tap, or discourage for a logical Club shift to eliminate an entry.  Partner probably holds something like: Kxx  Jxxx  x  Jxxxx , or even a VOID Diamond.  Quite often, a club shift is necessary, to help kill the dummy, but partner said otherwise.]


2. As a message in your opening lead


This one is easier to document, not so easy to recognize, and is in 2 parts.


     a)  When making the opening lead, holding a hand with which you desperately want a specific side suit switch as soon as partner gains the lead, the size of the card led can reap hefty rewards.    In this auction:  2H-(DBL)-RDBL*-(4S)-P-P-P,   you are on lead with this hand:      xxx  KJ10xxx  ---  QJxx


* By agreement, partner’s RDBL shows a high honor in your suit (A or K), your 1st and 2nd chair weak 2 bids promise 2 of the top 4 honors, and your leads are “Jack denies a higher honor”.

What is your lead and why?   [Heart Jack, requesting an immediate Diamond shift as soon as partner gains the lead.  The Jack is a suspicious lead per our agreements….therefore sending an SP “alarm” to partner]


     b) We have a way to tell partner where our outside entry is (or is not) as we are running a suit.  The concept applies equally to suit play and NT.


The auction went like this:   (1NT)-P-P-P,    and you are on lead with

 xx  QJ108x  xx  Kxx                 After leading the Heart Queen, you see this dummy:                      KJx  9xx  Jxx  Qxxx      Partner encourages, declarer ducks, you lead the 10 to show at least 4 length (you should generally lead the Jack next only if you hold 3 length, so that partner will know that you are unblocking, and won’t overtake the King (disaster); partner plays the King, and declarer wins the Ace.  Partner wins the spade finesse and returns the last heart, declarer discarding a Club.  What now?

[Play the last 2 hearts from the bottom up, to show a lower ranking entry (this frequently prevents discard problems by your partner).  Correspondingly, if you hold a higher ranking entry, play the last 2 hearts from the top down. NOTE: Against a suit contract, you can pinpoint the SP by playing hi-low or low-high in the Heart suit when declarer ruffs the 3rd one.]


 3.  During “middle game” defensive leads


Here we have many opportunities to shine.  This area is also in 2 parts:


 a)  We have a way to tell partner which suit to return when we are

      attempting to provide partner with a ruff, by using an SP signal.


           The most common example is this:  The opponents have bid to game

           as follows:    1S-(3H)-3S-P-4S-P-P-P   Partner leads the Club Jack and

           you see this dummy:   Kxx  Jx  xx  KQ10xxx    Your hand is:

           xxx  xx  Axxx  Axxx 


               Any problems as to how to defend?  [Club Ace, smallest Club return,

               requesting a Diamond return by partner]


We can follow the same approach as in 2b, above, when leading a “running” suit through declarer.   In a suit contract, we need to tell partner about our outside entry preference before declarer trumps in on that suit.  The order in which we start “cashing winners” defines this.




Example:  You hold AKQxx  x  AQx  xxxx, and the auction has gone –

1S-(2H)-2S-(4H)-P-P-P, and the dummy looks like:

xxxx  xxxx  Kx KJx


Partner leads the Spade 10; how do you defend?  Why?

[Spade Ace, then the King…SP for Diamonds.  Possible losing Heart finesse, so let partner know what to shift to]


4.  During declarer’s trump suit play


This is basically a “trump echo” technique to convey an SP situation.  Discuss this with your partner, since many play a trump echo to show the ability to ruff.  It works like this:  When you are following suit to declarer’s play in trumps, play high-low, with the highest trump that you can afford, to express a high suit preference, and a low trump to express a low suit preference (or no preference).  If you can afford it, on some hands, you can express a preference for any one of 3 suits, when holding 3 trumps. 


Example:   The auction was -    1S-(DBL)-2S-P-4S-P-P-P, and partner leads the Diamond King.    Dummy comes down with:

KQx  Jxx  xxxxx  xx   and your hand is:   10xx  KQ10  xxx  Qxxx 

Declarer wins the Ace, and a spade to the King.  How do you defend?

(Spade 10]…….Now switch your hearts and clubs……What now?  [Spade deuce]