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Defensive Signals

(1) Attitude
The defenders use the same techniques as declarer to develop tricks, i.e. promotion, length, finesse, the trump suit, and discarding losers on winners. Because the defenders can’t see each other’s cards, defensive signals help.

The card you play to the first trick and the first discard, provided you’re not trying to win that trick (and winning the trick is your first priority) will be a signal, known as an attitude signal. 

So, if the first trick has already been won, by either your partner, or dummy, the card you play at your turn should show partner whether you liked their lead or not. 

Decide whether to play low or high encouraging. This means, if low to encourage, the smallest card you can afford will tell partner you liked the lead, and more importantly, that you would like that suit continued. High is the opposite, the highest card you can afford says you would like that suit continued. Make sure you and partner are on the same page with this! 

NB: The person who leads simply follows the recommended guidelines. It’s the leader’s partner who signals their “attitude” to the lead. Partner leads the ♥3, dummy wins the ♥A, and you have ♥K92. You would like hearts continued, hoping to win your ♥K. If playing low to encourage, the correct card to play is the ♥2.  If playing high encouraging, it’s the ♥9.

Partner will expect an attitude signal when you can’t win the first trick, and on your first discard too.

(2) Count
Sometimes it’s better to show partner how many cards you hold, instead of liking a suit and/or wanting it continued. This occurs mainly when declarer is playing their long suit. Perhaps partner holds the ace and wants to break declarer’s communications with dummy by winning their ace when, and only when, they know declarer will have none left to reach dummy.

Play high-low to show an even number of cards, and low-high to show odd. eg you hold 9853. Play the 9 followed by the 3, to show an even number. With 983, play the 3 first, followed by the 9, to show an odd number. It’s important to recognise when the situation calls for attitude or count. Attitude should have priority.

(3) Suit Preference
Sometimes your partner needs to know how to reach your hand later in the play, i.e. where’s your entry. This is important when giving partner a ruff, or to know how to reach partner’s hand to take long suit winners at no trumps. Your card will ask partner to return either the higher-ranked suit, or the lower-ranked suit.

The play of an unnecessarily high card asks for the higher ranked suit to be returned, and a low card asks for the lower suit. (McKenney and Lavinthal are suit preference signalling methods).

Although these signals are often helpful, there is no substitute for using your own logic at the table. Take notice of what’s in dummy, how declarer is playing the contract, and realising that sometimes you don’t need a signal at all!