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When you are defending a contract and declarer (or dummy) leads and you are second to play to the trick, the “second hand low” adage generally applies. The suit layout below illustrates this principle. If the 2 is led from the North hand and East plays the Ace, 2nd hand high, North-South will win 2 tricks in the suit. If East plays 2nd hand low, South’s King will win, but declarer cannot win another trick in the suit without help from East. 


Q 5 2


J T 9


A 7 4 3


K 8 6


Richard Pavlicek summarizes the priniciple nicely in his "Second Hand Play" article.  "The basic strategy as second hand is to play low. The object is to force third hand (declarer or dummy) to waste a high card, then fourth hand (partner) has an opportunity to capture that card with a higher one."

There are many exceptions to 2nd hand low. A common exception is to cover an honor with an honor. In the layout below, if the Queen is led from North’s hand, East must cover with the King. South can win the Ace, but West’s 10 will be promoted to a winner. If a low card is led from North’s hand, East should play 2nd hand low. Playing the King on a low card allows North-South to win 4 tricks in the suit.


Q 5 2


T 9 3


K 7 4


A J 8 6


If covering the first honor creates a finessing position over your partner, you generally want to play low on the 1st honor and then cover the 2nd honor.  In the layout below, if the Queen is led from North’s hand and East covers with the King. South can win the Ace and can then finesse against West's 10 to win 4 tricks in the suit.  If East ducks the 1st honor from North's hand, but covers the 2nd honor, West's 10 will be promoted to a winner.  North-South win just 3 tricks in the suit.


Q J 9


T 3 2


K 7 4


A 8 6 5


In his "Second Hand Play" article,  Richard Pavlicek advises "With two cards above the honor led, play your highest card."  Here is one of the examples Pavlicek gives to illustrate the principle.


J T 8 6


9 4 3

North leads the Jack 

A Q 2


K 7 5


Pavlicek notes that "East should play the ace, after which declarer must lose another trick. Note that if East ducks the jack or covers with the queen, declarer can gain a trick."

Another common situation where you don’t want to play 2nd hand low is when you need to split honors to protect a trick. In the suit combination below when South leads low, West must split their Queen-Jack to ensure a trick.










Don’t split your honors when there is no upside. In the diagram below, splitting West’s honors is only effective if South cannot regain the lead.











2nd hand low doesn’t apply when you’re the dangerous opponent. On the hand below, West leads the King against South's 3NT contact. East discourages, and South ducks. West cannot continue hearts without giving declarer their 9th trick. West shifts to a diamond. North wins and leads a club. East is the Dangerous Opponent because they can lead a heart through declarer.  As the Dangerous Opponent, East should play their ♣King, trying to gain the lead.  When the ♣King wins, East leads a heart through declarer, positioning East-West to beat 3NT.   

If East played 2nd hand low, West can win their ♣Ace, but cannot profitably attack hearts.  This gives declarer the time to develop to establish 3 club winners and win 10 tricks.











When ducking will leave a finessing position over you and there is no entry to the source of tricks, don’t play 2nd hand low. If South leads low in the suit combination below and North doesn't have an outside entry, West should play the King. Now North must duck, giving East-West 2 tricks in the suit if they want to prevent a successful hold-up play by East. 











Be careful if holding the Queen, you don’t want solve a 2-way guess for declarer.  In the Layout below, declarer can finesse against East or West for the Queen.  If South leads a low card, playing the Queen ensures declarer wins 5 tricks in the suit.  A 2nd hand low play gives declarer a guess on which defender holds the Queen.