Passion of The Game of Bridge

Finesse or Not To Finesse, That’s The Question !

Finesse or Not To Finesse, That’s The Question !

Not to be disrespectful with the famous Shakespeare’s Hamlet’s “To be or not to be”, the fact is that question is exactly what most bridge player have on the table. Sometime play finesse is the winning theme, sometimes just cash the honor without finesse (a.k.a “drop” theme) is the winning theme. This article’s goal is to equip you with that guidelines , so next time you finesse and it did not work, you can at least shut your partner up. Is that good or good…?

The word “finesse” is quite customary to bridge that even major dictionary define it as it is on the bridge table. Meriam Webster define it as “ the withholding of one’s highest card in the hope that a lower card will take the trick because the only opposing higher card is in the hand of an opponent who has already played“. That’s pretty much the definition on the table, right?
Anyway there are many kind of finesse and it will not covered here. But wikipedia has quite thorough definition you can find in here: Check it out as well later.

The purpose of the finesse is clear: to win as many trick as possible (or you can say to lose as few as possible). Sometimes you have AKJ and wonder whether to finesse the , or just hoping the Q is doubleton which will be fallen under the A and K. Sometimes you only have KJ10 and find a play to only lose 1 trick to the Ace. Ans so on and so on.

3 Steps before Finesse

Back to the question, to consider whether or not to do finesse, there are 3 steps that better bridge player need to do:

  1. Find Other Line of Play – if possible: finesse is the easier way to get additional trick, hence even beginner can do it. The thing that better bridge player can do is to find any other line of play that will not require finesse at all. This is the ultimate goal. For example: rather than finesse, how about striping other suit and throw-in or end play the RHO (Right Hand Opponent) so you will get “free finesse” (meaning you do not to think as you will play the last) or squeeze play, etc. The point is: try to find other line of play first before you consider finesse.
  2. Find Additional Information: Now, you decided that you will do the finesse. Then do the finesse as later as possible while you gather distribution and points on other suits to improve your odds. For example if RHO make opening bid and you are missing the K then it is likely on RHO, -or- RHO already has 10 HCP on other suits – as he did not open then the K will not be with him -or- LHO signals that he have even number of other suit, meaning he only can have either 1 or 3 card on this suit, etc, etc.
    So basically there are 3 source of additional information:
    1. From the bidding (or lack of bidding): distribution and point.
    2. From the signaling (count signal or discard)
    3. From obvious hesitation. For example when you play from hand to finesse AQ on dummy, if LHO pause or sigh or show a little bit hesitation, the missing honor most likely is there.
  3. Know The Odds based on distribution split and additional information on (2): the distribution split is as follow (derived from Wikipedia which got it from Encyclopedia of Bridge)

    Probability of Suit Distribution in 2 Hidden Hands
    No of Hidden
    Probability Combinations Individual Prob
    2 1 – 1 52% 2 0.260
    2 – 0 48% 2 0.240
    3 2 – 1 78% 6 0.130
    3 – 0 22% 2 0.110
    4 2 – 2 41% 6 0.068
    3 – 1 50% 8 0.062
    4 – 0 10% 2 0.048
    5 3 – 2 68% 20 0.033
    4 – 1 28% 10 0.028
    5 – 0 4% 2 0.020
    6 3 – 3 36% 20 0.018
    4 – 2 48% 30 0.016
    5 – 1 15% 12 0.012
    6 – 0 1% 2 0.007

    If you can remember all the table above (memorize it) that will be the best, otherwise, the much more simplified table below is a-must-to-remember for better bridge player.

    No of Hidden Cards Distribution Split Probability
    2 1 – 1 52%
    3 2 – 1 78%
    4 3 – 1 50%
    5 3 – 2 68%
    6 4 – 2 48%
    A Must Remember Table For All
    Better Bridge Player

    A good mnemonics to remember this is: for 2,3-4 hidden cards – anything with 1 is the highest probability. For 5-6 hidden cards, anything with 2 is the highest probability. Don’t bother with 7 or more hidden cards as that’s not your suit… 🙂
    We will see below how to use above table on analyzing any situation.

So, Do the Finesse?

Let see 2 side by side example how to assess finesse. In this case the King is the missing honor. On the left example you have 6-5 fit between dummy and hand(only 2 hidden cards) while on the right column you have 5-5 fit with 3 hidden cards. Note: LHO =Left hand Opponent

6-5 fits (own 11 cards) 5-5 fits (own 10 cards)

A Q 9 8 7 6 A Q 9 8 7

J 10 5 4 3 J 10 5 4 3

Likely split
1 – 1 (52%) 2 – 1 (78%)
LHO Holding
Probability Probability

(void) 0.24 (void) 0.11

2 0.26 2 0.13

K 0.26 6 0.13

K2 0.24 K 0.13

1.00 62 0.13

K2 0.13

K6 0.13

K62 0.11

K with LHO
K, K2 50% K, K2, K6, K62 50%

Finesse The K!

If one asked: with 6-5 fit , what’s the odd the King is with LHO if there is no additional information? The answer is 50%. (it could be on RHO or LHO) as simple as this, regardless of the fit.  So, this is the tricky part: while the likely split of 1 – 1 distribution on 6-5 fit is 52%, the odds that specific card with LHO (or RHO) is split evenly 50%-50% (see prove above). So, if we are talking specific distribution with specific card, we need to use the “Individual Probability” on the first table far above.

The easier to assess the situation is asking: what specific distribution needed to be successful if playing for Ace (cashing)?

  • On 6-5 fit, the play of the Ace only successful on: LHO hold 2 (hence RHO got singleton K)-0.26 OR LHO hold singleton K-0.26 => Total 52% ==> Hence go for drop instead finessed (play small to the Ace instead Q)
  • On 5-5 fit, the play of the Ace only successful on only when LHO got singleton K – 0.13 OR  LHO got 62 (Hence RHO got singleton K) – 0.13 probability => Total 26% ==> Go for finesse (74% chance).

Now the interesting situation is when you play from hand and LHO show ‘2’, has the odds change ? Let see:

When ‘2’ has been played by LHO

6-5 fits (own 11 cards) 5-5 fits (own 10 cards)
LHO Holding
Probability Probability

2 0.26 2 0.13

K2 0.24 62 0.13

0.50 K2 0.13

K62 0.11

K with LHO
K2 48% K2, K62 48%

When ‘2’ has been played by LHO, the situation change as follows:

  • On 6-5 fit, LHO only can have either 2 or K2. Hence the play of the Ace successful on: LHO hold 2 (hence RHO got singleton K)-0.26. 0.26 out of possible 0.5 will give you 52% possibility.
  • On 5-5 fit, LHO can have 2, 62,K2 and K62. The play of Ace will be successful only if LHO got 62 (hence RHO got singleton K)-0.13. 0.13 out of possible 0.5 will give you 26% possibility.

So, the Odds of the unknown is still the same. But the odds of K with LHO slightly drop because we have additional info that LHO now got 2.


  1. The odds of a finesse is at 50% maximum (as it is only asking if certain honor placed on the LHO rather than RHO, or vice versa). many other line of play will have better than 50% chance.
  2. The more successful question is “what’s the odd of cashing (playing all top honor instead of finesse, in the hope dropping the target honor)?” hint:use distribution probability and individual probability  as tabled on the table above.
  3. The odd of the unknown will stay the same with subsequent card being played.
  4. Combine the odds and additional information to produce the best possible outcome

Let’s see some example to verify the remark above: (The percentage below is the ods of capturing the missing honor by cashing on certain distribution)

———————– ———————–
AK1098 AK1098
Q76 Q765
3-2 distribution 68.0% 2-2 distribution 41.0%
Singleton J LHO 2.8% 3-1 distribution 50.0%
Singleton J RHO 2.8% total: 91.0%
total: 73.6% NO FINESSE!

———————– ———————–

AK1098 AK1098
J7654 J76543
2-1 distribution 78.0% 1-1 distribution 52.0%
NO FINESSE! 2-0 distribution 48.0%
total: 100.0%

———————– ———————–

One aspect that is not being discussed in relation with Playing With The Best Odds with finesse is the way you play the card, i.e: cashing 1 or 2 top honor first, playing small to Q instead of Q of Ace , etc. This is what I call “safety play” – huge topic with different goal/purpose that will be discuss on other article….

Hope this helps….


  1. When is a 5-4 a better trump fit than a 4-4 fit?
    I’ve seen it written that computer simulations point to what would appear to be logical, the 5-4 fit. Do you have an opinion?

    • Hi Ben, the more trump you have, it’s the better (5-4 you have 9 cards, hence defense has only 4 cards – while 4-4 defense has 5 cards).

      But I guess your question is between 5-3 and 4-4. In this case in general 4-4 would be considered better fit, mainly it allow declarer to be more flexible as where a loser want to be ruffed. (think of dummy reversal) – also perfect for cross ruff strategy

      5-3 have more advantage when the trump is not evenly break outside (more control). If the trump breaks 5-0, with 5-3 fit you can pick all them up with no problem – provided no loser on the trump. But with 4-4 you will always lose 1 trick even though the 5 cards are 65432.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *