Losing Trick Count

The Basic Premise
Probably the very first thing new bridge players learns is how to count their points, but after a bit of experience they finds that the rules for how many points are needed for a particular contract are often inaccurate.  Well, there's help, and it's called Losing Trick Count.

LTC is not perfect, but it's a vast improvement over point-count bidding for some types of deals.  It works best for unbalanced hands where there is a fit and at times it will be the only way to reach a game or a slam.  It's also a rather simple way to evaluate a hand.  LTC does not replace the need to count points, but instead is used as an adjuvant to your point-count method and can be very accurate.  Point-count bidding works best with balanced hands playable in notrump contracts, but you will find that LTC is better for suit contracts.

This is the LTC formula:
  • Count losers.  Count only the missing first three honors in each suit  (Never more than three)
  • Add partner's presumed losers.  (Almost all opening hands are seven loser hands)
  • Deduct the total number of losers from the magic number 24  (The answer is the number of tricks you will probably take)
The answer you get is the Losing trick Count, which is the number of tricks you and your partner expect to win in most contracts.  Nothing is fool-proof, but if your suits break normally this number is how many tricks you expect to take, so bid accordingly.

How to Count Losers
Count only the top three honors that are missing in each suit.  A doubleton has only two losers and a singleton (other than the singleton ace) has but one loser.

Jennifer Jones, who has written extensively on this subject uses these examples:

AKQxx no losers
AKxx 1 loser
AQxx 1 loser
Axx 2 losers
Jxxx 3 losers
xx 2 losers
Kxx 2 losers
KQxx 1 loser
Axxxx 2 losers
xxxxx 3 losers
Kx 1 loser
Kxxxx 2 losers
QJxx 2 losers

An Example Hand
West opens the bidding 1 and you hold the East hand.  Most players holding the East hand will give their partner a limit raise, which many West players will pass.  What do you think are the chances of the two hands making game?
    West East
       9 6 5 2    7 4
       A Q 9 5 3    K T 8
       J 9    K Q 3 2
       A Q 3    K 8 5 4

    West opened with a poor 13 count and if you count the points in the East hand you find 11.  East has a hand for a normal limit raise which is generally in the range of 10-12 points.
    But count the losers in the two hands -
      The opener has 3 losers in spades, 1 in hearts, 2 in diamonds and 1 in clubs for a total of 7.
      East has 2 spade losers, 2 in hearts, 1 in diamonds and 2 in clubs which is also a total of 7 losers.

    A normal opening bid has 7 losers, which is the LTC for the West hand, and which East should generally expect as a minimum.  East should presume a total between the two hands of no more than 14.  Subtracting 14 from the magic number of 24, leaves 10; the expected number of winners.  East has enough for game and should not stop short!  If East gave his partner a limit raise many West players would not want to bid higher.
Important Points to Remember
  • Most normal opening hands have a minimum of 7 losers
  • A weak-2 bid opener should have about 8 losers - typically between 7-9
  • A simple raise has approximately 9 or 10 losers
  • A limit raise is exactly 8 losers
Did you notice there are no absolutes in the above four points?  Use your bridge judgment with some hands that don't quite fit, but fortunately you will find them to be rare.

It would be nice if it were as simple as the description above, but it isn't.  Some adjustments have to be made.
Why?  Because there is a world of difference between the two hands below that both have an initial LTC of 8.

Hand 1 Hand 2
   A 9 7 2    Q 9 7 2
   A 9 3    Q 9 3
   A T 9 6    Q T 9 6
   7 4    7 4

From your own bridge experience you know how powerful aces are, and you know that queens can be valuable, but aces and queens are not equal in strengh.  Here's the adjustment to compensate for that difference -
    After determining the LTC, subtract half a loser for each ace and add half a loser for each unsupported queen.
Most players fail to consider the adjustments, but if you are not playing in a Speedball event, it would be wise to take your time and get it right.

Another LTC Adjustment
West opens 2NT, showing an unlimited point-count and 5+5+ in the major suits.  How many Losing Tricks does East have?
It looks like eight, but because East knows that her partner has a maximum of only three cards in the minors, she should think of her LTC in the minors as only one, not four.  Now her total LTC is five.  Adding her 5 to her partner's expected 7 gives 12.  Subtract 12 from 24 and Losing Trick Count theory says the two hands are good for 12 tricks!

Actually, making adjustments is a lot more complicated than this, but you would need a calculator and a table of suit combinations with pre-determined values to work out the math, so making good estimates will usually work just fine.  The Adjustment Rules above are only an approximation, but will probably suffice.  If you want a bit more, consider this:
  • The queen of trump or a queen with an honor in the same suit, including the jack, is considered to be a supported queen
  • An unsupported king should be downgraded, certainly not as much as an unsupported queen, but ½ is easy to remember.
Although both hands above initially have the same LTC, after the adjustment for the first hand has an LTC of 6½ while the LTC for the second hand is 9½.    (Point-count clearly reflects this difference!)

    Phillip Adler (New York Times Bridge Columnist) says,
      Suppose you have Q-x-x or Q-J-10 in a suit; is it right that both count as two losers?
      Clearly not.  What about A-J-x and A-J-10?.  should both be two losers?  Equally clearly, no.
      So, there are some rules for adding extra accuracy to the LTC.
      • When the only top honor is the queen and the jack is not held, add a half to the loser count
      • Deduct one loser if you know the trump fit is exceptional: at least ten cards in the combined hands
Final Thoughts
The concept of the Losing Trick Count hand evaluation is about as simple as the point-count method, but experienced players who use it will tell you it is more accurate for judging a hand after a fit is found.  Points are important, and are usually a very good guide to how many tricks a hand can take in a notrump contract, but LTC has an implicit method of considering distributional values that works well with suit contracts.  After you get used to using it you will probably find yourself bidding more aggressively and making contracts that others do not reach, especially when you have a fit with your partner's suit.  In that sense the concept is related to the Law of Total Tricks.