Lavinthal Signals

These suit preference signals were devised and developed by Mr. Hy Lavinthal, who was born in the year 1894 and died in the year 1972, and who is of Trenton, New Jersey, United States. Among other accomplishments he served as the Associate Editor of The Bridge World under the employment of Mr. Ely Culbertson.

According to several sources the principle of the suit preference signal was introduced at an early stage of the evolving game of bridge. According to records maintained by ACBL Mr. Hy Lavinthal authored an article about such a necessity. It is also recorded that he introduced this principle into the game around the years 1933 and 1934. This article is a re-print from the bridge-related magazine The Bridge World, published in the issues of January and February 1947.

He also authored the publications Defense Tricks: Featuring the Suit-Preference Signal, the Wonder Weapon of Contract Bridge (LC: 63024349) originally published by George Coffin Publisher in the year 1963. It is in this publication that Mr. Hy Lavinthal described, illustrated, and explained alll the stipulations of his theory and defense.

Note: The photograph of Mr. Hy Lavinthal is from the year 1963, the year in which he published his Defense Tricks. Any additional information to his person, especially any photographic material, would be greatly appreciated.

Note: For the more serious student of Lavinthal Signals the two articles authored by Mr. Hy Lavinthal should be read studiously, which were published in the magazine The Bridge World in the months of January and February 1947. A fundamental part of his concept is excerpted and quoted below. This information has also only been preserved and archived on this site in .pdf file format for future reference.

As explicitly explained in the two articles he admonishes and reminds the reader / student that where a suit-preference signal is used, both partners on defense should have an adequate understanding of the proper use of all other signals. Knowing how to use the other signals will clearly mark the unmistakable situations where these signals are of no avail. At this point, if both partners understand the use of the suit-preference signal, they can eliminate the guess as to which of two suits to lead on the first opportunity.

Suit Preference Signals

The concept and the principle of such suit preference signals began to be employed as early as 1933. One of the first published deals, which illustrated his concept is shown below, in which he successfully defended using the principle behind suit preference signals with his wife. This deal was described and analyzed by Mr. Albert H. Morehead in one of his many articles he authored for the New York Times in the year 1935.

Mr. Hy Lavinthal, sitting West, led the  Jack, and the first trick was won in the dummy with the  Queen. On this trick Mrs. Hy Lavinthal, sitting East, discarded the 3. This was a low card in the Diamond suit and West could interpret it as such. The principle of the suit preference method is that the player exclude the suit, on which the discard is made and also exclude the suit of the card played.

The rank of the suit preference card informs the partner which of the other two remaining suits is preferred. Therefore, the discard by Mrs. Hy Lavinthal requested the lower of the two other suits, which is Hearts. Spades would be the higher suit.

The declarer, realizing that the Clubs would not be a source of tricks with the  Jack-Ten against him, led the  Queen from dummy intending to finesse. West wins with the  King.

Following the principle of suit preference signals West, Mr. Hy Lavinthal, immediately switched to Hearts, playing first the 2, which was won by his wife with the  Ace. A Heart was returned to the  King, held by West, who led his last Heart, defeating the contract of 3 No Trump via the Lavinthal Signal Method. Without this suit preference signal the defenders would have to guess which Major suit to play.

Additional Designations

These suit preference signals are very similar to the concept of revolving discards developed by Mr. J. Attwood. This defensive discarding method was devised by Mr. Hy Lavinthal in 1934, and has had a greater effect on defensive play than many other developments in bridge history and ranks with the distributional echo and the high-low count signal.

Note: These suit preference signals are also known and designated as the William McKenney Signals (England) and also as the Benjamin Jay Becker, (aka B. Jay Becker) Signals (United States).

A suit preference signal is an important tool for the defenders and it can keep the line of communication open. However, suit preference signals are often abused and overused. It is important to remember that showing attitude and length through signals are assigned higher priority. Therefore, it is important to remember that a suit preference signal is an unusual play of unmistakable significance. A suit preference signal is asking partner to lead a specific suit once the partner has the opportunity. Suit preference signals can be used when discarding, when leading as well as when following suit.

The contract is 3 No Trump. The declarer is South. West leads the 4. South plays the 6 from the dummy, and East plays the Queen in order to keep a perhaps crucial entry so that East can lead through South at the correct play.
South then leads the Queen and then the Jack on the second and third trick. This is followed by the last small 3 by South. West has held up taking the Ace of Diamonds until the third Diamond play. East is forced to discard a card on the third Diamond trick.

A standard suit preference signal would be to discard a card of that rank which should then be led. If East wanted a Spade return, then East would discard a Spade, etc.

But East sees a chance to defeat the contract, but only if West, on the fifth trick, after gaining the lead, plays a Heart. Under the circumstances above, it would be disadvantageous if East had to discard a Heart, asking West to lead a Heart. Using the Lavinthal Suit Preference Signal, East must discard the 4. This means that East does not want a Club lead on the fifth trick, but rather the lead of the lower-ranking suit of the two remaining suits, Spades and Hearts, and therefore Hearts.

As the cards lie with East, East is able to discard a Club without having to endanger the loss of a possible winner by unguarding the suit. In the case that East had only a 4-card Club suit, and therefore unable to discard a Club to signal to his partner that a Heart lead is wanted, then East must discard the 10, which signals that East wishes the lead of the higher-ranking suit of the two remaining suits, Hearts and Clubs, and therefore Hearts.

This is the first method of showing which suit is preferred, using the Lavinthal Suit Preference Signals.

Alternative Method

A second method of showing which suit is preferred, using the Lavinthal Suit Preference Signals or revolving discards, developed by Mr. J. Attwood, is to treat all four suits as a circle: Clubs-Diamonds-Hearts-Spades-Clubs-Diamonds-etc. When the partnership agreement includes this method, then the discard of a low card in a suit calls for the lead of the next lower-ranking suit of the two remaining suits. The discard of a high card asks for the lead of the next higher-ranking suit of the two remaining suits.

In the example above, if East discards the 10, East is asking for the lead of the next higher-ranking suit, Hearts. If the holding of East does not allow for a safe discard in Clubs, then the 3, a low card, asks for the lower-ranking suit, Hearts.