Saturday, July 2, 2022

The push double

A situation often arises in competitive bidding where one side pushes the other side into (usually) a game contract and then the pusher doubles.

Like many aspects of bridge logic, this one can be interpreted by looking at the scoring table. Let's take a look at an example:

South suspected that he could not defeat 3♠️ so decided to push the opponent into a game that he hoped he could defeat. If the push was successful, then plus 50 would be a much better matchpoint score than -140.  There would be absolutely no good reason to risk the double here. If the push was unsuccessful, then, without a double, -420 would probably have company. But -590 would clearly be a lot worse than the -170 that the opponents were probably going to make without the push.

So, it seems to me that the double cannot be to increase the penalty. Often going from 50 to 100 doesn't even change your matchpoints! It must be lead-directing. But to what?

Without the double, you were going to lead a club, right? If partner was happy with you leading a club, why would he double? 

So, what's the best lead here? Not a trump--that cannot be right. How about a diamond? It could be right but it doesn't look right with this holding. So, you lead your singleton heart, partner wins the ace and gives you a ruff. We will come to a spade, a heart, a heart ruff and we must score the ♦️K. +100.  Dummy is void in clubs so your trumps will be drawn before you can score a heart ruff (if you led a club).

Actually, I told a little white lie here. Partner didn't have the Ace. But declarer failed to go up with dummy's ace and partner won his King and you still got your ruff.

Sound unlikely? Well, yes. Declarer went up with dummy's ace, drew trumps and bye-bye heart ruff. Scoring -590 for 0%.  Pushing them without doubling would have scored 16%. Failing to push? Hard to know. Dummy had six spades, a club void, the ♥️A and the ♦️Q. Would they have raised to 4? Quite possibly not. So, the push strategy was misguided this time.

But the principle of the "push double" being lead-directing is eminently sound.

Thursday, June 23, 2022

Boxing and the Horizon Principle

 A hand came up recently which I thought was a good example of when (and how) to use the ideas of boxing and the horizon principle. Let's define them.

Whenever you make a limited bid, you have "boxed" your hand. In other words, you have to a greater or lesser degree reduced the number of possible hands that you can hold. No subsequent bid can get you out of the box. So, if an ace was hiding behind one of the other cards when you made your earlier bid, no amount of persuasion can convince your partner that you have that ace. You will have to make a unilateral bid if you feel that it is necessary. [I covered this topic in one of my first blogs: The No-undo principle]

Similarly, if both partners have boxed their hands, then certain contracts are no longer "on the horizon."

For example, you open 1♠️ and partner responds 2♠️.  If you are playing a strong club system, you have "boxed" your own hand to somewhere between 11 and 16 points. Partner's hand has between 5 and 10 points. The most you can have between you is 26 points, but this would only occur when both partners are balanced. Slam is not on the horizon. Both partners know this, so any bid that you make now is a game try and cannot be a slam try.

If you are playing a standard bidding system where you are limited to, say, 20 points, it's conceivable though unlikely that you still might have slam. So, a bid of a new suit (a game try of some sort) might turn out to be an advance control-showing bid in search of slam if partner accepts what he sees as a game try (following the related principle of "game before slam"). 

When partner is unlimited, certain contracts, such as a small slam, maybe on your horizon but, from partner's point of view--when you have boxed your hand--those same contracts may not be on his horizon.

Enough discussion. Let's look at the hand (matchpoints):

♠️K74 ♥️AK984 ♦️AQ82 ♣️8

A nice hand for sure. You deal and open 1♥️ (nobody is vulnerable). LHO gets in there with 1♠️. Partner, predictably, makes a negative double. RHO passes and it's up to you.

Partner is unlimited (he should have at least 7-8 points) and you have boxed your hand somewhat by your failure to open 2♣️ and the fact that you opened in first seat. So, 11 to 20 points or thereabouts and at least five hearts. You could easily have a slam here, although presumably not in hearts. What about diamonds? 

You are about to re-box your hand. If you bid 2♦️, you will have effectively boxed your hand to something like 11 to 16 points, with at least nine cards in the red suits. You may still have visions of slam, but what about partner? He will need substantially more than a minimum to entertain slam now. From his point of view, 2♦️ will likely take slam off the horizon.

What about 3♦️? You will be refining your box to something like 16 to 20 points with the same red suit cards. If partner has a fit for diamonds (as the double suggests he might) and something like 12 or more points of his own, slam may still be on the horizon for both partners.

You decide to rebid 2♦️ and partner cue-bids 2♠️. Partner's hand now has a new box: at least 11 points and, probably (but not definitely), fewer than three hearts, as he would likely have bid 2♠️ immediately with three hearts and 10-plus points.

It looks like we have a diamond fit (with four or five spades, partner may have opted to trap-pass so partner likely has eight minor suit cards). Possible contracts are 2NT, 3♦️, 3NT, 5♦️, 6♦️, 6NT. Partner's sequence is consistent with all of those contracts. At matchpoints, we would tend to favor 2NT over 3♦️ and 3NT over 5♦️.

Is partner's bid forcing? Obviously. But forcing to what? There are several opinions on this, but let's look at the hand from partner's point of view. With our hand boxed into 11-16 points, partner will need something like 16 points for slam to be on the horizon. What about game vs. part-score? If partner only has 11-12 points, he will want to know if we are at the low end or the high end of our box.

The two bids then that could legitimately be passed by partner are 2NT and 3♦️. We decide to bid 2NT and partner passes. We make twelve tricks in notrump for a somewhat embarrassing +240.

Here is the actual hand:

Friday, June 3, 2022

Sacrificing for Dummies

It's ten years since I last wrote something here on the Law of Total Tricks. My goal this time is to come up with something really simple to remember when considering a save.

My thoughts on this were prompted by a recent hand:

My overcall of 1♦️opposite a passed hand was not a thing of beauty, I'll admit. But, I'm loath to make a sub-standard takeout double when our side is probably out-gunned. South's 3♣️ was described as "weak." What should West do here? I think a responsive double might work out best. If partner has four spades, we'll find it. If not, we'll likely be playing 3♦️ which can't be all bad. At the table(s), many pairs played 3♠️ either by East or West which mostly made given that N/S didn't find the double-dummy lead of ♦️K or ♦️T.

Over partner's 3♦️, North made a crazy leap to 5♣️. I could have been the hero by doubling (+300) but "knowing" that partner cannot bid higher (see Passed Hands may make only one Free Bid), I thought I'd allow him to pass or double, as appropriate. 5♦️ was completely unexpected and, as I'll show below, very unlikely to be the winning action. It's almost never right to take the last guess! And, it's OK to save with the ace of the enemy suit because it's likely to be of value at defense and offense. But kings, queens and jacks in their suit should be a red flag as they may be useful only on defense.

In fact, along double-dummy lines, N/S can make 3♣️, 2♥️, or 2NT. E/W can make 2♠️ or 3♦️.  21 total trumps. 18 total tricks. I would suggest that the shortfall in total tricks is due to the lack of useful shortness: each side has the (short) top honors in the other side's trump suit.

For the remainder of this article, we will consider entirely hypothetical situations. The following table shows the number of total tricks to make a sacrifice profitable at matchpoints, according to the levels of bidding involved:

LevelsFavorableEqual RedEqual WhiteUnfavorable

Note that it is assumed in all cases that the opposing contract is actually making. The requisite number of total tricks may be available but if they are distributed too evenly, the save will be a phantom.

Let's remind ourselves that the most common number of total tricks is 17. If the opponents bid 4♥️, and we have a good spade fit and are at favorable vulnerability, we can consider saving in 4♠️. How do we know if there will be 17 (or more) total tricks? The bidding will give clues as to the fits around the table. But, the simple number of tricks in each direction isn't really sufficient information (see "I Fought the Law"). A trick total of 17 will likely involve some shortness (singleton) somewhere at least. Do you have it? Did partner show shortness? Did one of the opponents? If so, you may try it. Otherwise, you might want to hold back until you think there are 18 total trumps.

There are several likely outcomes in 4♠️. Any time 4♥️ was not making, we will get a poor score, unless 4♠️ makes. Even if they didn't double, -100 instead of +100 (or 200 if we had doubled) will not usually score well.

But let's assume that 4♥️ was indeed making. If they didn't double 4♠️, we are guaranteed a good result. If they do double, as long as our estimate of 17 total tricks was accurate, we should be fine. Except when they could have made 650 and we are down four for -800. That's an all-too-common disaster. That's why, even in this situation, you really would like to have 18 total tricks.

And this is, according to the chart above, the most advantageous situation for taking a sacrifice (shown in green in the table).

There are three other situations where we might seriously consider a sacrifice (yellow rows in the table):

  • at the 5-level over their 4-level game;
  • 6♠️ over 6♥️;
  • 7 over 7.
In each of these cases, we require 18 total tricks (not an uncommon situation) and of course favorable vulnerability. Each worsening of the vulnerability situation (see table) requires one additional total trick. Except in goulash-type hands, deals with 20 or more total tricks are rare. Also note that in the second and third of these situations, the all-white and unfavorable situations are particularly dangerous because they require 21 and 22 total tricks respectively (in each case, one more than the 5/4 sacrifices).

From the red rows in the table, we can also see that we should never (well, hardly ever) even contemplate a sacrifice at the 6-level over a game contract, or 7♣️ over 6♦️, as these require at least 20 total tricks. Don't even think about these when not at favorable.

The other situations (amber in the table -- 5 over 5, 6 over 6 minor, 7 over 6 major) should generally be avoided too. To consider any of these at equal vulnerability--especially the last one when all white--is, well, just madness.

Saturday, January 15, 2022

Bust hand?

When playing a "standard," i.e. non-big-club, system, the 2 opening usually is an artificial bid showing a strong hand of 22+ hcp (if balanced) or an unbalanced hand that only needs one "card" to make game. Traditionally, responder bids 2 and then, after opener has described their hand (balanced or with a good suit), responder gets to show that they have a "bust" (the second negative) or not.

But there's a popular response that shows a bust immediately by bidding 2. There are lots of reasons not to like this convention but the one I'm going to concentrate on here is that responder must make their decision before knowing anything about opener's hand. A common understanding is that 2 shows an ace, a king or two queens. I've never been comfortable playing that agreement because "two queens" might be just what partner needs for slam, or tram tickets. Let's take this example: xx Qxxxx Qxxxx. If partner has a balanced 22, either (or both) of these queens might be useful. But suppose partner's hand is AKQTxx KQxx Ax K. How useful do you think your two queens are now?

For a real life example of the perils of this method, I present a hand from a friendly team match:

If partner shows a balanced hand, this could be quite a useful hand. We'd like to play game or slam in hearts by partner. But, what if partner has an unbalanced hand with spades? Our hand might not be so useful. Here's what happened (the auction ends in 6 if you can't see all of it):

On any lead but a club or diamond, the contract is down 2. On a club lead, there's a chance only if the opponents mis-defend. On a diamond lead, the contract is always down 1.

Friday, July 23, 2021

Believe partner, not the opponents

Here's an ordinary hand: J765 A3 T864 J93. It's an IMP pairs and no-one is vulnerable. You are playing vanilla 2/1. Partner is the dealer and starts proceedings with 1. After a pass, you bid 1. LHO doubles this and partner redoubles.  This is a support redouble so it says nothing about strength, simply that partner has exactly three spades. A support double mostly shows a balanced hand, but with the redouble, it's a little less clear since the opponents have claimed the other two suits.

The bidding continues with 1NT on your right over which you, naturally, pass, as does LHO.  Partner now doubles. What do you think is going on?

First, of all, you have to decide whether this is penalty or takeout. If it's takeout, what exactly would it be taking out into? LHO has both red suits apparently. Partner could be asking you to take a preference between the black suits, I suppose.

But, if you've been reading my stuff on penalty triggers, you will be in no doubt. Redouble is a penalty trigger. All subsequent doubles are for penalty. Added to that, RHO just made a competitive notrump bid and that's a trigger, too.

However, let's say that you've been reading lately that there's a kind of double called "intended-as-penalty." Partner expects you to leave it in unless you have an unbalanced hand. Would 5-5 in the pointed suits be sufficiently unbalanced? Maybe. It is IMPs. But the opponents are not vulnerable so, even in our worst nightmare, they might make an overtrick for 380.

There's another consideration. Partner opened 1 so either he has an unbalanced hand with 16+ and clubs, or a balanced hand with 18-19. Either way, I think we have a pretty good idea what to lead: a club!

You decide to show a weak, distributional hand, by bidding 2 and we end up in 2 making 170 for an average board. It's a shame though because we could have had 800 in 1NTX, 420 in 4, 430 in 3NT, or 920 in 6.

Here's the whole hand:

The moral of the story? Believe partner, not the opponents.

Saturday, April 24, 2021

More on the penalty-oriented double

One of my more recent blogs was on the Penalty-oriented Double. I feel that this is a legitimate clade in the zoology of doubles.

Here it is in action:

What will you call? Partner is suggesting trying for 200 and that looks tempting. But, could it be that partner is expecting a bit more meat on the bone of your hand? You did make a 2-level overcall and you don't exactly have the goods, do you?

And, you know that partner has exactly three hearts (well, it's 90% certain) and less than opening strength. If you do take it out to 4H, how bad could things be? -300 and -100 are the likely results. OTOH, maybe we are due 200. But, think about it. How many diamonds are we getting? zero. Other suits? three? There's a very real possibility of ending up with -710. That's sure to be a bottom while 200 is almost certainly going to be a top. Do we want to be risking a bottom for a top? If we had a diamond trick, that would swing the pendulum towards passing. But as it is? I think pulling the POD to 4H is the best plan.

The results?  4DX= was worth zero match-points. 4HX-1 was worth 64%.

In case the link stops working at some point, your hand (white vs. red) is 87 QT762 985 AQJ. Partner deals and passes, RHO opens 1S, you bid 2H, LHO bids 3D, partner bids 3H, RHO bids 4D, passed to partner who doubles.

Partner's hand? AJT6 J53 7 KT973.

Friday, March 5, 2021

When you really want it to be for penalties but it just isn't

 In a recent online club game, I picked up the following not very promising hand: QT874 75 Q9632 6 as West. We were at unfavorable vulnerability and partner opened 2H as dealer. RHO doubled and I quickly passed hoping that LHO wouldn't convert to penalties. Imagine my delight when LHO jumped to 4S. No, I didn't do anything foolish like double. 

Partner led the HT and dummy came down: 5 AQJ2 AK85 A953. A fine hand. Just not for playing 4S. Despite my good spade suit, this was a surprisingly tough contract to set but we did get our 50 in the end. This wasn't quite a top, because at another table, after the same start, South pulled 4S to 6NT, going down two.

Three other tables began with 2H double. In each case, the North hand bid a more modest 2S or 3S and doubler was able to call 3NT, which should take eleven tricks, and mostly did. One table began with 2H followed by two passes. North, didn't cooperate but instead bid 2S, converted to 3NT. Note that 2H doubled would have been worth 1100 for N/S.

The par result is 6C for 920, which nobody found, not even those that didn't get a 2H preempt. 

Here is the whole hand:

So, how should the South hand act over the 2H bid? I think this is a clear-cut trap pass. First of all, if partner has some nondescript hand and decides to pass, we might not even have a game, in which case 200, 300 or 400 will be a fine result. But, if North has some useful values, we can be sure that he will act in some way. He probably has only one or two hearts which will make him want to do something. If that something is double, we will of course sit for it. We only need to get the contract down two to beat any game that we can make. But what if he has his own suit and decides to bid that. No harm done. We just bid 3NT. 

A trap pass such as this is one of the most satisfying situations in bridge--that is when partner comes through. It can fizzle of course if partner meekly passes. But, even then, all may not be lost.