Wednesday, October 14, 2020

POD: Penalty-oriented double

Back in the early days of bridge there was the penalty double. However, people began to realize that it wasn't much use at low levels because you could rarely get rich even if they were psyching--they would just run to the real suit or otherwise escape justice. Thus the penalty double evolved into two clades: the penalty double and the informatory double (nowadays this is universally known as a takeout double).

It didn't take long for the takeout clade to further evolve into two sub-clades: pure takeout and "cooperative" doubles. The latter include all sorts of strangely named beasts: action, cooperative, competitive, etc.  The general rule (not very well described in the literature) is that the higher the level, the more tempted partner will be to leave it in. This latter form is at its most useful in matchpoint bridge because, if you can catch them speeding and get them down one doubled and vulnerable, it will beat any part-score you might be able to have made. 

I believe there are, however, two sub-clades of the penalty double:

  1. pure penalty:  "don't take it out if you ever want to play with me again;"
  2. penalty-oriented: "you're expected to leave it in if you have normal distribution, nothing that partner doesn't know about."
Actually, this latter type is perhaps more common than you think. It occurs any time you bid a game, the opponents sacrifice and the player in direct seat doubles. That player can never be sure that defending a doubled contract is the par result. What he means by the double is this: "From where I'm sitting, it looks like doubling is our best shot. Feel free to pull if your hand is more offensively oriented than I think it is."

But it might not be a clear sacrifice. Such situations may be somewhat rarer, but they are not unknown. An example came up just the other day in a pairs event. I will give you my partner's hand and the auction first: KQJ8432 T3 K53.

Both sides are vulnerable. Admittedly, not everyone will open 1 but I think it's the right bid, provided that you're willing to be a bit flexible later on in the auction. LHO overcalled 2 and partner raised to 2. RHO upped the ante with 3 and you made a preemptive raise to 3, showing six or more spades and presumably a hand that is on the weak side for an opening bid. LHO doesn't go quietly and bids 4. Partner doubles and it's back to you. Your call?

What do we know about the auction? The opponents are a self-described pickup pair and their profiles suggest intermediate. Do you think they have their bids? They might have stretched a bit, but nobody bids this way without something pretty good. What about partner's double? Is it a penalty double? I think it is. One of the "rules" that I like to go by is that once we've bid our suit three times, any double is for penalty. What could we be taking out into, realistically speaking?

So, what to do? Partner has 8-10 hcp and exactly three spades. He will never try to get a penalty in this situation knowing that our side has 10 spades. It's likely that partner has a relatively balanced hand, too, because with a singleton anywhere, he's going to bid 4 if he's at the max end of his box (5-10).

How many hearts do they have? Almost certainly nine. With a stiff (as noted), partner would have bid 4 himself (or passed). 

How many tricks to we have cashing? At most one spade and maybe a club. Partner should have a couple of sure tricks and maybe a third if he has AJ in, say, diamonds. Are we getting rich? At the very most, we might get 500 but 200 is more likely. Can we make game our way? Does partner have the spade ace? I think it's doubtful. With that card, and six points on the outside, I think double is an unlikely call. The spade ace will, essentially, be a bit of a waste, defensively speaking, given our own strong bidding in spades. 

What about "the law?" The strength appears to be well balanced between the two sides which is important for the law. We don't have a pure hand with good shortness (can't count the diamond queen for both), so it's possible that the law will be off a bit. Maybe 18 tricks instead of 19? If this is the case, and if it turns out that both sides can make exactly nine tricks, we should defend. What are the other possibilities (using my guesses for the probabilities)?
  • 20 total tricks (15% likely):
    • Both sides make game: par score +620 (pull)
    • We make an overtrick, they an undertrick: +650 (pull)
    • They make the overtrick: par score -650 (pull--unless we want to be -990)
  • 19 total tricks (50% likely):
    • We make an overtrick: par score +650 (pull)
    • We make game: par score +620 (pull)
    • They make game: par score -200 (pull)
    • They make an overtrick: par score -650 (pull as before)
  • 18 total tricks (30% likely):
    • We make game: par score +620 (pull)
    • Neither side makes game: par score +200 (pass)
    • They make game: par score -500 (pull as before).
  • 17 total tricks (5% likely):
    • We make game: par score +800 (pass)
    • We go down one: par score +500 (pass)
    • We go down two: par score +200 (pass).
Just looking at the probabilities and following the LOTT, it looks like we want to pass 15% of the time and pull 85% of the time. 

Let's go back to partner's double. In the old days, we could distinguish between tentative penalty doubles and stand-up-on-your-chair-and-slam-the-red-card-down doubles (just kidding, of course). Is partner's double an absolute final decision? No, how can it be? The opponents have bid 4 strongly. They're not kidding around so they think they have a play for it. If partner has a heart trick coming, it must be available on offense, too. Why has partner doubled and not bid 4S himself? For the reasons given above: each side might have only nine tricks available, we almost certainly have to lose a spade and, likely, two hearts. Do we have the rest? Partner isn't sure. Basically, in this context, his "penalty" double simply says "I think this is our hand, I have a balanced hand, and they are probably going down." After all, it's very unlikely that opener is going to bid voluntarily again after this sequence. In other words, this is a classic POD situation.

It's decision time. Is there anything partner doesn't know about our hand that would justify pulling? Yes! We have a seventh spade! 

Partner's (my) hand: T97 J4 AT63 AT98. Leading the A or underleading a club would result in down two for 500 and a 45% board. Leading our suit should have resulted in 200 and a 28% board. Neither of these would be total disasters. As it happened, we didn't set the contract, resulting in a 0% board.

So, there were 18 total tricks on the board. Not playing double-dummy defense would have resulted in 19 total tricks. 

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

What can go away?

In general, the play of a bridge hand is a race between the declarer trying to set up enough tricks to make his contract and the defenders trying to their tricks first. It's a bit more obvious what's going on in a no-trump contract, but the principle remains the same.

Most declarers start out with a number of losers that they have to reduce to a particular allowable number. Of course, you may prefer to think of establishing winners instead--particularly in a no-trump contract. Some techniques such as finessing and squeezing are mostly concerned with establishing winners as opposed to decreasing the number of losers. Henceforth in this article, I will be discussing loser-elimination in suit contracts.

We normally think about reducing the losers in the master hand--the one with the long trumps. However, in a dummy reversal, the master hand is the one with the shorter trumps and the "dummy" is the one with longer trumps. Sometimes, the designation of master/dummy is somewhat arbitrary when the suit lengths are equal. Obviously, the location of the actual declarer (and that of the face-up hand) is irrelevant here. There are two primary techniques to eliminate losers from (the master) hand: ruffing, i.e. trumping losers in dummy, and discarding them on dummy's winners. A cross-ruff is a hybrid strategy: ruffing hand's losers in dummy and dummy's losers in hand. There's one other hybrid strategy and I'm not sure it has a name: it consists of discarding dummy's losers in suit A on hand's winners in suit B and then ruffing hand's losers in suit A in dummy. I'm just going to call this technique the hybrid plan and note that it's unusual.

Anyway, where am I going with all of this? It's because I believe that the major strategy for the defenders of suit contracts consists of two different tactics: (1) getting their own ruffs; and (2) figuring out what can go away, and ensuring that those potential tricks don't disappear before they can establish them. Along the way, of course, they will be cashing winners and switching leads as appropriate to best attack suits. Although I figured this out long ago, I still make the same mistakes of allowing tricks to disappear. But you shouldn't ever let it happen!

Here's an example from a recent BBO speedball tournament:


Kim, my favorite partner in all things including bridge, did well to put me on lead at T2. What should I switch to? Given the dummy, I diagnosed that the safest would be diamonds. But I forgot to ask "What can go away?" Based on the auction, any tricks we had coming in diamonds couldn't go away. That was declarer's second suit. It had to be at least four cards long since she didn't have four spades. But it might be longer. In that case, there was a danger that one (or two) of dummy's clubs might go away. A switch to clubs at trick 3 was the proper defense. Declarer could still make the contract but it wouldn't have been quite so easy. Unfortunately, many of our teammates didn't do so well as our opponents and we ended up with only 37% on this board. We still had a 73% session but +50 on this board would have put us into first place.  

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

When to play "real bridge"

People are fond of enumerating the differences between IMPs (or total points) and matchpoints. True, there are lots of differences, although there are more similarities. Good bridge is good bridge and bad bridge is... well you know the answer.

This article is about the play, not the auction. Much of the difference between forms of scoring manifests itself in the auction. Once we get to the play, the differences are fewer. Oh, but don't they say that you should always try for overtricks at matchpoints? No, they don't.

In a team game, you are in what I call "real bridge" mode.  As developed by Vanderbilt, the idea behind contract bridge is that, once you're playing a particular contract, you must devote every effort to making (or defeating) it. You stop worrying about better contracts that you might have been in. And you take absolutely no risks for over (or under) tricks. If you're on defense and you have the setting trick, you cash it!

But, when you're playing matchpoints, it's tempting to go all out for overtricks all the time. That's not right. Here's where you try for overtricks: when you're in a contract that you judge most others will be in. In that case, you need to strive for the maximum possible number of tricks, even if that risks you going down. However, the majority of contracts are not like that. I'd like to talk about the contracts where you should not play for overtricks.

Basically, it's any time you're in an unusual contract. Let's take the most obvious example first: the contract was doubled. Once you're doubled, overtricks essentially no longer count. Even if you're only in, say, 1NTX not-vulnerable, if you make it, you will beat anyone undoubled making two, or three no-trump. However, if you think that a more normal contract is 3NT making three (and you forgot to redouble), then taking nine tricks will only score 380 (580 if vulnerable). You actually need to make 10 tricks to beat the others making nine tricks. But this is an unusual situation. Normally, the bonus for the insult and the "odd" tricks counting double will render one or two overtricks pure "gravy."

Another exception is when you're in a doubled contract and you're expecting to go down but are making a sacrifice. Now you have a precise target, which makes it a lot more like you are trying to "make" a "contract", albeit two or three tricks fewer than the nominal contract.

Other competitive situations are very much more like "real bridge." Imagine that you are defending 3S after your side competed to 3H. In other words, you pushed them into 3S. Nobody doubles so it might seem that this should fall into the "normal" contract category. Not so. You can't be sure what will happen at the other tables but you can be sure there will be some playing 2S their way and some playing 3H (maybe even 2H) your way. You might argue that, if 2H or 3H is making, and the opponents are vulnerable, you will need a two-trick set to restore equity. But you can't be sure that you actually had equity of 140. You surely didn't have 110 because the opponents can easily outbid you in 2S.

It's a cardinal rule of bridge that you must assume that you are in the right contract, whether declaring or defending. In other words, trust your bidding judgment. This is because, if we assume the converse, that we messed up in the auction, then it's really unlikely that we can recover our error in the play. Therefore, defending 3S is the proper place to be and there should be a big difference between -140 and +100. So, let's assume that you are offered the setting trick against 3S. DO NOT DUCK IT! If ducking gets you an extra trick for 200, then technically, you were in the wrong contract. You should have been defending 3SX.

But more often than not, a one-trick set will be enough: at least to stay average, which is what you should aim for on a hand like this.

Do I follow my own advice? Of course not! I ducked the setting trick just the other day thinking I could get 200 or at least I'd end up with the same 100. I was wrong. I ended up with a very poor-scoring -140. A bottom, in other words. So, I will plead the fifth: I refuse to incriminate myself by a hand diagram.

There are a few other situations where you should play "real bridge" in a matchpoint tournament. An example is when you bid a slam, especially if it's a hard-to-reach slam. Unless you're playing in an NABC pairs event, half the field won't bid even the most obvious slam. So, don't risk your slam for the overtrick that you think you might be able to get. You already won this board in the auction. Just sit back and collect.

Other strange contracts like 2NT, 5NT, a non-competitive 4 of a minor, even a 2C contract, are all sufficiently unusual that you should probably just ensure your contract.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Four red flags

In a recent ACBL robot tournament on BBO, I was faced with this decision on the last board:


To overcall or not to overcall? That is the question. I see four red flags here:
  • the vulnerability;
  • poor suit, poor shape;
  • partner is a passed hand;
  • three losers in opener's suit.
Let's discuss these in a bit more depth:

The first and most obvious is that we are red and they are white. If I'm wrong when I bid 2D, it could be very expensive while even being right won't likely gain very much.

The second and almost equally obvious problem is that our diamond suit isn't very good--we're supposed to have six for this bid, right? And we have the worst possible shape for an overcall: 5332. And we're missing the J, 9 and 8, any of which would be potentially useful cards in this suit.

Third, and a factor to which many players pay insufficient attention: partner is a passed hand. It's possible that we have a game, but it's against the odds. With this being a robot ("best hand"), then we know that no player has a 14 point hand. So, the remaining 26 points are probably more or less equally distributed, with a preponderance in the East hand (recall that he is a third-seat opener). And, if partner has a decent hand with a diamond fit, the opponents will probably be able to outbid us in a major suit.

Fourth is a factor which I learned long ago from Howard Piltch. Never make a questionable overcall with three losers in the opener's suit. "That's how you get dropped from a team," I recall him saying. Even Qxx isn't much better than xxx when your LHO leads the suit and it goes K, A, ruff.

I therefore eschewed the overcall. When my left-hand opponent bid 2D, I breathed a sigh of relief. Eventually, they made it to 4S which drifted off a trick so I ended up +50.

It was a small tournament (six playing this board) and four of the other five chose to overcall. Predictably, this was followed by pass, pass, double, all pass. At each of those tables, the West robot chose a very strange card (the 8) with which to ruff the second heart trick and the declarers escaped for -200 when it should have been -500. So, we two passers gained 4.8 IMPs, the overcallers lost 2.4 IMPs.

Here's the whole hand:



The four overcallers were all experienced BBOers. What is it that makes them feel that 2D was the correct call? Or were they just unlucky? I think not.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Defensive coups in the trump suit

Recently, my partner Ethan Wood and I were the hapless victims of a clever defensive play by Andy Goodman, playing with Chris Compton:


The scene was the "Social Distancing Pairs," a side game in the first online regional tournament set up by the ACBL. We got to a good contract, 3♠ by South. Follow the play. At trick 4, Ethan took the percentage trump finesse (to the T9). Knowing that he was only "entitled" to one trump trick anyway, Andy realized that a little subterfuge might just get him two--and, more importantly perhaps--upset the timing of the whole hand. So, he won with the K, exiting with a heart (all the better to have the "winning" trump finesse taken a second time). Ethan played another spade towards his hand. When Chris followed low, there was still the J and 6 out against him. The jack was of course "known" to be in the East hand. Playing the T would "obviously" allow him to pick up the suit, whereas playing the queen (if he foresaw a problem) would in any case necessitate another finesse which, admittedly, could probably be achieved successfully assuming Chris had three hearts.

But, seriously, who in their right mind would play the queen (or ace) here?

Of course, Andy now disrupted the whole hand by putting Ethan again in dummy where a diamond could no longer be finessed. The result? 98% for them, 2% for us.

My own play in a friendly team match a couple of days ago was less spectacular but equally effective. Playing a team game with friends (I've made the players anonymous), I was faced with the situation of what looked like a cold contract by my RHO. In fact, he's making six. What could I do to disrupt things? Follow the play:



Again, declarer did something entirely normal. He could have made the contract with two overtricks at any time after my duck. When I did win the trump queen, the contract was still cold but I think declarer probably credited me with having started with Q972 in which case, he might end up down 2 if I had a fourth heart. I think what happened is that declarer was now off balance and, while he could have steadied himself by drawing both the last trumps, it can be hard to recover when all your earlier assumptions have been invalidated.

BTW, both sides missed 7NT on this hand but our teammates were in a safe 3NT for an 11 IMP gain.

Thursday, April 2, 2020

An interesting hand at matchpoints

A hand came up in a BBO speedball which caused a dent in an otherwise decent session. First let's look at it from my (declarer's) point of view.


The opening lead is D9. There's really very little time in a speedball to ask (or consult) about lead conventions. East played the J and I won with the Ace. What do you think of your chances in this contract? Since West didn't lead a heart (presumably, he has the ace), we have a shot at making 12 tricks. Partner did the right thing however, in signing off in 4S with that wasted HK.

Still, that diamond lead is a bit awkward. My only entry to the dummy now is by ruffing the small diamond. But I can't now draw all the trumps before taking the club finesse. So, I took two rounds of trump and ruffed the diamond. Now, I took the club finesse. Good news: it won. Bad news: the trick was ruffed by West. Now, I had to lose to the CK too and just made my game. This was worth a paltry 30% of the board.

It turns out that the way to make five (or more) on this hand is to be either a) lucky; b) forgetful (or insanely optimistic); c) brilliant; d) playing double-dummy. Needless to say, I was none of those. With 128 tables in the event, you can imagine that there were all sorts of results, but the vast majority of the NS pairs were in 4S.


At one table which also received a diamond lead, declarer didn't worry about that losing diamond, drew trumps, took the club finesse a couple of times and conceded two red cards. At many other tables, declarer was fortunate to receive the lead of HA. Now, there's no excuse for not making six (although many such declarers still only made five).

I mentioned that you can make 5 playing double-dummy. How so? Well, since we know we have to lose a heart anyway, how about playing a heart up after drawing two rounds of trump (or playing the HK after ruffing the diamond)? Now, South has no choice but to draw any remaining trumps and try to drop a singleton CK. It won't work but at least he doesn't suffer a ruff.

Interesting hand.

Friday, March 20, 2020

Count

My favorite partner and I decided to support our local clubs with the ACBL "Black Point" game on BBO. Entry is $5 each (many clubs in the US only charge $5 per pair, although in the Boston area it's usually $10-12). It takes 2 full hours to play 18 boards so it's excruciatingly slow.

But a couple of things came up that were perhaps worth the entry fee.


While, I've known the mechanism (and name) of "Last train" for a long time, it had never actually come up before in the heat of battle--at least not knowingly. Here it was in the flesh. We got to a decent 6S contract (made even more decent by getting a club lead).

The second thing that came up is that it turns out that we don't play the same count signals (and haven't done for several years, it seems).  We play UDCA, as I do with almost all of my partners, but once a suit has been broken, we play present count, right? But do we play present count upside down or right-way-up? Turns out that all the "good" players play it right-side-up. What about you?