Friday, January 20, 2017

Half a loser is better than one

Continuing my series on beginner/intermediate mistakes, I'm often surprised at how people end up pitching, not losers, but half-losers or even, in some situations, actual winners. Here's a hand I watched recently on BBO played by someone who I know to be a good player.

Dealer: S
Vul: Both
♠ Q
♥ K9874
♦ 654
♣ AQ63
♠ 9432
♦ J8
♣ 9
♠ 75
♥ T
♦ KQT72
♣ T7542
♠ AKJT86
♥ 3
♦ A93
♣ KJ8

S   W   N   E
1 2  P  P
3  P  4 P
P   P
HTML Bridge Hand Layout Creator

North was hoping for a reopening double, but when 3 came around, was happy to raise to game. The opening lead was 9, won in hand. Trumps were drawn without having to cross to dummy.
At this point, declarer ran the clubs, pitching the losing heart, making 11 tricks after giving up the inevitable two diamonds.

What's wrong with that, you might ask? +650 was indeed the par result. But double-dummy defense starts with an unlikely diamond lead, knocking out the stopper there prematurely. On an the A lead, of course, every declarer will make 12 tricks. Why did this declarer make only 11 (like most declarers in this contract)? I don't know what goes on these thought processes. But here's the way it should go:

After the actual lead, there are three losers, one of which can be pitched on the long club. But these three losers were not created equal. The heart "loser" is, in fact, only half a loser--because the A hasn't been knocked out yet. And, given the actual auction, with West making a vulnerable 2 overcall, that heart loser is really about a 90% winner. So, unless the opening leader hits on the magic diamond lead, the 6 is practically cold.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Update on cooperative doubles

It's been some time since I last wrote anything on cooperative doubles. But I haven't been idle. I've been giving the subject quite a bit of thought.

In particular, I've been thinking about why we need cooperative doubles at all. And the reason is -- still -- that we want to compete without being unilateral about it. We want to suggest bidding on, perhaps in a new suit, or in a previously bid suit, but we're also open to penalizing the opponents.

So, the basic conditions haven't changed:
  • extra strength (either in our own hand or in the partnership as a whole);
  • relative shortness in the enemy suit (ideally a small doubleton);
  • no obvious bid presents itself (such as raising partner's suit, rebidding our own suit, a new suit, or bidding notrump).
But I'm going to add one more condition:
  • we are (still) competing for the contract.
So, what do I mean by this? Think about the following auction:

1 (p) 2 (p) p (3) X

What does double mean here? Can it be that responder wants to compete further and is asking opener whether he has a second suit or extra spade length for the purposes of bidding on? No. The spade partnership is done in this auction. Both players narrowly limited their hands: responder by raising to 2 and opener by passing the raise. Neither of them is interested in playing in a higher-level contract. Therefore, the double must be for penalties. This would be the same if there were two passes after the club bid and before the double.

How about this:
1 (p) 2 (2) X

There is a class of player that believes that, as long as the opponents are in a game force, they may make any bid they like without fear of punishment. But in this case, although we have committed to play at the game level, we are open to the possibility of a higher score on defense. So, this isn't a competitive auction -- or at least it won't be until we bid a game-level contract.

Double, therefore, means that the heart-opponent has made a blunder. Doubler's holding in hearts is sufficiently good (and correspondingly his holding in spades and diamonds are sufficiently poor) that he is offering an alternative to partner.

I call this type of double The Tentatively Penalty Double. It's intended as penalty but, with extreme distribution, partner can of course take it out. Simply noticing that we are red and they are white is not sufficient grounds to take it out. Both partners can see the vulnerability and both know that they expect to score at least 400/600 in their own contract, whatever that is. The double says "unless you have some distribution that I don't know about, please pass".

An example of extra distribution would be a third spade (responder was planning to bid spades at his next turn showing three-card support) or a six-card diamond suit. Even with those cards, however, responder might pass the double if his hand is, generally speaking, balanced.

So, let's add the following to our list of penalty triggers (notwithstanding that it may be acceptable sometimes to pull the double when we are committed to game or with unexpectedly wild distribution):
  • Our side settles in a part-score or commits to bid a higher-level contract (with or without actually bidding it).
I'll call this trigger the known-level rule: we know that we're either satisfied with a part-score or we're committed to game. A commitment to a higher level contract can arise in several ways:
  • We commit to a (possibly unspecified) game because we open with 2 perhaps, or responder makes a 2/1 bid, fourth-suit-forcing, etc.
  • We commit to at least three of our major by a cue-bid of the enemy suit, a fit-showing jump, Bergen raise, etc.
This somewhat new rule (trigger) fits perfectly with the previously defined triggers. Cue-bids, jumps, fourth-suit forcing are already penalty triggers. So too is the so-called "dead auction rule": in a competitive auction we have subsided over a bid of the enemy suit. But partner ups the stakes and one of the opponents takes one more draft from the well. Now, our double must be penalty (as explained long ago). But it is now just an example of the known-level rule.

So, really the only change that I am proposing is to switch to penalty doubles as soon as our partnership commits to game or as soon as the partnership as a whole rests in a part-score. I think this rule also better reflects normal expectations of players who haven't specifically discussed these doubles.

There's another aspect of competitive auctions which is, if anything, an anti-trigger (so far, I have not admitted to such phenomena).  Assuming that we are still in a competitive auction, when the opponents jump the bidding, or raise their partner's suit, it is even more important to double cooperatively (i.e. takeout-oriented). Take this example which came up just recently (none vulnerable):
JT872 AJ92 873

Pd  RHO  You  LHO
1   p   1  3
 X   p    ?     .

Are we in a competitive auction? Yes--partner is (almost) unlimited and so are we. Do we need help in finding our spot? You bet! Does it seem likely that LHO has lost their mind and jumped with a trashy suit? Not really.

Conclusion: there haven't been any penalty triggers and the opponents jumped (or showed a fit). When the opponents jump or show a fit, we need double as cooperative even more than usual because they've used up some of our bidding room.

If partner had four hearts and extra values, he'd be bidding 4 on his own. He must have only three hearts then (if he only had two hearts, he'd either be bidding a second suit or awaiting our reopening double which he'll pass for penalties). So, we can safely bid 4.

Turns out that doubler had a rather strong hand: 13 hcp with a very good seven-card spade suit. A strange call then (why does LHO want to preempt the auction when they have the spades and a good hand?). Par on the board is 4X down one which we should have reached (for 5 matchpoints out of 7). Unfortunately, the holder of this hand was not familiar with my system of cooperative doubles. We ended up letting them make their doubled contract for a bottom obviously.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Bad takeout doubles

Continuing my series on common beginner mistakes, I note, with relish, that there are many players who don't understand the inherent dangers of making weak takeout doubles. This is because they have never suffered from the imposition of the "blue card".

Here's a case in point from a recent STAC game. You are white vs. red, and you deal yourself this collection: Q975 AJ84 965 K4. You have the world's most ordinary hand: 10 hcp and 4432 distribution. You wisely pass and this is followed by two more passes. RHO opens with 1 (playing 2/1 with strong notrump). Are you tempted to double? Surely, you have the most perfect hand for it. Both majors, shortness in clubs... But you still only have 10 hcp and your partner wasn't even able to scrape up a third-seat opener to protect you.

You double. LHO redoubles and partner, who must be weak, declines to choose a suit. Opener passes and it's back to you. What do you do? Surely, you must bid 1 now. This will be doubled by your RHO and if you are lucky, you will take five tricks for -500 which will be great if they have a vulnerable game. Actually, I think 800 is the more likely penalty.

Still, you decide to pass and the contract is 1XX. Your defense isn't perfect, and the very skillful declarer manages to make a meaningless overtrick for 630, despite being in a 3-3 trump fit. It turns out that your partner, the one who declined to take out the redoubled contract, had QJTxx opposite your Kx.

Now, how do you like these substandard takeout doubles?

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Monsterpoints: Going for the record

What I call the torture tables on BBO ("casual") tabes can be very frustrating. You never know when your partner is going to pass a forcing bid, you have no idea what type of Blackwood they understand, and generally they can't be trusted. At least not until you've played a few hands with them. Unlike at the Griffins (Bridge in the Menagerie, etc.) there are so many different players on BBO that you rarely see the same person twice unless you follow them.

The only way I can reasonably keep track of these blunders is to borrow a phrase from Victor Mollo: Monsterpoints. Here's how I'm going to (arbitrarily) score them (giving more weight to the earlier actions):

  • (auction) first turn: 5 points available
  • second turn : 3 points
  • third and subsequent turns: 2 points each
  • (play) opening lead: 4 points
  • other first-trick play: 3 points
  • first critical play: 5 points 
  • remaining tricks (second through 12th absent the critical trick): up to 2 points each

A typical hand of bridge, then, will have available from five up to about 16 monsterpoints in the auction and 19 monsterpoints (estimate) in the play, for a maximum possible of about 35.

So, with that preamble, here is a hand on which my partner did his or her best to set a new record for the number of monsterpoints in one hand.

Here is the hand:

Dealer: S
Vul: NS
♠ 3
♥ AKQ2
♦ AJ8743
♣ A9
♠ JT954
♥ J8764
♦ Q
♣ Q2
♠ KQ87
♥ T
♦ 9652
♣ T765
♠ A62
♥ 953
♦ KT
♣ KJ843

1 p 1 p
2 p 2 p
2 p 6 p
p p
HTML Bridge Hand Layout Creator

As you can see, 6 is not the easiest of hands to make, although it is makable on any lead. Let me describe what happened.

Partner (South) opened 1. While this certainly isn't the worst crime in the history of bridge, I personally wouldn't consider this hand to be a vulnerable opener, although I know many who would automatically open it. Basically, what you have is a balanced 11. If the clubs were a little bit better (perhaps the T instead of the 8), or one card longer, then I would be willing to open it because I could happily rebid 2 over partner's response. But to open 1 and rebid 1NT would suggest 12-14 hcp which this hand simply doesn't have.

I made what I hope is the obvious response of 1 and partner rebid 2. Naturally, I expected his clubs to be a bit better (as described above), but this does seem the most sensible approach. Now, I reversed into 2 and waited anxiously to see if this bid would be passed.

After an eternity, partner came up with 2. Maybe he meant it as fourth-suit-forcing. Otherwise, I have no idea what it was supposed to be. Again, not the worst possible call because it kept the bidding open. At this point, I decided to dispense with science and jump straight to 6. It was a somewhat wild bid but it did put us in a makable contract. The only problem of course was that my partner would be playing it. I had no idea what to expect.

Naturally, I was a bit apprehensive when I saw his hand. Personally, I would have rebid 2NT over my 2 call to try to suggest a minimum balanced hand. The opening lead was the Q (a singleton).  Declarer let this ride around to the king and started on drawing trumps.

How would you tackle the trumps? If they are 3-3 then we just have to lose one trick. The diamonds should be good for six tricks, so with four clubs, three hearts and a spade, that would be more than sufficient. Basically, to make the contract, partner has to hold the trump losers to one. There is a line if you need to make all five tricks (Ace then cover RHO's card) but its success rate is only 1 in 5. But almost any reasonable play will garner four tricks (with a probability of 73%). All these lines, BTW, start with cashing the ace.

He starts by running the jack! This is the kind of play (running an unsupported honor towards a higher honor) I often see at these tables. But wait! The jack is not covered by the queen so all is well. Declarer then plays a small club to the ace, picking up the queen. All is rosy again. Now what? He's got to get back to hand and at least draw the small trump, leaving the ten as master (we assume that LHO wasn't silly enough to fail to cover the J while looking at QT). Guess what? with no more trumps in dummy, he uses the A to reach hand, exposing the two small spades as immediate losers. But all is still well as he plays the K, pitching the small heart from dummy. Now, there is only one card that can be played: the T from hand. Incredibly, he neglects to play that and starts in on the hearts. Surely he hasn't forgotten that the opening lead was the Q and that the ace, jack and ten are all now high? Obviously, the hand can no longer be made. In the end, he goes down two tricks.

So, what is the monsterpoint score?

  • opening bid: 1 mp (as mentioned, not a really terrible bid)
  • second turn: 0
  • third bid: 1 mp
  • play to opening trick: 0
  • first critical play (trump lead): 3
  • subsequent plays (2 each): T4 (serious error), T6 (disaster).
That's a total of 9 monsterpoints. Is this a serious record contender? Only time will tell.

Monday, December 19, 2016

When dummy gives you a lemon... make lemonade!

Playing in a recent BBO/ACBL 12-board tournament, things were going moderately badly when I picked up the following hand on the last board:

Dealer: W
Vul: NS



♠ AKJT65
♥ 5
♦ 96
♣ AQ92

3D p p ?
HTML Bridge Hand Layout Creator

With a singleton diamond and two small hearts, I might venture a 4 call here but with two losers in their suit, I decided on a simple 3 which was passed out. Worrying at first that we might have missed game, I switched my concerns to just making my contract when I saw dummy!

Dealer: W
Vul: NS
♠ 74
♥ J98764
♦ Q8
♣ 753


♠ AKJT65
♥ 5
♦ 96
♣ AQ92

3D p  p 3S
 p  p  p
HTML Bridge Hand Layout Creator

The LHO led DA, then the 7 to his partner's K. There didn't seem much hope of ever getting to dummy to take a black suit finesse, so when RHO continued with the HQ, I could only hope he'd switch to a black card. He didn't. I pitched two clubs on the K and A, while LHO pitched diamonds. On the following trick, RHO (a robot) erred by leading yet another heart. I pitched my third losing club and LHO was forced to ruff. But his only spade was the queen so at that point, I had the rest of the tricks.

Minus 200 isn't usually a good score, but this time it was a clear top. Not one of the other 18 declarers, several of whom were in game, thought to pitch on that second heart.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

If it's worth bidding, it's worth leading

I've always thought what a silly old adage is "If it's worth bidding, it's worth leading." It's usually said when someone has made a bid, doesn't have any more obvious lead, and resorts to leading their own suit. Not very profound!

But, playing at a casual, that's to say torture, table recently, I suffered the following indignity: 2NTXW= for -690 and a loss of 12 IMPs.

Dealer: W
Vul: Both
♠ KT9763
♥ K5
♦ T93
♣ KT
♠ QJ4
♥ J7
♦ Q842
♣ A987
♠ 5
♥ AQ986
♦ KJ75
♣ J52
♠ A82
♥ T432
♦ A6
♣ Q643

p p 1H p
1N 2S p p
2N p p X
p p p
HTML Bridge Hand Layout Creator

My so-called partner apparently doesn't believe in getting in and out early in the auction. A 2S call by North would get the hand off the chest so to speak and make life really difficult for the opponents. And, 2S is unassailable whereas any higher contract by the opponents, except for 3D, is doomed. A contract of 3D requires East to double rather than bid 3H over the 2S, but that never happened at any of the tables where North started with 2S.

As you can see, a spade lead ("if it's worth bidding, it's worth leading") would have set the contract easily. But even with partner's DT lead which resulted in the premature knocking out of my DA (at trick 2), we were still destined to set the contract. If only partner hadn't grabbed the second spade after I played SA and 8.

So, should North have simply followed the old saw and led a spade? No, not at all. He should have listened to the bidding. I had not acted over 1H so either I had the wrong shape for a takeout double, or I simply wasn't strong enough to act. But now, after partner comes in with the enormously dangerous bid of 2S (which I passed), West bids a very inadvisable 2N. I double this and partner is on lead. I have no game ambitions therefore, so I don't have a strong off-shape hand that couldn't double. And, I certainly don't have a suit of my own. On what could I be basing my expectation of defeating 2NT? It must be a good fit for spades (with an honor) plus probably another entry.

There is another possibility. The opponents could be complete idiots and therefore it doesn't matter too much what North leads. 2N has no chance of making. But why assume this. No, although it's clear that West is a novice (you can't bid 1NT and then 2NT) but there's no reason to assume some kind of death wish. No, there's every reason to assume they have at least as many points as we do, and yet South (me) is sure of defeating the contract.

No, all inferences should tell North that 1) it matters what he leads and 2) the only sensible lead is the suit that he's promised. The failure to heed these rather obvious inferences cost him (and me) 17 IMPs.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Web movements for teaching

One of my wife Kim's bridge classes includes a duplicate every other week. With discussion about the hands, there is only time to play 6 boards. The number of tables varies usually between nine and twelve. Any multiple of three tables can easily be accommodated with the appropriate number of sections, each with a straight Mitchell movement. But what about ten and eleven tables? These can be handled with either two sections of three tables and a section of four; or two sections of four, with a section of three. The trouble is those four-table sections! There's no Mitchell variation that I have found to work for this type of situation (having single-board rounds is not very appealing). I therefore turned to the "web" movement.

The so-called web movement is the invention of former National director John "Spider" Harris in the 1970s. For a full description of web movements, the best source is Tim Hill's document. In a web movement with an even number of tables, as we have here, a section is split into two sub-sections each comprising half of the tables. The second of these sub-sections is boarded "backwards" which is the insight that Spider Harris came up with to make the movement work.

This is how the movement unfolds for one four-table section:

Four Table Web
Round 1
Round 2
Round 3
Table 1 (N/S 1) E/W 1 playing boards 1,2 E/W 4 playing boards 3,4 E/W 3 playing boards 5,6
Table 2 (N/S2) E/W 2 playing boards 3,4 E/W 1 playing boards 5,6 E/W 4 playing boards 1,2
1-2 Bye-stand boards 5,6 boards 1,2 boards 3,4
Table 3 (N/S 3) E/W 3 playing boards 1,2 E/W 2 playing boards 5,6 E/W 1 playing boards 3,4
Table 4 (N/S 4) E/W 4 playing boards 5,6 E/W 3 playing boards 3,4 E/W 2 playing boards 1,2
3-4 Bye-stand boards 3,4 boards 1,2 boards 5,6

Of course, as you can see, you need two sets or "cases" of boards (i.e. twelve boards in all). That's the drawback to the web movement (and the reason directors have never really liked to use it until recently). Now, however, that we have dealing machines available, it becomes much less of a burden for the director (or teacher in this case) to set up a web movement.

The other advantage is that, once the boards are put into position, the movement pretty much runs itself. Some of the other alternative movements require changing the movement half-way through, having relays, and so on. These can be somewhat problematic when the players are relatively new to duplicate bridge.

So, as you can see, the web movement isn't only for large single sections, as typically used in tournaments in New England. It can be used any time the number of boards in play is insufficient to cover all the tables in a section.