Sunday, April 23, 2017

Applying pressure

As my regular readers will know, I'm a fan of so-called pressure bids, that's to say wide-ranging preempts opposite a passed hand. I'm also a non-fan of making tram-ticket overcalls opposite a passed hand. Still unconvinced? That's good. I don't need you doing it to me at the table!

But here's an illustrative tale from a team game on BBO (sorry, I don't know how to make this show only one hand):

Dealer: S
Vul: Both
♠ KQJ32
♥ 3
♦ T985
♣ T42



South West North
  p    1C    ?
HTML Bridge Hand Layout Creator

What to do? Surely this is worth in intervention with such an obvious lead-directing situation. But partner is a passed hand so, especially vulnerable, this counts as tram tickets. It's just not good enough for an overcall. What about 2? Well, gee, this could go for 800 or worse? Yes it could. But it almost never does.

Let's see what happened at the other table. My counterpart couldn't resist a 1 bid. East bid 2 and West bid 3NT. South, in the pass-out seat felt sure that, on a spade lead, this was going down. So he doubled. The defense wasn't perfect and my teammates were +950.

Now let's rewind to my turn over 1. With some trepidation, I bid 2. The next two players passed and I started worrying that the next call would be double. But no, West rebid his clubs (3). Note the effect of the pressure bid. The opponents have been talked out of their cold 3NT. The damage wrought by the 2 call has already been done! Despite having the chance to get out for -110 or -130 on a deal where presumably the opponents belong in game, partner now bid 3! I detest that type of action. If partner has preempted, then preempt as high as you're willing to go at your first opportunity. Fortunately, nobody doubled and I managed to drift off three (perfect play would be down two) for -300.

So, even with partner kicking an own goal, we still won 12 IMPs! Even if they double and I play it no better (I might take a bit more care in a doubled contract) we'd still be up by 4 IMPs :)

Here's the whole layout. As you can see, my opponents weren't the best, but the 2 call did give them a serious problem.

Dealer: S
Vul: Both
♠ KQJ32
♥ 3
♦ T985
♣ T42
♠ AT9
♥ KJ
♦ Q7
♣ AKQ875
♠ 75
♥ T7542
♦ AJ62
♣ J6
♠ 864
♥ AQ986
♦ K43
♣ 93

South West North East
  p    1C    2S   p
  p    3C    p    p
 3S    p     p    p
HTML Bridge Hand Layout Creator

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Never give up!

I've always found this to be one of the best bridge sayings, especially of course at IMPs. Sometimes, it is proper to give up at matchpoints and settle for one less than your target, rather than risk two less.

But on the following hand, I judged that there'd be very little field support for going down so I persevered to the very end.

Dealer: W
Vul: None
♠ KT953
♥ T86
♦ 52
♣ Q54
♠ 42
♥ 3
♦ AJT974
♣ JT76
♠ QJ86
♥ KJ752
♦ Q
♣ 982
♠ A7
♥ AQ94
♦ K863
♣ AK3

2D p p Dble
p 2S p 2N
p 3N p p
HTML Bridge Hand Layout Creator

Ever have that feeling when dummy goes down that you haven't got a hope of making the contract? I certainly had it. The J was led and when East played the Q I had to make up my mind whether to take it or not. It seemed almost certain that it was singleton but there was little point in end-playing him at trick 1 so I won with the king. I would certainly look a bit silly if the diamonds were divided 5-2 and hadn't taken the first trick. At that point, if I'd known that clubs were 4-3, I'd have played off three clubs and endplayed East for 10 tricks. But I hoped that the spades might just be 3-3 so I played ace and low to the nine, thus ducking a spade to East. East had an easy out with the club so now my best possible result was making (though I didn't really expect to). I played off three rounds of clubs finishing in dummy and tried the ten. No good, West showing out. Hoping for an endplay, I played the fourth spade. East was down to five hearts at this point and got out with the knave. My first thought was that obviously he didn't have the king because he'd lead low. But no, he wouldn't as that would put me in dummy (to enjoy the last spade) if I guess right. Plus, he (the robot) knew at that point that his partner wouldn't be able to return a heart after cashing out the diamonds. I therefore won with the queen and then played low to the ten, end-playing East again for the contract.

Nine other humans were in 3NT, four were in spade games/slam (all down) and one was in 4NT. Only four players made nine tricks, despite the fact that really the only skill required was to take to heart the old adage: Never give up.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Inverted Minors with a big fit for partner's minor

A couple of hands have come up recently that have illustrated a pet theory of mine regarding inverted minors. They haven't happened to me personally but have been related to me. Take this one, for instance:

KQ92 A6 AJT952. Matchpoints, favorable vulnerability. LHO passes as dealer and partner opens 1!

Now, it's a well-known principle of 2/1 bidding* that when we have a hand good enough to force to game, we show our longest suit first. Guess what? We have enough to force to game and our longest suit happens to be clubs.

So, let's start with 2, for now ignoring the spade suit. Partner probably has a balanced hand with three or maybe four clubs but that's not important for now. Our job is to bid our hand. Of course, if partner has only three clubs, then his automatic rebid is 2NT.  Anything else would be uncivilized. No, seriously, Howard Piltch taught me many years ago that you may not bid a new suit as rebid if you don't possess four of your minor. I still agree with that scheme. And, furthermore, 2NT is forcing! The only non-forcing bid is 3m.

So, assuming four clubs, partner's rebid over 2 is likely to be 2 or 2 (or possibly 2NT with stoppers in both suits). If partner rebids 2, he most probably doesn't have four spades (although he could be 4414 or 4405). Our 2 will simply be taken as a fragment and no harm is likely to be done.

But, it should be allowable for responder to raise 2 or for opener to raise 2 to show four. After all, most of the time these raises never occur because the emphasis is always on finding stoppers for no-trump. But if they do happen, the meaning should be clear: a potential double fit has been found. Since responder would never raise the minor without a game-forcing hand with an eye towards 6m (clubs in this case), it's hard to imagine anything going seriously wrong, provided that both partners are open to this possibility.

In the case cited above, the hand opposite was: A74 KJT9 JT3 K86. The club slam is cold** and much of the time, will make seven unless LHO happened to overcall 2 with 2. But, in practice, almost every table played the hand in 3NT which not only goes down on a diamond lead, but obviously wouldn't score anywhere near as well as 6.

So, here's my suggested bidding sequence: (p) 1 (p) 2 (2) p (p) 2 p 2NT (p) 4 (or other keycard ask, followed by the two-key-card response...) 6.

If you start with 1, it will be almost impossible to persuade opener that you have six clubs in addition to four spades, which is why nobody got to 6. I wouldn't advocate suppressing the major with, say, a five-card minor and a relatively balanced hand. That would be taking things too far. Yet I expect most people will disagree with doing it even in this situation because it was fed to them with their mother's milk that you may not suppress a four-card major when you raise partner's opening minor. But there's a time to break just about every rule. And this is one of those times.

*  inverted minors are often used in "standard" but they were invented for a 2/1 game-forcing context so that's what I'm assuming here.

** unless you decide on a backward finesse against the club queen, you will see her pop up before you have to decide finesse-or-drop.

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
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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.