Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Doubling intervention after we've found a fit

Here's a common auction: we open 1, lefty passes, partner raises to 2 and righty comes in with 2♠.  The good news is that we have one call available that we didn't have before (double), but do we really know how best to use that call?

I once had this exact auction a number of years ago now.  It was at a sectional and my right-hand opponent had earlier given a talk to the I/N players entitled "overcalls -- how to make them safely", or some similar title.  RHO now came in with 2♠ (I think all were vulnerable but I'm not sure) and I held a hand something like the following: ♠AQT4 KQ543A2 ♣K7.  I doubled and we scored 800 for a top.  It felt pretty good.

The snag is that I've played a lot of hands since then and I don't think anything quite like that has ever come up again.  If I have a good hand in that same auction, it's much more likely to look like this: ♠A2 KQ543AQT4 ♣K7.  This isn't all that bad.  I can either shoot straight to game (a slight overbid but could easily be right) or I can make a game try with 3 or 2NT.

What do I do with this hand, though: ♠92 KQ543AQT4 ♣K7?  If I bid 3 with this hand, how will partner tell the difference between this and the previous hand?  Some partnerships, including one of mine, play that 2NT is the "good-bad" 2NT (is there an ugly 2NT?).  This is a pretty good convention and partner will know that we don't have ♠2 KQ543AQT94 ♣K7 which we would show with 3.

Sometimes the opponent will have the cheek to bid 3♣ (or 3) which will prevent us from using the 2NT treatment.

I believe there's a much more flexible call available: double!  If we happen to catch partner with a good balanced hand with useful spades, he could pass, especially if they are vulnerable (seeking the magic 200).  But most of the time, he'll either sign off in 3, bid 4 (or perhaps 3NT) or bid an available minor suit as his own game try.  The double here should show a semi-balanced hand typically with a small doubleton in the enemy suit and of course only five hearts.  It shows a little extra (it denies having made a "rule-of-20" type of opening) because every now and then partner will pass and it would be nice to set their contract!

It's basically a question of frequency and the arithmetic of the scoring table.  Let's say both sides have 20 hcp.  If you believe that, on average, the total trumps will predict the total tricks and, if you go one step further and believe in the so-called Hillyard Corollary, you will predict that our side will take the same number of tricks as our total trumps and their side likewise.  I do stress that we are talking about averages here.  In the long run!   I'm not claiming that this will work out exactly on every hand.  Far from it. I'm an LOTT-skeptic too.  But let's say that both sides have an eight-card fit in their major, with no particularly good double fit.  We'd expect each side to be able to take 8 tricks.  Now, if they can make their 2♠, we'd prefer to bid 3, especially if we aren't vulnerable.  So, even though we may not be close to making game, we still want to compete!

We still need good judgment.  Let's say our hand is ♠972 KQ543AQ4 ♣K7.  It would likely be very dangerous to compete here.  Even if we get to play 3, we are likely to lose the first three tricks especially if they only have a seven-card fit.  And LHO may have some useful heart holding and double for penalties.

Those of you who play the "maximal" double will have very little difficulty adapting to this scheme.  It will now not matter at all which of the other three suits they compete in.  Double will always have approximately the same meaning.

And of course, since our direct double is essentially a cooperative double, so to will partner's be.  If we have a hand like ♠AQT KQ54392 ♣K7 we will obviously be passing 2♠.  But partner may have 8 or 9 hcp, together with spade shortness and he can double.  We will be delighted to pass.  So, we may yet achieve our 800s and 1100s.

But, to reiterate, it is unusual for these competitive auctions to result in big penalties.  We therefore use the double more as a way of describing a hand that wants to compete.  And that comes up far more frequently.

Monday, October 18, 2010

R.I.P. Norbert

I don't get to play very often with my favorite partner, Kim. For some reason we don't always play our best together. Not because we argue at the table or anything like that, but there is something indefinable which seems to get in the way. I know other married couples have similar issues. Still, we each have a reasonable idea of how to play bridge and we often do well on a team, playing at different tables.

So, it was particularly satisfying to have a good game together in Bangor, ME on Saturday. We like to combine some family time with bridge and we always enjoy the Maine sectionals. They have great snacks, and the other players are invariably friendly and pleasant to play against. The games are run by Horace and Sonya and they do an absolutely fantastic job.

Our results up there vary but we always have fun. On this occasion, there were two sections of 11 tables (one section actually had 12 tables in the afternoon). We managed to go "North of 60" in both sessions, each time winning our "section". That was good for 2nd overall behind the perennial winners, Dick and Dottie. We were just slightly over a board adrift which could so easily have been made up. For example, we managed to start the day with only 1 matchpoint out of 16 on the first two boards: on the second of these, we were defending 3X and my hand was ♠J8 Q54396542 ♣A7. Unfortunately, I don't recall the auction for sure, but I think it went something like this, starting with my RHO: 1♣ p 1 1♠; X p 2 2♠; p p 3 p; p X. After the J lead, declarer won in hand with the K and led a small diamond to dummy's ♠T752 A76AK ♣T962. Partner ruffed this with the deuce and led the ♣K. This is where I fell from grace. What would you do? Well, if you do any thinking at all you'll overtake with the Ace and shoot back a spade for +200 and 7/8 matchpoints (we might even get 500 but it wouldn't change the score). I played low, declarer ruffed the next club and then was able to pitch all of dummy's spades on good diamonds while I was forced to follow suit: -730.

But, we have really taken to heart the advice, dispensed by all the experts, on recovering from adversity: get over it and forget it. Unfortunately, in the early days of playing together I was sometimes replaced at the table by my sinister alter ego, "Norbert". On suffering a bad board, I would take on an expression "like my dog had died" and generally make my partner feel miserable. But several years ago, Norbert showed signs of ailing.

An example will be illustrative. Kim and I were playing at the Augusta sectional about three years ago. The afternoon session was going fairly well until we reached Dick and Dottie's table. On one hand they ended up in 6 which I doubled after Kim had made a very unusual (but incredibly effective) notrump overcall of 4NT (immediately over the opening bid). When 6 came around to me, I felt that the suits were not breaking favorably (and I was very short in partner's suits) so I doubled despite having no high cards at all. Exactly what I was trying to achieve is unclear. +50 would likely be a top on this hand. Anyway, partner laid down the A and it didn't matter whether she continued diamonds, switched to a club or played a trump. All roads led to down at least one. Well, not quite all. Unfortunately, Kim inferred, very reasonably, that my double actually showed some values and reasoned that those values must be in spades. The resulting spade switch caused us to go from an 8 on the board to a zero. If ever there was a hand that might invoke bitter feuding it was this one. But, the actual arguing was all by our opponents. We stepped away to await the next round and didn't say a word. That hand really was the turning point (and the beginning of Norbert's end). We went on to win the event.

Finally, I think that this week we can safely declare Norbert's demise to be final and irrevocable. And not a moment too soon, I might add. Rest in peace.

Friday, October 1, 2010


I finally got around to taking the bridge director's test earlier this week.  Not that I'm planning on performing any directorial duties any time soon -- I just started an all-consuming new job this week.  My bridge playing, and writing, is going to be seriously curtailed for a while.

I'm not sure if I passed the test.  I wasn't as well-prepared as I would have liked (I was better prepared a few months ago).  There were a few questions where it seemed that more than one answer might have been right.  But taking the test reminded me of some bad decisions that have been made against me over the years.

Many years ago, before bidding boxes, before I/N games (or even stratification), before zero tolerance, I was at the Nationals in Detroit (1980).  My partner and I were neophytes but we had something of a clue.  I was declarer in 7S (possibly 7H) and I had plenty trumps in my hand, as well as a void in diamonds.  LHO led a diamond and dummy went down.  It was immediately apparent that I had 13 tricks and I hastened things along with a claim.  Director!  RHO also had a void and when the director arrived he ruled that because I did not include in my statement any specific plan if RHO ruffed the opening lead (as in "I will overruff"), the contract was ruled down 1.

I wouldn't go so far as to say that that ruling kept me away from bridge for the next 18 years or so.  In fact, the ubiquitous smoking and the people literally yelling at each other were far more problematic.  Having a new job and a new baby pretty much concluded the decision.  But the ruling didn't help.  I now know that, when declarer makes a claim and insufficient detail is given in the statement and there are trumps out, the opponents of the claimant are presumed to have won a trump trick if a trick could be lost to that trump by any normal play (law 70C3).  A clarification in the rules states that "normal" includes play that would be careless or inferior for the class of player involved.  Under-ruffing (or discarding) on this trick would not be careless, in my opinion.  It would be bizarre.  But the director thought otherwise.  I have no idea if there were appeals in those days but the director certainly didn't mention it [it's not clear to me if there is any redress for this sort of thing anyway - the facts were not in question].

The next ruling occurred at my next NABC (Long Beach in 2003).  I was playing in a I/N event limited to 300 mps.  Neither of us had more than 100.  We were winning the event until the last board.  At trick 12, I was on lead and contrived to accidentally drop one of my cards on the table face up.  Not very smart.  The ruling was that I was deemed to have played the card.  Down 1.  2nd place.  That operative word here is accidentally in which case law 48A applies (declarer is not required to play any card dropped accidentally).  Otherwise law 45C2a applies which states that the card is played if it is held face up touching or nearly touching the table.  There was no disagreement that it had been dropped.  Regardless, I think that a little slack could have been allowed in a I/N event.

The most recent bad ruling was a couple of years ago.  It might have been at the Boston NABC or a local regional -- I just don't remember, but the director involved is a National Director (in the sense of directing at most of the NABCs around the country).  While we were sorting our cards, my partner, the dealer, dropped the DK on the table.  This situation is covered under Law 24B.  There were two passes to me.  The remedy for this situation is that I must pass at my first opportunity.  However, the ruling was that I had to pass throughout.  Quite a difference, especially as in this case I would have opened 2NT (20-21 hcp).  LHO decided to make a very marginal opening bid (1C) and all passed.  The fates had already determined partner's lead of course: the DK, which ran around to declarer's AQ.  I think we ended up -110 for a bottom while most pairs our way made +400 or so.

That last ruling was just a plain error and quite understandable.  In fact, we had to smile about it.  The others were much more judgment-related and I found them to be quite upsetting at the time.

I will say this however.  The general standard of behavior, ruling, and general comfort of all involved has increased markedly in the last thirty years!  Bridge really can be fun these days!