Monday, November 29, 2010

Notes from Orlando

I had hoped to regale all my faithful readers with tales of derring-do in the National events here at the 2010 Orlando NABC.  Unfortunately, we haven't really distinguished ourselves much.

I played the first day of the life master pairs with Dave Marshall, playing reasonably solid bridge in the first session.  After dinner, I hit some sort of wall, however, and made bonehead plays, one after another.  Needless to say, we did not qualify for day two.

We played a session of compact KO the next afternoon, declining to continue in the consolation in favor of checking in to our condo and doing the grocery shopping.

Sunday saw us back in action in the Open Board-a-match, Kim and I together and the Marshalls at the other table.  I played about as well as I've ever played I think in the afternoon.  I was in the zone.  In round two against Barry Rigal, I managed a winning lead against a 4S game and followed that up by executing an end-play against Barry in a 2S contract to halve the board.  So far, so good.

We had a few too many team errors, however, and ended up with only 10.5 boards out of 26.  One round that was predictably bad perhaps was against a team with three current or recent world champions.  In the evening, we did better and, if I personally had not had a cow-fly-by moment, we would have been average.  We still wouldn't have qualified, obviously.

The format, board-a-match, is generally considered one of the very toughest forms of bridge.  There are no easy part score deals (as there might be in a team game) and there is no field to support you when you don't go all out for the maximum tricks.  There's just you and the other table.  Every board, however boring it may appear at first, is a potential battleground.  Kim and I really enjoyed the event, though.  We love playing against the "stars", even though we get star-struck all too often [but the more we play against them, the more ordinary it will seem, we hope].

These National events are surprisingly relaxing in some respects.  First, a two-board round lasts 16 minutes and generally we're done within ten.  That allows plenty time for getting a glass of water, refocusing after a bad result, etc.  Second, the other competitors are almost universally pleasant and respectful.  And finally, with very rare exceptions, you never ever hear RHO whining to LHO, why didn't you switch to a spade?  How could you bid 3H? etc.  And of course you never have to wait while the opponents ask each other how many clubs they had on the last hand!

And the standard of bridge is so high. Bridge against good players is actually much more predictable than club bridge.  They never make stupid bids that just happen to work out well.  Nor do they embark on an inferior line of play only to find that it works best on this hand.

We think it's really excellent training for going back to the bridge club and making the most of every hand.

Tomorrow, we try again in the Blue Ribbons.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Slings, Arrows and Flying Cows

The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune are definitely one of the factors that make our game of Bridge so interesting. While the game isn't completely random of course, there is a large element of randomness. It's basically all about avoiding errors – of which there are many varieties. Did you know for example that if your partnership is absolutely average amongst your opponents, you can expect to score over 60% (or below 40%) about once in every thirty sessions?

One of the most difficult to overcome of the panoply of Bridge errors is the personal unforced goof (PUG). You know it also by another somewhat more scatological expression. When an expert makes this sort of error and is asked about it later, he or she can only come up with something like "a cow flew by."

I've thought about consulting a Zen master to try to help me eliminate these sorts of errors but I haven't found one yet. A regimen of water (plenty of it) and relatively light meals does seem to help. Brown rice seems to help a little. When Kim is my partner and I do something goofy she reminds me to drink some more water (or Gatorade if we have it). But if she's at another table, I'm liable to forget, with possibly serious consequences for my health, both bridge-related and otherwise.

Over the weekend, we went up to Newington, NH for the pairs on Saturday and the teams on Sunday. I've played with my pairs partner twice before. I had two partners for the Swiss, neither of whom I'd played with before. That made it all the more challenging and enjoyable. One of my teams partners was 13-year-old Zack, who might easily go unnoticed by comparison with his World Youth Champion brother Adam. But Zack is a terrific player whom I think could easily turn out better even than his brother.

On the first hand we played together, Zack opened a rather light hand. We found a fit and I was heading to a slam when I had to put the brakes on. We were missing two key cards. The trumps split 4-1 and I had to think about the hand for a while before coming up with a plan. My plan relied on a squeeze that I thought was probably about 75% or better based on the way the play went. I made the contract. Zack pointed out, very politely I might add, that I could have saved myself a lot of trouble ruffing an extra trick in dummy (a plan which I had thought was in danger of losing control). I was skeptical but eventually figured out that he was right.

We had a good time, though we seemed to be a little unlucky at times and, as a team, never really got into the groove until we'd already dug a deep hole. We just managed to scratch in B.

Here's an example of the kind of goof I referred to above (if I was a bit older perhaps I might call it a "senior moment"). I picked up a 4441 17-count and opened 1D. Partner jumped to 3NT. In my mind I was evaluating our chances based on his having 15-17 hcp (I wasn't too worried about clubs because he had to have at least four of them). I bid 6NT and it went down one. Where did I get that idea from? Nobody I know plays 3NT that way (including me), although I've certainly heard of such an agreement (it's part of the old Standard American, I believe). I just think the wires got crossed on the way out of my memory banks.

It's annoying as anything in Bridge can be. And it's hard for anyone else to even comprehend it. But if ever I find that Zen master, maybe I can do something to eliminate this sort of flying cow play.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Forcing 1NT

I have a friend and occasional partner for whom the 1NT response to a major suit opening is unlimited and forcing even by a passed hand.  If asked we say 0-37 hcp.  That usually gets a laugh from the opponents.

But seriously, since the bid is forcing (at least by a non-passed hand for all 2/1 bidders), should it be unlimited?  I don't think so.  While it might at first sight appear arbitrary, I think that 2/1 responses should all be based on at least a healthy interest in seeking a slam while 1NT responses followed by game bids suggest no enthusiasm for slam unless opener has significant extras.  Other 1NT responses are obviously not interested in slam.  At best, they are invitational to game.  At worst they hope to find a safe haven at the two-level.

Let's assume that we have three-card support for partner's 1-of-a-major opening bid (any more and we would not be considering 1NT, and with less we'd still need to find our best strain).  Come what may, we're going to support his suit at our next turn.  If we start with 1NT, a jump to 3M will not be forcing to game (a "three-card limit raise").  If we start with a 2/1 bid, and then support partner's suit at the lowest level, that will be forcing to game with slam aspirations.  Another option is starting with a 2/1 and then jumping to game.  Some people play this simply as the principal of fast arrival (PFA) and others play it as a "picture bid" showing cards primarily in the two suits bid.

So, a forcing 1NT followed by a jump to game shows a hand with three-card support and either:
  • a non-picture-bid hand (if you have the picture bid agreement mentioned above);
  • a hand that is not interested in slam opposite a typical minimum opener (PFA).
Since I don't have the picture bid  agreement with any of my partners, that sequence shows the second type of hand.  Note that you can still have a pretty good hand and not want to initiate a slam try.  For example: ♠K74 AJ87K86 ♣A96 or even ♠K74 AQ87K86 ♣AJ96.  Much beyond that, say, ♠K74 AQ87A86 ♣A96 and I think you'd want to pursue slam yourself if partner didn't beat you to it.  Of course, this will all depend on how bad your partner's opening 1M bids can be.  If partner is a really solid opener, you might initiate a slam try with any of the above hands.  As mentioned above, if your hand is good enough to initiate a slam try, you won't be starting with 1NT.

So, what should you bid with this hand ♠K74 AJ87J86 ♣A96 when partner opens 1♠?  In my opinion, this is an absolutely automatic 1NT followed by 4♠, or even 3NT, (assuming partner makes a minimum rebid).  But not everyone agrees with me.

On a scale of 1 to 10, I would rate the possible responses as follows:
  1. 1NT: 9
  2. 3NT: 7
  3. 2♣: 6
  4. 2: 5
  5. 2: 2
  6. 2NT: 0
The only reason 1NT doesn't get a 10 is that it's possible that our best spot is 6NT with partner as declarer (given our pathetic diamond holding).  But that's unlikely.  I don't like 2 much because, even though we are going to support spades next, we should really have either a five-card suit or better hearts, say AQxx.  2♣ is better in my opinion because, although holding only three cards, we do at least have the suit controlled.  2 might have some merit on the Hideous Hog principle of bidding the suit we don't want led (although partner is likely to be declarer on this hand).  2NT is simply awful because the Jacoby bid should always show four trumps and a hand that would be enthusiastic about slam if partner initiates a slam try.

Thanks to Steve for pointing out that 3NT, for those who play it as a 4x3 hand with 13-15, is almost a perfect bid here.  I generally don't play that so I didn't think of it.  The only fly in this particular ointment is that we do not have diamonds even half stopped.  Sure partner should have something, but on a bad day, partner might have only Qx, they set up their diamonds then get in with the ♠A and cash for down 1.  Not too likely perhaps but possible.  He also feels that 1NT followed by 3NT should show a shapely hand, short in spades, that's actually improved by opener's rebid.  That seems sensible.

So, how did our hand turn out?  On this particular evening we were playing IMP pairs at the club and, as it transpired, we could do no wrong all evening.  Opener's hand (that's to say my hand) was ♠AQ632 KAQT3 ♣J82 and the auction went (opps silent): 1♠ – 2 – 3 – 3♠ – 4 – 4NT – 5♠ – 6♠.  3 (the so-called "high reverse") showed extras, as did 3♠.  4 showed a control in diamonds and slam interest (valuing the K perhaps slightly higher than it truly deserved but expecting a decent five-card suit).  5♠ showed two key-cards with the spade Q.

I received a low heart lead and was able to wrap up 12 tricks without difficulty once the K was discovered to be in its proper place (actually I'm supposed to make all the tricks because the Q is doubleton) but this wasn't matchpoints.  A club lead (rather more obvious on the auction) would have been somewhat more awkward however as I would be required to unblock the T, something I doubt I would have done, not knowing that the 9 was going to fall singleton.

So, I think we were both somewhat guilty of over-bidding resulting in a less-than 50% slam (I need the diamond K onside and the ability to keep finessing from dummy or a non-club lead).  If partner's response had been 1NT I think we'd have been able to rest more safely in game.  As it turned out, we'd still have won, but by a less impressive margin.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Hideous Hog meets Miss Mouse

I can't really imagine the Hideous Hog playing against the GIBs on BBO, can you?  But I was taking a short break the other evening and a perfect Hog hand came up (spots approximate):

♠KQT82 AKAJ654 ♣8 ♠62 QJT84273 ♣KT5

The Rueful Rabbit (actually just one of the GIBs) opened 1♠ and I, doing my best H.H. imitation, bid 1NT, forcing.  R.R. bid 3 and naturally I called 3NT.  3 would have allowed the Rabbit to bid spades again and we couldn't allow that, now, could we.  Fortunately, the Rabbit knows that it is against the law to take the Hog out of a 3NT contract.

The opening lead was a low club.  Prospects were somewhat dismal given that the ♣K was the only possible entry to my hearts (after unblocking).  But there was a ray of hope if RHO had the ♣A.  He did and I played low obviously.  On the club return, I again played low and pitched the A from dummy.  The defense persisted with another club (I think this GIB must have been the Walrus in disguise) and I was able to pitch the K while winning in my hand with the ♣K.  I now began to reel off six hearts (they split 3-2) and had every hope of making the contract (all would depend on the club distribution and the location of the ♠A).

It was, however, at this point that the best laid plans went awry.  True to form, the Hideous Hog is not an aficionado of online bridge.  A slight slip of the mouse caused the D7, the aptly named "beer card", to be played instead of a fourth heart (I had indeed just enjoyed an Ipswich IPA).

I never found out whether I would have made my contract as I decided to elect the only recourse for a mis-mouse against the GIBs: quit the game!

But I would love to have the opportunity to jettison Aces and Kings, à la Hog, in a real game.  Preferably, the Life Master pairs, but any flesh-and-blood game would do.