Monday, December 31, 2012

What makes a good penalty double?

Back in April, I wrote about different types of penalty double – the second installment was Penalty Doubles (part 2). There, I observed, that the traditional penalty double was an endangered species because in practice it doesn't come up very often. Note that I am excluding what I call "equity-preserving doubles" which cover such things as doubling sacrifices. By the "traditional" penalty double, I mean the type where you double a contract that the opponents have bid willingly (and it appears that the hand "belongs" to them). Such doubles typically occur in an auction that begins competitively and, frequently, they arise after partner of doubler has opened the bidding. And note also that I am talking here about doubles that are strictly penalty in meaning, not cooperative doubles that are converted by passing.

What makes a good penalty double? I think there are several factors:
  1. lack of a fit for partner, otherwise a relatively balanced hand – in particular you must not hold a long suit (six-plus cards) of your own;
  2. trump quality and position – your tricks are sure tricks and there's no danger of tipping off declarer as to the correct line of play – but the position of your honors in the other suits must appear to be favorable to you too;
  3. an expectation of setting the contract at least two tricks – or, at match points, your judgment that the contract is normal (four or five of a minor is generally not normal at MPs) and that your peers are likely to consider doubling (if the contract isn't normal – perhaps they've clearly gone off the rails – you are almost certainly getting a good board if they go down even without a double);
  4. no place for the opponents to run.
Let's look at these in turn, although we will go in reverse, starting with point four. Several years ago in a world-wide simultaneous pairs event, I was the happy holder of ♠AK on lead against 6NT. Clearly, this pair had gone off the rails and I was likely to get a very good board simply by "staying with happiness". But the temptation for that world-wide top overcame me. I doubled, even though I wasn't sure that they didn't have a place to run. They ran to 7♣ and naturally I doubled that too. It made, of course, and instead of getting the world-wide top I was hoping for, I got a well-deserved world-wide bottom!

Point three: even though our hand might look fairly normal the other hands at the table might be goulash hands, with long suits and voids. Having a safety margin is definitely worth-while. Furthermore, the penalties really don't get interesting until the second trick (again, we're not talking about equity-preserving doubles). Let's say we are playing IMPs and the contract is 4 (vulnerable) going down one at both tables. The opponents double at the other table but we don't. We lose 3 IMPs. Not such a big deal. Now, let's say it goes down two at both tables. If we don't double and they do, we are losing 7 IMPs. Now, that's getting more serious.

Point two: it's fairly obvious that we need trump quality because otherwise declarer will simply draw our trumps and run his winners. And, equally we need to be sitting over the trump length lest our honors be finessible. Well-placed trump tricks are tricks that can't disappear. Note that if trumps appear to be 5-5 (or even 4-4) we won't always be able to tell where our honors are in relation to declarer's honors.

Point one: perhaps the best indicator of the success of a penalty double is our fit for partner (assuming that partner has bid which is typically the case). Obviously, a void is the best, but a singleton is pretty good. Why should that be? Well, whatever the number of total tricks is on the hand (and the fewer the better from the point of view of the penalty doubler), each card that we have in our hand in partner's suit is likely to increase the total tricks by one. This presupposes that partner has a real suit (one of at least five cards in length). A good fit for partner means that we might even be better off playing our own contract than defending their contract. And it increases the chance of shortness in one of the opponents' hands.

Now for some examples to help summarize what I've said. Let's take an example from a recent club game which also happened to be a world-wide simultaneous event. You hold this hand (only we are vulnerable) ♠876 T843 J5 ♣QT84. Partner deals and opens 1♠. RHO doubles and you pass. LHO bids 2♣ and partner rebids 3♠. RHO now raises to 4♣. Your call?

If you chose double, it means that you haven't been paying attention! Let's look at the factors one by one:
  1. we have an excellent fit for partner who appears to have a good six or seven spades;
  2. our trump quality is OK though nothing to write home about – but we don't even know where the trumps honors will be found – furthermore, with honors potentially on both sides we could easily be tipping declarer off to the correct line, if there is one;
  3. we don't really have an expectation of beating this two – let's say partner has 16 hcp, we have 3 – that's not even half the deck – plus we have no other surprises in store for the opponents;
  4. do they have a place to run? how about diamonds? Partner's hand is spades and more spades.
When I played this hand (as LHO) we got to 5♣ and I went down. There was no double and I mistimed the play. When Kim played the hand (also as LHO) the player with the cards shown above doubled 4♣. Not only did Kim make the contract, she actually made the overtrick (playing double-dummy).

As it turns out, N/S can take eight tricks in spades with their 18 hcp, although East has to underlead the A to get West a ruff to avoid the overtrick. E/W can take eleven tricks in clubs. That's nineteen total tricks – two nine card fits with a club void in the long spade hand. In fact, a diamond contract doesn't do so well thus there's no good runout there, but of course none is needed. See below for the layout.

Here's another example of a bad penalty double, which came up just the other day, although this time I was the happy recipient of the gift. My opponent held this hand: ♠T98 JT82 54 ♣QJ83. All are vulnerable and your RHO (the author) opens with 1. You pass and LHO bids 1♠. Partner bids 2. RHO bids 3♣ and you compete to 3. I don't recall for sure what happens next but, if I recall correctly, the opponents end up having the auction to themselves and bid 5♣. Do you double? This would be a true penalty double because the opponents have voluntarily bid 5♣ and it is their hand.

Let's look at the various factors: we have a very good fit with partner [full contraindication]; trump quality is good and the position appears to be good, although there is a possibility that declarer might be able to come up with a winning line [perhaps half an indication]; we really don't have a solid expectation of a two-trick set but it's conceivable (one heart, two clubs perhaps and maybe partner will contribute another trick) [half an indication]; might they have a better spot than 5♣, though – diamonds for instance [half a contraindication]?

On balance, this is not a good double. Nevertheless, the holder of this hand doubled and, even though 5♣ was cold (though not six), the opponents ran to 5 which partner now doubled. This made easily (although RHO – moi – neglected to redouble and make the overtrick for a clear top – another pair actually bid and made 6).

And now my final example for this particular chamber of horrors: I recently made a very poor decision to double a competitive 4♣ call by my RHO, holding this hand: ♠QT92 QJ9876 ♣T2. All were vulnerable and partner had opened proceedings with 1. RHO overcalled 2♣ and I had no good call so passed. LHO bid 3♣ and partner came back in with 3. RHO bid 4♣. At the time, I intended it more as a "suppressant" double (a species I apparently failed to mention in my earlier discussions). This type of double is used solely to warn partner not to bid again. Yet, it is made in the expectation of a set, even though you aren't sure that partner could have made his contract (thus it is not strictly for equity preservation). Therefore, it is a penalty double and at least some of the other rules need to be followed. One of the rules I broke here, not having really thought about it as a rule before this occurred, is the long-suit rule. Just as you might conceivably pull partner's penalty double when you have a long unbid suit of your own (see George Rosenkranz' excellent Tips for Tops), so you should not make your own penalty double with an unbid long suit. Even if partner has only three cards (a suit he will not normally bid on his own), there's a 10% chance that one of your opponents is void and only a 40% chance that two rounds of the suit will stand up.

As always, I'm interested to hear comments. Have I missed some aspects of what makes a good pure penalty double? I know that I double too much in practice (although most of those are "equity preservation doubles" where the rules given above typically don't apply) so it is important for me to have some good guidelines. The long-suit exclusion is the latest enhancement to my personal checklist.

Best wishes to all of my readers for 2013.  May all your squeezes and endplays produce extra tricks.

Monday, December 24, 2012

A few observations on Walsh and XYZ

I find that I wrote a draft on this subject some time ago (during 2011 I think). I'm going back to it now because I want to make a few remarks on Walsh and XYZ [although I don't mean to imply that these two conventions must go together – but as we will see, it helps].

Continuing our discussion related to opening with a (possibly prepared) minor bid in Prepared Bids (part 1). Now, Mr. Walsh comes along and makes life yet more complex. Playing Walsh, both partners agree that, holding a four-card major, there is little point in responder bidding 1 over 1♣ unless he has at least invitational strength. If responder has a weak hand and a four-card major he simply bids it. This maximizes the chances of finding a four-four fit and being able to stop at the two-level. If responder has at least invitational values (i.e. enough to make a "check-back" bid at his second turn), he can afford to start with 1 if he wants to. Partner will assume temporarily that there is no major suit fit and rebid 1NT with any balanced hand that didn't fit in the range for an opening 1NT [yes it's OK to rebid a major if the hand is unbalanced]. With a four-card major and invitational values, responder now makes a check-back bid (New Minor Forcing, XYZ, etc.) and if there is a major suit fit, it will be found.

Playing Walsh, therefore, even the second hand (♠84 KQ65 KJ6 ♣A963) must rebid 1NT. If partner has a weak hand with four hearts, he would have bid 1 to begin with. If he has invitational or better with four hearts, he will now make his checkback bid and all will be well.

Not everyone feels that Walsh is an advantageous system – so are there really any drawbacks, assuming that you have a good check-back system? One disadvantage is that with two minimum hands, our best contract might well be two diamonds on a 4-4 fit and we could miss it. But if you think about it, the chances of us actually being allowed to play in this ideal contract are negligible. If we have an eight-card fit and around half the points in the deck, the opponents are very unlikely to allow us to play there even if we do bid it.

In some cases, where we have a safe harbor in two diamonds, XYZ can come to the rescue. Suppose you have ♠3 AT83 QT832 ♣Q7. Playing Walsh, you bid 1, eschewing your five-card diamond suit. Partner now rebids 1NT. While 1NT may be the ideal matchpoint contract when non-vulnerable, it can be a liability when the opponents have at least an eight-card fit in an unbid suit (spades in this case). Although there are a lot of hands types that partner can have, he certainly has at least two diamonds since if he was unbalanced with a singleton diamond we would either raise hearts (possibly on three), bid 1♠ or rebid 2♣. It's also even possible that opener has 4-4 in the minors (see below) in which case his shape is most likely to be 3244 (although 2344 is also possible). In all of these cases, two diamonds should be a playable contract if you can get there. Having agreed XYZ (this also applies to two-way checkback), over his 1NT rebid, you bid 2♣, partner bids 2 and you pass!

Now, if the opponents come in over 2, you won't mind so much: you weren't that thrilled with the contract anyway. And even then, opener might raise with a diamond fit.

We touched briefly there on opening 1♣ with four-four in the minors. Since writing the draft of this, I published a blog entry specifically on that subject: Opening with 4-4 minors.

Now, let's concentrate on how XYZ works. I don't know who first developed it, but I think it is one of the best conventions around. I was fortunate to learn it in my early days of bridge so to me it is second nature. I'm still awaiting the book on XYZ (David Metcalf, Howard Piltch, are you listening?) but there is a reasonable summary on the internet here.

Like two-way new minor forcing, which operates over opener's rebid of 1NT, XYZ operates after any sequence that starts with three bids at the one level, including some which involve competition. The basics are easy of course. Responder's rebid of 2♣ forces a 2 response by opener, although in the case of a major-suit rebid by opener, who at that point is almost unlimited in strength, it is permissible to skip 2 if the hand is too good to allow a drop at 2. Because there are many more sequences available than in the special case of the 1NT rebid, there's a lot to discuss with partner about follow-ups. But to be honest, in ten years of playing the convention, I don't think that it's ever mattered that we didn't have all the follow-up sequences defined.

One thing I do like is this: after the invitational sequence 1X–1Y–1Z–2♣–2, responder now gets to show directly which potential "asset" he is interested in hearing about from opener. This allows more auctions to end at the two-level.

Let's look at an example: opener holds ♠KJ93 T87 A3 ♣KQT4 and responder ♠84 KQ652 JT6 ♣A93. Opener starts with 1♣ (assuming a 14-16, 15-17, etc. notrump opener) and responder bids 1. Opener rebids 1♠ (admittedly, 1NT is also possible). Responder bids 2♣, opener 2 and responder 2. Knowing we have an eight-card heart fit and and fewer than 25 hcp, we can decide to pass and we are still at the two-level (yes, I'm sure there's a few of you out there who will re-invite with 3 or jump straight to 4).

As always, however, we must ask ourselves if the natural meanings for the artificial bids wouldn't be more valuable. Basically, we are giving up the possibility of giving preference to partner's clubs at our second turn. We can play three clubs by going through the relay and then bidding 3♣ to play. What about a weak responding hand like ♠8 KQ62 JT6 ♣98732? If, after 1♣–1, opener rebids 1♠ or 1NT we could, playing standard methods, bid 2♣ to play. When we can't do that it's occasionally a concern, but I can't actually remember the last time it caused me any kind of a problem. Again, if we have a good fit in clubs, we will never get to play it.

To summarize, I have found that playing Walsh and XYZ together is simple, effective and feels very natural. Like any convention, if you choose to adopt XYZ you must realize that you'll have a couple of disasters before it shows its worth.  But I really think it's well worth the trouble in the long run.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Dodging a bullet – or two

Imagine that you are playing the convention known as suction. I'm talking about the ACBL-legal version that operates over an artificial forcing club bid (1♣ or 2♣ depending on system). White on red at matchpoint scoring, you pick up ♠T96 87 ♣KJT9643 and, after partner passes as dealer, you hear RHO bid 2♣ (strong, artificial and forcing). You bid 3♠ which is essentially a club preempt or a two-suited hand with both red suits. The next player bids 4 and partner doubles. This is passed back to you. What's going on?

In fact, we have an explicit agreement about this type of situation (see DSIP rule summary), but for the sake of argument, let's actually think about the logic. LHO presumably has a good heart suit (this doesn't seem like a good time to be psyching!) and RHO has some kind of a monster hand. So, what kind of hand would partner have to have in order to make a penalty double here? Shortness in clubs, very good hearts and perhaps a couple of aces on the side. Pretty unlikely, right?

But in any case, we're forgetting something. Partner doesn't actually know whether we have the club hand or the red-two-suiter hand. Well, if he has the hand we think, with all of those hearts and aces, he can presumably infer that we don't have the red two-suiter. But that hand is so unlikely, it's just not in the realm of possibilities. There are only 40 points in the deck: opener has at least 20, we have four, LHO presumably has some, more if his hearts aren't very good. That doesn't leave a lot for partner's penalty double.

And, if partner does have this miracle hand and they end up playing in 4 instead of in a better fit, wouldn't we just be thrilled to get a positive score.

No, the only sensible thing that partner's double can possibly mean is this: "I have offensively oriented cards and am planning to compete – but I don't know for sure which suit to bid or how high until I get clarification of your hand."

Why wouldn't partner simply accept the "transfer" to 5♣ and let our hand decide? For the simple reason that, in competition, that would show – guess what? – clubs.

The more I experience what makes a good penalty double and what doesn't, the more I realize that, unless all hands are balanced, in which case a double will do well provided that our cards are sitting favorably and we have more of them, it's important to have no fit for partner. So, it's absolutely essential, in the case of a distributional hand, whether partner is single-suited (which suit?) or two-suited (need to know both suits).

Opportunities for this kind of double abound. Let's suppose that we are playing DONT against 1NT openers. LHO opens 1NT and partner doubles showing a single-suited hand. RHO bids 2 (transfer). Our hand is something like KTx Qx KJxx Qxxx. We definitely want to compete here but we don't know where yet. So, we double, showing "cards" and not especially diamonds. In the unlikely event that LHO passes and partner's suit is diamonds he will pass too (this actually happened once). Double to ask for partner's suit is so much more useful than doubling to show diamonds.

So, any time that partner has left us in the dark about a suit (or, in the case of suction, their whole hand) double is best used to inquire. It's worked well for me.

So, what about dodging those bullets? Well, par on this board was -500 (6♣X down 3). My hand, by the way, was ♠82 76 AJ432 ♣A852. As you can see, my hand was eminently suitable for a sacrifice just so long as I can be sure which minor to bid. So, after my RHO bid 4, I doubled. LHO passed and so did partner! That could only mean that he had the red two-suiter. Had my RHO chosen to pass at the point, we would have been -890 for an absolute bottom. But fortunately, she also thought my double was for business. So she bid 4♠. Naturally, I bid 5. See how much I trust partner? Although I suppose if I had trusted him 100%, I might have bid 6! If either of my opponents had pulled out the red card over 5, we would have been -800 for 1 matchpoint out of 17. Fortunately, LHO bid 5 and there we let it rest for a 43% board. Not as good as the 73% board we might have achieved for the par result, but at least not a zero.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Romanized Blackwood follow-ups

Well, I seem to have been laboring under a misunderstanding for the last ten years or so. The error in my ways was finally brought home to me at a club game with my partner Len a few weeks ago. It was actually the second time in maybe a year that this had happened (different partners) and I began to sense a pattern.

The issue arises because the Romans have an unusual counting system – and I don't mean all of those Xs, Ms, Ls, Is, etc. No, they count like this, using what is technically a modulo-three system with an inversion of the second and third digits. 0 (or 3 or 6, etc.), 2 (5, 8...), 1 (4, 7...). No wonder they have so many car accidents – they have no idea how fast they're going.

I'm kidding of course. This counting scheme, which so far as I know is only used in bridge and even then only when checking controls for a slam, is actually very well-suited to the problem at hand, especially when counting key cards [as in Roman key-card Blackwood], as opposed to just aces, of which there may be any number between zero and five. The two (and five) key card responses are imbued with an extra piece of information: possession of the trump queen (after the other responses, asker must inquire if he needs to know).

After a (Roman) 4NT Blackwood enquiry elicits one of the ambiguous responses: 5♣ or 5, there is a potential problem. Whose responsibility is it to continue bidding when responder actually has the higher number of "aces"? The books are generally quiet on this point, although some of them imply that it is asker's responsibility because they make comments like "Asker should know from the auction what the response shows." Only Fred Gitelman (as far as I have seen) casts any doubt on the efficacy of this idea by observing that there have been some spectacular grand slams doubled down 3 after this occurrence.

For my part, I learned somehow – I know not whence or from whom – that asker should assume the lower number and sign off. And therefore that responder would continue bidding with the higher number. This wouldn't work however when clubs or diamonds is the agreed suit and responder bids our suit at the five-level. Now, opener must step up and make the decision because a pass will end the auction unilaterally.

But when a major suit is agreed, the notion that responder will continue with the higher number is still plausible (though apparently not guaranteed). As an example, here is our auction from the most recent debacle: 1  1  2 4 5 5 – all pass. 2 showed 15-17 "dummy points" since we play 12-14 no-trump; 4♠ was kickback for hearts; 5♣ showed zero or three key cards. Is it conceivable that I would be asking for key cards with none of my own? What kind of key-card-less hand could I possibly have that wants to be in slam opposite a likely balanced hand 15-17? On the other hand, could partner possibly have a hand with no key cards? Not in this universe.

I was adamant that it was responder's responsibility to get us to slam with the higher number and that it was not required for asker to have to try to work out responder's possible hands. But unfortunately I have found no support for my position in the literature.

In this particular case, it was obvious to each of us that we had all or most of the key cards. My hand: ♠QT AQ84 KT6 ♣AK54 (two key cards + Q). Partner's hand: ♠AK53 KT75 AJ5 ♣J2 (three key cards). Assuming that partner did indeed have three, I would have played in 6NT rather than hearts. In fact, it makes 7NT with careful play. But it makes only 6 because the trumps split 5-0. In practice, I didn't play the hand well and only just made my contract for a poor match-point score (although not a zero). I would have likely have made 12 tricks in no-trump.

So, let's take an objective look at the situation. There's no possible hand for responder that has zero key cards given this auction. So let's look to see if there's any bad hand that asker might have had consistent with the bidding. For 5 to be the proper contract, asker would have to have no key cards at all and yet be invoking the key-card ask. Asker might have this hand: ♠QJT2 QJ84 KQ6 ♣KQ. Is it conceivable that this hand would be trying for slam opposite a hand with15-17 dummy points? It is not. But what if asker had a more distributional hand such as ♠Q2 QJ98432 – ♣KQ54. Note that splintering or asking with "exclusion key-card Blackwood" would not be appropriate here since opener began with 1. Could this hand be looking for slam by jumping straight to 4NT? Yes, it's just possible but extremely unlikely.

I think there's another, more useful, principle that can be applied here, and which I wrote about a while back in Aceless Wonders. This principle can be generalized to the following rule: do not indicate a strong hand without an ace. Or, to put it another way, all aceless hands are (relatively speaking) weak. So, strength-showing bids (incidentally, these are almost the same set of actions which Eddie Kantar considers to be triggers of the 1430 asks versus 3014 asks in his system of Roman Key-card Blackwood) all promise at least one ace:
  • opening with 2NT, (strong) 2♣ (or 1♣ if playing a big club system);
  • (opener) reverses;
  • strength-showing jump (in the case of responder, this would have to be a strong jump shift);
  • (opener) makes a game-forcing cuebid in competition;
  • asking for key-cards (if none of the previous triggers have already occurred).
Using this principle, I don't think it is possible to get into a bad slam (the type where you are missing three key cards). In other words, key-card asker can always bid on – assuming the higher number of key cards – unless key-card responder has never implied an ace by making a strength-showing bid. In such a case, it now becomes responder's responsibility to continue bidding when holding the higher number of key cards. There is however still an outside chance that each partner has just one key card and that the partnership bids up to the slam level – but this would require both partners to have overbid their hand in the same auction.

The more significant problem with this rule is that both partners have to be on the same page (this page, in fact). I suppose then that a practical solution is the following: each partner has the responsibility of bidding on unless it is probable that the partnership is missing three key cards.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

You just can't make this stuff up!

Some players don't like to preempt in one suit when they have a good holding in a major suit on the side. Others feel that preempting with a void on the side is somehow evil, especially when opening with a weak two. Is it OK to preempt with a side void? How about two voids? Two voids and a five-card major? Just ask rising star Zach Grossack. Here he is playing with Kim against the robots on BBO a couple of months ago. Did someone say "unfavorable vulnerability?"

Even Victor Mollo and his Hideous Hog never quite pulled off anything like this. Note that, despite the defense holding all four aces, all four kings and a jack, they can do no better than three tricks! And, no, this was not part of a "Goulash" tournament.  Kim and Zach won a whopping 15.5 imps on this hand.

If you follow the play, you will see that the West robot makes an error when he doesn't capture the diamond queen with his king.  This leads to an ignominious -990 and, adding insult to injury, the robots helplessly (or haplessly?) each contribute an ace to the last trick, won with Zach's last trump. You just can't make this stuff up!

When I first saw this hand, I thought that the hand actually belonged to North/South even though they held only 11 hcp! But then I realized that E/W can legitimately make four spades (with careful play). They can also make 3NT (or four clubs) but not if North has already bid four hearts!

Zach was the only human North to play this board.  Fifteen robot North's failed to appreciate the offensive potential of a three diamond opening.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Suit quality in slam bidding (part 2)

This is the second part of the topic: Suit quality in slam bidding (see part 1). We will go into a little more detail about the issues raised there. Our first example illustrates the danger of taking the strong route to a contract versus the weaker route. As always we must recognize that the more (forcing) bids you take to get to a bid that you could have reached via a shorter route, the stronger your hand. When two sequences are equal in their numbers of steps, the one which more precisely describes your hand is the weaker sequence because it limits the possible hands the bidder can hold.

You pick up this hand and hear partner open 1: ♠A75 KJ5 T9852 ♣A5. You already know what contract you are going to play in, unless partner has significant extras (and they will have to be quite significant). That pre-ordained contract is 4. What's the quickest (and most limiting) way to get there in 2/1? It's to start with a forcing 1NT (essentially just a relay bid to keep the auction alive) and then jump to 4 over partner's rebid. He will now know you have game-forcing values with three hearts and no slam aspirations of your own. Isn't that exactly what you have?

What will happen if you bid 2? Nothing bad will happen if partner rebids 3♣, 2, 2♠ or 2NT. Over all of those continuations, you will now jump to 4 (fast arrival). No damage done!

But what if partner actually likes diamonds. There are several ways the auction might continue and most of them are awkward. The simplest thing is partner bids 3 and you bid 4. You will probably get away with this because it's generally understood that a raise of your minor is overruled by a delayed major suit raise. It's a jump so it can't really be a control-showing bid. Additionally, we don't bid splinters in partner's suit so it can't be a splinter for diamonds.

What if partner gets excited and bids 4♣ or 3♠ (splinters in support of diamonds)? How will you recover from that? A bid of 4 now will be ambiguous at best. Is it a control-showing-bid in search of a diamond slam? Is it an attempt to sign off in 4 (in which case how is your hand different from the one above where you went through 1NT?).

Even worse is when 4 happens to be your key-card asking bid for a diamond slam. Now, it can get really ugly. Maybe the best thing here is to simply bid 5 (at teams) in the hopes of arriving quickly in the diamond game.

This sequence actually occurred at a regional earlier this year. Kim and I were playing a very pleasant match against the eventual winners of the KOs. At our table were Pamela and Matthew Granovetter. We knew we were somewhat behind (actually we were a lot behind but we didn't realize that at the time). I opened 1 with ♠QT8 AT972 AJ76 ♣8. After Kim bid 2 with the hand shown above, I took a very optimistic view of my hand. In retrospect, I was clearly trying for a "swing." So much so that I bid 4♣. Now, Kim continued with 4. Hmm! Was that "keycard" for diamonds (we play "kickback")? Or was it a sign-off in 4? Well, if it was the latter, at least we had a double fit. And, although we had never specifically discussed the principle described in this blog, Kim's hand should be better than a minimum game force and have a good suit. Maybe slam wouldn't be such a bad prospect. In these ambiguous circumstances, our rule is generally to keep bidding if we think the bid might be forcing. It's usually more fun to play a tough slam in a good fit rather than play game in a suit where there's no fit at all. The predictable result was down 2 in 6.

So, here is the relevant principle: avoid bidding a suit in a 2/1 auction that you would be unhappy to see as the trump suit, unless you have no choice. You have some safety if the suit you really like out-ranks the one you are bidding. But, as we've seen, even that has its possible snags. Another example situation might be when you hold the following hand: ♠AKQ92 – AQJ6 ♣8642. You open 1♠ and partner responds 2, game-forcing. You have sufficient strength to bid a minor at the three-level, but do you really want to suggest clubs as trumps? Here, you do have an alternative rebid: 3. You might miss a good 6♣ slam. But you might also stay out of a bad 6♣ slam when partner's support is only ♣KJ92 or something similar – a holding that partner will consider to be magnificent support.

I have also observed that many players will bid a bad four-card minor suit rather than a forcing 1NT. At least Kim's suit had five cards in it! While 1NT typically denies the ability to bid game in a different strain, it certainly does not deny a hand which can raise to game in opener's suit. But, since it is forcing, it could also be used for those rare hands that already know where they plan to play, five-of-a-minor for example.

I'm happy to be the "goat" in the story because I obviously overbid. But it got me thinking about this topic and I think I now understand the concept behind "Picture Bids". A picture bid is the 2/1 version of the principle of fast arrival. See for example a good discussion of this topic by Eric Rodwell. Although Eric doesn't put it this way, it seems logical to me – based on everything we've discussed here – that since responder could, with a minimum balanced hand, bid 1NT followed by a jump to game in partner's suit then a 2/1 followed by a game bid shows a different type of minimum. What type? Well, since responder doesn't have much enthusiasm for game, it suggests that he doesn't have much in the way of values, certainly not controls, in the other suits. He's basically saying that I don't think we have slam unless a) you have significant extras of your own or b) we have a good double fit and you, opener, have control of the other suits.

Here's an amusing – for my partner and me – result from a recent club appreciation game. My hand was  ♠AKT8762 A3 84 ♣KT and I opened 1♠ in second position at unfavorable vulnerability. Partner bid 2♦ with ♠QJ K75 Q9763 ♣AQ3 and I jump-rebid my spades. I don't recall for sure what happened next but I think partner raised to 4♠. We ended up in 6♠. I was not concerned about needing a control in diamonds because my partner had bid this suit as a 2/1 bid and then supported my spades. This time, however, we got lucky. The DA was singleton and the slam is cold.

Admittedly, this is a tricky hand. With 14 hcp, the hand does seem a bit too good to make a forcing 1NT followed by 3NT. But if I had to come down on one side or the other, I would take the low road, starting with 1NT, simply because of the quality of the diamond suit.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Suit quality in slam bidding (part 1)

This is the fourth contribution of what I now realize has become a series on slam bidding. I wrote the first one three years ago: Slam Tries. Since then, there have been two more: When to bid a slam and When to bid an NT slam. And while I note that Marty Bergen, Mike Lawrence, Eddie Kantar et al have written volumes on the subject, they have not covered the stuff that I am presenting in these short articles. This topic, however, has become so long that I am going to offer it in two parts.

One of the great things about playing "Two-over-one" is that responder to an opening bid in a major is able to distinguish between those hands he expects to play in game only and other hands where he would like to suggest a slam. Of course, opener might have slam ambitions even when responder wants to stop in game. And, before I get started, let me say up front that my ideas here are controversial but, I hope, compelling.

So, let's start by looking at the types of hand an un-passed responder might hold opposite an opening bid of 1♠ where he has fewer than four cards in spades:
  1. a weak hand that is not worth any response;
  2. an intermediate-strength hand that cannot force to game:
    1. a minimum responding hand:
      1. with three spades (this hand will immediately raise to 2♠);
      2. with two spades (or perhaps a really bad flat hand with three spades);
      3. with fewer spades (this hand will have to exercise some judgment at rebid time);
    2. an invitational hand;
  3. a hand which expects to play in game but has no slam ambitions opposite a non-jump rebid:
    1. responder knows where the hand will likely play (4♠ or 3NT typically);
    2. responder does not yet know where the hand will play;
  4. a hand that will at least make game:
    1. with support for partner – and may be worth a slam;
    2. without support for partner.
Clearly, hand type 1 will pass and all hands of type 2 (except for 2.1.1) will bid 1NT forcing. All of the other hands will start with a 2/1 bid, right? Wrong. I will allow that the standard 2/1 texts do not address this issue at all – all of them, as far as I can tell, limit the 1NT forcing response to 11 or at most 12 hcp – however, there would be little point in me regurgitating the standard dogma here.

Types 4 and type 3.2 will start with a 2/1 bid. But type 3.1 should start with 1NT forcing! That's why it's forcing! We won't miss game. It doesn't deny game-forcing values. It only denies a desire to play in a slam or to find the best game. Responder will clarify his hand at his next turn. I first wrote about this principle almost two years ago: The Forcing 1NT.

Let's say that opener bids 1♠ and responder bids 1NT. So far, we've ruled out hands of types 1, 4 and 3.2. Now, let's suppose opener rebids two of a new suit. Responder's rebids will now make it clear what type of hand he has:
  • 2♠ (type 2.1.2)
  • something else (type 2.1.3)
  • 3♠ or 2NT (type 2.2)
  • 4♠ or 3NT (type 3.1)
Now, let's look at the sequences that start with, let's say, 1♠ – 2♣. Suppose opener rebids 2, 2 or 2♠, 2NT or 3♣ (the most common rebids). Here are the possible rebids by responder:
  • 2♠ (if available), 3♠ or 4♠ (various types of 4.1 – different partnerships might place different interpretations on these three possible ways of supporting opener's suit);
  • anything else (types 3.2 or 4.2).
In the first of these, responder is making a slam try! Why make a 2/1 bid and then support partner if you didn't want to at least mildly suggest slam? You could have responded 1NT and then jumped to game (or even jumped straight to game as Precision players sometimes do) with no slam interest at all.

In the latter case (anything else), we cannot be sure where responder is heading. If responder rebids his own suit, he's interested in game or slam in his suit. We don't know which yet, but if we don't support his suit next, he's likely to give up on slam unless he has a very good hand. Incidentally, this raises the issue of whether the partnership plays strong jump shifts because if they do, then certain hand types are eliminated from a normal 2/1. However, since many 2/1 players don't see the need for SJSs, I am assuming for now that we are not playing them.

But for now, we should simply assume that the first order of business is to find a playable game, in keeping with the well-accepted principle "game before slam." Thus, we will group 3.2 and 4.2 type hands as one for now.

So, what's the point of all this? The difference between hand types 3.1 and 4.1 is ambition. Game versus slam. Now, would you seriously be suggesting slam in partner's suit if you couldn't control your own suit? Ay, there's the rub. By the process of deduction then, if responder makes a 2/1 bid and next supports partner, his suit will be a good one. Opener has a right to expect at least the A or K of the suit. This follows from the obvious inference that responder can hardly expect opener to control this suit.

And further, suppose you have a 4.2 type hand (no support for opener). You will be most pleased when opener supports your suit at his next turn suggesting honor-third or perhaps four small. When this happens you're likely to find yourself as declarer at the six level. How happy would you be if your suit was Qxxxx opposite Kxx? The answer is: not ecstatic – you will have to find one player with exactly Ax.

Let's look at an example of how not to bid – courtesy of my Robot partner in a recent BBO tournament:

Don't concern yourself too much with the play. I misclicked at trick 2 (I have a new trigger-happy mouse) but the damage was done during the auction – 6♠ is unmake-able!

The robot North has a minimum game-going hand with no apparent fit. I would argue that starting with 2 is overly optimistic with such a moderate diamond suit. After my "high reverse" of 3♣ made, admittedly on moderate "extras," my robot partner chose what is, I believe, an absolute no-no in 2/1 bidding: he showed three-card support for spades with his 3♠ call. Although I knew we were missing the ♠Q, I believed us to be in a 9 card fit with all five "key" cards, so I bid the slam.

It's better in this case to start with 1NT forcing and to see what happens next. If opener rebids clubs, then responder can confidently jump to 3NT. If opener rebids spades (promising six), then 4♠ looks right. Only red suit rebids would cause problems because we will not then be in a game-forcing situation. Do we jump to 4 (likely a Moyesian fit) or 5 (perhaps with only an eight-card fit) as appropriate? I think responder should simply bid game only unless opener makes a jump rebid, in which case responder will certainly be thinking about a slam. Poorly fitting hands are never easy to bid, regardless of system. But rest assured that the partnership will not be missing a game contract if there is one.

Not every hand is suitable for a 1NT pre-game force. You must be able to handle all of opener's rebids. Otherwise, you will have to start with a 2/1.

In the next part of this topic (coming soon), I will discuss "picture bids" and fast arrival with more example hands. As always comments are welcome.

Friday, November 2, 2012

A well played match?

Bridge is never dull, at least for a student of the game like myself.  I love the curious little things that happen at the table.  That’s what this blog is really supposed to be about.

In a recent regional, for example, we had the following auction:

1 1 1 1
2 2 3 3

I don’t remember what happened after that but I think it went 4, spoiling the pattern a bit.  But it was an elegant display at that moment.

But there was one eight-board match in last weekend’s sectional Swiss that I thought so strange that I’m going to share the story.  With two rounds to go of the seven-round event, we had 52 victory points (a pleasing number for card-players).  So, with a strong finish we might end up in the overalls.  At this point, one team (our first opponents) had 94, an (almost) unassailable haul.

We were playing a less-experienced team and I thought we had a good chance of a solid win.  On the first board, our opponents bid to an unremarkable game and made it exactly.  It did seem that they might have made one or two overtricks but I dismissed it as a flat board.  Well, we won 13 imps because our teammates bid and made a slam.  Who knew?

The second board looked like we might get a 6 imp gain as our opponents stretched a little to a non-vulnerable game that went down 2.  I was pretty sure declarer could do better but I wasn’t expecting the 11 imp gain that we got when our teammates also stretched but played it a little more carefully.

The next board was a very boring little vulnerable 2+1 for us that looked like at most a couple of imps might change hands.  But no, we increased our lead by six when our teammates somehow came back with 100.  

At this point, it seemed that we might be up a bit, but not nearly enough for a significant victory point score.  I was very happy when the next board came up.  Our opponents were vulnerable while we were not.  My RHO dealt and opened 1.  My hand was  A8652  AKT3  void  QT74.  I decided to make a takeout double. This was followed by two passes.  Oh dear, partner’s going to be a bit disappointed to find that I have no trumps at all.  But never mind.  RHO opponent then decided to make an S.O.S. redouble (his shape being 4432).  This was passed out.  Interesting!  Partner had six good diamonds and our defense was accurate with the result that we took 8 tricks for the unusual score of 1000.  I knew this was a big gain, but it was hard to predict what would happen at the other table.  Apparently, they played in a more normal contract and our teammates were -110 for a gain of 13 imps.

So, half-way through the match we were up by 43 imps!  Things started to unravel a bit then, however.  On the next board, I picked up (not-vulnerable versus vulnerable) the following unremarkable hand: ♠ AQT953 ♥ QJ7 K5 ♣ 84.  I opened 1 heard partner bid 2NT (Jacoby) and I of course bid 4S.  Partner bid 5, I responded 5 and partner then bid 5.  RHO chimed in then with a double.  Hmm, obviously, RHO has the K and he’s now getting a heart lead.  If there’s another loser somewhere we’re going down in 6.  Maybe notrump would play better from partner’s side (RHO won’t be able to lead a heart then, will he?).  OTOH, maybe we’re already at our limit.  Well, surely if partner thinks we might have slam, we can make 11 tricks in notrump! [says I hopefully].

This hand was a true comedy of errors.  My partner didn’t really have his 5 bid (KJxxx Kx xxx AKQ) and we were about to be down 1 in 5.  My RHO didn’t have the K.  He had the A!  Did he really need a heart lead?  And, what was partner’s 5 bid supposed to accomplish anyway, particularly as the lead would be coming through his K?  And, perhaps silliest of all, we couldn’t take more than six tricks in notrump, whoever was playing it!  Partner passed (thankfully, nobody doubled) and then they took six diamonds and the A for -250.  Playing in the wrong strain cost us two imps, but no victory points.  Our lead was down to 31.  

We then lost an imp on a 1NT part-score.  On the penultimate board I invoked a somewhat unusual tactic: the preemptive game try.  My hand:  T986  AKQ93 6  Q97 .  With nobody vulnerable, partner dealt and passed, as did RHO.  I opened 1 followed by a pass.  Partner raised me to 2 and RHO passed again.  With a maximum of 20 (or possibly 21) high-card points between us and a singleton diamond, there seemed no likelihood of winning this declaration at 2. Indeed, the opponents might even be able to make 4 if I give them the chance. I decided to bid 2, a help suit game try.  That will deter the opponents, I thought, and partner will probably revert to 3 - the same contract that we would probably play in if they balanced.  Well, partner actually bid 4 given his excellent support for spades (Jxx).  No, seriously, he bid 4 because he had a 10-count.  All I needed was for the K to be onside to gain 8 imps.  Unfortunately, it was offside and I lost 3 imps (our side was -50 at both tables -- I don’t know what their actual contract was).  But my expectation on the hand of 2.5 imps was the kind of odds I can live with.  Lead down to 27.

Then came one of those unfortunate occurrences that you just have to take philosophically.  We bid to a normal 4 contract after a strong notrump and Stayman auction.  I don’t remember the dummy precisely but I recall that the shape was 4423.  Our trumps were pretty good ones, we were only missing the K, T and three small.  Unfortunately, my LHO held all five trumps and, try as I might, I couldn’t engineer an endplay on her because most of the adverse high cards were held by RHO.  I ended up down one while my counterpart at the other table played for some unknown reason in 3NT making easily.

We ended up with 14 imps which was good enough for 16 VPs.  Unfortunately, we lost the final match by six and finished out of the money.  As we were waiting for the last round, I was showing all of the crazy swings to my wife Kim (whose team ended up second in the event).  The director David Metcalf overheard this exchange and quipped “a well-played match.”

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Extending lead-directing doubles to suit games

I have written many times about different usages of double, especially my favorite  because it is so versatile  the cooperative double.  And I spent some time discussing various types of penalty double, in two parts (there is a third part in draft it seems that never was published).  Penalty Doubles (part 1) covered, among other types, lead-directing doubles.  My overall conclusion is that you won't get rich playing penalty doubles simply to increase your score because you think they are going down, unless you are preserving equity.  So, as Theodore Lightner realized many years ago, there's more profit to be had from suggesting the killing lead than there is in increasing the penalty when they've overbid slightly.  Most people understand that a double of a slam asks for an unusual lead.  And good pairs have discussed what the double of a 3NT contract asks for.  But I haven't read much on how to extend these principles to suit games.

I've also argued previously that cooperative doubles can lead to the juiciest of penalties  because such doubles tend to be made when the high card assets of the defenders and the trump length assets are separated in the two hands over the hapless declarer, who may not even realize that he was overbidding, is outflanked.

So, is it ever right to double because you think they have made an error or are running into bad breaks? Yes  when one of the penalty double triggers has occurred and it's already been established that our side has the makings of pincer movement as described above.  How about this auction: you open 1, LHO overcalls 1 and your partner bids 1NT.  According to my previously published rules (DSIP Rule Summary), penalty doubles are now in effect.  Both sides seem to have plenty to say and, after a competitive auction, we end up bidding 4 with no great certainty of making.  After two passes, RHO bids 4 and we double.  Our hand might be ♠94 AKJT52 QJ8 ♣K6.  Partner's original 1NT call assures us that they don't have a nine-card fit  and we have at least 22 hcp.

But supposing the auction goes thus (we are vulnerable, they are not):  pass (1) 2 (3) pass (3) pass (4) X all pass.  Your hand, by the way, is ♠K3 9876 AKJ94 ♣T5.  Partner is sitting under the spade length, he has passed twice, we have shown a decent hand and suit but have not shown any extras.  Can it possibly be that partner expects to defeat this on power alone?  And he thinks he can get it two tricks?   No, that's not possible.  The double must be lead-directing.  But this is not a slam.  Even if he has a surprise or two (or a void) in clubs, this isn't one of those situations where we get a quick trick on a club lead and then cash an ace for down 1.  No, we have to generate four tricks for our side!

This situation is more akin to trying to defeat a notrump game. The effect of the 2 overcall has raised the level of the auction to a somewhat uncomfortable level and the 3 call, while obviously showing good cards, is looking for a diamond stopper which opener doesn't have.  These folks sound like they might even be on a seven card fit. Surely the only possible interpretation of the double is that partner has some useful trumps and that our advantage of having the lead, if used wisely, will defeat the game.  So, laying down a high diamond is obviously not the solution because if partner wanted us to do that, he would not double.  Could he have a void in hearts or clubs?  Somewhat unlikely given that he never raised diamonds.  And whatever cards he holds in dummy's suit(s), likely clubs, can surely wait their turn.

What would a double mean if declarer had ended in 3NT?  It would (by our agreements, at least) say, don't worry about the fact that you have a hole in your suit  I've got it filled.  In other words, double suggests possession of a high honor in opening leader's suit.  Without the double, leader might try to "find" partner's "ace" for a lead back through declarer.  The double says "I don't have the ace, but you can low because our suit is reasonably solid and we will set the contract."

So what about in this contract, could it be that partner wants a low diamond to the Q (or perhaps even a void)?  Yes, that's got to be it.  Now, declarer runs out of trumps trying to stop diamonds and ends up going down one.  A high diamond lead let's him cruise to ten tricks.

Yes, I was partner and made the double.  And, yes, I had Qx of diamonds and four spades to the J.  Opening leader was not on the same wavelength (and I'm sure my readers will have quite a bit of sympathy with him, as do I).  So we lost 5 imps (instead of gaining 10) but fortunately got two big swings on other boards, not only to win this match, but to pass our opponents in the rankings and take first place at a club swiss.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Maine bridge

Occasionally, Kim and I are able to attend one of the Maine sectionals. For those of you who never play bridge far from a metropolitan area, you should give this kind of thing a try. The players are invariably friendly and over the years we have come to know many of them. The food is good and people are just, well, nice. And there's always a big welcome from Horace and Sonya who put on the tournaments. This weekend's tournament was in Bangor, about an hour's drive from Kim's mother's house.

This occasion was saddened by last week's death at 88 of Kim's aunt Helen, formerly a regular bridge player who sometimes played in the sectionals but mostly played in the non-sanctioned club game in Fairfield. Helen was more of a poker player than bridge player, though. She loved to go to Las Vegas whenever she got the chance, which was quite often. Invariably at these Maine tournaments, several people would ask after Aunt Helen when she wasn't there. She was a lot of fun to be around and we'll miss her a lot.

On Saturday, the cards were very much with us. It helps to be in control of the auction on a lot of hands. And, in particular, there were many opportunities for slam bidding in our direction and, because we are fairly regular partners and play quite a lot of gadgets, we usually do well in such circumstances. Of the 53 boards we played, we bid six slams and one was bid against us. We also missed a lay-down 6♠ on 23 hcp, but so did everyone else. It's true that one of our slams (6) didn't fare so well (down 2 for -100) but, as it turned out, 5 was always making the other way so we ended up with almost a top board. I will return to this board later.

Kim was also a demon, nay ruthless, defender, with the result that in the afternoon we went plus on 19 of 27 boards ending up with a personal best score of 74%.

Here's a slam from the evening session where our agreements were severely put to the test and, fortunately, were up to snuff.

Kim opened 1 as dealer (board one – none vulnerable) and RHO bid 1♠. My hand: ♠94 J5 AJT52 ♣KJ85. Although I dislike making a cue bid with two losers in the enemy suit, I chose to bid 2♠. LHO now bid 3♠. Kim bid 4♣ which, since she was going past 3 (our guaranteed contract in this auction) showed extras and, since it also bypassed 3NT (which I might have been able to call from my side if she had doubled), suggested at least a healthy interest in a slam. With nothing obvious to cue-bid, I had to mark time with a 4 call. Admittedly, I was minimum for my bidding so far, but my hand had improved significantly with the double fit and I had little wastage (the J). 4 was forcing of course, because Kim would not suggest playing in slam and then pass in a part-score bid. I considered 5♣ but I try to make it a rule never to cue-bid a king if I'm not going to be the declarer – it's much too easy for LHO to double for a club lead, holding AQ or something else good in clubs.

Kim now made the key call of the auction: 4NT. I admit that it took me quite a little while to interpret this, although we've discussed it many times in the past. Since 4 would have been asking for key-cards (we play "Kickback"), 4NT now does duty as showing a heart control. Knowing Kim as well as I do, she couldn't possibly be still thinking about slam if she didn't have both clubs and spades controlled. But she still didn't have quite enough to be sure twelve tricks would be there (indeed, slam can't make in our other nine-card fit, clubs). So, with my surfeit of working cards, I was able to confidently bid 6. Twelve tricks were easy on any lead, but we were the only pair of 13 to bid the slam. Kim's hand: ♠7 A92 KQ43 ♣AQ732. Note that our opponents could have bid a quasi-profitable sacrifice in 6♠ for a loss of 500 instead of 920. But in that field, they'd have scored the same zero.

Here's an amusing auction from the evening session: 4♣1 p 4p 4♠3 p 4NT4 p 55 p 6NT all pass. (1) "Namyats" showing a good hand with eight or more hearts (could be seven if solid) with typically an ace or a couple of kings on the side; (2) I think we probably have a slam; (3) I have the ace of spades; (4) how many key cards (for hearts) do you have altogether? (5) three. 6NT made exactly (on any lead) for a top shared with one other pair. Why do I think it amusing? Despite us having 11 hearts between us, neither of us ever put a heart bid on the table.

I think our only mix-up of the day was the slam that went down but which turned out to be an excellent sacrifice (mentioned above). With nobody vulnerable, I dealt myself ♠AT7 KJ873 ♣QJ63, and opened 1. LHO overcalled 2. Partner bid 3 and RHO bid 4. Since 3 took us past 3, this was clearly game forcing. Whether or not it was forcing all the way to five of a minor is not entirely clear. First, let's think about the calls that partner did not make: double which, if followed by a new suit, would be game-forcing; 2♠ which would be non-forcing (as would 3♣); 3 (simply competitive); 3♠ or 4♣ which would be fit-showing jumps showing a good fit with a good suit; 4 which would be a splinter raise of diamonds.

As with most cue-bids, there are several possible meanings for 3:
  • Partner, please bid 3NT if you have the hearts well stopped;
  • I have a diamond fit and am willing to play 4 opposite a flat minimum;
  • I have a very strong hand and right now, I'm not quite sure where we should end up so please tell me more about your hand.
After the 4 bid on my right, I reasoned that we were now forced to play at least at the five-level. Therefore, I felt that an immediate bid of 5♣ would show the weakest possible hand, offering clubs as a second place to play and fulfilling the third interpretation of the 3 call. That is therefore what I bid. 

Kim assumed that this meant I had extras (I could have passed) and so bid 6. No double was forthcoming (we had confidently bid this with no suggestion of sacrificing). The K was led and dummy turned out to be ♠QJ3 A6542 ♣KT74. After winning the first trick, LHO switched to a spade. But diamonds were 3-0 offside and I still had to lose a club for -100. As mentioned above, the opponents could make 5 (six if a club isn't led) and our blunder actually earned us 7 matchpoints out of 8. 

So, what's the proper treatment? I'm not sure. But I'm coming around to Kim's way of thinking for the following reasons:
  • she might have wanted to play 4♠ all along but didn't want to jump straight to 4♠ because that would tend to shut out the possibility of a spade slam – still, I'm not sure about this because double followed by a spade bid would have had a similar meaning albeit perhaps with fewer spades;
  • she might have wanted to bid 4NT which, I think, would be a slam try with a heart stopper all along (5NT would be pick-a-slam).
I therefore invite your comments on this subject of bids by the partner of a cue-bidder. 

However, on a day when the bridge gods are with you and you can do no wrong, even a mixup like this one can turn out to be rosy!

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Sequences (part one)

If music be the food of love, then sequences are the life-blood of bridge. Every bridge writer remarks that defense is harder than offense, but in my opinion none have adequately described why. Yes, the declarer can see all of his "assets". But it's specifically the sequences that make the crucial difference. A defender can sometimes immediately see that one of his significant cards cannot be in sequence with his partner (the dummy holds the surrounding cards) but he can rarely be sure that partner has a fitting honor until later in the hand when there has been time for signalling. By then, it may well be too late.

Sequences are most important in the first couple of leads of a suit. After that, assuming leader is trying to develop long cards, the opponents are likely to start showing out of the suit or at least having to play their sequence-breakers and what cards are left are more likely, now, to be sequential.

The next best card combination after a sequence is a quasi-sequence, known as a tenace. That's to say we almost have a sequence but there is a card missing. A tenace is positional in normal play, in other words its effectiveness depends on the location of the missing card. However, even if the card is wrong, it may be possible to win both cards of the tenace on an endplay.

Sequences can be split between the two partnership hands and still be effective. In fact, such an arrangement can provide transportation between the hands. Tenaces can be split and retain some effectiveness but it is generally reduced. For example, AQJ opposite xx may provide three tricks if the king is right. But Axx opposite QJ will produce only two tricks even if the king is onside. Longer split tenaces fare better: A5432 opposite QJT9 will always produce five tricks if the king is onside, assuming one outside entry to the long card. Sometimes, a tenace can even kill a sequence sitting under it, for example AKT sitting over QJx.

Of course any sequence or tenace has to have a reasonable rank to be useful. Holding the 65432 in a suit (a straight flush) may look pretty but it has no value whatsoever as a sequence. When a suit has no significant sequences at any given point of the play, it may be said to be "frozen": whichever side leads the suit gives up a trick. We'll examine these more closely in part two.

On defense, the opening lead is particularly dangerous for the simple reason that you don't know which cards in your hand are part of a partnership sequence and you don't usually know where partner has a tenace sitting over the dummy. This is why having your own sequence(s) is so very important, lest you "blow up" a suit that was frozen. Leading from a safe sequence (AK, KQ, QJT, JT98) can never lose a trick in the suit directly but it can sometimes lose a tempo if there was something more urgent to do. How many times have we seen the Abbot lead from a sequence like KQJT only to have Brother Xavier remark after the hand "not the best of leads, Abbot."

For our first example we will go to another deal involving the Abbot and Brother Xavier (from Celestial Cardplay by David Bird, 2009). This time, the Abbot is, through the Good Lord's mysterious handiwork, partnering the disrespectful novice, Brother Cameron. In this hand we will see how the natural advantage of the defenders in having the opening lead is, as so often happens, nullified by the wrong choice of suit. And why does Bro. Xavier go wrong this time when he leads the obvious Q? Because the key sequence in his partnership's hands is hidden in his partner's hand.

Perhaps if Ethan had had a chance to double an artificial club bid, the story might have ended differently. But then the two club honors might have been split. There's something to be said for an attacking lead against a slam when you know dummy is coming down with a good suit but that was not clear on this auction. And to lead from an unsupported honor when you have such an "obvious" sequence in another suit, might require some good arguments in the post-mortem.

No, the reason that the slam came home, apart from a relatively lucky lie of the cards, was declarer's intrinsic advantage and the defender's corresponding disadvantage: the ability or inability to see your sequences. It's true that even a diamond lead sets the slam but for a different reason: the trump situation provides no entry to the diamonds after they have been set up (East has to be sufficiently alert to continue diamonds at trick 2).

To be continued.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Extending the Michaels cue-bid

Let's say the auction starts with 1 by LHO and your partner bids 3. What?? You would understand 2 as a Michaels cue-bid. Well, logically partner's bid is "Super-Michaels." But what exactly does it show? According to one online reference, this bid shows a strong two-suited hand. But is that really necessary? Many people play mini-maxi Michaels which says that if you make an unforced bid after the Michaels cuebid, you are showing a maxi. Maybe a two-suiter in the 15-18 point range. Presumably with more than that you might double first and then try to show both suits. So, to some extent the strong 5-5 hands are covered.

But what about 6-5 (or more) hands? I once had the good fortune to play with a young Australian at an NABC whose name unfortunately I have forgotten. He was one of the best players I've ever partnered. Most hands ended with a claim at about trick six regardless of whether we were on offense or defense. In a Swiss, we had played six of the seven boards and were working on the last when the director came over and said we were playing the wrong opponents. We had to play the entire round again. No problem. We finished in plenty of time!

But I digress. He taught me the importance of the sixth card in a 6-5 or better hand. Never use Michaels with 6-5(+), he said. Partner will never be able to judge what to do because of that sixth card. I've always taken that to heart. But how do you handle such hands? It isn't easy.

One possibility that leaps to mind is a jump cue-bid. Suppose you have the following hand: ♠AKT85 J QJT983 ♣J and your right-hand opponent opens 1 (all are vulnerable). You've got the magic 6-5 "come alive" hand. But what should you bid? At my table, Bob McCaw held this hand and overcalled 2. The auction continued 2 pass 4. Undaunted, Bob bid 4♠. This was the final contract (it makes 5). Our side could try a sacrifice in 5HX for -500 but their side could always bid on. For that, Bob earned 5.5 out of 7 matchpoints. While it's impossible to argue with success, Bob's bidding was certainly aggressive by any standard. Not everyone will have the stomach for that kind of sequence vulnerable.

So, how about defining the jump to 3 as this sort of hand? Especially where it may be necessary to "reverse" your suits to show their lengths properly as Bob did. As with Michaels, a notrump (3NT) call by partner would ask "which is your minor?" Or, if you feel that you just have to be able to bid 3NT naturally, you could probably make a pretty good stab in the dark to guess which is partner's unknown six-card suit. In this auction, the 3 call would force the bidding to either 3♠ or 4. That's one level lower than with what actually happened at our table. Presumably, if you had a really good hand, say ♠AKJT5 8 AQJT83 ♣9 (a four-loser hand), you would be justified in raising whichever suit partner chose.

What would you be giving up if you adopted this convention? Have you ever even discussed with your partner what this bid might mean? Admittedly, it wouldn't be coming up frequently but it would certainly get your attention if it did come up.