Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Little Gremlin

What constitutes an error at bridge?  Let's say that a 299er is playing 3NT (matchpoints) and takes 9 tricks.  Deep finesse says that 10 tricks are there and you can see that all it needs is a simple squeeze.  Is this an error?  Of course not.  There's no expectation that the player is capable of that particular play.  Now let's suppose that one of the suits is AK opposite Qxx in dummy.  The same player forgets to unblock the ace and king before dummy's last entry is used up.  That would be an error because you expect someone who's played duplicate bridge for a while to be able to handle it.  But if the same play was made by someone who just learned to play bridge this week, that wouldn't really be an error because you wouldn't expect them to have gained sufficient foresight to deal with the blockage.

Kim and I just returned from the Memphis NABC at which I must have made about six or seven errors. Did I play perfectly apart from those?  Of course not.  I made plenty of calls and plays that Meckstroth or Rodwell would consider errors but, for me, those were just poor decisions or lack of technique.  No doubt there were dozens of those.

Some of those errors were caused by the little gremlin, an odious little character that I thought I'd shaken off.  Here's an example of the sort of thing I mean.  The scene is the two-session A/X pairs, a Regional event, Kim and I having failed to qualify for the second day of the National Mixed Pairs (in part due to one of my worst gremlin-induced errors of recent times – and much too painful to even think about).

I was in 6NT with this layout:

In fact, this hand actually makes 7NT but I set my sights on just the twelve tricks.  The lead was the HT and I won in dummy obviously and decided to see how the diamonds were laying.  RHO pitched a club on the second round which meant that I would now have the opportunity perhaps of making the contract where some others might not [pride/conceit are one of the worst traits in bridge, for me at least].  I played two rounds of diamonds and ran the SQ to the king.  A diamond was returned and I cashed the other top diamond and came to my hand with a club (not taking the finesse).  I then settled down to enjoy the spades, knowing that if they didn't split favorably, I would hopefully have a red-suit squeeze against LHO. On the club and top spades, LHO pitched hearts and I therefore pitched dummy's now useless diamond.  I was about to claim when the little gremlin perched on my shoulder.  "That ♠8 is good, you know," he said.  "No, it isn't," I replied.  "Is too," he said.  "But dummy is good too," I reason.  "You don't know that for sure," he claims.  Unless this deck had fourteen hearts, dummy was good.  Nevertheless, having successfully squeezed my LHO, I now placed the ♠8 on the table for down 3!  Why do I listen,  I hear you ask.  I really don't know.  But he can be very persuasive.  That little stunt cost us 0.69 masterpoints, not much but more than zero.

Still, there we were playing bridge in sunny springtime Memphis with some of the world's top players. It's silly to get obsessed by errors.  We really enjoyed the week: the dogwoods came out on about the second day and we were close to Overton park where we could walk the dogs and visit the surprisingly good Brooks Museum.  We found Graceland to be a lot more interesting and enjoyable than we expected.  And then of course there was the new rival to Graceland: the ACBL headquarters and museum in Horn Lake, MS!  Perhaps the best moment was when we headed over to the final of the Mixed Pairs to see how Sheila and Pat were doing.  They were finishing up the last board across the room but the rumor mill had them in the lead.  All was quiet for a bit until the photographer came over – it was official: Sheila finally had her National title, after so many second and third place finishes, and thus was now a Grand Life Master.

The following day, I entered the Silodor Pairs, playing with Barry Margolin.  I've played against both halves of the Meckwell partnership before but it's unusual in my experience to find them playing together outside the really big events.  But we had the privilege of playing them after their team had been ousted early from the Vanderbilt.  One auction was eight rounds long and Barry's lead-directing double put Jeff into the tank for about three or four minutes!  Eric claimed the resulting slam (they adroitly right-sided the contract after the double) at trick 2 so we caught up the time.

Later in that session, Barry had to "play the spots off the cards" to land this rather optimistic contract:

  My somewhat aggressive 3♣ in the reopening seat was inspired solely by my good club holding.  If the auction had continued pass pass 3, then at least Barry would know what to lead. If instead he had something decent over there but not quite enough to take direct action then maybe we could make something our way (some pairs apparently made 3♣).  Expecting me to have a tad more, he did indeed have something to say: 3NT.  The lead was a diamond, and although I don't remember every detail of the play, Barry performed a nice strip-squeeze, including running the clubs and cashing the A at some point before exiting, thus depriving South of winners and/or exit cards and ultimately finishing with 5 clubs, 1 heart, 1 spade and two diamonds. The contract can be made on any lead as it happens.  Despite Barry's valiant effort which earned a 30 out of 31, we narrowly missed qualifying for the second day.

The little gremlin was mercifully absent after the first couple of days, but I still found myself asleep at the switch on a couple of occasions. Anyone know of a pest control place that can help me rid myself of this little guy permanently?

Friday, March 16, 2012

Having your cake and eating it

I've always thought what a strange expression this is (see the title) – and it's not really improved by putting "too" on the end.  Nevertheless, I thought it was vaguely appropriate for the following story which occurred at another club game.

Every system has its good points and its bad points.  The good point about playing some version of Kaplan-Sheinwold (2/1 with 12-14 notrump) is that you can happily open balanced 12-counts because your partner knows more or less what you have and, if the hand belongs to the the opponents, you have denied them the one-level.  Of course, if you are vulnerable, you might go for a number but that happens so rarely that it's really not a big concern.  You might point out of course that you are happy to open balanced 12-counts all the time playing a strong notrump – but in my opinion that's actually a lot more dangerous.

But I digress.  The one area of the K-S system that is a problem is dealing with the unbiddable 12-14 unbalanced hands?  These don't come up very often but when they do, you simply have to grin and bear it.  You know that all your counterparts at the other tables will be opening the hand, but what can you do?

Such a hand came up last night.  At unfavorable vulnerability I dealt myself ♠ A  KJ73  Q92 ♣ AT654.  All would have been well if my clubs were somewhat more robust or if my hearts and spades were swapped.  Or, I suppose I could pretend that I actually had two spades and open it 1NT or even open 1♣ and rebid 1NT.  Still, it was early in the evening and there was no compelling reason to break discipline.  After two passes, my partner opened 2♠ and RHO doubled.  Now, things were beginning to get interesting!  I redoubled, setting the scene for a nice penalty double and, if I wasn't already a passed hand, asking for a feature with a view to game at these colors.  In fact, one pair did bid and make 3NT which is a legitimate contract according to Deep Finesse.

LHO bid 3 which I was planning to double (for 300).  But instead, RHO bid 3.  I was more than happy to double that.  I started with the ♠A and continued with a trump, ending up with eight tricks for 800.  Dummy, of course, was a huge disappointment to declarer – after all, dummy was supposed to have quite a few more points on the auction.  Partner's hand was about what I'd expect for a vulnerable third-seat weak two in spades: ♠ KJ9763  52  65 ♣ KJ9.

So, my initial disappointment with having to pass a 14-hcp hand was more than made up for by the final result.  Indeed, I was able to have my cake and eat it!

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

High card points

Have you ever heard a bridge teacher start out this way: "An ace is worth four points, a king three, ... etc."?  It's as if those numbers are part of the laws of contract bridge.   BTW, I don't really know anyone who teaches bridge this way – hopefully there is no such person.

I'm surprised I haven't written more on this subject here before because it's one of my hobby horses.  There was a short reference to the inadequacies of the Milton Work scheme of point counting, later popularized by Charles Goren, in my article on Zar Points, but that's all.

But I was reminded of this yesterday by a very ordinary hand that came up at the bridge club: ♠ J64  AK72 A987 ♣ 85.  We are red against white and partner deals and opens 1♣ (playing standard 15-17 range for 1 notrump).  How do you evaluate your hand?  Will you force to game or invite?

Do I hear you saying "Well, I have twelve points so probably should be in game unless partner has a dead minimum?"  You don't have twelve points.  You have at least thirteen points.  Huh? 

Much has been written on the subject of hand evaluation.  And there are hand evaluators available on the web.  Try this one for example: Kaplan and Rubens hand evaluator.  That gives a value of 12.90.  Or you can try this calculator at the Bridgeclub Himbuv site which includes a Zar points calculator.  In Zar points, the hand evaluates to 27.  However, you can effectively halve this to give you the equivalent in "normal" terms to yield 13.5.  Yes, a whole point and a half above what you might have thought.

I'm not sure to what extent the K&R evaluator upgrades honors in the same suit, but it seems to me that the texture of this hand is about as good as you are likely to get in an otherwise balanced hand.  The lonely jack of spades certainly can't count more than half a point.  But the ace and king of hearts combine nicely.  In theory, Zar points does adjust for combinations of honors but the value given above is the raw value based on hcp, controls and distribution only.

If you don't want to perform difficult calculations at the table, however, then you might try to follow these simple rules:
  • first, calculate your points according to the 4-3-2-1 scheme;
  • add half a point for each additional ace beyond the first;
  • subtract half a point for each pair of "quacks" (not necessarily in the same suit);
  • subtract half a point for a 4-3-3-3 hand;
  • add half a point for a decent five-card suit, etc.
  • add half a point for good texture (honors in combination) and another if these combined honors are in long suits;
  • subtract half a point for each short-suit honor on its own (A, Kx, Qxx);
  • when resolving those half-points, round up if you have extra aces and are aiming for a suit contract or if you have extra quacks and are contemplating notrump – otherwise round down.
In reality, I rarely preform this evaluation consciously but I am always doing it subconsciously.  And don't worry about the specifics of half a point here or a full point.  These adjustments are quite "fuzzy".

Let's see how this would apply to the hand given above (♠ J64  AK72 A987 ♣ 85). It starts with 12.  Add half for the second ace.  Add another half for the AK combination.  Grand total 13. 

Of course, the whole evaluation game changes drastically as soon as partner bids and we have a notion of whether we do or do not have a fit.  In this case, when partner opens 1♣, our hand does not improve.  Yet it's too early to say that it goes down in value.  We bid 1 and partner rebids 1♠ (or perhaps 1NT).  I think 3NT is automatic now. 

So, what happened at the table?  My partner has great potential but is relatively new to duplicate bridge, although she's played quite a lot of rubber bridge and online bridge.  She saw her hand as a balanced 11-12 count and so responded 2NT.  I passed with ♠ KQ85 Q9 KQ6 ♣ JT43 (a 12 count according to my methods).  Par on the board is +140 for making 3S (not an easy contract to find or make) and the next best score is +120 from my side of the table.  3NT from my partner's side should be doubled and go for 500 on a club lead.  Needless to say (this wasn't the Blue Ribbon pairs), that never happened.

In practice, the defense at our table was less than optimal and my partner wrapped up 11 tricks for 210, thus exceeding par by 70 points – a triumph you might think.  In practice, five pairs (of eight total) bid and made 3NT for 600, one of these from partner's side of the table where surely the final contract should be doubled for a club lead.  Bottom line?  Our teammates were hopeless on this board, partner did great, and I got an opportunity to talk about hand evaluation. :)

Friday, March 9, 2012

What's done is done

It was a friendly rubber game to honor the newly enobled Thane of Cawdor, one Macbeth, at his castle.  King Duncan and his son Malcolm were playing against Macbeth and Lady Macbeth.  The night had not gone well for the hosts.  A steady progression of games had been made the other way and playing for 1 florin a 100, they were losing heavily.  What with the costs of the banquet and the new robes Macbeth had to purchase and gifts to bestow on his new administrators, they were facing financial ruin.  The scheming hostess suggested quadrupling the stakes for the last rubber and that was agreed by all.  A slam, preferably a grand slam, would wipe the slate clean and allow them to greet the new day joyously and at peace with all Scotland's people.

The rubber was finally going their way and with a game already, Lady Macbeth picked up these cards: ♠ AQ654  A2  KQJ ♣ T83 and heard her husband call 1♣.  She responded 1♠ and opener bid 4♠.  Here, she took over by bidding 4NT, the new Dunsinane convention which asked how many aces he had.  At this point, the young Malcom butted in with a bid of 5.  Macbeth was beginning to view his hand (♠ KJ32  KQJ4  A9 ♣ KQ7) rather less favorably now, especially holding the "curse of Scotland", the 9).  After all, his good (or even not-so-good) wife hadn't promised all that much with her 1♠ bid.  Perhaps it would be best to suppress an ace so that she doesn't get us too high.  The rules were easy to remember: double even, pass odd.  He therefore doubled to show zero aces.

From his wife's point of view, he must have both the missing aces – how else could he possibly jump to game opposite a simple change of suit at the one level?  She confidently bid the grand slam and King Duncan who, on account of his rank, was not required to be polite to his hosts, doubled.  Not to be outdone, Lady Macbeth redoubled and there it stood.  The play was straightforward: there was no place to park three losing clubs and down the slam went.  "How could you give me the wrong number of aces, Sire?" she asked without a hint of her usual deference.  "I thought perhaps I had overbid before with my jump to game," he responded lamely.  "Things without all remedy should be without regard: what's done is done," was all she would say.

After that, they lost the final rubber and were now in deepest despair.  Lady Macbeth was already planning dastardly deeds during the night as the only way to escape their impending financial ruin.  But as they took their leave of their guests, she could be heard emphasizing the point from that fateful auction to Macbeth: "To bed.  Come, come, come, come, give me your hand. What's done cannot be undone. – To bed, to bed, to bed!"

For some reason, Shakespeare neglected to mention the bridge game, but he did manage to use those excellent quotations in the famous "Scottish Play."

What's done is done is a rule I like to abide by and one that I try to impress on my partners.  I usually refer to it as the Principle of No Undos.  Once you've made a particular bid (unless it was a psyche), you must treat your hand as having the strength and shape as described by that bid for the rest of the auction.  Every further question your partner asks must be answered truthfully within the "box" that your bidding has described. 

Usually, it's when you've made something of an overbid where you are apt, like Macbeth, to get cold feet.  But it can happen equally well if you've underbid your hand.  You mustn't now try to "catch up" else you will likely confuse partner hopelessly.  All you can do is accept any invitations that come your way.