Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Have convention card, will travel

Kim and I love to travel. And one of the things that we like to do when traveling, inter alia, is to play bridge. Wherever we've visited and played, we've invariably received a very warm welcome – and we've met some very nice people. We've played in England, France, Iceland, the Bahamas, St. Thomas, and in clubs around the United States, including Connecticut, New Hampshire, Maine, New York, New Jersey, Florida, Nevada, Alaska, Ohio, California, and maybe a few other states.

We are fortunate to live in one of the hotbeds of Bridge excellence, with typically several Grand Life Masters at a club game and more at tournaments. So the rough-and-tumble of Boston area bridge generally serves us well enough to hold our own when we visit a less metropolitan setting. But one point of etiquette that we try to follow is that it's bad form to actually win when a guest at another club. It's OK to be second, though. I don't know how we manage it but, somehow, we usually end up in that position. Once at the Tenterden bridge club in England, we wanted to play on a night when they were having their Ladies' and Gentlemens' championships. The director welcomed us in, despite our misgivings that we were going to perturb their big event. It so happened that we made up a full table in the Ladies' event so I had the unique experience of playing bridge with three women on every round. It was run as a Howell movement with about 20 tables in order that there would be a single winning pair (and recognition for 2nd and 3rd). We managed to avoid raining on the parade by coming in fourth.

On this Memorial day weekend, as we did last year, we went with our dogs to a quiet spot we like up in the woods of Vermont. After we had made our plans, the date of the Vermont sectional was changed and so it appeared that we would be not be playing any bridge during our stay. But then we discovered that the Brattleboro Duplicate Bridge Club would be playing on Sunday afternoon. We were welcomed by owner Bob Claflin who told us the fascinating history of the club. It was founded by none other than Ely Culbertson, who retired to Brattleboro with his second wife, and died there in 1955 (who knew?). As a result of Culbertson's policy, still upheld by Claflin, visitors to the club play free the first time. Now, of course, we are looking forward to returning at some point and paying for our entry!

It turned out to be a small game (two-and-one-half tables) and scoring was by IMPs with one pair taking a six-board sit-out. They were also most accommodating in allowing us to take the last sit-out. We managed to bid a couple of hopeless slams and found the competition surprisingly tough so were certainly in no danger of running away with an easy win. Here's an example of a good defensive play that contributed to us losing an additional 2 imps:
The spots are approximate (and quite possibly more than just the spots). 1NT showed 15-17. I don't remember the play well enough to give a trick-by-trick account, suffice it to say that they led a diamond and later on, when West was in, he opened up the spade suit with the ♠K. When I finally got to dummy with a spade ruff in order to lead a trump the position of every outstanding honor was known except the ♠Q and the two heart honors. Assuming that West had the ♠Q to go with his K (although perhaps I should have asked myself why he didn't start out with the ♠K in that case) I placed the heart ace on my right. I ended up going down 2 (for 200) while our teammates for that round were down 1 in some spade contract presumably. [E/W can make 3♠ on this layout].

If you haven't played bridge at another club somewhere, then you're definitely missing a great experience! Our final position amongst the five pairs? We showed our usual courtesy as guests – second place.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Three strikes - you're out

In previous incarnations of my rules for competitive doubles, I've talked about imagining that each pair has one bidding box to share between them.  Obviously, you don't normally need two copies of each bid and the box comes with plenty green pass cards.  There's a yellowish double card, an amber double card and several red double cards.  Assuming no other penalty-triggering events have occurred, the double cards must be played in the order given.  The first is for takeout.  The second is two-way and/or cooperative.  The third is penalty.  [For more on the double rules, see DSIP rule summary and others.]

Obviously, this is just an illustrative scenario, not real life.  But the idea of the third double being for penalty is a valid one.  These days, I just call it the "three strikes" rule.  Here's an example of it in use from a recent pairs game.  With no-one vulnerable and in fourth seat, I picked up this hand: ♠ AJ7 AK3 53 ♣ AQ654.  RHO opened 1 and I had to choose an action.  For better or worse, I made a takeout double (unusually, this was one of two occasions on which I doubled with 3-3 in the majors).   LHO raised to 3 and it came back to me.  I doubled again, this time cooperatively.  Partner pulled to 3♠ and RHO bid 4.  I doubled again.  This time it was pure penalties.  Yes, partner could have pulled with a very weak distributional hand.  But he sat for it.

The result was down one – +100 for our side.  This turned out to be the absolute par on the board though happily worth 60% of the matchpoints.  As it happened, the final double made no difference to our matchpoint score.  There were 19 total tricks on the deal, 10 for us in clubs, 9 for them in either red suit.  We had a 10-card club fit and they had heart/diamond fits of 8 and 9 cards respectively.  Of sixteen tables, all but four played a contract in our direction, six in their 4-3 spade fit and six in the 5-5 club fit. 

It's quite satisfying when things work as they're supposed to. We were slightly lucky perhaps that 5♣ couldn't make against normal defense (they get two fast diamonds and eventually must come to a spade). Still, that's what you might reasonably expect with two balanced hands and 24 hcp.  The bottom line is that each side did what it had to in order to reach the par result. 

Thursday, May 10, 2012

An interested bystander

I was a relatively passive participant in the deal shown below, which occurred at a recent club Swiss.  My three teammates all performed extremely well to earn 11 imps (and 4 VPs). 

I made the obligatory lead of the A and was pleased to see dummy and partner's 2 (encouraging). I cashed the T and then the 8 and Vincent again played low.  Whoa!  What's going on?  I was pretty sure he'd played up the line (2, 4, 5) so it looked like he wanted a club.  But I thought I should double-check.  It seemed unlikely (!) that he would want a spade shift so now it was simply a question of guessing East's solid minor.  Hmm, let me see.  I made the brilliant deduction that it was diamonds and therefore led the ♣T.  This was covered and Vincent claimed the next five tricks for down four (+400).

There was a little more action at the other table (I may not have the details exactly right).

Our teammates didn't take long to take three tricks so we were +100 at that table for a nice 11 imp gain. Notice that, had our teammates not taken the push over 4, we would have lost 1 imp. And if Vincent hadn't defended very carefully to ensure all of our eight tricks, we would have lost another 2 imps. So, I give full credit to my three teammates – recognizing my own role as pretty much an interested bystander.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Single-suit cooperative doubles

It came as a bit of a surprise last week that two of my partners that I thought were pretty much au fait with so-called "Hillyard" doubles, apparently were not familiar with the concept of the single-suit cooperative double.  I hope to address this issue here.

Suppose you have the following hand and are fourth to speak: ♠ A8 Q62 J98 ♣ KJ854 (matchpoints, nobody is vulnerable).  LHO deals and opens 1, partner overcalls 1♠ and RHO bids 2.  After carefully checking the backs of the cards, you feel compelled to show partner that you have a decent hand.  But how do you go about it?  3♣ jumps to mind, but it's not a very good suit to be introducing for the first time at the three-level.  What if partner has six spades but only two clubs?  Then our best spot is surely 2♠.  How can we resolve this dilemma?

Double!  None of the triggers have yet occurred, so this is still a cooperative double (not penalties).  For more detail on the triggers, see my earlier blogs DSIP Rule Summary, etc.  As always, this call  says "I have values, I'm relatively short in the opponents' suit(s), but I'm short a card in our suits to have an easy bid."  With three spades it would be obvious to make some sort of spade raise.  With six (decent) clubs, it would be equally obvious to bid 3♣.  And I don't really have both the opponents' suits stopped so 2NT is unappealing.  Yet, pass is surely out of the question with such a good hand.  Clearly, we should be competing for the part-score.  We might even have game, although that does seem unlikely with both opponents showing good hands.

That leaves double – the perfect call for this situation.  Now, you're probably saying: But that's "Snapdragon."  Well, sure it is.  Plenty of people have recognized the need for cooperative doubles whether one, two, or more, suits are available to take the double out into.  This one just happens to have a rather good name.

Being a card short in partner's suit here means having two, given that he's made an overcall.  Snapdragon "rules" advise having an honor doubleton and this seems like sound advice.  Being a card short in my suit generally means having five (this is the expectation with snapdragon).  But it seems to me that if my suit would not raise the level of bidding, a good four might be enough. 

What if all the suits have been claimed and there are none left to take out into?  Well, that is one of the trigger rules that makes such a double a penalty double.

I should note that this type of double is incompatible with Rosenkranz doubles to show (or deny) an honor in partner's suit. While I admit that such a double has its uses (I've played them myself), I think that giving up the single-suit cooperative double is too high a price.

So, what happened at the table?  My partner passed with the given hand and RHO bid 2NT.  I was on lead and deduced that partner's values must largely be in hearts.  I led a heart and they took 9 tricks for pretty much a bottom.  Had the snapdragon-style double been used, I hope I would have led a club for +50.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Non-forcing competitive bids

Last time, I suggested that in a competitive auction, winning the declaration is the top priority, followed by trying for the right game.  However, I didn't really justify that position, tacitly assuming that it was self-evident.  Still, it wouldn't hurt to go over an example.

Nobody is vulnerable at teams.  Let's say that partner opens 1♣, RHO overcalls 1 and you bid 1♠ showing five spades holding ♠KQJT7 9 Q9754 ♣97.  LHO ups the ante to 2 and there are two passes to you.  I hope you're not thinking of passing!  Whether or not you play support doubles here (I don't), it seems that partner has fewer than three spades.  

Given that we have at least half the high cards in the deck, our side has a right to compete (conceivably we might have only 19 but the exact number of high-card points really doesn't matter providing it's in the vicinity of 20).  Let's just take as a working assumption that they can make 2 while we can make 2♠, 3♣ or 3.  That's 17 total tricks which is typical.  And, for a further assumption, let's assume that the other table has played it in 3♠ down 1.  Right now, we are pegged for a 2-imp loss.

The problem is how exactly should we compete? One possibility is double.  Nobody would play this for penalties, I trust!  The opponents have a fit and they are going to be playing it at the two-level.  I would certainly choose double with this hand: ♠KJT73 95 Q974 ♣K7.  Such a double suggests a doubleton in the enemy suit (not guaranteed obviously), four cards in the unbid suit and tolerance for partner's suit.  Let's say that we double and partner bids 3♣.  We will pass, obviously, whatever RHO does.  There's no way that we will be getting overboard on this hand.  In our example, we are now headed for a 4-imp gain.

Now, let's go back to the first hand.  Partner might have 2-3-3-5 shape, in which case, 3 is probably our best spot.  But partner will never bid 3 over our double – we already know that he's going to bid 3♣. How about bidding 3 instead of doubling?  There's no guarantee that this will work of course but we have a reasonable shot of landing on our feet.  With the 2-3-3-5 hand, partner will pass and we'll be in our best strain.  Or will he?  What if he thinks that 3 is forcing, as many players would?  He's going to ruin everything by bidding 3NT (or something even worse). If this gets doubled and things are not sitting well, we could easily end up losing 6 or 10 imps.

Do I hear a vote for Larry Cohen's Good/Bad 2NT?  It might be OK if you play it in the pass-out seat like this.  But why not simplify the whole thing by making 3 non-forcing?  Let's make all bidding after an opponent intervenes non-forcing-constructive (not just advances of overcalls).  Any time we wish to force partner to bid because we think we have game, we can cue-bid.  If the cue-bid is no longer available, then new suits would be forcing.  Alternatively, we might make 2NT the forcing bid (if available) which leaves a little more room for showing distribution.

Now we see why declaring should be our first priority.  If we land in a making spot (3♣ or 3 or even 2♠), we will be +4 on the board.  If we end up in a making game, such as 3NT, we will be +10.  So, we gain the first 6 by being able to bid without forcing and a further 6 if we can get to game.  But we will always get to our game if our hand is good enough and partner has a heart stopper or two because 3 is available.  In any case, the probability of us being able to make a game, given that both opponents are bidding constructively, is probably only about half the probability that pertains when we alone are in a constructive auction.  It's really more likely that we can only make a part-score. Note that I'm not talking about situations where the opponents are preemptively taking away our bidding room with their fit.  In those situations, it's actually more likely that we can make game or even slam.  In such cases however, the 3-level cue-bid will never be available and we will have to rely more on bridge judgment.

Here's a real-life example: you pick up this hand at pairs (at favorable vulnerability): ♠KQJT7 9 Q9754 ♣97.  Partner deals and opens 1♣ and after pass from righty, we bid 1♠.  Lefty now enters with 2 after which there are two passes.  We are playing support doubles so we know that partner has fewer than three spades.  But we know little about partner's strength.  This is admittedly one of the disadvantages of Eric Rodwell's convention.  Especially at this vulnerability, partner might be making what he hopes is a trap pass, with a fistful of hearts.

This is a similar situation to the one we started with.  Again, with a slightly better, more balanced hand, I would reopen with a double. ♠KJT73 95 Q974 ♣K7, for instance.  Partner is now charged with doing something intelligent.  And if he does decide to convert to penalties, his trumps will be well-placed and we will have the balance of power (if he opened light with xx AQx xx KJTxxx, he should probably take the double out to 3♣).

So, what to do?  I took a deep breath and bid 3, hoping that partner had better than a minimum club hand but also hoping that my bid wasn't forcing.  Did it work out as I hoped?  Not at all.  Partner ruined everything by bidding 3NT and went three down for -150.

Par on the board was +110 for 2♠.  Even -100 for 3♠X-1 would have been about average (and in fact several pairs our way made 3♠).  Not very surprisingly, passing would have achieved almost as bad a score as our actual result.  On a top of 15, -150 was worth 2.5, -100: 8, -50: 10, 100: 12, 110: 13, 140: 14.5.

My partner thought that with such good spades I should rebid 2♠ and presumably this was the action at several tables.  All those pairs achieved at least an average board, some a top.

Notwithstanding that 2♠ might have worked well on this particular board, there are many cases where the quality of the spades would not be so good and the hand is more of a genuine two-suiter.  For such hands I suggest that, when a cuebid is available below the level of 3NT, new suits in a competitive auction should not be forcing.  Partner is expected to pass with a minimum (or give preference) otherwise do something sensible.

This is actually very consistent with the idea of playing "negative free bids," possibly the worst-named convention in the books.  Whether acting directly over an overcall, where the one-level is still forcing and, by agreement, the top half of the three-level, or acting after the opponents have overcalled and raised, it seems prudent to agree that new suits are forcing if they jumped.

I await your comments with interest.