Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Goodbye Philly

Kim and I found some friends to team up with for the A/X Swiss on Sunday, my last day at the NABC in Philadelphia which was excellent (with the exception of the layout on the fourth floor which caused huge traffic jams at busy times).  Yes, we could have entered the B/C/D Swiss but it is so much more satisfying playing good teams.  On the other hand, that particular event is a proving ground for teams entering the Spingold the following day and the competition is brutal.  A total of 119 teams signed up and the room was a Who's Who? of experts from around the world.  We had no serious expectations of getting into the overalls (though we've done it before).  But we did expect that we would have an enjoyable time playing good bridge and we were not disappointed.

Here's an example from our second match where we met ACBL Roaming Reporter, blogger and Minneapolis GLM Peg Kaplan (sitting East).  If you click the GIB button you will see that, on this occasion, the singleton lead was the only card in West's hand to give me any hope at all.  The contract and play to the first two tricks was identical at both tables (West pitching an encouraging club at trick 2).  At my table, Peg gave the matter considerable thought before leading to the next trick.  I was tempted to claim during this time, but then I realized that a claim would be just a little premature.  After she held the third trick, I prayed that she would follow West's advice and lead a club (I would be able to claim then).  But Peg knew that if I had six trumps and a stiff club, as seemed most probable, the only way to hurt me was to establish a second heart trick for the defense.  So, she unerringly continued a heart and I was dead in the water.  My teammate did follow West's advice and immediately shifted to a club and their defense was over.  So Peg earned her team an 11 imp swing in a match they were otherwise going to lose by 2.

After the event started, amid a fair degree of chaos in our area, it was announced that there would be only seven rounds, making it one of the more expensive non-NABC events at a cost of 65 cents per board per person.   Going into the last round, we had 62 VPs and three wins leaving us fairly well placed to scratch in X (we would have needed an 8-imp win).  Alas, the team we met was a team of experts having (until then) a bad day and we ended up with only another 2 VPs.  We enjoyed it though, especially round 5 where we got a little lucky and beat a team of top players from back home.  This was largely due to a grand slam which I bid badly (but luckily) for a 13-imp gain.

This was the hand, one of the best I've ever picked up: ♠AKQT987 AQ74 A3 ♣–.  Here's an auction which conforms to our system and would have legitimately got us to the right spot: 2♣ – 2(1) – 2♠ – 2NT – 5♣(2) – 5(3) – 5NT(4) – 6(5) – 6(6) – 7♠ (7).  1: game-forcing; 2: exclusion key-card Blackwood for spades with club void; 3: sorry, nothing; 4: got any kings? 5: yup, the K; 6: what about the heart king? 7: got that one too!  Even with the two red kings, this was not cold – dummy needed a second trump to ruff the heart loser – but she had that too!  I could also have managed without the heart ruff provided that diamonds split 3-3.  I regret to say that my auction was a lot less scientific than what I show here and not worthy of a
13-imp swing.  But you know what they say: sometimes it's better to be lucky than good.

News today of the last board of the GNT Championship Flight makes me realize that even the top players can make the wrong decision on occasion.  It puts my blunder from the GNTs into a slightly more favorable light.  I don't think I've ever faced Joel Wooldridge at the table, but I've several times played his teammates (and lost).  So I was surprised, and a bit shocked, by his double of the 4♠ cuebid with only the QT4!  It was that call (in my humble opinion) that lost his team the championship.

Monday, July 16, 2012

GNT Part 4

Forgive me if I wasn't as enthusiastic about posting the team's demise in the round of 8 of the GNT. It was quite a heartbreaker for us as we held positive margins, albeit somewhat small, after each of the first three quarters. Only at the end did we dip below the water mark.

When the score is 104-92 it's obvious that plenty mistakes were made on both sides, although perhaps not as many as in one of the other flight B matchups which ended 158-142. So, searching for IMPs that we should not have lost is relatively easy. We can quickly point to 10 from the first quarter where we let a bad non-vulnerable 3NT make due to a defensive misunderstanding. But the most tragic hand came in the third quarter, where we lost 12 imps due to my action on the following hand: ♠9 K874 AJ ♣AKQ932. All were vulnerable and the bidding started with 1♠ on my right. I doubled and LHO bid 4 showing a splinter ("most probably a void"). Pass from partner and then 4♠ on my right. What's your choice? Systemically, double now would be "two-way" and would encourage partner to bid on with a distributional hand with short spades. If it matters, I should point out that the opponents play a system of lightish openings where they open every 10 count in first or second seat (with either 1NT for a balanced hand else 1 of a suit).

While you're deciding the fate of the team, allow me to show you an amusing hand from today's KO match that gave us a temporary reprieve in an otherwise losing effort. We actually bid and made what might be the tournament's worst slam. The hands were (Kim) ♠A AQ84 T9843 ♣K75 and (Phasmid) ♠QJ9 762 AKJ86 ♣32 (did I really only have 11 points? I thought I had 13 at the time!).  Kim opened 1 and I responded 2 (game-forcing raise of diamonds with no four card major).  Kim didn't hesitate: she bid 4 (keycard ask), I showed two without the Q (5♣) and she bid 6.  Assuming for the moment that the Q is not a problem (it wasn't), declarer's hand has three potential losers in hearts and two in spades.  That's four too many!  Well, the opening lead was from Txxxx of spades and the 9 forced the K (yes he might have guessed to play low but didn't).  This provided a parking place for the two small hearts.  So now we're down to two losers.  Well, wouldn't you know the heart K and club A were both onside and the slam came home!!

So, going back to the fateful hand?  What's your choice?

If you choose pass, we would go into a playoff – who knows what would have happened.

If you double and partner leaves it in with ♠K6 JT963 T87 ♣654 you will be going on to the semi-finals of the GNTs with a 3-imp margin.  If partner pulls to 5, you will be down 2 most probably, losing the match by 12.

I decided to bid 5♣ – which was doubled – and on the given defense I actually had a chance to make assuming that I don't play on auto-pilot and the defense does (they did).  However, my auto-pilot didn't do such a good job on this hand – the details are too painful and embarrassing to relate –and I also lost the same 12 imps.

Had I played like a sentient being, and provided that the defenders basically stuck to their same ineffective line of defense, I would have made the hand to put us in the semi-finals with a winning margin of 14 imps!
So, after 11 sessions of winning bridge, the twelfth was below par and our team came to an abrupt and disappointing end.  But we had a great run.  The competition was excellent and the teams we played were all friendly and worthy opponents.  I feel privileged to have had the chance to represent the district.  I want to heartily thank my teammates, Kim Gilman, Jay Tang, Michael Lieberman, Alya Asarina and Leo Zelevinsky - they were all great competitors and, most of all, pleasant teammates.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

GNT part 3

We were fortunate to end up comfortably victorious and go into the round of 8 tomorrow. Now, it's going to be much harder - our next opponent apparently blew their today's opponent out of the water.

There were definitely some interesting hands from today's match.  Here's one which wasn't a big win at imps (only 3) but nevertheless it was a nice defense. Hands have been rotated for convenience.

Our best lead should always get the contract down 1 (although there are some leads which will allow the contract to make). In any case, this was the auction and play (click on "Next" to step through trick by trick). The opening lead was fourth best and we play standard carding.

GNT part 2

Our teammates played terrific bridge and carried us into 4th qualifying place for tomorrow's head-to-head match.  Twenty-four of the twenty-five districts fielded teams and sixteen qualified for the knockout stage.  We started strongly today in the Swiss and then hit a couple of bumps in the road before the dinner break.  However, we ended well with three wins in the second session to give us 97 VPs.  Meanwhile, our C team ended third while our A team finished in pole position :)

There were really no very interesting hands today (well, a couple were interesting in the wrong way) so I will use a post that I had prepared earlier.

I've recently been re-reading the very excellent Human Bridge Errors -- volume 1 of Infinity by Chthonic (pronounced like tonic except with a lisp), the (fictional) bridge-playing robot.  In reality it is by Danny Kleinman and Nick Straguzzi.  I've made mention of this book before in this blog (Chthonic).  I think this book is one of the best bridge teaching books there is.  It covers 57 varieties (yes, really!) of bridge errors and the advice is pithy, humorous and, above all, sage.

While all of the chapters are excellent, there are three in the section on competitive bidding that seem to me to stand out above the others, viz. #29, 30 and 31.

Fear of Bidding a Non-Blackwood Four Notrump (29) is something of a diatribe on how, for most humans, 4NT = Blackwood, period.  But at Chthonic points out, in a competitive auction, this is rarely the most useful treatment.  When our side has not found a fit, 4NT should be considered accordingly: if it is logical for this to be natural, then it is natural.  Else if it is needed to show two places to play, then it is a two-suited takeout (I'm summarizing).  If and only if neither of these make sense, then it is ace (or key-card) asking. 

Reopening on Inappropriate Hands Using Negative Double (30) is the antidote to that advice that we all received at some point: always reopen after you open 1-something and that is overcalled on your left followed by two passes.  The logic is that your partner may be trap-passing.  The trouble is that he simply might not have a very good hand and if we have a rock-bottom minimum, we may get into a little trouble.  So, Chthonic believes that we should have extras for this call, just as we would with any double that might be passed for penalties.

Ignoring Clues from the Opponents' Temp and Mannerisms (31) reminds us that the pair we have never seen playing at the club is probably not an expert pair.  If they stop below game, it doesn't mean that they don't have a game, especially if your RHO takes for ever to think about it.  In such circumstances, if we reopen, they may be delighted to take another bid and propel their side into a game they were otherwise going to miss.

I love the humorous way Chthonic pokes fun at us humans.  As an exponent of artificial intelligence techniques myself, I have lot of empathy with Chthonic.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Grand National Teams

Philadelphia!  Kim and I are here for the Summer NABC to take part in the Grand National Teams (flight B) which starts this afternoon.  We're on a six-person team, our teammates being Michael and Alya, Leo and Jay.  I have a fair bit of confidence in our team -- we fairly cruised through the district qualifiers and all three pairs are established partnerships.  However, we will be going up against the best teams from the other 24 districts and it isn't going to be easy!

I will try to post each day that we're still in the event, hopefully with some interesting hands from the competition.  Failing that, I have some partially completed articles which I can publish.

Let's start with a few thoughts about team tactics.  The standard mantra for team games is "bid your games!"  While this is undoubtedly good advice, it seems to me that it is equally important to fight for the part-score whenever there are shapely hands about and, conversely, allow them to declare when everyone appears to be balanced.  An incorrect game decision typically loses 6, 10 or 13 imps, according to vulnerability and how you went wrong.  However, a hand on which the opponents make a part-score at both tables will lose 7 or 8 imps.

Now, we come to the question of doubles.  One of the more trying moments in bridge is going back to your table and explaining how you let them make 530, 670 or whatever.  And, while it would appear that doubling their game contracts is relatively safe (unlike at matchpoints) there are several bad things that can happen.  The least bad thing is that they were making anyway and you lose 5 imps.  Or, worse, your double may tip declarer off to the best way to play the hand and now you are losing 11 or 14 imps!  Even worse, you might jostle them into a better (and possibly higher-scoring) contract that does make.  The sky's the limit on how many imps you swing here.

So, you should never double at teams?  Not at all.  But there are lots of ways that they can end up playing a doubled contract, especially when using cooperative doubles.  Some of the juiciest penalty doubles come this way providing that everyone is being disciplined.

Finally, how do we cope when we find ourselves in a hole?  There are two scenarios where this can occur.  In a short Swiss match, it sometimes happens that your opponents bid and make a lucky contract that you know your opponents won't bid.  Perhaps they had a misunderstanding about keycards but the trump king turned up onside and their slam rolled home.  Generally, however, you should always have confidence in your teammates bidding and making normal games and slams.  In a longer (knockout) match, you may not be sure you're down until the half-time comparison.  There is a tendency for players to overbid wildly in the second half under such circumstances.  This is entirely the wrong strategy and, like its American Football cousin, the "prevent" defense, usually ends up having the opposite effect.

The proper strategy is to be contrary.  The opportunities for this occur when you aren't 100% sure whether to bid game or slam.  If you think your counterpart will bid it, then don't.  If you think he'll stay out, then bid it.  If it's a 50% guess, then you will have trouble guessing what you're opponent will do but a team that is ahead will tend to do everything by the book (no risks).  So that should help guide you.

I do enjoy team games -- they are the closest thing we have to "real" bridge.  Wish us luck!