Saturday, June 29, 2013

Natural card players

This week Kim and I were the subjects of a very nice article by Mark "the Shark" Aquino in our unit's bulletin: The Quick Trick (look for Shark's Pointers on page 6). Mark didn't ask us before publication what happened during the auction, or which of us was which, or how the hand was played but those details didn't really affect the "pointers" in the article. In actual fact, we got to use one of our rarely used "toys": pass – 1 – 2♠* – 4* – 5NT* – 6. In Mel Marcus' minor-suit raises, 2♠ (by a passed hand) shows a "distributional limit raise" and we play that 4 (after diamond agreement) asks about keycards. The jump to 5NT has its normal meaning: an even number of keycards with a void.

As usual, I have to give most of the credit for our win to Kim, who made hardly any errors during the session. But this is all just preamble to an article that I have been planning for a while about "natural card players."

One of the disadvantages of coming to cards late in life (as I did) is that there's a lot of catching up to do with those players who are either simply natural card players, or played cards at an early age, or both. The rest of us have to work really hard by reading books, studying hand records, practicing on the computer, etc.

Ask any of the top players in your area what their favorite bridge books are and they'll probably look blank and say "I don't read bridge books."

My partner in both bridge and life, Kim, is one of these natural types. I find it a bit frustrating that she doesn't study books and so doesn't know all of the terminology of squeezes, endplays or any of the more esoteric plays. But it doesn't seem to matter – she just gets it right anyway. I, on the other hand, am intimately familiar with all such techniques, yet I often bungle it when a suitable opportunity does come up.

Take this example of an ordinary hand which we both played in a robot tournament. South is in 1♠ at matchpoints. Kim, who has barely heard of trump elopement or grand coups, landed nine tricks and almost a 90% board. I, on the other hand, having learned all these subjects from, inter alia, Geza Ottlik's Adventures in Card Play, missed the opportunity on this hand and ended up, like most declarers, with only eight tricks.

Our play to the first six tricks was identical – then watch what happens. You may think that the West robot errs by taking his A at trick 8. But in fact he is on the tines of Morton's fork. To allow the queen to win the trick would let yet another club be ruffed with a small trump (and the ace would essentially "go to bed" and remove partner's exit card at the same time).

It doesn't matter how West continues. When East next ruffs in, he can't play spades because the K8 are sitting over his 94. So he has to allow yet another ruff by a small trump. E/W score two aces and two trumps, but that's it.

I like to think that squeezes are my specialty. Certainly I love pulling them off and I've read every book there is on squeezes, I believe. But I'm lazy. I don't stop to think, relying typically on rectifying the count, playing off my winners and hoping that everything works out.

Take the example below which came from a small-field ACBL "speedball" tournament, scoring by IMPs. Don't pay too much attention to the auction. I think Kim mis-moused at her second turn. Fortunately, I made a forcing rebid. Run it up to where NS has two tricks, EW have seven. What will you pitch from dummy on the 9? I (watching this unfold as dummy) was thinking of the ♣J. This essentially plays for a double squeeze where, if North guards the clubs while South guards the hearts, then nobody can guard the spades. As you can see, this would have failed because North has stoppers in both clubs and hearts.

I hadn't particularly noticed that North must have the jack (because South led the ten at trick one). But Kim had. And, as she correctly diagnosed (recall that she has never read a book on squeezes), in that case the double squeeze won't work because North is discarding after dummy. So, the only chance for the squeeze (which gives up nothing if it isn't on) is for North also to have both club honors.

So, away went the small spade and now the ♠A was the squeeze card. North couldn't keep both the heart jack and both club honors, so the eleventh trick scored up. And I can assure you that there was no discernible delay in discarding from dummy as the diamonds were run off.

We won that tournament by 8 IMPs so the extra IMP won on this board was immaterial. But, to me, it was just one more example of a natural card player at work.

Monday, June 10, 2013

A tale of three slams – or: better lucky than good

Like most bridge players, I love slams. They take some skill in bidding but are generally easy to play. Since the opponents will be on lead a maximum of twice (if all goes well), their options for complicating your plan are limited. If you are going down, it usually happens fast.

A recent 12-board robot tournament gave me three possible slam auctions! On the first board, I decided that partner's 2♣ call, when he wasn't obliged to bid at all, was worth a slam try. But how to go about it? I settled on the obvious: 4NT.

On the lead of ♠Q, the dummy that came down was a slight disappointment in terms of high card points. But fit-wise it's a magnificent dummy. Life would have been a lot easier on a diamond lead as there would have been 11 top tricks and some, admittedly remote, squeeze possibilities. But even now there were good chances – if I could bring the hearts in. If lefty had Qxxx, I would have to get back to my hand twice after running the clubs so I kept the ♠A intact. Once RHO pitched two hearts on the clubs [discarding isn't the robots' strong suit], I was pretty sure I was making (even if he'd kept Qxx I'd have him, as it happens, in a red-suit squeeze after cashing the top spade). Perhaps cashing the ♠A earlier and tightening the position would have been better, I'm not sure.

Surprisingly perhaps, most of the other pairs were in slam and this was worth only 3 IMPs.

On board 3, I hadn't any thoughts of slam myself but apparently my 4 call showed a rather better hand than I had. Well, as they say in bridge, it's better to be lucky than good. The lead of the ♠A would have scuppered my contract right away. But, I had some possibilities in the heart suit which fortunately got me to twelve tricks.

This was worth 12.5 IMPs. There were plenty of other pairs in 6, but I was the only one to make it, despite all getting the ♣K lead.

The third slam was a relatively normal (and sane) contract and only produced a 6 IMP swing. Even so, there are two possible trump losers. I wonder what he would have done if I had been so incautious as to advance the J?

Despite some significant losses on four other boards, I managed to finish with almost 29 IMPs, largely due to these three slams. That was good enough for first place.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Discovering wisdom

An interesting situation came up on the penultimate board of the Friday evening pairs from the Memorial Day sectional. After 1NT on my left (15-17) and a 2♣ (Stayman) on my right, I chose to double holding ♠62 K3 QT5 ♣KJT963 at favorable vulnerability. LHO bid 2 and this was raised to game. Partner led ♣4 and dummy hit with ♣2. Clearly, the double had not worked out well. Really, I should have bid 3♣, perhaps getting us to 5♣X for -500 and a 45% board (the best we can do as many of our teammates did not bid game). At this point, we were destined for about a 25% board.

However, I started thinking (always dangerous). Although there didn't seem much point in "discovering" whether partner had the ♣Q, it seemed like there was no possible advantage in playing the king. So, I played the 9, losing to the Q with declarer. I played the rest of the hand on the assumption that declarer had the ace. Imagine my chagrin when I discovered when the hand was over that it was partner who held that card. Our result had now dropped to about 10%.

We asked a couple of experts afterwards what they would have led and both said "the ace, of course." Yet, partner – and let me admit right now that it was my "better half" – insisted that low was the correct card. I didn't worry too much about it (it certainly hadn't cost us a top place as our performance in general was fairly mediocre), confident that I was right for once.

But in the morning, I got to thinking about it again. Let's say my club holding was KJT96, as it could easily have been for the lead-directing double at favorable vulnerability. Now, dummy might have shown up with two small clubs. Now, the lead of the ace would have guaranteed that declarer's queen was worth a trick. Underleading the ace would nullify that queen [this was Kim's argument, in fact].

Although we don't normally go about underleading aces at suit contracts, there are times when it is right. Clearly, one time for that is when partner has promised the king with his lead-directing double – yes, the double might be based on AQ but then partner wouldn't be looking at the ace! If the queen turns out to be in declarer's hand, she will never score a trick provided that a low card is led from the ace. And provided that doubler knows which way is up.

Furthermore, the discovery play was completely pointless in this circumstance, this was not a suit at which we could earn any more tricks, or with which we might do any damage by tapping. And, as I then realized, playing the king might have caused declarer to count out the hand incorrectly, assuming that I also held the ace.

So, I decided to apologize to partner and congratulate her on her thoughtful play.

A day or two later, a discussion of this very point on the BridgeWinners site was posted (board 3 of the challenge match between the BW team and the challengers). In this case, East "knew" that his partner didn't have the ace of his suit (spades in this case) because, after dummy came down, there were too many points on view (declarer had also opened 1NT in this board). So, he did decide to made the discovery play. But, in the discussion, he actually mentioned the possibility that, in general, partner could have underled the ace.

There are a couple of conclusions to draw from this experience: bridge is a game from which you can keep on learning; and it pays to seriously consider partner's point of view and agree with it if and when you feel convinced. This last little bit of wisdom is especially true if the person in question happens to be your partner in life as well as bridge!