Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The hitchhiker's guide to Bridge: part 1

The instruction DON'T PANIC was written in large letters on the front page of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, according to Douglas Adams in the novel of that name (1979). It is also a good thing to remember at times when playing bridge.

There are probably several different aspects of the game where the exhortation is relevant. One is defending a contract with a good side suit. There is a tendency to panic unless we have a good count on declarer's hand. Another common situation is defending a doubled part score, especially when partner is the chief hawk and our hand is dove-like.

The situation that is the subject of this blog occurs during the auction. It's a common mistake of beginners in bridge to keep running from doubled contracts. Just the other day, I doubled a contract at the two-level (we were slated to earn 500) but the opponents panicked and ended up in the exact same suit, but one level higher. We enjoyed our 800.

Here's a situation where the BBO robots demonstrated that they too are subject to this type of panic attack. The hand occurred in a robot tournament, costing me a decent showing. To add insult to injury, the tournaments now require the human to play all the hands so I was the one playing the ridiculous contract. Assuming that 4 gets doubled it would have been worth approximately 12 IMPs to us (-100 against a vulnerable game). 4♠ doubled should also have been -100 although the two times it was played resulted in -500. That would have been worth 4.8 IMPs. The actual contract of 5X (-800 although I could have escaped for -500) was worth -4.1 IMPs.

It was all so unnecessary – and a direct result of panicking. 4 hadn't even been doubled yet. You would think that my robot partner would be happy to have three cards in each of my announced suits. But no, he bids his own suit. When that gets doubled (surprise), he pulls to the strain that he previously eschewed. That gets doubled and he pulls yet again.

Are there any lessons to be learned (by the robot) here? The first lesson is that when partner has promised a two-suiter and voluntarily bids one of the suits "to play", then that suit is at least as good as the other suit and will usually be better. How do we know it's "to play?" In this case, it's clear from the auction that the opponents hold most of the cards and that the robot is broke. A raise would be unthinkable and a preference is only desired with significantly better hearts than diamonds.

The second lesson is that three card support (here in each of partner's suits!) is very good to have. Don't try to bid your own suit, unless it's at least eight cards long!

The third lesson is that once the opponents start doubling, they are likely to double everything in sight. The fact that they doubled 5, doesn't in any way suggest that 5 would play better. And that's going to be doubled too.

Don't get me wrong. I enjoy playing these robot tournaments. The robots are patient, they are fast. They never criticize my inept play. Occasionally they go off the rails, as above, but mostly I love them for being competent, if not brilliant, and dependable partners.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

A tricky one

My regular readers know that I am keenly interested in the use of the red (double) card in competitive auctions. Some of you might say I'm obsessed.

Here's a hand that was reported to me from the regional A/X pairs in Cromwell, CT that engendered some discussion. The N/S players were experts. Vulnerability was favorable and your hand, the dealer, is ♠T6 KQ52 KQ853 ♣K3. You open 1 and LHO chimes in with 2♣. Partner makes a negative double and RHO raises the ante with 2♠. Now what? At the table, it was passed around to partner who doubled again.

Any good ideas? Is it obvious? I believe that if you were playing with me, and had agreed to use my rules for doubles (see many previous blogs including Introducing four-card suits in high-level auctions), then this shows hearts with at least tolerance for a 3 contract. That's to say this is not a penalty double but a cooperative (DSIP) double. But playing with a partner without the benefit of such explicit rules, there's room for doubt. I posted the hand on Bridge Winners so you might like to go there and see the comments.

At the table, South felt that partner must be showing both majors and was making a penalty double. The resulting –870 didn't garner many matchpoints.

Despite having 24 hcp, N/S cannot make a game yet E/W can make 4♠ blindfolded (shouldn't the score have been –1070, then?).

Is there a moral to this story? Perhaps more then one:
  • develop and learn an explicit set of penalty double triggers (you can borrow/adapt mine – DSIP rule summary – if you like);
  • make space-eating overcalls like 2♣ and advances like 2♠ whenever you get the chance;
  • if you're not 100% sure as North that a second double will be taken as cooperative, then bid 3 – there's a very good chance that South, with four hearts, will bid 3 now, restoring (if it matters) the benefit of being in a major;
  • play Larry Cohen's "Good/bad 2NT" – in this case, South might have managed to scrape up a 2NT ("bad") bid over 2♠ suggesting in this case minimum high-card points but competitive red-suit shape (admittedly, South's hand hasn't exactly improved after the first round of bidding so perhaps pass would still be appropriate here).

Friday, February 1, 2013

A surprising outcome

Here's a curious hand that came up today playing in a Speedball on BBO with Barmar.

Let's say you pick up ♠J643 985 AQ4 ♣QT7 at matchpoints and favorable vulnerability. There are two passes to you. At this point, what odds would you give that your side can make slam? You probably wouldn't be willing to bet a lot on it. Yet it turned out so (although we didn't actually bid the slam – and neither did anyone else).

Some explanation of my initial pass is in order. No, I didn't decide to downgrade my hand. I was aiming for the 1 button when I discovered that I had registered a pass. It's a problem with the mouse on the Macbook – it sometimes has a mind of its own.

Fortunately, East gave me a chance to get back in by opening 1♣ in fourth seat (a questionable decision in my view). The tricky thing for me now was how to "catch up" without committing some terrible sin. I decided to start out just as I should have in the first round – with 1. Over 3, I felt that the time had come to show my spades. Barry would probably think I was 6-5 but so be it. The vulnerability was in our favor. Naturally, he decided to take the push to 4♠ over 4. I'm certainly glad he did. For one thing, they are only down one in 4 and we probably wouldn't be doubling. For another thing, I wouldn't have a story.

I managed to avoid any great blunders during the play and surprised all, not least myself, by making two overtricks. I was then slightly disappointed that I hadn't been doubled as +790 would have been worth 99%. Another declarer was doubled but only made one overtrick. As it was, we managed a nice 88%.

What's interesting about this unusual circumstance (well, not so very unusual on BBO where there are no undos) is that had I opened as I should, we would have found our spade fit immediately via a negative double. But advancing an overcall is rather different than responding to an opening, especially when the opening is in a minor. Is there really any chance we'd have found slam? Not on the evidence of the other tables in play.

You can imagine the chagrin of my poor RHO. All she had to do was pass the hand out for a 93% board (in fact, there was one pass-out). That decision represents a negative swing of 81%!

This was a big tournament with 102 pairs playing this board. This hand helped us score a 71% game for 5th overall.