Thursday, October 24, 2013

Coping with preempts

Preempts are my favorite bids in bridge, but unfortunately other people know about them too! Long ago, I developed a rule to live by: after the opponents have preempted and you find yourself in what looks like a good, playable spot, don't try to improve on your contract unless you're sure you can do it in safety. This is especially true, apart from the fact that we are more likely to run out of room, because we suspect that the distribution will not be kind to us.

Recently, I've added a corollary: bid what'ya got. Do you have an obvious bid that will describe your hand? Or do you prefer to monkey about forcing the bidding but not really telling partner what you have?

A good hand for this latter rule came up recently on the last hand of a robot tournament on BBO.

I was in second place hoping for something I might be able to swing a few imps on. Well, there were plenty of imps flying about but the only other player to go positive on this hand was the one who was already an imp ahead.

So, how best to describe this hand? Playing the Leaping Michaels convention, I would probably bid 4♣ here. A slight misdescription perhaps but at least the hand would actually be a bit better than described. The robots don't play Leaping Michaels so bidding has to be natural. There seem to be several choices: 2♠, 3♠, 4♠, 3 and double. Can you think of anything else?

One of the nice things about playing with the robots is that you don't have to guess the meaning of your (or their) bid. Hovering over the bid will let you know what it means. This looked like a 3♠ call to me so I hovered: twice-rebiddable spades, 19+ total points. Although I didn't try it, hovering over 4♠ would have given the following description: 7+ spades, less than 14 hcp and at least 3 total points. In case you're wondering, 2♠ would be: overcall, 5+ spades, 12-18 total points. Clearly, this hand was much too good for two (or four) spades and the description for 3♠ was spot on. As Sherlock Holmes might have said had he been a bridge player: "it is an old maxim of mine that when one of your options describes the hand you have perfectly, why would you look for anything else?"

OK, I hear you say, but we risk losing the club suit that way. If we had spades and diamonds, I might have been tempted to double and then correct clubs to diamonds. But with the actual hand, I think there's far too much likelihood of an accident, or simply getting too high.

I wasn't best pleased when partner bid 3NT. Should I try to rescue him? How about the first part of the preempt rule? We are probably in a reasonable spot and any attempt to get to a better one might result in disaster. So I passed. This was the layout:

As you can see, 3NT is no slam dunk (4 would be tricky too but is in fact cold). The East robot started with the reasonable lead of K and after that his chances of a set were somewhat reduced. I knew from the bidding that West had the A so was able to play low on the diamond switch. West won and quite reasonably (but fatally for them) switched back to hearts. I had my nine tricks: seven black, two red.

My rival in the tournament chose to bid 4 which, while it was a totally incorrect description of the hand, did have the advantage of silencing his partner.  The others variously tried 2, double and 3. All met with disaster in one way or another. The robots were kind to those who ended in a minor suit game or slam. They didn't double.

Admittedly, it's only one hand, but I've generally found that making the most descriptive bids possible and quitting while you're ahead (i.e. stay with happiness) are good ideas when faced with a preempt.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

When is a sequence not a sequence?

I'll admit it up front. I'm looking for sympathy.

First, your hand and the auction: ♠Q643 K862 K4 ♣832 with all vulnerable. RHO is the dealer and he passes as do you. LHO opens 1NT (15-17) which is passed out. Partner leads the ♠T ("standard leads") and this is the dummy that we see: ♠72 QT3 6532 ♣AT76. Partner appears to have around 10 points yet is apparently making a passive lead. That's a little odd but presumably there's a good reason. So, which spades in partner's hand can we definitely rule out? The knave for sure. That's for damn sure, as Jack Reacher would say. And of course the queen (we have it). It looks like declarer must have something like AKJ(x). Is there any possibility that partner has the king?

Let's take a short diversion now and consider the "standard" leads in bridge versus notrump contracts. Clearly, the highest of any sequence of honors (the ten or above) is a candidate. AKQ(x), KQJ(x), QJT(x) are all obvious and automatic leads (unless we have a very strange hand). But what if we have only two honors in sequence? We normally like to have a third honor (or high card) which is only one card separated, as a "kicker". Such sequences are called, rather euphemistically it seems, interior sequences. So, for example, AQJ(x), KJT(x), QT9(x) are "standard" leads, as are AKJ(x), KQT(x), and QJ9(x) – note that (so I believe) in these latter cases the "standard" card to lead is the lower of the touching honors [does anybody really do that?]. Of course many pairs don't play these time-honored standard leads – there's Journalist (or Vinje), Rusinow, jack-denies/ten-implies, and agreements asking for attitude or count.

So, how safe are these honor leads, anyway? And why does having a kicker increase the safety or effectiveness? Well, of course if the missing card is in partner's hand, there's no problem (unless it ends up blocking the suit). If it's sitting under you in declarer's hand, there's a decent chance that partner will get in and finesse against the missing honor. If it's sitting over your with sufficient guards, then too bad, unless partner can squish it with his hoped-for honor. Then again, there's always some chance that the missing honor will be unguarded in one of the opponents' hands. The longer your suit, then obviously the more likely this will happen. It would be tragic to lead low from you long suit headed by KQT only to see dummy win with the singleton jack!

How about the situation when there are two missing honors? Suppose that you have AJT83 opposite 52? You stand an excellent chance of running this suit for four tricks if lead the jack and your partner can get in later. Several bad things can happen – declarer holding up, the KQ being split (or both in dummy) – but in general, you have done your best and you've made it easy for partner. So this seems like a worth exception to the idea of an interior sequence having a gap of just one card.

But what about KT98(x)? Is this a sequence for the purposes of opening leads? According to Eddie Kantar (500 Defensive Tips) it is. Yet is there any good reason for making this lead? I've done a thorough study and I have not been able to find one layout where there is any advantage in leading the ten rather than the deuce. And if the deuce is fine, so is the eight. Is there any time when we don't want partner to play his ace unnecessarily? What if dummy has QJx, partner Axx and declarer xx? But we can never win five tricks with this layout and partner will do best to hop up with his ace and lead back low, keeping communications open as appropriate.

So, I'm not a believer in this kind of honor sequence lead and therefore I tend to discount it as a possibility. Is there any reason to put up the queen? Could it do any harm? Yes, it could do harm if partner's spades are T98 and declarer has AKJ7. We will have just given him the seven as his fourth spade trick.

That was my thinking in any case. Yet, twice now (including quite recently) I've been broadsided by (different) partners leading T from KT98(x). Declarer made two tricks out of AJ tight! Aargh!

So here's a request to all my partners: please don't treat KT9(8) as an interior sequence. I don't think there's a good enough reason for it. And, even when you think there is, remember that your partner is just too dimwitted to figure it out at the table.