Sunday, June 29, 2014

Equal-level Conversion?

Are you one of those people who fills out the overcalls point range on the convention card with something like 8 to 16? My answer to that question is a very British "Rubbish!" How can anyone seriously suggest that overcalls are about high card points? Especially the people designing convention cards!

To me, the difference between overcalling and doubling then bidding a suit is all about the suit quality and the shape of the rest of the hand. There are some really excellent offensively oriented hands that might do it with only 15 to 16 high card points. And others with 18 or 19 that are really only good enough for a simple overcall. Here's a hand from the other day where we were the only pair to reach game: ♠AKQJ72 QT5 ♦A5 ♣64. All were vulnerable and my RHO, the dealer, opened 1. I regard this hand as somewhere in the vicinity of the tipping point between starting with 1♠ and double. But the quality of the spade suit tipped the balance in favor of double. The next player passed and, naturally, partner bid 2♣. After RHO passed, I bid 2♠. My partner, Alexander, who recognized this for what it was, had few qualms about bidding 3NT which he made with an overtrick. His hand was: ♠6 K9 ♦QJ63 ♣J98732.

The only complication that we have to worry about is due to the concept of "equal-level conversion." Like some other bridge conventions or rules, such as "negative free bids" or "restricted choice," equal level conversion is about as badly named as anything could be. I've previously mentioned this subject briefly in Gosh, what a hand! The problem is that not everyone knows how to distinguish an equal-level-conversion from a good, one-suited hand. How can we be certain what's going on?

For the last several years, I've been thinking along the lines suggested by Robson and Segal in their book on competitive bidding (see that other blog entry for a reference). They talk about bidding above two-of-opener's-suit. But last evening at the bridge club [this was actually six months ago as I am now writing], I realized that there is one and only one determining factor which separates an "equal-level" conversion from a GOSH (good one-suited hand). Did you skip over the third suit after partner's response?

You pick up, in fourth seat, red on white,♠4 AJ976 ♦AKT943 ♣A. LHO opens 1 partner passes and RHO raises to 2. How are you going to treat this monster? My friend Peter chose to bid 3, resulting eventually in the top spot of 5, but he was at another table. I'm really not sure what's best here, although I think I like 3, as it cannot possibly be passed by partner. At this vulnerability, double can't be too dangerous because partner will never pass the double for penalties. What about 2NT? Although it seems unlikely that this could be to play, it might be misinterpreted and then when partner chooses clubs and you rebid diamonds, partner might wonder if it was supposed to be natural all along.

So let's say for the sake of argument that you double and partner bids, as expected, 3. You are going to bid a red suit but which one you bid makes all the difference. When you double and partner selects one of the three unbid suits and you correct to the next cheapest (in this case 3), you are showing a two suited hand (note that the next cheapest might not be at the same level as the cheapest if for example hearts was their suit). This just shows a two-suited takeout and would be described, potentially erroneously, as an equal-level conversion.

But if instead you bid the fourth suit, bypassing the next-cheapest, then you are showing a GOSH (good one-suited hand).

Here's another hand from the same session to illustrate the principle of the (non) equal-level conversion. You hold ♠A432 98 ♦AJ4 ♣QJT2 and with favorable vulnerability you decide to double the 1 call on your right. Personally, I like to have a little more ammo for this kind of off-shape double but the vulnerability is in your favor. If partner makes the expected 1 call, you will bid 1 showing the black suits. Here, you have converted at equal level, but partner may have to raise the level if he likes clubs more than spades. In practice, your LHO is the one with the balance of power (not partner) and he (LHO) redoubles. Partner bids 2♣ denying four cards in either major and they end up in a heart game, making five.

Occasionally, there will still be some ambiguity. If, going back to the first hand, my spades and hearts were switched, and the auction proceeded as before 1 X p 2♣ p ? 2 could still be showing a major two-suiter. If partner chooses spades and you bid 3, partner should get the message. But what if he likes the majors equally and passes 2? You might miss a game when you have a really outstanding hand (better than this one). In such a case you might have to make a jump bid of 3 over 2♣, but I think that would be rare.

And don't forget that you do need some extras (say 13 hcp?) if you have an off-shape double that will require conversion as you will often end up a level higher than you'd really like. Even then, you're likely to suffer the occasional 800.

Clearly, you have to be confident that partner won't misinterpret your rebid after a takeout double. As long as you have that assurance you can be much more frisky in your off-shape takeout doubles.


  1. This is the best post I've seen on the subject. (Previous best going to I think you nailed it.
    Could you propose a better name?

    1. As for a better name, how about we simply call them single-suit T/O doubles, two-suit T/O doubles and three-suit T/O doubles? That's pretty easy to understand, I think.

  2. Thanks, Slar. I will have to think about a better name but it isn't coming just yet.

  3. (I hope this doesn't publish twice: the Preview function did something unexpected).

    My two cents worth on the two topics addressed.

    1. Double or overcall with a one-suiter. I suggest doubling when you can envisage advancer passing on a hand that makes game. Otherwise, I suggest overcalling. With the shown hand of AKQJxx, QTx, Ax, xx, I would choose to overcall. Unsure whether advancer would choose to then bid 1NT. If he does, we will get to 3NT; if he does not, we will not. Not a big deal one way or another. I would rather be in 3NT than not, but if the defense avoids leading red suits (especially if advancer did not hold the H9), 3NT is not such a great spot.

    2. Equal level conversion. I think that some expert pairs limit equal level conversion auctions to doubles of one spades (where takeout doubler bids diamonds over clubs); and that some pairs limit them further to auctions at certain high levels. If I were playing ELC and doubled the 2S raise, a typical hand where I would bid 3D over advancer's 3C is x, AJ9x, AKT9xx, xx.

    As far as what to bid over a 1D opening with Axxx, 98, AJx, QJTx, only Pass appeals. Move the high cards around a bit to AQJT, 98, AJx, xxxx, and I could be convinced, especially at fav vul, to choose a four card overcall of 1S.

    1. (1) I think that's basically the plan, right? For the given hand, I'm pretty sure most partners would pass a spade overcall -- I know my wife did and I trust her judgment. Of 12 pairs playing, fully six played in contracts of 1S. So, since game was in fact on, by your own definition, the hand should double first.
      (2) ELC is definitely a little dangerous. It does become more necessary as the level increases, assuming you don't want to pass a lot of preempts with a good two-suited hand.