Friday, January 20, 2017

Half a loser is better than one

Continuing my series on beginner/intermediate mistakes, I'm often surprised at how people end up pitching, not losers, but half-losers or even, in some situations, actual winners. Here's a hand I watched recently on BBO played by someone who I know to be a good player.

Dealer: S
Vul: Both
♠ Q
♥ K9874
♦ 654
♣ AQ63
♠ 9432
♦ J8
♣ 9
♠ 75
♥ T
♦ KQT72
♣ T7542
♠ AKJT86
♥ 3
♦ A93
♣ KJ8

S   W   N   E
1 2  P  P
3  P  4 P
P   P
HTML Bridge Hand Layout Creator

North was hoping for a reopening double, but when 3 came around, was happy to raise to game. The opening lead was 9, won in hand. Trumps were drawn without having to cross to dummy.
At this point, declarer ran the clubs, pitching the losing heart, making 11 tricks after giving up the inevitable two diamonds.

What's wrong with that, you might ask? +650 was indeed the par result. But double-dummy defense starts with an unlikely diamond lead, knocking out the stopper there prematurely. On an the A lead, of course, every declarer will make 12 tricks. Why did this declarer make only 11 (like most declarers in this contract)? I don't know what goes on these thought processes. But here's the way it should go:

After the actual lead, there are three losers, one of which can be pitched on the long club. But these three losers were not created equal. The heart "loser" is, in fact, only half a loser--because the A hasn't been knocked out yet. And, given the actual auction, with West making a vulnerable 2 overcall, that heart loser is really about a 90% winner. So, unless the opening leader hits on the magic diamond lead, the 6 is practically cold.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Update on cooperative doubles

It's been some time since I last wrote anything on cooperative doubles. But I haven't been idle. I've been giving the subject quite a bit of thought.

In particular, I've been thinking about why we need cooperative doubles at all. And the reason is -- still -- that we want to compete without being unilateral about it. We want to suggest bidding on, perhaps in a new suit, or in a previously bid suit, but we're also open to penalizing the opponents.

So, the basic conditions haven't changed:
  • extra strength (either in our own hand or in the partnership as a whole);
  • relative shortness in the enemy suit (ideally a small doubleton);
  • no obvious bid presents itself (such as raising partner's suit, rebidding our own suit, a new suit, or bidding notrump).
But I'm going to add one more condition:
  • we are (still) competing for the contract.
So, what do I mean by this? Think about the following auction:

1 (p) 2 (p) p (3) X

What does double mean here? Can it be that responder wants to compete further and is asking opener whether he has a second suit or extra spade length for the purposes of bidding on? No. The spade partnership is done in this auction. Both players narrowly limited their hands: responder by raising to 2 and opener by passing the raise. Neither of them is interested in playing in a higher-level contract. Therefore, the double must be for penalties. This would be the same if there were two passes after the club bid and before the double.

How about this:
1 (p) 2 (2) X

There is a class of player that believes that, as long as the opponents are in a game force, they may make any bid they like without fear of punishment. But in this case, although we have committed to play at the game level, we are open to the possibility of a higher score on defense. So, this isn't a competitive auction -- or at least it won't be until we bid a game-level contract.

Double, therefore, means that the heart-opponent has made a blunder. Doubler's holding in hearts is sufficiently good (and correspondingly his holding in spades and diamonds are sufficiently poor) that he is offering an alternative to partner.

I call this type of double The Tentatively Penalty Double. It's intended as penalty but, with extreme distribution, partner can of course take it out. Simply noticing that we are red and they are white is not sufficient grounds to take it out. Both partners can see the vulnerability and both know that they expect to score at least 400/600 in their own contract, whatever that is. The double says "unless you have some distribution that I don't know about, please pass".

An example of extra distribution would be a third spade (responder was planning to bid spades at his next turn showing three-card support) or a six-card diamond suit. Even with those cards, however, responder might pass the double if his hand is, generally speaking, balanced.

So, let's add the following to our list of penalty triggers (notwithstanding that it may be acceptable sometimes to pull the double when we are committed to game or with unexpectedly wild distribution):
  • Our side settles in a part-score or commits to bid a higher-level contract (with or without actually bidding it).
I'll call this trigger the known-level rule: we know that we're either satisfied with a part-score or we're committed to game. A commitment to a higher level contract can arise in several ways:
  • We commit to a (possibly unspecified) game because we open with 2 perhaps, or responder makes a 2/1 bid, fourth-suit-forcing, etc.
  • We commit to at least three of our major by a cue-bid of the enemy suit, a fit-showing jump, Bergen raise, etc.
This somewhat new rule (trigger) fits perfectly with the previously defined triggers. Cue-bids, jumps, fourth-suit forcing are already penalty triggers. So too is the so-called "dead auction rule": in a competitive auction we have subsided over a bid of the enemy suit. But partner ups the stakes and one of the opponents takes one more draft from the well. Now, our double must be penalty (as explained long ago). But it is now just an example of the known-level rule.

So, really the only change that I am proposing is to switch to penalty doubles as soon as our partnership commits to game or as soon as the partnership as a whole rests in a part-score. I think this rule also better reflects normal expectations of players who haven't specifically discussed these doubles.

There's another aspect of competitive auctions which is, if anything, an anti-trigger (so far, I have not admitted to such phenomena).  Assuming that we are still in a competitive auction, when the opponents jump the bidding, or raise their partner's suit, it is even more important to double cooperatively (i.e. takeout-oriented). Take this example which came up just recently (none vulnerable):
JT872 AJ92 873

Pd  RHO  You  LHO
1   p   1  3
 X   p    ?     .

Are we in a competitive auction? Yes--partner is (almost) unlimited and so are we. Do we need help in finding our spot? You bet! Does it seem likely that LHO has lost their mind and jumped with a trashy suit? Not really.

Conclusion: there haven't been any penalty triggers and the opponents jumped (or showed a fit). When the opponents jump or show a fit, we need double as cooperative even more than usual because they've used up some of our bidding room.

If partner had four hearts and extra values, he'd be bidding 4 on his own. He must have only three hearts then (if he only had two hearts, he'd either be bidding a second suit or awaiting our reopening double which he'll pass for penalties). So, we can safely bid 4.

Turns out that doubler had a rather strong hand: 13 hcp with a very good seven-card spade suit. A strange call then (why does LHO want to preempt the auction when they have the spades and a good hand?). Par on the board is 4X down one which we should have reached (for 5 matchpoints out of 7). Unfortunately, the holder of this hand was not familiar with my system of cooperative doubles. We ended up letting them make their doubled contract for a bottom obviously.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Bad takeout doubles

Continuing my series on common beginner mistakes, I note, with relish, that there are many players who don't understand the inherent dangers of making weak takeout doubles. This is because they have never suffered from the imposition of the "blue card".

Here's a case in point from a recent STAC game. You are white vs. red, and you deal yourself this collection: Q975 AJ84 965 K4. You have the world's most ordinary hand: 10 hcp and 4432 distribution. You wisely pass and this is followed by two more passes. RHO opens with 1 (playing 2/1 with strong notrump). Are you tempted to double? Surely, you have the most perfect hand for it. Both majors, shortness in clubs... But you still only have 10 hcp and your partner wasn't even able to scrape up a third-seat opener to protect you.

You double. LHO redoubles and partner, who must be weak, declines to choose a suit. Opener passes and it's back to you. What do you do? Surely, you must bid 1 now. This will be doubled by your RHO and if you are lucky, you will take five tricks for -500 which will be great if they have a vulnerable game. Actually, I think 800 is the more likely penalty.

Still, you decide to pass and the contract is 1XX. Your defense isn't perfect, and the very skillful declarer manages to make a meaningless overtrick for 630, despite being in a 3-3 trump fit. It turns out that your partner, the one who declined to take out the redoubled contract, had QJTxx opposite your Kx.

Now, how do you like these substandard takeout doubles?