Sunday, May 17, 2020

Four red flags

In a recent ACBL robot tournament on BBO, I was faced with this decision on the last board:

To overcall or not to overcall? That is the question. I see four red flags here:
  • the vulnerability;
  • poor suit, poor shape;
  • partner is a passed hand;
  • three losers in opener's suit.
Let's discuss these in a bit more depth:

The first and most obvious is that we are red and they are white. If I'm wrong when I bid 2D, it could be very expensive while even being right won't likely gain very much.

The second and almost equally obvious problem is that our diamond suit isn't very good--we're supposed to have six for this bid, right? And we have the worst possible shape for an overcall: 5332. And we're missing the J, 9 and 8, any of which would be potentially useful cards in this suit.

Third, and a factor to which many players pay insufficient attention: partner is a passed hand. It's possible that we have a game, but it's against the odds. With this being a robot ("best hand"), then we know that no player has a 14 point hand. So, the remaining 26 points are probably more or less equally distributed, with a preponderance in the East hand (recall that he is a third-seat opener). And, if partner has a decent hand with a diamond fit, the opponents will probably be able to outbid us in a major suit.

Fourth is a factor which I learned long ago from Howard Piltch. Never make a questionable overcall with three losers in the opener's suit. "That's how you get dropped from a team," I recall him saying. Even Qxx isn't much better than xxx when your LHO leads the suit and it goes K, A, ruff.

I therefore eschewed the overcall. When my left-hand opponent bid 2D, I breathed a sigh of relief. Eventually, they made it to 4S which drifted off a trick so I ended up +50.

It was a small tournament (six playing this board) and four of the other five chose to overcall. Predictably, this was followed by pass, pass, double, all pass. At each of those tables, the West robot chose a very strange card (the 8) with which to ruff the second heart trick and the declarers escaped for -200 when it should have been -500. So, we two passers gained 4.8 IMPs, the overcallers lost 2.4 IMPs.

Here's the whole hand:

The four overcallers were all experienced BBOers. What is it that makes them feel that 2D was the correct call? Or were they just unlucky? I think not.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Defensive coups in the trump suit

Recently, my partner Ethan Wood and I were the hapless victims of a clever defensive play by Andy Goodman, playing with Chris Compton:

The scene was the "Social Distancing Pairs," a side game in the first online regional tournament set up by the ACBL. We got to a good contract, 3♠ by South. Follow the play. At trick 4, Ethan took the percentage trump finesse (to the T9). Knowing that he was only "entitled" to one trump trick anyway, Andy realized that a little subterfuge might just get him two--and, more importantly perhaps--upset the timing of the whole hand. So, he won with the K, exiting with a heart (all the better to have the "winning" trump finesse taken a second time). Ethan played another spade towards his hand. When Chris followed low, there was still the J and 6 out against him. The jack was of course "known" to be in the East hand. Playing the T would "obviously" allow him to pick up the suit, whereas playing the queen (if he foresaw a problem) would in any case necessitate another finesse which, admittedly, could probably be achieved successfully assuming Chris had three hearts.

But, seriously, who in their right mind would play the queen (or ace) here?

Of course, Andy now disrupted the whole hand by putting Ethan again in dummy where a diamond could no longer be finessed. The result? 98% for them, 2% for us.

My own play in a friendly team match a couple of days ago was less spectacular but equally effective. Playing a team game with friends (I've made the players anonymous), I was faced with the situation of what looked like a cold contract by my RHO. In fact, he's making six. What could I do to disrupt things? Follow the play:

Again, declarer did something entirely normal. He could have made the contract with two overtricks at any time after my duck. When I did win the trump queen, the contract was still cold but I think declarer probably credited me with having started with Q972 in which case, he might end up down 2 if I had a fourth heart. I think what happened is that declarer was now off balance and, while he could have steadied himself by drawing both the last trumps, it can be hard to recover when all your earlier assumptions have been invalidated.

BTW, both sides missed 7NT on this hand but our teammates were in a safe 3NT for an 11 IMP gain.

Thursday, April 2, 2020

An interesting hand at matchpoints

A hand came up in a BBO speedball which caused a dent in an otherwise decent session. First let's look at it from my (declarer's) point of view.

The opening lead is D9. There's really very little time in a speedball to ask (or consult) about lead conventions. East played the J and I won with the Ace. What do you think of your chances in this contract? Since West didn't lead a heart (presumably, he has the ace), we have a shot at making 12 tricks. Partner did the right thing however, in signing off in 4S with that wasted HK.

Still, that diamond lead is a bit awkward. My only entry to the dummy now is by ruffing the small diamond. But I can't now draw all the trumps before taking the club finesse. So, I took two rounds of trump and ruffed the diamond. Now, I took the club finesse. Good news: it won. Bad news: the trick was ruffed by West. Now, I had to lose to the CK too and just made my game. This was worth a paltry 30% of the board.

It turns out that the way to make five (or more) on this hand is to be either a) lucky; b) forgetful (or insanely optimistic); c) brilliant; d) playing double-dummy. Needless to say, I was none of those. With 128 tables in the event, you can imagine that there were all sorts of results, but the vast majority of the NS pairs were in 4S.

At one table which also received a diamond lead, declarer didn't worry about that losing diamond, drew trumps, took the club finesse a couple of times and conceded two red cards. At many other tables, declarer was fortunate to receive the lead of HA. Now, there's no excuse for not making six (although many such declarers still only made five).

I mentioned that you can make 5 playing double-dummy. How so? Well, since we know we have to lose a heart anyway, how about playing a heart up after drawing two rounds of trump (or playing the HK after ruffing the diamond)? Now, South has no choice but to draw any remaining trumps and try to drop a singleton CK. It won't work but at least he doesn't suffer a ruff.

Interesting hand.

Friday, March 20, 2020


My favorite partner and I decided to support our local clubs with the ACBL "Black Point" game on BBO. Entry is $5 each (many clubs in the US only charge $5 per pair, although in the Boston area it's usually $10-12). It takes 2 full hours to play 18 boards so it's excruciatingly slow.

But a couple of things came up that were perhaps worth the entry fee.

While, I've known the mechanism (and name) of "Last train" for a long time, it had never actually come up before in the heat of battle--at least not knowingly. Here it was in the flesh. We got to a decent 6S contract (made even more decent by getting a club lead).

The second thing that came up is that it turns out that we don't play the same count signals (and haven't done for several years, it seems).  We play UDCA, as I do with almost all of my partners, but once a suit has been broken, we play present count, right? But do we play present count upside down or right-way-up? Turns out that all the "good" players play it right-side-up. What about you?

Friday, January 3, 2020

The importance of being earnest

The importance of being earnest in your discards cannot be over-emphasized. The title of course comes from the play of that name by Oscar Wilde. But the point I wish to make is that, when dummy (or declarer) has a long running suit, the defenders have to announce the suits they will guard and stick to that plan earnestly.

Here's a hand that came up at the club (matchpoints):
At my table, I opened 2NT in second seat and partner raised to 3NT. Clearly, with the insight of double-dummy, North should lead out his hearts from top to bottom and achieve a +100 score.

But let's say North figures that establishing his longest and strongest suit (with two side entries) is the proper thing to do and leads a low spade. This is what happened at several tables and most of us took all of the tricks for 720.

But it shouldn't have happened that way. There are only eleven top tricks and, providing that the defenders don't get mixed up, there's actually no squeeze, whether single, double or triple.

North must realize that the most his partner can hold is two or three points. Unless West was Zach Grossack or Harrison Luba, for example, in which case South could easily hold four or five points ;)

Let's say that declarer calls for dummy's king which wins and then crosses to the CA. What can South hold? The club king? Seems unlikely because declarer might have cut himself off from those clubs by taking away dummy's entry. By the way, do you see how important it is (usually) to play the highest card from hidden equals? It causes the opponents to be less than 100% sure where the lower equal (the king in this case) actually is.

So, probably declarer has the king. Then, what useful card could South possibly hold? The heart queen? Or maybe he has only the jack. Either way, North can immediately see that the one suit he must guard is diamonds. He will have to make six discards on the clubs: when the clubs are finished, he will have five cards left: three diamonds and two others. But, unless he keeps a small heart and/or a small spade, he can be end-played into leading away from his queen of diamonds. So, he must choose: keep a high heart or a high spade. Which card is South more likely to hold: ST or HQ? at this point, it's a bit of a toss-up. But North doesn't have to decide just yet.

At this point, proper technique by declarer against expert defenders would be to cash the two top diamonds and hope for a squeeze to materialize. But against defenders who discard more or less randomly, it's probably better to just run the clubs (which is what I did).

So, when declarer plays the CK, North must immediately signal which suit he will guard or, if that's impossible, to start showing which suit(s) he will not guard. Regardless of the carding scheme by defenders, North has an appropriate diamond to discard. The other players follow suit. On the small club at trick four, North will have to play a neutral spade (the five, assuming that he started with the three). South now must decide which suit he will guard. It doesn't matter which he chooses on this hand, as long as he sticks with it. Let's say that he discards an encouraging heart. Now, North can throw that other small spade, thus confirming that he will guard diamonds and spades. The important point is that, although it's possible that the defenders may already have made an error, they must stick with the plan. In this scenario, one error might cost an extra trick. But switching plans will likely cost two tricks.

North will immediately throw the two high hearts and the SQ (implying the J). South will pitch all of his diamonds and two more hearts. Although it takes guts for North to jettison two high hearts, he should remember that when he has most of his side's assets, the little exit cards can be as precious as the high cards.

Declarer is helpless. He will end up losing a diamond and the last spade. And all because N/S were careful to formulate a plan and stick with it.