Wednesday, August 5, 2020

What can go away?

In general, the play of a bridge hand is a race between the declarer trying to set up enough tricks to make his contract and the defenders trying to their tricks first. It's a bit more obvious what's going on in a no-trump contract, but the principle remains the same.

Most declarers start out with a number of losers that they have to reduce to a particular allowable number. Of course, you may prefer to think of establishing winners instead--particularly in a no-trump contract. Some techniques such as finessing and squeezing are mostly concerned with establishing winners as opposed to decreasing the number of losers. Henceforth in this article, I will be discussing loser-elimination in suit contracts.

We normally think about reducing the losers in the master hand--the one with the long trumps. However, in a dummy reversal, the master hand is the one with the shorter trumps and the "dummy" is the one with longer trumps. Sometimes, the designation of master/dummy is somewhat arbitrary when the suit lengths are equal. Obviously, the location of the actual declarer (and that of the face-up hand) is irrelevant here. There are two primary techniques to eliminate losers from (the master) hand: ruffing, i.e. trumping losers in dummy, and discarding them on dummy's winners. A cross-ruff is a hybrid strategy: ruffing hand's losers in dummy and dummy's losers in hand. There's one other hybrid strategy and I'm not sure it has a name: it consists of discarding dummy's losers in suit A on hand's winners in suit B and then ruffing hand's losers in suit A in dummy. I'm just going to call this technique the hybrid plan and note that it's unusual.

Anyway, where am I going with all of this? It's because I believe that the major strategy for the defenders of suit contracts consists of two different tactics: (1) getting their own ruffs; and (2) figuring out what can go away, and ensuring that those potential tricks don't disappear before they can establish them. Along the way, of course, they will be cashing winners and switching leads as appropriate to best attack suits. Although I figured this out long ago, I still make the same mistakes of allowing tricks to disappear. But you shouldn't ever let it happen!

Here's an example from a recent BBO speedball tournament:


Kim, my favorite partner in all things including bridge, did well to put me on lead at T2. What should I switch to? Given the dummy, I diagnosed that the safest would be diamonds. But I forgot to ask "What can go away?" Based on the auction, any tricks we had coming in diamonds couldn't go away. That was declarer's second suit. It had to be at least four cards long since she didn't have four spades. But it might be longer. In that case, there was a danger that one (or two) of dummy's clubs might go away. A switch to clubs at trick 3 was the proper defense. Declarer could still make the contract but it wouldn't have been quite so easy. Unfortunately, many of our teammates didn't do so well as our opponents and we ended up with only 37% on this board. We still had a 73% session but +50 on this board would have put us into first place.  

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

When to play "real bridge"

People are fond of enumerating the differences between IMPs (or total points) and matchpoints. True, there are lots of differences, although there are more similarities. Good bridge is good bridge and bad bridge is... well you know the answer.

This article is about the play, not the auction. Much of the difference between forms of scoring manifests itself in the auction. Once we get to the play, the differences are fewer. Oh, but don't they say that you should always try for overtricks at matchpoints? No, they don't.

In a team game, you are in what I call "real bridge" mode.  As developed by Vanderbilt, the idea behind contract bridge is that, once you're playing a particular contract, you must devote every effort to making (or defeating) it. You stop worrying about better contracts that you might have been in. And you take absolutely no risks for over (or under) tricks. If you're on defense and you have the setting trick, you cash it!

But, when you're playing matchpoints, it's tempting to go all out for overtricks all the time. That's not right. Here's where you try for overtricks: when you're in a contract that you judge most others will be in. In that case, you need to strive for the maximum possible number of tricks, even if that risks you going down. However, the majority of contracts are not like that. I'd like to talk about the contracts where you should not play for overtricks.

Basically, it's any time you're in an unusual contract. Let's take the most obvious example first: the contract was doubled. Once you're doubled, overtricks essentially no longer count. Even if you're only in, say, 1NTX not-vulnerable, if you make it, you will beat anyone undoubled making two, or three no-trump. However, if you think that a more normal contract is 3NT making three (and you forgot to redouble), then taking nine tricks will only score 380 (580 if vulnerable). You actually need to make 10 tricks to beat the others making nine tricks. But this is an unusual situation. Normally, the bonus for the insult and the "odd" tricks counting double will render one or two overtricks pure "gravy."

Another exception is when you're in a doubled contract and you're expecting to go down but are making a sacrifice. Now you have a precise target, which makes it a lot more like you are trying to "make" a "contract", albeit two or three tricks fewer than the nominal contract.

Other competitive situations are very much more like "real bridge." Imagine that you are defending 3S after your side competed to 3H. In other words, you pushed them into 3S. Nobody doubles so it might seem that this should fall into the "normal" contract category. Not so. You can't be sure what will happen at the other tables but you can be sure there will be some playing 2S their way and some playing 3H (maybe even 2H) your way. You might argue that, if 2H or 3H is making, and the opponents are vulnerable, you will need a two-trick set to restore equity. But you can't be sure that you actually had equity of 140. You surely didn't have 110 because the opponents can easily outbid you in 2S.

It's a cardinal rule of bridge that you must assume that you are in the right contract, whether declaring or defending. In other words, trust your bidding judgment. This is because, if we assume the converse, that we messed up in the auction, then it's really unlikely that we can recover our error in the play. Therefore, defending 3S is the proper place to be and there should be a big difference between -140 and +100. So, let's assume that you are offered the setting trick against 3S. DO NOT DUCK IT! If ducking gets you an extra trick for 200, then technically, you were in the wrong contract. You should have been defending 3SX.

But more often than not, a one-trick set will be enough: at least to stay average, which is what you should aim for on a hand like this.

Do I follow my own advice? Of course not! I ducked the setting trick just the other day thinking I could get 200 or at least I'd end up with the same 100. I was wrong. I ended up with a very poor-scoring -140. A bottom, in other words. So, I will plead the fifth: I refuse to incriminate myself by a hand diagram.

There are a few other situations where you should play "real bridge" in a matchpoint tournament. An example is when you bid a slam, especially if it's a hard-to-reach slam. Unless you're playing in an NABC pairs event, half the field won't bid even the most obvious slam. So, don't risk your slam for the overtrick that you think you might be able to get. You already won this board in the auction. Just sit back and collect.

Other strange contracts like 2NT, 5NT, a non-competitive 4 of a minor, even a 2C contract, are all sufficiently unusual that you should probably just ensure your contract.

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

Count

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.