Friday, July 23, 2021

Believe partner, not the opponents

Here's an ordinary hand: J765 A3 T864 J93. It's an IMP pairs and no-one is vulnerable. You are playing vanilla 2/1. Partner is the dealer and starts proceedings with 1. After a pass, you bid 1. LHO doubles this and partner redoubles.  This is a support redouble so it says nothing about strength, simply that partner has exactly three spades. A support double mostly shows a balanced hand, but with the redouble, it's a little less clear since the opponents have claimed the other two suits.

The bidding continues with 1NT on your right over which you, naturally, pass, as does LHO.  Partner now doubles. What do you think is going on?

First, of all, you have to decide whether this is penalty or takeout. If it's takeout, what exactly would it be taking out into? LHO has both red suits apparently. Partner could be asking you to take a preference between the black suits, I suppose.

But, if you've been reading my stuff on penalty triggers, you will be in no doubt. Redouble is a penalty trigger. All subsequent doubles are for penalty. Added to that, RHO just made a competitive notrump bid and that's a trigger, too.

However, let's say that you've been reading lately that there's a kind of double called "intended-as-penalty." Partner expects you to leave it in unless you have an unbalanced hand. Would 5-5 in the pointed suits be sufficiently unbalanced? Maybe. It is IMPs. But the opponents are not vulnerable so, even in our worst nightmare, they might make an overtrick for 380.

There's another consideration. Partner opened 1 so either he has an unbalanced hand with 16+ and clubs, or a balanced hand with 18-19. Either way, I think we have a pretty good idea what to lead: a club!

You decide to show a weak, distributional hand, by bidding 2 and we end up in 2 making 170 for an average board. It's a shame though because we could have had 800 in 1NTX, 420 in 4, 430 in 3NT, or 920 in 6.

Here's the whole hand:



The moral of the story? Believe partner, not the opponents.

Saturday, April 24, 2021

More on the penalty-oriented double

One of my more recent blogs was on the Penalty-oriented Double. I feel that this is a legitimate clade in the zoology of doubles.

Here it is in action:


What will you call? Partner is suggesting trying for 200 and that looks tempting. But, could it be that partner is expecting a bit more meat on the bone of your hand? You did make a 2-level overcall and you don't exactly have the goods, do you?

And, you know that partner has exactly three hearts (well, it's 90% certain) and less than opening strength. If you do take it out to 4H, how bad could things be? -300 and -100 are the likely results. OTOH, maybe we are due 200. But, think about it. How many diamonds are we getting? zero. Other suits? three? There's a very real possibility of ending up with -710. That's sure to be a bottom while 200 is almost certainly going to be a top. Do we want to be risking a bottom for a top? If we had a diamond trick, that would swing the pendulum towards passing. But as it is? I think pulling the POD to 4H is the best plan.

The results?  4DX= was worth zero match-points. 4HX-1 was worth 64%.

In case the link stops working at some point, your hand (white vs. red) is 87 QT762 985 AQJ. Partner deals and passes, RHO opens 1S, you bid 2H, LHO bids 3D, partner bids 3H, RHO bids 4D, passed to partner who doubles.

Partner's hand? AJT6 J53 7 KT973.

Friday, March 5, 2021

When you really want it to be for penalties but it just isn't

 In a recent online club game, I picked up the following not very promising hand: QT874 75 Q9632 6 as West. We were at unfavorable vulnerability and partner opened 2H as dealer. RHO doubled and I quickly passed hoping that LHO wouldn't convert to penalties. Imagine my delight when LHO jumped to 4S. No, I didn't do anything foolish like double. 

Partner led the HT and dummy came down: 5 AQJ2 AK85 A953. A fine hand. Just not for playing 4S. Despite my good spade suit, this was a surprisingly tough contract to set but we did get our 50 in the end. This wasn't quite a top, because at another table, after the same start, South pulled 4S to 6NT, going down two.

Three other tables began with 2H double. In each case, the North hand bid a more modest 2S or 3S and doubler was able to call 3NT, which should take eleven tricks, and mostly did. One table began with 2H followed by two passes. North, didn't cooperate but instead bid 2S, converted to 3NT. Note that 2H doubled would have been worth 1100 for N/S.

The par result is 6C for 920, which nobody found, not even those that didn't get a 2H preempt. 

Here is the whole hand:



So, how should the South hand act over the 2H bid? I think this is a clear-cut trap pass. First of all, if partner has some nondescript hand and decides to pass, we might not even have a game, in which case 200, 300 or 400 will be a fine result. But, if North has some useful values, we can be sure that he will act in some way. He probably has only one or two hearts which will make him want to do something. If that something is double, we will of course sit for it. We only need to get the contract down two to beat any game that we can make. But what if he has his own suit and decides to bid that. No harm done. We just bid 3NT. 

A trap pass such as this is one of the most satisfying situations in bridge--that is when partner comes through. It can fizzle of course if partner meekly passes. But, even then, all may not be lost.

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

The Granovetter Principle

 I recently played in the NAOBC teams tournament (0-5000). We reached the quarter-final but, sadly, our luck ran out there.

Along the way, there were some interesting slam hands. This one was an exemplar for what I call the "Granovetter Principle." It's common sense, of course, but it was drilled into me on a similar hand by Pam Granovetter during an online bidding practice session.

Here is the hand on which, surprisingly, we gained 17 IMPs when my counterpart received a less favorable lead and went down in the same contract:


The essence of the principle is that, when you are in a control-bidding sequence, as soon as you know that slam is safe, bid it. Don't pass the buck to partner, however enthusiastic he may have seemed so far. Because, if he simply signs off in a game contract, you won't know what to do any more than you know now. In fact, you may think he's showing doubt and so pass, when all he's saying is that he has nothing more to say that you haven't already heard.

In this case, after Dan bid 5, I had an "obvious" 5 bid. But if I bid 5 and Dan bid 5, I wouldn't know any more than I already did. So, with Pam's advice swimming in my head, I just bid 6

Elementary, my dear reader.

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

POD: Penalty-oriented double

Back in the early days of bridge there was the penalty double. However, people began to realize that it wasn't much use at low levels because you could rarely get rich even if they were psyching--they would just run to the real suit or otherwise escape justice. Thus the penalty double evolved into two clades: the penalty double and the informatory double (nowadays this is universally known as a takeout double).

It didn't take long for the takeout clade to further evolve into two sub-clades: pure takeout and "cooperative" doubles. The latter include all sorts of strangely named beasts: action, cooperative, competitive, etc.  The general rule (not very well described in the literature) is that the higher the level, the more tempted partner will be to leave it in. This latter form is at its most useful in matchpoint bridge because, if you can catch them speeding and get them down one doubled and vulnerable, it will beat any part-score you might be able to have made. 

I believe there are, however, two sub-clades of the penalty double:

  1. pure penalty:  "don't take it out if you ever want to play with me again;"
  2. penalty-oriented: "you're expected to leave it in if you have normal distribution, nothing that partner doesn't know about."
Actually, this latter type is perhaps more common than you think. It occurs any time you bid a game, the opponents sacrifice and the player in direct seat doubles. That player can never be sure that defending a doubled contract is the par result. What he means by the double is this: "From where I'm sitting, it looks like doubling is our best shot. Feel free to pull if your hand is more offensively oriented than I think it is."

But it might not be a clear sacrifice. Such situations may be somewhat rarer, but they are not unknown. An example came up just the other day in a pairs event. I will give you my partner's hand and the auction first: KQJ8432 T3 K53.

Both sides are vulnerable. Admittedly, not everyone will open 1 but I think it's the right bid, provided that you're willing to be a bit flexible later on in the auction. LHO overcalled 2 and partner raised to 2. RHO upped the ante with 3 and you made a preemptive raise to 3, showing six or more spades and presumably a hand that is on the weak side for an opening bid. LHO doesn't go quietly and bids 4. Partner doubles and it's back to you. Your call?

What do we know about the auction? The opponents are a self-described pickup pair and their profiles suggest intermediate. Do you think they have their bids? They might have stretched a bit, but nobody bids this way without something pretty good. What about partner's double? Is it a penalty double? I think it is. One of the "rules" that I like to go by is that once we've bid our suit three times, any double is for penalty. What could we be taking out into, realistically speaking?

So, what to do? Partner has 8-10 hcp and exactly three spades. He will never try to get a penalty in this situation knowing that our side has 10 spades. It's likely that partner has a relatively balanced hand, too, because with a singleton anywhere, he's going to bid 4 if he's at the max end of his box (5-10).

How many hearts do they have? Almost certainly nine. With a stiff (as noted), partner would have bid 4 himself (or passed). 

How many tricks to we have cashing? At most one spade and maybe a club. Partner should have a couple of sure tricks and maybe a third if he has AJ in, say, diamonds. Are we getting rich? At the very most, we might get 500 but 200 is more likely. Can we make game our way? Does partner have the spade ace? I think it's doubtful. With that card, and six points on the outside, I think double is an unlikely call. The spade ace will, essentially, be a bit of a waste, defensively speaking, given our own strong bidding in spades. 

What about "the law?" The strength appears to be well balanced between the two sides which is important for the law. We don't have a pure hand with good shortness (can't count the diamond queen for both), so it's possible that the law will be off a bit. Maybe 18 tricks instead of 19? If this is the case, and if it turns out that both sides can make exactly nine tricks, we should defend. What are the other possibilities (using my guesses for the probabilities)?
  • 20 total tricks (15% likely):
    • Both sides make game: par score +620 (pull)
    • We make an overtrick, they an undertrick: +650 (pull)
    • They make the overtrick: par score -650 (pull--unless we want to be -990)
  • 19 total tricks (50% likely):
    • We make an overtrick: par score +650 (pull)
    • We make game: par score +620 (pull)
    • They make game: par score -200 (pull)
    • They make an overtrick: par score -650 (pull as before)
  • 18 total tricks (30% likely):
    • We make game: par score +620 (pull)
    • Neither side makes game: par score +200 (pass)
    • They make game: par score -500 (pull as before).
  • 17 total tricks (5% likely):
    • We make game: par score +800 (pass)
    • We go down one: par score +500 (pass)
    • We go down two: par score +200 (pass).
Just looking at the probabilities and following the LOTT, it looks like we want to pass 15% of the time and pull 85% of the time. 

Let's go back to partner's double. In the old days, we could distinguish between tentative penalty doubles and stand-up-on-your-chair-and-slam-the-red-card-down doubles (just kidding, of course). Is partner's double an absolute final decision? No, how can it be? The opponents have bid 4 strongly. They're not kidding around so they think they have a play for it. If partner has a heart trick coming, it must be available on offense, too. Why has partner doubled and not bid 4S himself? For the reasons given above: each side might have only nine tricks available, we almost certainly have to lose a spade and, likely, two hearts. Do we have the rest? Partner isn't sure. Basically, in this context, his "penalty" double simply says "I think this is our hand, I have a balanced hand, and they are probably going down." After all, it's very unlikely that opener is going to bid voluntarily again after this sequence. In other words, this is a classic POD situation.

It's decision time. Is there anything partner doesn't know about our hand that would justify pulling? Yes! We have a seventh spade! 

Partner's (my) hand: T97 J4 AT63 AT98. Leading the A or underleading a club would result in down two for 500 and a 45% board. Leading our suit should have resulted in 200 and a 28% board. Neither of these would be total disasters. As it happened, we didn't set the contract, resulting in a 0% board.

So, there were 18 total tricks on the board. Not playing double-dummy defense would have resulted in 19 total tricks. 

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.