Monday, December 27, 2010

GIBs at their best and worst

See if you can do better (or as well):
  • ♠7 AKT9626 ♣AKQ92.  None vul.  You deal and open 1 and partner bids 3.  Over your slam try of 4♣, partner declines with 4.  Do you press on?
  • ♠K AQ8AKJ86 ♣QT62.  White on red.  Partner deals and opens 1.  You bid 2D and he rebids 2.  What's your plan and final destination?
  • ♠874 KQ976K976 ♣5.  All Red.  RHO deals and opens 1NT (15-17).  Partner doubles LHO's Stayman 2♣ and RHO promptly redoubles showing "rebiddable" clubs.  LHO closes with 3NT and it's your lead.
  • ♠62 Q6J42 ♣K98654.  We are red and partner opens 1 in third seat.  RHO overcalls 1 and we pass.  LHO raises to 2 and partner doubles.  RHO bids 2♠.  What do you do?
  • Follow up question.  Suppose that in the previous situation you bid 3♣ and RHO bids 3 and LHO raises to 4 which partner doubles.  What do you do when it gets back to you?
See comments for the "answers"

Abiding by the law

My previous blog on pressure bidding prompted another look at the so-called Law of Total Tricks and, especially, I fought the law by Mike Lawrence and Anders Wirgren.

One of the first things I realized twenty years ago when I first read about the "law" was of course that at best it is a rule of thumb.  It is no more a true law (and perhaps even less so) than Bode's law.  Some people, if I am to believe the L&W book, seem to believe that it is absolutely true, in the same way that certain fundamentalist religious people think that their "book" is literally  true.  I say this because Lawrence and Wirgren devote a large part of the book to debunking the myths of the LOTT.  Would they bother if there weren't true believers?

Of course the "law" isn't literally true. Every bridge player knows that, including and especially Larry Cohen. And so do I.  Yet, one of my bridge friends still chides me for quoting the law when making general statements about competitive bidding, as if I was one of the devoted followers, believing every word of the gospel.

Nevertheless, the "law" does, in a very general sense, show how the total number of tricks available (ours at our best trump suit plus theirs at their best trump suit) increase with the combined lengths of the two best trump suits (ours plus theirs).  That's to say, on the whole, each additional trump (of ours) in one of our hands, or their trump in one of their hands, will result in an additional trick (either for us or for them).  It doesn't state this as a categorical fact.  It simply says that, in general, total tricks increases in step with total trumps.

Although it's never a true law, as mentioned above (in the majority of hands exact equality is the exception rather than the rule), it works best under the following conditions:
  • high card points are more or less evenly divided between the two opposing pairs (the usual range is quoted as 17-23 but this is of course an arbitrary boundary);
  • total trumps are nearer to 17/18 rather than the extremes of 14/21;
  • shortness and length are more or less in harmony (long suits beget short suits/voids);
  • you are willing to be off by one trick either way;
  • if you have a choice of trump suits of equal length, you choose the best one;
  • defense and declarer play at your table are perfect (double-dummy);
  • the layout doesn't contain too many short-suit honors, such as K, Qx, Jxx.
So, what use is the "law"?  It can be useful when you have to make a competitive decision to bid on, pass or double and it is not completely obvious from bridge logic and experience what to do.  This generally involves higher-level contracts, because an experienced player will be familiar with the lower level situations (should I bid 3♠ over their 3, for instance).  Newer players can use it of course at all levels because they won't have developed the appropriate judgment yet.

As noted, it won't always be right.  But bridge, especially matchpoints, is a game where we try to maximize our score in the long run without worrying too much about the occasional hand where things don't work out. For example, with no enemy bidding, no special avoidance requirements, and holding three small trumps in dummy (with outside entries) and AQT9x in our hand we will play low from dummy, playing the 9 if RHO plays low.  Generally speaking, we expect to lose one trick only.  But in fact, this favorable outcome will only occur 76% of the time.  Do we feel hard done by if occasionally we lose two tricks?  Of course not.  Bridge is not normally a game of absolutes.

Now, you might be wondering what "long suits beget short suits/voids" was supposed to mean.  What I mean by that is that as you get longer suits in your hand, you expect, or at least hope for, short suits to go with them, if not in your hand, then perhaps in partner's.  For example, you pick up a 7-card suit.  If the other suits are 2-2-2, this feels a little unnatural, and a bit of a disappointment, doesn't it?  You'd be much less surprised by the 7-3-2-1 pattern.  In fact, the 7-3-2-1 shape is three-and-one-half times more common than 7-2-2-2.  And, as Lawrence and Wirgren tell us, it is really shortness rather than length that is most indicative of the number of tricks we can take.  All things being equal, we'll take more tricks with a 7-3-2-1 hand than a 7-2-2-2 hand.  But the "law" only takes into account the length of the trumps, in this case, presumably the seven-card suit.  That's one of the obvious reasons why the law can't possibly be the gospel truth.

So, going back to my earlier question "what use is the law?", I do believe that it can help you decide what to do in a high-level competitive auction.  Here's an example from a recent club game.  You pick up in second seat, vulnerable versus not, ♠T7 93KQT4 ♣97653.  RHO passes, as do you, and LHO opens the proceedings with 2♠.  Partner bids 4♣ (showing a good hand and at least 5-5 in hearts and clubs) and RHO bids 4♠.  Now what?  Let's try to do a "law" calculation.  Given that LHO opened a weak two at favorable vulnerability in third seat, he probably has only five spades.  I doubt if RHO has five spades with shape because he'd probably have jumped straight to 5♠.  But he might have five spades without any shortness.  It looks like we have a ten-card club fit and they have a nine-card spade fit so we're guessing 19, or possibly only 18 tricks.  We don't have much in the way of points, but it does seem to be our hand, based on the auction so far, though perhaps not by a lot.  If they can make 4♠ (-420), we could be -500 or even -800 in 5♣ so that doesn't look good.  OTOH, if we can make 5♣ (600), they might be only -500 or -300 when doubled.  We decide to pass smoothly (ah, there's the rub!) hoping that given partner's quasi-game-forcing bid, our pass will be considered forcing.

Partner comes in now with 5 which strongly suggests 6-5 in the round suits since he'd probably just double with the 5-5 he originally promised.  RHO takes the push to 5♠ (perhaps he did have five spades after all) and we revise our idea of the hand now.  It looks like they have 10 spades and we have 10 clubs with an 8-card heart fit.  So I'm guessing we might have 20 total tricks.  However, given that all our honors are in what appears to be a short suit in partner's hand (at most a doubleton), I'm going to be conservative and estimate 19 total tricks as before.  So we decide to double expecting to gain 100, 300 or 500 as against (for 6♣) -800, -500, or -200.  If we're wrong and there are 20 total tricks, we will be spectacularly wrong in the two extreme cases: they make 850 (pass would be best) or we could make 1370; but still doing fine in the middle (and perhaps more likely) cases: 100, 300 instead of -500, -200.

How did we do in practice?  Both sides can take 10 tricks in their black suit, so it was right not to let them play 4♠. Their RHO made the all-too-common error of going to the well twice and falling down it the second time. We score +100 for about average (somewhat as we'd expect).  However, there were no other pairs our way scoring 100 for 5♠X.  Some pairs managed to set 5♠X two tricks but this must have been careless declarer play.

I think the law was helpful here, keeping us at average despite a difficult competitive board.  It was difficult because a) our balanced and poorly fitting hand suggested fewer total tricks than there were; and b) the other side can make game on only 17 high-card points.  For the full hand, look up board 18 from the Newton-Wellesley game on Christmas Eve.  I was not playing, by the way, so all my thinking described above was fictional, but reasonable.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Controlling pressure

The general definition of a pressure bid is a uni-lateral and disruptive action by one player when he believes that the hand belongs to the other side.  That's to say the player gets in and out quickly, using up as much room as is considered prudent.  It's uni-lateral because, except under rare circumstances, his partner can be relied upon to do nothing likely to reduce the effectiveness of the bid.  In other words, partner won't bid without extraordinarily good distribution.  A pressure bid also aims to force the opponents to make the last guess (one of the goals of competitive auctions).  Once in a while, the pressure bid will itself be doubled and this will be bad in 99% of all cases – you will have made the last guess!  But in my experience this rarely, if ever, happens.

The usual reason to assume that partner won't kick an own goal later in the auction is that he's a passed hand and can be expected to follow the maxim that passed hands should never do anything questionable.  These are the primary pressure situations.  For example, white on red, ♠KJ8653 976439 ♣T where partner has passed as dealer and RHO passes.  You know that LHO has a big hand and you want to do everything you can to deny him a nice comfortable auction.  3♠, or even possibly 4♠, is likely to be right here, exaggerating the length and quality of your spades.  Sure, it can backfire, but if you and your partner are on the same wavelength, partner won't raise your preempt or attempt a sacrifice unless his hand is something like ♠Q942 8542 ♣A9743, that's to say a highly offensively oriented hand for spades.  On the other hand, you might make the following pressure bid: 2♠ with ♠KJ853 Q93K92 ♣QT and fail to bid your game when partner shows up with ♠Q942 3AJ542 ♣K94.  But this bad outcome tends to be offset by the situations where the opposing declarer finesses into your two queens!

But what about extended pressure situations?  Again, the vulnerability has to be favorable and it should appear that it's their hand.  But we now allow partner to have made one bid, provided that the bid is relatively limited and descriptive.  For example, a limited opening of 1 (precision, max of 15 hcp) or a 1 overcall.  In contrast, some bids would not be appropriate partner actions for an extended pressure bid.  For example, a minor suit opening, which may well be based on a balanced hand, or a two-suited bid which is sufficiently well-defined that partner should be able to make a good immediate guess.

Let's say that you have the following hand: ♠AT5 KT962764 ♣AT and RHO deals and opens 1♣.  You bid 1, and LHO makes a negative double.  This is a classic extended pressure situation for partner if he has a heart fit and fewer than about 7 points.  Most of the time, partner has a pretty good idea of what's in your hand: 5 (occasionally 6) hearts and somewhere between 8 and 15 points (more points are possible but of course unlikely).  Your hand is also somewhat limited by the fact that both opponents are in the bidding.  Let's say partner raises to 3.  Does this guarantee four piece support?  Not if the conditions are right for an (extended) pressure bid.  Now let's suppose that RHO thinks for a bit and finally comes out with 3♠.  You pass and LHO thinks for a bit and raises to 4♠ and it is back to you.  You need to be fairly sure of at least 18 total tricks (and not 9 each side) to make a 5 sacrifice pay.  Are you sure?  The opponents almost surely have only eight spades between them and they are both probably near the minimum point-wise for their bidding. Even if we have 10 hearts between us, we have no shortness so 19 total tricks are probably not going to be available.

With this hand, I think you have a fairly clear nolo contendere.  You have the worst possible shape for an overcall and partner declared that, in his opinion, 3 is as high as we should go, opposite a run-of-the-mill overcall.  Let's hope that we can beat 4♠.  If partner has pushed them into a lucky make with his pressure bid, then you will at least be winning the post-mortem.

But suppose your hand was instead ♠T53 KQT962A76 ♣4.  Yes, you might have bid 2 in the first round but with partner not yet having passed, you didn't want to preempt our chances of bidding game.  If partner has something like ♠2 AJ43JT98 ♣9764, it's very likely that they can make 4 or 5 spades while we are down 1 or 2 only at 5.  We would want to sacrifice obviously.

But how do we know that partner hasn't made a pressure bid on ♠42 AJ4JT98 ♣9762?  It might still be right to sacrifice but it doesn't really look like it.  How can we find out?

This is where the pressure bid control described by Robson and Segal is useful.  Over 3♠, 3NT by your hand says to partner that you have a fine hand for sacrificing and if he does too, then go ahead and sacrifice over their 4♠, otherwise pass over 4♠ (but bid 4 over the likely double).  Obviously, in the context of this auction, you can't possibly want to play 3NT.  You need to have a hand that's as distributional as ♠T53 KQT962A76 ♣4 to make this strategy safe: if they can't make game and 4 goes for 300 or worse, it won't be a good score!  Of course, if your hand is two-suited, say ♠T3 KQT62AQ642 ♣4 you will bid 4 over 3♠ and allow partner to evaluate his hand for a sacrifice (or even a make) in the context of a red two-suiter opposite.

Robson and Segal only describe the 3NT bid in the context of a primary pressure bid (i.e. where the potential raiser has initially passed).  I've proposed extending its use, but it doesn't seem that anything could be lost by it since 3NT could never be a natural bid here.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Not for the faint of heart

Of course, we knew that the Reisinger is considered by many to be the toughest event in the ACBL calendar.  But what the hell, Kim and I decided to enter it anyway.  The tricky part was persuading another pair of equally crazy masochists to join us.  Fortunately, Matthew and Doug from Chicago were up for it.  I had assumed that it would be a big event, somewhat similar to the Open BAM earlier in the week, maybe even bigger.  But no, only 39 teams entered. The other experts entered the Swiss.  But in our event, there were more world and national champions per square foot than any place I've ever been!

We were rubbish!  We managed 10 wins out of 52.  Yes, you read that right.  We scored only slightly above 20%!  In baseball, the "Mendoza line" for batting average is .200 but I generally think of the bridge Mendoza line as 30%. We thus achieved almost a super-Mendoza!  We were, obviously, not among the 20 teams to advance to day two.

It's amazing that they allow palookas like us to enter this rather exclusive game, but they do.  I could write up several stories from the day but many of them would simply demonstrate our ineptitude, or lack of  experience at this level of bridge.  Board-a-match scoring adds its own wrinkles to the game too.  Here's a tricky decision I got wrong against Bill Gates and Sharon Osberg.

My hand was ♠KJ8653 976439 ♣T. Kim opened 1 and I bid 1♠ (we don't play weak jump shifts).  Kim rebid 3NT and I made what turned out to be a good decision by bidding 4.  I soon found myself in 4♠, Osberg led ♣A and the dummy that came down was surprisingly good: ♠AT A8AKQJ854 ♣52 (I might have opened 2♣ with this hand, although that could easily work out badly, using up too much room to describe the hand). Sharon continued with ♣K which I ruffed.  I could see immediately that we might have missed a slam if the ♠Q was on side.  Would they be likely to be in 6♠ at the other table?  Gates doesn't play with World Champions on his team but they are very good players.  It seemed to me that, missing a key card and the ♠Q, they would likely stop in 5♠.  In any case if slam was making and they were in it, we'd already lost the board.  What would be the best way to make 5♠?  Assuming our teammates didn't lead a heart, my counterpart would likely play off the two top spades and start on the diamonds, guaranteeing the contract if the spades were 3-2 and making an overtrick if the Q was doubleton.  Of course I had a slight luxury in that I could afford to finesse the Q provided that Sharon didn't switch to hearts if she could win it.  So, by finessing against the Q, I would win if Gates had it.  She hadn't played a heart yet and maybe she wouldn't even then, I deluded myself.  As it was, she had the ♠Qxx and was keen to demonstrate to Gates the "Merrimack coup" by sacrificing her K.  Curtains for me.  I had gambled and lost: down 2.

I think I should have taken the money by making my game on the grounds that if 6 was making and they were in it, we'd lose anyway.  Playing my way gave a 34% chance of making 6 and would make exactly or be down 1 or 2 (depending on the diamond split) if RHO had ♠Qxxx (11%).  But 55% of the time I was down 2 for sure.  Playing to make would result in +450 68% of the time.  I didn't guess sufficiently accurately what was happening at the other table.

What did happen?  Our opponents played in 3NT and our teammates led a club (the good news).  But (bad news) the clubs split 5-5 so that contract was down only 1 and we lost the board.  As it turned out, playing to make the contract (as would be appropriate in an IMP team game) would have worked beautifully.

Here's an example of the kind of play you don't experience too often at the local bridge club.

Kim was in 4♠ with Norwegian World Champions Tor Helness on her left and Geir Helgemo on her right.  The heart suit was AQT3 in dummy and J762 in hand.  Kim led low to the T and it held.  She now had two heart tricks, one ruff already in and the ♣A for sure.  Six more trumps on a complete cross-ruff would provide an over trick, assuming one trump gets overruffed at the end.  After returning to the ♣A, she led another low heart.  What if Helgemo was out of hearts and ruffed in returning a trump?  That would mean only 9 tricks.  So she repeated the "marked" finesse, losing to the K.  The contract could no longer be made.  Helgemo's original holding?  Kx!  Just one more lost board?  Yes, but in fact, Helgemo's decision to duck his K was going to allow Kim to make 11 tricks if she plays all out and finesses the ♣Q in her hand.  So, while it was a brave and, for us, unusual play, it turns out that the guy some believe is the single best player in the world (but ranked #11 by the WBF) actually made an error.  But it induced a matching error from our side and in the end worked very well.  Our two hands were ♠A983 J762– ♣AQT63 (declarer) and ♠Q765 AQT3T852 ♣8 (dummy).

Other notables that we faced at our table: Gitelman/Moss, Levin/Weinstein, Pepsi/Lev, Doub/Wildavsky, Cheek/Grue, Koneru/Chorush, Bocchi/Ferraro and other well-known players.

If we make it to Seattle next year as we hope, I think I'm going to skip the Reisinger and try the Swiss.  There's typically only a few World Champions playing in that event and many more teams overall.  Still tough to qualify but at least within the realms of possibility.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Orlando bridge gods smile at last

A welcome break from the intensity (and elimination) of the (open) Blue Ribbons came in the A/X Swiss.  Our first lucky break was meeting up with Saul and Ed buying a pairs entry.  We decided to team up for the Swiss.

There were many good teams among the 40 entrants, many of which had like us been kicked out of the Blues.  We were using the 30 victory point scale which emphasizes winning above all else.  You get 15 for a tie but only 12 for a 1 imp loss.  This is Bobby Wolff's scale and I think it really is better than the 20 point scale.  We won the first match handily but got the flip side of the coin when we somewhat surprisingly lost the second match.  Two more wins put us in 6th place for the dinner break which helped make the meal pleasant and relaxing.  Incidentally, Kathy and her partner were with us and they were lying 2nd in the B/C/D Swiss.

We met a team of Polish internationals after dinner and lost fairly badly.  Then we went up against Billy Miller's team.  The first six boards were uneventful but I had a feeling that we were losing the match.  We were but only by one (but as mentioned that would have gained us only 12 VPs).  I picked up the following beautiful hand in fourth seat, vulnerable against not: ♠AKQJ763 7AJ972 ♣ –.  This was going to generate some action, I thought :)  Kim somewhat surprisingly opened 1NT (15-17) and this looked like a fairly easy hand in our methods (e.g. 1NT 2 2♠ 5♣ ...) where 5♣ would be exclusion keycard Blackwood.  Needless to say, the opponents were not going to make it easy at those colors.  It went 3 by Miller and I had to decide what to do.  We play that 4 or 4are transfers providing that they are jumps or cuebids.  In any case, 4 would be forcing so that was my call (Kim alerting appropriately).  LHO put in 5 and Kim, bless her, accepted the transfer with 5♠.  Now it was up to me.  I didn't know what else was in her hand but the one thing I needed her to have was the A obviously.  I therefore bid 6.  Now she bid 6NT.  This worried me a bit (what if she has only KQ or Kx of hearts?).  But I wasn't sure 6NT would yield even twelve tricks opposite my hand so I bid 7♠.  There was always the possibility, admittedly slight, that Miller wouldn't lead the A even if he had it, thinking my sequence showed a void.  Anyway, Miller led a trump and Kim scored up 7♠ and we won 13 imps, giving us 25 VPs instead of the 12 we would otherwise get.  Kim's hand was ♠T92 AQK6 ♣AQT754.

We won the last two matches with small but significant scores and ended up in 8th overall, 2nd in X.  Kathy's team ended 4th in the other event.  So, it was a good day.  The Orlando bridge gods smiled on us at last :)

Monday, November 29, 2010

Notes from Orlando

I had hoped to regale all my faithful readers with tales of derring-do in the National events here at the 2010 Orlando NABC.  Unfortunately, we haven't really distinguished ourselves much.

I played the first day of the life master pairs with Dave Marshall, playing reasonably solid bridge in the first session.  After dinner, I hit some sort of wall, however, and made bonehead plays, one after another.  Needless to say, we did not qualify for day two.

We played a session of compact KO the next afternoon, declining to continue in the consolation in favor of checking in to our condo and doing the grocery shopping.

Sunday saw us back in action in the Open Board-a-match, Kim and I together and the Marshalls at the other table.  I played about as well as I've ever played I think in the afternoon.  I was in the zone.  In round two against Barry Rigal, I managed a winning lead against a 4S game and followed that up by executing an end-play against Barry in a 2S contract to halve the board.  So far, so good.

We had a few too many team errors, however, and ended up with only 10.5 boards out of 26.  One round that was predictably bad perhaps was against a team with three current or recent world champions.  In the evening, we did better and, if I personally had not had a cow-fly-by moment, we would have been average.  We still wouldn't have qualified, obviously.

The format, board-a-match, is generally considered one of the very toughest forms of bridge.  There are no easy part score deals (as there might be in a team game) and there is no field to support you when you don't go all out for the maximum tricks.  There's just you and the other table.  Every board, however boring it may appear at first, is a potential battleground.  Kim and I really enjoyed the event, though.  We love playing against the "stars", even though we get star-struck all too often [but the more we play against them, the more ordinary it will seem, we hope].

These National events are surprisingly relaxing in some respects.  First, a two-board round lasts 16 minutes and generally we're done within ten.  That allows plenty time for getting a glass of water, refocusing after a bad result, etc.  Second, the other competitors are almost universally pleasant and respectful.  And finally, with very rare exceptions, you never ever hear RHO whining to LHO, why didn't you switch to a spade?  How could you bid 3H? etc.  And of course you never have to wait while the opponents ask each other how many clubs they had on the last hand!

And the standard of bridge is so high. Bridge against good players is actually much more predictable than club bridge.  They never make stupid bids that just happen to work out well.  Nor do they embark on an inferior line of play only to find that it works best on this hand.

We think it's really excellent training for going back to the bridge club and making the most of every hand.

Tomorrow, we try again in the Blue Ribbons.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Slings, Arrows and Flying Cows

The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune are definitely one of the factors that make our game of Bridge so interesting. While the game isn't completely random of course, there is a large element of randomness. It's basically all about avoiding errors – of which there are many varieties. Did you know for example that if your partnership is absolutely average amongst your opponents, you can expect to score over 60% (or below 40%) about once in every thirty sessions?

One of the most difficult to overcome of the panoply of Bridge errors is the personal unforced goof (PUG). You know it also by another somewhat more scatological expression. When an expert makes this sort of error and is asked about it later, he or she can only come up with something like "a cow flew by."

I've thought about consulting a Zen master to try to help me eliminate these sorts of errors but I haven't found one yet. A regimen of water (plenty of it) and relatively light meals does seem to help. Brown rice seems to help a little. When Kim is my partner and I do something goofy she reminds me to drink some more water (or Gatorade if we have it). But if she's at another table, I'm liable to forget, with possibly serious consequences for my health, both bridge-related and otherwise.

Over the weekend, we went up to Newington, NH for the pairs on Saturday and the teams on Sunday. I've played with my pairs partner twice before. I had two partners for the Swiss, neither of whom I'd played with before. That made it all the more challenging and enjoyable. One of my teams partners was 13-year-old Zach, who might easily go unnoticed by comparison with his World Youth Champion brother Adam. But Zach is a terrific player whom I think could easily turn out better even than his brother.

On the first hand we played together, Zach opened a rather light hand. We found a fit and I was heading to a slam when I had to put the brakes on. We were missing two key cards. The trumps split 4-1 and I had to think about the hand for a while before coming up with a plan. My plan relied on a squeeze that I thought was probably about 75% or better based on the way the play went. I made the contract. Zach pointed out, very politely I might add, that I could have saved myself a lot of trouble ruffing an extra trick in dummy (a plan which I had thought was in danger of losing control). I was skeptical but eventually figured out that he was right.

We had a good time, though we seemed to be a little unlucky at times and, as a team, never really got into the groove until we'd already dug a deep hole. We just managed to scratch in B.

Here's an example of the kind of goof I referred to above (if I was a bit older perhaps I might call it a "senior moment"). I picked up a 4441 17-count and opened 1D. Partner jumped to 3NT. In my mind I was evaluating our chances based on his having 15-17 hcp (I wasn't too worried about clubs because he had to have at least four of them). I bid 6NT and it went down one. Where did I get that idea from? Nobody I know plays 3NT that way (including me), although I've certainly heard of such an agreement (it's part of the old Standard American, I believe). I just think the wires got crossed on the way out of my memory banks.

It's annoying as anything in Bridge can be. And it's hard for anyone else to even comprehend it. But if ever I find that Zen master, maybe I can do something to eliminate this sort of flying cow play.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Forcing 1NT

I have a friend and occasional partner for whom the 1NT response to a major suit opening is unlimited and forcing even by a passed hand.  If asked we say 0-37 hcp.  That usually gets a laugh from the opponents.

But seriously, since the bid is forcing (at least by a non-passed hand for all 2/1 bidders), should it be unlimited?  I don't think so.  While it might at first sight appear arbitrary, I think that 2/1 responses should all be based on at least a healthy interest in seeking a slam while 1NT responses followed by game bids suggest no enthusiasm for slam unless opener has significant extras.  Other 1NT responses are obviously not interested in slam.  At best, they are invitational to game.  At worst they hope to find a safe haven at the two-level.

Let's assume that we have three-card support for partner's 1-of-a-major opening bid (any more and we would not be considering 1NT, and with less we'd still need to find our best strain).  Come what may, we're going to support his suit at our next turn.  If we start with 1NT, a jump to 3M will not be forcing to game (a "three-card limit raise").  If we start with a 2/1 bid, and then support partner's suit at the lowest level, that will be forcing to game with slam aspirations.  Another option is starting with a 2/1 and then jumping to game.  Some people play this simply as the principal of fast arrival (PFA) and others play it as a "picture bid" showing cards primarily in the two suits bid.

So, a forcing 1NT followed by a jump to game shows a hand with three-card support and either:
  • a non-picture-bid hand (if you have the picture bid agreement mentioned above);
  • a hand that is not interested in slam opposite a typical minimum opener (PFA).
Since I don't have the picture bid  agreement with any of my partners, that sequence shows the second type of hand.  Note that you can still have a pretty good hand and not want to initiate a slam try.  For example: ♠K74 AJ87K86 ♣A96 or even ♠K74 AQ87K86 ♣AJ96.  Much beyond that, say, ♠K74 AQ87A86 ♣A96 and I think you'd want to pursue slam yourself if partner didn't beat you to it.  Of course, this will all depend on how bad your partner's opening 1M bids can be.  If partner is a really solid opener, you might initiate a slam try with any of the above hands.  As mentioned above, if your hand is good enough to initiate a slam try, you won't be starting with 1NT.

So, what should you bid with this hand ♠K74 AJ87J86 ♣A96 when partner opens 1♠?  In my opinion, this is an absolutely automatic 1NT followed by 4♠, or even 3NT, (assuming partner makes a minimum rebid).  But not everyone agrees with me.

On a scale of 1 to 10, I would rate the possible responses as follows:
  1. 1NT: 9
  2. 3NT: 7
  3. 2♣: 6
  4. 2: 5
  5. 2: 2
  6. 2NT: 0
The only reason 1NT doesn't get a 10 is that it's possible that our best spot is 6NT with partner as declarer (given our pathetic diamond holding).  But that's unlikely.  I don't like 2 much because, even though we are going to support spades next, we should really have either a five-card suit or better hearts, say AQxx.  2♣ is better in my opinion because, although holding only three cards, we do at least have the suit controlled.  2 might have some merit on the Hideous Hog principle of bidding the suit we don't want led (although partner is likely to be declarer on this hand).  2NT is simply awful because the Jacoby bid should always show four trumps and a hand that would be enthusiastic about slam if partner initiates a slam try.

Thanks to Steve for pointing out that 3NT, for those who play it as a 4x3 hand with 13-15, is almost a perfect bid here.  I generally don't play that so I didn't think of it.  The only fly in this particular ointment is that we do not have diamonds even half stopped.  Sure partner should have something, but on a bad day, partner might have only Qx, they set up their diamonds then get in with the ♠A and cash for down 1.  Not too likely perhaps but possible.  He also feels that 1NT followed by 3NT should show a shapely hand, short in spades, that's actually improved by opener's rebid.  That seems sensible.

So, how did our hand turn out?  On this particular evening we were playing IMP pairs at the club and, as it transpired, we could do no wrong all evening.  Opener's hand (that's to say my hand) was ♠AQ632 KAQT3 ♣J82 and the auction went (opps silent): 1♠ – 2 – 3 – 3♠ – 4 – 4NT – 5♠ – 6♠.  3 (the so-called "high reverse") showed extras, as did 3♠.  4 showed a control in diamonds and slam interest (valuing the K perhaps slightly higher than it truly deserved but expecting a decent five-card suit).  5♠ showed two key-cards with the spade Q.

I received a low heart lead and was able to wrap up 12 tricks without difficulty once the K was discovered to be in its proper place (actually I'm supposed to make all the tricks because the Q is doubleton) but this wasn't matchpoints.  A club lead (rather more obvious on the auction) would have been somewhat more awkward however as I would be required to unblock the T, something I doubt I would have done, not knowing that the 9 was going to fall singleton.

So, I think we were both somewhat guilty of over-bidding resulting in a less-than 50% slam (I need the diamond K onside and the ability to keep finessing from dummy or a non-club lead).  If partner's response had been 1NT I think we'd have been able to rest more safely in game.  As it turned out, we'd still have won, but by a less impressive margin.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Hideous Hog meets Miss Mouse

I can't really imagine the Hideous Hog playing against the GIBs on BBO, can you?  But I was taking a short break the other evening and a perfect Hog hand came up (spots approximate):

♠KQT82 AKAJ654 ♣8 ♠62 QJT84273 ♣KT5

The Rueful Rabbit (actually just one of the GIBs) opened 1♠ and I, doing my best H.H. imitation, bid 1NT, forcing.  R.R. bid 3 and naturally I called 3NT.  3 would have allowed the Rabbit to bid spades again and we couldn't allow that, now, could we.  Fortunately, the Rabbit knows that it is against the law to take the Hog out of a 3NT contract.

The opening lead was a low club.  Prospects were somewhat dismal given that the ♣K was the only possible entry to my hearts (after unblocking).  But there was a ray of hope if RHO had the ♣A.  He did and I played low obviously.  On the club return, I again played low and pitched the A from dummy.  The defense persisted with another club (I think this GIB must have been the Walrus in disguise) and I was able to pitch the K while winning in my hand with the ♣K.  I now began to reel off six hearts (they split 3-2) and had every hope of making the contract (all would depend on the club distribution and the location of the ♠A).

It was, however, at this point that the best laid plans went awry.  True to form, the Hideous Hog is not an aficionado of online bridge.  A slight slip of the mouse caused the D7, the aptly named "beer card", to be played instead of a fourth heart (I had indeed just enjoyed an Ipswich IPA).

I never found out whether I would have made my contract as I decided to elect the only recourse for a mis-mouse against the GIBs: quit the game!

But I would love to have the opportunity to jettison Aces and Kings, à la Hog, in a real game.  Preferably, the Life Master pairs, but any flesh-and-blood game would do.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Doubling intervention after we've found a fit

Here's a common auction: we open 1, lefty passes, partner raises to 2 and righty comes in with 2♠.  The good news is that we have one call available that we didn't have before (double), but do we really know how best to use that call?

I once had this exact auction a number of years ago now.  It was at a sectional and my right-hand opponent had earlier given a talk to the I/N players entitled "overcalls -- how to make them safely", or some similar title.  RHO now came in with 2♠ (I think all were vulnerable but I'm not sure) and I held a hand something like the following: ♠AQT4 KQ543A2 ♣K7.  I doubled and we scored 800 for a top.  It felt pretty good.

The snag is that I've played a lot of hands since then and I don't think anything quite like that has ever come up again.  If I have a good hand in that same auction, it's much more likely to look like this: ♠A2 KQ543AQT4 ♣K7.  This isn't all that bad.  I can either shoot straight to game (a slight overbid but could easily be right) or I can make a game try with 3 or 2NT.

What do I do with this hand, though: ♠92 KQ543AQT4 ♣K7?  If I bid 3 with this hand, how will partner tell the difference between this and the previous hand?  Some partnerships, including one of mine, play that 2NT is the "good-bad" 2NT (is there an ugly 2NT?).  This is a pretty good convention and partner will know that we don't have ♠2 KQ543AQT94 ♣K7 which we would show with 3.

Sometimes the opponent will have the cheek to bid 3♣ (or 3) which will prevent us from using the 2NT treatment.

I believe there's a much more flexible call available: double!  If we happen to catch partner with a good balanced hand with useful spades, he could pass, especially if they are vulnerable (seeking the magic 200).  But most of the time, he'll either sign off in 3, bid 4 (or perhaps 3NT) or bid an available minor suit as his own game try.  The double here should show a semi-balanced hand typically with a small doubleton in the enemy suit and of course only five hearts.  It shows a little extra (it denies having made a "rule-of-20" type of opening) because every now and then partner will pass and it would be nice to set their contract!

It's basically a question of frequency and the arithmetic of the scoring table.  Let's say both sides have 20 hcp.  If you believe that, on average, the total trumps will predict the total tricks and, if you go one step further and believe in the so-called Hillyard Corollary, you will predict that our side will take the same number of tricks as our total trumps and their side likewise.  I do stress that we are talking about averages here.  In the long run!   I'm not claiming that this will work out exactly on every hand.  Far from it. I'm an LOTT-skeptic too.  But let's say that both sides have an eight-card fit in their major, with no particularly good double fit.  We'd expect each side to be able to take 8 tricks.  Now, if they can make their 2♠, we'd prefer to bid 3, especially if we aren't vulnerable.  So, even though we may not be close to making game, we still want to compete!

We still need good judgment.  Let's say our hand is ♠972 KQ543AQ4 ♣K7.  It would likely be very dangerous to compete here.  Even if we get to play 3, we are likely to lose the first three tricks especially if they only have a seven-card fit.  And LHO may have some useful heart holding and double for penalties.

Those of you who play the "maximal" double will have very little difficulty adapting to this scheme.  It will now not matter at all which of the other three suits they compete in.  Double will always have approximately the same meaning.

And of course, since our direct double is essentially a cooperative double, so to will partner's be.  If we have a hand like ♠AQT KQ54392 ♣K7 we will obviously be passing 2♠.  But partner may have 8 or 9 hcp, together with spade shortness and he can double.  We will be delighted to pass.  So, we may yet achieve our 800s and 1100s.

But, to reiterate, it is unusual for these competitive auctions to result in big penalties.  We therefore use the double more as a way of describing a hand that wants to compete.  And that comes up far more frequently.

Monday, October 18, 2010

R.I.P. Norbert

I don't get to play very often with my favorite partner, Kim. For some reason we don't always play our best together. Not because we argue at the table or anything like that, but there is something indefinable which seems to get in the way. I know other married couples have similar issues. Still, we each have a reasonable idea of how to play bridge and we often do well on a team, playing at different tables.

So, it was particularly satisfying to have a good game together in Bangor, ME on Saturday. We like to combine some family time with bridge and we always enjoy the Maine sectionals. They have great snacks, and the other players are invariably friendly and pleasant to play against. The games are run by Horace and Sonya and they do an absolutely fantastic job.

Our results up there vary but we always have fun. On this occasion, there were two sections of 11 tables (one section actually had 12 tables in the afternoon). We managed to go "North of 60" in both sessions, each time winning our "section". That was good for 2nd overall behind the perennial winners, Dick and Dottie. We were just slightly over a board adrift which could so easily have been made up. For example, we managed to start the day with only 1 matchpoint out of 16 on the first two boards: on the second of these, we were defending 3X and my hand was ♠J8 Q54396542 ♣A7. Unfortunately, I don't recall the auction for sure, but I think it went something like this, starting with my RHO: 1♣ p 1 1♠; X p 2 2♠; p p 3 p; p X. After the J lead, declarer won in hand with the K and led a small diamond to dummy's ♠T752 A76AK ♣T962. Partner ruffed this with the deuce and led the ♣K. This is where I fell from grace. What would you do? Well, if you do any thinking at all you'll overtake with the Ace and shoot back a spade for +200 and 7/8 matchpoints (we might even get 500 but it wouldn't change the score). I played low, declarer ruffed the next club and then was able to pitch all of dummy's spades on good diamonds while I was forced to follow suit: -730.

But, we have really taken to heart the advice, dispensed by all the experts, on recovering from adversity: get over it and forget it. Unfortunately, in the early days of playing together I was sometimes replaced at the table by my sinister alter ego, "Norbert". On suffering a bad board, I would take on an expression "like my dog had died" and generally make my partner feel miserable. But several years ago, Norbert showed signs of ailing.

An example will be illustrative. Kim and I were playing at the Augusta sectional about three years ago. The afternoon session was going fairly well until we reached Dick and Dottie's table. On one hand they ended up in 6 which I doubled after Kim had made a very unusual (but incredibly effective) notrump overcall of 4NT (immediately over the opening bid). When 6 came around to me, I felt that the suits were not breaking favorably (and I was very short in partner's suits) so I doubled despite having no high cards at all. Exactly what I was trying to achieve is unclear. +50 would likely be a top on this hand. Anyway, partner laid down the A and it didn't matter whether she continued diamonds, switched to a club or played a trump. All roads led to down at least one. Well, not quite all. Unfortunately, Kim inferred, very reasonably, that my double actually showed some values and reasoned that those values must be in spades. The resulting spade switch caused us to go from an 8 on the board to a zero. If ever there was a hand that might invoke bitter feuding it was this one. But, the actual arguing was all by our opponents. We stepped away to await the next round and didn't say a word. That hand really was the turning point (and the beginning of Norbert's end). We went on to win the event.

Finally, I think that this week we can safely declare Norbert's demise to be final and irrevocable. And not a moment too soon, I might add. Rest in peace.

Friday, October 1, 2010


I finally got around to taking the bridge director's test earlier this week.  Not that I'm planning on performing any directorial duties any time soon -- I just started an all-consuming new job this week.  My bridge playing, and writing, is going to be seriously curtailed for a while.

I'm not sure if I passed the test.  I wasn't as well-prepared as I would have liked (I was better prepared a few months ago).  There were a few questions where it seemed that more than one answer might have been right.  But taking the test reminded me of some bad decisions that have been made against me over the years.

Many years ago, before bidding boxes, before I/N games (or even stratification), before zero tolerance, I was at the Nationals in Detroit (1980).  My partner and I were neophytes but we had something of a clue.  I was declarer in 7S (possibly 7H) and I had plenty trumps in my hand, as well as a void in diamonds.  LHO led a diamond and dummy went down.  It was immediately apparent that I had 13 tricks and I hastened things along with a claim.  Director!  RHO also had a void and when the director arrived he ruled that because I did not include in my statement any specific plan if RHO ruffed the opening lead (as in "I will overruff"), the contract was ruled down 1.

I wouldn't go so far as to say that that ruling kept me away from bridge for the next 18 years or so.  In fact, the ubiquitous smoking and the people literally yelling at each other were far more problematic.  Having a new job and a new baby pretty much concluded the decision.  But the ruling didn't help.  I now know that, when declarer makes a claim and insufficient detail is given in the statement and there are trumps out, the opponents of the claimant are presumed to have won a trump trick if a trick could be lost to that trump by any normal play (law 70C3).  A clarification in the rules states that "normal" includes play that would be careless or inferior for the class of player involved.  Under-ruffing (or discarding) on this trick would not be careless, in my opinion.  It would be bizarre.  But the director thought otherwise.  I have no idea if there were appeals in those days but the director certainly didn't mention it [it's not clear to me if there is any redress for this sort of thing anyway - the facts were not in question].

The next ruling occurred at my next NABC (Long Beach in 2003).  I was playing in a I/N event limited to 300 mps.  Neither of us had more than 100.  We were winning the event until the last board.  At trick 12, I was on lead and contrived to accidentally drop one of my cards on the table face up.  Not very smart.  The ruling was that I was deemed to have played the card.  Down 1.  2nd place.  That operative word here is accidentally in which case law 48A applies (declarer is not required to play any card dropped accidentally).  Otherwise law 45C2a applies which states that the card is played if it is held face up touching or nearly touching the table.  There was no disagreement that it had been dropped.  Regardless, I think that a little slack could have been allowed in a I/N event.

The most recent bad ruling was a couple of years ago.  It might have been at the Boston NABC or a local regional -- I just don't remember, but the director involved is a National Director (in the sense of directing at most of the NABCs around the country).  While we were sorting our cards, my partner, the dealer, dropped the DK on the table.  This situation is covered under Law 24B.  There were two passes to me.  The remedy for this situation is that I must pass at my first opportunity.  However, the ruling was that I had to pass throughout.  Quite a difference, especially as in this case I would have opened 2NT (20-21 hcp).  LHO decided to make a very marginal opening bid (1C) and all passed.  The fates had already determined partner's lead of course: the DK, which ran around to declarer's AQ.  I think we ended up -110 for a bottom while most pairs our way made +400 or so.

That last ruling was just a plain error and quite understandable.  In fact, we had to smile about it.  The others were much more judgment-related and I found them to be quite upsetting at the time.

I will say this however.  The general standard of behavior, ruling, and general comfort of all involved has increased markedly in the last thirty years!  Bridge really can be fun these days!

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

More thoughts on defensive signaling

I was a little disappointed to get no response, comments, whatever on my earlier contribution to defensive signaling: Show and Tell – More on Defensive Strategy.  Indeed the only reaction I got was from my own favorite partner who thought my idea was all wrong.

Yet, we had just suffered a bad result where, if we had both been following my ideas, we might have averted disaster.  The scene was a pickup game against the GIBs: this was the hand.  The opponents were in 2C doubled after my rather pushy negative double was left in.  It turns out that they can always make 2C but there was just a chance that maybe we could get a heart ruff provided the HJ was led at trick 3.  I led my trump to the 9, T and Q.  At trick 2 declarer played a small club to partner's J on which my discard was the S9.  According to my "show and tell" ideas, this card was purely informative (show in this case because there was no apparent defensive urgency).  After all, I had to pitch something and I certainly had plenty spades to spare.  Partner thought it was a more active signal (a "command") to switch to spades.  Nothing really bad happened: according to GIB, we were never setting this contract.  But partner was convinced that a H switch would have got us a ruff (and the setting trick). 

So, what is it really that distinguishes between show and tell.  In my previous blog I suggested it was all about distribution and level.  The more distribution and/or higher level, the more urgency exists (and therefore telling is most effective). 

But now, I'm thinking perhaps it has more to do with the dummy.  Assuming that dummy is where the ruffs, if any, are going to occur (not always the case after a transfer or in the case of a dummy reversal), the dummy pretty much dictates the type of hand.  If dummy has a good long suit with entries, or will be able to do some ruffing (bearing in mind that declarer may be able to throw dummy's losers on his own good suit and then ruff in the now short suit) then "tell" signals should prevail.  The level of urgency has been increased by an "active" dummy.

Either way, in the hand in question, dummy was pretty much rubbish and would have required a few thousand volts to make it in any way active.  So, signaling should be to show assets rather than directing the defense.

Now, does anyone have any comments?  If I'm oversimplifying something, then let me hear it!

Friday, September 24, 2010

Responding 1NT to a minor-suit opening

Generally speaking, we have so much confidence in our notrump hand evaluation that we are able to limit the ranges shown by notrump bids quite severely. Typically, an opening NT bid shows a range of just three points, rarely four (though I've known five!). As we go higher, the NT ranges become smaller (usually 2): 18-19 typically for the 2NT rebid; 20-21 for the opening 2NT, etc.

What about responding bids? Invitational bids are often 11-12. Game responses (3NT) are often played as 13-15 (or 13-16). A wider range here is OK, because most of the time, opener will simply pass. He won't go looking for slam unless he himself has 17+ (or 16+).

The tricky part arises with the 1NT responses to 1♣ or 1. Playing a 15-17 notrump (or 16-18), you can be confident in the knowledge that, if partner has a balanced hand, it will be in the 12-14 (or 12-15) range. In which case, you can bid 1NT with 6-9 (a four-point range) knowing that there is no biddable game. When playing 15-17, you can even bid 1NT with a 10 count, and probably not miss game. You might want to do this, for example, when partner opens 1 and you aren't strong enough to bid 2 or 2♣ (and you lack a four-card major).

However, playing a weak notrump of say 12-14, opener is likely to have a balanced 15+ when he opens a minor (he might also have an unbalanced hand but that's another story). If your range for 1NT is 6-9, you will miss some games unless opener stretches to raise with, say, a good 16 or 17, which can easily put you too high if responder has a minimum. The Kaplan-Sheinwold solution is to respond 1NT with 5-8 but that requires some other adjustments. The K-S solution of course was the inverted minor suit raise, defined as showing 9+ hcp, no four-card major and at least four cards in support. Note that the inverted minor concept required a little adjustment when it became applied to the "standard" bidding structure. The truly scary bid in the K-S system is the 2♣ response to 1. Not only does it not force to game, it isn't forcing to 2NT either. In theory, according to the book, you can respond 2♣ to opener's 1 even with ♠x Kxxxxx ♣QJxxxx!

I began to ponder all this after a hand at the club this week on which my partner and I, playing 12-14 notrumps, scored a big fat zero. I held ♠AJ4 A92AJ84 ♣QJ3 and opened 1. Partner responded 1NT and I had to decide if it was possible we could be missing game. Given that I had 17 hcp, including three aces (even at notrump evaluations 4 points doesn't quite do justice to an ace), I felt it might qualify for a 2NT rebid. Given that partner was relatively short in the majors, I thought my hand looked quite fine: major-suit aces that could be held up twice and fillers in the minor suits where at least seven of partner's cards would lie. I therefore rebid 2NT and partner promptly passed.

As it turned out, partner held a decent 6-count: ♠T92 J84QT74 ♣K75, but which was tragically mirrored by my hand. The opening lead was a low club and partner set about trying to find an eighth trick. Regrettably, it couldn't be done. The K and the ♠KQ were all offside. My LHO, a grand-life-master observed that our system had caused us to overbid. I wasn't convinced. A balanced 23-count will, on average, take 7.6 tricks at notrump (according to Matthew Ginsberg). Often, declarer's advantage of seeing all his resources will push the total up to 8. I had a feeling that the problem was either the expert defense, or possibly the wrong-siding of the contract. Studying the results and the hand records later confirmed this. Only 7 tricks can be taken from whichever side declares. However, every other N/S pair had taken 8 (or even more) tricks in notrump (or 9 tricks in diamonds in one case). I don't know if every other pair had played it from the strong side (this seems unlikely) but I do know that even if I had passed 1NT and partner had made his contract, we'd still be getting a zero!

In truth, it's all about the opening lead. What do you lead from ♠653 K75395 ♣A962? I would probably lead the 3, on the grounds that if I found either A or Q in my partner's hand all would be well. I'd want to reserve my certain trick (♣A) to help cash those hearts. Not so the opening leader at our table. Any heart (or the ♣A) gives away the eighth trick, even though partner has the QT6. Any of the other 8 cards is fine. From the other side, the more "normal" opening lead, the hand is: ♠KQ87 QT6K32 ♣T84. There are only five winning cards this time, none looking particularly appetizing: 32 ♣T84.

Nevertheless, the hand prompted me to take another look at the details of the Kaplan-Sheinwold system, especially the 1NT response to 1m. Some of my partnerships have monkeyed around with this system such that we don't play it exactly as it was designed (admittedly, they too, made modifications and I think eventually stopped playing it). Yet, when you look at it, it really is an incredibly well-thought-out system.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Gosh, what a hand!

Back in the day, there was no problem picking up a hand like ♠KQ76 KQT542AK7 ♣– and hearing RHO open 1♣.  You simply bid 2.  No problem.  But then we realized a jump overcall was much more frequent (and useful) if it showed a weak hand.  So that left a problem: what to do with a good one-suited hand (GOSH)?  To qualify as a GOSH, the hand should probably have a decent suit and 18+ hcp or a very good suit and 16+ hcp. 

I learned a simple rule from the excellent Robson and Segal book mentioned previously in this blog: if, having already doubled, you next make a new suit bid that, if you had bid it immediately would have been a jump overcall, you are showing a GOSH.  Although this bid isn't forcing on a partner with a Yarborough and a misfit, it is surely highly encouraging.

A few examples should clarify:
  • 1♣ X p 1 p 2: a GOSH with hearts (nothing to say about the other suits)
  • 1♣ X p 1NT p 2: ditto
  • 1♣ X p 1NT 2♣ 2: ditto
Note this last one.  It could be made perhaps on a good hand with hearts but not necessarily a true GOSH because partner has shown signs of life over there and RHO has bid again.  Still, I think it should be forcing, given that partner has significant values.

A raise of partner's suit can't be a GOSH, obviously (unless perhaps you double-raise).
  • 1♣ X p 1♠ 2♣ 2♠
  • 1♣ X p 1♠ p 2♠
The first one shows a non-minimum takeout double and confirms four spades and wants to compete.  The second (no competition) shows a hand that might still make game even though partner is limited to about 7 or 8 hcp.  Not necessarily a GOSH, though.

When is doubler's new suit not a GOSH?  This really needs to be discussed with your partner first.  But suppose the auction proceeds:
  • 1♣ X p 1 p 1: the classic "equal-level conversion".  You haven't raised the level of bidding but you're saying that you don't really have diamonds – you have a hand with both majors which is not suitable for a Michael's bid.  Perhaps something like ♠KJxx AQTxx xx ♣Ax or ♠AJxx AQxx xx ♣Axx.
  • 1 X p 1♠ p 2♣: you basically have a decent hand with clubs and hearts, perhaps with only two or three spades.  ♠Kxx AQJx xx ♣AQxx.  Similar to the equal-level conversion situation except that we have raised the level so it's not equal-level any more.  This one definitely needs to be discussed with partner.
I held the hand mentioned at the top the other evening at the club.   The auction proceeded 1♣ X p 1NT 2♣ 2, as described above.  Unfortunately, my partner didn't consider my bid to be forcing and he passed 2.  I made 5 for almost a bottom.  Possibly, my bid wouldn't be considered forcing by others.  But I can't quite picture the hand that would bid this way where we wouldn't want to play at least 2NT.

    Monday, September 20, 2010

    The gift box

    One of my partners likes to talk about the gift box being open.  There's no sense in being presented with a gift if you're not going to accept it.

    Here's an example from last week's instant matchpoint game.  Nobody was vulnerable and I dealt myself ♠KJT3AK6KJ4 ♣J54.  As we were playing a 12-14 notrump, I opened 1♣ and LHO bid 1♠.  Partner doubled and this was passed back to me.  I had just been handed a gift, but the box wasn't open.  I woodenly bid 1NT, partner raised to 3NT and I made 400 (the par score).  However, this did not matchpoint well, as others made four.  I played the hand assuming the overcaller had the missing high cards.  She didn't.  The overcall was based on a balanced six-count with five spades to the AQ8.  All I had to do was pass the double.  Surely, whether I can take 7 tricks in notrump (opposite a balanced six count with four hearts) or 9 tricks (opposite a 10-count), this looks like a hand to defend.  100 (versus 90) perhaps in the former case, 500 (versus 400) in the latter.  Admittedly it's a close call.  Still, I had been offered a gift but the box wasn't open.

    Let's spend a little more space thinking about the role (and importance) of gifts at the bridge table.  There are usually more ways to break something than there are to fix something.  This is the reason, for example, that most genetic mutations are short-lived: they probably cause something to work less well.  But every now and then a mutation improves survival for an organism in a specific environment and it gets retained.

    What has all this to do with bridge?  Well, there are more ways to bid/declare/defend a hand badly than there are ways to do it well.  Let's imagine that to bid and make 6♠ successfully on a particular board, there is really only one reasonable pathway.  Making a different bid at some point, or making a different play in the declaration will result in a lower score.  Some of those mistakes will result in a score of, say, 650 and some will result in 230 or -100.

    If you're one of the good players at the club, you will make your 6♠ along with two or three others.  The field will score less.  But you're unlikely to get a clear (unshared) top, unless you're a contender for a Bols Brilliancy Prize.  Other good players will do the same as you.  Occasionally, 6♠ might make an overtrick on a esoteric squeeze which will be missed even by the other good pairs.  But my experience says that this doesn't happen very often.

    But what if your opponents bid 7♠, missing the ♠A, you double and they manage to go down 1.  You've almost certainly "earned" a clear top.  See my comments below on earning bottoms - in this case, it was the opponents who thoroughly deserved their zero.

    My point is that good play can earn you good scores, but not tops.  To get tops, you need gifts.  And, of course, the "gift box" must be open.

    Unfortunately, along with gifts, there are fixes.  Fixes and gifts are the yin and yang of duplicate bridge.  It's hard to precisely define a fix, but let me try.  A fix happens when your opponents make a poor decision in the bidding or play but it turns out well for them.  Examples abound but here's the sort of thing.  You are playing two intermediate players and it's clearly their hand.  They sail past 3NT without really thinking and land in 4♣.  Perhaps they're not really familiar with the concept of fourth-suit-forcing.  All the average and good pairs bid the normal 3NT (plus a few that bid ♣).  You guessed it: 3NT and 5♣ fail on an unusually foul lie of the cards and 4♣ makes exactly.

    So every gift is potentially nullified by a corresponding fix.  In what follows, I will define the number of "gifts" as the net of gifts and fixes.

    What about bottoms?  I am confident that the converse is true.  You can quite easily generate zeroes on your own account, while fixes are unlikely to give you a clear bottom (there's usually two or three tables where the fix occurs).  An example of a self-inflicted zero?  That's easy: making a close double and then allowing them to make.

    A score over about 60% is almost certain to have benefited from (a net of) several gifts, unless you're Zia filling in at the local intermediate/novice game.  I estimate that the gift factor at your local club is about 15% (plus or minus 7.5%).  Let's say a good pair plays reasonably well and doesn't make too many silly errors.  With no net gifts let's say they will score 50%.  But if the opponents are generous, they might score 65%.  Everything depends on the gift factor.  In the Life Master Pairs, the gift factor is somewhat less, but still significant.  I'd guess something like 4% either way.

    By contrast, a score of less then 40% (the Mendoza line of duplicate bridge) is almost certain to have benefited (if that's the right word) from several own goals.

    Bridge is such a fascinating game!

    Sunday, September 19, 2010

    Poet Laureate of Bridge

    Did you know that I am the reigning Poet Laureate of bridge?  I thought not.  It hasn't been well-publicized.  But I have a certificate from the ACBL to attest to the fact.

    At the Reno tournament this year, a limerick contest was set up as the entertainment on the evening that was St. Patrick's Day (March 17th in case you come from a different planet).  Whether or not the limerick is a truly Irish form of poetry is very much open to question.  The form was popularized by the Englishman Edward Lear (1812-88).  In any case, you can learn more on Wikipedia.

    I decided to enter the contest after reading about it in the Daily Bulletin at the start of the tournament.  I got a little carried away and submitted five entries, although I admit that the first one I came up with was the best.  The judges apparently thought so too and I successfully challenged all comers to win the prize of $60 and the certificate, at least until next St. Patrick's Day.

    Here is my winning entry:

    This game of bridge is a breeze,
    I bid six notrump as a tease,
    I sure got my kicks
    When I wrapped up twelve tricks,
    Lucking into a stepping stone squeeze.

    In future blogs, I may share with you some of the others too.

    Saturday, September 18, 2010

    Hoist with his own petard

    If I were a bridge teacher, one of the lessons I would emphasize for my students is to avoid being hoist by their own petard.  Before explaining exactly what I mean by this, let me digress a little.

    A petard was an early form of small bomb or grenade.  Its etymology is fascinating, as is Shakespeare's coining, in Hamlet, of the phrase that forms the title of this piece.  You can read all about it on Wikipedia.  The essence of these forms of ordnance is that they are used at relatively close quarters, unless you have a launcher, as in an RPG.  But if you're going to use it on a nearby target, there are two essential steps: arm it; throw it.  If you fail to do the first, nothing happens.  If you fail to do the second, everything happens, but you will know nothing about it. 

    If you'll forgive a further digression, my father was in the Grenadier Guards, one of Britain's elite regiments, and spent most of World War II as a small arms and weapons instructor.  They were doing live ammunition training when one of the recruits pulled the pin from the grenade and then froze.  My dad had to grab it and chuck it or they both would have gone poof!  And I wouldn't be here writing this.  He got a mention-in-dispatches for that.

    In my bridge analogy, the act of thinking about bidding a suit on the next (or later) round is pulling the pin.  Throwing it is when, on the next round, you realize that if the suit wasn't good enough to bid before, it isn't good enough to bid now.  Being hoist by one's own petard is bidding the suit later when you know it isn't a good idea, getting doubled and going for a number.

    I discussed one example of this in one of my earliest blogs called Daytime Bridge.  Here's another which happened the other evening in the instant matchpoint game.  An opponent held ♠ J43 KQT62 T2 ♣ AJ8 and all were white.  If RHO dealt and opened 1♣ or 1, you'd probably bid 1, right?  I think so.  Maybe not everyone would bid 1 but I think most would.  What if RHO opened 1♠?  You have to bid at the two-level now if you want to get your suit in and you have three quick losers in RHO's suit (the "death" holding).  Against that, partner might have either a good hand, three hearts, or both!  In fact, you could have a game!  Nevertheless, to my mind, this is not even a close decision.  I would pass every time.  If partner has the right hand, he may well get a chance to do something.

    Now, how about this scenario?  Partner deals and passes, RHO passes and you "pull the pin" by thinking that you have a nice heart suit that you'd like to mention but you decide you don't have a good enough hand to bid 1.  LHO bids 1♠, partner passes again and RHO bids a semi-forcing 1NT.  Is there any incentive in the world that could make me bid 2 now?  A gun to my head perhaps.  Bidding 2 now is the military equivalent of forgetting to throw the damn grenade!  If the hand was not good enough to bid in third seat and now, with the opponents advertising no fit, and partner showing nothing, how could it possibly be good enough to bid as an overcall at the two level?

    The result was somewhat predictable.  The spade bidder doubled with ♠ AKT962 J75 AK8 ♣ 5 and the 1NT bidder passed with Axx.  The result was down 3 for -500.  This score wasn't even mentioned among the instant matchpoints so was scored as 0/100.  Maybe it would have been OK if the opponents were vulnerable.  They do have a game, after all, either 3NT or 4♠.  They can even make 6 from RHO's side (but only 4 from the other side).  The point is that with no fit and only 24hcp, only one pair bid and made a game, so -500 was still going to be almost a bottom.

    All the experts tell us that, if we're going to make an overcall or other tactical bid, get in and get out early.  Preferably, before the opponents have had a chance to exchange useful information.

    Is it the fault of the intermediate players when they make these bad overcalls?  No, I strongly suspect the bridge teachers.  I often hear beginning players use the expression "... only an overcall" as if the requirements for an overcall are so much less stringent than for an opening bid.  They must be getting this notion from somewhere, and I'm sure it's not in any books.  Of course many hands qualify for both and many qualify as neither.  The difference is not just a question of strength: it's a question of suit quality, offensive orientation, preemption and several other factors.  In many respects, the requirements to qualify as an overcall are a lot more exacting than they are for an opening bid!

    Thursday, September 16, 2010

    When to bid a slam

    I often hear players saying something like "if it were IMPs, I'd bid the slam" or "if it were matchpoints, I'd bid it".  In fact, Marty Bergen's September column in the Bridge Bulletin quotes people saying the former sentiment.  This reasoning doesn't directly follow from the scoring table, but I think I can understand the logic behind it.  Let's do the math.

    In theory at matchpoints, that's to say when you are playing against your peers, making any bid will be right if it gains 51% or more of the time and wrong if it gains in 49% or fewer cases.  If you make the bid and the resulting contract is on a pure finesse, then you'll break even in the long run.  Therefore, you want your slam to be better than 50% to be right.

    At IMPs, again assuming you are playing against your peers, a slam is theoretically also a 50-50 proposition.  If you're right (bidding/not bidding as appropriate), you gain 11 imps not vulnerable and 13 imps vulnerable.  If you're wrong, you lose 11 or 13 imps respectively.

    So there's no difference in the form of scoring as far as bidding slams, right?

    Well, not quite.  If you're not playing against your peers (let's say you're a good player at a daytime bridge game), you may get a good board just by making 12 tricks when the others only gather 10 or 11 tricks.  You don't need to risk going down in slam under such circumstances.  Let's say you're contemplating bidding 6NT (no good fit having been found).  Weaker players are notoriously bad at taking all their tricks in notrump contracts, so just making 12 tricks is likely to get you 8 (or 9) out of 11 points.  That's a decent result.  Thus bidding the slam risks 8 to gain only 3.  The argument is weaker when there is a good major suit fit and lots of points because many pairs are likely to bid slam and if it's there, most will make 12 tricks.

    What about at IMPs?  Going back to our hypothetical 6NT.  You will likely gain only 1 or, at most, 2 imps by your superior declarer play.  Not nearly so compelling.  Thus there's a little more incentive to actually bid the slam.  Even so, against weaker declarers, you are risking 11 (13) to gain only 10 (12).

    And what about grand slams?  At matchpoints, we theoretically need the same 50% when playing against our peers.  But again, just taking 13 tricks may be good enough against weaker players.  Especially since some of those players won't even be in a small slam and so bidding and making 6 with an overtrick is likely to be a very good score, perhaps 10 out of 11.  In other words, you will be risking 10 mps to gain 1.  Not good odds!

    The gain for bidding and making a grand at IMPs is essentially the same as for a small slam: 13 or 11 imps, depending on vulnerability.  However, the risks are greater.  If you're wrong (and the small slam is making), you are losing 17 or 14 imps depending on vulnerability.  Thus the probability you need is either 56.7% (vul) or 56% (n-v).  These are the figures when you are playing your peers.  The odds are even less in favor of bidding when you are playing a weaker team.  They might not even get to the small slam at the other table!

    In this case, by stopping in six, you were already gaining 11 or 13 imps.  The extra grand slam bonus would amount to only a net gain of 3 or 4.  The risk is admittedly slightly less now: 11 or 13, as in the case where you were deciding on slam versus game.  So, playing the weaker team, you risk 11 (or 13) to gain 3 (or 4).  Now you need cards that give you a probability of at least 78.6% (n-v) or 76.5% (vul).  That's why you shouldn't bid a grand unless you can count 13 tricks.  And why the late great Barry Crane expressly forbade his teammates to bid grand slams. 

    So, in conclusion, I suppose there are hands where, at the club, you'd bid a slam at IMPs where you wouldn't at MPs.  But at the Life Master Pairs (or equivalent), the small slam odds really are 50-50 at either form of scoring.

    Wednesday, September 15, 2010

    The Principle of Least Commitment

    Do you know all 656 of the suit combinations in the Bridge Encyclopedia?  Neither do I. Can you always visualize exactly what's out against you and evaluate every line in terms of its percentage success rate?  Neither can I.

    So begins the article that I've been working on for several years which might eventually make it into some bridge magazine if I can ever perfect it.  This is the current state of the article. It seems to me to be a valuable principle, as much so as the principle of restricted choice, to which it is related, for example.  But I've never heard anyone mention anything like it.  Am I missing something?  Is it so blindingly obvious that I'm the only person to think it worth writing down?

    I was reminded of it last night at the bridge club because there were two PLC transgressions at our table, at least that I noticed.  Here's one: you are in a 3NT contract with 24 hcp and you have the following suit to play: AQT94 in dummy opposite 65 in the closed hand.  You have the tempo and sufficient entries to both hands.  How do you play the suit to maximum advantage?  Well, you finesse the 9/T.  If the K and J are split then you are simply guessing.  If they're both guarded offside you're doomed to lose two tricks in the suit regardless.  But here's the case where it matters: KJx on your left and xxx on your right.  By finessing the T first, you pick up the entire suit.  If you finesse the Q first, you must give up a trick.  Least commitment.  As it happened, KJxx was on the left so it didn't matter but the declarer didn't give himself quite the best chance.

    Here was the second case: You're in 3S and your trump suit is 632 in the dummy and AQT874 in the closed hand.  At first sight you might say, aha, just like last time, let's finesse the T first (as the actual declarer did, losing to Jx).  But here there are only four cards out, as opposed to the six in the last example.  You should expect to be finessing once only (not twice as before).  This despite the fact that you have an extra card in the short hand with which to finesse.  In "normal" layouts of the suit (2-2 or 3-1 splits), the cards T and below are essentially irrelevant here.  Correct play is to take the obvious finesse of the Q which has a 27% chance of picking up the entire suit (essentially, you need the K onside and a 2-2 split or some other fortuitous event like singleton J offside).

    In this case, there were three losers outside the trump suit.  Our opponents had stopped in 3S where some might have been in game.  Thus, there might be something to be said for taking the safety play for five tricks.  However, as is often the case when we have no sequences of our own (here, they have none either), the "least commitment" strategy is to bang down the Ace (that takes no guesswork at all!).  Now, you increase your chance of taking 5 tricks to 83%.

    If you can offer any suggestions for my description of the PLC, I'd appreciate it.

    Wednesday, September 8, 2010

    How likely is it that NT bid has three cards in my major?

    Dave, a bridge friend of mine who lives in Colorado and works for the Rockies (I imagine him, like George on Seinfeld, discussing business strategy with the Rocky equivalent of the late Mr. Steinbrenner), recently posed me a bridge probabilities problem.  Dave was interested in the likelihood of an opening notrump bidder having 2, 3, 4 or 5 cards in responder's major

    In principle, it's a simple problem.  Let's assume that we have five hearts and therefore, after counting partner's guaranteed doubleton, there are six hearts to be distributed among the three unseen hands.  Naturally, I used a method based on the principle of Vacant Places and with the starting assumption that opener has only 5 vacant places (remember, he has two cards guaranteed in each suit) and that the unseen hands have 13 vacant places each.  Still, because there are six hearts to "deal out", it quickly led to quite a bit of complexity (if you were to examine every case, there are 3^5 = 243 different ways to deal those cards).  Since there were eight probabilities in total he was seeking (he was also interested in the situation where we have a six-card major), I decided that a little Java programming was in order.

    The results are a little surprising perhaps: the most likely holding opposite is three, with a probability of 44% or so (almost 50%!), regardless of our own length.  Another way of looking at it is that only roughly one third of the time will I be disappointed and find a doubleton in his hand opposite my own longish suit.  I also added the figures for a four-card suit in responder's hand.

    The following table shows the specific probabilities, always assuming of course that opener is "allowed" to open 1NT with a five card suit (but no longer), but is not allowed to open with any suit shorter than a doubleton:

    Partner's length:2345
    My length:

    So, now I'm well set up for doing any vacant-places calculations of any complexity.  Comments welcome.

    Are there style points for going down in a hand slowly?

    The answer to the question posed in the title is surely no.  An exception might be made for running a squeeze or throw-in because these normally need to be performed late in the hand.  If the throw-in or squeeze doesn't operate, you've usually lost nothing but at least gained some style points.

    So why do I continue to try to delay a bad result simply by playing off winners?  Here's a case in point.  I held ♠3 AK93 AKT873 ♣A9 in an IMP pairs.  A very nice hand by any yardstick.  With opponents silent, the auction proceeded: 1, 1♠, 2, 3NT.  Clearly 3NT showed enough values for game opposite a minimum reverse but otherwise a balanced hand with nothing more to say.  I tried 4, partner bid 4 and I closed the proceedings with an ambitious 6.  A club was led and dummy was reasonable, though not quite what I was hoping for: ♠AJ84 J86 Q6 ♣Q832.  Still, he had the other Ace (not perhaps as useful as a King somewhere else) and the Q of trumps.

    I tried the ♣Q without much confidence and it was covered by the K which I won with the A.  Now what?  The lead was very damaging.  I might avoid a heart loser by leading low to the J and finding the Q on my left, but a club will be cashed immediately.  What about trying for the QT on my right?  This is only a 24% shot and, needless to say, if one of the cards is wrong, my contract will go down in flames at trick 4 (after I've crossed to the Q and run the J).

    Something in the back of my mind nagged at me that it was extremely ignominious to go down as early as trick 4 so guess what I did?  I abandoned even my 24% shot and played for a miracle.  I'm not exactly sure which miracle I was hoping for (QT doubleton or somebody pitching the J and T of clubs perhaps?).  But suffice to say I went down with no style points whatsoever several tricks later.

    As it happens of course, my execrable bidding was about to be rewarded with a very fortuitous lie of the cards, except that I didn't take the finesse at trick 3 and thereafter had only one entry to dummy (the ♠A). 

    So, why am I telling you this?  Because just maybe I can get it into my thick skull that there's really no difference whether you go down at trick 4 or trick 13.  Down is down!  And a small chance is better than no chance.

    Tuesday, August 31, 2010

    The week of the fit-showing jump

    After having played fit-showing jumps with a few partners over the last six months to a year, I've been quite disappointed in how infrequently they come up.  Certainly, they are brilliant when they occur, but they seldom arise in practice.

    So, I was surprised when no fewer than five arose last week.  All got us at least an average board and some did quite a bit better than that.  They weren't all perfect specimens, but they were good enough.

    So, in case you're wondering what is a fit-showing jump, I should refer you to Robson & Segal's excellent book: Partnership Bidding at Bridge: The Contested Auction.  I was so impressed by a) the advantages conferred by this treatment and b) the fact that usually such bids have no other useful meaning, that I adopted the convention with every partner I could persuade or coerce into playing FSJs.

    Here's my version of the basic idea: when our side has at about half the deck (or more) and a fit, we have various different ways of supporting partner: single raise, limit raise, delayed raise, Bergen raise, Jacoby 2NT, splinter, Soloway jump shifts, etc. etc.  These are all wonderful ways to describe our hand and fit.  There's just one snag: at least half the time the darn opponents are in there, muddying the waters.  Many of these wonderful treatments are now off and we have to fall back on cue-bids, Truscott, simple raises, preemptive raises, etc.

    It's well known that a double fit will often enable a side to take one (or more) additional tricks over what might be expected otherwise.  Enter the FSJ.

    Let's suppose we have a hand with a fit for partner which, opposite partner's minimum, we reasonably expect will allow our side to make a three-level contract.  If, in addition, we have a good side suit, we show it by jumping in that suit.  If the opponents continue to interfere, partner will be well-placed to know what to do.  The bid is forcing to three-of-our-suit so we can use the bid with any strength.  Either partner can continue the auction appropriately, showing either a minimum or extras.

    Sometimes, the jump will actually be to the four-level and this will normally show greater values, especially if a jump to the three-level was available.

    The reason that we limit the FSJ to hands with a good side suit is that partner will be basing his judgment (double, pass or bid on) based on knowing that all or most of our values will be in "our" two suits.  If we were to make an FSJ with, say, an empty five-card side suit, partner will devalue his hand for offensive purposes with a singleton or void in that suit, when in fact, he will have a very offense-oriented holding.  He may misjudge and double the opponents when we should be bidding on.  So, the side suit must have values.  Something like AQJxx would be perfect.  Partner, looking at Kxx in that suit, or even Txx, will know that we have a great double fit.

    So, what about a hand?  I'm a little ashamed of this example.  Partly because, my side suit wasn't that good, and partly because, seeing the complete layout, the opponents could have done much better than they did.  Still, the FSJ does put pressure on the opponents and they don't have the benefit of knowing so well about any double fits.

    So, here's the hand:  ♠95 QJ42 QJT84 ♣J9.  The opponents were vulnerable while we were not, and my LHO dealt and opened the bidding with 1♠.  Partner overcalled 2.  RHO doubled (negative).  I bid 4, a fit-showing jump showing a heart fit and a good diamond suit [yes, the A instead of the 8 would have been better].  I wanted my partner to be able to judge what to do if the opponents bid 4♠ (or perhaps 5♣).  In the event, neither of these things happened.  Partner, holding ♠7642 AKT73 A6 ♣84, simply bid 4 and there it rested.  We were -100 while the opponents could easily make 4♣ (the most popular contract) or 4♠.  Yes, the opponents could have doubled us for 300 which would have been good for them as it happens, or outbid us to 4♠ which would have been a shared top, but they didn't do either of these things.  Even if partner decides to bid on, on the basis of Ax in my side suit, we'd still be only -500 against a vulnerable game.

    I didn't have a lot of high-card points, and some might criticize my bid because partner should expect more and might be tempted to double 4♠ on his hand.  But I think that, at the vulnerability, a little slack needs to be given to the jumping partner.

    Given that R&S devote about 200 pages to this subject, I obviously have not been able to give it the full treatment.  Another great aspect of the method is that, when we don't have a good side suit, we can cue-bid or bid 2NT showing three or four card support, respectively.  Knowing how good our fit is will be more help than nothing.

    I'm still awaiting the perfect FSJ hand.  But it shouldn't be long now!