Sunday, June 27, 2010

Sometimes you're the windshield, sometimes you're the bug

Sometimes you're the windshield, sometimes you're the bug.  This is an expression that Kim often consoles me with after I've had a bad session or two of bridge (or, for example, when England loses to Germany).  It's something that bridge players have to live with.  Because bridge is essentially a game of incomplete information for all four players at the table, almost anything can happen.  Add to that the varying skill levels of the players, the different bidding and defensive systems of the partnerships, the different states of emotion and readiness of the individuals.  And the fact that in duplicate bridge, there is always at least one other table in play over which "we" at our table no control whatsoever.

The only other time I played with Peter in a serious event, we were tied for second.  In yesterday's A/X pairs we might have been tied for second again, but this time counting from the bottom!  Whereas in our first effort, we got lucky with some of our actions and received a good number of gifts, yesterday it was the reverse.  I played badly.  No question about that.  Especially in the evening session where I couldn't concentrate to save my life.  Having had a mediocre first session, there was essentially nothing to play for.  We both could have used a good nap.

One board stands out as being particularly exasperating.  I was declaring a perfectly normal 4-of-a-major contract against a pair I didn't know.  I had a combination in a side suit that cried out for an elimination (in hopes of an overtrick).  Watching the carding of the opponents (playing standard carding) it appeared that one of the suits to be eliminated was dividing 3-4.  It was a totally normal situation where defenders would normally show count in a side suit early in the hand (this was trick 2).  However, I was aware that one, or both, players might "lie" about the count.  Yet their carding appeared consistent.  So, I made a play that depended on the location of the 9 of trumps being right (50%), and the opponents' carding.  In other words, there was significantly better than a 87.5% chance of my play being safe.  Both opponents had to be "lying" for no good reason and the 9 had to be wrong.  You guessed it.  I'm sure I was the only person in the room going down in what was a claimer for 10 tricks at trick 1.  And with the actual layout, it turned out that no overtrick was ever possible.  The dumb things we sometimes do at matchpoints!  [postcript: in my defense, it turns out that 420 was worth 5.5 while 450 was worth 15 matchpoints, so that on the unfavorable lead I received, I was risking 5 mps to gain 10, that's to say odds of 2:1].

Jan and I did enjoy winning the single-session Swiss (euphemism for "wooden spoon") with a score of 64.  I also enjoyed, with Peter, our losing knockout match against the #2 seed.  As everyone says, if you want to improve, you have to play the best teams.  One thing about playing good teams is that table manners are, at least in my experience, universally impeccable.  That really adds to the enjoyment of getting crushed!

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

New DSIP rule to cope with two-suited bids

In the DSIP rule summary, I state that doubles after a two-suited bid (by either side) are for penalties.  The one noted exception is that when partner makes a two-suited bid and one of the suits is unknown, an immediate double asks partner to bid the unknown suit.

When they make a two-suited bid, the situation is slightly different.  Whether we know both suits or not, we don't know which suit they are going to settle in.  I propose that a delayed double after they make a two-suited bid is for takeout of the suit they have now bid.  This should not be confused with a delayed double of a (known) suit, which is always for penalty.

Here's an example of a hand where a delayed double would have worked better.  Partner opened 1NT (12-14) and RHO bid 2NT for the minors.  None were vulnerable and I held the following hand: ♠xxxx Kxxx x ♣KQxx..  I wanted to compete and/or to suggest a possible penalty so I doubled.  Partner doubled the takeout to 3 and they made 5 (most probably I could have saved a trick but I thought I was squeezed).  We lost 11 imps on the board. Obviously, I didn't have enough hcp to suggest a penalty double.

What I perhaps needed to do was to pass over 2NT and then double when 3 came around to me.  Even then it's a questionable action because my club holding won't be very useful.  But I think we'd have done better than -670, assuming partner takes it out to his four-card major. 

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Jumping in the pass-out seat

There's fairly uniform agreement on what kind of a hand 2 or 2♠ shows after three passes: it's kind of an intermediate two-bid: a good six card suit and somewhere in the 9-13 hcp range.  In other words, either a maximum weak two or a minimum opener.  The logic is easy.  You have, say, 11 hcp which leaves 29 for the other players.  You already know that none of them has an opening bid.  Most probably they have 9 or 10 points each. Between them, they have 7 spades so that's 2 or 3 each on average. If partner has 9 with two pieces in support, you will typically be able to make 2♠ and the opponents, remember each of them has already passed, will be loathe to come in at the three level.  Preemption with a good expectation of making.  What could be better?

But what if LHO opens, say, 1♣ or 1 and there are two passes to you?  If there is a "standard" meaning for 2 or 2♠ here, it is a good hand with a good suit.  Something around 16 hcp and a good six-card suit.  What always surprises me is how many good players don't seem to know this.  Many think that it is an intermediate sort of bid (as after three passes).

This time the logic is less compelling.  LHO has at least opening strength and may have just less than he needs to open 2♣ or 2NT.  He doesn't have a balanced hand in his 1 notrump opening range, but that doesn't exclude very many hands.  On general principles, let's say he has 14 points or thereabouts.  We know RHO has less than about six points.  Let's say we have the hand with 11 hcp and six spades.  Again, partner should have about 10 hcp so 2♠ is likely make reasonably easily.

But there's a catch.  And it's especially likely to happen the longer is our holding in LHO's minor and the shorter we are in the other major.  The feared circumstance is when partner is in fact weak and LHO is strong.  He is likely to double our 2♠ and might even find a game (or slam) when we could have passed it out!

If we have length in LHO's minor, partner is, all things being equal, likely to have few cards and therefore, with any modicum of strength, might have been able to act.  And if we're both short in the other major, the opponents might have a good fit there.

Given that both treatments have some merit, it's good to decide ahead of time whether to use the jump balancing overcall as intermediate or strong.

At last week's tournament in Saratoga, my partner and I had not discussed it.  The bidding started on my left with 1, followed by two passes (none vulnerable).  My hand was something like ♠AQJxxx KQJ xx ♣Axx.  I bid 2♠ and LHO asked what that meant.  Partner informed her that we had no specific agreement (in fact, he thought it was intermediate).  LHO doubled, partner passed and RHO bid 2.  Yes, you read that right.  I decided to accept the 2 call and was obliged to borrow my LHO's 2♠ card in order to bid 2♠ again.  This time, partner felt that his hand was just good enough to raise to 3♠, although it's hard to know exactly what 2♠ means when it's bid again.  I raised that to 4♠ which I was able to make on the nose.  The opponents at the other table made the same tricks but did not bid the game, so we picked up a useful 6 IMPs.

It's always fun to be able to make the same bid twice!  I suppose I could have accepted and passed and allowed partner to bid 2♠ with support.  Perhaps that would have been better but I felt I had a little extra myself.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Rewarding mediocrity

Another rant on the subject of masterpoints.  Steve and I were in the single session consolation Swiss.  One of our team had over 2700 points so we were an "A" team.  There were 11 As, 12 Bs, and 8 Cs.  The event "paid" 6 As, 6Bs and 4Cs.  We had 51 VPs which unfortunately was only 7th, but who cares, it was a nothing event and master-points are not that important anyway.

But here's the thing: to "scratch" in B, you only needed 41 VPs (barely above average) for 1.26 masterpoints.  To scratch in C, you only needed 32 VPs, way below average, and this was worth 1.35 red!

Is this sanity?  Or insanity?

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Those tough high-level decisions

One of the trickiest aspects of bridge is when the opponents jam the auction.  Here's an example.  Nobody is vulnerable and you are fourth to speak. You need to have your thinking cap on from the moment you pick up and sort your cards: ♠K9754 JT962 K85 ♣ –.  LHO opens 1♣, partner bids 1♠ and RHO bids 5♣.  Quick, you have 10 seconds to think about this before you start imparting unauthorized information to partner.

You can spend some of the time trying to think about what partner has for his overcall.  But I think that's not going to help much.  Overcalls are, by their very nature, wide-ranging, especially a space-gobbling 1♠ over 1♣.  At all-white, partner could have ♠QJT62 A87 742 ♣32 or ♠AQJT2 AQ7 A742 ♣2 or anything in between.  How can you tell whose hand it is and how high to bid?

Fortunately, you really don't have to.  With all its faults, there is no guide to this sort of situation like the law of total tricks.  So, how many total tricks do we think there are?  We apparently have 10 spades and the opponents surely have 10 clubs.  That's 20 tricks, more or less.  But is it more or is it less?  If it's only 19 tricks, suggesting an "impure" layout, we will be right to bid on only if we can make slam but if we can just make game, then we will be better off doubling (500 vs. 450).  This doesn't really look like a slam situation so we might double (takeout-oriented and maybe partner can pass with wastage in clubs).

What if the total tricks are 20.  This is the toughest problem because if each side can make 10 tricks, we should pass (100 vs. -100).  However, the other divisions of 20 tricks all favor bidding: 450 vs 300, -300 vs -400.

What if the total tricks are 21 (or even more).  Then all situations favor bidding on: 980 vs. 300, 450 vs. 100, -300 vs. -920.  With 22 tricks, bidding at least one more is a no-brainer.

So, it comes back to guessing how many total tricks there are.  Voids tend to increase tricks, short-suit honors tend to reduce tricks.  Again, we don't know partner's hand but if he's a disciplined bidder, he probably won't have Qxx, Jxx or xxx in clubs (three losers) unless he has a very good hand otherwise.  He might have Jxxx or Txxx in clubs but that seems unlikely on the bidding.  So, he might have a wasted A or K in clubs but probably nothing else.  I think in this case, I would estimate more rather than fewer total tricks.  Let's say 21.  Therefore, I would probably bid 5♠.  Even if there are only 20 total tricks, bidding on will be right most of the time, as noted above.

On this particular hand (board 17 from Friday's world-wide pairs), there were 22 total tricks because RHO also had a void (in spades), the opponents had 11 clubs between them and there was essentially no wastage.  In practice, we let them play (and make) 5♣ unmolested for a below-average result.  I'm not saying that pass was wrong, just that I probably wouldn't pass.  It could have been exactly right.  Essentially, RHO made a good bid because it made life very difficult for us.  That's why good players make this kind of bid: it causes problems.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Pressure bids

There's a certain type of bid, of which I happen to be rather enamored, called the pressure bid.  I learned to do this from Robson and Segal: Partnership Bidding -- The Contested Auction, a brilliant book BTW.  A pressure bid is a uni-lateral jump bid made with the purpose of disrupting the opponent's auction and misleading the opponents about the layout of the hand.  It is a gambit which, by its very nature, can only be made once partner has passed.  Not, by the way, when partner has passed over an opening bid because while he may have a worthless hand, he might also be laying a trap for his opponents.  Like the heffalump trap, it's better to try and stay out of it ourselves.

More conservative authors, such as Larry Cohen, call this a wide-ranging jump overcall.  It's wide-ranging because the strength can be anything from almost a bust to just under an opening bid and because the distribution may be more balanced (or possibly less balanced) than might normally be expected for the bid.

The partner of the pressure bidder must respect the fact that he's already passed and, as always, should avoid taking marginal actions.  But opposite a pressure bid, the responsibility of passer is a little more extreme.  The way I characterize it for my partners is: don't raise unless you have:
  • four trumps and a side void; or
  • five trumps and a side singleton; and/or
  • a reasonable expectation of making game if partner is at the top end of his strength range.

There is a control bid which can be used to encourage the pressure bidder to sacrifice if he has a good distributional hand: 3NT.  This obviously needs to be used only in partnerships which have explicitly discussed it.  Otherwise, pressure bidder's lips are forever sealed (except when passer invites game).

One of my partners has suggested that I should keep track of the pressure bids that I make to see how they work out in practice.  This of course is an excellent suggestion which thus far I have neglected.  My guess is that I come out ahead probably 60% of the time.  It is a strategy prone to tops and bottoms by its nature and the fact that most other players will not be doing the same thing.  In a way, it is similar to psyching, and thus should only ever be used on good opponents.  There is no point in making a pressure bid against a pair that you were probably going to get a good board from in the normal way.

So, I shall try to use this space for tracking my pressure bids, beginning with one which turned out to be a modest success.

The scene: the last (third) board of the first round of a club game against a good pair (who actually won their direction, despite getting only 23% for the first round).  They are vulnerable and we are not, the typical colors for pressure bids.  My hand: ♠AQJ98 64 QT ♣9743.  Partner deals and passes (the green light goes on!) and RHO bids 1.  I confidently bid 2♠ (there is no point in making these bids with less than 100% confidence!)  Partner alerts and then explains my bid (whether this is really necessary I'm not sure but it certainly helps later if the opponents feel damaged).  LHO reluctantly passes.  Partner, as expected, passes too.  RHO, after some thought, comes in with a double.  This is the moment you've been dreading: your bad weak jump overcall has now been exposed and you are going to pay the price.  As it happens, partner has three spades and our butcher's bill for 2♠X would actually be only 100.  LHO bids 3 and there it rests.  In fact, the opponents can, with careful play, make 3NT.

Now, here's the fun part.  After I drop the T on the first round, declarer quite reasonably plays me for a singleton diamond and finesses into my Q.  I am now able to give partner a ruff in clubs, the suit to which I switched on winning the ♠A at trick 1.  So we end up getting two tricks we're not entitled to and we are the ones collecting 100 and scoring 9.5 out of 15 (63.3%).  I suspect that we would have done better but the obvious 3NT takes some quite careful play and I'll bet that many of our "teammates" ended up going down in that contract.

I know that it's only a matter of time before I am down 1100 on a board on which we rated to go plus.  But so far, after maybe ten to twelve of these types of bid, I have yet to befall such a fate.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

If it's good enough to raise, it's good enough to lead

I'm still thinking about a hand that bothered me in the Reno Jacoby Swiss, first described in an earlier blog More discipline.  It was the very first board of the event, playing the John Diamond team, the eventual winners of this prestigious two-day affair.  Let's look at it from my partner's point of view, for whom I will use the pronoun you.  All are vulnerable and your hand is ♠532 T83 Q965 ♣974.  CHO (me) deals and opens 1.  RHO bids 1♠.  Your call?  Pass is the disciplined (and obvious) call, as described in the earlier blog. But instead you decide to raise to 2.  The bidding ends with partner (me) doubling their 4♠.  Now is not the time to panic.  You certainly are under strength for the diamond raise, but partner won't be doubling without a likely four tricks so the fact that you won't be providing any may not matter too much.

So your obvious lead is a low diamond, according to whether we play fourth best or 3rd/5th.  Would you even consider anything else?  Not in this situation, unless it was a trump perhaps.  But my partner decided to lead the 3.  This had a devastating effect on the defense.  From my point of view this looked like a singleton, except that advancer had bid hearts and overcaller had not supported them.  Given that dummy held KJ to five and I had the Axxx, the only possible holding you could have for the lead, given that you went out of your way not to make the obvious lead, had to be Qxxx.  Unfortunately, declarer had the singleton Q and I was only able to take my three other tricks after that.  The resulting 18 imp swing was most of the margin of defeat in that match.  [I dare say there were other clues that should have steered me in the right direction, but the earlier in the hand we have to make a crucial decision, the more we are in the dark and have to rely on figuring out partner's motives].

So what would be the legitimate exceptions to leading a raised suit?
  • A singleton, as always a reasonable lead when partner has entries;
  • a trump when indicated (they are sacrificing or you believe declarer will have losers to ruff and not too many trumps to ruff them with);
  • when holding the A of our suit (it's a well-established fact that partner doesn't always have the K, even when he's bid the suit!);
  • and, occasionally, when partner has most of our assets, we might try leading a doubleton.
There's one other observation I'd like to make about raising partner's suit.  It's always good to raise if you can.  But the principle of useful space applies here too, as it does when considering an overcall of the opponent's opening bid.  The fewer calls you prevent your next opponent from making, the more solid your values should be.  When partner opens  1♣ and the next opponent doubles or bids 1, you should really want to get in there with a 2♣, or even 3♣, call.  But suppose partner opens 1and RHO bids 1♠, a 2 call will deprive LHO of 1NT and 2♣ only, bids that he probably wasn't going to want to make anyway.

So, if it's good enough to raise, it's good enough to lead!