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!

1 comment:

  1. This article brings up two great points.

    First you are so right about the gift box needing to be opened. I personally think gifts often in a 24 board set. More times its something small, like the lead or an overcall everyone didn't make which tells you how to play the hand. And the difference between being a good or great player is two things, consistence and accepting the little gifts.

    I have often wondered what a percentage in a MP game consists off. Rarely does one score below 35% or above 65%. Or another way to think about it is how much of a pairs score is predetermined but flat board, average boards, mistake the opponents will make, etc.

    Deciding what a gift versus one making a good play can be hard. Is finding an endplay LHO could unblock from a gift or good play or somewhere between. Overall, I think +/- 7.5% (about 3 boards as they don't make bottoms tops) is too small a percentage of ones scores to account towards gifts. I think one needs to count boards were your bid or play gives the opponents a chance to go wrong. I think gift % can be far more, maybe 6 boards, it just rare you open all of them.