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!

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