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.

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