Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Abbot and the Hog

I'm a big fan of bridge humor, starting with the relatively serious S. J. Simon's Why You Lose at Bridge and Cut for Partners through all of Victor Mollo's Menagerie series to David Bird's many characters.  Yes, there are other humorous bridge authors but none are as good as these three, in my opinion.

When I first came across the Abbot, I thought he was insufferable, with no redeeming qualities.  But then I found that, like the Abbot of Cockaigne in Carmina Burana, he invites a somewhat grudging empathy in us. Indeed, he has become a much-loved character.  Over the years, and the many books (and bridge bulletins) in which he and his bridge-crazy monks appear, I've come to realize something rather shocking: I'm rather too much like the Abbot myself for comfort.  Indeed, the Abbot is one of the fictional bridge characters that we all should constantly try to avoid becoming. 

He's a good player, though not quite the expert that he thinks he is.  He's an advanced declarer, with skills to which many of us non-experts might aspire.  But his bidding and defense are somewhat pedestrian and at a level that I hope I don't emulate.

What makes him such a good foil for Bird's jokes is his pomposity and his indifference to the points of view of his fellows.  He is constantly performing the bridge equivalent of slipping on a banana skin.

As I mentioned, the worrying part is when I find myself thinking the way he does.  For instance, at the club recently, I witnessed the following auction (we did not contribute): 1 – 1♠ – 1NT – 2 – 3♠ (!) – 4♠.  I was on lead to 4♠ and I asked what the 3♠ bid was all about.  I shouldn't have.  I knew I wouldn't get a sensible reply.  Presumably opener had just found another Ace or King in her hand.  But no, 2 was forcing (!) and 3♠ now showed a max with three pieces.  Dummy had some sort of unremarkable 9 or 10 count but the contract was nevertheless cold and, needless to say, generally not found at the other tables.  I found this all very vexing.  It's the kind of auction the Abbot might hear from the novices, resulting in him having to assign additional homework.  Equanimity and serenity – that's what we should be striving for, not aggravation.

The Abbot's biggest sin, however, apart from gluttony perhaps, is pride.  He can't stand it when his opponents don't realize that he is a grandmaster.  But haven't we all grimaced when we make the theoretically correct but losing play only to have our LOL opponent smile and look at us as if we just learned to play the game yesterday? 

What I find particularly funny and surprising about the Abbot is his Chauvinism (fortunately, I'm not guilty of that characteristic).  For some reason, he has no patience for foreigners, especially when they speak with thick accents.  Even the brilliant Italian monk Paolo (or Paulo), a relatively permanent member of St. Titus, isn't immune from the Abbot's barbs.

Still at the top of my bridge humor list, however, is the Hideous Hog and his fellow Griffins.  I figured that, eventually, some advantage would accrue from all those misspent hours reading about the exploits of the denizens of the menagerie. That moment finally arrived this week.

As is well known, the Hog has more de facto aces and kings than his opponents and is consequently better able to afford to jettison aces when it suits him.  I have rarely if ever gotten to jettison an ace – until this hand came up: ♠KT9 654 532 ♣KQ75.  We were playing matchpoints at favorable vulnerability and my LHO dealt and passed.  Partner opened 1 and RHO overcalled 1♠.  1NT seemed like the right call and LHO now raised to 2♠.  Partner surprised everyone by bidding 3NT which closed proceedings.  ♠5 was led and this magnificent dummy came down: ♠2 QJ32 AKQJ974 ♣A.  I saw at once that I needed to jettison that ♣A as soon as possible and if only RHO would go up with the ♠A, I would get a chance.  He did and returned a spade.  I very much enjoyed calling for "small club, please."  Making four with seven diamonds and three black cards was worth 9.5 of 11 matchpoints.  Not everyone saw the need for this play, although it is possible that some crafty RHOs played their ♠Q at trick one.

We can't all be brilliant but we can at least aspire to the better behaviors of our bridge heroes.

Monday, December 19, 2011

It's Your Call

In the December 2011 Bridge Bulletin, the It's Your Call article (the analysis and scores rather than the problems for next month) features double in every problem, if not as one of the possible calls then during the auction so far.  In the first problem, we have a relatively normal low-level, two-suit double as one of the options, getting a score of 50.  In the second, it's our second turn to bid and we're at the five level already.  Double was worth only 20 this time.  The third problem is almost the complement of the first: partner makes a two-suit, low-level double.

In the fourth, partner has made a negative double at his first opportunity and now is doubling again.  The auction:

Nobody asks the obvious question "is partner's double for penalties?" but from the discussion, it's clear that it is a two-way double. We can take it out if we think that is right, otherwise we should leave it in (i.e. hopefully, we do something intelligent).  Passing the double, with ♠84 K86 AQ953 ♣KJT, was the most popular option this time, scoring 100.

This, and the quotation I will present from the fifth problem, boosts my confidence that my "system" of doubles, which I have tried to codify elsewhere in this blog, is in fact close to "expert standard".

The fifth problem is similar to the second in that we are quickly at the five-level.  The difference this time around is that we've never even had a chance to make a bid yet.  LHO has opened 2, partner has doubled and RHO has bid 5.  We are vulnerable at IMPs with this hand: ♠AT53 QJT9854 ♣T2.  There is only one vote for double this time (from Allan Falk) and the call is awarded only 20 points.  But while I'm not sure I agree with his judgment on this particular hand, I do laud his comments:
Not a penalty double. I just don't want to bid 6 (if I can make it, partner will probably raise me to 7) and I don't want to sound like I might be broke. If partner, with an unbalanced hand, pulls, we should be able to land on our feet in some makeable contract – either spades (I'll raise 5♠ to 6) or diamonds (I'll correct 5NT or 6♣ to 6). While I don't pretend to understand the mind of the real expert, I do try to learn from the experts. And what I find frequently is that when an expert double isn't obviously for penalties, then it a DSIP (do something intelligent, partner) type of double. Or, as experts would tend to say, "cards."

My "rules" are an attempt to reduce the expert mind to a formula, inasmuch as such a thing is possible.  I've concluded that it's probably impossible to create a rule to cover 100% of all situations but I think the rules get us 95% of the way.  In the other 5%, a little bridge logic, or perhaps just "table feel" should be enough to guide us to the right call.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

To overcall or not to overcall...

... that is the question.  And it is a complex question, much more so than opening the bidding, which is, most of the time, determined by the system the partnership is playing.  My experience suggests that overcalls are, in general, almost as poorly understood as doubles.  Mike Lawrence, and probably others, has written an entire book about overcalling.

When you open the bidding with a normal one-of-something bid, especially in first or second seat, you have various reasons, depending on your system.  However, the primary reason is that you expect to win more points by bidding than by passing.  That's because you feel that there is on balance a greater-than-even probability that your partnership can make a game or at least a part score.  We note in passing that bidding systems are designed principally for bidding game contracts because they score so highly and are frequent.  In other words, you are essentially saying:
  • I have better than an average hand – let's start communicating to see what we can make;
  • if you also have a bit more than an average hand, we may well have game;
  • if not, we hope at least to be able to compete for the part score.

Note that there is nothing said about the quality of the suit you open (if any).  Nor do you suggest that said suit is your longest, although often it will be.  There is some danger in opening the bidding, but not very much.  If you have a balanced 12 or 13 count and partner has a balanced 0-5 count, you surely won't be able to make anything at all.  But, unless you're vulnerable and the opponents are particularly well placed to diagnose your problem, you won't be doubled and go for a telephone number.  It can happen but not often.

The world of direct, non-jump overcalls is completely different. By definition, your right-hand-opponent has already announced an opening hand so the probability of our side making a game is considerably reduced.  Still, especially if partner is not a passed-hand, we might be able to compete for a part-score without giving up a large penalty, although the danger of a penalty is now much greater than when opening the bidding.  The better defined RHO's hand is, the greater the danger.  If, for example, RHO has opened with an artificial bid, the danger is quite low.  If RHO has opened 1NT showing a balanced hand with a narrowly limited range, the danger is very high.

With all this possible danger, should we ever overcall at all?  Yes, but we should be clear about what it is that we are trying to accomplish.  First of all, if we pass, the opponents will likely enjoy a very pleasant constructive auction using any and all of their gadgets.  On the other hand, our overcall will add at least two calls to LHO's options which would not otherwise be available: pass and double.  And, assuming that lefty wasn't planning on bidding the suit we choose, he can now bid that suit as a cue-bid. But we can take away some of his possible bids too.  Let's say lefty was planning to respond one heart to RHO's 1 opening.  If we overcall 1♠, then 1 will no longer be available.  If we overcall 2♣, then we eliminate two other possible bids as well.  Occasionally though, we make a suitable call available that wasn't right before.  If, for example, the opponents are playing inverted minors, the simple raise to 2 based on 6-9 points and a fit can't be used, unless there's an intervening overcall.

There's another reason to overcall, especially at matchpoints where the opening lead is quite likely to affect the number of tricks taken.  Suppose LHO becomes declarer and partner is therefore on lead.  If he doesn't have an obvious sequence, he may choose the wrong suit.  We can overcall to suggest a good lead in our suit.

So, an overcall should have a purpose.  The more unfavorable the vulnerability (and therefore the greater the danger), the more valid reasons or purposes an overcall should have.  And don't forget that even if our overcall escapes an immediate penalty, it may yet help the declarer to land a contract that otherwise he might not make without a roadmap.  Or, if the suit is somewhat motheaten, the overcall may induce partner to make a lead that is bad for us.  And, perhaps even more significant, is that if our suit is bad, it increases the chances of LHO holding, and recognizing, a stack.  There are some hands where even 9xxx in LHO's hand will generate a penalty of, say, 200.  But unless that player is sure his side doesn't have a game, you will not be left "holding the baby".  But if LHO is looking at AQT86 in your suit, he will be itching to penalize you, particularly if you are at the two-level and/or vulnerable.

Therefore, it's almost essential that our suit is a good one unless we are likely to be on lead or we have favorable vulnerability and can bid at the one-level (Hugh Kelsey observes that it's a "moral certainty" that they won't double for penalties under such circumstances).  So let's refer to this situation (including any time RHO makes an artificial bid such as a precision 1♣) as "green".  When RHO opens a weak 1NT, or when we are vulnerable versus not, we'll call it "red" (interfering over their strong 1NT is a different topic altogether).  "Amber" is everything else, but note that it's more dangerous to overcall a major suit opening than a minor suit because RHO's shape is then much better defined (and you may have to bid at the two-level).  Here are my suggestions for the overcall properties required for the three conditions.  When "red", the suit should be good (not merely lead-directing) as well as the hand.  This is especially true opposite a passed hand.  If you simply want to preempt and/or suggest a lead opposite a passed hand, you can jump.

Note also that when judging the strength of our hand, we are judging it as an offensive hand.  If it's defensive in nature we can pretty much sit back and wait to defend.  Therefore we should discount secondary honors (quacks) outside our suit and we should ignore them completely if they are in the opponents' suit.  Even kings lose their luster if they're in the enemy suit.

Table of required reasons for the three conditions:

ConditionLead-directing/good suitGood HandPreemptive
Redyes (good suit)yes?
any two

Of course, if your primary purpose is lead-direction, then you should probably have a reasonable expectation that partner will end up on lead.  And note that unless we're in the green condition, any overcall which uses no space at all, such as 1 over 1 must be based on a good hand and good suit. Notice that I haven't said anything about point count.  But it seems to me that, especially opposite a passed hand, the term "good hand" should be the kind of hand you might have opened if given the chance.  That's why I cringe when I hear people say, after giving up 500 or 800, "it was only an overcall!"

So, why is this on my mind?  A hand came up in a recent matchpoint game with a "very experienced" pickup partner.  On one of the early boards, I picked up the following hand: ♠Q6 K8762 J53 ♣A96.  We were not vulnerable versus vulnerable and I passed as dealer.  LHO opened 1 and partner overcalled with 1♠.  RHO raised to 2 and I felt justified in entering with 2.  Partner now raised to 3 and LHO reopened with 4.  I felt fully entitled now to double this given that they were vulnerable and I expected to score +140 our way (partner, opposite my passed hand, had overcalled and freely raised my suit).  Try as we might, there was no way to set 4 and we suffered a -710.

Afterwards I took a look at my partner's hand: ♠KJ753 T953 Q2 ♣J3 – and found that it had none of the three characteristics described above.  First of all, the strength of the hand, bearing in mind that I had already passed, is in my opinion woefully inadequate.  Take away the Q (because it's in their suit) and discounting the ♣J, this is a four-point hand!  The chances that we can effectively compete opposite partner's passed hand are not good.  Next, let's look at the suit quality.  Given the dearth of intermediates (Ts, 9s) this suit is pretty bad.  Do we really want partner leading spades?  Maybe, but only if he has no other reasonable lead, or if he happens to have the Q or A.  Finally, was there any preemptive value in the overcall?  Hardly.  If the opponents opt for a heart contract, will we be dejected?  Not at all.  We don't mind that much if they bid hearts.  We'd prefer them not to find a good fit in clubs though, so to my mind there's a case to be made here for a 2♠ overcall, but not 1♠.

The one thing the bid did accomplish was to scare the opponents away from playing notrump for which they were destined (par for them was 130 in diamonds or clubs but only 120 in notrump).  Yet, partner would have easily been excused for this ill-conceived overcall if only she hadn't tried to push her luck by raising my hearts and thus confirming real values.  I was a passed hand, so even if we hadn't agreed "non-forcing constructive" advances, she could quite reasonably pass my 2 bid which looked like a pretty good thing (1 is in fact the only contract we could have made our way so we'd be only -50).

So, I ask, what was the point of overcalling 1♠ here?  In my opinion there was none at all.  The immediate danger might have been small, given the "green" condition, but that required getting in and out quickly, something that was not achieved.  Even if my RHO had ended up in 1NT (or 2NT) and I had led spades, declarer could hold up once and our defense would now be completely dead.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Sleepless in Seattle (conclusion)

It's not often that you pick up a ten-card suit. My partner was dealt this beauty in a side game at the Seattle NABC: ♠AKJT987542 873 ♣–. We were at favorable vulnerability and my LHO opened with a weak notrump. Partner bid 4♠ and that ended the auction. I produced quite a useful dummy as the ♣J was led: ♠– KT97 A954 ♣AQ872. Incidentally, do you think I should have raised or made some try for slam?

Now, the question is how to make the greatest number of tricks. There isn't much you can do about trumps. You can't take a finesse and they either split or they don't. And in the latter case, there's no possible way to pull off a trump coup given that you would need to ruff seven cards in your hand and get back to dummy yet again! So, are there any realistic chances for an extra trick in a side suit? A singleton ace of hearts seems a bit unlikely given that there are nine out against you and RHO opened with 1NT (suggesting at least two and fewer than six). What about diamonds? They might be three-three but even then, you have nothing to pitch on the thirteener. No, the only realistic chance is in clubs. How realistic? Given that you only have one outside entry to dummy, you are going to need the king to fall doubleton. Is LHO really likely to have led J from KJ doubleton? I don't think so either. Therefore, you need RHO to hold Kx. You weren't thinking of covering with the queen, were you?

When you rise with the ♣A, the 9 drops on your right.  There are a total of eight clubs out and the a priori probability of righty having precisely K9 doubleton is only 0.3%! Is it even worth bothering with?  You betcha!  The K is doubleton.

However, only three of 11 declarers actually made 12 tricks, not including my very experienced partner, unfortunately.  Of course, some of these others might not have been given helpful club leads.  There was also a -350 and a -150 our way.  I imagine that these were uncompleted transfers or, more likely, an ill-fated attempt at 4NT or 6NT.

To conclude my commentary on Seattle, I will simply observe that this tiny probability (0.3%) yielded an additional 46% of the matchpoints on the board.  Well worth trying for, especially given that there was negligible down side to the play.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Sleepless in Seattle (continued)

There are several aspects of NABCs that we really enjoy.  The gifts for one.  Yes, I am kidding but this tournament has been terrific on gifts.  We have new umbrellas, mouse pads, space needle key fobs, luggage handle/identifiers, chocolates, multiple decks of playing cards...   Another thing we enjoy very much is the chance to get to know better our friends and acquaintances from New England, typically by going out to dinner and going over the hands.  I am at my very best in this phase of the game.  This year, there have been fewer New Englanders than typical, but we've made the most of the social opportunities.

Another aspect that we really like is that you can play with World champions, national champions, etc. and learn how they play the game.  In what other endeavor can you play against such people simply for the price of an entry fee?  And, almost without exception, those top players are pleasant, courteous and never argue at the table.  One of the more friendly and fun-loving experts, Dutch star Jan Jansma, came to our table during a regional open pairs yesterday.  I was playing with my old buddy Dave, with whom I last played exactly three years ago at the Boston NABC. 

I hope Jan won't mind if he sees this account of one hand we played.  When they got to our table we were having a 70% game and I was "in the zone" (Oh, how I wish I could always play there!).  On this particular hand, I picked up (favorable vulnerability) ♠K6 KQ6 JT ♣AKT532.  I don't normally open 1NT with a six-card suit, but I observed an expert do just that earlier in the week and this seemed like the right time to try it.  LHO doubled which was explained as five of a minor and four of a major (or better, presumably).  Dave bid 2 (transfer) and I duly bid 2♠.  Dave now invited with 2NT and I had a decision to make.  I possessed only two spades but my hand had now become very suit-oriented.  I figured the "minor" was diamonds (see how well I was playing?) and wasn't so thrilled with JT as a stopper.  I therefore opted for 4♠.  The club 9 was led and it didn't take J. P. Beaumont or Sarah Linden to deduce that this was a stiff (though not the kind of stiff they are used to dealing with).  Partner tabled ♠AT932 J72 A5 ♣864.  There was nothing to the play, fortunately.  I had to lose two trumps and the HA and that was +420 for 24.5 out of 25 matchpoints.

We fell out of favor after that somewhat and met Kim and newly-crowned Life Master sister Kathy in the last round.  Due to my atrocious play on the first board (I should have made 4♠ doubled) and my reluctance to wield the chopper on my beloved wife on the second, we donated 29.5 matchpoints more than we should to their cause, giving them 8th in section and dropping us to 8th (B) in section.  However, this led to further sleeplessness, as they thought it would be fun now to enter the midnights, something I am really too old for these days.

By a series of miracles and some fine play by my partner Vincent and teammates we clawed our way into the final against current player-of-the-year leader, Joel Wooldridge.  We stopped comparing after two adverse game swings and went home, finally and joyfully, to get some well-earned sleep!

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Sleepless in Seattle

My efforts in the NABC have not been my best and as a result, I've had a few restless nights.  Well, that's a relative term: I could sleep through WW III but I do sometimes find myself obsessing about hands in the middle of the night.  Kim and I played the first day of each of the Life Master Pairs and Blue Ribbon Pairs.  Easily our best bridge of the tournament came in the first session of the Blues when we were briefly in third place in our double section (on the "burner" sheet).  Unfortunately, I had made two very bad decisions in the auctions of the last two boards and we dropped out of the "money" by 1 match point (top was 25).

Two of my most challenging declarer play hands came in regional team games rather than in the big events.  In each case, we were in the last round, and in a major-suit game.  In the first hand (4 spades), dummy was ♠AKJ7 K9 KT8642 ♣2 while I held ♠8765 J7 Q6 ♣AJ765.  The lead was a somewhat surprising (and erroneous) A.  In fact, anything but a heart would make my job impossible, but this lead actually gave me a chance.  Entries were scarce and, after a heart continuation to my K, I "wasted" a valuable dummy entry by testing trumps with the A.  The gift I had been given was now given back.  At the other table, a diamond was led and, thinking this was a singleton, RHO went up with the Ace and tried to give partner a ruff.  It was a doubleton.  After that, declarer couldn't find a way to go down.

Last night's challenge was this hand (in 5) in the last round of a "B" round-robin (bracket 2):

Dummy: ♠– AKQ97 T642 ♣AQ32
Declarer: ♠J2 JT84 AKJ98 ♣74
LHO had opened the bidding with 2♠, Kim doubled, RHO contributed 3♠ and I had to decide what was best.  4 (or another double) would have turned out best perhaps, but I bid 4.  Kim "cue-bid" spades with 4NT and I, suffering from my usual last-round funk, thought that she'd asked about key cards (which would have been 4♠).  I therefore bid 5♣ showing one.  Had I bid the proper 5 (showing a control in diamonds), we'd have ended in 6 and I'd have had no chance to make my contract.  As it was, we stopped in a safe 5.  Don't they say that the ones that look easy are the ones you should pay special attention to??  They do.

Let's see if you can make 5.  The lead is the ♠A (RHO contributing the T) and whenever you decide to play hearts you will find that LHO doesn't have any.  Answer to come in the comments.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Opening with 4-4 minors

There are certain unbalanced hand types where it is necessary to open 1 on hands with 4-4 in the minors.  I say unbalanced because if your planned rebid is notrump, then there's never any reason to distort the shape of your hand.

An example of such an unbalanced hand is: ♠9 AK73 K762 ♣QJ84.  When partner responds 1♠, as he surely will most days, you need to be able to make a non-reverse and non-notrump rebid.  Therefore you start with 1 and rebid 2♣. 

But suppose the major suits are reversed: ♠AK73 9 K762 ♣QJ84.  Now you can happily open 1♣ and you will have no problems with your rebid whatever partner responds.

What about stronger hands? For example, ♠K AK73 K762 ♣AJ84.  If partner responds 1♠, won't you want to rebid 2NT to show your strength and overall semi-balanced shape?  You might even do this with ♠9 AK73 K762 ♣AKJ4.  To open this hand 1 and follow up with a jump-shift to 3♣ over partner's 1♠ seems to me to be vastly overstating the strength of your minor suits. 

Hands in the middle range (15-17) are slightly trickier but generally have to follow the same rule as the weaker hands.  Assuming you're not tempted to open 1NT with an honor singleton, as so many people are, you will open ♠K AT73 K762 ♣AJ84 with 1 and rebid 2♣ over partner's 1♠ response just as you would with the first hand.  I suppose there might be hands with concentrations of honors where a reverse would be tempting, such as ♠9 AKQ3 8762 ♣AKJ4 where 1♣ followed by 2 wouldn't be such a terrible lie (yes, I know you are supposed to have another club).

So, assuming equal length in the minors here are my "rules":
  • if balanced, open 1♣
  • else if strong (18+), open 1♣
  • else if you have biddable spades, open 1♣
  • else, open 1
BTW, I'm generally advocating a Walsh style here, which maximizes the chances of finding an appropriate fit, but I don't think it is essential.  I'm also assuming that all suit rebids after a 1♣ opening, promise at least four clubs (see Prepared Bids).  While 6 (or 6♣) may seem remote when we first open our hand, there are hands where a minor suit slam is the par contract.  Opening 1♣ gives us the best chance of finding our fit quickly and then being able to investigate strength and controls.

I'm well aware that this is going to be a controversial subject -- I expect comments.  Please keep them relevant, though.  I'm particularly looking for any gaping holes in my proposal.  Is there something obvious that I'm missing?

Monday, November 21, 2011

Inferences from two-way doubles

Continuing my series on two-way doubles, I want to address some aspects of the call which may not be obvious, at least not until you give it some thought.

In a competitive auction after you've bid/rebid a suit and partner has bid/rebid a suit, and the opponents have "butted in" and perhaps raised with their suit, you have the usual three choices: bid, double or pass.  Let's say you double (this is an example of what Mel Colchamiro calls a "BOP" double).  First of all, you have extras, or you know that the partnership has sufficient values to compete safely (the number of points required depends of course on the level) or we know we have the balance of power (BOP).  Secondly, you are more or less balanced.  If your hand was unbalanced, you would be introducing a new suit, or possibly rebidding your original suit.  Finally, and this is the key point, you should have exactly one fewer cards in partner's suit than you would need to raise.  This is because one of the various things that partner can do in response to the double is to rebid his suit.  So you must have tolerance for that suit.  If partner has bid two suits, you must have tolerance (i.e. one fewer card than you need to raise) for each of his suits.

Let's look at an example: all vulnerable and you deal yourself ♠95 Q3 A76 ♣AKT954.  You are playing a less-than-expert pair.  You open 1♣ and partner responds 1.  RHO now enters with 1♠.  You rebid your clubs, denying three hearts and suggesting good clubs since you could have passed, and LHO ups the ante to 2♠.  Partner is there with 3 which is followed by two passes.  LHO now reckons her hand is worth another bid (3♠).  This is followed by two passes and it's your turn to act.  Obviously, partner has good hearts over there to have been able to bid 3. Yet that bid was "to play", though admittedly there wasn't a lot of room for investigation.  Partner might have stretched to compete or might be just below what he would need to bid (or invite) game [we don't play the good-bad 2NT which might have helped a bit].  What to do?

One of my esteemed colleagues felt that 4 by me was clear cut, with already having denied three hearts by not making a support double earlier.  Certainly I have a key card in partner's suit and prime values outside.  I'm clearly at the top of my range for the bidding so far.  But is 4 necessarily going to make?  Is 3♠ going to make?  Moreover, do these opponents "follow the LAW?" or could they be out on a limb?  I decided against taking unilateral action and therefore doubled.  Since no triggers had occurred (see previous articles, for example DSIP rule summary), this says the following to partner:
  • I can't quite raise your hearts, but I'm close;
  • I have a little bit more than I've promised and/or I feel that this is "our" hand;
  • I don't have sufficient clubs to bid them a third time;
  • I can't bid 3NT;
  • I've got something in diamonds, but nothing biddable;
  • I'm short in spades, most probably I have a doubleton;
Partner infers that my hand must be something like: xx Xx Xxx XXxxxx or xx xx Xxx XXXxxx where X stands for a useful honor.  I should not have xx x Xxxx XXxxxx or xxx x Xxx XXxxxx or xx x Xxx XXxxxxx because while consistent with the bidding so far, those hands would be inconsistent with the double.  It's true that we might be able to make 4 in the first case, or 4♣ in the second, but we shouldn't speculate about a 4-of-a-minor contract.  4♣ or 4 are all well and good if we've already established a fit in the suit and feel that we can safely outbid the opponents.  With those hands (singleton in partner's suit) we should be happy to defend undoubled.

Many of these inferences, including the likelihood of having a doubleton in the enemy suit, stem from the simple fact that each of us holds exactly 13 cards.

On this particular occasion, partner's hand was ♠Q K986542 Q9543 ♣–.  In case you're wondering, 3 was not available to partner over 1♠ because we play fit-showing jumps [I don't think a preemptive 3 would be right with that hand regardless].  The shortness in spades (opposite partner's professed shortness) and the weak, unbalanced nature of the hand strongly suggests declaring.  We might not make 4 (or 4) but if we're lucky they won't double and -100 will beat -140.  If we do go for 200, we can always blame partner in the post mortem (just kidding!).  In practice, 4 does make (as does 4), there being one obvious loser in each suit other than clubs.  Of course, we are not seriously considering 4 since it wouldn't be game and if we are going to go down, we might was well be hung for a sheep as a lamb.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Mitchell versus Howell - discrimination in tournament bridge

Why is Mr. Mitchell so much favored on this side of the Atlantic over Mr. Howell?  Is this a case of reverse xenophobia?  Perhaps that would be xenophilia.

In fact, John Templeton Mitchell was born in Glasgow*, Scotland in 1854 while Edwin Cull Howell was born on Nantucket, MA in 1860. Both were fine whist players and devised the movements which bear their names for whist tournaments.  For more details on the Howell movement, see my earlier blogs: Howell movement and Howell some more.

There really does seem to be a horror of Howell movements on this side of the Atlantic.  I've never understood why, although I do realize that if you have a high proportion of infirm players, then you might run out of stationary tables.

The advantage of a Howell movement is that it produces one winner.  It is also the best way to run a small event.  But the single-winner advantage can be especially compelling.  When Kim and I visited a bridge club in England a few years back (in Tenterden, Kent), they happened to be having their Ladies' and Gentlemens' championship.  Yes, they were two separate events.  They were very gracious and assured us that we would be able to play. The ladies event had about sixteen and a half tables so we were drafted in there.  For me, it was the only time that I've played bridge where every other player in the event was of the opposite sex.   But my point is that they used some sort of Howell movement, even though they had a large number of tables.  Why?  Because it produces one winner - very satisfactory for a championship.  [We were sufficiently polite not to spoil things by winning of course].

Even at our current regional in Mansfield a few days ago, we were in a 5 table Mitchell for a side game.  We played five rounds of five boards each.  But that means there were four pairs (40%) we didn't play directly.  A nine-round Howell would have worked perfectly.

But I do feel that a smallish two-session event should be done as a Howell in the second session.  That's because randomness just doesn't mix the pairs up well for the second session.  Take yesterday's Open pairs, for instance, with 10 tables.  The first session was reasonably well mixed up, judging from the recap.  But when the crossover occurred for the second session most of the contenders (in my subjective judgment) were sitting E/W.  In fact the three top-placed pairs after one session all sat E/W in the second session.  In the second session the N/S winners, who clearly played very well indeed, were able to score over 70% while the other scores ranged from 40% to 57%, but mainly towards the lower end of this range.

Regardless of the issues of seeding, etc. all these problems could have been solved by running the second session as an interleaved Howell movement, that's to say a Howell where the "phantom" pairs are actually flesh-and-blood creatures that sat in the other direction for the first session.  Thus, every pair would play every other pair in the event.  It works perfectly for a 10-table event (or for 4, 7 or 14 tables).  Admittedly, the first session would have to be 10 rounds long - and in practice one round (and therefore one opponent from a different strat) would have to be missed, but that would be only 5% missed.  As it was, we played 13 different pairs, thus not directly meeting 35% of the pairs).

But this seems to me to be the fairest, and most enjoyable way of running a 10-table two-session event.  Is it the ACBL that discriminates so?  Or District 25?  Or is it just that the directors are too busy to print out the movement slips?  I don't know.

While I'm on the subject of directors, I find it annoying that they don't take note of who the slow players are.  It would be especially good if they were proactive and requested the slow players to speed up when it was appropriate. As it is, when a table gets behind both pairs suffer equally from "speed up" cautions and the possible loss of a board.  This is especially annoying if the pair in question is a less experienced pair that might easily have given a good result on the unplayed board.

* Let me note in passing here the very sad news of Jim Greer's recent death.  Jim was also born in Glasgow and was one of the nicest, kindest, funniest bridge players I've known.  He was also a terrific player with a special reputation for matchpoints.  We were looking forward to seeing Jim and Maeve at the NABC in Seattle and perhaps even teaming up with them if schedules allowed.  He will be very much missed.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

A couple of difficult hands from Auburn

In an otherwise decent effort Kim and I had a couple of tricky hands at the CMBA sectional in Auburn, MA.  First, a defensive problem.  Your hand is ♠– JT864 KQ ♣Q87654.  None vulnerable and partner deals and opens 1♠.  You bid a forcing 1NT.  LHO, a player who has never met a hand on which she could not find an overcall, bids 2.  Partner passes and it comes back around to you.  Double is primarily for take-out (but with the expectation after the pass that it might well be converted to penalty).  Bidding 2 and 3♣ both seem somewhat flawed.  So, let's say you do double and partner leaves it in.  Game for us seems unlikely, so 300 would be a top and even 100 might get most of the matchpoints.  In any case, you have to defend assuming that we are in the right contract.

Partner leads the ♠A (Ace from AK) and dummy comes down with an undeserved trick for declarer: ♠T8642 9752 3 ♣AT2.  Dummy follows low and you are at the cross-roads.  Partner won't be expecting your hand, that's for sure.  Maybe something like ♠93 AT84 72 ♣KJ765 or maybe ♠9 AT864 Q2 ♣K8765.  If you had one or two small trumps, you'd like to ruff a spade early so somehow you'd like to persuade partner to play a small one, if any, before your trumps get drawn.  You might do this by playing a low club then a low heart.  On the other hand, with your actual hand, you don't particularly want to waste any trumps on ruffing partner's losers.  Rather, you want partner to get dummy's entry off the table before the high spade could become good.  So, although this might typically suggest you have the king, I think the right card at trick one is the ♣8.

Unfortunately, neither of us defended optimally and on this occasion, declarer's hand was just good enough to take advantage and score 8 tricks for 180.  This wasn't an absolute bottom for us, but it was a low score.  Actually, it turns out that the normal contract was 3♣ by our side making exactly, so even +100 would not have been a good matchpoint score.

Here's a poor result that was entirely my fault, but is interesting theoretically, nonetheless.  I picked up ♠AK7 98 Q542 ♣KT85 in fourth seat at favorable vulnerability. Partner opened 1 and I responded a forcing 1 notrump.  Partner now rebid 2 which, in our system practically guarantees six pieces and tends to show a minimum hand strength-wise.  Obviously, I was going to bid game, but which game?  I felt that it might be advantageous to have the lead come up to my hand, especially on a minor suit lead, and bid 3NT – but I neglected three important factors.

First of all, partner's hand might be short on entries given the auction (or alternatively have a poor heart suit).  Both of these factors argue in favor of playing in a major suit game.  Secondly, the choice of notrump versus a major suit tends to work better with a 5-3 fit rather than a 6-2 fit.  Finally, choosing notrump over any 8-card major suit fit should generally only be considered with a plethora of high-card points, something like in the range 27-30.

So, to my contract of 3NT, a fourth-best deuce of spades was led.  Dummy came down much as expected with
♠J6 AKJ764 K8 ♣J97.  Obviously, I was going to try the J.  If it held, my judgment would be vindicated and I would likely make the same number of tricks as the heart declarers.  Unfortunately, the J was covered by the Q and I won with the Ace.  Now, I was definitely behind the heart declarers.  Any lead from the other defender would have likely given away a trick.  Not only that but I now had to be quite careful.  If the K proved not to be an entry, it would be highly embarrassing to leave several hearts stranded in the dummy.

So, I turned to a couple of guidelines.  One was that if hearts were 3-2 I was destined to score badly.  The heart declarers would always score 20 points better than me.  If hearts were 4-1 offside, I'd be just as badly off, probably even worse.  That didn't bear thinking about.  But what if hearts were 4-1 on-side?  The heart declarers would all likely finesse the J and then try to drop the Q or T.  A first-round finesse was obviously called for, but which finesse?

That's when I turned to my Principle of Least Commitment for guidance.  This is the lazy man's way of avoiding having to learn all 656 suit combinations from the Bridge Encyclopedia.  In this case, least commitment suggests running the 9.  The advantage of running the 9 is that if RHO wins with the Q, you know where the T is (unless RHO is very devious indeed).  If you run the 9 and it loses to the T of course, you know nothing about the Q and if you finesse the J and it loses to the Q, you know nothing of the T. 

If entries to dummy were not a problem (or if hearts were trumps), then the best play is to cash a high heart, cross over and finesse the J.  You'll make 6 tricks 37% of the time and 5 tricks 88% of the time.  But if we assume no outside entry to dummy, then we essentially want to duck a trick to maintain our link.  Again, this suggests running the 9, which is what I did.  It lost to the T.

Another way of looking at it is this: if indeed there is no further entry to dummy, running the 9 first will result in either 2 or 5 tricks in the suit, assuming that the hearts are distributed unfavorably: Q532–T or T532–Q.  Finessing the J first will result in either 3 or 2 tricks.

A spade came back and now I had another decision to make.   So far, my strategy was not panning out.  The heart declarers would finesse the J and see the T come up on their left.  Then they'd bang down the top hearts and hope to drop the Q.  If that happened, I'd lose.  Was there a way to win?  Yes: take another finesse in hearts.  But wait!  If that lost to the Q, I might be in the ignominious position of not taking any heart tricks at all and going down quite a few.

Here's where I goofed.  I got scared.  I didn't "stay with the program."  I couldn't bear the thought of looking so silly so I played off the A and K.  The Q failed to appear.  She was exactly where I needed her for a good board.  What an idiot!  I ended up with -50 while my competition were all +420.  I might still have ended up with 400 which would have been good for slightly over average.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Two-way checkback auctions which show good support for opener's suit

There are a number of popular artificial treatments which can distinguish between invitational strength (or less) and game force strength.  Typically clubs is used to show invitational strength or a desire to set the contract (or play diamonds) while diamonds forces to game.

Examples of these types of convention are game-forcing and non-game-forcing Stayman after a 1NT opening, two-way checkback (or XYZ) after a 1NT rebid (or any 1-1-1 auction), and the Wolff signoff (or adjunct) after a 2NT rebid.  [postscript note: I am only considering auctions where a club bid forces a diamond response, plus the "negative" response to the non-game-forcing Stayman inquiry.  My use of the term "two-way checkback" was confusing because it opened up other possibilities which were not intended.  The form of two-way checkback that I am considering here is the one where 2D is forced.  It's possible that I'm misusing, or even abusing, the term but it is what I play in those partnerships where I can't persuade partner to play the full XYZ treatment]

The sequences that start with the artificial game force are relatively straightforward.  And when responder uses the weaker bid and then invites game or sets the contract also require no comment.

But what about those sequences where responder uses the weaker sequence and then bids game anyway?  For example, using the Wolff adjunct, 1C p 1M p 2NT p 3C* p 3D* p 3NT.  He could have bid 3NT directly over 2NT.  So what's all this dilly-dallying?  He must be showing clubs and a hand that would be interested in slam opposite a suitable hand with good clubs. 

The same thing can be assumed a level lower if the bidding goes 1C p 1M p 1NT p 2C* p 2D* p 3NT.  By the way, all of these 1C sequences would also apply if responder first bids 1D instead of a major.

A similar inference can be made if in either of these situations, the bidding goes to 4M.  This looks like a 6-4 hand with 6 of the major and four clubs (or better) and of course slam interest.

What if opener started with 1D?  1D p 1M p 1NT p 2C* p 2D* p 3NT.  Or 1D p 1M p 2NT p 3C* p 3D* p 3NT.  Responder has slammish values with diamond support.

There are some other sequences after a 1NT rebid.  What's the difference between these two sequences?
  • 1m p 1M p 1NT p 2C* p 2D* p 2NT?
  • 1m p 1M p 1NT p 2NT?

By general agreement, the first sequence shows five card support for opener's minor, as well of course as the four of a major.  The second sequence shows a maximum of four of opener's minor.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Trial bids

After a major is raised to two, most pairs have agreements about the meaning of a new suit: a "trial" bid, or "game try."  These days, the most common agreement seems to be the "help suit" game try.  Personally, I'm not a fan, because it's so hard to know what kind of help partner needs.  And, if responder retreats to 3 of our major, the defense know that they can fairly safely start with the trial suit if they have no other compelling lead.

Personally, I like the power of a double fit and so, traditional second suit bids make more sense to me.  On the other hand, I like short-suit tries too, because it is so easy for responder to know which points in his hand are working and which aren't.  With 7 or more "working" points, it's probably reasonable to bid game.

With some partners, I've played a rather complex system of two-way game tries: the first step is a prelude to a short-suit try (after partner's relay), the third and fourth steps are long suit tries and the second step is everything else (including the "power" try and the short-suit try we skipped with the first step sequence). 

A number of years ago, I read in the Bridge World about Eric Kokish's scheme for two-way tries.  This idea made a lot of sense to me.  Now, I have been able to agree that system with several partners.  It's simpler than the other two-way scheme and really has all of the advantages, while concealing the nature of opener's (declarer's) hand as much as possible.

After 1–2–, 2♠ asks for the lowest ranking suit in which responder would accept a game try (2NT substitutes for spades).  Otherwise, 2NT, 3♣, 3 are short suit tries (NT again substituting for spades).

After 1♠–2♠–, things are simpler: 2NT asks for partner's lowest-ranking suit with help, and 3x is a short-suit try in x.

Of course, if responder names a suit where he has help but opener isn't impressed, he can make a counter-try in a higher-ranking suit, at the expense of revealing more about his hand.

Here's a hand from the club this week where we didn't get to the optimum contract, playing help suit game tries.  After 1–2– and holding ♠AK92 A8542 K85 ♣K, Len asked for help in diamonds with 3.  After all, he didn't need much help in spades.  With ♠QT75 T96 JT94 ♣A3, I reasoned as follows: my spade honors were likely useless (since partner skipped over spades) and my diamond honors might simply be too slow to be really helpful.  I therefore bid 3 only.  Well, I was right about the diamond honors but of course wrong about the spades.  We made four for a score of 66% (it wasn't the easiest of contracts and many of those who did bid game went down).  

Playing Kokish with this hand, opener doesn't have to be the one to choose which suit to make his game try in.  Assuming that he doesn't fancy a short-suit try in clubs, he can simply start with 2♠: where can you help?  I would respond 2NT (I have help in spades) and we'd be off to the races.  If I bid 3♣, he could still ask about diamonds.

With Kokish, the distinction between "help" suit and "second" suit is less of an issue because the only kind of help that responder will show is of the form honor third or better.  He will never show "help" with x or xx.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Matchpoint Bridge

Recently, I've been re-reading what surely must be the best book that deals specifically with playing matchpoints, and one of the best bridge books of all time.  I refer of course to Hugh Kelsey's Match-point Bridge (ISBN 0 571 11437 7).  After the excellent introduction, there are five parts, each of which is treated in three different sub-parts: Bidding, Dummy play and Defence.  The five parts are: Fundamentals, Contesting the Part Score, The Lead, Sacrifice and Deception.

In the introduction he makes the very important point, obvious if you stop to think about it -- but not so clear otherwise -- that the two phases of the matchpoint game, the auction and the play are inextricably linked.  If your side has fallen short in the auction, then you are destined to a poor score so that explanation of the auction must be incorrect.  You have to play on the assumption that you actually did get the auction right.  An example which we've all experienced is to have missed an "obvious" game which looks likely to make.  Clearly, you are headed for a bad board -- unless that is the game goes down.  You should therefore assume that the cards are wrong for the game and right for you.

Here's one of my favorite sections from "Sacrifice - Dummy Play."

None Vulnerable, Dealer West

West leads the King of diamonds against your doubled contract of four spades and you win with the ace. How do you plan the play?

The situation looks grim. Partner's raise was eccentric, to say the least, and it is a safe bet that most of the other North-South pairs will choose to defend against four hearts.
In order to restrict the penalty to 300 in four spades doubled, you will need to make six trump tricks and the king of hearts in addition to the diamond already in the bag. But if the heart ace is right for you, it is wrong for the opponents -- that is to say the heart king would have scored in defence. It follows that with a normal spade break you would have four defensive tricks against a heart contract, and the pairs defending against four hearts will register plus scores. That is a possibility which must not be entertained. You must assume that your idiot-partner did the right thing in bidding four spades and the only distribution to make that possible is a 4-1 trump break with the singleton in the West hand. Accordingly, you should lead a spade to the king and if the knave does not appear, finesse the ten on the way back.
The book is full of such gems, not all quite as humorous as this one, but each equally brilliant in its analysis and good advice.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Mud in your eye

One of the most hotly debated issues of bridge defense is what to lead from xxx against a suit contract.  Some people like to play MUD (middle-up-down).  When I first came across this idea, it seemed eminently sensible.  Later on, I learned that no self-respecting expert ever agrees to play that way.  Exceptions?  Probably. Just like there are a few "scientists" who don't believe in anthropogenic climate change.

So, for the sake of examining the issue, let me divide the situations into two: partner has bid the suit; nobody has bid the suit.  I suppose you might think about leading it when dummy or declarer has bid the suit if the rest of your hand is something like Axx Axx Axxx.  But normally it will be partner's suit or an unbid suit.

Let's dispose first of the situations when this is an unbid suit.  Unless you happen to hit partner with a sequence of some sort, the very act of choosing the suit to be led is likely to be giving up a trick except when partner's honors in the suit just happen to be sitting over dummy's.  So, it probably doesn't matter which card you lead: you've blown a likely trick and the important thing is not to blow another when partner gets in.  Is that likely?  It's unusual for a side suit to stand up to three leads, although it's more likely if leader started with three.  So, there probably isn't a lot of scope for another trick to be lost in the same suit, although there certainly is the opportunity to lose another tempo.  Will partner get it wrong?  Probably not.  Partner knows almost for sure that declarer has the Ace if it hasn't appeared on the first round.  If the Ace has appeared, he can still probably tell just by the card declarer played from dummy - in almost every case, dummy will have played low without much apparent thought.  Unless, that is leader got lucky and found partner with well-placed honors, in which case he won't be returning the suit unless it was probably a singleton, which would require misguessing declarer's holding by two cards.

So, my conclusion is that on the rare occasions when you lead from an unbid xxx, it will probably not matter much whether you lead low or middle.  Leading the top card might be embarrassing if partner has AKx(x) and tries to give you a third-round ruff, but nobody is suggesting that.  No, the lowest is the proper count card whether you play fourth-best or third/lowest.

Now let's look at the situation where it is partner's suit and you have not supported it.  There's no problem if you have supported it because you will lead your highest card to show that you have no honor.  But if you have not supported it, the situation is a little trickier.  Think back to the auction.  Did partner bid the suit as part of a constructive auction, before being outbid by the opponents?  Or did partner bid the suit as a disciplined weak two or an overcall?  In the latter case, especially at matchpoints, there's a strong element of lead-direction, so when you lead the suit, you're not expected to have anything in it.  Count is the most important thing you can show because partner will want to know how many tricks might stand up, or may be looking to give you a ruff if his suit isn't solid.

So, again, there's seems little to be gained by playing MUD.

Indeed, the issue should not cause any lost sleep.  The situation is, in any case, extremely unusual.  Looking over the 26 boards from a recent club game, I could not find a single situation where a lead of an unbid side suit of xxx was anywhere close to being chosen.   There was one situation (the one that prompted this column) where partner had opened 1♠ and opening leader had to choose from an unsupported ♠xxx.  But this in and of itself is rare.  A major will nearly always be raised with three pieces -- only a very weak and flat hand is likely to pass throughout.

Comments, as always, are welcome.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

On-the-job training

On-the-job training is an inherent feature of playing bridge.  You can't learn it from books or classes alone (far from it) and, unless you're one of those naturally gifted types, you have to keep on making errors in order to improve.  But those mistakes can be heart-breaking.  The important thing is to learn a lesson.

The setting: last of eight matches in a regional open Swiss with 40 teams.  My team is in 2nd place, 13 VPs behind the leaders (to whom we just lost), with decent but vulnerable leads over the next few teams.  We are drawn against a good team, but perhaps not one of the pre-race favorites.  As we reach board six, we are doing fine -- it turns out that we are up by 3.  Having played brilliantly all day, my young partner now decides to break discipline (bidding 4NT instead of accepting the transfer after 2NT - 4H) and we lose 10 imps [responder is most definitely "captain" here because opener is narrowly limited and responder has at least four ways to bid get to the right spade contract: 3H and pass; 3H then raise 3S to 4S - a mild slam try; 4H and pass 4S; 4H then bid 4NT over 4S].  I can't criticize this too much, however, when I realize that if we could have picked up just 21 imps on the last two boards, we would have tied for the win at least.  But I was reminded at the time of the many true stories of team matches where one team has a commanding lead going into the last few boards and...

The final board is brought up.  After what I will politely call "a somewhat unlikely auction" (which, incidentally, I could have allowed to subside at 1C), my LHO ends up in a vulnerable 4S.  We are destined to win 6 on this board (maintaining our 2nd and 5 more masterpoints than we ultimately achieved), providing that, after 55 boards, I can simply stay awake! 

Without going into detail, which would at best be irrelevant to the case in general, and at worst cause excruciating embarrassment to your poor scribe, I will offer this one piece of advice (assuming you are playing in a good event): as long as declarer hasn't yet claimed, there's a way to beat the contract.  This isn't so at our usual practice location, the club, where the scoring is almost always matchpoints, because many players simply do not bother to claim when they should.  But when a good declarer has played the hand out carefully, and you find yourself on lead towards the end of the hand, having achieved your "book," STOP! Then think very carefully before leading to the next trick.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Duplicate Bridge Player's Burden

You pull your cards out of the pocket, perhaps count them, sort them, and hold them, thirteen pictures and rags.  Do you guard those tender flowers (think Rigoletto) with loving care?  Do you accord them your highest level of custodianship?  In short, do you take responsibility for them while they're in your keeping?

You certainly should.  They are your wards, your charges.  You must do with them the very best that you can and you should certainly treat them with respect.  Perhaps they're all "tram tickets" and your role in the proceedings of the hand will be to follow suit, giving count as you go.  Or maybe your RHO opens the bidding with 3♠ and you hold the following collection (vulnerable versus not): ♠AQ2 AQ3 AQ4 ♣J652.  If you were a rubber bridge player, you could reason that there's only one person to whom you owe any (temporary) allegiance and that you simply don't like your 6-loser hand enough to bid at such a high level.

But at duplicate bridge, you have a responsibility.  If not to the cards themselves, then to your partner, and teammates.  In matchpoint bridge, your teammates are all the pairs sitting in the opposite direction to you, except of course for the ones at your table right now.  Teamship with any one particular pair, is fractional, but nonetheless real.  With the hand given, you are pretty much obliged to bid 3NT whether you fancy your chances or not.  Yes, it could be horribly wrong.  You could be doubled and go down five (1400) or even six on a really bad day.  A defensive squeeze might even do you out of one of your aces for -2000.  But does that scare you?  As no less a personage than the Hideous Hog has said "Just because I had a difficult hand to bid, I was not going to shirk my duty." Do you shrink from taking bold action?  Of course not.  You have responsibility for these cards and so, like the Hog, you call 3NT with confidence and await your fate.

Or, if your not a fan of the Hog, how about Bob Hamman?  It's hard to ignore advice with such pedigree: "When 3NT is one of the alternatives, choose it."

So, with all that background, what do you make of this ugly collection: ♠QJ83 97 KT ♣JT743?  Do such waifs and strays deserve your special attention just like all the other hands?  You bet!

You deal, vulnerable versus not, and pass.  LHO opens 1NT (good 11-14) and partner doubles, showing values.  RHO bids 2♣ (Stayman) and LHO bids 2.  Partner's in there again with the red card.  RHO now bids 2.  This gets passed around to partner who doubles again (this is getting repetitive).  RHO passes and its up to you.  What are you thinking?  Are you doing full justice to your wards?  Let's say you pass for now and LHO now pulls to 2♠ which is passed around to you (partner doesn't seem able to double this one).

Are you tempted to pass?  Heavens, no!  Are you tempted to double?  Are you sure you're giving your best?  Remember, you're red on white.  What about 3NT?  They probably have an eight-card fit, possibly even nine.  Clearly, the cards aren't sitting well for them but it's reasonable that there are 16 total tricks.  Let's further guess that they can make seven tricks in spades.  That means we can take nine in our best suit (clubs?).  But if we have something like 25 or 26 high-card-points as seems likely, maybe we can take nine tricks in notrump too!  We apparently have everything stopped.  3NT becomes the responsible call (which you should have made over 2X, by the way).  If we are right, we gain 500 (600 instead of 100).  It might happen that they can only take 6 tricks in spades and we can take 10 in notrump or clubs (630 versus 300).  As it happens, our side can take eleven tricks in clubs or notrump while they can only take 5 in spades (660 versus 500).

The scoring table is on our side.  Treat our friends the cards well.  Be a hog: bid 3NT.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Unusual over unusual

Unusual over unusual is one of those very dangerous conventions which has so many alternatives and each exponent of the "convention" assumes that everyone else is using the same alternative.  Other examples of ambiguous conventions are four-way transfers, Jacoby 2NT, 5NT, fourth suit forcing.  I'm sure we can all think of a few.  Perhaps the most common problem of this nature is in so-called "Standard American" where after the auction starts 1♠ p 2♣ there are various opinions regarding which continuations are forcing -- something that very few casual partnerships actually discuss.

But back to "Un vs. Un".  When RHO makes a two-suited call, typically an "unusual notrump" or a Michaels cuebid, we have two suits in which to cuebid, one to raise, one to make a possibly natural call and of course double and our own notrump bid.  That's six possibilities, not including jumps.  Double is penalty oriented and while it has its own challenges, we won't discuss it here.  Let's assume for the moment that raises and notrump bids are non-forcing.  Indeed, the raises are all "to play", while it makes sense to consider a 2NT bid (if such is possible) as invitational because it's extremely unlikely that playing 2NT is going to be the par result in one of these competitive auctions.  That leaves three suit bids for which we may assign meanings.  Clearly both cuebids are forcing, almost by definition, while the new (fourth) suit bid could be considered forcing or non-forcing.  I'm going to assume for now that we will agree that the fourth suit bid is non-forcing, although I am aware of systems where it is forcing.  However, I believe such systems are unnecessarily complex for all but the most practiced partnerships.

The non-forcing new suit bid should be something like the poorly-named "negative free bid" after a single-suited overcall: sufficient points to compete and a decent six-bagger or a very good five-bagger.  So we are left with an appropriate meaning for the two cuebids.  It makes sense to use one for a "limit" raise (or better) in partner's suit and one for a forcing bid in the fourth suit.  But which is which?

Probably the most popular method is to use the lower ranking cue-bid to suggest the lower-ranking of "our" two suits: either the limit raise plus, or the fourth suit, depending on which suit partner actually opened with.  This is all very easy to remember but it is wasteful of our now extremely limited bidding space when partner actually opened the lower-ranking of our two suits.  That's because to make the forcing bid in the fourth suit, we must make the higher-ranking cuebid, which therefore consigns the lower-ranking cuebid to oblivion.  Here's why that's bad (this was taught to me by a couple of good theoreticians: Dick Wagman and Bruce Downing).

Let's take an example hand: ♠A3 AQT72 Q5 ♣J652.  Let's say you open 1 and LHO calls 2NT.  Playing hi/hi-lo/lo, partner cuebids 3 to show that he has a forcing hand with spades.  What are you going to bid now?  You can't bid 3♠ because that would suggest three decent cards in support, you can't rebid your hearts because they really aren't good enough and you're reluctant to bid 3NT with such tenuous stoppers in the minors.  But you can't pass either.  You'll have to decide which of these actions is the least evil.

This is where the "good" way of playing Un vs. Un comes in: we assign the higher cuebid to the message that describes responder's hand most completely: the limit/plus raise.  We assign the lower cuebid to the message that puts the final contract in most doubt: the forcing new suit response.

Let's go back to the hand above with the new auction: 1 (2NT) 3♣ [showing spades].  With your hand you can bid an artificial 3 to show that you have no other reasonable call.  Partner can now clarify: 3♠ with rebiddable spades and game-forcing values; 3NT to show five spades and minor-suit stoppers, 3 with three-card heart support (or perhaps two to a high-honor) and game-forcing values.  If instead the sequence had gone 1 (2NT) 3 (pass) 3 (pass) 4, that would show four trumps and probably some slam interest since with only interest in reaching game, responder could have bid 4 to start with (fast arrival, preemptive and/or willing to double their minor suit sacrifice).

Isn't that better?  And just as simple?

Thursday, July 28, 2011

More on "Hillyard Doubles"

Recently, I've been playing again with my good friend as well as one of my favorite bridge partners: Bruce Downing (see for example The Downhill Notrump).  We spent some time working through what he calls, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, "Hillyard Doubles".  One of the things I've found as a boon in software development is the power of "peer programming."  In practice, this usually works as follows:
  • me: Dilbert [or some other denizen of cubicle-land], could you help me find a bug?
  • Dilbert: sure, what's the problem?
  • me: well, it's like this [goes into long-drawn-out discussion of the design of the program and during said discourse, realizes what the bug is without any help from Dilbert] -- ah, I think I've figured it out.  Thanks so much for your help, Dilbert!
  • Dilbert: sure -- no problem -- any time I can be of service...
You see what I mean.  Well, bridge theory is a little like that.  It often requires me to explain to some interested party the reasoning behind an aspect of the theory and during that explanation, I realize something I hadn't before.

Here's a case in point.  As I'm sure you know by now, all doubles in "my" system, are takeout, or at least cooperative, until some event triggers conversion to penalties.  The level, in and of itself, is irrelevant.  So, for instance, the following double is two-way (not penalty): 4 4♠ 6 X.  It asks the spade overcaller "I'm not sure about this.  I do have some spade support and I've got quite a few points, shortness in hearts and support for both minors, what do you think is right?".  Now, the spade bidder can pass or pull according to his hand.  With ♠AQJxx Axx Kxx ♣Qx, you're going to pass obviously, converting the double to penalties, but with ♠AQJTxx x KQxx ♣Ax, you're going to bid 6♠ and with ♠AQJTxx KQxxx ♣Ax, you'll probably bid 7.  Admittedly, these situations don't come up often.  Incidentally, given that we voluntarily bid game on this one, we can assume that partner's pass over 6 is "forcing".  In this we play the same as Meckstroth and Rodwell: the meanings of double and pass are reversed.

But, wait a moment, after an auction like 1 p 2NT* 4♠, pass is again forcing (because we have committed to game -- let's leave aside for now the possibility that defending 4♠, making may be the par result).  But, according to my trigger rules, double in this situation would be 100% penalty (because partner jumped, showing a 9-card fit).  So, now we don't play the Meckwell system.  How do we resolve this inconsistency?  Well, the answer is that the inverted style of forcing pass is particularly well-suited to auctions in which it is the opponents who have jumped, thus depriving us of bidding space.  The standard style of forcing pass is good when we have jumped, thus already communicating lots of distributional information.  This was the Eureka! moment I had when discussing it with Bruce.

Fortunately, I've now got quite a few gullible, oops I meant to say sensible, partners who are willing to play my doubles.  One of these is Brian Duran, whom I played with yesterday evening.  We actually hit our stride reasonably well this time, scoring 58.3% and losing first in our direction only by a fraction of a masterpoint.

There were actually two hands on which a two-way double would have been just the ticket, and as it happens they were sequential boards, although, as E/W, we didn't play them sequentially. On the first of these, with none vulnerable, I held the following hand: ♠Q52 2 QJ42 ♣K9762 in third seat.  I passed after two passes and LHO opened 1.  Partner came in with 1♠.  RHO bid 2 and I bid 2♠.  LHO now bid 3 and partner bid 3♠.  You see how this is going.  There were now two passes and LHO dug out the 4 card.  There were two passes to me.  We were not in a penalty double situation, so my double would have been two-way.  But do I have enough at equal vulnerability opposite a passed hand?  I decided to pass.  Unlucky.  LHO wrapped up his 10 tricks and we were booked for a 14% board.  Had I rustled up a double, partner would pull it (hopefully!) to 4♠ and we would take our 10 tricks and reverse the tables so to speak.  So, a missed opportunity.

Now take my partner's hand on the next one (red on white) ♠K3 AT7542 K5 ♣952: LHO opens 1 and partner overcalls 2♣.  RHO passes and we bid 2.  This goes pass, pass and now RHO comes in with 3.  It seems like it should be our hand, right?  We've got three-card support for partner and six-not so great hearts.  It's a tricky decision.  This is where the cooperative double comes in handy (although normally, double would show at least three-card support for the unbid suit).  Partner doubled and I left it in with 3-2-2-6 shape.  We actually only outgunned them in points 21-9 but it was enough.  We chalked up +300 and a top.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Zar points

Most players are familiar with Marty Bergen's "rule of 20", amended slightly by Mel Colchamiro to be the rule of "22".  In Bergen's original, you count the lengths of your two longest suits, add your high card points and if the total comes to 20, you have an opening hand.  Colchamiro says fine, but you should still have two quick tricks.  Neither rule adjusts for poor texture – a concentration of honors in short suits and hence no honors supporting each other in the long suits.  Still, that should go without saying.

Zar Petrov's rule for opening hands is a little more technical than the simplicity of the rule of 20 but almost as easy to apply at the table.  Petrov developed his method of hand evaluation for bidding games and slams based on analysis of thousands (millions?) of actual results.  His original posting on the web was lost for a while, but I see that the Bridge Guys have re-posted it here.  I therefore don't plan to go into too much detail.  The method is summarized on Wikipedia, though the discussion is not good IMO (also the wiki people don't think so).

You might call it the "rule of 26".  Again you add the lengths of your two longest suits.  To that you add your high card points (A=4, K=3, Q=2, J=1).  Sound familiar?.  Now you add the difference between the longest and shortest suit.  Finally, you add the count of your "controls" (A=2, K=1).  If the total comes to 26, you're in business!  While the rule suggests opening some distributional hands that you might think extreme, it also suggests passing with some balanced, quacky hands that you might otherwise open without much thought.  For an example of the latter situation, let's say you pick up this beauty: ♠QJ4 K85QJ3 ♣QJ62.  You might think this is an automatic 1C opening (I wouldn't).  But it is woefully inadequate using Zar points: distribution comes to 7 + 1 (the lowest possible) and hcp = 12.  You have one control (the HK) so that's 21 only.  It could have been worse if your twelve points were all quacks!

Here's an example of me applying Zar points to an opening at the recent Sturbridge tournament with Bruce Downing as my partner.  Playing one of the best pairs in the district, I picked up this hand as dealer (all vulnerable): ♠AT7653 2  ♣KT9542.  Note that this hand doesn't qualify by the rule of 20 (or 22).  But it qualifies on Zar points (rule of 26) with a couple of points to spare!  12 + 6 + 7 + 3.  What happened, you ask?  I opened 1♠, and partner (with 19 hcp and a solid six-card heart suit) forced to game with 2.  At this point, things weren't looking so good.  Once we got to 4, I surprised partner a little by passing.  Result: down 1 (-100) which was good for a 75% board because most people overbid (or underplayed) and were down more.

Zar's main proposal is that the strength of a hand (for offensive purposes) is more or less equally based on distribution and high cards.  Since Zar adds these together we get a number which is approximately double the "Goren" number: 26 points to open, 16 to respond, 52 for game, 62 for a small slam, 67 for a grand. 

Personally, I use a formula which divides the Zar points by two because that comes much closer to the numbers we all know and love.  However, I do hate halves (just as I think it's totally weird that in the USA we halve matchpoints so that we have to add a special symbol "-" to the 10 digits).  Really, we should all start using Zars and get used to the numbers being approximately double.  While I'm on this particular rant, there's nothing magic about the Goren counts (based on the Work 4321 method).  All other things being equal and in the play of relatively balanced hands, each 2 Goren points is worth approximately one trick (a Queen you have is one that they don't have).  This assertion, by the way, is based on the analysis (by Matthew Ginsberg, developer of GIB) of thousands of hands playing at notrump.  See Extending the Law of Total Tricks for details. In the Zar point scale, each extra 2.7 points is about one trick.

But the main point about the Zar method of evaluation is that it takes distribution and fit into account in a logical and mathematically sound way.  The downside of Zar points is that we are encouraged to open light distributional hands and that when partner trots out the old penalty double or goes searching for a slam without a good fit, we don't always have the goods.

Referring back to my previous article Confessions of a heart suit repressionist, you may recall that on the first board, we had ♠KQ63 T9876–  ♣AT97 opposite ♠94 AKQJ5AJ3 ♣KQ6.  On the Zar scale, the first hand evaluates to 13 (high cards) + 14 (distribution points) = 27 (and is therefore an opening hand) while the second hand evaluates to 26 + 11 = 38 as an opening hand, possibly with some adjustments but these tend to cancel out.  The adjustments to take care of fit/misfit are quite complex, however.  But even without adding for the big fit, these two hands add to 65 which is almost enough for a grand (but not quite).

Friday, July 15, 2011

When third hand couldn't show attitude

Here's a thorny problem that I've been thinking about recently since it actually came up a couple of months ago.  I'm only going to give you one suit and no auction.  Yes, I know many of you are going to complain!

You are on lead to 1NT (let's assume for the sake of argument that it went 1NT all pass).  Here's your holding in the suit in question:  QJ52.  You decide to lead the 2 and dummy's holding in the suit is T7.  Declarer calls for the T and partner produces the K which is headed by declarer's A.  Notice that partner hasn't been able to show attitude -- he simply was trying to win the trick.  

A couple of tricks later in the hand you are on lead again (partner hasn't had the lead yet) and you decide to cash the Q of this suit.  Dummy plays the 7 perforce, partner's card is the 6, and declarer plays the 8.  How do you continue?  Yes I know you want to know the rest of the hand but please bear with me.

There are three unseen cards: 9, 4 and 3.  Here are partner's seven possible holdings:
  1. K9643
  2. K964
  3. K963
  4. K643
  5. K96
  6. K64
  7. K63
If partner is showing (present) count from #6 or #7, then declarer started with A984 or A983 in which case if you continue with the J, you will actually give a trick to declarer. 

We can probably rule out #4 because playing the 6 would be confusing to partner (and this doesn't look like a situation where it would be helpful to confuse declarer).

What about #1, #2 and #3?  Could partner be showing attitude?  Wouldn't he play the 9 then?  Well, yes, he would with #2 or #3 because he can afford to play the 9 to show attitude.  But where partner has all three of the missing cards (#1), he cannot play the 9 because the suit will then block!  Partner may have no outside entry.

There's one more possibility: #5 -- partner is simply playing his lowest card.

The bottom line is this: with #1 (attitude) we want to continue with our J and then the 5.  With #5 (attitude, kind of), we should continue with our 5 to partner's 9.  With #6 or #7 (count) we must not continue at all.  #2, #3 and #4 are impossible (according to our logic above).

Can we actually tell what to do?  Is partner showing attitude or count?  The books are silent on this issue.  Kantar and Bird don't cover it.  Neither does anyone else that I've found.  But according to the logic that, in following suit, partner shows attitude first, then count, then suit preference, it seems to me that partner should be showing attitude because he didn't get a chance when we led the suit before.  It would be different if partner got the lead and returned this suit: by convention, he shows present count by returning his original fourth best card (or high from an original holding of Kxx).  

So what happened in practice?  Partner started with holding #1 (K9643) and opening leader never played the J.  So, from a suit where we should have taken four tricks, we actually took one!  Not a good result :)

Friday, July 8, 2011


There are two schools of thought with regard to balancing.  The fearless regard it as safe to overcall in a pre-balancing situation after responder has raised opener.  So, for example, 1 p 2 2♠.  This style is known as OBAR BIDS (Opponents Bid And Raise - Balance In Direct Seat).  I'm not a strong advocate of this style myself.  The majority are content to balance when the raise has been passed by opener and a pass would otherwise end the auction.  The theory of course is that the opponents have about half the deck and a fit.  Therefore, we have half the deck and a fit.  Most of the time, this works out fine but you can still come a cropper when all of the hands are balanced and the suits are not pure (translation: a relatively low number of total tricks). 

But there also times when both opponents have made signoff bids though one is not in the true balancing situation.  What theory is there on this situation?  I've never seen it mentioned, but I think it could be called pseudo-balancing.

Here's an example:  love all and your hand is ♠Q9542 KQ85J8 ♣Q7.  You pass as dealer, LHO opens 1, partner passes, RHO bids 1, you pass again and LHO bids 2♣.  Partner passes again and RHO now comes in with 2, natural and to play.  While LHO's 2♣ isn't perhaps as limited as a 1NT rebid would be, you can still be 95% confident that LHO will be passing.  So, unlike the situation where the bidding has gone, say, 1 p 2 where LHO might easily be planning to bid game (and may double your interference), your chances here of being doubled for a painful penalty are almost nil. 

So, the question is: with the given hand, would you bid 2♠?  Or will you leave it up to partner to act?  I'm interested to hear your comments.  I think I would bid 2♠ but my partner on this occasion did not. We got a 17% board for -90. 

You're no doubt wondering what my hand was, the one that was truly in the pass-out seat.  This was it: ♠J763 AT7QT3 ♣K82.  I decided not to come in on the following grounds: 1) I have a horrible, balanced 10-count with a lousy spade suit (remember, they've bid the other three suits); 2) my partner who was in the pseudo-balancing seat could not act [see above]; 3) we might get a decent board simply defending 2D when other declarers are in notrump; 4) my diamonds are actually quite good defensively but not offensively; 5) whereas opponents with a major suit fit will start thinking about game with about 22 hcp, opponents with a minor suit fit might have around 24 hcp before they start thinking seriously about game.  Trying to make a two-level contract without a great fit and with only 16 hcp might not be a barrel of laughs!

Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Downhill Notrump

A few months ago Bruce Downing asked me if I'd be available to play at the Sturbridge regional.  I said I would, with great enthusiasm, and here I am.

The last time we played must have been three or four years ago but we still had a card and were pretty much compatible with most of our system.  What to do about notrump openings, though?  During a pub lunch on Wednesday, we put together a system which we thought we'd like to try.  Later, Bruce came up with the name "The Downhill" notrump -- I expect you can see whence the name derives.

Here are the basics: 2/1 with a (slightly) variable notrump:

This is how we show balanced hands below 18 hcp:

Vulnerable versus not:
  • 15-17: 1NT with the usual systems, including four-suit transfers, Lebensohl, etc.;
  • 12-14: as standard (one of a suit with a rebid of 1NT)
All other situations:
  • 10-11: 1NT with the following responses:
    • 2-level bids are all to play (yes, including 2♣);
    • 3-level bids are forcing and natural;
    • 2NT is a modified form of "Muppet" (3♣ both majors, 3 one major, 3 no four-or-five card major, 3♠ five spades, 3NT five hearts)
    • 4-level bids are Gerber, Texas and Jabbour (a kind of minor-suit-Stayman).
  • 12-14: 1 followed by a rebid of 1NT
  • 15-17: 1♣ followed by a rebid of 1NT.
Now, you should realize that we aren't suggesting that this system is the perfect way of playing bridge.  But it was simple and easy and fitted our way of thinking.  We expected some fireworks and we got them!

Here's an example from the pairs we entered to get the kinks out: you pick up ♠9842 AJ83KT3 ♣Q6 as dealer with none vulnerable.  You open 1NT and after two passes, RHO decides to double.  LHO bids 2♣ and partner now doubles showing values.  RHO bids 2 and you double.  It turns out that we can make 4 on a Moyesian fit with 22 hcp -- but of course nobody is in it.  We don't take our ten tricks on defense, but we do take eight which is enough for a top (500). 

The second hand of the set is not so good.  At that point, we hadn't talked about the dreaded red on white situation, which is especially bad when in third seat.  This time our hand is ♠754 6543KT5 ♣T42.  When RHO pulls out the red card, I have nowhere to go and the result is a bottom (-500).  Since then, we have decided to play normal strong notrumps when  red on white!

But, that one hand has been our only disaster.  On every other hand when we got to open 1NT, we have either ended up with the normal result, or we have ended up with a good pickup.

It's all downhill from here.