Saturday, January 29, 2011

Ruling the Game

This month's ACBL Bulletin has arrived (i.e. February's) and I was pleased to see photos of several players that we know well: Pat McDevitt/Rich DeMartino and the McNamaras.  Congratulations to them for their outstanding WBF results in Philadelphia last year.  And while I can hardly claim to "know" Brad Moss, it was interesting to see him as 2010 player of the year after facing him (and Gitelman) for two boards in the Reisinger.

I generally take a look at Mike Flader's column fairly soon after receiving a new bulletin.  But I think he's a little off his game this month.  In the third question, the opponents have the auction 2NT—4; 4♠—4NT.  Opener now picks up his bidding cards and starts to put them back in the box.  The questioner asked if it was appropriate for either his partner or himself to point out that the auction wasn't over.  Maybe space was limited but Mike's answer addressed the simple fact that no call had been made (no card was placed on or near the table) so the director (none had been called) should allow the auction to continue and that was about that.  I think he missed the point entirely.

First, the most obvious point.  The writer (who has already passed in this round) should not be saying anything at all since it is not his turn to bid.  Second, writer's partner should, in my opinion, wait a reasonable time and then call the director (or writer could call the director).  Otherwise they'd logically still be sitting there.  Clearly an infraction has occurred (it is incumbent on opener to make a call and he has not).  And if I was that hypothetical director, I would rule, notwithstanding the laws, that opener had made the physical equivalent of a pass (removing his cards rather than placing one on the table amounts to the same thing).  I would allow play to continue in 4NT (assuming that writer's partner also passes as any sane person would) and let the result stand if it was favorable for the defenders.  If it was not favorable to the defenders, I would probably assign an adjusted score: give the defenders the table result and assess a procedural penalty against declarer, awarding his side an average minus.

If I were Flader, I'd point out that the laws were not well written in this case [to quote from The Mikado: That's the slovenly way in which these Acts are always drawn. However, cheer up, it'll be all right. I'll have it altered next session. Now, let's see about your execution — will after luncheon suit you].  Actually, this issue is not covered in the "Laws of Duplicate Bridge" because it is up to the regulating authority, the ACBL in our case.

But most of all, I'd criticize all those players who, not being the last to call in an auction, simply pick up the cards to indicate that the auction is over.  It ain't over until the third pass in rotation is made!  This particular behavior drives me potty.  One of these days, I'm going to be the last to call over, say, 1NT—2NT—3NT and I'll be thinking of a lead-directing double when partner makes the opening lead.  I certainly hope that partner will be allowed to replace his/her face-down lead if I do make that double.

The first question is more of a judgment call and maybe Mike Flader is correct for a table ruling, but in practice this would likely be referred to a committee (of players, rather than directors).  Holding ♠9875 A862KQ74 ♣T, our hero hears his partner open 1♠ (at favorable vulnerability) and RHO bid 2♣.  Being an old-fashioned sort of player (but having, in a moment of weakness perhaps, agreed to play weak jump raises), he bids 3♠ meaning it as a limit raise.  After ascertaining from opener that the jump is "weak", LHO bids 4♣ and partner passes as does RHO.  The question is this: is said hero allowed to bid 4♠?  Flader points out that pass is a logical alternative and that he may not choose another logical alternative that could have been demonstrably suggested by partner's explanation—he must decline the invitation that he thought he was making.  But wait a moment!  The situation is now quite different.  Is it really a logical alternative to pass when our side is known to hold at least half the deck, nine spades and we have a singleton in the opponents' suit?  I think not.  Surely, we're still allowed to bid our cards!  After all, the original 3♠ supposedly said "I think that, if you have a minimum hand, we have a better shot at making nine tricks than ten".  But now, we're not even going to declare the hand.  Surely our hero is allowed to try for -100 rather than suffer the likely -130!

This is one of those very tricky areas of bridge that unfortunately end up making somebody upset when the director rules a certain way.  I'm not sure that I have a solution, other than screens, or electronic bidding with pre-loaded convention cards.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Responding to opener's reopening double

My wife-and-favorite-bridge-partner has the slightly disconcerting habit – to someone who thinks of himself as a theoretician – of frequently teaching said theoretician some little bit of theory.  Here's an example from a late-night bout with the GIBs on BBO (nobody is vulnerable): ♠AQ 8543QT54 ♣832.

Kim opened (second seat) 1♠ and RHO overcalled 2.  I passed as did LHO and Kim re-opened with a double.  What now?  Clearly my hand isn't good enough to pass (that would net us -570!) but what is best?  I chose 3, hoping for four diamonds opposite, which was not a success.  The robots mercifully let me play undoubled but I somehow lost a trick I was supposed to get and ended up -200 for a 4.5 imp loss.  I basically shrugged it off, noting that I might not have reopened with a double myself, and thought nothing more of it.

Kim made a very astute observation, however.  Why didn't you just bid 2♠?  [She believes that I always try to wrest the contract from her, but that's another story – and certainly not the case here as I had no enthusiasm whatsoever for playing this particular hand!].

But her comment triggered a thought.  Suppose RHO had never bid.  The auction would have unfolded 1♠ – 1NT* – 2♣ – 2♠.  That's automatic using the 2/1 system.  There never would have been any question of anything else.  I'd do the same with two small spades (assuming I had a 1NT response to start with).  So isn't it logical that I should do the same thing in this sequence?  It would result, assuming double-dummy play and no double, in -100 (which would beat the par of -140).

It's not only logical, it should be automatic.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Bridge at the Enigma Club

I am always thrilled to receive bridge books as Christmas gifts.  This time Joan, my mother-in-law, bought me one I hadn't seen or heard of before: Bridge at the Enigma Club by Peter Winkler.  As soon as I saw the title and read the cover, I knew I was going to enjoy it.  But it's better than that.  I love it!  And, therefore, I highly recommend it to anyone who loves reading about bridge.

Peter Winkler is a professor of math and computer science at Dartmouth College and a former cryptographer.  Although I'd heard long ago about encrypted signals at bridge, I hadn't realized that it was Winkler who originated the idea.  Given my love of cryptography (and its relevance to my work), I've always been fascinated by the idea of crypto signals at bridge and somewhat saddened by the fact that they are illegal in many bridge jurisdictions, in particular the ACBL.  Why should this be?  It's such an arbitrary ruling.  And, of course, it turns out that one can theoretically use crypto during the auction too.  Perhaps Winkler won't mind if I quote a passage from his book:

"Suppose you and your partner are on your way to a slam, and you bid five notrump, showing the rest of the aces."
"Well, you now know which ace your partner has, right?"
"If I, your opponent, ask you which ace she holds, do you tell me?"
"Of course not, but that's not the same thing, nothing hangs on which ace she holds."
"That's because you didn't hang anything on it. On that auction you and your partner developed two bits worth of cryptographic 'key' that you could theoretically use to hide information..."

The whole business of full disclosure is based on the fact that you have to tell your opponents your agreements, even down to the last detail if necessary, but you don't have to tell them your hand. So, if there's something about your hands that you know, legally, but they don't know, why should it be that you can't take advantage of this bonus knowledge?

While Winkler makes a good case for allowing crypto in bridge, he doesn't do it as a proselytizer might do.  In fact, his "hero" in the book is the skeptic, the one who is unfamiliar with it all, just as we the readers typically are.

The book is really just a great read.  There are fascinating ideas about system here, too, in particular, the meaning of 2/1 bids.  He also describes a bridge club, and its ways of playing duplicate bridge, which is fascinating.  A cross between online and face-to-face bridge which is elegant but goes much further than either.  Some of the ideas aren't quite so novel now that we have pre-duplicated boards and electronic scoring, but still it represents to me a kind of nirvana for playing bridge.