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?