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.