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.