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.