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.


  1. "Competing for the partial" is a reason for overcalling that is generally underweighted; and "looking for the lead" can be a reason for overcalling that is generally, and correspondingly, overweighted. Those are my opinions.

    Lead directing. Yes, sometimes partner leads K from Kx in the suit we have overcalled and that gives away a trick when the suit of our overcall was lacking too many top honors. As against that, sometimes partner does not end up on lead or has another lead that is more attractive than leading my suit or the choice of lead is irrelevant.

    Competing for the partial. There's lots of IMPs and mps to be won by being a tough opponent and forcing the opponents to make decisions at the three level, especially when you have usurped bidding space and they are forced to make decisions without having conducted lots of bids at lower levels.

    I would not have overcalled with your partner's hand, but that is because in part the hand is so unpure, what with the stray minor suit honors, and in part because neither the hand nor the suit is very robust. Once he did overcall, however, raising hearts surely seems like the right action: why should he shrink away when it looks like his questionable foray was successful in finding a major suit fit?

    I would agree that -710 is attributable mostly to overcaller being undervalued (although I think the double itself is also to blame: surely partner's heart raise diminishes the defensive value of your HK, leaving you with not a whole lot of defensive tricks), but if his SK morphed into the SA, +200 is probably only a successful spade finesse through the opening bidder away.

    Our nature might be to remember the times that nontraditional auction actions (the unclear overcall, the flawed preempt) backfire, but I think it is important, too, not to overlook all the times such actions caused the opponents to make a mistake. Yeh, your partner took it too far, but I am less critical of his enterprise with good major suit holdings than I am thinking you are.

  2. Thanks for your comment. I didn't mean to ignore the importance of partscores. I agree that those are very important (including at IMPs). I think we both agree that lead-direction is only sometimes instrumental. I don't normally eschew an overcall with a good hand just because my suit isn't so great. There are times when you simply have to get in there when you have a decent hand. The trouble with my partner's hand above was that, since double was not the first call, it suggested that the heart fit would perhaps be on three (not four) to an honor with therefore somewhat better defensive prospects. Normally, a hand that freely bids twice would have been worth a double initially if the shape was right. My final double was of course speculative but was intended as an equity-protector (we didn't have any two-way double agreements in place). Sometimes, shrinking away is beneficial despite the good fit - especially if bidding on helps the opps discover they have a game, or even slam.