Tuesday, March 13, 2012

High card points

Have you ever heard a bridge teacher start out this way: "An ace is worth four points, a king three, ... etc."?  It's as if those numbers are part of the laws of contract bridge.   BTW, I don't really know anyone who teaches bridge this way – hopefully there is no such person.

I'm surprised I haven't written more on this subject here before because it's one of my hobby horses.  There was a short reference to the inadequacies of the Milton Work scheme of point counting, later popularized by Charles Goren, in my article on Zar Points, but that's all.

But I was reminded of this yesterday by a very ordinary hand that came up at the bridge club: ♠ J64  AK72 A987 ♣ 85.  We are red against white and partner deals and opens 1♣ (playing standard 15-17 range for 1 notrump).  How do you evaluate your hand?  Will you force to game or invite?

Do I hear you saying "Well, I have twelve points so probably should be in game unless partner has a dead minimum?"  You don't have twelve points.  You have at least thirteen points.  Huh? 

Much has been written on the subject of hand evaluation.  And there are hand evaluators available on the web.  Try this one for example: Kaplan and Rubens hand evaluator.  That gives a value of 12.90.  Or you can try this calculator at the Bridgeclub Himbuv site which includes a Zar points calculator.  In Zar points, the hand evaluates to 27.  However, you can effectively halve this to give you the equivalent in "normal" terms to yield 13.5.  Yes, a whole point and a half above what you might have thought.

I'm not sure to what extent the K&R evaluator upgrades honors in the same suit, but it seems to me that the texture of this hand is about as good as you are likely to get in an otherwise balanced hand.  The lonely jack of spades certainly can't count more than half a point.  But the ace and king of hearts combine nicely.  In theory, Zar points does adjust for combinations of honors but the value given above is the raw value based on hcp, controls and distribution only.

If you don't want to perform difficult calculations at the table, however, then you might try to follow these simple rules:
  • first, calculate your points according to the 4-3-2-1 scheme;
  • add half a point for each additional ace beyond the first;
  • subtract half a point for each pair of "quacks" (not necessarily in the same suit);
  • subtract half a point for a 4-3-3-3 hand;
  • add half a point for a decent five-card suit, etc.
  • add half a point for good texture (honors in combination) and another if these combined honors are in long suits;
  • subtract half a point for each short-suit honor on its own (A, Kx, Qxx);
  • when resolving those half-points, round up if you have extra aces and are aiming for a suit contract or if you have extra quacks and are contemplating notrump – otherwise round down.
In reality, I rarely preform this evaluation consciously but I am always doing it subconsciously.  And don't worry about the specifics of half a point here or a full point.  These adjustments are quite "fuzzy".

Let's see how this would apply to the hand given above (♠ J64  AK72 A987 ♣ 85). It starts with 12.  Add half for the second ace.  Add another half for the AK combination.  Grand total 13. 

Of course, the whole evaluation game changes drastically as soon as partner bids and we have a notion of whether we do or do not have a fit.  In this case, when partner opens 1♣, our hand does not improve.  Yet it's too early to say that it goes down in value.  We bid 1 and partner rebids 1♠ (or perhaps 1NT).  I think 3NT is automatic now. 

So, what happened at the table?  My partner has great potential but is relatively new to duplicate bridge, although she's played quite a lot of rubber bridge and online bridge.  She saw her hand as a balanced 11-12 count and so responded 2NT.  I passed with ♠ KQ85 Q9 KQ6 ♣ JT43 (a 12 count according to my methods).  Par on the board is +140 for making 3S (not an easy contract to find or make) and the next best score is +120 from my side of the table.  3NT from my partner's side should be doubled and go for 500 on a club lead.  Needless to say (this wasn't the Blue Ribbon pairs), that never happened.

In practice, the defense at our table was less than optimal and my partner wrapped up 11 tricks for 210, thus exceeding par by 70 points – a triumph you might think.  In practice, five pairs (of eight total) bid and made 3NT for 600, one of these from partner's side of the table where surely the final contract should be doubled for a club lead.  Bottom line?  Our teammates were hopeless on this board, partner did great, and I got an opportunity to talk about hand evaluation. :)

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