Sunday, April 15, 2012

Penalty Doubles (part 1)

I've written a lot in these blogs about cooperative (two-way) doubles which are primarily intended to discover shape information.  Quite often, these are converted to penalty doubles by passing.  What I want to talk about here is the true penalty double.  This is the first of two parts.

I've identified five types of penalty double: (1) lead-directing, (2) equity-preserving, (3) penalty-increasing, (4) psych-exposing, and (5) tactical.  Let's start with the first type, the lead-directing double.  There are two sub-types: (a) double of an artificial bid and (b) double of the final contract.

Because the first type occurs before the natural conclusion of the auction (at least you think it's not yet over), it can serve both as a lead-director and as a proxy bid, suggesting values in the suit doubled.  Partner might use this information to sacrifice later on or, if he ends up on lead, then he will normally lead the suit doubled.  One of the advantages of this type of double is that it's "free".  But we all know that there's no such thing as a free lunch!  I learned this the hard way many years ago in my first Flight A Swiss.  Playing a pair of Grand Life Masters (yes, I should know better), I doubled a Stayman 2♣ bid for a club lead.  LGLM redoubled and RGLM passed.  There was no way to defeat 2♣ and one of those special scores got burned into memory: 760.  This was "only" a 4-imp loss as our teammates made 600.  But overtricks, if there had been any, would have been exorbitant – additionally 7, 3, 2, etc. imps.

But I digress.  The second type of lead-directing double is when the (expected) final contract is doubled to ask for a specific lead.  First introduced back in the early days of bridge by Theodore Lightner, this double is intended to create a penalty where none existed before.  In other words, if you make an unusual lead, partner, this contract is going down, otherwise, it will be making.  Because this type of double doesn't simply increase the penalty but instead defeats a contract, it is generally the most profitable of all doubles.  Because the margin of error in slams is so small, the Lightner double was first described as a defense to slams.  Imagine the opponents have bid to 6♠ while you hold ♠A2 and a side void, you know that the slam is going down – if only you can persuade partner to lead your void suit.  It is of course just possible that declarer has a void in the same suit and your plan may go awry but that would be unfortunate to say the least.

[In a distant aside, that actually happened to my opponent in a bizarre incident that occurred just before I gave up bridge for 18 years.  The scene was the 1980 NABC in Detroit, my first tournament of any kind, soon after I'd learned the game.  I was in 7 which was doubled for a diamond lead.  The opening lead was a diamond and I claimed (there were approximately 15 tricks on view and I was void in diamonds).  The director was called and it was ruled that, because I didn't explicitly say in my statement that I would over-ruff my RHO, I was down one.]

Back to the present.  Again, there are dangers with lead-directing doubles.  The most likely thing to happen is that one of the opponents will pull the contract to no-trump.  Now, your precious ruff just evaporated and if they can still manage 12 tricks you will have helped them go from a failing contract to an impregnable one.  Your partner will undoubtedly point out that he was going to lead your void suit without your silly double.  The next danger is that partner won't know which of the other three suits to lead.  If he is long in dummy's suit, that should be pretty obvious.  But dummy doesn't always oblige by bidding a suit.

This is where experts invoke the following rule: if you have bid a suit during the auction (or made an earlier lead-directing double) and you subsequently make a lead-directing double of the final, freely-bid suit contract, you definitely do not want partner to lead your suit.  You were expecting that lead and there would be little point in doubling simply to increase a penalty that was already coming.

Of course, there are the usual dangers.  You might be incorrect about your ability to defeat the contract.  Partner might not recognize the difference between a lead-directing double and one of the other two types of penalty double.  One of these situations arose recently in a pairs game.  I should note in passing that the strange mechanism of scoring used in pairs games complicates the entire business of penalty doubles. I held ♠ – 952 AJ7432 ♣ AQJ5.  My LHO opened 1, partner passed and RHO bid 3 showing a four-piece constructive raise of hearts.  Assuming my opponents were bidding honestly, that left partner with at most one heart.  I wanted to show my diamonds, force the opponents to game, make a lead-directing double and hope that partner could work out to lead spades (and come up with a fourth trick).  In retrospect, I'm not at all sure why I was so optimistic!  Since we play two-way (cooperative) doubles, I had to trigger penalty doubles with either a lead-directing double of the 3 call, or make a bid that showed a good suit (similar to a preempt) with 4.  I chose the latter (which, had I bought the contract, would have been down 1).  LHO obliged with 4 and it came back to me.  Now to spring the trap (so I hoped).  I doubled confidently and awaited a spade lead.  I got a diamond.  There was still a chance though.  I won the ace, cashed the ♣A and led a low club to partner's ♣K.  At this point, a passive lead would have resulted in down 1.  Unfortunately, partner tried to give me a club ruff.  There was now no way to defeat the contract and so we went from a potential +800 (this would require a spade lead, plus a double-dummy defense of me leading a club to partner's T at trick 2) to -790.  Quite a swing! 

We had some friendly discussions about which would be the better club to continue at trick 3, whether it would have been better to double 3 or bid 4, and so on – but it is nevertheless an instructive hand.  The essential problem was that it wasn't clear to partner which type of penalty double I was making.  I think the only contenders, based on the auction, were types 1 and 3 (lead-directional and penalty-increasing).  Had I doubled 3 then I think type 2 (equity preservation) might have been possible also.

Now, here's a test to see if you've been paying attention.  This hand actually occurred today in the seventh match of a sectional Swiss.  Your hand is:  ♠ 83 QJ98 62 ♣ J9754, red against white.  Hold on to your hat.  You won't experience this auction everyday!  Starting with partner, it goes 1–2–p–2NT; 3–4–4–p; p–5–p–5NT; p–6♠–p–p; X–p–p–p.  What do you lead?  Answer in part two.

In the next part of this series, I will try to show that, while penalty double type 3 (penalty-increasing) may be the traditional interpretation, the species is actually less common at duplicate bridge than one might expect.


  1. Robin,

    In light of your comment about experts invoking a rule to use double to deny leading your previously bid suit, I wonder if you feel that should carry on in the following situation:

    Everybody's a decent player in this club duplicate game. You're playing with somebody for about the third time. The other pair are good and have a bit of a reputation as operators. Young punks in other words. BUT, you aren't sure your partner knows that. You're first to speak with everybody white and bid 1S. The action then goes ...

    1S 2D P 2H
    P 3N P P

    Whatever meaning would the following bids have at this point in the auction:

    Accepting the negative-lead implications of a double against a suit contract is one thing. Against a 3NT call? I wonder if there are differences, especially here with declarer having a long suit and a stopper. Probably.

    For sure, not having an agreement beforehand is going to lead to an unhappy result for a wrong guess. But the secondary result of invoking the agreement outlined above is, what suit should partner lead assuming he knows which of X and P represent commands to lead a non-spade suit?

    For the record, opener had six spades to the KQJ10xx KJ A 9832.

  2. This is probably the most interesting and controversial lead-directing double situation, and not explicitly covered above, where I only address suit contracts. [I thought I'd covered doubles of 3NT way back in one of these blogs but I couldn't find it.] "Standard" treatment of double says "lead my suit anyway, partner," and that's clearly what's right here. George Rosenkranz and others suggest the opposite meaning, however: "I never got the chance to bid the suit I really like (clubs in this case) - so please lead one of them." That meaning would of course only prevail after an explicit agreement.
    On general principles, it seems clear that partner is close to bust on this auction so there can't be any other sensible lead other than a spade anyway - you're the only one with any chance of setting up and enjoying long tricks. At IMPs, anyway, I think a spade lead should be automatic but admittedly it might not be right at MPs. That's why there's so much room for debate.
    BTW, you might have helped partner out a bit with a 2S bid at your second turn.

    1. Robin,

      Had it been me at the table, a 2S card would likely have hit the table. I was given the hand as jury and executioner by the guy who WAS at the table in the questionable seat. As I argued at the time, the occcurences of declarer having one or no (admit, we've all seen it happen) stopper and a non-running long suit crop up considerably more than having a stack in one of the other two suits (a heart stack is barely possible) and using a double for that RARE occasion. Plus, the double has to be successful, besides lead-inducing. And this from somebody who wrote up a little idea for Bridge World last century that a direct double of a cue-bid of my bid suit specifically means I have a specific defence (shortness on the side, usually) in mind that includes NOT leading my suit. (GAMBLE DOUBLE, back in the 70's, can't remember specific issue). And I've actually talked about this kind of situation with the good Doctor and he and I disagree on this issue, even though I think it's open and shut my way. 'Course, a lot of words spent on a once-a-decade situation reveals something about bridge players. Don't know what, but something.

      Please continue with your fascinating series. There's a book somewhere in the future. An EBook. Please.

    2. Thanks for the kind words. And isn't "the good Doctor" just a great guy, not withstanding your minor disagreement?

      I like the idea of the gamble double. I'm a sucker for gadgets. One double that really needs to become standard in my opinion is the double of a splinter. Not much point in having that suit led. So the scheme of higher/lower suit makes sense. Trouble is which is which? And does your partner do it the same way?