Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Introducing four-card suits in high-level auctions

Have you ever found that the auction has progressed to a point where it is no longer comfortable to bid a four-card suit?  And yet it may be that you actually have a four-four fit.  Let's say partner has opened the bidding.  With a weak responding hand, we will typically simply bid a four-card major if we have one and there will be no further interest on our part in introducing a new suit.  But what if we have invitational strength (or better) and we want to bid our suits in natural order?  What if the opponent(s) intervene?  We can easily develop acrophobia as the auction gets close to or beyond the 3NT level.  The solution to this problem of course is the cooperative double.

Here's a case in point:

Some readers will say that the South hand could start with a negative double and then bid clubs.  I prefer to play so-called "negative free bids" (which, by the way, fit hand-in-glove with cooperative doubles) so that particular sequence becomes a game-force.  But even playing standard, don't you think that starting with a double distorts this hand significantly by marginalizing a good six-card suit?

Admittedly, you don't have much to spare after the sequence shown in the diagram. Yet it does appear that this hand "belongs" to us and, with an unannounced four-card heart suit why should we let them play 3♠  undoubled?  If partner doesn't have four hearts, he may be able to raise clubs, rebid diamonds or convert the double into penalties.  When they have a good fit, so have we.  Occasionally, we can catch them speeding and, as it turns out, partner is happy to pass.  Surprisingly, however, the only lead to actually set the contract is the singleton trump.  Let's hope we don't go wrong and lead a high club!

Do I hear any dissenters?  Yes, of course I do.  Some of you may feel that with such an "obvious" double, North should be able to double 3♠ for penalties?  But think about it for a moment.  How frequently is that going to come up?  At the three level, after the opponents have made a Law-of-total-tricks raise, the player sitting under the bidder will rarely have a holding that is good enough to double with confidence.  On this kind of auction, it's much more likely that it is our hand but we haven't yet found a fit.  Mel Colchamiro has a great name for a double by North here: the "balance-of-power" double.  "BOP 'em," he says.  You might argue that the 3♣ bid, which is so highly informative, should trigger penalty doubles.  That is a valid point of view.  Nevertheless, the opponents are jamming our auction and we have not yet had a good chance for either of us to show four hearts.  Transfer two of those diamonds into the heart suit and we have a decent shot at game, yet the auction so far would have proceeded just the same.

In general, it is my opinion that, playing against reasonably sane opponents who have announced a good fit, it is more useful to be able to find our best fit than to increase their penalty.  And, what if you have a great hand and a stack of trumps and are prevented from doubling?  It may be a blessing when partner is bust.  Those situations usually work better when the hand sitting over declarer has the trump stack while partner has the entries.  That avoids opening leader being end-played at every turn.

Yes, but how can you make a takeout double when there is only one suit to take out into?  I know some of you are thinking this.  The point here is that it is not a pure "takeout" double.  It's a cooperative double showing that we have the balance of power and asking partner his opinion.  One of the suits that partner might favor is the one that's already been bid and doubled – a penalty pass.

Going back to our example hand, the more observant of you may have noticed that we can make 3NT, despite having only 22 hcp.  That's another possibility that I didn't mention before – taking the double out into a notrump game.  Indeed, this is one of those fairly rare hands where notrump plays better than any suit.  Next to notrump our best fit is diamonds where we can take eight tricks.  But how much better it is to score 400 instead of 100?

For more blogs on this interesting topic, see for example Single-suit cooperative doubles or Using double to find out about fit.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

The supremacy of the club suit (part 2)

At the half-way point of the Heorot duplicate, it was the custom for Hrothgar and the warriors to take a little light refreshment, consisting of spicy hoggies, lampreys, sherbert, plenty of mead and a curious spirit distilled from dragons' blood, called Naegling's Revenge.

The next round saw a little variation on this club suit business.  I was late to the table as I was obliged to break up a fight among the serving wenches and so missed the auction and play of the first board, but our pair was just entering +300 against a vulnerable, undoubled 2NT contract for another top.  Beowulf had apparently been on lead with KQJ72 of clubs with a queen, king and king in the other two suits after declarer had opened with 1♣.  It's not hard to imagine what the opening lead was! On the next board, I watched the action from a standing position where I could see Hrothgar's hand and Wiglaf the dealer's hand.  Hrothgar picked up a modest Axxx J9x xxx T98.  Wiglaf with 4225 shape and 11 high card points, opened 1♣.  Beowulf doubled and RHO bid 1.  Hrothgar bid a somewhat questionable 1♠  but I could see that this had a disconcerting effect on the normally fearless Wiglaf.  The obvious penalty double would have resulted in 500 and a top.  But this pair were playing a strange new agreement whereby opener would promise three hearts if he doubled here.  Some of these modern ideas are too funny for words.  Opener passed therefore and so did Beowulf.  The fourth player, Wiglaf's man-at-arms was not done however and now bid 2.  This was passed back to Wiglaf.  2NT would seem a reasonable call here for a relatively easy 120 points but instead he bid 2.  This was mercifully undoubled.  Hrothgar, who by now was sensing some special magic in the club suit, lead the ♣T.  Eventually, Beowulf got a club ruff and the contract drifted off one trick.  Our pair took home all the matchpoints again.

I reclaimed my seat by Beowulf for the next board in which clubs again played a prominent part, though this time the suit belonged to the opponents, a pair of junior Shieldings whom I did not recognize.  Without going into any detail, those wicked clubs in the dummy apparently cast a spell on declarer who took four fewer tricks in a notrump game than were possible.  I could tell from his smirk that that Beowulf thought it was his brilliant defense that had engineered the set.  But I know better.

The club pips took a rest for a few rounds and I didn't notice any funny business with the black leaves until the penultimate round.  Beowulf picked up a nice hand as dealer with all vulnerable: ♠A7 AK654 JT ♣KJ95.  Naturally, he opened 1 and the King bid a forcing 1NT.  The rebid of 2♣ was passed out.  A top diamond was led and the dummy that appeared was far from majestic: ♠K52 Q7532 ♣8732.  I noticed Beowulf looking a little askance at this offering, but the opponents sensed nothing amiss.  As he observed after the hand, he might have had only two clubs on this sequence.  The lead was the A and I noticed Beowulf sit up a little straighter.  Seeing the shortness in dummy's hearts, trick two was the trump ten-spot which went to the knave.  After this helpful trump lead, and diamonds splitting 3-3, nothing could prevent declarer from scoring 130 for another clear top.

The evening had passed to dark night.  More than one of the players had fallen asleep.  But finally the count was done.  The club pips had rattled and squeaked their way sufficiently for our noblemen to win their direction with 61%.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

The supremacy of the club suit (part 1)

It was a fine summer night for the duplicate among the mead benches of Heorot.  The bats were flying in and out of the open doorways and there were sinister humors in the air.  Beowulf and King Hrothgar were determined not to repeat the previous week's performance where they received no field support at all to end below 50%.

Beowulf, a keen follower of the auguries, had some absurd notion from the sibyl he had consulted that the club suit would be supreme that night.  "Listen to the little black flowers," she had said.  "Surely, it should be the heart suit, as we were taught by the Venerable Argentus?"  "No, the clubs, you fool," the old hag cackled.

The first pair to come to the table were their mortal enemies, Grendel and his mother.  There was a standing truce after the sun went down on bridge nights until sunrise, but still I decided to take a seat behind the King for the first round, as the only seat where I could kibitz my master would have placed me perilously close to that odious monster.  The first board was an interesting way to start. Beowulf hadn't mentioned anything about clubs to his partner, as Hrothgar is not superstitious.  So it was a surprise when, after the auction 1 2 p 2NT X p, Hrothgar decided to bid 3♣ with ♠Q972 T 85432 ♣J98.  Beowulf laid down the following dummy: ♠AT54 AQJ96 J ♣KT2.  Hrothgar was able to cross-ruff his way to eight tricks and had to end down one for a 29% board.  Par on this board, as I discovered later, was 140 in spades.  I wondered at the time if there was a rule for Beowulf's double.  While surely a double of a natural 2NT bid was primarily for penalty, it must show a good hand with shortness in diamonds, expecting partner to leave the double in with the hoped-for useful holding in that suit.  Indeed, passing the double would have yielded plus 100 on proper defense.

The next board was quite exciting however and was a portent of good things to come, doing what the clubs suggested.  Hrothgar's hand was ♠A2 KQ976 J62 ♣762, vulnerable versus not.  Grendel's mother opened with 1 and his majesty overcalled 1.  I wondered how this might work out, given that he had three losers in opener's suit, but then this was matchpoints, and it's important to get the lead-direction in hearts.  Grendel raised to 2 and Beowulf surprised us all with 3NT.  After two passes, Grendel doubled with a vicious snarl and Beowulf removed himself into 4♣.  Grendel's mother doubled with a sneer as if to say "You moron!" and there things stood.  With eight solid clubs, Jack-fourth of spades and a singleton heart, Beowulf soon had 11 tricks pointed his way, having pulled off his favorite coup: discomfiting the Grendel family.  910 was good for all the matchpoints.  Local expert Brother Zacharius later pronounced that 3NT call as "deep."  Now I was beginning to be a believer in this club suit nonsense.

In the second round against the princes Hrethric and Hrothmund, the clubs seemed to be laughing at us again.  Beowulf opened 1NT (12-14) and there it rested.  The royal dummy consisted of ♠74 Q3 T95 ♣A75432.  I question the decision not to bid 3♣ but maybe those clubs could be brought home for a top board.  It was not to be.  Beowulf ended down four for an ignominious -400 and no matchpoints at all.

In the following round, clubs were again reigning supreme.  With all vulnerable, Hrothgar opened 1♣ with a minimum hand: ♠K543 J A94 ♣KT972.  After a 1NT overcall, Beowulf jumped to 3♣.  This was followed by a double and that was the end of it.  Nine tricks were unassailable for another clear top.  That sibyl certainly seemed to know what she was about!

I decided to cross over and sit behind Beowulf, who picked up a chunky 17-count with five clubs: ♠KQ9 KQ7 Q6 ♣KQT98 and nobody vulnerable.  After the 1♣ call, his left-hand opponent, visiting dignitary Wulfgar, jumped to 2.  This was doubled by Hrothgar and it came back to the mighty warrior.  What would he call?  Seventeen of the worst points you've ever seen, yet partner can double at the two-level.  Surely, he will do something, I thought.  After all, the hand has good clubs and that suit, we know, is in the ascendancy.  After what seemed like a very long inner battle, 2NT was the final call – who needs stoppers?  This was raised to 3NT.  The opening diamond lead went to the (singleton) king and... a spade was returned.  This had set the stage for a squeeze in case Wulfgar had four hearts but they actually divided 3-3 so almost every North in the room made 490.

The second board of the round again saw some action in the club suit.  Vulnerable versus not, Beowulf's hand (in fourth seat) was ♠Q642 K2 T5 ♣A9652.  Wulfgar opened 1NT (15-17) and there was a transfer to hearts.  After the 2 call, responder then jumped to 4♣.  I just about fell off my chair when Beowulf doubled this.  There was then a long hesitation before Wulfgar bid 4.  Wulfgar's consort raised to 6 and Beowulf observed that there had been a break in tempo.  Hrothgar ignored his partner's double completely and led a spade.  Dummy came down with Txx AQTxxx AKxx void.  I heard Beowulf remark "you have your bid, my lady."  Declarer played A then a small heart to Beowulf's king.  The spade return was ruffed and the contract was down 1 for a 93% board for our heroes.  I had a chance to ask Beowulf later why he had doubled 4♣.  Because of club suit supremacy, he said, and I couldn't draw him out further.

To be continued in part 2.

Monday, August 6, 2012


Many congratulations to the USA1 Youngsters for winning the silver medal in China at the 14th World Youth Team Chamipionships.  We had a special interest in this team because one pair of the team was made up of local brothers Adam and Zach Grossack.  Adam already has a World Championship title to his name – for the Youngsters Individual in the WBF event in Philadelphia two years ago.  Zach recently won the 0-5000 Life Master Pairs in Philadelphia with our friend Don and placed 4th in an open National event last year in Toronto.  Zach plays weekly with Kim so I hear a lot of Zach stories (almost all good!).

We were watching the action in the middle of the night (via BridgeBaseOnline) when USA1 surmounted a 56 imp half-time deficit in the semi-final versus Israel to win by an apparently comfortable 32 imps!  In fact, they won the last thirteen boards 74-0. 

Alas, they were not so fortunate in the finals against a strong Polish team. 

Meaning no disrespect to Adam, whom we simply don't know so well, I have irreverently entitled this blog entry WWZD (What would Zach do?) in recognition of the latest trend amongst those of us who have had the pleasure of partnering Zach – sharing hands where we tried to copy the 15-yr-old Zach's bidding style.  That, by the way, is about as far as we can get in emulating Zach.  He apparently has X-ray vision because in the actual play, he usually knows the result of the hand after the first few tricks!

Here's my own submission from yesterday's Sectional Swiss.  I held the following hand: ♠QJ A4 AJ63 ♣K9642.  I opened 1NT (15-17) and partner invoked Stayman.  I denied a four-card major and partner now bid a quantitative 4NT.  Well, by pure logic with my 15-count, I should pass.  But I tried to think about partner's hand.  While he might have as many as eight major suit cards, he might conceivably have only five.  Whichever major suit cards he had, mine should be useful, unless he was short in spades, in which case it was possible that even 4NT wouldn't make.  In any event, I thought, suppose partner had opened a strong notrump ahead of me.  Wouldn't I want to be in a minor suit slam somewhere?  So, I "took a view" and bid 6♣.  If partner didn't have support for clubs, perhaps he could bid 6.  Anyway, he passed, becoming declarer (because of the Stayman bid) and was able to make the slam for a 10 imp gain.  His hand was ♠AT5 J85 KQ72 ♣AQ8.  Would Zach actually have bid 6♣?  I don't know.  But he sure does love minor suit slams!