Thursday, December 13, 2012

Dodging a bullet – or two

Imagine that you are playing the convention known as suction. I'm talking about the ACBL-legal version that operates over an artificial forcing club bid (1♣ or 2♣ depending on system). White on red at matchpoint scoring, you pick up ♠T96 87 ♣KJT9643 and, after partner passes as dealer, you hear RHO bid 2♣ (strong, artificial and forcing). You bid 3♠ which is essentially a club preempt or a two-suited hand with both red suits. The next player bids 4 and partner doubles. This is passed back to you. What's going on?

In fact, we have an explicit agreement about this type of situation (see DSIP rule summary), but for the sake of argument, let's actually think about the logic. LHO presumably has a good heart suit (this doesn't seem like a good time to be psyching!) and RHO has some kind of a monster hand. So, what kind of hand would partner have to have in order to make a penalty double here? Shortness in clubs, very good hearts and perhaps a couple of aces on the side. Pretty unlikely, right?

But in any case, we're forgetting something. Partner doesn't actually know whether we have the club hand or the red-two-suiter hand. Well, if he has the hand we think, with all of those hearts and aces, he can presumably infer that we don't have the red two-suiter. But that hand is so unlikely, it's just not in the realm of possibilities. There are only 40 points in the deck: opener has at least 20, we have four, LHO presumably has some, more if his hearts aren't very good. That doesn't leave a lot for partner's penalty double.

And, if partner does have this miracle hand and they end up playing in 4 instead of in a better fit, wouldn't we just be thrilled to get a positive score.

No, the only sensible thing that partner's double can possibly mean is this: "I have offensively oriented cards and am planning to compete – but I don't know for sure which suit to bid or how high until I get clarification of your hand."

Why wouldn't partner simply accept the "transfer" to 5♣ and let our hand decide? For the simple reason that, in competition, that would show – guess what? – clubs.

The more I experience what makes a good penalty double and what doesn't, the more I realize that, unless all hands are balanced, in which case a double will do well provided that our cards are sitting favorably and we have more of them, it's important to have no fit for partner. So, it's absolutely essential, in the case of a distributional hand, whether partner is single-suited (which suit?) or two-suited (need to know both suits).

Opportunities for this kind of double abound. Let's suppose that we are playing DONT against 1NT openers. LHO opens 1NT and partner doubles showing a single-suited hand. RHO bids 2 (transfer). Our hand is something like KTx Qx KJxx Qxxx. We definitely want to compete here but we don't know where yet. So, we double, showing "cards" and not especially diamonds. In the unlikely event that LHO passes and partner's suit is diamonds he will pass too (this actually happened once). Double to ask for partner's suit is so much more useful than doubling to show diamonds.

So, any time that partner has left us in the dark about a suit (or, in the case of suction, their whole hand) double is best used to inquire. It's worked well for me.

So, what about dodging those bullets? Well, par on this board was -500 (6♣X down 3). My hand, by the way, was ♠82 76 AJ432 ♣A852. As you can see, my hand was eminently suitable for a sacrifice just so long as I can be sure which minor to bid. So, after my RHO bid 4, I doubled. LHO passed and so did partner! That could only mean that he had the red two-suiter. Had my RHO chosen to pass at the point, we would have been -890 for an absolute bottom. But fortunately, she also thought my double was for business. So she bid 4♠. Naturally, I bid 5. See how much I trust partner? Although I suppose if I had trusted him 100%, I might have bid 6! If either of my opponents had pulled out the red card over 5, we would have been -800 for 1 matchpoint out of 17. Fortunately, LHO bid 5 and there we let it rest for a 43% board. Not as good as the 73% board we might have achieved for the par result, but at least not a zero.


  1. My partnerships' agreements, after partner has made a suction call, are that advancer's double of responder's bid is "stolen bid" ... so that (2C)-3S-(4H)-dbl is asking partner to pass if he has the red two-suiter or bid 5C if he has the club one-suiter. Double is the call advancer would make with both rounded suits.

    Is it impossible, given responder's 4H call and advancer's diamond length, for partner to have the red-suiter? I'd say "no", because the auction has been so preempted by partner's 3S bid.

    Accordingly, with the shown hand of advancer, I want to play in 5 of a minor, and so would bid 5C, still pass or correct.

    Yes, I am not feeling the need for a penalty double in an auction in which the opponents have opened 2C. If our suction interference has caused them to land in a silly contract, I am OK with that silly contract being undoubled.

  2. As most would expect this to be a penalty double, don't you think it should be alerted?

  3. 1. Paul, not sure if you were addressing Robin or me with your question. If there is partnership understanding that the double is "pass or correct", yes, I think the double should be alerted.

    2. A hand at yesterday's club game reminds me of how preemption can cause new suits to be introduced that are not so strong, because "everyone is guessing". My partner heard me open the bidding with 4D, at fav vul. His hand was KJT82, Q3, AT32, AK. He responded 4S. Should he have been fortunate enough to have found me with, say, 9x of spades, the 4S bid could pay off big time, as it is possible that 4S is the only making game ... with declarer eventually drawing trumps and running the diamonds. Alas, yesterday was not that day, because my hand was void in spades, my preempt being --, T9, KQJ8654, 9654. 5D was cold ... but the opponents were savvy enough to pass 4S when holding AQ954 of spades. Pass was my call, too, as who am I to say that partner was not dealt 8-9 spades, etc.? -150 was only 2 out of 7 mps.

    While the preemption of my partner was caused by me, the point of the previous paragraph is that, in the case of Robin's post, it is possible that the preemption caused by the 3S suction overcall might well have induced responder to bid 4H on a suit that is running into some really bad breaks. And, when that is the case, advancer should just pass and settle for defending the contract undoubled. In short, I am OK with there being no penalty double of 4H in Robin's sequence, but rather treating double as Pass or Correct of hearts.

  4. My comment about the alertability of the double was addressed to Robin. It sounds like he had an agreement and I just wondered if the opponent was made aware of it.

    With respect to Jeffrey's hand yesterday, bidding four spades looks naive to me. Almost certain to be off two hearts, at least one spade and a diamond ruff. Of course five diamonds might be equally poor :)

  5. I am somewhat in agreement with you, Paul, wrt my partner's choice to have responded 4S to my 4D opening. Only "somewhat", though, because the possibility of a diamond ruff is less than what you suggest, I think. Diamonds might be 1-1 or, with partner's diamond length hidden, the opponents might not be alert to the possibility of a diamond ruff.

    Wrt to your question to Robin about alerting, it appears that his partnership had no firm agreements about the meaning of double, so what is there to alert? Now, had the double been out of tempo -- whether too fast OR too slow -- that would definitely have been a problem, as the former suggests penalty and the latter suggests takeout. Such is the price, to an ethical partner, of not having firm agreements.

  6. "In fact, we have an explicit agreement about this type of situation"

    I think Robin did have an agreement but the opponent either didn't ask about the alert or didn't receive one.

  7. We do have an explicit agreement, at least in theory. There was no alert since partner forgot that agreement. Whether or not this kind of double is alertable is open to interpretation. In general, the ACBL requires that doubles that show a specific distribution (eg support x) or do not promise four of an unbid major are alerted. My understanding that doubles showing "cards" as in this case are not. But this is something of a grey area.

  8. I agree that it is a very grey area but I think pass or correct doubles at the four level would be sufficiently unusual to require an alert.

    When the rules are unclear, I consider who is most likely to be damaged from alerting a call. In such a case it is hard to see how the opponents could be damaged if the double is alerted but the director ruled it was not necessary.

    I'd just be unhappy about getting a good board here because an opponent misunderstood our methods.

    1. Paul, there are lots of things wrong with the alert system (IMO). The biggest problem is that it encourages players to skip thinking when something unusual happens. Since there is no obvious meaning for double here, opponents should ask! Assuming that double here is for penalty simply doesn't take account of the ambiguity of the 3S call.

    2. ... And I hasten to add that I have asked many directors about this sort of thing. The answers aren't consistent but the most senior responses have said no alert required. However, in situations where double would clearly be for penalty we do usually give an alert for the same reason you give.

  9. I think every set of alert regulations have their issues at the edge. I play in Scotland, England and the USA, all of which have different regulations and different attitudes.

    In my experience the ACBL encourages players to ask about unalerted calls far more than the British organisations and this is naturally more important in this case.

    But one area that the EBU and SBU are far better than the ACBL is getting a definitive answer from the appropriate committee on whether a call is alertable or not. Dealing with the ACBL is a nightmare, perhaps due to its size or maybe because there is no committee that the TDs respect.

    Bizarrely, but for different reasons, this double would not be alertable in England (only anti-lead directional doubles above 3NT are alerted) or Scotland (no alerts for any doubles, as per WBF).