Monday, December 31, 2012

What makes a good penalty double?

Back in April, I wrote about different types of penalty double – the second installment was Penalty Doubles (part 2). There, I observed, that the traditional penalty double was an endangered species because in practice it doesn't come up very often. Note that I am excluding what I call "equity-preserving doubles" which cover such things as doubling sacrifices. By the "traditional" penalty double, I mean the type where you double a contract that the opponents have bid willingly (and it appears that the hand "belongs" to them). Such doubles typically occur in an auction that begins competitively and, frequently, they arise after partner of doubler has opened the bidding. And note also that I am talking here about doubles that are strictly penalty in meaning, not cooperative doubles that are converted by passing.

What makes a good penalty double? I think there are several factors:
  1. lack of a fit for partner, otherwise a relatively balanced hand – in particular you must not hold a long suit (six-plus cards) of your own;
  2. trump quality and position – your tricks are sure tricks and there's no danger of tipping off declarer as to the correct line of play – but the position of your honors in the other suits must appear to be favorable to you too;
  3. an expectation of setting the contract at least two tricks – or, at match points, your judgment that the contract is normal (four or five of a minor is generally not normal at MPs) and that your peers are likely to consider doubling (if the contract isn't normal – perhaps they've clearly gone off the rails – you are almost certainly getting a good board if they go down even without a double);
  4. no place for the opponents to run.
Let's look at these in turn, although we will go in reverse, starting with point four. Several years ago in a world-wide simultaneous pairs event, I was the happy holder of ♠AK on lead against 6NT. Clearly, this pair had gone off the rails and I was likely to get a very good board simply by "staying with happiness". But the temptation for that world-wide top overcame me. I doubled, even though I wasn't sure that they didn't have a place to run. They ran to 7♣ and naturally I doubled that too. It made, of course, and instead of getting the world-wide top I was hoping for, I got a well-deserved world-wide bottom!

Point three: even though our hand might look fairly normal the other hands at the table might be goulash hands, with long suits and voids. Having a safety margin is definitely worth-while. Furthermore, the penalties really don't get interesting until the second trick (again, we're not talking about equity-preserving doubles). Let's say we are playing IMPs and the contract is 4 (vulnerable) going down one at both tables. The opponents double at the other table but we don't. We lose 3 IMPs. Not such a big deal. Now, let's say it goes down two at both tables. If we don't double and they do, we are losing 7 IMPs. Now, that's getting more serious.

Point two: it's fairly obvious that we need trump quality because otherwise declarer will simply draw our trumps and run his winners. And, equally we need to be sitting over the trump length lest our honors be finessible. Well-placed trump tricks are tricks that can't disappear. Note that if trumps appear to be 5-5 (or even 4-4) we won't always be able to tell where our honors are in relation to declarer's honors.

Point one: perhaps the best indicator of the success of a penalty double is our fit for partner (assuming that partner has bid which is typically the case). Obviously, a void is the best, but a singleton is pretty good. Why should that be? Well, whatever the number of total tricks is on the hand (and the fewer the better from the point of view of the penalty doubler), each card that we have in our hand in partner's suit is likely to increase the total tricks by one. This presupposes that partner has a real suit (one of at least five cards in length). A good fit for partner means that we might even be better off playing our own contract than defending their contract. And it increases the chance of shortness in one of the opponents' hands.

Now for some examples to help summarize what I've said. Let's take an example from a recent club game which also happened to be a world-wide simultaneous event. You hold this hand (only we are vulnerable) ♠876 T843 J5 ♣QT84. Partner deals and opens 1♠. RHO doubles and you pass. LHO bids 2♣ and partner rebids 3♠. RHO now raises to 4♣. Your call?

If you chose double, it means that you haven't been paying attention! Let's look at the factors one by one:
  1. we have an excellent fit for partner who appears to have a good six or seven spades;
  2. our trump quality is OK though nothing to write home about – but we don't even know where the trumps honors will be found – furthermore, with honors potentially on both sides we could easily be tipping declarer off to the correct line, if there is one;
  3. we don't really have an expectation of beating this two – let's say partner has 16 hcp, we have 3 – that's not even half the deck – plus we have no other surprises in store for the opponents;
  4. do they have a place to run? how about diamonds? Partner's hand is spades and more spades.
When I played this hand (as LHO) we got to 5♣ and I went down. There was no double and I mistimed the play. When Kim played the hand (also as LHO) the player with the cards shown above doubled 4♣. Not only did Kim make the contract, she actually made the overtrick (playing double-dummy).

As it turns out, N/S can take eight tricks in spades with their 18 hcp, although East has to underlead the A to get West a ruff to avoid the overtrick. E/W can take eleven tricks in clubs. That's nineteen total tricks – two nine card fits with a club void in the long spade hand. In fact, a diamond contract doesn't do so well thus there's no good runout there, but of course none is needed. See below for the layout.

Here's another example of a bad penalty double, which came up just the other day, although this time I was the happy recipient of the gift. My opponent held this hand: ♠T98 JT82 54 ♣QJ83. All are vulnerable and your RHO (the author) opens with 1. You pass and LHO bids 1♠. Partner bids 2. RHO bids 3♣ and you compete to 3. I don't recall for sure what happens next but, if I recall correctly, the opponents end up having the auction to themselves and bid 5♣. Do you double? This would be a true penalty double because the opponents have voluntarily bid 5♣ and it is their hand.

Let's look at the various factors: we have a very good fit with partner [full contraindication]; trump quality is good and the position appears to be good, although there is a possibility that declarer might be able to come up with a winning line [perhaps half an indication]; we really don't have a solid expectation of a two-trick set but it's conceivable (one heart, two clubs perhaps and maybe partner will contribute another trick) [half an indication]; might they have a better spot than 5♣, though – diamonds for instance [half a contraindication]?

On balance, this is not a good double. Nevertheless, the holder of this hand doubled and, even though 5♣ was cold (though not six), the opponents ran to 5 which partner now doubled. This made easily (although RHO – moi – neglected to redouble and make the overtrick for a clear top – another pair actually bid and made 6).

And now my final example for this particular chamber of horrors: I recently made a very poor decision to double a competitive 4♣ call by my RHO, holding this hand: ♠QT92 QJ9876 ♣T2. All were vulnerable and partner had opened proceedings with 1. RHO overcalled 2♣ and I had no good call so passed. LHO bid 3♣ and partner came back in with 3. RHO bid 4♣. At the time, I intended it more as a "suppressant" double (a species I apparently failed to mention in my earlier discussions). This type of double is used solely to warn partner not to bid again. Yet, it is made in the expectation of a set, even though you aren't sure that partner could have made his contract (thus it is not strictly for equity preservation). Therefore, it is a penalty double and at least some of the other rules need to be followed. One of the rules I broke here, not having really thought about it as a rule before this occurred, is the long-suit rule. Just as you might conceivably pull partner's penalty double when you have a long unbid suit of your own (see George Rosenkranz' excellent Tips for Tops), so you should not make your own penalty double with an unbid long suit. Even if partner has only three cards (a suit he will not normally bid on his own), there's a 10% chance that one of your opponents is void and only a 40% chance that two rounds of the suit will stand up.

As always, I'm interested to hear comments. Have I missed some aspects of what makes a good pure penalty double? I know that I double too much in practice (although most of those are "equity preservation doubles" where the rules given above typically don't apply) so it is important for me to have some good guidelines. The long-suit exclusion is the latest enhancement to my personal checklist.

Best wishes to all of my readers for 2013.  May all your squeezes and endplays produce extra tricks.


  1. I agree with the general points ... subject to a major proviso discussed in my last paragraph, but I think a couple of the examples you presented are "overbid".

    On the hand where the opponents bid only clubs up to the four level, I would not worry about their suddenly finding a diamond fit if clubs were doubled.

    On the hand where partner bid hearts twice, your passing twice should be enough to suppress partner from bidding more. If you were to double, you might be undoing partner's good work at forcing the opponents beyond their comfort level.

    I guess the short cut answer would be to consider all the factors you outlined, but to also bear in mind that the actual auction conducted at the table can cause some of the factors to be disregarded for any particular subject auction.

    One major factor --perhaps THE major factor -- that I think your list omits is considering how you expect the play to go. Perhaps the auction and your hand tells you that declarer needs suit breaks that declarer won't receive. This is not necessarily related to the trump suit, but could be related to key side suits. Or your double is perhaps more likely to induce an opening lead that will set the contract or otherwise help direct partner's defense.

    Happy New Year to you and Kim, Robin.

  2. Jeff, you make a very good point and I agree that perhaps it should be called out on its own. I suppose I was essentially bundling it in with the second and third points. If you can't envisage a reasonable line of defense, subject of course to the time constraint of bidding in tempo, then you should probably not be putting down the red card.