Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The Partnership Desk

My whole plan for the week in Phoenix was upended last Tuesday when my work meetings moved to Minneapolis. Still, I was committed to play three days with Barry (well, turned out it was only two) and could hardly back out of going down to Phoenix notwithstanding the venue change. The best flight I could get was in the afternoon so I was able to play in the side game in the morning. For that, I needed to visit the partnership desk. Given my background with the online partnership desk that I developed many years ago for the ACBL (which they chose not to use but preferred to write their own – but that's another story), and the fact that Kim and I ran the partnership desk for the 2008 NABC, you won't be surprised that I am something of a fan of the partnership desk. Over the years I have picked up partners who have ranged from brilliant to having no idea how the game should be played. But all nice people that I wouldn't have met otherwise.

The best was surely Matthew Thomson, an Australian bridge pro, who I somehow convinced to play with me in a two-session Swiss (don't ask me how) at an NABC several years ago (Denver, 2005 perhaps). I'm sure that, if he remembers me at all, it's as "that pommy bastard that couldn't follow suit."

Matthew is the fastest player I've ever played with (and I've played with Zach Grossack).  By about trick six of every hand, we was able to claim whether defending or playing the dummy. Probably he was looking for a claim even when he was the dummy. We sat down against a team and were on the seventh board of the match when the director came over and said we were playing the wrong pair. The correct pair sat down and we started over. We still finished on time, having played almost fourteen boards!

Matthew was very insistent that with 6-5 you shouldn’t bid Michaels – too much shape – partner will never guess you have that all-important extra card. And he gave me lots of other good system advice which I'm afraid I've forgotten.

I remember defending a hand where we had booked the declarer. I was on lead and couldn’t see how we could get another trick. There was a suit which would have given declarer a ruff/sluff so I completely ignored that suit. But that was the proper play. Partner would have been able to score his now bare queen of trumps en passant.

On another hand the opponents doubled for a lead while we were heading to game or maybe slam. He redoubled and I pulled to 3NT or whatever, making. But the redoubled contract would have scored considerably more.

Matthew has a new book out (his second) which is reviewed in the current ACBL Bridge Bulletin. I'm hoping to find it in my Christmas stocking as I'm sure it's going to be excellent.

Another great stroke of luck was playing with a young lady from California called Katherine Jin. At the last minute before an evening side game at the 2010 Reno NABC, as I was about to give up, she showed up. We played in a 49-table game and finished 2nd overall. Very studious and quiet, she had an uncanny knack for competitive bidding and could play the spots off the cards too.

Today, I was again fortunate. I got paired up with a retired rocket scientist (I may be embellishing a bit) called George from New Jersey. We hit it off pretty well and got lucky with a few contracts too. We weren't perfect but we still managed to get 3rd overall in a 26-table side game.

But, if you're still with me, you will finally be rewarded with a hand. This was in fact the first hand that I picked up in the side game. It was a "New Zealand Rugby" hand – all black – and a real beauty: ♠T876532 – – ♣AKQT62. Nobody vulnerable and the dealer on my right opened 1. How should I treat this hand? Whatever I do, unless I bid something like 6♠, I don't think it will be passed out. I decided to walk the dog with 1♠. LHO bid 4, nothing from partner and back to me. Should I bid 5♣? Clearly, if there had been any sign of life from partner, I would want to introduce the clubs. Maybe I should even so. But there are some possible drawbacks. One drawback is that I won't be able to play 4♠. Is it likely that they would let me? One of my friends playing in the same event did get to play 4♠X. And what if it turns out that a club lead might get them a ruff and my bid might tip them off? So I bid 4♠. The opponents competed to 5 and I bid my spades yet again and got doubled. We were off the top three spades but fortunately they fell in two tricks so, with the help of partner's ♣J (he also had the wasted A), I was able to make my contract (+650) for 18 of 23 matchpoints. Par was +300 for 6X-2.

And the outcomes from the partnership desk can be longer-lasting too. I've picked up several partners who became regular partners.  And occasionally you might get extraordinarily lucky and really hit the jackpot. At the logical equivalent of the partnership desk (a club director making pairings), I even met my wife Kim!

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Phoenix First Day

I am here in Phoenix at the NABC having a lot of fun. Sadly, our results are not commensurate with all that fun. I have a few very minor successes to report.

In the first session of the Life Master Pairs, I picked up K8432 T QT2 KJ64, fourth seat, favorable vulnerability. After two passes, RHO opened 1C. I love to make “pressure” bids but this seemed a little bit too dangerous. Still, we weren’t having a very good session and we needed to pick up some matchpoints from somewhere! Plus, having thought about it a bit, I realized that I needed to do something. So, undaunted, I bid 2S. This was passed back to opener who, after much long thought, decided on 2NT. I led the HT which held the trick. Dummy had J965 Q74 J7653 5. Now what? A club is actually best, but I led a spade. Declarer played DA and a small diamond which partner (Barry) won with the K. To cut a long story short, after we cashed our clubs, Barry was endplayed into giving them a heart trick at the end. Still, that was +200 and worth 48.5/59.

In the second session, fellow blogger Polly Siegel came to the table (she writes a series on BridgeWinners). All were vulnerable and, in third seat, my hand was QJT975 AK53 K7 5. Barry dealt and opened 1D. Imagine my surprise when Polly overcalled 1S. I suppose I could have made a negative double but instead I passed hoping to ring up a telephone number in penalties. But Barry reopened 2C and I jumped to 3NT. I made ten tricks with the help of the singleton SK in dummy. 1SX would have been worth 1100 on proper defense. They might have scrambled into 2H which would be down only 800. But Barry’s shape was 1255 so a reopening double just wasn’t in the cards. As it was, we still did well (50/59) although I’m not quite sure why.

A little later, Zia and Dennis Bilde came to our table. On the first hand, I dealt myself QT7 J975 K983 KQ (all vulnerable). Some people I’m sure would open this hand, but not me. I never open balanced 11 counts. So I passed, as did Zia. Barry opened 1C and Dennis overcalled 1H (he had four points, BTW). I decided to consider myself having a heart stopper and bid 2NT. We were all a little shocked at the next bid - 6NT by Barry. Zia led a heart and Barry tabled the dummy: AKJ2 A A5 AT9842. Everything behaved fortunately so I was able to make all the tricks. There were a few pairs in grand slams but we still managed to get 53/59. They got us on the next board however where they bid to a heart game that most didn’t. Zia was quite voluble (and complimentary all around) and I noticed that he still has quite the British accent, more so than me anyway.

And, in the interests of full disclosure, I should point out that all three of the pairs against which we had the lucky, or at least fortunate, results mentioned above, qualified for the second day while we did not.

We adjourned to the midnight KOs and teamed up with Mike Ring (my sister-in-law Kathy’s regular partner) and another Mike from the Seattle area. We were up against some good young players (I really felt old in that crowd). I noticed that my seat at the other table was occupied by Dennis Bilde. It turned out to be a wild match. On the first board, we got a somewhat lucky 690 (or so I thought) and then an 800 on what seemed to be a part-score. Things were looking good. On the fourth board, we set 3NT and then conservatively stopped below game, making 3. Then came a board where we were red on white. LHO opened 1C, Barry bid 1H (with a 12-count) and RHO bid 1NT. What would you do with QTx xxx KQx QTx? Perhaps double would be best, but I decided to raise to 2H. LHO now doubled and this was passed our for down 2 (-500). Not quite so good! The seventh board was a part-score and a push. Our opponents bid the slam on #1 (12 imps away) and managed to get 1100 for the same contract on #2 (on reflection, we lost a trick on defense - 7 imps away). We picked up one on the third board.  We got 10 imps when our teammates made 3NT on #4, and 5 when they set the opponents on #5. They didn’t find the double on #6 so that cost 7 imps. So, from thinking we’d won, it turned out that we lost by 26-16. But they were a good team even if they weren’t taking things too seriously.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Teaching: the best way to learn

"No one learns as much about a subject as one who is forced to teach it," according to Peter Drucker [incidentally someone who was, before he died in 2005, a second-degree connection of mine]. I certainly have found this observation to be true throughout my lifetime, never more so than when I rashly took on the teaching of relational databases to graduate students at one of Boston's major universities a few years ago.

So, how does this relate to bridge? In preparation for the final day Swiss at Mansfield this last weekend, I was going over some hands on the computer with our twelve-year-old CJ who recently started playing bridge. A hand came up where dummy had AQT82 and our hand had K3 of a suit (it happened to be clubs). We were in 6NT and needed all five tricks. What's the best line, assuming you know nothing definitive about the opposing distribution?

Most of us would probably say this is very close and there's not much in it. Those of you who are students of the suit combination tables, might know that playing for the drop is the best play. There are two potentially favorable distributions: 3-3 and those 4-2 splits where the knave is doubleton [I like to use the English name - it sounds so much more elegant]. Notice that 5-1 splits are no good because while the J may occasionally be squished, on these occasions, the nine will rear its ugly head. The 3-3 splits give us about 36%, as everyone knows, but those doubleton Js add up to a very surprising 16% yielding a total chance of 51.67%.

This is only slightly better than taking the finesse, right? No, the probability of success by finessing (recall that we can only finesse once) is only 42%. So the drop is significantly more likely to work.

But on this particular hand, after losing the first trick (diamonds), and winning the spade return,
unblocking three top hearts in our hand indicated that RHO had five hearts to LHO's one. That suit was completely known so could be used in a vacant places calculation. But vacant places are tricky, as anyone who has studied the associated paradox knows. Suppose that against 3NT, opening leader leads what we discover to be a five card suit and his partner has three cards. Does that mean that the vacant places are 8 to 10? No, it doesn't because we were "fed" this information by virtue of the lead being from the longest and strongest. If partner was declaring 3NT instead, our RHO might have led from his five-card suit and we might have concluded that the vacant places were 8 to 10 the other way.

No, the only suits we can really use in a vacant places calculations are those whose layout we have discovered for ourselves. Otherwise, the information is "tainted" or biased to use the proper mathematical term.

So, we go back to our 6NT contract and, ignoring any presumed layout of the diamonds (the suit led), we simply take the hearts into account. Thus, for the purposes of handling the clubs, LHO has 12 vacant places to RHO's 8. This means that 60% of the time, LHO will have the missing club knave. Is this enough to change our play?

I thought so and, in my teaching moment, I recommended a finesse of the ten [no, I did not go into details of vacant places -- just a vague description of how LHO was now more likely to hold the critical card]. And, I might add, CJ was very much in favor of playing for the drop.

Well, you probably guessed it by now. That rascally knave [please excuse the tautology] was tripleton offside. The cold 6NT was down two! Naturally, I justified this result by observing that if you play the probabilities, you won't get every situation right, but you'll come out ahead in the long run.

But would I have come out ahead in the long run? I decided to consult that excellent tool SuitPlay (mentioned several times before in this blog). Oh dear! The vacant places calculation doesn't make all that much difference. It's still right to try for the drop, although the edge has been reduced a bit -- drop: 47.68%; finesse: 43.98%.

So, from trying to teach -- and getting it wrong -- I have learned something myself. I still don't quite understand why the finessing percentage didn't increase by something close to the factor of 1.2 which would be expected. But maybe I'll figure it out, though I suspect it will be quite difficult.

But the really tricky part now is that I will have to explain to CJ that I gave him bad advice. Incidentally, his team won two matches for 0.44 red points which is enough to put him over the one point mark.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Reviewing the situation

My regular readers may have noticed that I haven't written much about doubles lately. Well, in light of the recent articles in the Bridge Bulletin by Karen Walker, I cannot let that state of affairs continue much longer.

I am very fortunate to be heading to Phoenix for the NABC soon. I wasn't expecting to be there, but guess what – I have to go there for work so will add a few days at the start. I will play in the LM pairs with my friend Barry Margolin. For our previous exploits in a national event, see The Little Gremlin. So, in preparation for our bridge date I wanted us to be on the same page regarding doubles.

Barry says he's the kind of player who responds better to general principles than rules and/or triggers. I think there are probably a lot of people who would say the same thing. Therefore I tried to put together one general principle which I hope will keep us on the same page for our upcoming sessions.

Before I get to that, however, let me give praise to my biggest fan regarding doubles, Bruce Downing, co-author of the Downhill notrump system. He has independently done a review and/or comparison between my triggers and Karen's bridge bulletin articles and found much similarity (though he prefers my "traffic light" analogy and triggers). I quote his opening remarks in a personal email:

There are two unwritten books that I hope to someday have on my shelf. One is 'Gariepy on Redoubles'. Larry Gariepy, a Dartmouth grad student in my early days of bridge in the Upper Valley, believed that the blue card was hugely under-utilized...

The other volume will be 'Hillyard on Doubles'. Robin has put extensive thought into when doubles should be takeout or cooperative or penalty. He has traffic light analogies. It's complicated but it's simple. He has blogged extensively with examples and cautionary tales. On the rare, but always enjoyable, occasions when I play with Robin, I always have to study the list of 'triggers'. Triggers are auction types which make a double penalty in Robin's methods.

So, with all appropriate preambles, here I have tried to formulate my doubles rules into a single guiding principle (with optional rider):

Provided that the hand hasn't shown itself to be a misfit and we are still seeking a fit, then double is for takeout or is cooperative, i.e. showing a hand with an expectation of owning or sharing the hand but no clear course of action. The level of the auction, in and of itself, does not affect the meaning of double  but if we could have doubled cooperatively at a lower level, then logically double is now penalty. Of course, once penalty doubles are on, we can never go back to cooperative doubles.

Any frequent partnership needs to discuss a few more details to be completely on the same page, but I think that this description should suffice for most partnerships that play only occasionally (like ours). Here’s the optional rider (essentially similar to some of Mel Colchamiro’s “BOP” double situations):

Even when we have found a fit, if an intervention finds us wanting to compete to an uncomfortable (unlawful) level, double is cooperative, unless our distribution/fit is already well known.

Some clarifications (I wish everything was already so clear that these were not necessary):

A misfit declares itself (or at least suggests itself for our purposes) when somebody bids a natural notrump in competition. It says "this is our hand but we don't appear to have a fit". Similarly, a redouble normally implies no fit (although some pairs may not use it that way). One of us rebidding his suit in the face of no support tends to proclaim (or suggest) a misfit also.

Owning the hand means we have about 23 hcp or more. Sharing the hand means that we have at least 20 hcp and sufficient distribution (especially spades) to give us a little safety. Either way, we are entitled to a seat at the (competitive) table.

No clear course of action usually means that we are one card short of a bid, whether it be a raise, a rebid or a new suit. An analogous situation arises in constructive auctions where one partner bids the fourth suit.

well-known fit pertains when either partner has shown (or denied) a ninth card in our agreed suit. If it exists, this ninth card “entitles" us to bid to the three-level (similarly, denial of a ninth card would suggest not going to the three-level). Note that a cue-bid by us may hide whether the hand has a ninth card or is looking for a stopper (in which case maybe doesn’t even have an eighth card). Either way, subsequent doubles are penalty because so much is known already about the strength and distribution. Of course, it’s less likely that we will want to penalize the opponents when we have a nine-card fit but when it does happen, we need to be on the same page.

An uncomfortable (unlawful) level typically refers to the three-level in a competitive auction. But by extension, if the auction is jammed and we don’t yet know how good our fit is, double can be used to ask how good our fit is at a higher level.

Well-known distribution usually means that one of us has made a call that narrowly limits the distribution patterns that we might have. There are too many ways to do this to list them all.

Note that I definitely haven't given up on the traffic-light analogy (see More about doubles) or triggers (see DSIP Rule Summary). If the putative book mentioned above ever appears in print, there will be extensive discussion of those aspects because less experienced players are, I believe, more comfortable with rules. But the description given here is perhaps a little more palatable to the expert and/or intuitive player.

As always, your comments are welcome.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Coping with preempts

Preempts are my favorite bids in bridge, but unfortunately other people know about them too! Long ago, I developed a rule to live by: after the opponents have preempted and you find yourself in what looks like a good, playable spot, don't try to improve on your contract unless you're sure you can do it in safety. This is especially true, apart from the fact that we are more likely to run out of room, because we suspect that the distribution will not be kind to us.

Recently, I've added a corollary: bid what'ya got. Do you have an obvious bid that will describe your hand? Or do you prefer to monkey about forcing the bidding but not really telling partner what you have?

A good hand for this latter rule came up recently on the last hand of a robot tournament on BBO.

I was in second place hoping for something I might be able to swing a few imps on. Well, there were plenty of imps flying about but the only other player to go positive on this hand was the one who was already an imp ahead.

So, how best to describe this hand? Playing the Leaping Michaels convention, I would probably bid 4♣ here. A slight misdescription perhaps but at least the hand would actually be a bit better than described. The robots don't play Leaping Michaels so bidding has to be natural. There seem to be several choices: 2♠, 3♠, 4♠, 3 and double. Can you think of anything else?

One of the nice things about playing with the robots is that you don't have to guess the meaning of your (or their) bid. Hovering over the bid will let you know what it means. This looked like a 3♠ call to me so I hovered: twice-rebiddable spades, 19+ total points. Although I didn't try it, hovering over 4♠ would have given the following description: 7+ spades, less than 14 hcp and at least 3 total points. In case you're wondering, 2♠ would be: overcall, 5+ spades, 12-18 total points. Clearly, this hand was much too good for two (or four) spades and the description for 3♠ was spot on. As Sherlock Holmes might have said had he been a bridge player: "it is an old maxim of mine that when one of your options describes the hand you have perfectly, why would you look for anything else?"

OK, I hear you say, but we risk losing the club suit that way. If we had spades and diamonds, I might have been tempted to double and then correct clubs to diamonds. But with the actual hand, I think there's far too much likelihood of an accident, or simply getting too high.

I wasn't best pleased when partner bid 3NT. Should I try to rescue him? How about the first part of the preempt rule? We are probably in a reasonable spot and any attempt to get to a better one might result in disaster. So I passed. This was the layout:

As you can see, 3NT is no slam dunk (4 would be tricky too but is in fact cold). The East robot started with the reasonable lead of K and after that his chances of a set were somewhat reduced. I knew from the bidding that West had the A so was able to play low on the diamond switch. West won and quite reasonably (but fatally for them) switched back to hearts. I had my nine tricks: seven black, two red.

My rival in the tournament chose to bid 4 which, while it was a totally incorrect description of the hand, did have the advantage of silencing his partner.  The others variously tried 2, double and 3. All met with disaster in one way or another. The robots were kind to those who ended in a minor suit game or slam. They didn't double.

Admittedly, it's only one hand, but I've generally found that making the most descriptive bids possible and quitting while you're ahead (i.e. stay with happiness) are good ideas when faced with a preempt.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

When is a sequence not a sequence?

I'll admit it up front. I'm looking for sympathy.

First, your hand and the auction: ♠Q643 K862 K4 ♣832 with all vulnerable. RHO is the dealer and he passes as do you. LHO opens 1NT (15-17) which is passed out. Partner leads the ♠T ("standard leads") and this is the dummy that we see: ♠72 QT3 6532 ♣AT76. Partner appears to have around 10 points yet is apparently making a passive lead. That's a little odd but presumably there's a good reason. So, which spades in partner's hand can we definitely rule out? The knave for sure. That's for damn sure, as Jack Reacher would say. And of course the queen (we have it). It looks like declarer must have something like AKJ(x). Is there any possibility that partner has the king?

Let's take a short diversion now and consider the "standard" leads in bridge versus notrump contracts. Clearly, the highest of any sequence of honors (the ten or above) is a candidate. AKQ(x), KQJ(x), QJT(x) are all obvious and automatic leads (unless we have a very strange hand). But what if we have only two honors in sequence? We normally like to have a third honor (or high card) which is only one card separated, as a "kicker". Such sequences are called, rather euphemistically it seems, interior sequences. So, for example, AQJ(x), KJT(x), QT9(x) are "standard" leads, as are AKJ(x), KQT(x), and QJ9(x) – note that (so I believe) in these latter cases the "standard" card to lead is the lower of the touching honors [does anybody really do that?]. Of course many pairs don't play these time-honored standard leads – there's Journalist (or Vinje), Rusinow, jack-denies/ten-implies, and agreements asking for attitude or count.

So, how safe are these honor leads, anyway? And why does having a kicker increase the safety or effectiveness? Well, of course if the missing card is in partner's hand, there's no problem (unless it ends up blocking the suit). If it's sitting under you in declarer's hand, there's a decent chance that partner will get in and finesse against the missing honor. If it's sitting over your with sufficient guards, then too bad, unless partner can squish it with his hoped-for honor. Then again, there's always some chance that the missing honor will be unguarded in one of the opponents' hands. The longer your suit, then obviously the more likely this will happen. It would be tragic to lead low from you long suit headed by KQT only to see dummy win with the singleton jack!

How about the situation when there are two missing honors? Suppose that you have AJT83 opposite 52? You stand an excellent chance of running this suit for four tricks if lead the jack and your partner can get in later. Several bad things can happen – declarer holding up, the KQ being split (or both in dummy) – but in general, you have done your best and you've made it easy for partner. So this seems like a worth exception to the idea of an interior sequence having a gap of just one card.

But what about KT98(x)? Is this a sequence for the purposes of opening leads? According to Eddie Kantar (500 Defensive Tips) it is. Yet is there any good reason for making this lead? I've done a thorough study and I have not been able to find one layout where there is any advantage in leading the ten rather than the deuce. And if the deuce is fine, so is the eight. Is there any time when we don't want partner to play his ace unnecessarily? What if dummy has QJx, partner Axx and declarer xx? But we can never win five tricks with this layout and partner will do best to hop up with his ace and lead back low, keeping communications open as appropriate.

So, I'm not a believer in this kind of honor sequence lead and therefore I tend to discount it as a possibility. Is there any reason to put up the queen? Could it do any harm? Yes, it could do harm if partner's spades are T98 and declarer has AKJ7. We will have just given him the seven as his fourth spade trick.

That was my thinking in any case. Yet, twice now (including quite recently) I've been broadsided by (different) partners leading T from KT98(x). Declarer made two tricks out of AJ tight! Aargh!

So here's a request to all my partners: please don't treat KT9(8) as an interior sequence. I don't think there's a good enough reason for it. And, even when you think there is, remember that your partner is just too dimwitted to figure it out at the table.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Super-duper double disaster

Once in a while, because of my obsession with trying to tame the meaning of Double!, I get asked to adjudicate, or otherwise comment on, mishaps at the table involving doubles. The latest was a beauty. I am protecting the identities of those involved, but they managed to create a swing of 2500 points against themselves.

I believe that South made a significant (but recoverable) error in not bidding 2 (or 2) at his second turn. After all, he has a very nice offensively-oriented hand, especially when the opponents overcall clubs. And partner is not broke – we have about half of the deck, and when we have half the deck, we should not be shy about bidding shapely hands.

Most experts are reluctant to double for penalties bid-and-raised suit contracts below game. There's just too much risk for too little gain. Let's say, for instance, that both sides have an eight-card fit and that the law of total tricks is behaving well (indeed, on the basis of our hand with a void and a solid suit, there are quite likely to be more than sixteen tricks). For the moment, let's consider only the two options of doubling for penalties or bidding on (and they will double us if we're going down). If the opponents bid to the three-level (as here) and both sides can take eight tricks, doubling will give us +200 instead of -200  (9 imps) – that's nice. Or maybe we can be +500 instead of +140 (8 imps). Doubling looks lucrative. But just suppose that there are seventeen total tricks (the most common number). Doubling gains either 2 imps or, if disaster strikes, we lose 10 imps (for -670 versus -200) – an average of -4 imps. When there are more total tricks (as might well be the case when a minor suit is overcalled and raised like this), the risk of doubling far outweighs any gain because we might actually suffer a double game swing against us. This would happen here if there were nineteen total tricks: perhaps -670 for doubling and +620 for bidding on to game (a loss of 15 imps).

On this occasion, as you can readily perceive looking at all four hands, there are 20 total trumps and a massive 22 (!) total tricks. This is often the case with pure hands where there are singletons and, especially, voids. Here, the deal is pure because we have no secondary honors in clubs, nor they in spades. There is a small amount of crossover in the red suits but not very much.

Thus, North-South are cold for 6 yet allowed East/West to make 1070 in their club contract (one overtrick was always coming, the other, at trick one, was I suspect a result of North thinking that South had a defensively-oriented hand. That's 21 imps.

And the swing in a team game might be even greater, depending on the result at the other table. Suppose the other N/S played in a sensible but slightly pedestrian 4. Getting to 6 would therefore have won 13 imps. The actual result would have been -17 imps. That's an unfavorable swing of 30 imps on one hand!

So, North's double was intended as take-out, and I am almost in 100% agreement with it. I say almost because I think that the double here shows a hand with "extras", approximately a doubleton in the enemy suit and no clear bid.  But here, North could easily have bid 3.

It is true that North had bid 1NT and it's tempting to think that 1NT should switch on penalty doubles. But it shouldn't – it's not an offer to play notrump – it's forcing. As we've seen here, it can mask a fairly decent offensively-oriented hand.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Interference over invitations considered harmful

Unless you've got a very good reason to suggest a lead, I would say this: never interfere over an invitation. My reflections on this subject arose particularly from one hand at EMBA's A/X Swiss this last weekend. I was sitting East and and heard partner open 1 as dealer. RHO passed and, eschewing the 2♣ call, I instead bid 2NT, showing 11-12 high card points. As much as I love and value extra aces, this hand looks most likely to be playing in notrump where the Work point count is more accurate. And I didn't feel I could add anything extra for the threadbare club suit.

LHO now bid 3 which was doubled by partner, ending the auction. We collected 500 (the double-dummy result) which looked perhaps like a 3-imp pickup over 3NT (yes, it is possible to make 10 tricks in notrump if you're fearless and brilliant). In fact, something very similar happened at the other table. My counterpart bid 2♣ but otherwise the bidding was the same.

Of course, South was very unlucky to find partner with nothing useful on offense (but plenty of defense). And, given the possibility of a misdefence, there was a good prospect of gain.

On the other hand, there is no more dangerous "death seat" than this particular one. RHO has invited in notrump and we will be on lead if we end up defending (thus no advantage in making a lead-directing bid). Furthermore, LHO knows to within half a point her partnership's total assets. What if North had possessed both the J and T of diamonds? It would then be impossible to make 3NT and the potential loss from bidding would be either 380 points (9 imps) or 550 (11 imps), depending on whether the opponents actually bid the game.

The same argument applies to suit contract invitations, also. The invitee will know to within two or three points his partnership's total assets and moreover will have a pretty good idea whether their game will make and also how much the bidder is likely to go down. Essentially, you (the potential intervener) will be making the last guess, always something to be avoided if possible.

A similar argument applies after the opponents have issued and declined an invitation, as I discovered the previous day (surely, I should have known better!). Playing pairs against Adam Grossack, who now has two gold medals from world junior/youth play, I decided to compete after 1 (2 or more diamonds, 11-15) by me, 1, pass, 2, pass, 2, pass, pass. This is kind of like balancing after 1, 2, right? And in this case, partner might have a fit for my six-bagger in diamonds but not want to support. But no, it isn't like that. The opponents have exchanged all of the information they need at this point. At the club, most opponents would have simply gone on to 3. But I had forgotten whom I was playing against! Adam doubled and soon I was looking at -500. Yes, they had game all along - but I had made the fatal last guess. Details of hand suppressed to save me some embarrassment.

Finally, in a variation on the theme, we received a happier result from the second session of the same pairs event, where, having established a major suit fit and (a bit reluctantly) declined a game try (in clubs), my opponent took one last shot with their suit (diamonds). I didn't think we would be getting rich with a double (they can make their 4) so I bid the game anyway ("you talked me into it"). Very bad discipline, I know, but it worked out. I was able to take 11 tricks for a clear top on the trump lead (a diamond lead would have set me one).

BTW, if you're wondering about the title, it's a fairly lame reference to papers with such titles in the computer science academia, especially the first such: GOTO Statement Considered Harmful by Edsger Dijkstra (Communications of the ACM, 1968).

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Natural card players

This week Kim and I were the subjects of a very nice article by Mark "the Shark" Aquino in our unit's bulletin: The Quick Trick (look for Shark's Pointers on page 6). Mark didn't ask us before publication what happened during the auction, or which of us was which, or how the hand was played but those details didn't really affect the "pointers" in the article. In actual fact, we got to use one of our rarely used "toys": pass – 1 – 2♠* – 4* – 5NT* – 6. In Mel Marcus' minor-suit raises, 2♠ (by a passed hand) shows a "distributional limit raise" and we play that 4 (after diamond agreement) asks about keycards. The jump to 5NT has its normal meaning: an even number of keycards with a void.

As usual, I have to give most of the credit for our win to Kim, who made hardly any errors during the session. But this is all just preamble to an article that I have been planning for a while about "natural card players."

One of the disadvantages of coming to cards late in life (as I did) is that there's a lot of catching up to do with those players who are either simply natural card players, or played cards at an early age, or both. The rest of us have to work really hard by reading books, studying hand records, practicing on the computer, etc.

Ask any of the top players in your area what their favorite bridge books are and they'll probably look blank and say "I don't read bridge books."

My partner in both bridge and life, Kim, is one of these natural types. I find it a bit frustrating that she doesn't study books and so doesn't know all of the terminology of squeezes, endplays or any of the more esoteric plays. But it doesn't seem to matter – she just gets it right anyway. I, on the other hand, am intimately familiar with all such techniques, yet I often bungle it when a suitable opportunity does come up.

Take this example of an ordinary hand which we both played in a robot tournament. South is in 1♠ at matchpoints. Kim, who has barely heard of trump elopement or grand coups, landed nine tricks and almost a 90% board. I, on the other hand, having learned all these subjects from, inter alia, Geza Ottlik's Adventures in Card Play, missed the opportunity on this hand and ended up, like most declarers, with only eight tricks.

Our play to the first six tricks was identical – then watch what happens. You may think that the West robot errs by taking his A at trick 8. But in fact he is on the tines of Morton's fork. To allow the queen to win the trick would let yet another club be ruffed with a small trump (and the ace would essentially "go to bed" and remove partner's exit card at the same time).

It doesn't matter how West continues. When East next ruffs in, he can't play spades because the K8 are sitting over his 94. So he has to allow yet another ruff by a small trump. E/W score two aces and two trumps, but that's it.

I like to think that squeezes are my specialty. Certainly I love pulling them off and I've read every book there is on squeezes, I believe. But I'm lazy. I don't stop to think, relying typically on rectifying the count, playing off my winners and hoping that everything works out.

Take the example below which came from a small-field ACBL "speedball" tournament, scoring by IMPs. Don't pay too much attention to the auction. I think Kim mis-moused at her second turn. Fortunately, I made a forcing rebid. Run it up to where NS has two tricks, EW have seven. What will you pitch from dummy on the 9? I (watching this unfold as dummy) was thinking of the ♣J. This essentially plays for a double squeeze where, if North guards the clubs while South guards the hearts, then nobody can guard the spades. As you can see, this would have failed because North has stoppers in both clubs and hearts.

I hadn't particularly noticed that North must have the jack (because South led the ten at trick one). But Kim had. And, as she correctly diagnosed (recall that she has never read a book on squeezes), in that case the double squeeze won't work because North is discarding after dummy. So, the only chance for the squeeze (which gives up nothing if it isn't on) is for North also to have both club honors.

So, away went the small spade and now the ♠A was the squeeze card. North couldn't keep both the heart jack and both club honors, so the eleventh trick scored up. And I can assure you that there was no discernible delay in discarding from dummy as the diamonds were run off.

We won that tournament by 8 IMPs so the extra IMP won on this board was immaterial. But, to me, it was just one more example of a natural card player at work.

Monday, June 10, 2013

A tale of three slams – or: better lucky than good

Like most bridge players, I love slams. They take some skill in bidding but are generally easy to play. Since the opponents will be on lead a maximum of twice (if all goes well), their options for complicating your plan are limited. If you are going down, it usually happens fast.

A recent 12-board robot tournament gave me three possible slam auctions! On the first board, I decided that partner's 2♣ call, when he wasn't obliged to bid at all, was worth a slam try. But how to go about it? I settled on the obvious: 4NT.

On the lead of ♠Q, the dummy that came down was a slight disappointment in terms of high card points. But fit-wise it's a magnificent dummy. Life would have been a lot easier on a diamond lead as there would have been 11 top tricks and some, admittedly remote, squeeze possibilities. But even now there were good chances – if I could bring the hearts in. If lefty had Qxxx, I would have to get back to my hand twice after running the clubs so I kept the ♠A intact. Once RHO pitched two hearts on the clubs [discarding isn't the robots' strong suit], I was pretty sure I was making (even if he'd kept Qxx I'd have him, as it happens, in a red-suit squeeze after cashing the top spade). Perhaps cashing the ♠A earlier and tightening the position would have been better, I'm not sure.

Surprisingly perhaps, most of the other pairs were in slam and this was worth only 3 IMPs.

On board 3, I hadn't any thoughts of slam myself but apparently my 4 call showed a rather better hand than I had. Well, as they say in bridge, it's better to be lucky than good. The lead of the ♠A would have scuppered my contract right away. But, I had some possibilities in the heart suit which fortunately got me to twelve tricks.

This was worth 12.5 IMPs. There were plenty of other pairs in 6, but I was the only one to make it, despite all getting the ♣K lead.

The third slam was a relatively normal (and sane) contract and only produced a 6 IMP swing. Even so, there are two possible trump losers. I wonder what he would have done if I had been so incautious as to advance the J?

Despite some significant losses on four other boards, I managed to finish with almost 29 IMPs, largely due to these three slams. That was good enough for first place.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Discovering wisdom

An interesting situation came up on the penultimate board of the Friday evening pairs from the Memorial Day sectional. After 1NT on my left (15-17) and a 2♣ (Stayman) on my right, I chose to double holding ♠62 K3 QT5 ♣KJT963 at favorable vulnerability. LHO bid 2 and this was raised to game. Partner led ♣4 and dummy hit with ♣2. Clearly, the double had not worked out well. Really, I should have bid 3♣, perhaps getting us to 5♣X for -500 and a 45% board (the best we can do as many of our teammates did not bid game). At this point, we were destined for about a 25% board.

However, I started thinking (always dangerous). Although there didn't seem much point in "discovering" whether partner had the ♣Q, it seemed like there was no possible advantage in playing the king. So, I played the 9, losing to the Q with declarer. I played the rest of the hand on the assumption that declarer had the ace. Imagine my chagrin when I discovered when the hand was over that it was partner who held that card. Our result had now dropped to about 10%.

We asked a couple of experts afterwards what they would have led and both said "the ace, of course." Yet, partner – and let me admit right now that it was my "better half" – insisted that low was the correct card. I didn't worry too much about it (it certainly hadn't cost us a top place as our performance in general was fairly mediocre), confident that I was right for once.

But in the morning, I got to thinking about it again. Let's say my club holding was KJT96, as it could easily have been for the lead-directing double at favorable vulnerability. Now, dummy might have shown up with two small clubs. Now, the lead of the ace would have guaranteed that declarer's queen was worth a trick. Underleading the ace would nullify that queen [this was Kim's argument, in fact].

Although we don't normally go about underleading aces at suit contracts, there are times when it is right. Clearly, one time for that is when partner has promised the king with his lead-directing double – yes, the double might be based on AQ but then partner wouldn't be looking at the ace! If the queen turns out to be in declarer's hand, she will never score a trick provided that a low card is led from the ace. And provided that doubler knows which way is up.

Furthermore, the discovery play was completely pointless in this circumstance, this was not a suit at which we could earn any more tricks, or with which we might do any damage by tapping. And, as I then realized, playing the king might have caused declarer to count out the hand incorrectly, assuming that I also held the ace.

So, I decided to apologize to partner and congratulate her on her thoughtful play.

A day or two later, a discussion of this very point on the BridgeWinners site was posted (board 3 of the challenge match between the BW team and the challengers). In this case, East "knew" that his partner didn't have the ace of his suit (spades in this case) because, after dummy came down, there were too many points on view (declarer had also opened 1NT in this board). So, he did decide to made the discovery play. But, in the discussion, he actually mentioned the possibility that, in general, partner could have underled the ace.

There are a couple of conclusions to draw from this experience: bridge is a game from which you can keep on learning; and it pays to seriously consider partner's point of view and agree with it if and when you feel convinced. This last little bit of wisdom is especially true if the person in question happens to be your partner in life as well as bridge!

Monday, May 20, 2013

Only the inviter should stretch


Only the inviter should stretch. This nugget of sound advice comes from Howard Piltch, formerly one of New England's great players and teachers and now living in Indiana.

First, let's think about it for a moment. Most bridge players want to play higher-scoring contracts if they can so that there is a tendency to stretch a bit, often by both sides of a partnership. This is especially likely when we are vulnerable, although presumably everyone can see the vulnerability. Unfortunately, the result of both partners stretching is often an unsuccessful contract. Normally, the inviter knows that the partnership is within two (or three) points (high cards and distribution) of being able to bid game when issuing the invitation. Often, but not always, the invitee has limited their hand to about a three-card range. [The exact numbers are not all that important.]

Here's a hand that came up recently (in fact there were two very similar hands, one at the club, one on BBO, where the auctions were identical and the result the same – the only difference was that the club hand was at teams).

Here, South ("Invitee" – moi, I am ashamed to say) thought they had prime values and accepted the game try. Unfortunately, the contract was une chute, as the French would say. There were two diamond losers and two spade losers. The "Inviter" was a BBO robot (GIB) and, although minimum, I think most people would consider this a "three-card limit raise" and bid the same. Was this pair unlucky? Yes, a little. But neither player had any useful distributional features and South knew that they had exactly eight trumps between them. Having eight trumps, as opposed to nine or more, typically leaves declarer with no recourse in the event of a bad trump split or honors in the wrong place. This is especially true of a 5–3 fit. In fact, 3NT is unassailable and perhaps I should have offered to play there, if accepting the game try.

The other similar hand went down because of a 4–1 trump split – again, no margin of error when things don't go right. On that occasion, I was the inviter and my partner the optimistic invitee. Actually, a speculative double by the holder of QJTx offside would have resulted in a 9-imp loss (somehow it went down only one at the other table).

Often it is the invitation itself that carries significant risk. It is frequently the case that an invitation is made when the bidding is two levels below game. Going to the next higher level (and stopping there) is risky because we get no additional reward for being one level higher, yet there is now a finite probability that we will not make any contract at all. Then we feel like the dog in Aesop's fables who, carrying a bone in its mouth and then crossing a bridge, looked into the water and saw another dog with a bone. He attacks the "other dog" and of course loses the bone in the process.

The invitee, on the other hand, while also taking a risk by going to game, has a much better risk-reward ratio because the game bonus now comes into play directly. Indeed, the partnership may already be too high (on account of the invitation) in which case the bump to game has very little downside (the extra undertrick is unlikely to be a big factor – unless doubled).

Having said all that, it may seem that it is the inviter that should not stretch since most of the risk, that is the un-hedged risk, is taken in that step. But if the inviter never stretched, there would inevitably be a lot of games missed. Feel free to skip the next section and go straight to the conclusion.

Detailed analysis

Let's look at some examples in no-trump contracts (because these are so much simpler). The simplest is when opener bids 1NT (let's say this shows 15–17 hcp) and partner invites by bidding 2NT. What are the risks? The following table shows the (approximate) average number of tricks you can take with the points shown in opener's or responder's hand. For the average tricks, I have used Matthew Ginsberg's analysis. I haven't adjusted for the fact that, for example, 10 opposite 15 will generally do slightly better than 8 opposite 17 because the hands are more balanced and therefore tend to offer more transportation. I have also assumed that if the average number of tricks is x, then the probability P(n) of taking n tricks is n+1x (80% where n = 8 and x = 8.2) and P(n+1) = xn (the 20% zone in this case). For simplicity, I have eliminated the possibility of taking n1 or n+2 tricks.


Below, we show the expected IMP losses playing against par and when not-vulnerable (figures in red are for overbidding and in green for underbidding). To explain some of the values, we can look at an example: we see that in the minimum case (15+8), we can take 8 tricks approximately 60% of the time and only 7 tricks the other 40%. So, with 8 hcp, responder takes a risk by inviting – scoring against par, he will lose 4 or 5 imps (depending on vulnerability) 40% of the time and break even the rest of the time. Net expected loss: 0.34 or 0.43, that's to say 1.6 or 2 imps multiplied by the probability of opener having exactly 15 hcp (44%) and by the probability of having 8 (48.5%) rather than 9 hcp (51.5%). If opener, knowing of his partner's taste for inviting with only 8 points, raises to game only with a full 17, then he will miss a making game 20% of the time (6 or 10 imps). If he also "stretches" and accepts with any 16, he bids too high 30% of the time (10 or 13 imps). When combined with the probabilities of the various holdings (15, 16, 17) we get the expectations of loss shown in the table.

Not-vulnerableopener:accept on 17accept on 16 or 17

And the following table is the equivalent for vulnerable contracts.

Vulnerableopener:accept on 17accept on 16 or 17


The following table shows the summary using approximations (for vulnerable contracts – the non-vulnerable numbers are lower but the relative values remain similar).


So, we can conclude that the best a pair can do is to have a conservative player sitting opposite an aggressive player. It doesn't really matter which way around they are. "Normal" bridge is to invite with a (non-stretchy) 9 and accept with an (optimistic) 16 – minimizing losses at approximately 1.33 (not vul) or 2 (vul) IMPs. This is the time-honored strategy. Note that these expected losses are against a team of robots that peek, not only during the play but during the auction! How would we do against flesh and blood teams? Assuming that they are using their optimum strategy too, i.e. the same strategy, then we should push these kinds of boards, assuming best play and defense at both tables. If the other team has their optimist and pessimist sitting the other way, there may be swings, but they should even out in the long run. Note that the numbers have already take into account the fact that it's worth pushing for games, especially when vulnerable.

So, how does this relate to the subject of this blog? Well, we've shown one way of doing things: the inviter is conservative and invitee aggressive. This reduces the incidence of invitations but is reasonably accurate. How about when it's the other way around, following the rule "only the inviter may stretch"? It would work just as well, though more invitations means that the opponents have a better idea of what's going on. And, according to Howard, this is the right way to do it in all of those other less clear cut situations. I've always followed his advice. I hope my partners feel the same way.

There is an obvious point – that if inviter keeps quiet, it doesn't give the invitee even the opportunity of an acceptance. No doubt there are other scenarios, for example major suit game tries, where it does make sense that only the inviter should stretch. But the main moral of the story is simple: don't be aggressive – or conservative – on both sides of the invitation!

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

No-trump Preempts

One of the features that I like about the weak notrump, whether 10-11, 10-12, 12-14 (I've played them all at one time or another) is the preemptive aspect. Especially at "green" (not-vul vs. vul). It's very much harder for the opponents to come in and conduct a sensible constructive auction starting at the two-level, vulnerable because the opening bid is so well-defined and responder will know just when to apply the chopper.

But opportunities to preempt the opponents in no-trump don't begin and end with the opening bid. Take this hand from a recent team game at the club: ♠– Q754 QT2 ♣AJT843 (third seat at favorable vulnerability). Partner deals and opens 1NT (12-14) and the next player doubles. The opponents have at least a 9-card fit in spades and 17-19 hcp. Moreover, partner's values are going to be sitting under the opponents' strength. So, my hand might take a few tricks but partner will probably only score aces, assuming that the other hand can get the lead a couple of times.

In other words, there's just a little too much danger, in my opinion, of them making 620. I therefore raised partner to 3NT. This was followed by two passes and then double. Should I pull to 4♣? No, I decided to stand my ground (I had the feeling that the next player might take the double out). And so it proved. It went 4 on my left followed by two passes. Was I tempted to double? No way! That would have ruined the whole plan. The contract drifted off only one trick after I underled my ♣A at one point, allowing declarer to score her kingleton. But the damage was done. Our teammates were +620 at the other table giving us a 13 IMP swing.

As it happens, we could have made 3NT, at least with careful play and a peek (or an avoidance play) by felling that same club kingleton. Or we could have made 5♣ with the same peek (though there would be no particular reason for the avoidance play at a suit contract).

It takes a bit of a nerve to pull this kind of thing off. And you have to be ready with an apology to the rest of the team when it backfires. But the satisfaction of bringing off this sort of coup can turn an otherwise forgettable evening into something to smile about.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Cohen versus Stewart

There is an article in the May 2013 edition of the Bridge Bulletin which pits Larry Cohen against Frank Stewart in "2/1? Help or Hindrance."

While I certainly come down on the side of Cohen and 2/1, I think both sides have made a few questionable assertions.

In my opinion, one of the major benefits of playing 2/1 is that it's easier. Yes, you read that right (Cohen agrees). In fact, many 2/1 auctions are simply a question of patterning out – no thinking or judgement required. Yes, there are styles of 2/1 that require more judgement, such as requiring that a "high reverse" by opener (e.g. 1 2♦ 3♣) shows reversing strength. But most of the time, for example you just sit down with an unfamiliar partner and agree "2/1", you rarely have to worry about such subtleties.

So, I find it very strange that most (all?) bridge teachers of novices start them off in completely the wrong direction by teaching them "standard." How can so-called Standard American be considered "standard" when 80% of tournament players (according to Cohen) are playing 2/1?

I admit that I'm a little biased. When I first learned to play bridge it was lunchtime bridge at work, a close relative of "kitchen bridge." Bidding was natural. The more you had the more you bid. But within a few months I had graduated to duplicate. One of the most popular systems in those days was Kaplan-Sheinwold, essentially 2/1 with weak no-trumps.  So, I never really was "corrupted" by this "SA" nonsense.

Let's dissect SA for a moment. It's essentially a hybrid (bastard might be more a propos) of Goren (four-card majors) and Roth-Stone (five-card majors) with perhaps a bit of K-S thrown in (for example if you play inverted minors). In other words, it's neither fish nor fowl. I'll go further to say that it encourages really bad bidding because minimum balanced openings with 12 or 13 high card points will frequently be forced to open a bad three-card minor. This is also true of course for 2/1 if you're playing a strong no-trump.

But I do wonder about some of Larry's examples of troublesome SA auctions. Surely, a tenet of SA is that a two-over-one response promises at least one more bid, with the possible exception of a sequence where opener rebids 2NT. So, I can't imagine having to worry about the auction 1♠ 2 2♠ being passed out. Still, there must be some misguided souls who would pass here, otherwise Larry would not mention the possibility.

I'm also surprised that Larry should advocate a semi-forcing 1NT. Surely, the forcing 1NT (by an unpassed hand) is a cornerstone of 2/1? I have written previously (for example, The Forcing 1 Notrump) about the benefits of being able to show a game-going hand that does not want to suggest a slam by starting with 1NT. Obviously, you can't do that if 1NT isn't 100% forcing.

But these are relatively minor quibbles compared with my thoughts on Frank's contribution. He makes a comment which I believe shows a shocking misunderstanding of the 2/1 style. In an auction which begins 1♠ 2♣ 2, he says "I suspect many Easts in 2/1 would bid 2♠ 'to save space.' Well, if I were West with such mangy spades, wild horses couldn't get me to cooperate in a slam hunt opposite a tepid preference" [my emphasis].

What he seems to miss is that East bidding 2♠ after an initial 2♣, promises three card support (not a tepid preference). Not only that, it shows (at least if you play my style) a hand that will willingly cooperate in a slam hunt, and with good clubs too (else East could have started with a 1NT response and then jumped to 4♠).

He also points out that with both partners potentially making minimum bids at all opportunities, how does a partnership know how to get to slam? Again, this seems to miss the point. As soon as a fit is discovered, one partner or the other can make a control-showing cuebid. Normally, there will be plenty of space available for these types of slam tries. It's true that some delicacy is now required. I have written about this issue before in Slam Tries. One solution is to employ either serious (or frivolous) 3NT. The other solution is to discuss the situations when a control bid demands another control bid. Admittedly, neither of these approaches is covered in the 2/1 texts, but the concepts are not difficult either.

In his auction 1♠ 2 3NT, he says that one player thought that 3NT showed "a powerhouse" and the other did not. But anyone who has read any book on 2/1 knows that a jump in a game-forcing sequence has a special meaning. Given that opener's 2NT rebid shows either a minimum balanced hand or a maximum balanced hand, there can only be one possible meaning for 3NT left: a medium balanced hand (15-17). So it seems that neither Frank nor his partner really knew the basics of 2/1. You can hardly blame the system for that!

So, is 2/1 (with 15-17 no-trumps) the best system out there? No, I don't think so. On theoretical grounds, I think that both K-S (or, if you like, 2/1 with weak no-trumps) and Precision are technically superior systems. But, 2/1 is certainly a lot easier than Precision and therefore a much better candidate for teaching beginners (which no-trump range to play is more a question of personal preference and familiarity).

Having said that, I will note that I've had all my best results playing with my favorite partner – and we play 2/1 with 15-17 no-trumps.

Friday, April 26, 2013

If you haven't gone down yet, there's still a chance

One of my favorite themes, as my regular readers know, is that you should never give up. I believe I have observed that this is a good mantra for the play of a particular hand, a session, or a bridge career. See for example my most recent effort in this genre: Never - ever - say die. Today, I'd like to talk about soldiering on when a particular hand looks hopeless.

But first, in the style of George Jacobs, let me tell you a story. I won't give the details away in order to protect the guilty, but Kim and I were having a good second session in a recent two-session event. There was nothing to play for, other than pride, since our first session score had not even reached the 40% mark! As is our custom on such occasions, we enjoyed a drink with dinner. Well, maybe it was two drinks. This was the last board of the event and all were vulnerable. Kim opened 2♣ (strong, artificial and forcing) and my RHO bid 2. I had a flat hand with four diamonds to the ten and the ♣Q. Our agreement is to double with any weak hand, regardless of shape. I was surprised to find Kim passing my double. How many diamonds could she reasonably have? At this point, my RHO, picked up the 2 card and asked the table "did I bid that?" Er, yes, we said. She then picked up the 3♣ card and placed it right on top of the 2 card, as if to obscure that bid. LHO and I both passed and Kim finished proceedings with a double.

After my lead, dummy came down with a balanced six-count, but with three diamonds and three clubs. At this point, we called the director over and explained what had happened; he offering to return if necessary. By the time the smoke cleared we were +1400 (Kim had a 28-hcp moose). We quickly determined that slam was impossible so it seemed that we had a top and didn't need a return by the director. My RHO's hand was something like ♠853 T75 Q5 ♣QT762, so what was that 2 all about? I admit I don't know. Most probably it was tiredness at the end of two long sessions. It's hard to imagine making any bid with that hand, even if the clubs were a major and could be bid at the two-level. I do have a sneaking suspicion that it might have been some sort of psych bid. In any case, we had received enough of those sorts of gifts to finish the second session with 68%.

So, back to my theme which is exemplified by a hand from a robot tournament. I think, judging from his sheer exuberance, that this must have been one of the younger robots playing as my partner. The auction followed the same lines at most tables. Only a handful were able to play in a more modest small slam. I was tempted to bid 7NT but thought better of it – if I could make 13 tricks in any strain, it would surely be a good score (though I admit that this argument doesn't hold as well as it might at, say, a club game).

When I saw the dummy, I was reminded of a similar exercise in grand slam futility mentioned in Mark Horton's excellent book Misplay these hands with me. Well, I had twelve tricks all day assuming the opening lead didn't get ruffed. But what chances were there for a thirteenth? Somewhere between no chance and a dog's chance, I calculated. But, and here is the key, I wasn't down yet.

There appeared to be no legitimate miracle. The only possibility was a squeeze-induced mis-defense. So, I simply ran all my tricks. The one thing that the robots are not good at is signaling. Note how East misplays at trick three by discarding 2. Doesn't his partner have a right to know that he holds the king? Surely all can see that spades and diamonds are the key suits on this hand. It's not like he's worried that partner will get in and lead diamonds pickling his K. If partner gets in, the grand slam is already down! In my opinion, the proper card to pitch is T, implicitly denying the jack and showing something good, hopefully the K. Actually, from West's point of view, he knows partner has the king because if I had it, I would be claiming. At trick four, East compounds his error by discarding the ♠6. Given that he's going to have to pitch several spades, he might as well tell a good story. I think that the jack would be much more informative – the start of an echo to show an even number of spades and implicitly denying the queen. At trick five, he pitches the ♣9 prematurely. It's obvious that pretty soon, I'll be cashing clubs and he'll show out sooner than necessary and will have to pitch something else. Jumping from suit to suit makes it that much harder to pass a consistent message to partner. At trick six – well, by this time, I think he's thoroughly confused his partner so it really doesn't matter what he pitches.

At trick ten, he bizarrely pitches the K while holding on to two spades (surely one is enough) and the 9 (which at this point is not equal to the king). After the next trick, I knew that there were still two spades out so clearly there was no point in trying to cash the deuce. Furthermore, I could be fairly sure that they held one spade each (why would anyone hang on to two?) I therefore tried my only hope, to promote the J. When the 9 appeared on my right, it was a sort of show-up squeeze. I was able to go up with the ace, felling the Q.

I was the only declarer to make all the tricks. One other tried the same line but was thwarted by a Robot East who seemed to know what he was doing. The other twelve declarers playing the same contract from the same side all gave themselves no chance at all.

Anyway, the moral of this story is that when there is no legitimate play, try the squeeze. Defenders are notoriously bad defending against squeezes and you never know – they might help you out as my East did for me.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

No wonder it takes so long to learn this game - the denouement

My previous blog No wonder it takes so long to learn this game! has generated a lot of discussion both here on blogger.com and also at BridgeWinners. I really appreciate everyone's contributions. I've learned an important lesson in the complex curriculum of competitive bidding, in particular when the partnership can stop in four-of-a-minor after a game-forcing sequence (almost never).

Although I was clearly in a minority of one in my thinking about my partner's 4♣ call, I wasn't ready to give up on what seemed to me to be bridge logic until I heard back from my competitive bidding guru Andrew Robson. Thanks, Andrew.

In my own defense, I will point out that this notion of "game-forcing" being forcing only to 3NT or the four-level wasn't my own idea. I've read it in several places (although frustratingly now I don't remember where exactly). But I think I've got clarification now. In particular, in a non-competitive auction we can stop in four-of-a-minor only when we lack controls in the unbid suit and neither partner has sufficient extras to go to the five-level. If the opponents are silly enough to blunder into such an auction, we will of course take the opportunity to punish them. So, once the auction gets competitive, we will either double them or bid our game. No stopping in four-of-a-minor!

So, with the help of all the input, including the votes from the BridgeWinners polls, I've formulated some competitive bidding "rules" (I don't claim these as being in any way original). These rules revolve around the concept of a "committed" contract or level. A specific committed contract arises when one partner makes a call which forces the partnership to reach a particular higher-ranking contract. Examples include Bergen raises, Inverted Minor raises, Jacoby 2NT, Truscott/Jordan 2NT, cue-bids of the enemy suit, fit-showing jumps, etc. Some of these calls may include an "or better" clause which suggests that the bidder himself plans to keep on bidding beyond the committed contract if he has extras. In all cases of a committed contract, there is at least some element of fit, although in the case of an "or better" call, the bidder may be planning on or hoping for some other strain, such as no-trump.

When only a level, typically game, has been committed, it implies that no suit has been agreed and thus the partnership is committed to any contract that satisfies the level requirement. In such a case, the number one priority is to determine the strain of our game contract. Thus, showing support below game is 100% forcing to game – yes, even if it four-of-a-minor! [This is why, in the auction in the first post on this subject, 4♣ was forcing – and actually more encouraging than 5♣]. Denying support (by passing) and then pulling double (or 3NT) to 4♣ might be non-forcing – it seems to say "partner, I have a really bad hand, but I think you might be better off playing 4♣ than anything else." This probably requires some prior thought (but isn't likely to occur with much frequency).

In general, where this is a commitment, the partnership is said to be "in a force." This has the following implication:
  • the opponents may not play a contract below the commitment unless it is doubled.
And this further implies that:
  • a direct pass over intervention below the commitment is 100% forcing.
The other key question about the commitment is its level: are we committed to game? or only to a part-score? This matters when the opponents intervene with a bid above our commitment. If we are committed to game, then the force is still in effect. There are some possible exceptions to this blanket statement, but these are beyond the scope of this article. See, for example, Robson and Segal: Partnership Bidding – The Contested Auction.

At all other times in a competitive auction, i.e. when there is no commitment, we are back to "normal bridge." Thus, bidding shows something extra and passing says you have nothing to say. Double means whatever you and your partner have agreed to. But, based on all of the recent polls and articles I've seen on BridgeWinners, any time we have not yet found a fit and the most recent bid is below game, double is almost always takeout-oriented or "cards" where there is no explicit pre-agreement.

So, let me try to summarize these rules (where intervention is always a bid – doubles are out of scope for this discussion):
  • Intervention below committed contract: when a partnership is committed to a particular contract, any opponent's intervention of a bid which ranks below the committed contract imposes the following rules on direct bids:
    • bidding the committed contract shows no interest in defending or probing for a higher-scoring contract (i.e. it is a minimum hand, both defensively and offensively) and is therefore the only non-forcing call available (other than double) – this can be thought of as a form of fast arrival if you like;
    • for the sake of argument, double is assumed here to be penalty-oriented but note that the question of employing "pass-double inversion" is according to partnership agreement (and not in scope for this discussion);
    • all other calls are 100% forcing:
      • pass tends to show extra high cards without extra distribution and suggests at least the possibility of a penalty;
      • all other bids below the committed contract are trial bids for a higher-scoring contract (just as they would be if there had been no intervention);
      • bids above the committed contract show extras and, obviously, raise the level of commitment (again, we're essentially ignoring the intervention).
  • Intervention below committed levelsimilar to the above, but:
    • showing support is the first priority:
      • if this is still below the commitment, this is obviously forcing and more encouraging than supporting directly at the committed level;
      • otherwise, our support bid is not forcing because we have reached our committed level;
    • pass is forcing and denies support;
    • double is again the subject of partnership agreement.
  • Intervention above committed part-score contractnormal bridge logic:
    • bidding shows extras;
    • passing shows nothing to say;
    • double is penalty (since pass is non-forcing, if you have the hand for penalizing them, you have to do it).
  • Intervention above committed game contract:
    • subject to possible exceptions (see discussion above), we are in a "force":
      • pass is forcing;
      • double and pass are subject to pass-double inversion if agreed;
      • pass-and-pull is slam-invitational;
      • bidding on is "to play."
  • Intervention above committed level: this situation is a little more complex because the intervention may have precluded supporting at the committed level in one strain, but not in another:
    • pass (forcing) denies the ability to support at the committed level (i.e. we might still be able to support but it would require going beyond our committed level);
Some example sequences:
  1. 1 p 2NT 3: the partnership will play either 4 or a heart/no-trump slam – unless defending the opponents' doubled contract looks better; therefore pass is forcing and suggests that you wouldn't at all mind if partner decides to make a penalty double; any other bid below 4 is control-showing; of course, an immediate bid of 4 says you have a bare minimum (as it would without the interference) and furthermore that you would not welcome partner's penalty double.
  2. 1 1♠ 2♠ 3: the partnership will play at least 3 but partner may have higher ambitions of course – pass is forcing and suggests a relatively balanced hand with at least a little extra – if partner can make a penalty double you won't pull it; an immediate call of 3 (the committed contract) says you have no extra strength or distribution and have no interest in penalizing the opponents or of bidding beyond 3.
  3. 1 X 2NT 3♣: the partnership will play at least 3 as before (assuming that 2NT is Truscott/Jordan); 3 suggests extra distribution (but implies no extra strength) which you hope will help partner decide how high to go if there is more competition.
  4. 1 X 2NT 3♠: they have bid beyond our committed part-score contract so all "normal" bidding notions are back in force – bidding shows extras (either high cards, distribution or both); 4 suggests extra distribution and no extra strength and forces our side to at least 4. You hope the diamond bid will help partner decide how high to go if there is yet more competition.
  5. 1 p 2♣ 2: the partnership is committed to game, but we don't know which game yet; in this situation (there have been no jumps or cue-bids yet by our side), I do recommend pass-double inversion (as my regular readers know) so that pass keeps open (and suggests) the possibility of defending 2X while denying support for clubs; double therefore shows a hand which is relatively short in diamonds (and clubs) and therefore likely to have four spades – this could be happily converted to penalty in appropriate circumstances (rare). With two stoppers in diamonds one partner or the other is likely to bid no-trump (unless perhaps we are at favorable vulnerability in which case double becomes more tempting).
  6. 1 p 1♠ p 3♣ 3 (the original problem auction): 4♣ is forcing and showing some slam interest; 5♣ is not forcing; pass denies club or heart support (and suggests no great ability to stop diamonds).