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 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).

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