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.