Thursday, December 18, 2014

Doubling 3NT for a lead (part two)

Last time, we talked about the general subject of doubling 3NT for a lead. Now, let's talk about the most problematic of all calls: double after it goes 1NT pass 3NT. You could play that partner could lead any bad suit, but it won't be any surprise when both defenders are weak in a minor suit on this auction. So, to me it makes sense to restrict leader's choice to a major. Some pairs play that double asks for the lead of a specific major. But unless you play a lot with this particular partner, it will rarely come up.

So, what sort of suit do we need for the double to work? How about ♠AKQxx? At the recent NABC in Providence, RI, this exact situation came up in a match against Benito Garozzo on my right and Jan van Cleeff on my left. Was my suit good enough to double with? I didn't have forever to think about it (lest I pass UI to partner) so I had to make up my mind quickly. Yes, I decided. There followed several tortuous minutes while I waited for my opponents to consider their options and for my partner to lead (this last didn't take long). Benito redoubled to ask how opener's majors were and opener passed to say "pretty good." However, none of this was clear to me at the time. It appeared to me that they didn't have a clear system for this situation (I knew who RHO was of course, but not LHO). My partner, Vincent, put his card face down. "Turn it over", I said. The deuce of spades. Hallelujah! Dummy came down with two small spades and declarer asked a fatuous "what are your leads?", and played the ten at trick under my queen. This card, incidentally, caused quite an upset—to say the least—for the 87-year-old Garozzo. But it was all play acting by van Cleeff and my feeling of victory was very short-lived. Declarer started with JTxxx of spades and wrapped up 10 tricks to go +1400. We lost 13 IMPs on that deal.

Was my bid so very bad? or was I just a little bit unlucky? I determined to find out. This wasn't a trivial problem in probabilities and I had to write some Java code to figure it out. But now the results are in!

I set up the following conditions: LHO has at least two cards in every suit and RHO is nominally balanced (so at least one spade). For the five remaining spades, LHO has 5 vacant places, partner 13 and RHO 12. Additionally, LHO has fewer than six spades; RHO has fewer than five (no transfer) and, 80% of the time, fewer than four (he didn't use Stayman). I also adjusted for the case where partner has four or more spades, because he might not recognize that spades is our suit. With five I assumed, he will not lead spades and with four I assumed he will pick a spade half the time. Probability of success? 52%.

That's really not enough (as I discovered) to make the bid worth while. Let's see what we get as an expectation of IMP gain.

We assume that when we are successful, running our suit, they will run to a minor-suit half of the time (bidding game half of those times and making it half of those times); otherwise they will sit for the double. When we are destined to fail, we assume that they will redouble, as Garozzo did. We also assume for the sake of argument that they are vulnerable.

In the case of my AKQxx, we have the following outcomes (with probabilities and expectations of IMPs):

Bad game6.5%+12+0.78

Oh dear! Overall, the expected gain is negative! With so many possible things to go wrong, not to mention the fact that partner might happen on a spade lead all on his own, it's a bad idea to double. There's also the psychological factor to take into account when playing with humans rather than robots. Partner (not to mention doubler) may be so disheartened by this result that the rest of the set suffers. I don't think that happened in our case (although we netted minus 3 on the other six boards), but it easily might.

Let's take a look at some other cases:

HoldingP(success)Expectation of IMPs

The two middle situations are much better. Having the jack in the second case makes quite a big difference mainly because it increases the probability of success, but also because it prevents a redoubled overtrick. AKQTx would be better than my hand but obviously not as good as AKQJx. Adding a sixth card increases the probability of success and also the penalty when they sit. Note that AKxxxxx just isn't good enough. Basically, you have to catch partner with two and even then you need an even split. Having the jack would help in those cases where opener has a doubleton queen or dummy (or partner) has her. But even then, you're gambling quite a bit.

What about a topless solid suit such as KQJxxx with an outside ace? The overall probabilities and expectations are approximately the same as when you have AKQxxx. However, you will have to face the rather likely possibility that opener has 8 running tricks in addition to the ace of your suit.

There's another way this can backfire, as my partner and I learned a number of years ago at a sectional Swiss in Maine. Our non-vulnerable opponents were playing a weak no trump and the auction went 1NT—3NT.  I doubled with something like ♠xxxx KQJxxx x ♣Ax. Partner had something like ♠xx Ax in the majors and quite reasonably assumed my suit was spades. We learned then, due to an adverse swing of 12 IMPs, that it might be a good idea to cash a major suit ace first just to see partner's card.

So, here are my conclusions if you're thinking of doubling 1NT—3NT for a major suit lead (assuming you've discussed this situation with partner):

HoldingTo double or not to double?
AKxxxxxAbsolutely not!
KQJxxxMaybe but be ready to apologize

Monday, December 15, 2014

Doubling 3NT for a lead

I've previously talked about various different sorts of lead-directing double. But I couldn't find any article where I had discussed doubling a 3NT contract for a lead. It's uncommon, for sure, but when it comes up, you really need to be on the same page with your partner.

Following the same principle of the Lightner double of slams, there is little reason to double a freely bid 3NT to increase the penalty. The arithmetic just doesn't support it. Suppose that they have bid a silly 3NT, not vulnerable, and you think, based on the auction and your holding in the suits bid on your right, that the contract will go down on partner's normal lead, most hopefully by two tricks. Let's say, for the sake of argument, that the probabilities of various numbers of tricks for declarer are for 6 thru 10: 10%, 40%, 30%, 15%, 5%. At the other table, your teammates are in the more sensible contract of 2NT. The lead and the number of tricks taken are the same at both tables (yes, I know this is a big assumption). The number of IMPs in your favor is expected to be: 9 * 10% + 6 * 40% + 6 * 30% + -9 * 15% + -9 * 5%, which comes to 3.3. This is modestly positive but it might actually go negative if the opponents redouble when they are making, especially if they are vulnerable. And, then there's the very likely eventuality that they will run to a making part-score or, worse, game. And, far worse, the ignominious possibility that your double will tip declarer off to the winning line!

Contrast this with the situation where the opponents are actually going to make (-6 IMPs) on partner's normal lead, but will go down when you tell partner what to lead (+5 IMPs). That's a swing of 11 IMPs. The swing when the opponents are vulnerable would be 16 IMPs.

Unfortunately, you can't lean over to partner and say "lead a club", though you could try coughing (JK). You have to have a general agreement about what lead you want based on the auction.

Here's the scheme that I think makes the most sense and is easiest to remember:
  1. if leader has bid a suit, then lead that suit
  2. else if doubler has bid a suit, then don't lead that suit
  3. else if dummy has bid a suitthen lead that suit
  4. else use your judgment, normally leading your lesser major suit.
I'm also willing to play #2 as "do lead my suit" but it seems to me that partner is probably going to lead my suit anyway. The idea of "don't lead my suit" comes from George Rosenkranz's Tips for Tops. It can often happen that either because doubler had no opportunity to bid two suits or simply because, say, he opened a suit with nothing much in it he thinks that they will go down if you lead something intelligent. It might well be dummy's first bid suit. Let's say that the auction has gone 1♠ (X) p (2) p (3NT) p p X all pass. Your hand is ♠Kx Jx Txxx ♣Jxxxx. Normally you would lead the ♠K. But partner is asking you not to lead a spade. What could his other suit be? Could it be hearts? Double of dummy's 2 call would have been takeout-oriented, not penalty. Declarer has the spades stopped and he has enough tricks in one or both of the minors for his contract. He's relying (inadvisably) on dummy's hearts and/or hoping you will lead a spade. Get that J on the table, therefore.

The reason for the first rule is that partner may be loath to lead away from a holding such as AQT73 after his RHO has bid notrump. But sometimes players will consider J982 a stopper. If partner has the K doubleton, you can take the first five tricks. But if you lead something else, looking for partner's entry, by the time you get to run those spades it may be too late. Of course, you might have been going to lead your suit anyway, lose the first trick to declarer and then wait for partner to get in and lead through. But there are two things that can go wrong with this plan: declarer may be able to hold up long enough to exhaust partner, or partner may have nothing to get in with. This is particularly true when you have opened the bidding or overcalled—the very occasions when partner will want to take the opportunity to tell you the good news.

In any case, this worked out well during the recent 0-5000 Blue Ribbons in Providence, RI. I opened 2D (weak two) with nobody vulnerable. My diamonds were QJTxxx and I had an ace on the side, I think (ACBL "Live" has lost the details of this event already so I can no longer be sure of the whole layout). My RHO ended up in 3NT and partner doubled with Kx. We soon had a top with +500.

In the second part of this blog, we will talk about the most problematic of all calls: double after it goes 1NT pass 3NT.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

The principle of substantive discretionary bids

I mentioned this idea long ago in one of my first blogs in this series (see Every bid tells a story) and maybe it's time to dust it off and give it another airing. For brevity, I prefer to call it the "Principle of Stuff."

It strikes me as simply common sense that if you are making discretionary bids (that's to say a free bid when an opponent was the last to act, especially when it was your right-hand-opponent who last acted) then you should have some substance in your suit. And I will go further. The more you are sticking your neck out, the better your suit will be for the purposes of partner's lead.

Here's an example that came up in a club duplicate. I dealt myself the following hand at favorable vulnerability: ♠AJ T98642 AKQ7 ♣4. Naturally, I opened 1 which was followed by 2♣ on my left. Partner passed smoothly, as did RHO and it was back to me. I didn't have to bid again, although with a 14 count and shortness in their suit I think I always would. But technically my second bid was discretionary. So should I repeat the bad six-bagger, or bid diamonds where I actually had some stuff and would welcome a lead if the opponents win the auction with 3♣? Double is also a possibility I suppose but with only two spades and no extras to bid a third time, that seemed unpalatable.

This decision (2) helped us to a 75% board and I later mentioned to my partner that I had chosen to bid diamonds at my second turn at least partly for lead-directing purposes. He was a little surprised, saying that if he'd ended up on lead, he would have certainly led a heart. So much for this idea being "common sense."

When you are bidding in a constructive (non-competitive) auction, your choice of bids is largely dictated by your system and the relative lengths of your suits. With two five-card suits, for example, you will open the higher ranking and at your next turn bid the lower ranking. There's no way for partner to infer which might be the stronger suit. But this is because you believe that it's your hand and that you are simply trying to determine what strain and what level to play in.

If, instead, you make an overcall you are putting yourself in some danger. Partner may have no fit and no high cards. You should have some good stuff in your suit. What if your hand is good enough to make two overcalls without any encouragement from partner? Having survived your first overcall unscathed, you are seriously sticking your neck out the second time. Partner can of course give preference to the first suit if he likes it more, but there may be no escape from a bad result if partner has little support for either suit. It makes sense then that the second suit is likely to be the better suit because if it was weak, you would be unlikely to mention it at all – you haven't been forced to make a second overcall. Perhaps it's only a minor inference but it seems to me to be valid.

Here's a more compelling example from the recent 0-5000 Blue Ribbons...

What's going on here? Partner could have bid 2NT over 2♠ to show both minors, right [well, let's assume so, anyway]. Why is he bidding out his suits like this? He's either a lunatic or he's get a good hand with both minors. Which do you think is his better minor? If he had equal quality in both suits, he might perhaps have bid 2NT. But what we do know for sure is that his clubs must be very good to stick his neck out quite so far (a four-level solo effort, vulnerable).

So, are you tempted to do anything? 5? What makes you think we can make 5? The spade king might be useful but the hearts are tram tickets. We have no fitting honors in diamonds. Partner might be able to make a four-level contract with a trick or two from our side. But we basically have half a trick unless he has losing clubs to ruff. And if 5 might be a sacrifice, why are we doing it red on white?

How about double? Partner has overcalled two suits, so double will not be cooperative. It will be penalty. Do you think they can make 4♠? Each player is limited in values. North seems to have an extra spade. But I see no reason to assume that they can actually make 4♠. Indeed, our singleton is opposite partner's best suit. That sounds like a bit of a misfit. Double is the right call (+300 for about a 90% board) but pass would be acceptable too (70%).

On defense, I think it's rather obvious that we will be leading a club and indeed that is the only lead to achieve down two. Here is the hand record. Possibly, West overbid in the circumstances, but it gave our side the chance for a very good score. Without the club bid, the opponents would most likely be making 140 for about 40%.

So, I think it's worth paying close attention to the way partner bids his suits, especially if there was an alternative method of showing both suits. A dangerous bid should be based on a good suit. Therefore, when my partner freely bids a second suit, I always lead it if there's no clear reason to lead the other, such as a singleton. It seems to work out pretty well most of the time.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

A baby throw-in

The NABC Fall Nationals are back in District 25 (New England) -- at the Providence Convention Center. It's a terrific site to play in, and the city has some old world charm and is easy to get around. Last evening they put on their "Water Fire" show (kind of a son et lumière) especially for us bridge players and I loved it. It was a bit too cold to hang around for a long time but we should come back in the summer to see/hear the whole thing. Being so much further south than Boston (!), Rhode Island even provided snow-free conditions which would not have been the case in Massachusetts.

Kim and I entered the Life Master pairs but a few too many errors, together with some appalling luck left us well below the cut (for example, on the very first board our opponents reached a making 6NT on a combined 30hcp with two totally balanced hands). Thus, we "qualified" for the Saturday compact KO with our teammates Don and Daniel.

Our team total was 10,000 which put us in bracket 3 [wow! do we really have a five figure team total these days?]. The opening three-way was uneventful, winning one and losing one (the latter due to some carelessness -- you have to play every board to its full potential!) The result of the second match was unfortunately based on a director call -- and subsequent appeal decision. I hate it when that happens, but in truth it was a clear-cut issue. The auction had started on my left (we were white, they were red) with 1NT (14-17). Partner bid 3D and RHO bid 4D (transfer). LHO completed the transfer and now RHO bid 5D. This call (they had no particular agreement as to what it would mean) put LHO in the tank for 20-30 seconds and he came out with 5H. RHO then bid the slam. We called the director over and all were agreed there was a break in tempo (BIT). At least our opponents were good enough not to say "I didn't notice a break in temp" and "no, I didn't hesitate," as would typically happen at a club game.

The slam made but the director rolled it back to 680. At the other table, the bidding started out the same but they stopped in 4H making 710. We won the match by two, pending the appeal. This being a regional event, the director-in-charge heard the appeal (a slightly less formal process than for NABC+ events). After a very professional handling of the situation by the director, the other team withdrew.

After the dinner break, we faced a team of Swedish/Finnish juniors. We were very impressed by their comportment at the table and we enjoyed this match very much. They played a very complex big club relay system at our table which sometimes propelled them to 4NT contracts. Indeed the twelve boards we played included three 4NT contracts: one of ours, making; two by them, one failing by one trick (11 IMPs to us), one by two tricks (3 IMPs). I also made two doubled contracts which between them were worth 27 IMPs. I had to apologize for one of these as it was a bidding error by me that turned out luckily. But there is a lesson here for my LHO. After 1C -- 1D (both alerted), I bid 3D with my seven diamonds to the ace and not much else. Reasonable, right? Well, no, because we play suction in this situation and Kim alerted. LHO doubled and all passed. Dummy had enough for me to make nine tricks. The moral of this story is this: when RHO makes an artificial bid that could possibly have been intended as natural but is going to be taken out by your LHO, wait until they get into trouble before doubling. I was happy to note that we didn't need that lucky result for the win.

The other hand, referred to in my title was this:
I like to read humorous bridge books, especially those by David Bird and Victor Mollo. But whereas at the Griffins and St. Titus' Monastery, endplays arise on every other board, they don't seem to come up so frequently at my table. This is one that not only legitimately won us the match but pretty much made my day. Note that on my lead of the club four, East has a choice of poisons: he can let the four win and I throw a losing diamond, or he can win and then be endplayed. Very satisfying.

At the other table, the auction was identical, except for the final double. And the play to the first three tricks was also identical. My counterpart went down two (no helpful double), all the same. I told my teammates that the contract was always cold. Not so. At trick two, if East leads any black card, I can no longer make the hand, as you can see by pressing the GIB button in the replay.

A note on the bidding. Kim hates it when I steal the contract from her. So I do it with great trepidation. Here you can see that my decision was probably wrong (again!) for her notrump contract would make actually make ten tricks on the likely heart lead. But on a club lead, I think we'd be in trouble. In any case, if I had passed, there'd be no story.

I entitled this blog "A baby throw-in" because that's how the Hideous Hog would describe it. He would undoubtedly claim at trick four (he can't claim until the trump king falls otherwise the later throw-in will only generate one extra trick and two will be needed). Remind me not to make such heavy weather of it next time :)

Monday, November 3, 2014

Using double or redouble to ask about partner's hand

Here's the type of auction for which many pairs do not have a good understanding of how best to compete:
The situation arises when West's bid is ambiguous (for example, it doesn't specify a suit, or shows only one suit of two). Click each bid to see its meaning. Is partner showing clubs? The majors? Could it be some sort of rescue request?

In my partnerships, this redouble has a very simple and clear meaning: "I have decent values and I'd like you to further describe your hand at your next turn." Without the redouble, South might bid a major and you (West) might feel that your hand wasn't good enough to bid 3. But partner is saying: I really want to know what your hand is.

This hand came up at a sectional tournament, playing against two good matchpoint players. I was East. South passed and West now bid 2. Two passes followed and now South decided to bid 3♣. This went pass-pass and I finished proceedings with double. We scored 500 (could have been 800) for a clear top. It turned out that North made a somewhat over-enthusiastic Stayman bid and South, expecting his partner to have a bit more, decided to bid his clubs with only an 11-count. Here is the whole hand:
It was good that we have the rule that all doubles after a redouble are for penalty, so there was no doubt what the final double meant.

The double can be used for the same thing. Here's an example using the same hand, just a slightly different treatment for the West hand:
Again, just to be clear, East's double says nothing about clubs—it asks partner to state which of the three hands he actually has: 2 would show both majors (pass or correct), 2♦ would show diamonds and pass would show clubs.

This seems like a simple, effective, agreement. Yet in my experience it is quite rare. Maybe even unique. Without it a distributional but weak responder can easily preempt the other side out of a good contract. Suppose in the actual hand (first example), North had simply transferred to spades with a 2 call. East doesn't double because his double would show good hearts. South bids 2♠. Is West really going to come in with 3? I don't think so.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Does it matter?

There's a funny story one of our local experts tells about long ago when he was trying to teach his wife to play bridge. The queen of the suit led by our hero was in the dummy. Declarer called for a low card. His wife and partner put up the king. Later, it turned out that she also had the jack. "Why didn't you play the jack when dummy played low?" he asked. "Does it matter?" came her reply.

This same thing has happened, independently, to me and Memphis Mojo, one of my regular readers. It appears to be an epidemic. Here's my example from just a couple of weeks ago (from a random BBO table):

My partner described herself as "intermediate." Perhaps I shouldn't have made such a close double, especially since they could have played in the more normal contract of three hearts which requires decent defense to defeat. But on the auction it seemed to me that they would be going down. We got over the first hurdle when partner didn't pull my double (always a worry in these situations). I led the ♣9 and dummy played low. Clearly, there was a very threatening heart suit in dummy which my partner could do little to stop (although her ten certainly was a good card!). When partner put up the king, I could be fairly sure that she also had the ace. Obviously she wouldn't want there to be any chance of that queen ending up as an entry to the established hearts!

Imagine my surprise when declarer won the trick with the ace. Inconceivable. But more surprises were in store. Partner also had the jack!

Did it matter? Not much. Only 690 points (14 IMPs) worth.

    Sunday, October 5, 2014

    Signaling - suit or whole hand?

    Signaling is easy when there's only one message to be sent and the same message to be received. In communications, we would say that the protocol is established. Here's a simple example: in a suit contract, partner leads the king of a side suit (king from AK). Dummy comes down with three to the queen. The queen is on view so that the protocol (assuming standard carding) established is that follower's carding will be: high-low if he has a doubleton and wants to ruff; otherwise low-high. High-low here is not count. It's attitude but of a specific type -- it doesn't say you like the suit (you don't) -- it says you can give partner a ruff in the suit. If you had J873 in the suit you would like the suit well enough. If partner continues with the suit, your jack will eventually become the high card. That might be nice in a notrump contract but is completely counter-productive in a suit contract! So, that's why the protocol doesn't cater to that situation. High-low says you can ruff the third round and that's all it says.

    Unfortunately, there are also many situations where the protocol isn't so well established. Here's a case in point which arose in a club game against unknown opponents. Partner led a small heart and down came the dummy (click "Next").

    I won the first trick with the ten and paused for thought. Partner was leading "my" suit and it looked like she had one or three as I could see all the low spots. If it's a singleton, she can get a ruff, but I need to cash some winners first in case it's declarer who has the singleton. So, I cashed the club king to which I received a discouraging signal. According to my interpretation of the protocol, that means that partner is looking for a heart ruff. But according to partner's interpretation, she just doesn't have anything good in clubs. I continued with the ace and then cashed the heart ace. It was declarer who ruffed but we had two more tricks coming: the trump king and the spade ace, for +500.

    On this hand, it made no difference. The heart king that I mistakenly promoted in the dummy could never be used for a discard so all was well. But it got me thinking about the protocol in this situation. With no real clues from the auction, I really felt I needed to know about the heart situation. Why would I care about clubs? -- nothing in the dummy could go away on declarer's good clubs. In other words, I needed a signal that helped with the whole hand, not the suit (clubs) in question.

    It turns out that we lost the hand in the auction which perhaps is my fault for not bidding hearts directly at some point. Because of partner's three small hearts, we can actually make four hearts, although several players did not. We scored a decent 8 out of 12, eight pairs having bid game our way with four of them making.

    I've written before about signals that simply inform and signals that try to direct the defense: Show and tell -- more on defensive strategy. My thesis was that it is the degree of urgency, typically as evidenced by a strong side suit in dummy, which determines which message should be sent.

    Here's another situation from the same session (also against unknown opponents):

    You can click on the GIB button to see what's right. But I didn't have that luxury. Both of us could see that dummy had a threatening heart suit. So, to me that triggers the notion of urgency. Can we cash sufficient spade tricks before they can get their heart tricks? Or should we try to knock out the diamond ace early on so that it cannot be used later as an entry to the established hearts?

    Partner encouraged spades and I had no reason to believe that she wouldn't be able to cash another three spades after getting in with her presumed entry. So, I continued spades at trick two. Unfortunately, the right defense was to give up on spades for now and knock that diamond out. This resulted in us suffering our only bottom board. Defeating the contract would have been a top.

    Again, I probably should have known that a diamond was the most urgent. But, I suspect that opportunities for signaling about the whole hand (that's to say helping to direct the defense) arise quite frequently. We definitely need to be on the same page in these circumstances.

    Wednesday, September 24, 2014

    Making sense of BBO skill levels

    One of the fascinating things about BBO is the self-assignment of skill level. There are six levels to choose from plus "private". These are World Class, Expert, Advanced, Intermediate, Beginner, Novice. Probably the two most abused are expert and advanced. I've never seen anyone who judges themselves to be World Class to be incorrectly described (perhaps BBO monitors this level, I don't know). But I've seen plenty people self-assign themselves as expert whose claim to expertise in the game of bridge is questionable at best. BTW, I describe myself as expert too. Whether I am in the eyes of my fellow real-life bridge players is certainly open to question. But I feel obliged to do so in practice, by comparison with many other "experts" on BBO. I really have no idea what the criteria for these skill levels should be.

    Here's the official BBO description of the levels in each case followed (in italics) by my take based on actual experience:
    Someone who recently learned to play bridge — like, today, er... just now.
    Someone who has played bridge for less than one year — more like less than a month and may not have played at a club.
    Someone who is comparable in skill to most other members of BBO — someone who is reasonably honest about their skill level but who hasn't really progressed much from the beginner stage.
    Someone who has been consistently successful in clubs or minor tournaments — someone who has been playing too long to describe themselves any other way.
    Someone who has enjoyed success in major national tournaments — someone who can count to 13, especially in the trump suit; may actually know what an endplay is and perhaps has actually pulled one off; knows that underleading an ace at a suit contract is generally a bad idea.
    World Class
    Someone who has represented their country in World Championships — a real expert.
    These BBO descriptions of course beg the question: what defines success? Do you have to win a major national tournament event to be an expert? Or is it sufficient to have placed in the overalls, or got a section top? What about bracketed KOs? Must you have won the top bracket? What about Midnight KOs? What about single-session consolation events like a Swiss? I think it's all just a bit too vague.

    So, I've been compiling a list of the types of errors that I see perpetrated by the various levels. Many of these observations come from individual tournaments, or just sitting at a random table (although it's rare to find anyone who claims to be an expert sitting at such tables — I only do it when I don't have time for a real game). So, here goes:

    • Fails to notice that an opponent has shown out of a suit and/or fails to appreciate that said suit is now going to block if we aren't careful.
    • Thinks that the double of a 1NT overcall is for takeout.
    • Discards potential winners instead of likely losers when declaring a hand (one suit is 97 opposite AJT6 [two tricks are certain], the other suit is AQ87 opposite 543 [82% chance of two tricks]).
    • With ♠Q9654 AK 95 ♣KQJ4, after this auction (IMPs, none vulnerable, dealer is on the left): p p 1 1♠ 2 3 4, prefers to bid 5♣ rather than waiting to see what partner is going to do (result: -100 instead of +420).
    • Bids 1♠ only with ♠AJ62 AJ86 5 ♣KJ64 when (all vulnerable) LHO opens 1 and partner doubles.
    • Raises partner's 1♠ (previous comment) to 2♠ over an intervening double with ♠Q843 75 AK864 ♣Q2. [This pair bids all the way up to 4♠ but opener's partner has KT975 of trumps and wields the axe for a top. (or 8 IMPs if it were teams)].
    • Deals and opens ♠AK8 void AQJT9862 ♣A2 with a diamond preempt.
    • Doesn't notice that this is a 1NT opener, playing SAYC: ♠752 J765 AK5 ♣AK6.
    • Despite having no entry while defending 3NT, and despite dummy positively bristling with winning black cards, continues a third trick in own suit (hearts) which is 100% sure to be won by declarer rather than switching to diamonds which would win his side two more tricks.
    • With this hand: ♠AJ64 J952 Q95 ♣65, and hearing the following auction (none vulnerable, starting on your left): 1♣ p 1♠ p 2♠ Dble, decides that this is a good time to penalize those pesky opponents and passes — result -470 instead of -100 (or -50 or +50).
    • With this hand ♠Q763 K5 AKQJT ♣T3 (vulnerable vs. not) after one pass on right: 1 2♣ p p 2 Dble p p p. Dummy comes down with ♠T954 T643 9 ♣AQ95. The lead is a trump which you have to win in hand. You are very fortunate in having two club stoppers which will give you time to establish a spade trick or two. But the first thing you do is to use up those club stoppers so that you have to use your good trumps to swat clubs instead of establishing your own tricks.
    • Believes that a balanced 18-count is enough to bid a major suit game opposite a single raise by partner at matchpoints.
    • At favorable vulnerability with ♠QJT8652 void AK64 ♣T9 overcalls 1 with 4♠, then after 5♣, double, 6♣ [sic], naturally rebids 6
    • Over 4 by RHO (nobody vulnerable, Goulash hand), bids 4♠ with ♠AK98 53 ♣KJT764.
    • The only way I can do this advanced player justice is to show the whole hand (from an individual):
    Note that I made five calls during the auction: two redoubles and three doubles. What fun! If you click on the GIB button, you'll see that as long as I start with a high club (what else?) we are destined for +500. Unfortunately, it's now necessary to switch to a low spade to keep our 500. That seemed contraindicated to me so I switched to the J. Down to 300, although I'm still on lead and now any small black card will get us back to 500. I'm fairly keen to avoid setting up a winner in dummy because I want to protect my partner's diamonds. Alas, I continued a heart. Partner gets in and at trick 5 he plays... a small diamond! A two-trick error. Wasn't it blindingly obvious that declarer has the missing diamonds? At this point, we have gone from +500 (an 83% board) to -490 (a swing of almost 1000 points and a 0% board).

    • Holding ♠J97 J93 KQ4 ♣AJ54 (none vul) and having dealt and opened, after the auction (opps silent): 1♣—1—1NT—2♠, passes (not a tragedy because about a third of the declarers in 3NT went down).
    • Holding ♠AKQ53 JT76 742 ♣J (all vulnerable) and hearing partner open 1♣, responding 1♠, hearing double by LHO (a passed hand) followed by pass and 1NT, decides to bid 2♠. [When the same auction happened at another table, a real expert doubled for blood and ended up with 800].
    • Holding ♠J9 Q52 AQ6 ♣AK983, having opened 1NT and hearing partner transfer into hearts and then bid 2♠, bids 2NT [The opponents mis-defend but we still get a poor score because everyone is making 10 tricks in hearts, some in game, some not].
    I hasten to add that I have occasionally made some pretty big blunders on BBO myself when not really concentrating. Perhaps these good people that I reference here were talking on the phone, watching the telly, or otherwise multi-tasking. But here's the difference. When I make an error, I apologize to partner after the hand. The perpetrators of the foregoing mistakes seemed to be completely oblivious.

    Wednesday, September 17, 2014

    Passed hands may make only one free bid

    It is a truth universally acknowledged that once you have made a (natural) pass you can no longer mastermind the auction. Indeed, unless partner makes an even more limiting call, such as 1NT, you have made partner captain of the side. So, partner is the one who gets to do any "operating"—safe in the knowledge that you won't hang him. Examples of operating include shaded ("third-hand") openings and "pressure" bids (preempts opposite a passed hand with less offense than usual).

    So, just what are your limits as a passed hand in terms of bidding? I would say one free bid or, at the very most, two. Of course, you should answer partner's opening bid normally if you have responding values—that's not a "free" bid. You might even make a 2/1 bid since he will know that you cannot have opening count. And if partner forces you to bid again, you will honor his request. You may raise his suit, even his preempt although you will be careful about doing so since he may have been making a pressure bid.

    But if the auction gets competitive, you can't just keep on bidding till the cows come home! I recall a hand from a year or two ago where my partner made three bids after having passed originally and hearing only the one bid from me. The result wasn't pretty but fortunately the details of that hand are lost.

    Here's a classic example of what I mean from a recent random game on BBO (I changed partner's name to protect the guilty but used Victor Mollo's favorite epithet):

    Admittedly, North made only two bids after he had passed, one of which was not a free bid. But the jump to 5 was itself the logical equivalent of two bids. We can make 3, they can make 3♠. It's hard to be sure what East would have done over 3. Probably with a singleton diamond, he would take the push. What would the effect of a 4 bid by partner have been? Hard to tell. I would guess that the opponents would either go quietly (we lose 1.7 IMPs) or bid on to 4♠ (we gain about 5 assuming we don't double which would be more like 10 or 11). As it was, they didn't double 5 and we "only" lost 4.3.

    In the following hand, the BBO Robots were kind enough to furnish me with another example (see the following).

    The first diamond call by partner isn't really a free bid, given that he has 8 points. To pass would be Quixotic. The support double in round two confirmed a full opening bid (11-21 hcp) with three-card diamond support, and suggests a balanced hand, although presumably doesn't deny a 5-card club suit. The likely result of the double, it seems to me, would be +200 or -790. Predictably perhaps, we suffered the latter fate and a (shared) bottom.

    Personally, I don't think the North robot has any business making a double with no surprises in store for the declarer, and having already made two bids after passing at his first turn.

    So, to conclude: once you are a passed hand, resolve all marginal calls by taking the more conservative action (often that would be pass). The only justification for bidding aggressively is having very good shape. Doubling for penalties without having the goods, is just asking for trouble.

    [Note: 2014/09/18: I changed the title back to the original]

    Friday, September 12, 2014

    Eight is enough

    My young partner Alexander and I couldn't get our teammates from the most recent Eight is Enough at the Watertown, MA sectional (which we had won), but we got another very good pair: Steve and Vincent. We began the evening in a three-way whence we emerged with the disheartening total of 9 victory points. One of these teams ended up in second place, but that's small consolation. So, now we had only two more rounds—we would need blitzes in both matches in order to finish in the overalls.

    One rather odd aspect of this event was that every single board in the first two rounds was played (at our table) in a no-trump contract: eleven at 3NT, one at 1NT. The first board of the next set was also a notrump contract. Together with three more in the final set, we ended up playing 2/3 of all contracts without the benefit of a trump suit.

    Things turned around for us in the third round: we won by 39 IMPs. There were three pushes and three swings in our direction. Two of these were grand slams bid by our teammates but not by our opponents. We can't take any credit there. But here is a hand that merits some comment: my hand was ♠JTxxx Kxx x ♣QTxx. We were at favorable vulnerability and I passed as dealer. The next player also passed. Alexander opened 1♠ and the next player doubled. One of my favorite tactics is to feign strength. I could perhaps have jumped to 4♠ but who knows whether they might successfully reach 5 or 5? Instead I splintered with 4. The next player passed and Alexander signed off in 4♠. We were not doubled and drifted off two tricks for -100. Meanwhile, our teammates were able to bid a comfortable 3NT on their combined 25 hcp. Here's the whole hand...

    This is thinking out of the box, for sure. Third-hand bidding is an art in itself. If prospects for your own game look dim, and the vulnerability is favorable, it's reasonable to try to get in the way of their game. So far, spades hadn't been claimed and, if I was to end up on lead, a spade out might be quite helpful, thus the 1♠ bidding card. I was as surprised as anyone to find out that declarer had only three. And I will have to be careful if this becomes a habit ("Alert: at least three spades, may have a really bad hand"). But coming as it did with three boards still to play,  it was a great shot across the bows of the opponents.

    Oh yes, we added 38 VPs in our last two rounds and ended up tied for fourth place.

    Sunday, August 17, 2014

    A new species of double?

    A couple of hands came up the other evening where competitive auctions arose in which I was forced to make a cooperative penalty double. Is there such a thing? I think so.

    Let's revisit what a normal cooperative (or competitive double is). It's a call where a) we believe our side has the strength to compete; b) there is no other possible action because we have insufficient cards in our suits; c) we expect (60%?) that partner will normally take it out but won't be surprised if he passes for penalties.

    So, what's a cooperative penalty double? It's very similar. We believe that, based on the hand partner has shown so far, that the opponents will be going down in their contract. It's therefore a penalty double. Partner will leave it in probably 75% of the time, but we won't be surprised if partner takes it out.

    Why would partner take out such a penalty double? For the simple reason that he thinks that he'll score more playing our own contract than defending.

    A well-known case of a cooperative penalty double is made when the opponents sacrifice over our game bid (or our commitment to game) and partner makes a forcing pass. If we have no extra distribution, we will be, perhaps reluctantly, forced to double. But we will be thrilled if partner now pulls our double because this is the "pass-and-pull" maneuver which says that he's interested in slam.

    Less spectacular was this hand:

    Playing weak no-trumps, partner opened 1 in second seat and this was followed by 2♠.  I didn't feel able to contribute at this point so passed. LHO now raised the ante to 3♠. Two passes followed. This was a bit much though. It was possible that partner had a balanced 15-17 hand and it would therefore be our hand. In that case, if I double he will leave it in. What if he's based his opening bid on a good diamond suit or perhaps both minors? Then he'll take out my double. The trouble was that, having passed over 2♠, my double was now a fully-fledged penalty double (the "dead auction" rule). Yet if I double now, I can't possibly be showing a spade stack (unless 2♠ was a psyche). Perhaps partner will be able to work it out. In other words, a cooperative penalty double. Here's the whole hand:

    Obviously, partner doesn't have a bid and therefore passed. We collected 300 for a top. Well, no, it wasn't a top.  Several E/W pairs managed to find the lucky 3NT game. I wonder how their auctions might have gone. Even for those playing 16-18 (and I doubt there were any), surely the East hand isn't worth an invitation, is it?

    Next up, from the same session, a much more controversial instance:

    Notwithstanding the fact that you surely should have bid 2 at your previous turn, what are you going to do now? Is partner's double final and absolutely penalty? Seriously, how can it be? He doesn't know what your hand is, but he assumes that we can score a game our way but he doesn't know what in. How can he be sure that your side can get 2♠ down 2? And bear in mind that partner doesn't know about your third heart (indeed, he assumes you don't have it) nor your sixth diamond. Those are two offensive cards that will make us want to play our own contract.

    In other words, he is making a cooperative penalty double.

    When I posed this situation to the BridgeWinners site, there were three votes for taking out into hearts, 18 for pass and seven abstentions. At least one abstention was because they would have bid 2 at their previous turn so the problem would not have arisen.

    Here's the full deal:

    As you can see, 2♠N is cold as is 4E. What went wrong?

    I think one clear error was made, and two misjudgments, each worth half an error. In total these were the cause of missing the two tricks we needed in defense of 2♠X. West never showed that he had three hearts. Presumably, he intended to support hearts after he had created a game force with 2—so what happened? And both East and West had six card suits when they might only have had a five card suit.

    Switch a couple of small red cards from the West hand with a couple of small black cards from the South hand and we get the following layout:

    In this layout, totally consistent with the actual auction, the "normal" contract is 3NT by West making four for 430. But 2♠X by North is now worth 500 to E/W.

    So, this example of the cooperative penalty double was not such a success. But I think it could have been, given a full understanding of the idea. I should note that in neither situation had this concept ever been discussed, or even contemplated. But in at least one case it did work well.

    I believe that this sort of double can only occur after responder has made a forcing bid (such as a game-forcing 2/1 or forcing-1NT-with-invitational hand). One is that it is only when we have an expectation of being able to make game (or are close) that we would even think of making a penalty double that might be pulled for tactical reasons. [I don't count those situations where partner pulls with a weak distributional hand because that is a unilateral action, not one anticipated by doubler].

    The other reason is a more practical one. There aren't any other situations where responder makes a delayed support bid. In the auction on board 5, West was only able to avoid immediately supporting hearts because he had a forcing bid at his disposal. After such a response, opener doesn't yet know if his side has a fit or not so he may easily try for a penalty only to have his partner show support and revert to plan A—bidding and making game.

    Thursday, July 31, 2014

    The Rabbit's rules

    One of my Christmas gifts last year was The Rabbi's Rules by Mark Horton and Eric Kokish,
    and based on the late Leonard Helman and his bridge philosophy. It's a very instructive book, with many examples of bidding and play from top-level competition recounted by Horton and interjected with good system suggestions from Kokish. There are 20 of the Rabbi's rules in the set and all are worthy reminders of things to do or not to do.

    With the book in mind, I thought I might have a little fun with my own set of rules. But given that my bridge resume is not nearly so impressive as that of Helman, Horton or Kokish, I have dubbed them "The Rabbit's Rules." Most of these have already been talked about in this blog and in those cases, there will be links to the full blog.
    1. There are no undos in bridge – once you've told partner you have a particular type of hand, you must stick to your story. See The "no undo" principle or What's done is done.
    2. Every bid tells a story – there are many ways to bid a hand, especially in competition where you also have pass and double at your disposal so try to choose the sequence that best reflects your hand. See Every bid tells a story and also rule 11.
    3. Overcalls, and other bids in competition, are made with a specific purpose (or purposes) in mind – not just because you paid your entry fee. See Tram Tickets or To overcall or not to overcall...
    4. If you make a prepared bid of, say, 1 (i.e. with three clubs) you must rebid 1NT (or 2NT) unless partner bids your four-card suit. Rebidding a new suit promises 4+ clubs and a somewhat unbalanced hand. See Prepared Bids (part 1).
    5. Get on the same page with your partner regarding the meaning of Double! See many articles, e.g. the Cooperative double and Reviewing the situation.
    6. The best penalty doubles arise when you have no fit for partner. See Wielding the axe or What makes a good penalty double?
    7. Close competitive decisions should be resolved in terms of the following parameters: trump quality, shape, defensive values. See also rules 8 and 9.
    8. Close decisions by a passed hand should be resolved in favor of the more conservative action (usually pass). This is especially true when partner has made a "pressure bid." See Passed hands may make only one free bid.
    9. Only make disciplined sacrifices: don't do it with quacks in the opponents suit or without shortness – and force the opponents to make the last guess. See To sacrifice or not to sacrifice.
    10. Remember the Golden rules: Game before slam and Declare before game. See Two golden rules of bidding.
    11. Don't tell the same story twice. If you've already bid a suit and you don't have any extra strength or distribution, don't rebid your suit again just because you don't want to defend.
    12. If you're making a sub-standard third or fourth seat opener, bid a real suit, not a prepared bid. See Third and Fourth seat openers.
    13. When the opponents have settled in a place that suits you  and you have no equity to protect, let them play there peacefully. See Staying with happiness.
    14. If you plan to finesse twice in a suit, finesse against the lower honor first, unless you have a sequence above that honor. See The principle of least commitment.
    15. If partner has freely bid two suits and you find yourself on lead, then lead the second suit. See the Principle of substantive discretionary bids.
    16. If you've got it, flaunt it – but don't be a tease. You signal the location of a high card, say the king of spades in a notrump contract and later, partner gets in and leads a low spade. But you also have the ten while the jack is in dummy. Play the king, fulfilling your earlier promise, not the ten. Partner may have chosen to under-lead their ace on the basis of your earlier signal. [I feel sure there's an article on this in my blog but I couldn't find it]
    17. On defense, don't infer secondary motives on the part of your partner. For example, if you have overcalled a suit or signaled an interest in a suit, and your partner subsequently leads that suit, don't assume he's looking for a ruff – he's just doing what you asked. On the other hand, if trying for a ruff can't possibly cost, you might as well go for it.
    18. Try to be a lucky player. Have the opponents ever said after the hand was over "You were so lucky to make that contract – no other pair is going to bid that?" What those players don't appreciate is that you listened to the auction, visualized the hands, realized that all your cards were working and made your own luck. See How to be a lucky player.
    19. Don't underestimate your opponents. As much as we all know that we ourselves are better than almost everyone, those "clueless" opponents will not simply keel over and die when they come to our table – we have to work at beating them. Even in the hands of a total palooka, the ace of trumps is still going to take a trick.
    20. And the most important of all: Be nice to your partner. Have you ever been playing against a really good pair when they have a disaster? Do they argue and accuse each other of being an idiot? Not at all. They smile and put their cards back in the pocket. It can never be right to criticize partner at the table. Never, ever (although I have been guilty too many times). See RIP Norbert.

    Monday, July 14, 2014

    Goulash madness or the dog days of summer

    I haven't been playing a lot of bridge lately but I'm still getting ideas for blogs. Here's one that has been ready to send to the presses for some time. I'm not sure why I haven't already published it.

    I'm as fond of the occasional goulash tournament as the next man. Possibly more so. But one thing I've learned is that the way to do well in a goulash is to forget that the hands are all crazy—just bid the same way you would if you had just dealt the cards yourself. But when it comes to the play of the hand, remember that you cannot count on anything splitting as you normally might.

    The denizens of internet goulashes (individual tournaments with pre-selected boards) are a special breed. All of the usual novice errors can be observed here, but they tend to be magnified by large factors when distributions are so wild. Furthermore, a kind of death-wish seems to settle on most of the other players, including—and especially—my partners. I'd like to present a few of the more outré happenings from a recent goulash on BBO which, contrary to my expectations, I won with an average gain of almost four imps per board.

    What would you bid with this hand (favorable vulnerability after RHO deals and opens 1): ♠QJT8652 — AK64 ♣T9? How about 4♠? It seems reasonable to me. LHO now bids 5♣ and partner doubles. RHO bids 6♣ and it's back to you. Well, 6 stands out. No, I'm kidding of course, but that's what my partner bid. This was doubled by your LHO and passed back. You rescue yourself into 6♠ (doubled of course) and here's the whole hand:

    You go down three for -500 (-7 imps) instead of collecting 800 in 6♣X for +14.5 imps. If you follow the play you can see that at one point we should have been down four. See what I mean about madness? Of course, North could have saved two imps simply by passing my double. But that's just a peccadillo compared with my partner's transgression.

    How about ♠J6 A64 — ♣KQJT9632 all vulnerable, second seat? Would it occur to you to preempt with this hand? What if you knew it was a goulash hand? And, if you do preempt, how high do you go? My partner opened this hand 3♣ and, although I had a decent hand with a singleton club, I did not bid. We missed an easy game when the next player passed too (this may be the first time I've seen a contract in a goulash tournament lower than the four-level). And the only reason 6♣ didn't score was that the opponents could get a first-round heart ruff. Damage? Only one imp!

    Now, this one requires a true expert touch by my partner. See how you would measure up. ♠AK98 53 ♣KJT764. Nobody is vulnerable and your RHO deals and opens 4. Your call? My partner made the "master bid" of 4♠. He must have been sweating bullets when I raised him to slam! My hand? ♠QJT762 AKT9 ♣Q2. Slam was cold for a 10.5 imp gain. What can I say? Sometimes you just get lucky.

    And now for something completely different; a lead problem. Your hand is ♠— KQ62 54 ♣AKT7543, white on red. Partner (that would be me) opens 1 and RHO leaps to 4♠ despite being at unfavorable vulnerability. Naturally (!), you bid 5♣ and this is passed back to RHO who bids the fifth spade. This comes back around to partner who doubles, ending a relatively short auction. I'll bet that you cannot duplicate the lead which was found at my table. Honor sequences are for wimps, right? And, of course, leading partner's suit is simply passé.

    That's right, you select your fourth highest from... er your second-longest and strongest suit, to wit, the 2. Unfortunately dummy's knave wins the first trick and we end up getting only 200 out of this mess instead of the 500 we were due. Given that we can actually make 6, this proves to be a loss of 9.5 instead of just 4.5 imps. Of course, nobody is voluntarily bidding slam our way (I had only 10hcp but seven solid diamonds) but our "teammates" pushed their opponents into it.

    But I think my favorite of all is the bid chosen by the holder of this hand: ♠AK8 — AQJT9862 ♣A2, dealer at all vulnerable. Do you feel good about opening this 2♣ (strong/artificial)? Or do believe that it will take up too much room given that you will have to show your fine suit at the 3-level? My LHO (yes, I was very happy to have this person as my opponent for this board) found what I think is probably a unique solution: 5. My brilliant partner who obviously doesn't enjoy being pushed around bid the obvious (!) 5. RHO, presumably assuming that everyone had something approaching  their bids, passed and, after some consideration as to whether we could possibly make slam, I passed too. LHO felt that his hand was worth another bid and rebid 6. This came around to me and I figured that surely it was better to be in our slam, maybe going down, then to let them play theirs. So I bid 6. This was passed out (!) and we quietly drifted off three tricks. See the whole hand for just how bizarre this result was:

    Yes, they are cold for 7, although nobody managed to bid the grand. But one pair did bid the small slam so our result netted us 11 imps.

    And, lest you think that the other players in this tournament had all taken up bridge yesterday, I assure you that every one of the weird actions was taken by somebody with approximately the same level of BBO experience and success as myself. How did I win after so many bad results? It's hard to imagine, I know. But just remember that there are twice as many crazy people at the table playing against you as there are supposedly playing with you.

    If you haven't tried the delights of a goulash tournament, you should. But check your ego and your pride at the door, together with your acerbic comments. It's definitely just for fun!


    Sunday, June 29, 2014

    Equal-level Conversion?

    Are you one of those people who fills out the overcalls point range on the convention card with something like 8 to 16? My answer to that question is a very British "Rubbish!" How can anyone seriously suggest that overcalls are about high card points? Especially the people designing convention cards!

    To me, the difference between overcalling and doubling then bidding a suit is all about the suit quality and the shape of the rest of the hand. There are some really excellent offensively oriented hands that might do it with only 15 to 16 high card points. And others with 18 or 19 that are really only good enough for a simple overcall. Here's a hand from the other day where we were the only pair to reach game: ♠AKQJ72 QT5 ♦A5 ♣64. All were vulnerable and my RHO, the dealer, opened 1. I regard this hand as somewhere in the vicinity of the tipping point between starting with 1♠ and double. But the quality of the spade suit tipped the balance in favor of double. The next player passed and, naturally, partner bid 2♣. After RHO passed, I bid 2♠. My partner, Alexander, who recognized this for what it was, had few qualms about bidding 3NT which he made with an overtrick. His hand was: ♠6 K9 ♦QJ63 ♣J98732.

    The only complication that we have to worry about is due to the concept of "equal-level conversion." Like some other bridge conventions or rules, such as "negative free bids" or "restricted choice," equal level conversion is about as badly named as anything could be. I've previously mentioned this subject briefly in Gosh, what a hand! The problem is that not everyone knows how to distinguish an equal-level-conversion from a good, one-suited hand. How can we be certain what's going on?

    For the last several years, I've been thinking along the lines suggested by Robson and Segal in their book on competitive bidding (see that other blog entry for a reference). They talk about bidding above two-of-opener's-suit. But last evening at the bridge club [this was actually six months ago as I am now writing], I realized that there is one and only one determining factor which separates an "equal-level" conversion from a GOSH (good one-suited hand). Did you skip over the third suit after partner's response?

    You pick up, in fourth seat, red on white,♠4 AJ976 ♦AKT943 ♣A. LHO opens 1 partner passes and RHO raises to 2. How are you going to treat this monster? My friend Peter chose to bid 3, resulting eventually in the top spot of 5, but he was at another table. I'm really not sure what's best here, although I think I like 3, as it cannot possibly be passed by partner. At this vulnerability, double can't be too dangerous because partner will never pass the double for penalties. What about 2NT? Although it seems unlikely that this could be to play, it might be misinterpreted and then when partner chooses clubs and you rebid diamonds, partner might wonder if it was supposed to be natural all along.

    So let's say for the sake of argument that you double and partner bids, as expected, 3. You are going to bid a red suit but which one you bid makes all the difference. When you double and partner selects one of the three unbid suits and you correct to the next cheapest (in this case 3), you are showing a two suited hand (note that the next cheapest might not be at the same level as the cheapest if for example hearts was their suit). This just shows a two-suited takeout and would be described, potentially erroneously, as an equal-level conversion.

    But if instead you bid the fourth suit, bypassing the next-cheapest, then you are showing a GOSH (good one-suited hand).

    Here's another hand from the same session to illustrate the principle of the (non) equal-level conversion. You hold ♠A432 98 ♦AJ4 ♣QJT2 and with favorable vulnerability you decide to double the 1 call on your right. Personally, I like to have a little more ammo for this kind of off-shape double but the vulnerability is in your favor. If partner makes the expected 1 call, you will bid 1 showing the black suits. Here, you have converted at equal level, but partner may have to raise the level if he likes clubs more than spades. In practice, your LHO is the one with the balance of power (not partner) and he (LHO) redoubles. Partner bids 2♣ denying four cards in either major and they end up in a heart game, making five.

    Occasionally, there will still be some ambiguity. If, going back to the first hand, my spades and hearts were switched, and the auction proceeded as before 1 X p 2♣ p ? 2 could still be showing a major two-suiter. If partner chooses spades and you bid 3, partner should get the message. But what if he likes the majors equally and passes 2? You might miss a game when you have a really outstanding hand (better than this one). In such a case you might have to make a jump bid of 3 over 2♣, but I think that would be rare.

    And don't forget that you do need some extras (say 13 hcp?) if you have an off-shape double that will require conversion as you will often end up a level higher than you'd really like. Even then, you're likely to suffer the occasional 800.

    Clearly, you have to be confident that partner won't misinterpret your rebid after a takeout double. As long as you have that assurance you can be much more frisky in your off-shape takeout doubles.

    Monday, June 23, 2014

    Nashua, NH

    I don't often use this space to tell you about good results that happened at the table. Typically, I am more interested in some point of theory or maybe some problem hand that arose. But it's nice to be able to write about good results, especially when I can give most of the credit to my partner.

    Last week I got to play with my wife and favorite bridge partner, Kim—for a change—in one of the big pairs events at the Nashua, NH, summer regional. We got a few gifts in the first session, resulting in a 63% game. One of my favorite hands, and an excellent example of the efficacy of the cooperative double, is the following:

    [deal rotated]

    What is particularly impressive here is that most of the evidence suggested passing my double. Yet, knowing that I was a passed hand, it must have appeared very likely that 2♠ would make (it would) and so Kim sensibly bid 3. At the point of the 2♠ bid, we were destined for either 5 or 10.5 matchpoints (out of 25), depending on our defense. When they didn’t double 3, we had improved to average. When one defensive trick was mislaid, we moved up to 17.5 mps, but then they dropped another, allowing Kim to actually make her contract. That put us all the way up to 23.5.

    We were about half-way through the afternoon session, struggling a bit and getting insufficient gifts, when this hand came up. As you can see there's not much to the auction—but all day we had been defending a lot and doing it quite well, this being perhaps our best effort. We were lucky that declarer went astray a little—but we did everything we could to help him along.

    Kim chose the ♠8 for her opening lead which helped create the illusion that she started with AJ98. I quickly decided to duck the first high spade so I could smoothly follow low (2). Now, it must have seemed "obvious" how the spades were dividing. Declarer has no very good option at this point, the suit he wants to develop first (spades) being playable only from the other side of the table. Obviously hearts is the suit to attack, but which one? I think running the 9 stands out, but on this layout it turns out just as wrong as leading low to the king and ace, which is what declarer actually did.

    Kim had noticed my ♠2 (we play upside-down carding) and so she continued with the ♠9. After some thought, declarer backed his earlier hunch and played the king which I captured with my ace. It was still far from obvious how we were setting this contract, but I chose to lead ♣2. I knew this would persuade Kim to return a club if she won the trick (we play attitude leads in the middle of the hand) but I didn't mind that too much as I did have the 9 sitting over the T8 and quite possibly the thirteenth club. But even more so, I didn't particularly want her to continue spades just yet or to switch to another suit.

    Some of the plays seem a bit odd, I know. It's possible that I have the exact sequence of spots wrong—my recollection is that my hand took four tricks including the last trick with a diamond—but I couldn't make that work so I must have misremembered. But the final outcome is correct—we ended up setting the contract by two tricks. No other N/S pair managed eight tricks on defense. Our result was a shared top (23/24) because two other pairs managed to set contracts of 2NT and 3NT, each by two tricks.

    This board helped us to a 55% session which was just enough to give us a creditable fourth place. Not too bad for a 27-table event with average masterpoints of almost 3500.

    Wednesday, June 18, 2014

    Using double to find out about fit (part 2)

    This follow-up of the earlier Using double to find out about fit is prompted by some comments by Jeff Lehman on my last DSIP-related blog The final problem. [I apologize in advance for the inordinate length of this article, but I simply don't have the time to make it shorter—but at least I have included quite a few hand diagrams.]

    Jeff maintains that in a competitive auction, after we have found a fit, we should use double to penalize the opponents, bid with an offensive hand, and pass otherwise [I hope I have this right]. And I would guess that at least 95% of active bridge players would agree with him. I recognize that I am in the minority.

    So, I'd like to explain why I think my style is better. But, first, I'd better summarize it. When we find a fit at the two-level, we usually don't know whether it's a single eight-card fit, a nine-card-plus fit or some kind of double fit. I say "usually" because pairs playing Bergen raises and perhaps some other conventions actually do know. But, I am talking about the normal situation where the auction has gone, say, 1 (p) 2 or perhaps 1 (p) 1 (p) 2, although for simplicity I will only discuss the first of these auctions. Let's say that the last bid is immediately overcalled by 2♠. Or perhaps there is a double, taken out to 2♠. How should we proceed?

    I recommend what amounts to a pass-double inversion, just like some expert pairs play at higher levels when they're in a forcing pass situation. Here, we're not in a force, of course, but I should say that we will do something probably 75% of the time or more. Pass says either "I have neither extra strength nor extra distribution" or "I have a hand which would like to defend a doubled contract if you have extra strength." Double says "I'm relatively short in their suit [usually a doubleton], and I have extra strength but no clear bid." Much of the time, therefore, we will bid on, sometimes we will "nail" the opponents and sometimes we will meekly pass and let them have the contract.

    The first thing we notice is that we no longer have a good way to invite game. All of our Kokish game tries, help-suit game tries and their like are essentially out the window. We can show a second suit, bid 2NT or we can bid 3 (higher bids will commit our side to game anyway). But those bids can also be used simply to compete with an offensively-oriented hand. Which style makes most sense? I believe that the scoring table favors an approach which goes: declare before game before slam. I don't have the space to justify this idea here but I do talk about it some more in Two golden rules of bidding. But very briefly: if they have intervened with 2♠, and can make it while you can take ten tricks not-vulnerable in hearts, you will earn 7 imps just by bidding on to 3 and only a further 4 imps by actually bidding game. If you think you might be able to make game but have no good way to find out partner's opinion, just bid it. If you're right you'll gain 11 imps, if you're wrong then at least you break even over letting them play even if they do double.

    Here, I'm going to make an assumption that may shock you. Once we have established that our side has approximately half the deck (that's to say the high cards) or more, we do not need much in the way of extras to compete. It's a question of pigs at the trough—if you don't get in there you will starve. The most important issue we're faced with therefore is: declare or defend? (DoD). In other words, we are now trying to determine the absolute par contract whereas, before the intervention, we were only concerned with determining our (directional) par contract, which frequently is not the same thing. At pairs, quite a few matchpoints may be riding on whether we reach par or not. At teams, there is no difference between +100 and +110 for instance. But at matchpoints, getting it right could easily swing 25% of a board. Trying for game or trying for a big penalty are also possibilities of course, but they have to take a back seat to the main issue. So, we look at the possible tools we have available and, if there are two possible uses, we choose the meaning that most helps us to decide the DoD question. If we have sufficient tools still available to help us try for game, for example, then we use them for that purpose.

    What tools do we have after the auction described above: 1 (p) 2 (2♠) ? Pass, double, 2NT, 3 of a minor, 3 (as mentioned above). By general agreement, pass and three of our suit (3 here) are non-forward going. Since defending 2♠ may be the par contract, we have to include pass in our arsenal for both players in a pair.

    We are therefore left with double, 2NT, 3 and 3♣. I hope we all agree without any further explanation that 2NT, 3 and 3♣  are not logical contracts. One of these bids can be used as a game try and the other two can be used as you prefer for a different kind of game try, or simply a competitive bid. Personally, I think that the lowest of the available bids should be the game try (as it leaves the most room for partner to respond with some useful information) and the higher bids should be used to further describe your hand when you have good distribution. If RHO had bid 2NT, that would obviously remove one option... and so on until a 3 intervention leaves us no room for a game try at all. Let me put it on record that I do not like the "maximal double" here as an artificial game try.

    Trying to penalize the opponents at this low-level is generally not going to work out profitably. If we can set their contract by two tricks doubled, that will be a very nice +300. But, wait a moment, if there are 16 total tricks available (most deals have at least this many total tricks) that means we could have made ten tricks in hearts for +420. Hence doubling for penalties won't be very profitable at equal or unfavorable vulnerability. Only at favorable vulnerability will it work out well, and even then it's only at matchpoints that the result will be a triumph. So, if we rule out wanting to penalize the opponents with a direct double, it frees up that call to show extra values and relative shortness in the enemy suit. Something like a short-suit game try. If partner has an extra trump, he will take the double out automatically. Likewise if he too is short in the enemy suit. All suit bids can be used to show extra distribution, and might even help us find that magic double fit that produces game even on minimum hands.

    Thus, double is the most flexible DoD invitation. It has the advantage that if partner does decide to defend—and assuming he's right and that we don't choke during the defense—we get the greatest possible consolation for our "equity" (the score we were hoping to achieve with our two-of-a-major contract). But you mustn't abuse double here or you will end up with lots of -470s and -670s. See my various other posts in this series (DSIP). Generally, you will have a balanced hand with two cards in the opponent's suit. In this context, that means 5422, 5332, or possibly 5431 shape—not 5521 or anything like that. That's what the other suit bids are for. However, you might double your singleton (or void) suit if you've already shown two suits. And, if partner has a biddable suit in response to your double (or extra length in a suit he's already shown), he should take the double out.

    So, does that mean that our opponents can enter into our auctions with impunity, safe in the knowledge that they can never be caught speeding? Not at all. Often they will escape relatively unscathed when we bid on to a successful contract or we let them play undoubled when we have nothing extra. But when the trap does close, they will find that the player with the most high-card points has the short holding in trumps. His partner will have the longer holding and these conditions are perfectly suited to extracting the largest possible penalty.

    Sometimes, even when we do "catch them speeding," they can wriggle out into a better contract. So, give up on waiting for juicy doubles of low-level intervention after we've found a fit—it's better to use double as an essentially constructive tool and get the occasional penalty as a bonus.

    Here's a typical layout from a recent instant tournament on BBO. At the table, all were vulnerable and West made a poor decision to reopen with double. Perhaps he should have considered the board number first. All looked good at first when East bid 2♠ and N/S passed, but things went rapidly downhill thereafter, resulting in -300, a very poor matchpoint score.

    Declarer could have played it a bit better and saved a trick. Perhaps North should have redoubled over the first double to show a balanced hand with maximum points. South might then feel able to double the contract for a gain of 800 to N/S. But that's being a little greedy. N/S took no risk of anything bad happening and ended up with better than an 80% board.

    Now let's look at some other variations and see how they might play out using the ideas described above. We leave the E/W hands to distribute themselves as they see fit and bid as before.

    In the first example on the left, South is the one with extra strength, a balanced hand and a doubleton spade: hence double. The final contract is 2♠X for +100 (assuming an unchanged E/W layout). This loses an IMP to the par contract of +140 for 3.

    In the second variation (right) neither North nor South can bid on over 2♠ and the opponents "escape". Nevertheless, they go down two for +200 to N/S. Surprisingly, again assuming E/W remain the same, N/S can actually make 4 on this layout. But is it reasonable to expect anyone to bid it? +200 is therefore likely to win at least average if not better.

    And, in fairness, here's a hand that appears to deflate my arguments. It's from long ago (2006) on OKbridge (I found this using Stephen Pickett's wonderful program BridgeBrowser) where the players were all good. East/West were playing "standard" and the 500 they reaped was worth 7.35 IMPs.

    Playing my recommended system, the result would almost surely be only 200 (no double) for only 0.75 IMPs. This is exactly what happened at another good table but this time, the defenders did even better and extracted 300 for 3.27 IMPs. In any case, I dare say the actions would be the same at matchpoints and there the difference is much smaller: 49/51 matchpoints for 500, 48 for 300, and 41 for 200. That's still an 80% board! In other words, you will get a very good matchpoint result on this hand without having to double.

    And here's a hand which many players got seriously wrong (from the same source)—again all good players at the table shown.

    Par on this board is +100 for N/S for 2♠X-1. The only reasonable way to get that result is for N/S to be playing according to my system and have South double with his extras and spade shortness. North will have no reason to take it out and par will be achieved. In practice many Easts took fewer than their allotted seven tricks and at those tables 2♠X would have done very nicely for N/S. Note that although this N/S did get a fine 300, it was only because West made a dreadful bid in my opinion. They were almost surely going to escape for -50 until then.

    Now for a board where N/S use double to win the declaration:

    Note that in almost every real-life playing of this hand, after the first six calls, South made a very undisciplined raise to 3. He has no shape and could have been summarily punished an a bad day. The safe way to show your extras is with a double as shown here. North, with four hearts and a doubleton spade will take it out to 3 and all will be well. If E/W bid on they will be -200 or, even worse, if N/S decide to take the push to 4 on their 21 hcp they will be extraordinarily lucky, given their lack of useful shape, and score game.