Thursday, January 23, 2014

Wielding the axe

I've probably spent far too many words in this blog on the subject of using double as a flexible call looking for a fit with the general expectation of partner taking the double out if he can. I know that some of you are thinking "but I like to penalize the enemy." Believe me, so do I – but I happen to think that that is often the route to getting the juiciest penalties.

So, using the system I've described (just look for the label "double" or "DSIP"), there are only a few ways you can penalize the opponents. Perhaps the most common is when an ostensibly takeout-oriented double is passed for penalties. This usually has the advantage that the extra strength and the extra trumps are in different hands. The other situations arise when double occurs (1) after one of us jumps, thus making a relatively clear statement about the distribution; or (2) after a redouble; or (3) after we make a cue bid, and (4) subsequent to several circumstances having to do with having told your story sufficiently often or having previously shown that you didn't want to compete further.

And then there's the easiest of all contracts to double for penalties: a notrump bid which is "to play." My definition of to play is when it's natural and (1) at the two-level or higher and/or (2) when it's in competition.

Here's a nice example of a low-level double of a competitive notrump bid which was easy to apply and quite profitable (9 imps). It's from an IMP table on BBO (I have redacted the names, although I don't think anyone really did much wrong*):

Those N/S pairs who played in notrump made either 8 or 9 tricks (best defense holds it to 8). But all other contracts were destined to go down. So the important thing here was to maximize the penalty. There was nothing particularly difficult in finding the red card but I will make a couple of observations. First, one of the most important factors in a penalty double is a lack of fit with partner. The worse the fit, the fewer total tricks there are likely to be and the more we want to defend a doubled contract if we can. Second, my hand had something in all the other suits so it would not be easy for them to wriggle out of it. And third, I trusted my partner to have a real overcall. It wasn't what I would call a great overcall, especially vulnerable, but it had solid opening values. Partner was not particularly interested in a spade lead, and he wasn't taking away any bids from the opponents, so therefore he was competing for the contract. And, given his outside strength, there was even a decent chance that, if I had a spade fit, we might even be able to make game.

Of sixteen tables that played this board, there were two others at which the first round of bidding was identical. But in one case North passed, in the other he bid 2♣. A few Wests chose to make a negative double instead of the 1NT call. To my mind this is equally dangerous because North has an easy redouble. But that never happened in practice. Instead, those Norths chose to bid notrump, which predictably did reasonably well.

The moral of the story is simply this: While it's nice to be able to diagnose a likely penalty, both partners must be on the same page regarding the meaning of the double in order for the trap to be successfully sprung.

* There may be some arguments that both East and West slightly overbid their hands, especially considering the vulnerability.  But these were not particularly unusual actions. 11/16 Easts opened one heart. 3/10 Wests hearing one heart and one spade then bid 1NT. Really, I think they were just a little unlucky.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Prepared Bids (part 2)

I don't really like the name "prepared bid" because it doesn't have much intrinsic meaning. But it is a well-known term for what amounts to a "temporizing bid." I wrote some thoughts on this topic (and the nomenclature) in Prepared bids (part 1).

The essence of a prepared bid is that you know that it is going to temporarily confuse partner, but you mean to clarify the description of your hand at your next turn. Perhaps the most common instance is when you pick up a hand of 4=3=3=3 (or similar) shape and it doesn't fit your range for 1NT.  You open 1, preparing for a rebid of 1NT. The only thing that's going to change your mind is if partner responds 1 - you will raise to 2. I realize that some of you are going to rebid 1 after partner responds 1 but if you do that, your partners will never know if you have real clubs or not.

But here's another, less typical, prepared bid situation: ♠KT9 AKQ865 KQ5 ♣3. You decide to open 1, partner responds 1, and you rebid 3. Of course, you do not really intend to play in diamonds at all, you are simply using that bid as a game force. You expect to play either in hearts, spades or notrump, depending on what partner does next. If partner doesn't raise hearts, or bid notrump, you plan to clarify your hand by making a delayed (three-card) raise to spades. You might even do so if partner does bid notrump. What you don't really want to hear is 4, because if partner has a good hand with four-four in the pointed suits, you might end up in a diamond slam on a Moyseian fit.

Still, as with all prepared bids, you know that there's a risk of partner getting the wrong idea -- it's just that you believe that said risk is less than the inherent risks of any other action. In our case, you might also rebid 3♥ but that could easily get passed out when game is possible in spades or notrump. Similarly, you could jump to 3 but partner is likely to be extremely disappointed in your trump holding.

So, it's essential when making a prepared bid, not only to have a plan for all likely responses but also to ensure that your sequence will describe your hand as accurately as possible. So, what will you do if partner raises diamonds? You have a great hand with unannounced support for partner's suit and a fantastic suit of your own. The decision is going to be further complicated if you're using 4 as kickback (keycard ask) for diamonds.

It's a tough one, but I think that the bid you should be planning after a diamond raise is 4. Partner will know that you have only three spades and some sort of red two-suiter (and therefore at most one club). How likely is it that partner has only four spades? What if he's got two hearts and that would be the best strain.

First, we need to consider what his strength is. Could he have a bare minimum? I don't think so. We created a game force and a minimum hand would bid either 3♥ (with two hearts), 3♠ (with five spades and fewer than two hearts), 3NT (with a balanced hand with two hearts and a club card), or 5. Furthermore, a minimum hand has fewer than three hearts (else partner would have raised hearts to begin with). So, in this context, 4 implies that slam is possible, unequivocally denies three hearts, six spades and probably denies much in the club suit. So, we know partner has at least four spades, four diamonds and at most two hearts.

What are the relative lengths of the pointed suits in partner's hand? Is it possible that he has more diamonds than spades. Yes, it's possible. He certainly doesn't have a game-forcing hand with more diamonds than spades. Nevertheless, I think the evidence is for partner having five spades, at most two hearts, at least four diamonds and some number of clubs. It's not guaranteed that he has five spades, but I think the odds favor that. At least if you do end up with only seven trumps, partner will be able to ruff clubs in the short hand, and your holding is rather good for ruffing.

I'm told that the auction, between two good flight A players, went a little off the rails after the prepared bid of 3. But it wasn't entirely obvious to me at first where to assign the blame (if any). The player with the hand shown thought that denied 4 five spades; responder didn't. Undoubtedly a difficult hand and one that I think requires quite a bit of care and thought to get just right (if there is such a thing as right in this context). Incidentally, if you're wondering what the other hand looked like, take a look at this bidding poll on Bridge Winners.

Monday, January 6, 2014

How to be a lucky player

This is the title of the new book by Matthew Thomson, Australian professional bridge player. As mentioned previously here, Matthew is the best player I've partnered – totally by lucky chance (for me, that is, not for him).

The book is basically an extreme version of the hand evaluation techniques I've always tried to follow (I learned a lot that day). Here it is in a nutshell:
  • aces are good;
  • more aces are better (any hand with two aces is a good hand);
  • intermediates in your long suit are important;
  • honors in partner's suit are golden;
  • the 5431 shape is magic, especially when you have a 4-4 fit with partner;
  • when all your cards are working, bid more, and you will likely get lucky [no, not that kind of lucky].
OK, that was a pretty trashy summary. You'll have to buy the book. On the other hand, I can't recommend the book. Not at all. If all my opponents were armed with the wisdom that he dispenses for lucky players, I'd never win anything.

Here's an example of me trying to bid the lucky way with the robots (dealer, not-vul vs. vul): ♠KQ53 AK9432 982 ♣–. I opened 1 and partner responded 1♠. The moment of truth. On the plus side, although I didn't have 5431 with four spades, I did have 6430 with four spades. Surely that was even better. On the minus side, my intermediates in hearts weren't terrific. Nothing daunted, I splintered into 4♣. Partner cue'd in diamonds as I did in hearts. Partner had heard enough to launch Blackwood. I answered 5NT showing two key cards with a void somewhere (guess!). Partner bid 6♠.

With confidence, I put down the dummy. Partner struggled mightily (this was a Classic robo tourney) but went down one. How could that be? Apparently, the robots have also read Matthew's book, especially the bit about any hand with two aces is a "good hand".  He had exactly that, the aces of spades and diamonds, but no kickers. But surely that's not enough to drive to slam over a game-forcing rebid? He also had the QJxx of clubs, but those were valueless opposite shortness – the robots know that, don't they?

The club ace or the diamond king would have been the twelfth trick. Even the diamond queen would have given us a 50% chance. My lack of intermediates in hearts were not the problem. BTW, I was not the only one to force to game at my second turn and end up in slam. The others gave their robots no chance to evaluate, however, as they did not splinter. One other human even jumped straight to slam after partner's response!

Our "Individual" Regional has just ended and I'm happy to report better results from trying to get lucky. But first, which (if any) of these two hands would you be comfortable opening as dealer (playing strong no-trumps):  ♠KJ73 K876 Q62 ♣K2 or  ♠9653 A632 K ♣AT64? What about in third seat?

I opened the first one 1 as dealer on the grounds that I had two four card majors, and if partner bid 2♣, I would have something decent for him and if he made an inverted raise of diamonds I would be able to rebid 2NT without undue embarrassment. Otherwise, I considered this hand very marginal. Partner, with a 20-count and five hearts, bid all the way up to 7 and made it for a 91% board. Would we get to seven if I'd passed? Partner said no.

I also opened the second hand, although I was in third seat. Would I open it in first or second seat? I think so, based on how much luck it generated this time. The next player passed and partner bid 1. RHO now came in with 1♠ and I raised to 2, promising four trumps. Partner, with ♠T QJ75 AQJ5 ♣9532 now jumped to 4. The lead was the spade ace (a trump would have been better) and, if I recall, another spade. Partner played it very nicely for eleven tricks and a 98% board.

Now that's what I call getting lucky.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

A rising star?

I haven't been saying a lot in this blog about CJ our twelve-year old bridge player who started playing  in July of last year, other than a quick reference in Teaching: the best way to learn. But now that he has hit the headlines, so to speak, it's time for some stories.

I refer to the article Meet CJ Kiepert Rising Bridge Star! which is currently featured front and center on the EMBA web site. Kim and CJ had almost 60% in the "pro-am" game a few weeks ago.

CJ still has a lot to learn in bridge (don't we all?) but he has excellent instincts. He's a bit impulsive and he tends to be a somewhat exuberant bidder but that's how you get lucky. Everyone agrees that bridge is a bidder's game. Never having been a fan of going strictly by "the rules" myself, I'm always happy to see creative bidding. It doesn't always work out, of course, but if it works out more often than not in the long run, then you end up a winner.

Here are a couple of examples of CJ's imaginative style from last week's Sunday pairs game: ♠AKT82 AK5 – ♣AKQ53. CJ was in fourth seat, not-vulnerable vs. vulnerable, playing against one of the best pairs in the room. After two passes, his RHO opened 3. Bear in mind that we don't have tools to bid this kind of hand scientifically. Even the idea of doubling then bidding a suit isn't something CJ really knows much about – and could hardly be right for this hand anyway. Maybe 4 would be the right start but who knows? Trusting his instincts that I would have something useful in diamonds, he bid what he thought he could make: 3NT. Perhaps a double by the next player would have prompted some other action – I don't know. In any case, I showed up with the ace and he took eleven tricks. Sadly it was not the triumph that his boldness might have deserved – eleven of sixteen pairs bid slams (one was a failing grand) but even the 4♠ bidders outscored us as there is an inevitable spade loser before all the spades can be cashed.

His other outside-the-box thinking that day was with this hand: ♠AK5 AKJ953 ♣J63. Nobody vulnerable, his LHO dealt and opened 1♠. I bid 4 and RHO bid 4♠. Without any hesitation, CJ bid 5! As he expected, the opponents pushed on to 5♠ with their 10-card fit and of course now CJ sprang the trap. We ended up with 500 for a top (other than a 550 for making 5X).

Here he is in action at a friendly, though expert, New Year's day game with three tables, scoring by IMPs. ♠A9 AT3 QT953 ♣KT3, all vulnerable. CJ dealt and opened 1. This was overcalled 1♠ and I bid 2 (forcing). What would you do? Almost as if he had read Matthew Thomson's book (see next blog entry) on How to be a lucky player, CJ raised to game. He appreciated the extra value of two aces and the relatively prime king. Even the diamond suit with its good intermediates might furnish tricks with a little help from my hand. As Matthew might say, we did get lucky, making with five heart tricks (including a ruff), four spades (!) and a club. This was worth 10 imps (averaging the two comparisons).

CJ will be at the table again at this weekend's Regional, opposite partners of his age (or close). I'm looking forward to seeing how they do.