Friday, March 28, 2014

Tram tickets

I probably spend far too much time reading and re-reading British bridge books. There are certain phrases or words that I do enjoy hearing from (this) newer side of the Atlantic about the older side. "The knave" is one I've mentioned before. "Drifting off one" is another. And while we're about it, why can't we use the same table numbering in Swiss events as they do over there? Instead of having to go and look at the current standings on the wall, they always know how they're doing simply by looking at the table number that they're assigned to.

But I digress. One of the other British phrases that comes up quite often in these books, especially the older ones, is "bidding on tram tickets." There haven't been trams in England during my lifetime (well, actually there were a some for a few years in certain cities) so this is either a very old expression from the early days of bridge, or perhaps more of a European thing.

You may recall me railing about "entry fee bids" in this blog (for example To overcall or not to overcall...) as it is certainly one of my pet peeves when my partners do it. The particular situation that gets my goat is when partner makes an overcall in third (or fourth seat) after I have denied the values for an opening bid. I don't mean a jump overcall (a.k.a. "pressure bid") as that is a very effective tactic I like to use myself. I mean making a normal non-jump overcall without a good suit when our chances of buying a good contract are slim.

But fortunately, other people's partners do it more than mine. We don't always manage to catch them speeding but a hand came up in a recent club game which was very satisfying. Here's your hand: ♠KJ864 T75 QT2 ♣T6. It's "Love all" as the Brits like to say. Partner deals and passes, RHO opens with 1. Your call?

Did I hear you say 1♠? Have you been paying attention? Apart from partner having passed and your suit being moth-eaten, you have a bad holding in their suit (three losers when the third round gets ruffed) and nothing else. Tram tickets, in other words.

Did I hear you say 2♠? That's a bit more to my liking though it's a bit rich for my blood. Maybe if we were at favorable vulnerability and I really needed to create some action.

So, let's say you do overcall a spade. LHO bids 2NT (not alerted but in response to your partner's query, explained as invitational with a spade stopper). Your partner now compounds the error with a truly dreadful raise to 3♠ on a flat hand with three card support (see Interference over invitations considered harmful). RHO (that would be me) with a twelve count, a singleton spade and no interest in accepting the invitation, doubles. Down three for 500 on a nothing hand that the opponents weren't going to bid game anyway. It turns out that we (said opponents) can, with careful play, make 4 on a Moysian fit but we will never get there.

When chances of buying the contract are small because partner is a passed hand, and when we don't have a good suit we really want led, and we're not taking up much bidding room, what's the point of overcalling? It's quite likely to get partner involved when they almost had an opening bid themselves and thus the chances of doubling the opponents into game or suffering a big penalty ourselves are just too great. Sometimes our "noise" simply helps them make the hand.

Silence can be golden.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Staying with happiness

Greed can be a tricky thing at bridge. You hold ♠87 K9732 AQ42 ♣J8 at unfavorable vulnerability. The opponents have a normal, uncontested auction to 4 and you will be on lead. Should you double? You do have tolerably nice trumps but you're also in danger of being endplayed every time you're on lead. Partner may not have much so it's possible that the opponents have close to 30 high card points.

Let's say that there are two more or less equally likely outcomes: making exactly and going down one. And let's further assume that, should you make the double, it will not help declarer make the contract (frequently it does help him). At the rubber bridge table, you are risking 170 to gain 50 (3.4 against). At IMPs, the odds are 5:2 (2.5) against (assuming your teammates are in 4 not doubled at the other table). These are not good odds. At matchpoints, a double in this situation will typically change your result from somewhere near average to either a top or a bottom, depending how it goes. The odds improve a bit if there's a healthy chance of a two-trick set. At IMPs (again we assume 4 at the other table), the outcomes are +5, +2 and -5. That's much better. But with the hand hand shown at the top, you have no expectation of five tricks at all, so why rock the boat? You're happy that they're playing the contract in your suit, right? Stay with happiness.

I've mentioned this general principle a couple of times before, especially in What makes a good penalty double? where I violated the principle myself. This time, I'd like to go into a bit more detail because there are so many ways that a double can work out badly and relatively few ways it can work out well.

Let's start by taking a rather lucrative looking example. At favorable vulnerability you hold ♠3 KJT85 782 ♣9753 and partner opens 1♠. RHO bids 2, you pass and LHO bids 3♣. Partner passes, RHO bids 3NT and LHO closes the auction with 4. Should you double? You have the best possible arrangement of assets -- partner has the entries and you have the trumps. Your hearts are sitting over declarer (and LHO probably doesn't have stellar hearts), they don't have more than about 24 or 25 HCP between them. You know exactly what to lead (your stiff spade). It's very unlikely that they can make the hand. If ever there was a time for a juicy penalty double, this is probably it. But is it without risk? Not at all.

The assumptions that we were using before for IMP calculations was that the other table would be playing the same contract undoubled. If RHO had dealt and opened the bidding with 1NT followed a transfer sequence carrying them to game, that would be a reasonable assumption. But that's not what happened here so there are several reasonable contracts: part-scores in hearts, notrump contracts, maybe your opponent bought the contract with a weak two spade bid. It makes the calculation of odds quite difficult. But bear in mind the following aspect of team play: if the contract is the same at both tables then the only scope for IMPs to flow is in the play and defense. But if the auction or play  at the other table is different, you may already be winning (or losing) the board. It's sometimes very hard to know. But making the wrong decision now can either add to the damage (or reward) or can cancel some of it out.

Let's say your counterpart's partner decided not to open his marginal hand and your teammates had an uncontested auction to 3NT by the hand on your left. Perfect defense would have set it one trick but the opponent on lead quite reasonably led his fourth-best spade and your teammates ended up making an overtrick for +630. In other words, you're already ahead. [Yes, I know that you may be playing the board first, but it makes no difference what the actual order of play is.] If they go down one at your table, you will win 12 IMPs (730). If they go two down doubled, you will gain 15 IMPs (1130). That's a profit of only three!

But we should always be on the lookout for a few extra IMPs, right? What's the downside? Maybe left to their own devices, they'd drift one off. But your double tips declarer off to a way of playing the contract that actually makes. Oops! You were winning 12 IMPs before the double but now you're losing 4. That's a negative swing of 16 IMPs! Another less drastic way that your double might backfire is if they decide to run to 4NT and you have the same defensive problems as their pair at the other table. You just gave back the12 IMPs that you were due.

There's another possibility. What if they "send it back" (redouble)? The hand quoted at the beginning was played by Alexander's opponent at a recent club game. This time, there were several factors why doubling was not a good idea. First, her trumps were not nearly as good as in my hypothetical example. Secondly, almost all of the partnership assets were in the one hand (and partner had passed throughout). Thirdly, with partner not having bid, it's quite possible that they have the values for slam but didn't bid it -- although in this case you might have been fixed already. Finally, the vulnerability was not going to give quite the big bonus that might be hoped for (5 instead of 7, 10 instead of 12, 12 instead of 15).

The actual result at the table? 4XX making by Alexander (i.e -880 and 0/11 matchpoints) instead of the possible (likely even) +50 for 7 matchpoints. In practice, of 12 declarers in hearts (9 were in game, of which four were doubled, one redoubled, 5 played the contract without comment). Of those that were doubled, 2 made 10 tricks, 1 made 9 and one 8. Of those not doubled two made it, two didn't). Of the part-scores (none were doubled) two made ten tricks, the other nine.

Although it was a match-point event, I'd like to look at it as if it were IMP pairs. Here, the datum would be -180 for the defenders and so +50 would score 6 IMPs while -420 would score -6 IMPs  The actual score for Alexander's opponent would have been -12 IMPs  It's hard to know what would have happened in the hypothetical case of no double, although I think there's a good chance declarer would have gone down without the warning of a bad split. If he was going to make anyway, then the double cost "only" 6. But if it tipped him off to the right play then it cost a whopping 18!

The moral of the story is, of course, Stay with happiness.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Adventures in card play

One of my favorite bridge authors is the former Scottish international Hugh Kelsey (1926-1995) – I have several excellent books of his. I know much less about Hungarian G├ęza Ottlik (1912-1990) although he was well-known outside the bridge world, especially for his contributions to literature.

Their best known collaboration is Adventures in Card Play, which has the distinction of being perhaps the most challenging bridge book ever written. It's invariably in the top ten of experts' favorite books as it opens one's eyes to aspects of bridge, especially declarer play, to which one may not have given much thought. The best known subject introduced in the book is the "backwash squeeze," although it's the name, not the method, that's well known. I doubt if there are many people out there who could easily describe the workings of that play!

Much of the book is in the form of a conversation between the writer and "Alec," the owner of a yawl called The Cormorant. [If, like me, you're not too sure what a yawl is, then here is the Wikipedia entry]

My own recent adventures in card play arose sitting across the table from a different Alexander, Frieden in this case, and one of the younger bridge players in our area. Alexander, hereinafter referred to as "A", is a junior at Brookline high school and an enthusiastic player. I was quite amazed after playing several sessions with him to discover that he's only been playing for six months! But, like me, he is an avid bridge reader and (he) has learned, and assimilated, many advanced concepts and techniques.

After a couple of practice sessions, we showed up for the flight A knockouts in Cromwell, CT. Our teammates were Jori Grossack and Joyce Pearson. In the first round we found ourselves in a three-way, against the 3/4th placed team (Applebaum) and Rivers including Lloyd Arvedon and Chris Compton, the 2013 Barry Crane Top 500 winner. We were crushed by Rivers, but lost to Applebaum by only 10 imps. I blame myself for that loss as I went down in a major suit game when I neglected to finesse with nine trumps missing the king and queen.

Our system is an unusual one. We don't play 2/1 game force, but our 2/1 bids and continuations are well-discussed and have several nuanced treatments. We have several potentially dangerous agreements too, such as 2NT – 3NT showing a hand with five spades and four hearts. When this came up (after 2♣ – 2 – 2NT), I was seriously concerned that A had forgotten (my hand was ♠AT962 AK4 K5 ♣AKJ) – but I trusted him (of course!), knowing that he has an excellent memory for this sort of thing, ending up in 6♠, thus earning 10 out of 11 matchpoints. We are also using a variation on the 2♣ follow-ups which I described in my last blog and, of course, my system of doubles. A is very amenable to unusual and (hopefully) sensible treatments, although he doesn't always accept them as is! He loves to tinker with stuff.

Like a lot of bridge players with more book learning than experience, A has a tendency to treat each board as yet another opportunity to get a top. That's not necessarily the best way to win events – the idea is to get average or average plus on every board and wait for the gifts. And like many younger players, he loves to punish the opponents when they step out of line. We were a little too enthusiastic in this area and suffered quite a few bottom boards. One of the lessons that A learned in this context was that, however tempting it may be to nail the opponents due to your good holding in their suit, it probably won't work well if you also have a fit for partner.

On one hand, A made a "routine" endplay to make his contract. But how routine is such a play for someone who's been playing only six months? I can think of many players who couldn't pull that off even after six years of bridge. But I think it's his defense which probably should earn highest praise. He even made my defense look good!

I'm looking forward to more adventures with A. I think he's going to develop into a fine player.