Thursday, April 17, 2014

The cooperative double

I've written on this subject many times before here in this blog, see nine (currently) articles as well perhaps as some others of the articles answering to the label double.

A lot of the foregoing has concentrated on the rules and triggers for penalty doubles. That's to say what a cooperative double is not. What I want to do here is to try to explain simply and succinctly what it is and why you would use it.

A cooperative double is just another kind of double from which you are ready for partner to take out. In this sense it is no different than takeout, negative, responsive, support, snapdragon and maybe a few other types. What distinguishes a cooperative double from these other doubles is that the expectation of a takeout drops to somewhere around the 50% mark. You will have tried to find a fit with one or two suits mentioned already and so far you've been unsuccessful. The cooperative double is one last try. You invoke it because you believe you have as much right to declare this hand as the opponents, maybe more. But you fully expect that, about half the time, partner will leave your double in. You won't be surprised, as you might be when partner passes a takeout double. Instead, you'll get your defensive shoes on and prepare to take all your tricks to defeat the opponents' contract.

So, let's get a little more specific. First of all, what level do we generally find a cooperative double on? The most common is probably the three-level, but it can be found at almost any level, except the first which is more the realm of the above mentioned cousins.

Second, what about strength? There are two possibilities: the doubler himself has extras, perhaps a queen over minimum (which would normally give the doubler's side at least half the points in the deck), or the partnership taken together is known to "own" the hand (at least about 22 hcp).

Finally, and this is the key point, what sort of hand does the cooperative doubler have? Simply put, he will be one card short of a bid in each suit that hasn't been claimed by the opponents. Too few cards to support partner, too few to rebid his own suit, too few to mention a new suit (he would typically have five to mention a new suit at the three-level, for example). Let's say doubler has four of his own suit, having implied four, three of partner's suit (he having promised four), and four of another unbid suit. That leaves two in the opponents' suit. In other words, much of the time he will double with a balanced hand holding two cards in their suit. When partner leaves the double in with three or four cards in their suit, she will be counting on about two trumps in the other hand. Occasionally, as the level gets higher and you are more reluctant to introduce a new suit by bidding it directly, you might be reduced to only one card in their suit. Partner will take the auction so far into account when deciding to pull or pass the double. She will only pass when she has no extra distribution of her own beyond what she's already promised (can't rebid her suits and can't support yours) and, hopefully, she will have something usefully placed in the enemy suit.

Furthermore, if there are two unbid suits, doubler should have approximately the same length in each, perhaps one card different (5-4 or even 4-3). But two cards (6-4) is far too much disparity in my opinion. Not only might you end up in a 4-4 fit when you have a 6-3 fit available, not in and of itself a tragedy, but if partner has 3-3 in the unbid suits, you may end up defending a doubled contract despite having a nine-card fit of your own. This is not the time to be defending unless the level is high enough that you expect a substantial penalty (i.e. a sacrifice situation). Of course this applies to negative and responsive doubles too.

Now let's look at things from the other side of the table. Partner has made a cooperative double. Should you take it out or leave it in? If you have one of the distributional features (assets) that partner is looking for, bid it, even if you fancy your chances on defense. Nothing is more demoralizing than doubling the opponents in some part-score and then having it make. Sometimes it is supposed to go down but you need double-dummy defense or even a lucky defense to set it. For this reason, I believe that passing the double should be the last resort, especially at teams. The cooperative double is a way to find our own contracts more than a way of nailing the opposition. Declaring at both tables of a team game can generate a lot of swings in the 4-7 range. And at matchpoints, you will be winning a lot of boards simply by successfully outbidding the opponents. The occasional penalty will be a bonus but it should not become an end in and of itself.

The lower the level, the less willing partner should be to leave the double in and, conversely, the higher the level, the more willing partner should be to pass (but note that doubler may have fewer trumps as the level gets higher as explained above). Doubled and freely-bid suit contracts at the two level are rarely very profitable. The one exception being after an overcall is followed by a reopening double. But even that situation is usually not very profitable at the one-level. And of course, vulnerability should be factored in. Stretching to double the opponents when they aren't vulnerable is not winning bridge, especially if bidding on would give us a decent shot at a vulnerable game.

Note also that the cooperative double is part of a bidding style often called Do Something Intelligent, Partner (DSIP). But I've come to the realization that not only does DSIP suggest a more extreme (looser, more speculative) version of competitive bidding but, with a disciplined cooperative double, partner isn't required to do anything more intelligent than looking to see if he has any undeclared offensive assets and acting accordingly.

The cooperative double can also go by several different names (card-showing, action, etc.). One of the most apposite is Mel Colchamiro's "BOP" double (for balance-of-power). The BOP double is in fact a slightly more conservative version of the cooperative double and well-suited to IMP scoring. In order to use it, the partnership must have the balance of power (not just equal power) and the doubler must be sitting under the hand with most length in the suit.

Experts routinely make use of cooperative doubles below the level of game. For the expert, it is a sharp weapon. However, lesser mortals need to remember that like any other weapon, it can end up being turned against us. So, understanding the benefits and limitations of the method and being disciplined about its use is extremely important. It is easy to get carried away and double without the proper values or while holding a card that may be valuable, offensively, to our side. But, properly used, it will gain you matchpoints and IMPs in the long run.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

The blue card

I realize that I've been surprisingly reticent on the subject of redoubles in this blog, especially given my obsession with doubles. I've mentioned redouble just a few times, particularly in the context of DSIP and the various triggers and in my recent blog on staying with happiness. The "blue card" is such a rarity at the bridge table, that whenever it appears there's a little sense of shock that runs around the table. If your side is the redoubler you expect to get an above average board at least. If your side was the doubler, then you're not so hopeful. But, despite the fact that it seldom comes up, it is essential to have good understandings about what it means in order to take advantage of the situation.

My musings were prompted by a question came up in an email conversation as to the meaning of this redouble: 1♠ pass 2♣ X XX?

Clearly, it's not a "support" redouble since opener couldn't have raised partner's response to the two-level. It seems to me that it denies a good raise of clubs (Qxx or better), denies the ability (or desire) to rebid spades, and suggests extras (we could have passed with a minimum hand that has nothing to say). It further suggests that opener isn't enthusiastic, at least not yet, about bidding notrump. So what's left? Some sort of hand with extras, either unbalanced or semi-balanced but unsuitable for a 1NT opener. I would think that it suggests four hearts (that being the guaranteed suit of the doubler) and probably 5=4=2=2 or 5=4=3=1 shape, possibly 5=4=1=3 with three small clubs. Opener might have a void in clubs of course in which case the hand is probably 5=4=4=0.

Once we have redoubled, any subsequent direct pass by our side is forcing and any double is for penalties. Depending on the vulnerability, our goal should be either to punish the opponents for their misjudged interference or to bid game ourselves.

So, what's the meaning of redouble in general? I believe that the following list covers the common situations:
  • shows a good hand (extras) with no fit;
  • shows a bad hand with no fit (SOS);
  • asks partner to name his implied but unnamed suit (this may not be "standard" but to me is so obvious that I can't understand why it wouldn't be);
  • shows three card "support" when raising partner's suit to the two level is a possibility (assuming you've agreed to play it);
  • shows/denies an honor in partner's suit (Rosenkranz if you have agreed it);
Unfortunately, many of these situations have grey areas. For instance, what do you call with ♠Q92 Q54 KQJ3 ♣J72 when partner opens 1 and RHO doubles? Many would probably redouble but this could easily backfire if we later come in at a high level or if we pull partner's penalty double "to show our support." One strategy which I favor with this sort of hand is to pass initially and then bid hearts at whatever level is necessary (or make our own penalty double if they get too high first). Partner will infer we have this sort of hand.

However, I posted this problem on BridgeWinners and many votes (65%) were given for redouble, even though I said that the "Redouble implies no fit" box was checked. I can understand redouble on this really flat awful 11 count in the sense that we don't have a good fit. Others avoid this whole problem by using a transfer system in this situation.

Passing first may not work well with a more distributional hand, though, say ♠2 Q54 KQJ93 ♣K872. Here, a Truscott/Jordan 2NT or, better, a fit-showing jump to 3 would be more more descriptive (even though partner will expect another trump with either of these bids). Redouble and pass will probably work very badly if the opponents quickly jump to 4♠. We might be cold for slam in a red suit and they might even end up making 4♠ doubled. The BridgeWinners community again voted mostly (48%) for redouble here too, though. I have to admit that this surprises me quite a lot.

What surprises me is redoubling with three-card support, especially in the second hand. Perhaps Karen Walker has it right when she says that the "implies" box really means temporarily imply no fit (her emphasis).

There's one other somewhat controversial treatment that I like to play. If partner opens and RHO makes a takeout double, redouble shows no fit, but also doesn't promise any particular number of points. If partner has opened 1♣ and you have 1 or fewer clubs, then redouble. It's an advance SOS call in case LHO is planning to pass. Partner will take it out to a better spot (at the one level), assuming that they don't. Of course, if we do have decent values (10+ hcp) then we will now contribute to harassing the opponents or until we find a good contract of our own. If partner opens 1♠ and we have 1 or fewer, we may already be in our best spot, so here XX would tend to show good values. Hearts and diamonds are treated somewhere in between. This hasn't come up much, I admit. But on the few occasions when it has, we have ended up getting a decent result.

Finally, a hand that came up just today. You hold: ♠8754 A92 3 ♣KJ952 with everyone vulnerable. LHO passes, partner bids 1 and the next player doubles. Again, you're a bit stuck for a bid. I think 3♣ is almost perfect here, assuming that you have agreed to play fit-showing jumps. It says you're willing to play 3, four if partner has extras. It says you have good clubs. Partner's going to expect better hearts and/or better clubs but I think it's the least lie so to speak. Had this been bid at the table, we would have scored exactly 50% on the board. As it was, this hand redoubled and the next player bid 2. Partner passed and now our hand came in with 2. This was followed by two passes and then 3. Partner closed it out by doubling. We ended up with +200  for a 79% board (it was fortunate that the declarer was the one with the A else it would be -670). We got a little lucky here. In my opinion, redouble should be used with relatively flat hands with at least 10hcp and no more than a doubleton in partner's major suit.

Monday, April 7, 2014

To sacrifice or not to sacrifice

We've all heard expressions such as The five level belongs to the opponents and Only Jesus saves. But we also know that there are times when it is correct to sacrifice. So, what are the guidelines for making good saves?

A hand came up in a Swiss at the weekend that prompted me to write up my thoughts on this subject. Over the years, I've analyzed this question quite extensively, but I've never published anything about it. Although it is a complex subject, I think I can sum up my most significant conclusions in just four points:
  1. As far as possible, never make your sacrifice bid when it is the "last guess;"
  2. Ensure that you are following the "LAW" (law of total tricks) given the actual vulnerability;
  3. You should have the right type of hand: good distribution (at least one singleton or void) and a paucity of defensive values;
  4. The auction should be the right type of auction.
Let me further elaborate on these points, starting with the first. If you're going to sacrifice, do it as soon as you can, before they have had a chance to exchange all the information they need. Force the opponents to make the last guess. Let's say partner opens 2 and the next player bids 2♠. You have a so-so hand with good heart support. Your partner will not be bidding again (not if he wants to continue being your partner, that is). So the entire responsibility of the auction now rests with you. Are you going to bid 5 over their eventual 4♠? Is 4 as high as you're willing to go? Or 3? It doesn't matter. Get in there. Force them to make the last guess. Should they bid on or "take the money?" They don't know and at least some of the time they will get it wrong. 

But I can hear some of you asking "why would I want to sacrifice if they aren't even going to bid a game?" Obviously if you are going to take preemptive action, you must believe that they probably have at least game. The problem with waiting to find out is that they will likely know exactly what to do when you do finally come in with 5. They are unlikely to get it wrong when they've had all of the three and four levels to themselves. You simply have to back your judgment and bid now. 

The LAW (total tricks equals total trumps) becomes a little more complex when considering a sacrifice. And before you tell me that the LAW has been repealed, or debunked, let me state up front, that I'm familiar with the vagaries and inaccuracies of the LAW. Regardless of the somewhat dubious relationship between total trumps and total tricks, you do need a relatively high number of total tricks for a successful sacrifice. The more the better as then you might even make your contract!

Let's suppose that they are red and we are white (the usual situation when contemplating a save). For now, we assume that they will make 620. We want to be no worse that -500 for our plan to pay off. If they have the hearts and we have the spades, we only have to take 7 tricks to be right. That's only 17 total tricks. Many deals that aren't totally flat have at least 17 total tricks, so this appears at first to be quite a good proposition. But what if they can take 11 tricks while we can take only six? Not only can they bid on and make their 650, but if they double us, they will get 800. They can't go wrong! So, we really should have the expectation of at least 18 total tricks on the hand. The only time this will be a bad save is when each side can take exactly nine tricks. We'll try to avoid such situations by heeding points 3 and 4. For similar reasons, if you have the hearts (or a minor) and they have the spades you're going to need 19 total tricks on the deal. Requiring good support and side shortness becomes even more important.

So, how much support to do you need? If you have the spades, you obviously need at least a nine-card fit. If they have the spades, you're really going to need a ten card fit (or perhaps a nine and an eight card double fit) since they might easily be bidding game on nine, or even eight, trumps. How do you know how many partner has? You don't, but you should estimate on the conservative side (note this particularly when you're a passed hand and partner takes some preemptive action).

The third point is really just a corollary of the second. For the LAW to work as advertized, you need pretty good texture. There are more total tricks when the deal is "pure" and when there's a healthy dose of shortness around the table. Purity is having honors in your good fits and not having quacks (or even kings) in their good fits. Quacks in their suits are tricks that you might, if lucky, get on defense. But they will almost never be useful on offense. In your suits you should have kings, queens and, if possible, aces. Aces are almost always useful whichever contract you end up in, even aces in their suit – unless, that is, partner has a void there. I have a personal rule which is inviolate. If I hold the queen of their suit, I never sacrifice however many other good reasons there might be.

With 18 or more total tricks, there will normally be some shortness in every hand – this is not a fact per se, simply an observation based on studying the law of total tricks. In any event, just in case your partner doesn't have his share of shortness, you should be absolutely sure that you have shortness. 

Now, we come to the final, and least formulaic point. Did they limp into game? Or did they get there in one or two bold strokes? Of course, if you are following the first point (never make the last guess), you won't be in this situation anyway. You will simply not allow them the luxury of making invitational bids. But if they do somehow get there after an invitational sequence, one or both of them is probably stretching a bit (they're vulnerable, right? and vulnerable games are meant to be bid). What that means is that they're going to need luck and skill to pull it off. And, assuming you have confidence in the ability of you and your partner to defend well, why would you want to try for, say, eight risky tricks when you could try for four with safety?

There's another reason why you should be wary in such a situation. The greatest number of IMPs are typically swung when the contract is different at the two tables. Let's say your teammates, who we all know are eminently more sensible than your present opponents, actually stopped in 3 on this board and made 140. Your opponents are headed for -100 so you will gain 6 IMPs by quietly putting the green card on the table. Now, let's suppose that you take a save at 4♠ that will only cost you 500. You will actually lose 8 IMPs instead of winning 6. That's a swing of 14 to the opponents! Two such bad decisions and you just got blitzed! Note that if your teammates had also made the overbid of 4, your phantom sacrifice costs a mere 8 IMPs. 

There's another type of auction where you should be a little wary too. Let's say that RHO opens 1♠, you overcall 2, LHO bids 3 and partner bids 4. Without a lot of thought, RHO now bids 4♠ and it's back to you. Originally, your 2 call was constructive. You have a good hand with seven hearts. Partner has at least three, quite likely four. Surely, this is a great time for a favorable vulnerability sacrifice.

Before you dive in, bear this in mind. We have jammed their auction and they've had no chance to really describe their hands (they might have done better to be playing fit-showing jumps). Maybe they have slam but don't know it? If you bid 5 now, the auction could go pass, pass, double, pass, 5♠! This is the classic pass-and-pull which says that your LHO has a very suitable hand for a slam. RHO concurs and bids a making 6♠. Without your 5 call, they might not have had the tools to find their slam. This kind of situation occurred even though both you and your partner were heeding the first point. Partner bid as high as he was willing to go – but he didn't know about your seven card suit. Obviously, the kind of judgment needed here is far more complex than anything I can condense into a rule. But it's worth bearing in mind.

Finally, a hand. You hold: ♠2 K9842 K93 ♣J972. We are at favorable vulnerability. Partner deals and opens 2 and your RHO doubles. You pass. LHO bids 2♠. Partner (of course) passes and RHO bids 3♠. You pass and LHO bids 4♠. Back to you. Should you bid 5?

Are you kidding? You would be violating every point of the four. First, if your hand had been right for a 5 sacrifice, you would have bid it over RHO's double before they discovered their spade fit, right? Secondly, you have a nine-card fit which violates the LAW – as mentioned, you really need a ten-card fit (or a good double-fit) if you have to go to the five level. Third, you have defense! Given partner's weak two, he could easily have two tricks. If two diamonds are cashing and your heart king is well placed, they aren't making 4♠. Finally, they limped into 4♠ without any conviction. Neither of them really knows if 4♠ is making. They took the last guess. Don't hand them back the advantage now!

What about this situation? You hold ♠KT2 J93 ♣JT7542. Again, we are at favorable vulnerability. Partner deals and opens 3♠ and RHO doubles. Your call? Following point 1, we are going to make the bid now that we will live with for ever. What should it be? For point 2, we appear to have a 10-card fit which at these colors suggests that we might go to the five level. For point 3, you have no defense whatsoever, and partner won't have much. You might cash a spade trick. It's possible, though less likely, that partner has another cashing ace. If partner is disciplined, he won't have a king on the side. But you can be sure that they will find their way to at least 4 and maybe even a making 6. Point 4 is immaterial, because we are following point 1. Thus, we are going to sacrifice now. The only question is how high.

I think an immediate 5♠ is about right. If we bid 6♠, they will have no choice but to take the money, so in effect, we will be taking the last guess. If we bid 4♠ it will cause them some inconvenience, but if they have good agreements they will still have a good chance of getting to the right spot, be it 5, 6, or 7. The Goldilocks bid, in my opinion – but you will find many different opinions – is 5♠ as they will be very tempted to bid on but won't be able to accurately judge how high (they may already be too high).

Over the years, I've realized that if you have any doubt whether you should be sacrificing, then don't. It's generally right only to do it when it is obvious. But there is really only one cardinal sin as far as I'm concerned. Don't wait to find out how high they are willing to go. Speak now or forever hold thy peace.