Friday, August 24, 2018

Anna Karenina

Ordinary bridge hands are all alike. Every extraordinary bridge hand is extraordinary in its own way. The Anna Karenina principle--with apologies to Tolstoy.

That's not to say that you can relax on the ordinary hands. Far from it, especially at matchpoints. A defensive slip in a routine 4H contract, for example can easily give you an absolute bottom. Yet, the extraordinary hands are, typically, where most of the IMPs and matchpoints flow. Sometimes, we have to be on our guard right from the moment we pick the hand up. But how do we recognize such hands?

Here are the clues you might notice when you pick up the hand:
  • extreme distribution ("Goulash" hands, for instance);
  • non-purity (short suits with honors, long suits without);
And here are further red flags that pop up as the auction progresses:
  • high-level preempts (or interference);
  • partner bids your short (singleton or void) suit;
  • somebody puts down the red card or, especially, the blue card;
  • dummy has a long suit.
Of course, there are many other danger signs that arise as we declare or defend a hand, but by that time, everyone at the table already knows a lot about the hand. This article is about early indications of trouble.

When we recognize such a hand, we need to sit up straight, and gather our concentration. The two early indicators are suggestions that the hand we are about to play will not conform to the "law of total tricks". There are likely to be more total tricks (in the first type) and fewer (in the second type). We must therefore be on our guard.

Here's a hand that came up recently in a BBO Speedball, that's to say matchpoints, where you are the dealer and at favorable vulnerability:  A2 ♥ K A765 J87652.

The "non-purity" bell should be ringing loudly in your head! Are you going to open this hand? Hard to pass a hand with two aces along with two other face cards. But what are you going to do when partner responds one of a major? Rebid that moth-eaten club suit? You certainly can't reverse into diamonds. What about opening one diamond? Now, you will not be embarrassed by having to make a 2C rebid. But it does distort the hand. So, you recognize immediately that this hand looks like trouble. Nevertheless, you forge ahead into the unknown with one club.

It gets worse. LHO overcalls 1NT and partner doubles. This is always a tense situation when partner doubles 1NT after we have opened a minimum hand. Do we actually have sufficient firepower to defeat the contract? What if RHO passes? Would we dare rebid 2C when LHO probably has much better clubs?

We breathe a sigh of relief when RHO bids 2H. This is not alerted but after our pass, LHO bids 2S and partner now bids 3H and RHO passes so, pretty clearly, RHO has a weak hand with spades.

Are your alarm bells still ringing? They should be. Could anything worse have happened? Yes, partner might have doubled again. So, what does partner have? He has good hearts and they were probably his main reason for doubling last round. What about strength? Well, 3H isn't forcing and isn't game so he probably doesn't have opening count. He has a good chance to make this contract. Let's leave well alone and pass.

But, is that really the right call? We know (and presumably partner doesn't) that our clubs are absolute trash. And we can be pretty sure partner won't want to lead hearts if LHO decides to bid 3S. What will partner lead? A trump? Yes, maybe. A diamond? That would be nice but will he find that lead? How about bidding 4H?

Insane, you say? I don't think so. Clearly, there must be some play for 4H. We have the King of partner's good suit. We've got two aces on the side. And, if partner is short in clubs, there will be no wastage there. 4H could actually be a good advance save against 3S, especially if it's not doubled. This is matchpoints, after all and -50 or -100 beats -140.

So, you pass and, as expected, LHO bids 3S. Partner doubles and your worst nightmare has been realized. If you bid 4H now, you are definitely getting doubled and this could be -300 on a bad day (it is a bad day!). But, if you pass, partner will probably lead a club since your bidding--1C followed by three passes--strongly suggests a weak hand with long clubs. Away will go dummy's losing hearts and -730 will be the result.

Are we happy with our original opening bid now? Are we happy that we passed over 3H? No, we are not but there are no undos in bridge.

The result? -930 (0%). Even worse than we feared. Partner (I was that partner) could have saved the day by cashing the HA. Or leading spades or diamonds and overtaking our HK return. But he woodenly led a club and that was that.

-300 would have been worth 6%, -100 was worth 26%. +500 (somehow, steering partner away from a club lead) would have been worth 100%.