Tuesday, May 26, 2020

When to play "real bridge"

People are fond of enumerating the differences between IMPs (or total points) and matchpoints. True, there are lots of differences, although there are more similarities. Good bridge is good bridge and bad bridge is... well you know the answer.

This article is about the play, not the auction. Much of the difference between forms of scoring manifests itself in the auction. Once we get to the play, the differences are fewer. Oh, but don't they say that you should always try for overtricks at matchpoints? No, they don't.

In a team game, you are in what I call "real bridge" mode.  As developed by Vanderbilt, the idea behind contract bridge is that, once you're playing a particular contract, you must devote every effort to making (or defeating) it. You stop worrying about better contracts that you might have been in. And you take absolutely no risks for over (or under) tricks. If you're on defense and you have the setting trick, you cash it!

But, when you're playing matchpoints, it's tempting to go all out for overtricks all the time. That's not right. Here's where you try for overtricks: when you're in a contract that you judge most others will be in. In that case, you need to strive for the maximum possible number of tricks, even if that risks you going down. However, the majority of contracts are not like that. I'd like to talk about the contracts where you should not play for overtricks.

Basically, it's any time you're in an unusual contract. Let's take the most obvious example first: the contract was doubled. Once you're doubled, overtricks essentially no longer count. Even if you're only in, say, 1NTX not-vulnerable, if you make it, you will beat anyone undoubled making two, or three no-trump. However, if you think that a more normal contract is 3NT making three (and you forgot to redouble), then taking nine tricks will only score 380 (580 if vulnerable). You actually need to make 10 tricks to beat the others making nine tricks. But this is an unusual situation. Normally, the bonus for the insult and the "odd" tricks counting double will render one or two overtricks pure "gravy."

Another exception is when you're in a doubled contract and you're expecting to go down but are making a sacrifice. Now you have a precise target, which makes it a lot more like you are trying to "make" a "contract", albeit two or three tricks fewer than the nominal contract.

Other competitive situations are very much more like "real bridge." Imagine that you are defending 3S after your side competed to 3H. In other words, you pushed them into 3S. Nobody doubles so it might seem that this should fall into the "normal" contract category. Not so. You can't be sure what will happen at the other tables but you can be sure there will be some playing 2S their way and some playing 3H (maybe even 2H) your way. You might argue that, if 2H or 3H is making, and the opponents are vulnerable, you will need a two-trick set to restore equity. But you can't be sure that you actually had equity of 140. You surely didn't have 110 because the opponents can easily outbid you in 2S.

It's a cardinal rule of bridge that you must assume that you are in the right contract, whether declaring or defending. In other words, trust your bidding judgment. This is because, if we assume the converse, that we messed up in the auction, then it's really unlikely that we can recover our error in the play. Therefore, defending 3S is the proper place to be and there should be a big difference between -140 and +100. So, let's assume that you are offered the setting trick against 3S. DO NOT DUCK IT! If ducking gets you an extra trick for 200, then technically, you were in the wrong contract. You should have been defending 3SX.

But more often than not, a one-trick set will be enough: at least to stay average, which is what you should aim for on a hand like this.

Do I follow my own advice? Of course not! I ducked the setting trick just the other day thinking I could get 200 or at least I'd end up with the same 100. I was wrong. I ended up with a very poor-scoring -140. A bottom, in other words. So, I will plead the fifth: I refuse to incriminate myself by a hand diagram.

There are a few other situations where you should play "real bridge" in a matchpoint tournament. An example is when you bid a slam, especially if it's a hard-to-reach slam. Unless you're playing in an NABC pairs event, half the field won't bid even the most obvious slam. So, don't risk your slam for the overtrick that you think you might be able to get. You already won this board in the auction. Just sit back and collect.

Other strange contracts like 2NT, 5NT, a non-competitive 4 of a minor, even a 2C contract, are all sufficiently unusual that you should probably just ensure your contract.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Four red flags

In a recent ACBL robot tournament on BBO, I was faced with this decision on the last board:

To overcall or not to overcall? That is the question. I see four red flags here:
  • the vulnerability;
  • poor suit, poor shape;
  • partner is a passed hand;
  • three losers in opener's suit.
Let's discuss these in a bit more depth:

The first and most obvious is that we are red and they are white. If I'm wrong when I bid 2D, it could be very expensive while even being right won't likely gain very much.

The second and almost equally obvious problem is that our diamond suit isn't very good--we're supposed to have six for this bid, right? And we have the worst possible shape for an overcall: 5332. And we're missing the J, 9 and 8, any of which would be potentially useful cards in this suit.

Third, and a factor to which many players pay insufficient attention: partner is a passed hand. It's possible that we have a game, but it's against the odds. With this being a robot ("best hand"), then we know that no player has a 14 point hand. So, the remaining 26 points are probably more or less equally distributed, with a preponderance in the East hand (recall that he is a third-seat opener). And, if partner has a decent hand with a diamond fit, the opponents will probably be able to outbid us in a major suit.

Fourth is a factor which I learned long ago from Howard Piltch. Never make a questionable overcall with three losers in the opener's suit. "That's how you get dropped from a team," I recall him saying. Even Qxx isn't much better than xxx when your LHO leads the suit and it goes K, A, ruff.

I therefore eschewed the overcall. When my left-hand opponent bid 2D, I breathed a sigh of relief. Eventually, they made it to 4S which drifted off a trick so I ended up +50.

It was a small tournament (six playing this board) and four of the other five chose to overcall. Predictably, this was followed by pass, pass, double, all pass. At each of those tables, the West robot chose a very strange card (the 8) with which to ruff the second heart trick and the declarers escaped for -200 when it should have been -500. So, we two passers gained 4.8 IMPs, the overcallers lost 2.4 IMPs.

Here's the whole hand:

The four overcallers were all experienced BBOers. What is it that makes them feel that 2D was the correct call? Or were they just unlucky? I think not.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Defensive coups in the trump suit

Recently, my partner Ethan Wood and I were the hapless victims of a clever defensive play by Andy Goodman, playing with Chris Compton:

The scene was the "Social Distancing Pairs," a side game in the first online regional tournament set up by the ACBL. We got to a good contract, 3♠ by South. Follow the play. At trick 4, Ethan took the percentage trump finesse (to the T9). Knowing that he was only "entitled" to one trump trick anyway, Andy realized that a little subterfuge might just get him two--and, more importantly perhaps--upset the timing of the whole hand. So, he won with the K, exiting with a heart (all the better to have the "winning" trump finesse taken a second time). Ethan played another spade towards his hand. When Chris followed low, there was still the J and 6 out against him. The jack was of course "known" to be in the East hand. Playing the T would "obviously" allow him to pick up the suit, whereas playing the queen (if he foresaw a problem) would in any case necessitate another finesse which, admittedly, could probably be achieved successfully assuming Chris had three hearts.

But, seriously, who in their right mind would play the queen (or ace) here?

Of course, Andy now disrupted the whole hand by putting Ethan again in dummy where a diamond could no longer be finessed. The result? 98% for them, 2% for us.

My own play in a friendly team match a couple of days ago was less spectacular but equally effective. Playing a team game with friends (I've made the players anonymous), I was faced with the situation of what looked like a cold contract by my RHO. In fact, he's making six. What could I do to disrupt things? Follow the play:

Again, declarer did something entirely normal. He could have made the contract with two overtricks at any time after my duck. When I did win the trump queen, the contract was still cold but I think declarer probably credited me with having started with Q972 in which case, he might end up down 2 if I had a fourth heart. I think what happened is that declarer was now off balance and, while he could have steadied himself by drawing both the last trumps, it can be hard to recover when all your earlier assumptions have been invalidated.

BTW, both sides missed 7NT on this hand but our teammates were in a safe 3NT for an 11 IMP gain.