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.

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