Bob Mackinnon

The Information Wars

In case you haven’t noticed, there is a bridge war taking place over that precious commodity, information, as players strive to gather as much as possible for themselves while preventing others from doing the same. Blind faith in the Law of Total Tricks has led to a wide-spread propensity to bid on shape without regard to high-card content. There is a understanding, not written on convention cards, that at IMPs players don’t double impudent bids unless ‘it is dead cert to be the best contract’, to use Nick Sandquist’s line from his report in the July 2010 issue of Bridge Magazine. Thus, a sequence of honors in a long suit provides immunity from a penalty double of an errant overcall. Problems can arise for both sides due to a lack of reliable information.

Consider advancer’s choices in fourth seat in the auction: 1 (2 ) 2 (??) The assumption underlying traditional, conservative methods is that the overcaller has a good hand with a good suit, and the opponents have at least an 8-card fit with 17+HCP. The primary objective is to compete for a part score, game being a remote possibility. If advancer has hearts, he may raise to the 3-level primarily on distribution, but if he suggests playing in a minor at the 3-level, he should have a good hand and a good suit. A normal conservative structure includes these understandings:


Double is for takeout to the minors;

2NT invites 3NT if the hearts are strong;

3 of a minor is forcing; 3 is a strong raise.

Today, the assumptions behind the traditional methods have pretty well gone by the boards as players open light and raise on garbage, increasing the chances that game is available to the defenders. The ‘good-hand, good-suit’ overcall rule no longer applies as players overcall lightly partly on the fear that the hand may belong to their side. Why not overcall, if one cannot be doubled for penalty? Nothing ventured, nothing gained. If that is the agreed style, advancer’s methods should take into account the increased uncertainty on both sides. Here is a simple, flexible approach to advancing in the above situation.


Double shows a balanced hand with 10+HCP, or clubs;

2NT is a minor-suit takeout based primarily on distribution;

3 transfers to 3 ;

3 is a good raise to 3 , inviting game;

3 is purely competitive;

3 asks the overcaller to bid 3NT with a stopper.

A Battle Lost

In his recent blogs, Ross Taylor has provided valuable insight into the action during the 2010 Canadian Open Team Finals from a participant’s point of view. He included comments on the following deal against tricky opponents who favor light opening bids. The action demonstrates clearly why a new approach is needed and how the simple adjustments given above can be used to increase one’s ability to cope an increasingly uncertain environment.

Board 111

Dealer: South

Vul: N/S


A K 8 7 4 2

J 6 5

A J 10 6


A K J 5 4

6 5

8 7 3 2

Q 2


10 8 7 2

Q J 9

K 9 4

9 7 5


Q 9 6 3

10 3

A Q 10

K 8 4 3


Wolpert Nick G. Korbel Judy G.
1NT (11-13 HCP)
2 S 4 H All Pass 4 H making 680


Aficionados of the weak NT may claim a triumph on this deal, based on what happened at the other table, but I don’t see it that way. The BBO commentators were speculating as to how NS might reach a pretty decent 6 ( Q on the left, or K on the right, plus normal distribution) when Nick Gartaganis jumped to 4 , bidding what he though he could make. This demonstrates the attitude that opposite a limited opening bid it pays to blast away without much consideration given to the possibility of a slam making on particularly favorable lie of the cards. ’Don’t ask, don’t tell’ is the rule of thumb of those whose strategy it is to promote uncertainty and make the opponents guess at every turn. It is possible to reach 6 with natural bidding as follows.


West North East South
1NT (11-13 HCP)
2 3 3 ? 4
4 ? 5 Pass 5
Pass 6 All Pass


Getting to 6 depends on North’s willingness to show his good 4-card minor, normally something players avoid in the rush to play in a major suit game. One can see that the interference in spades doesn’t prevent a constructive and informative sequence, in fact, it helps by indicating NS have little wasted in spades.  At the other table there were more bids but less accuracy on display. As we often say, every hand has a history behind it.


Campbell Balcombe Klimowicz Taylor
1 2 2 Dbl
Re-Dbl 3 All Pass 3 making 190


Campbell was congratulated by Ross Taylor for a psychic redouble that talked the opposition out of proceeding further. Undoubtedly he had hit a seam in the NS competitive system, nonetheless I feel that neither partner should be put off by West’s redouble; one of the opponents has to be seen to be lying. Looking at all 4 hands one sees that the problem lies in the interpretation of the responsive double. If it merely indicates a tepid attempt to push the opponents a level higher, then North is happy to do so at the 3-level. He may even expect to get another chance to bid. However, if a double shows clubs or a good balanced hand, as suggested above, North can take a more aggressive stance. A cue bid of 3 is indicated, saying, ‘bid 3NT with a stopper, or bid 4’. He has both possibilities covered. The fact that North holds such good clubs, suggests South’s double is based on a balanced 10+HCP. (If he had a lesser hand, he might takeout with 2NT.) Later North can deduce that the slam depends largely on 1 of 2 finesses. Thus,


West North East South
1 2 2 Dbl
Re-Dbl 3 Pass 3 NT
Pass 4 Pass 4
Pass 4 Pass 5
Pass 6 All Pass


The Yin and Yang of Transfers and Doubles

After a disaster philosophy comes in handy for keeping things in perspective. Chinese philosophers have long considered human activity in terms of 2 seemingly contrary elements that through their interaction determine our natures. These are not Good and Evil, but Yin and Yang. Yin, the feminine element, is slow, soft, diffuse, and tranquil. Yang, the masculine element, is fast, hard, solid, and aggressive.  Exploring for slam by exchanging cue bids is basically a Yin process where feelings count, whereas RKCB is a Yang process where one player takes charge and the information exchange is less precise. Generally, auctions contain Yin and Yang elements to varying degrees.

The Yin element is strongest in flat hands with HCPs scattered over several suits. Doubles are a Yin device. They solicit co-operation. The Yang element is strongest in hands with a long suit or suits. Transfers are a Yang device where partner expected to play a supportive, passive role. The Losing Trick Count is the evaluation of choice for distributional hands. Currently this element dominates aggressive actions without regard to the defensive value of the hand. In a system of competitive bidding, as far as possible, Yin and Yang bids should be recognizable as such from the very beginning. Unfortunately space requirements here require Double to be ambiguous, but the probability of a long club suit is comparatively low. This is better than a wide ranging double that includes the possibility of long clubs and/or diamonds.

Generally in competition there is a need for a modest takeout (MTO) showing the values to compete further and a strong takeout (STO) when one wishes to convey excellent playing strength. There is a need for showing length in the other suits without promising defensive values, a distribution takeout (DTO). In the above scheme, the DTO is 2NT for the minors, the MTO is Double, and the STO is the cue bid, suggesting an interest in 3NT. The cue bid is not needed to show a game-going raise, as the transfer raise will do a better job. It is of great benefit to be able to raise partner’s suit in several ways, especially when half-empty overcalls are in use. The above scheme allows many routes, be it by way of a double, cue bid, or transfer, as well as the usual direct routes.

The Three Steps to Becoming a True Master

The sword masters of ancient Japan spent centuries refining the art of hand-to-hand combat. They have something to tell us about the art of playing bridge in a highly charged, competitive environment. They emphasized the training of the mind, and defined 3 stages of development to becoming a master: 1) know yourself, 2) know your opponent, and 3) forget yourself and your opponent. Applied to bridge these stages translate to the following.

1)    Refine your card play technique. Recognize your weaknesses. Attain confidence in bidding and defence. Practice, practice, practice.

2)    Through experience recognize different opponents and their approaches. Don’t be rigid; recognize deficiencies; adopt appropriate counter-measures.

3)    Look beyond the opponents and act decisively putting aside apprehension on the one hand, and over-confidence on the other. With a calm mind let your learning and experience take over and act according to what feels right. Focus on the substance of the deal, which is the fundamental element in every encounter regardless of whom you are playing against.

Luckily, bridge players live to fight another day. There is not much lost even if our game turns out to be a bummer. With little to lose, some players strive to beat par on every hand hoping that on a given day they’ll be successful enough times to end up a winner. Swinging sometimes pays off, but it is better during the game to forget about winning and losing and to play with an uncluttered mind.  Accept the occasional good result and bad result as inevitable consequences of competing in an uncertain environment. In the long run you’ll find satisfaction in that approach. Well, that’s the theory. The rest is up to you.

Limited Bid Tactics

In the above deal Klimowicz exercised good judgment based on accurate hand evaluation. Some players would have bid 3 , either initially over 2 , or subsequently over 3 after the redoubler had advertised a maximum hand. Imagine passing 3 with at least a 9-card spade fit and, presumably, 20-21 HCP. One could hardly imagine this auction if their system were 2/1, yet, this is a 10-loser hand with no ruffing value and half the HCPs in the RHO’s suit. If he had bid 3 reflexively at any point, surely NS would have pushed on to game on the momentum of the auction. The 2 bid had the added advantage of giving NS greater scope for error. Klimowicz could act in this manner because Campbell’s opening bids may be of the garbage variety.

Over the past 60 years pairs have continually re-equipped themselves with the latest bidding weapons. One aim is to damage the opponents’ lines of communications. It is legal, but is it admirable? If two opponents choose to play the psychological guessing game, the action may be exciting for the participants, while not being suitable for family viewing. Depending upon deception and lucky results is not a long-term strategy for victory, as this gives rise to agitation, frustration, over-reaction, and exhaustion.

A Bidding Bubble Bursts

Whatever happens in the Canadian bridge world is usually but a pale reflection of what is happening south of the border in the USA. So, I was not greatly surprised this week to discover even more frantic activity of the kind described above in a semi-final match of the GNT where a Precision-based team (Simson) faced a team of  ‘standard’ bidders (Morse). Of course, the Clerkins were pushing their light bid strategy for all it was worth, and were leading the match by 23 IMPs when the following deal arose in the 3rd segment. It reminded me of the 2008 Wall Street collapse caused by optimistic over-investment in worthless properties – there is, after all, a limit to how far one can go before some clear-headed individual wakes up and decides to take a sure profit.


Board 71

Dealer: South

Vul: Both


A K J 10 8


K J 9 8 5

6 5


Q 4 3 2

A J 4


A Q 10 7 2



Q 10 7 6 2

Q 10 3

J 9 4 3


9 6 5

K 9 5 3

7 6 4 2

K 8


D. Clerkin J. Lall J. Clerkin H. Lall
1 * 1 Dbl** 2
Pass 4 Pass Pass
Dbl All Pass Down 5 for -1400, losing 14 IMPs

* strong       ** less than a game force (?)

The play turned out to be a modest success as the contract at the other table was down 5 in 3 , alas, not doubled. Mercifully we don’t have a record of that auction.

The above auction features one of my favorite gripes, a raise on 3-small without much hope of scoring a ruff in the short-trump hand. This is a 9-loser hand with the high-card features probably subject to finesses with the strong hand on the left, as is the case. If I am not going to pass, which is what the hand is worth, I would rather bid 1NT or even try a deflective 2 , after which partner must tread lightly. Diamonds represent the better trump suit. Raising to 2 puts the overcaller back in charge of the auction, and he is likely to be encouraged to make another move, no matter that South is a passed hand.

North sees a need to keep the opponents out of 4 . Give partner the Q96 and he has 2 entries needed to play towards his diamonds and possibly keep the penalty to a tolerable level. Well, NS vastly overestimated the value of their property in what became a seller’s market. If they had sold out to a makeable 4 , the loss would have been a modest 3 IMPs.

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