Bob Mackinnon

The Cult of the Eight-Card Fit

The Law of Total Tricks has had a profound influence on modern bidding practices. Players are willing to act on the belief that usually it is safe to enter the bidding on the priori promise of an 8-card fit and not much else. Distribution is everything. Most of the time they get away with bidding on less than the traditional HCP requirements. One danger is that about 1 time in 6 there is no 8+-card fit, so winning the contract may turn out to be a pyrrhic victory. Secondly, the long suits may be poorly stocked with honours, reducing the number of total tricks. If you hold top honors in their main suit, they are likely to be in the same position vis-à-vis your main suit. Thirdly, if an opponent becomes declarer, the defence may suffer on the opening lead, and knowledge of the distribution may aid him in bringing home a risky contract.

These 3 points should be the keystone to defending against active bidders. Under normal circumstances a player does well to adhere to the cult and bid to a contract that matches his potential with regard to total tricks. When values are evenly distributed about the table, the chances of being doubled in a partial are not great. After that level is reached, but not before, one may consider doubling for penalties if the opponents carry on dangerously. Obviously, within the realm of the new reality, one’s competitive bidding agreements must be geared towards this approach.

Here is an example from the Semi-Finals 2011 Bermuda Bowl where a player sought prematurely to punish overly active opponents who may have bid too high.

Dealer: West

Vul: EW





















Grue Fleisher Lall

2♣* Pass 2NT* Pass
3 Pass Pass Dble

All Pass

Grue’s 2♣ bid promised a 6-card suit, 11-15 HCP. Lall’s 2NT was a ‘good’ raise to 3♣ (as opposed to a raise based solely on the number of clubs held). Discretion being the better part of valor, Kamil could not double for takeout at this point, because 2NT included the (rare) possibility that Lall held a good hand without a club fit. Once it was confirmed that the opponents had bid to the level of their 9-card fit with the HCPs evenly distributed between the sides, Kamil felt he could make a balancing double to compete for the part score. He was assured of at least an 8-card fit with his partner.

The match had not been going well for Fleisher’s team, and he obviously felt in the need for a swing. We can see that gambling a penalty double on the basis of ♣KJT opposite a singleton was not the winning decision, as it resulted in a score of -870. The ♣KJT look promising but they produced just 1 trump trick. We surmise that normally Fleisher would have pulled to 3 which goes down 1 but which beats the result achieved at the other table, 4 down 2. If the opponents had continued mistakenly on to 4♣, then a penalty double might be called for, but it is not to be recommended here when there is no assurance that 3 makes and 4♣ doesn’t.

Again we see the propensity of Grue-Lall to avoid a direct raise when they have some semblance of high card power. Lall’s bidding 3♣ directly might make it easier psychologically for Kamil-Fleisher to compete effectively. The 2NT bid contained a poison pill: the threat of a strong hand with a misfit in clubs. However, this is rare, and an opponent should act on what is most probable, taking a risk that may occasionally cost a lot. The effect of these unlimited transfers in competition is to give the opponents extra bids with which to describe their potential in the face of dubious actions. So one should define the difference between direct action over a transfer and delayed actions against the expected weak sign-offs. I would define direct actions as strong, a direct double of 2NT being balanced takeout, and 3♣ as a game search with short clubs. Thus, when South passes 2NT and later balances against 3♣ with a double, the guidelines are set and North knows not to attempt a speculative double of 4♣, as discussed above.

A most amusing but instructive comedy of errors occurred in the Semi-Final match between the USA teams. It shows what can happen when both sides are bidding like crazy in an atmosphere of mutual misunderstanding.

Dealer: South

Vul: NS





♣ 63





♣ A




♣ KJT542





♣ Q987

Weinstein Grue Levin

2* Dble 2 2NT (?)

Pass 3 Dble Pass

Pass 3 Pass Pass
Dble Pass Pass 3NT
Dble All Pass

Weinstein’s 2 was an ‘extended’ Flannery bid, possibly with 5-5 in the majors. One sees this is a good description on distribution, but a poor one on high-card placement as the advertised long suit has none of the 3 top honours and half the HCP lie in the minors. This bodes ill for a player who declares on this hand, but this is not a concern to the modern bidder. Grue has a value-showing double, and Levin makes a cheap raise, keeping hidden his long suit for the time being. Of course, he knows Weinstein is short in clubs. Lall makes what appears to be a natural, invitational call suggesting an exploration for 3NT, but Grue confesses he hasn’t the foggiest idea what 2NT means. Perhaps it is a weak Lebensohl transfer to 3♣?

After Grue transferred to 3♣, many observers felt that Levin should pass, knowing there was a NS misunderstanding, but Levin is made of sterner stuff, and he doubled the one contract he might expect to defeat. Lall is obliged to pass, but Grue has been warned, so he corrects to 3. Weinstein with defensive cards in the minors, and perhaps expecting more from Levin, doubles that. The moment of truth has arrived. Commentators expect Lall to read the situation and bid 3ª, but he retreats to 3NT, the Sanctuary of the Wholly Unknown that has provided protection for so many lost souls. Weinstein doubles that confident Levin will provide some assistance. He leads the 5 and 3NT is defeated eventually by setting up the suit. As noted by Kit Woolsey at the time, Lall’s one hope when in with the A was to attempt to pass the ª7, but he led the ª9 which was easily covered by Weinstein. So 3NT was that close to making.

At the other table Wooldridge opened 1, Martel doubled and Hurd bid 3♣, a fit showing raise. Customarily this delivers some tricks in clubs, which it didn’t, and 4 hearts, which it didn’t. It should have come as no surprise that Stansby had enough to bid 3ª. Martel wasn’t going to stop there with his fine controls and singleton club. Well, if they were in game, I suppose it didn’t cost much to double Martel, who made 11 tricks, for a score of 790 and a gain of 15 IMPs on the board. The result might be considered a triumph for extended Flannery as it had stolen the NS spade fit, but IMPs would have been won even if Weinstein had passed throughout.

What does one board prove? In the end the brash Young Turks defeated the established experts by a substantial margin by applying constant pressure that eventually paid good returns. That means one must be prepared to put up a battle on every hand, fighting fire with fire. Uncertainty must be made to work for you as well as for them. Doubling a contract just because it rates to go down under normal circumstances doesn’t work well when the circumstances are unusual. There will be chances enough to double when it is obvious that the cards are badly placed, as their bidding takes little account of suit quality.

As a case in point we’ll finish with a look at this year’s world champions acting rather foolishly against the Italians, whom they ended up beating, of course.

Dealer: South

Vul: NS




















Versace Drijver Lauria

Pass Pass
1 2 Pass Pass
Dble Pass Pass Redble
Pass 3 Pass Pass
Dble All Pass

The division of sides was 7=7=7=5 for EW and 6=6=6=8 for NS. The Total Tricks were 15. Clubs represented the best fit for NS, but they lacked the 4 top honors, and they split 4-1. EW might opt to play in spades or hearts, with the trumps splitting 5-1 or 6-0, respectively. The conditions were unusual, so there was opportunity lurking in the cards.

Sensing it was a good time to get active, Drijver preempted on the assumption there is no such thing as a bad 6-card suit. Circumstances alter everything. After years of thinking otherwise, in a flash Lauria was made aware of the defensive potential of the 5=6=1=1 shape. In the back of his mind he may have even wondered how to steer partner into bidding 3NT. Versace did well to balance with a double, just in case, and was rewarded when Lauria was able to convert to penalties. The Dutch easily found their 8-card fit, but to no avail. The contract went down 5 for1400 at a cost 17 IMPs.

At the other table, Wijs opened the bidding with a strong club. Bocchi sensed it wasn’t a good time to get active and the Italians lazily passed throughout. With much difficulty the Dutch reached 4, going down 1, after 6 frustrating rounds of relay bidding. They had missed their best game, 3NT! Even without the diamond finesse! Perhaps they should have seen that when their division of sides was revealed.

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