Bob Mackinnon

Insulting Your Partner

The ACBL Bulletin is geared understandably towards the vast majority of the members and most of the articles can be enjoyed by beginner and expert alike, however, the articles aimed at beginners especially can be annoyingly simple, and simply annoying. One such appeared in the June issue with the highlighted statement, ‘when you compete with an offfshape double in the direct position, you’re insulting your partner.’ First I think it is a bad psychologically to cultivate the idea that players are hostile towards their partners. I have never felt that a partner’s act is directed toward me personally. I believe a partner is trying to the best of his ability to get us a good score. Some just can’t help but bid and play badly, and we all make mistakes with the very best of intentions. It helps if one has been given a solid grounding on which to base one’s actions, by which I mean basic theoretical training, not just a set of rules to blindly follow.

Getting to the technical details, what are the requirements for a takeout double? Let us say for arguments sake that the double is defined as showing a hand with opening points and ‘support or tolerance for all unbid suits.’ That is just one way to play it, and not necessarily the best. We must now ask what constitutes support. Again, we know from experience that a double of 1 doesn’t give any guarantees with regard to the club suit, and often a doubleton club is held. So the restriction on shape is often compromised. If one waits for the perfect 4-4-4-1 shape, one will not double often enough.

Suppose we loosen the definition of the takeout double to include all balanced hands with opening points. This is becoming standard practice among even senior experts who otherwise bid conservatively. As noted on a previous blog, Michael Rosenberg doubled 1 on the following collection with no 4-card major: A53 J72 AK84 Q64. The idea behind lifting the shape requirement is the Law of Total Tricks. Most of the time a partnership will have an 8-card fit and wish to compete for the part score. It is deemed safer to enter the auction early, and try to sort it out later in a competitive setting. It could well turn out that the hand belongs to the opponents, but the interference may have had the side benefit of throwing them off, and perhaps providing the opportunity for preemptive action by partner.

With a good balanced hand in second seat, one has the option of passing or doubling. From the point-of-view of information theory, there is information contained in both bids. The more restricted a double, the looser the pass; the more information in double, the less information in the pass. So if one wishes to be informative on average in this situation, the more one doubles the better, as that increases the average information transmitted. In that context one might say that passing a good hand insults partner by keeping him the dark about the combined assets. Passing a second time adds  injury to insult.

The double upon which scorn was heaped was not unlike the Rosenberg hand: AT74 982 AK76 J3, and the division of side was 7=7=6=6. In fact, this hand is more worthy of a takeout double because it contains 4 spades, the boss suit. Just like Rosenberg, a penalty of 300 was inevitable, and matters were made worse when the doubler corrected his partner’s escape, a violation of partnership trust. Despite this result, one can excuse it on the grounds of frequency as 7-7-6-6 is a rare division of sides, and often the opponents can make 3NT if partner has little to contribute, in which case, a double at the one-level constitutes a good sacrifice.

The game between experts is different from the game between lesser players. Some may argue that it is better to keep it simple for beginners, because as time goes by they will learn from experience how to ‘lie’ like an expert. Fair enough, but it is bad to give beginners the wrong start – some trusting souls never recover from being taught concepts that are simply not true. It is the general concepts that need to be taught properly and retained. Once they are grasped, methods follow naturally and the learner is equipped to change with the times. Rules are made to be broken. A player should be able to take a perfectly reasonable action when the situation calls for it without thinking he may be lying or insulting his partner.

The Unilateral Approach
The more precise a bid, the more information transmitted and the more leverage is given to partner. Obviously if a takeout double is offfshape, a partner will be less certain on how to proceed. Follow-up methods have to reflect the uncertainty; one has to tread lightly, bid cooperatively, and rely on likelihood estimation. If a bid is narrowly defined, a partner is in a better position to take charge and guess without further consultation. This approach suits the individualist who likes to be in a position to make the decisions. Here is an example from the USBF 2012 Seniors’ Trials Final as reported on BBO.





















Jacobus opened a well-defined 1NT (14-16 HCP) and Wold had a choice of ways to proceed. His hand indicated that 4 would be as good a game as 4 , so he blasted using a Texas transfer. One sees that he could have reached game on a 4-4 fit in spades if he had chosen to explore by obtaining more information via a 2 Stayman bid. Although there is potential for 12 tricks in spades it would require some inspired play to gather them in, and the auction might not bring to light the JT combinations that make slam a fair possibility. So the BBO experts agreed that Wold’s approach was  best – given the narrow definition of 1NT, he could judge on the basis of his heart intermediates that 4 was likely to be the best contract.

The critics would be less kind if the opening bid had been a natural 1 (or a Precision 1) and Wold had blasted to 4 , to play. Although the result would have been the same, the lesser amount of information in the opening bid makes a unilateral decision less sound, and Wold would be criticized for ‘masterminding.’ It is a matter of degree. In the case of a Precision 1, one might assume on the basis of probability that opener has a balanced hand with about 12 HCP, so 4 is not such a bad gamble. However, the refined auction sifts out what is likely but isn’t from what is unlikely but is. Sooner or later in the auction a decision must be made based on what is probable, given what one knows.

Jacobus and Wold are an active partnership who follow the current trend of getting in early and often. Their bids are not closely defined, so the information content is low, and the damage is often psychological, which works both ways. The mainstays of the opposing Schwartz Team, the eventual winners, were John Schermer and Neil Chambers who may be classified as neo-conservatives. They buck the trend by believing in sound, therefore informative, opening bids. Their wait-and-see approach is akin to the methods of the Goren era, but their methods are modern as they encompass intermediate weak 2’s in the manner of the world’s leading pair, Fantoni and Nunes. Here is an example of the contrasting styles in action. The hand is a Standard American Bastard, too weak for 1 , too strong for 2 , vastly inappropriate for 3 with a 4-card spade suit on the side.




















Modern players don’t believe in passing or preempting on a 6-loser hand, so what can one do? Chambers was able to open a systemically approved 2 : 10-13 HCP with a 6+-card suit. One sees the hand is actually below the bottom of the stated HCP range, but it is within bounds when one adds 3 points for a void. The losing trick evaluation (6 losers) makes it a bit strong for the action, but partner is always there to give a boost when appropriate. That is the theory. Not this time. One might say that it is rather unlucky that responder’s controls are in spades, not clubs, where Chambers would expect them to be most often than not. Of course, further bidding might disclose that, but here the 2 bid was self-preemptive and was passed out.

Wold could have opened a Precision 1 without great distortion, but, on the basis of probability, on average he would find partner with 2 hearts and 10 HCP, in which case 4 is the place to be, spade fit or no spade fit. Thoughtfully he removed the burden of bidding from his partner by opening 4 , giving full value to his void. As so often happens, (in accordance with expectations),  partner dutifully provides some useful cards, so 4 makes for a gain of 7 IMPs. The score is 129 to 102 after 54 boards.

The Gods’ Merry Jest
As we all know, Western Gods are infamous for setting up rules that are hard to follow, then putting an irresistible temptation in the way of the faithful to test their resolve. Some gods are known to do this just for the fun of it, in which cases the consequences of succumbing to temptation may not be as dire as one might otherwise expect. Let’s jump forward to Board 86 where the score has tightened up with Schwartz a mere 5 IMPs in the lead with 5 hands to play. Chambers has been dealt a 6-loser hand with which many would open: AK973 86 3 KT763 – the Rule of 20 and all that. This is not a sound opening by his partnership standards, but certainly the opponent will open it, so what harm can there be if just this once …The Gods are laughing as he thinks it over.












2NT (GF)









The auction proceeds smoothly along natural lines, a normal 2 is led, but when the dummy appears, Schermer sputters, ‘you have always talked about openers and you do this!’ Tsk-tsk, John, sarcasm gets you nowhere; even among seniors ever bright and cheerful is the way to go no matter what you feel down deep. Above all, avoid voicing displeasure until all the results are in. The Gods had arranged things such that 3NT rolls home on a sum total of 22 HCP. Ha-ha. Let’s see you get to 3NT opposite a passing partner.

At the other table Wold does open 1 , a normal bid in Precision, but Jacobus, pre-warned by experience of a possible dearth of real values opposite, timidly avoids 3NT to reach a hopeless 5, down 2. Thanks to Chamber’s unusual action in direct contravention of partnership agreements, Schwartz picks up 11 IMPs with 4 boards to play.

Back to Insults
The point of this last hand is that Chambers was in no way acting to insult his long-term partner; he was trying his best to win a close match. Sometimes the rules get in the way. The modern game allows players to satisfy their primal urges by bidding on garbage hands. It is a sign of the times that no one feels guilty about acting in a selfish manner and overvaluing the flimsy assets they bring to the table. Style outweighs substance. We have lived through a real estate bubble, and now we are having a bidding bubble.

There is a golden mean where the fundamentals take precedence over conventionally accepted behavior. The individual has to be given scope to apply his best judgement under particular circumstances, while for the most part bidding informatively according to preset rules when it is partner who is in the best position to make the final decision. Precision is a system that allows for this distinction as it clearly sets the captaincy in constructive bidding sequences. Standard 2/1 methods are terrible in this regard.

The big problem still to be solved is how to act in competitive auctions in which the takeout double is often the first shot fired by the defenders. If the opponents’ bids are wide-ranging, thus intrinsically untrustworthy, one must depend on one’s partner to provide accurate and useful information on which to base a decision. On the other hand it pays to get in early. The question of captaincy in competitive auctions is considered in the next blog.


Steven GaynorJune 22nd, 2012 at 5:11 pm

As far as TO doubles go, the modern (and probably best) style is to have something that looks like an opening hand with support for all unbid suits, highlighting the majors. The Rosenberg example should have a disclaimer like – do not try this at home, for professionals only. Really, if we are to keep our game alive we have to teach strong basics and let people discover the exceptions to the rule when they have the experience to handle them.
This is a concept that a lot of bridge teachers miss. Just because they like 1430 RKC or 1N forcing, they stuff it down the throats of their students who continually muck it up. They do not teach the follow-ups, the implications that make these systems most useful, often because they themselves do not know them.

When I met my current wife, she had 50 MP’s and I had over 5000. However, we formed a partnership starting with a very simple card. We started by me teaching her limit raises. When problems would pop up she would ask if there was something that would help us the next time. We added 1430, Jacoby 2N, negative X’s, and many other ‘standard’ treatments. They work well because SHE owns them, she saw the need through her experience and understands some of the extended workings of the systems.

The program has worked. Now I have a partner with whom I can play in flight A events and sometimes even win (5 Blue Ribbon q’s so far).

Bob MacKinnonJune 22nd, 2012 at 6:21 pm

Good for you two! Some system is better than no system as far as transmitting information is concerned. Reliability adds to the information content. (Larry Cohen makes this point often.)

What is bad is to have an agreement that one habitually breaks because on thinks one can outsmart/deceive the opponents. I see it all the time. I tell my partners, ‘let the system make the mistakes’.

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