Slams – An Endangered Species
Once upon a time slams were regarded as being within the exclusive domain of the expert. Accuracy in slam bidding was the hallmark of good pair. It was said that the team that got the slams right were bound to win the contest. The Italian Blue Team were world champions year after year because of their superior slam bidding.
When the 2/1 system was evolving it was touted as the answer to the Big Club slam methodology. Imagine, enthused the advocates, after 1♥ – 2♣ being in a position to explore slam with the assurance that one can bid safely at least to the level of game. True enough, but things took a bad turn when the mood changed from exploration to exploitation. Partnerships acted like a drug company that values false advertisement over credible research. Players realized that slams were rare creatures, so there was more to gain in the long run by bidding deceptively to 3NT than by bidding accurately to a minor suit slam. Strong jump shifts were abandoned in favour of weak jump shifts featuring nothing but a long suit. Raises were almost meaningless, especially self-preemptive jump raises which promised nothing but 4-card support. The bidding of a minor side suit was avoided as it gave away too much information to the defenders when one ended up in a flawed 3NT whose success depended on not being punished with an informed defence. The information content of an auction was greatly diminished in the process.
Even I was surprised recently by how far the standards have fallen when I looked at the results from my local club with 15 tables in play. The field contained players who have represented Canada internationally. Most players have decades of experience and play some version of 2/1. First we show a slam that failed. Only 3 pairs avoided it.
It should be easy with any reasonable system to avoid slam with 2 flat hands on a 4-4 fit missing the queen of trumps and an outside ace. Of course, if all one does is count HCPs the bidding might go 2NT – 6NT with the perpetrators feeling hard put when going down on a combined 33 HCP. Surely some form of RKCB should be evoked along the way.
‘Don’t bid a slam on a finesse’ is common advice, but it that correct in this circumstance? A finesse with an a priori probability of 50% represents a state of maximum uncertainty. In the long run one’s average score will depend only the probability of the finesse failing, but at 50% it doesn’t matter in the long run if one bids slam or not. However, with everyone else bidding slam, one can go with the field to attain the same mean score in the long term while reducing the variability of results in the short term. So bidding a failing slam is the most cautious approach. On the other hand doing what most everyone is doing limits one to an average score. One might consider that to be an opportunity missed.
What information do we obtain in the Precision auction? Opener knows he faces a flat hand with 11-13 HCP. Transfer Stayman reveals responder has 4 hearts without the Queen. 4♣ asks for controls, and opener finds 4, so 2 controls are missing. This is enough information for opener to know to pull in his horns, but he also knows that the vast majority will be in slam. To stop in game would be the swinging action. He can stop in game or not depending on current needs.
Note that there is no way to wiggle around the finesse in 6♥. One has to draw trumps and the ♠A is an unavoidable loser. This is a problem with flat hands. With long suits to play with some losers can be avoided. Here is an example where no one got to a good 6♣ on 30 combined HCP. Missing a king and two queens presented no problems.
The shortage in hearts cancels the effect of missing the King-Queen. If responder had 4 clubs, a grand slam should be bid. In the actual deal clubs split 4-1 so 12 tricks were the limit. But why risk 13 tricks when eleven pairs stopped in 3NT? The top score went to the pair who bid and made 6♠ on a 3-3 split with the queen onside. That was wildly inaccurate, wishful thinking at best. Their aggression was admirable, but we have to blame the 2/1 system for their bad evaluation as it did not provide the information necessary to avoid an unnecessary risk.
Slam bidding has deteriorated to such a degree that the easiest way to pick up matchpoints or IMPs is to bid good slams based on distribution where hand evaluation depends on loser count, controls, and degree of fit. When the opening bidder holds 8 controls he has a terrific hand, a fact not given sufficient weight by the HCP total. (Even in the recent Vanderbilt we see experts not taking full cognizance of this.) Precision gives one the alternative of avoiding a slam-killing 2NT bid with 8 controls. Here is a slam missed in the same session where in 2/1 the bidding may well have gone 1♦ – 1♥; 3♥ – 4 ♥ with clubs being totally ignored. No one bid the grand slam, 12 pairs playing in 4♥, 4 in 3NT.
In the Precision auction responder is not obliged to show his 4-card heart suit first, rather he can show his fine 6-card club suit, surely the best feature of the hand. Opener next finds responder has 4 hearts to the Queen, so slam becomes an attractive goal. Responder can splinter to 4♦ showing slam interest primarily because of his fine club suit. 5NT is a grand slam try, and 7♥ is reached on 27 HCP. Although the auction starts with asking bids, it ends as a cooperative effort with responder making the final push. Of course, bidding a grand slam is only for artistic satisfaction as 6♥ is good enough to score a top.
The temptation is to bid slams that may be borderline 50%, as one is sure to maximize one’s score against a reluctant majority if the slam makes. Here is a refreshing example from a previous session that many would find unworthy, but slams that can’t be defeated by any lead seem worthwhile to bid, especially if good card technique can improve on the initial odds. As in many a risky but successful slam, a good trump suit and plentiful controls are the key ingredients.
I held a minimum in HCP for my splinter and signed off in 4♥ after John cuebid his ♦A. Despite this discouragement, John showed further slam interest by cuebidding the ♣ A at the 5-level. With a maximum of 15 HCP what could he have to justify this? It appeared his optimism must be based long hearts and a good diamond holding, as a wasted ♠Q would not give rise to much excitement. At the time it appeared that my ♦J might have a role to play in slam, so I accepted the invitation while wishing I had the ♦Q instead. Note that each hand has a loser count of 6 supporting a move to slam.
As Shakespeare wrote, the play’s the thing, and John got the mechanics right after an unhelpful club lead. There doesn’t appear to be much hope with the poor diamond holdings, but what if one can eliminate the side suits completely before tackling the diamonds? The 10-card fit in trumps was essential in allowing declarer to eliminate the clubs and spades and end up in the dummy in this position:
Slam now depended on the location of the ♦9, the curse of Scotland, but John is of English extraction, so it was onside for him. A diamond to the ♦8 served to endplay North and the slam was made. The ♦8 was a big card, for the endplay still operates if the ♦9 is played from the South. One final point on the play: there was another way to win. North started with ♦K5, so could have been endplayed in the diagrammed position by playing ♦A and out. In some cases alternative plays can be sussed out when a full count can be obtained (4=2=2=5) opposite (3=1=4=5) within a distribution of sides of 7=3=6=10. Such alternatives are not predictable ahead of time, but the increase in information can increase the probability of success during the play.
It is bad practice not to know the quality of one’s trumps below game level. The information exchanged in an auction should be selective in keeping with the objective in mind. If game is the limit of one’s ambition, less needs to be revealed in the run-up to game. The fewer bids the better. If slam is possible, the more relevant information available, the better the final decision. This is the dilemma everyone must face, expert or no expert. Having to go to 4NT RKCB in search of a trump queen is a major defect of 2/1 methods. It is no wonder that repressive 2/1 technique does so poorly in the slam zone.