Bob Mackinnon

One No Trump Opposite 4441

If one is dealt a balanced hand with 16 scattered HCPs, and has just one bid to make, what would it be? 3NT! The single most likely situation is that the remaining HCPs are divided evenly about the table, 8 HCP for each player, so it makes sense for you to bid 3NT, your best chance for a good score. Some theorists feel the invitational 2NT is a wasted bid as little useful information has been added, so they think of other uses for that bid. How many choose to stop in 2NT and profit thereby?

‘The No Trump Zone’ by Danny Kleinman, gives a conversational overview of personal experiences that varies between extreme fussiness and extreme fuzziness. Kleinman suggest the NT bidder holding 75 AQ85 QJT AKJ7 should bid 3NT over an invitation 2NT, unconcerned about the weak spade holding. Attempts at refinement may do more harm than good, he notes. Responder probably has a spade stopper, but even if a spade is the killing lead, the opening leader may choose a passive heart lead after an uninformative auction. Also, bridge is easier if, rather than watch partner sweat, you guess early yourself, going with the odds given the information you have at the time.

4441 – Strong

Sooner or later a player makes a decision based on the assumption that partner holds, as far as his bidding allows, a balanced hand as this provides the most card combinations, hence is most probable. It would seem that responder is generally in the best position to make the final decision as a limited, balanced hand opposite is guaranteed. This is the advice given to beginners (see page 46 of the Dec 2015 issue of the ACBL Bulletin).

To the contrary, Kleinman gives us the Principle of the Balanced Hand: when one player holds a balanced hand and his partner holds an unbalanced hand, the player with the balanced hand should be the captain as he can better tell how the hands mesh. This sounds fine if holder of the unbalanced hand has given a good description of the unusual nature of his holding through an informative sequence of bids. This goes against the widely held idea that players should hide their weaknesses and merely bid what they hope they can make, either because they think they can make a score, or because the opponents may not discover how to defeat the contract until it is too later, which yields an even better score. Herein lies the fundamental conflict partnerships face.

To show 4-4-4-1 naturally may use up several levels of bidding and partner may not correctly interpret the ambiguous messages. To overcome this problem, some pairs use a jump to 3 of a major to show shortage in the suit named plus slam interest in any of the 4-card suits. Here is how it works on a good day:

W
West
Q106
KJ5
AQJ4
K86
 
E
East
3
AQ104
K962
A1073
West
East
1NT
3
6
Pass

Opener makes the final decision based on the expectation that partner’s points are distributed evenly between his 4-card suits, probably on average 4 HCP in each. He assumes the spade suit is poorly held. Slam depends largely on the diamonds splitting 3-2, so it is a good slam. If the distribution of HCPs is not up to expectations, slam may be a poorer proposition: K AQT4 T952 AT73. On such a hand responder should take a different route planning to settle for 3NT or 4, as the hand is weak in one of the trump candidates, a condition that the opener could not anticipate. The 1NT bidder is not in control as the shortage has been hidden and he will be surprised when the dummy appears. Many BBO commentators warn against 50% minor suit slams, such as this one.

W
West
Q106
KJ5
AQJ4
K86
 
E
East
K
AQ104
10952
A1073
West
East
1NT
2
2
3NT
Pass
 

4-4-4-1 – Invitational

Some system analysts admit there is no good way to invite in a minor after a strong 1NT opening bid. One reason is that most of the responses are geared to finding a major suit game, failing which they opt for a speculative 3NT, the reason being that the lucky hands have a bigger potential payoff than a sensible part score in a 4-4 minor suit fit. The argument is weaker for matchpoint scoring, as the frequency of plus scores is important.

When responder holds the unusual 4-4-4-1 shape, he is in a better position to place the contract in game or in a partial, so it is better for him to make the decisions rather than the opening bidder whose hand is limited and balanced. Here is an example from a recent club game.

W
West
Q106
KJ5
AQJ4
K86
 
E
East
3
Q1043
K962
A1073
West
East
1NT
2
2
2NT
3NT
Pass

Responder underbid greatly with 9 HCP as he didn’t like his shape. 2NT did not guarantee a 4-card major. Opener envisioned a flat hand opposite, so had no hesitation going to game with his very nice collection, expecting some help in the spade suit.

3NT was down 3 for a score of 3 out of 12. 2NT down 2 got an average score. The best score was 4 making, with 5 down one worth an amazing 9 out of 12. The opening leader had passed over 1NT holding AJ9754 987 3 J94. Those who bid 2 on those cards scored poorly when allowed to play in that contract going down (4 times out of 12).

As indicated in the previous blog, it is easy enough to attach probabilities to the responses if we limit the NT distributions to 4333, 4432, and 5332 with a 5-card minor. Here are examples of the 2 most likely the division of sides (shown in brackets): 8765 (36%) and 8774 (19%). In Case I, the reply to Stayman will be 2; in Case 2, 2.

 

Case I

 

 

Case II

 

 

Responder

Opener

Player B

Player C

Opener

Player B

Player C

1

4 (5)

4

4

3 (4)

5

4

4

2 (6)

3

4

3 (7)

3

3

4

4 (8)

2

3

4 (8)

3

2

4

3 (7)

4

2

3 (7)

2

4

Obviously the trick is to go plus on these hands, and responder has the best estimate of the distributions around the table after the opener denies a major. Responder can expect an 8-card fit in a minor with the opponents holding an 8+-card fit in spades. The number of total tricks is 16+. No matter which defender is on lead it is likely that a spade will be led against 3NT. Therefore, it appears that playing in 3NT, or even 2NT, will not be a winning decision and it is up to the responder to reach a better contract by asking for more information from partner. 2NT is the obvious choice for locating the minor fit.

2NT as a Forcing Asking Bid

With regard to Stayman there are normally just 3 responses allowed: 2, 2 and 2, which roughly speaking are equally probable. If the response is 2, responder has a 6 in 10 chance of being in a 5-4 or 4-4 diamond fit. This isn’t satisfactory as diamonds may not be the best strain available. More importantly, responder knows the opponents have at least a 9-card fit in spades. With a mediocre hand he might try a nonforcing 2 hoping to stay at the 2-level in a 4-3 fit. A better tactical bid would be 2NT, asking opener to bid a minor, specifically 3 unless he holds more diamonds than clubs, in which case, 3.

The responses to 2NT are natural with 3 of a minor indicating a 4-card suit, nonforcing. Opener may even bid an uninformative gambling 3NT if he is so inclined, otherwise he makes the most useful suit bid indicating where his values principally lie. So nothing is lost, except the ability to pass 2NT, which is not much of a loss. Here is the hand that arose at our local club, this time with 2NT as an asking bid.

W
West
Q106
KJ5
AQJ4
K86
 
E
East
3
Q1043
K962
A1073
West
East
1NT
2
2
2NT
3
Pass

That would have been an easy way to score 12 out of 12. On the next 8774 combination an optimistic opener might bid 3, suggesting that a 4-3 heart fit would play well.

W
West
1096
AK5
AQ84
K86
 
E
East
3
Q1043
K962
A1073
West
East
1NT
2
2
2NT
3
4

Declarer needs to pull a rabbit out of the hat in order to make 10 trick on a 4-2 trump split, losing one spade, one heart and one club, but stranger things have happened. With good hands rich in controls the minor suits come back into play. Here slam in diamonds is a much better proposition than 4, so opener should show the quality of his diamonds rather than try for 3NT or 4. He has a maximum with 6 controls, worth the equivalent of 20 HCP. It shouldn’t hurt to bid informatively.

West
East
1NT
2
2
2NT
3
3
4
4
5
6

After 3 responder was in the better position to make the final decision knowing that there is no wastage in the spade suit. The key descriptive bid is 5 by the opener. If responder has a weak hand and wishes only to razzle-dazzle the silent opposition he’ll be content to pass 3, but he will be concerned about playing in a 4-3 heart fit at the 3-level.

What about the Opposition?

On many hands where the opposition have a 9-card spade fit, they will be bidding early. The absence of activity has only a slight effect on the probability of the division of sides, the actual distribution under 8774 being less likely than Case II. Passing with a decent 6-card spade suit is possible but unexpected, but that doesn’t greatly alter opener’s decision to go to 3NT. One shouldn’t hold back because of an ungrounded fear of bad breaks. Responder knows the opponents have a 9-card spade fit, so he is in a better position to make the final decision, contrary to Kleinman’s Principle of the Balanced Hand. The invitational 2NT based on point count alone is a bad bid under the circumstances as it implies a balanced hand.

Note that after a 2 overcall, using Lebensohl, responder can bid 3 as ‘Stayman without a Stopper’, the additional information making it easier to get to 4, the best contract. Only one pair managed to overcome all predispositions and achieve that happy result- which doesn’t make it wrong.

Going to a Better Place

Nothing personal, but sometimes it just doesn’t feel right to let partner play in 1NT. Most responders with a flat hand and less than 8 HCP will pass, and the more players who stay passive the more sense it makes to close one’s eyes and think of +120. But when partner opens 1NT and you have a bad hand without an entry, the standard approach is to wake up and try to get to a better place. Alas, the path to bottoms is paved with such good intentions. Maybe there isn’t a better place.

The 1NT opening bid has a preemptive effect that works in its favour. A small minus score in 1NT may represent a good result. On the other hand experts have often pointed out that game in a 4-4 major fit plays better than 3NT. Even more so in a partial, where in addition the minor suits come into their own whenever they give the best chance of getting a plus score. Alas, normal Stayman is not geared for that eventuality.

Here is an unconvincing example of an optimistic undertaking from ‘No Trump Bidding – the Scanian Way’: T953 J83 KJ943 5. It is recommended that responder employ Stayman and pass opener’s reply. Of course, 1NT might play better than 2 on a 4-3 fit, as with the following mix where hearts don’t matter.

W
West
KJ3
10642
AQ2
AQ108
 
E
East
10953
J83
KJ943
5
West
East
1NT
2
2
Pass?

One would be more optimistic of elevation if the diamonds were poorer (QJ943), as dummy might be dead during NT play with no entry available for taking an essential finesse in a major. So, another case of less is more (when nonvulnerable). Here is an example of what is sometimes deridingly referred to as Garbage Stayman, as reported by Bart Bramley in his Vanderbilt report in the December, 2015 issue of the Bridge World. The 5-card boss suit seemed to provide some degree of safety.

W
Zia
1064
AQ3
KJ10
AQ84
 
E
Duboin
K9532
J1086
65
97
West
East
1NT
2
2
2
Pass
 

This time responder had to make 2 bids in his attempt to reach a better place to play. With such weakness it is necessary to make responder’s second bid nonforcing. This made the weaker hand declarer, and after a diamond lead through the broken diamond suit in dummy, Duboin went down 1. Interestingly, by a different path at the other table South (Greco) also became the declarer in 2, making on a clever deduction that his RHO held K doubleton. That gained 4 IMPs. Neither pair was able to reach the optimum contract of 2 making 3 played by the opening bidder, preferring to mess about in hearts. Even 1NT makes 8 tricks.

One No Trump and a Weak 4441

The classical takeout situation is where responder has a singleton club and can in good conscience pass the opener’s reply to Stayman. If one holds a 4441 shape, the a priori odds are that there is at least one 8-card fit with partner 80% of the time. The Law of Total Tricks indicates that if one partner holds a balanced hand with 15-17 HCP and the other partner holds 3 to 7 HCP, ideally they should be able to compete gainfully for a part score at the 2-level. If one really believes that, the question one must ask oneself is: how good is my bidding system at getting me to the right spot? It may not be in diamonds, and there’s the rub.

Normally Stayman is limited to 3 replies, 2, 2 and 2, thus removing clubs from consideration at the 2-level. If responder uses Stayman how often will he immediately hit a playable fit? To get an approximate answer using paper and pen, we limit the shape of the 1NT opening bid to 4333, 4432, or 5332 (5-card minor only). Here are the approximate fractions we obtain for direct hits (4-4 or better).

Reply

4=4=4=1

4=4=1=4

4=1=4=4

1=4=4=4

2

2/9

2/9

1/5

2

3/10

3/10

3/10

2

2/9

1/3

1/3

If the reply is 2 of your major, the job is done, but if it is 2 there is more information required. The ambiguous situation could be improved if a 4th reply (2NT) showed a maximum with 5 rebiddable clubs, no 4-card major, allowing for the hand to be played there. Call this Explicit Stayman. It rules out playing in a major 4-3 fit at the 2-level.>

Weak 4=4=4=1

Half the time responder will find a 4-4 major suit fit. That is a gambler’s position, but after a 2 reply it is probable that the clubs are well held by the opening bidder. This is because opener is more likely to have longer clubs opposite a singleton than long diamonds opposite 4 cards. When the reply is 2, opener will hold 4 or 5 clubs without 4 diamonds more than twice as often as 4 diamonds without 4 clubs. Therefore, if the Stayman reply is 2, responder most likely has taken a backward step and worsened the contract, so he should relay to 2 in a search for a major 4-3 fit at the 2-level. Thus, responder’s escape from 2 to 2 must be nonforcing, but correctible to 2 if opener holds better spades. Here are the total tricks expected.

Division of Sides

Total Tricks

Percentage

A Priori

7766

14

17%

10%

7775

15

8%

5%

8765

16

32%

24%

8774

17

11%

7%

8864

17

8%

5%

9764

18

5%

7%

9773

19

2%

3%

The number of total tricks is somewhat lower than the a priori odds indicate. There are 14-16 total tricks 57% of the time as opposed to the expected percentage of 39%. This argues for caution. The 8765 division of sides is still the most frequent with a total trick sum of 16, but that is achieved when the singleton club sits opposite a 4-card club suit in the opener’s hand. The deadly 7766 division of sides occurs when opener holds 5 clubs.

Weak 4=4=1=4

Often on BBO we see commentators grow impatient when an opening 1NT ends the auction. Next! says Joey Silver, but Life is what you make it. With a singleton diamond responder will find an 8-card fit in at least one of the majors about half the time. The probabilities of the division of sides with diamond shortage give much the same picture as for club shortage, with a 25% chance there is no 8-card fit. A 2 response makes it clear that responder has made an unlucky move from 1NT and needs must scramble.

Here is a recent example from the Gordon vs Becker match late in the 2015 Reisinger (BAM scoring) where a declarer took it upon himself to do the correcting. This move would be more obvious if declarer had a broken suit, however, keeping the strong hand hidden had a detrimental effect on the defence as 2 went down just 1.

W
Corin
Q93
KQ9
KQ75
A54
 
E
Kamil
J654
J532
10
J872
West
East
1NT
2
2
2
2
Pass

At the other table after a similar start Sontag-Berkowitz stopped in 2, down 2. If the normally wary David Berkowitz took it upon himself to freely enter the auction with 3 jacks, it must be OK. The division of sides was a moderate 7775. Deep Finesse tells us that EW can score 9 tricks in a diamond contract, but I didn’t find a pair who managed it. Six tricks in hearts and 9 in diamonds add up to 15 total tricks – right on!

Weak 4=1=4=4

It is trickier when responder holds 4 cards in just one major. Shortage in hearts is the worst situation. There is a 1 in 3 chance of having a 4-4 spade fit, but only a 1 in 5 chance of getting a 2 response. There is a 2 out of 3 chance of at least one 8-card fit, but one may have to go to the 3-level in a minor to find it. There will be at least 17 total trumps 5 times out of 9 partly justifying such a move. Here are the percentages.

Division of Sides

Total Tricks

Percentage

A Priori

7775

15

9%

5%

8765

16

36%

24%

8774

17

19%

7%

8864

17

12%

5%

8873

18

9%

2%

9764

18

11%

7%

9773

19

4%

3%

When opener bids 2/2 (just below half the time), he will be hiding a 4-card spade suit a quarter of that time, and responder must take further action and bid 2 with the agreement that it is nonforcing. The usual American practice is to use this Stayman sequence to show an invitational hand with 5 spades too good to transfer to 2 initially. Without that assurance, opener will be hesitant to let 2 be played in a 4-3 fit from the wrong side. Many are reluctant to give up the captaincy when holding at least 40% of the HCPs. With inherited riches comes the privilege of expressing opinions however wrong they may seem to be to the dispassionate observer. There are hands on which opener may refuse the suggestion to play in spades and bid 2NT to play and he may be correct in that some of the time. However, if opener had replied to Explicit Stayman with 2NT showing a good hand with 5 clubs and no 4-card major, responder would have been informed immediately of the good 9-card club fit.

Weak 1=4=4=4

The expected division of sides is the same as for the previous case, but there is the advantage that if opener bids the short suit, denying 4 hearts, responder knows there is a good chance of at least one 8-card fit in a minor, perhaps even a 9-card fit. There is a better than 50% chance that the total trick count is at least 17, backing a move to the 3-level. That’s good. It is best to think of Stayman as a move to play in a minor suit contract with the added bonus of hitting a heart fit one-third of the time.

If the reply is 2 responder knows he has a fit in a minor, but can’t be sure that clubs aren’t a better trump suit than diamonds, however, the opponents have at least a 9-card fit in spades. The number of total tricks is at least 18. That’s even better. This is a time to take action before the opponents catch on – bid 2NT as a takeout to the opener’s better minor. After a 2 reply (which occurs one-third of the time) responder may take out to a minor by bidding 2NT/2. After that move one will get to an 8-card fit at the 3-level about 3 out of 4 times, that is, unless opener has an unlucky 4=3=3=3. We call this 2NT a Transcendental Elevation.

To guard against a disaster, as far as that is possible, responder needs convertible values in the minors as opener will not have a 5-card minor along with 4 spades. With balanced power, NT may play better. Here is a computer generated example that provides encouragement for an active approach when holding a stiff without the stuff.

W
West
AJ82
AK7
109
KJ63
 
E
East
9
Q1086
KJ52
10974
West
East
1NT
2
2
2NT
3NT
Pass

Even though responder hasn’t the values needed to invite game, if opener can assume that responder lives by his own rules, the hand is worth a raise to 3NT – maximum controls, the majors well held, and partner promising at least one good minor suit, probably diamonds. In this way happy heretics may reach a far, far better place to go than perhaps they deserve or expect.

Next!

Countering Ambiguity

I understand that early in World War II the Home Guard went about changing road signs in Southern England in the hope of confusing the Germans should they invade. It strikes me as a peculiarly English ploy. Imagine the Germans’ consternation when they find they have entered Uckfield on the A22 thinking they were in Cuckfield on the A272.

Some like to think of bridge as primarily a game of logic, but logic will not lead to the right conclusion if the mental road signs are pointing in the wrong direction. If the evidence is flawed, the end result of a logic progression based on that evidence will be flawed. As Bobby Wolff has reminded us, bridge at the Bermuda Bowl is different from bridge at the local club, experts playing the cards extremely well, however, reading the cards depends on what evidence lies at hand. The club player and the world champion may struggle equally when faced with ambiguity at the crossroads.

Today’s bridge player knows it pays to get into the auction even on, or especially on, inadequate holdings. A common technique is to introduce ambiguity into one’s overcalls, drastically reducing their information content. Even after a well-defined 1NT opening bid the opening side may have difficulty coping when an overcaller’s suits are not fully specified. Here are 2 similar examples played last week, one during the Bermuda Bowl Final and one at my local club, when experts and non-experts alike reacted disastrously. Later I suggest how one may handle the situation to better effect.

 
N-S
North
N
North
J5
A9732
AK5
A98
 
W
West
Q8
QJ108
7632
1043
 
E
East
A763
K64
Q
KQ652
 
S
South
K10942
5
J10984
J7
 
W
John
N
Dolores
E
Bob
S
Fred
1NT
21
2NT
3
3
4
Pass
Pass
4
All Pass
 
(1) Astro

NS, Life Masters, are risk takers who rely mainly on the opposition to inject some accuracy into their competitive auctions. I wouldn’t have opened 1NT on the North hand – too good for that with 7 controls that point towards a suit contract. The danger by underbidding in this manner is that one feels later on that one still has something extra that remains to be revealed.

My 2 bid was ‘modified’ Astro showing 4+spades and 5+ in an unspecified minor. John wrongly alerted 2 as showing ‘spades and a minor.’ Bidding 2 on the East hand is not as dangerous at it might appear. If South passes, advancer can pass if he has diamonds, bid 2 to suggest a preference in that major, or bid 2NT as a takeout to partner’s minor. The general defence is to double the artificial suit bid (2) to show defence against the anchor suit (spades) without reference to the minors.

Obviously Fred was unfamiliar with Astro and had no systemic bid available. He tried an off-shape 2NT presumably showing a spade stopper in a limited context. Over 2NT, knowing he had a fit for either minor, John bid 3 which left open the possibility of playing in diamonds if that were partner’s minor. EW were now in a bad place if NS were able to double for penalty, but Dolores had a hidden heart suit. My 4 raise put us in danger of a bottom score if doubled, but acting on the principle that ‘if they have a fit, we have a fit’ Dolores went the whole hog in hearts, down 3 for a bottom. Even at matchpoints the lure of the vulnerable game was too much to resist. She blamed Fred for not bidding his diamonds without specifying when he should have done so.

Let’s not be too critical of the club players’ missed opportunities. How often have we observed the same effect at the expert level. Everyone wants to get into the auction and not every one has his bid. Aggressive players tend to over-react. When all 4 players are bidding confusion arises, and it becomes difficult to double and stop the bidding at the right moment. To demonstrate how this works here is the related deal from round 7 of the Sweden – Poland Bermuda Bowl Final. A strong NT was overcalled at both tables.

 
Both
South
N
North
KJ752
A7
K87643
 
W
West
AQ
AJ95
Q965
A109
 
E
East
8643
KQ643
K83
2
 
S
South
109
10872
J1042
QJ5
 

Select (you can triple-click it) and over-write this text below the diagram.

Table I

W
Sylvan
N
Kalita
E
Wrang
S
Nowosadzki
Pass
1NT
2
3*
Pass
4
All Pass
 
 

At Table I the auction was an unremarkable Lebensohl transfer sequence. North showed spades, East transferred to show hearts, South stood clear, and West knew what to do. It must have seemed a totally predictable result, but at the other table an element of uncertainty triggered chaos.

Table II

W
Klukowski
N
Upmark
E
Gawrys
S
Nystrom
Pass
1NT
2*
Dbl
RDbl
Pass
2
Dbl
Pass
Pass
3
Pass
Pass
Dbl
All Pass
 
 

Upmark’s 2 bid showed ‘hearts or spades’. What action should East take? To introduce hearts is risky and gives up on a lucrative penalty double on a misfit deal. Double keeps the possibility alive. As it turned out East was over-committed to a penalty option and the 9-card heart fit was never revealed. 3* made 670 and Poland lost 16 IMPs on a simple deal made complex by the ‘either-or’ interference. Note the division of sides was 9-7-6-4, not the shape with which one wants to be doubling a part-score.

A further feature of the auction was Nystrom’s redouble, costing nothing and signifying nothing. Like the changing of the English road signs during WWII, it was a frivolous action that might nonetheless provoke a chaotic reaction.

 

The Ambiguity Double

If your side has been subject to interference it behooves responder to have available a choice of informative bids. In the early stages, limited descriptive bids are very useful. Wide-ranging doubles not well defined with regard to shape or high-card strength are uninformative and dangerous to those who employ them.

To counter the ambiguous overcall I suggest one retain one’s favorite form of Lebensohl (mine being Rubensohl) with the following restriction that acts to reduce the uncertainty: a double indicates a limited hand suitable for a penalty double in the known suit and/or the lower ranking ambiguous suit. If the overcall showed hearts or spades, as on the Bermuda Bowl deal, a double would suggest penalty in reference to hearts. In Gawry’s situation an ambiguity double would act in effect as a transfer to hearts, sooner or later making West declarer in 4.

If a 2 overcall is Astro, showing spades and either clubs or diamonds, the Ambiguity Double shows limited values in clubs with a penalty option in spades. There are other ways to show a good club suit accompanied by the values to suggest 3NT. 2NT3 may be employed for hands that wish to compete in clubs, perhaps weak, but maybe strong, and a direct 3 is forcing. Consider the situation shown at the beginning. With the Ambiguity Double in place, the bidding could proceed as follows.

W
West
N
North
E
East
S
South
1NT
2*
Pass
2NT1
Dbl
3
3
All Pass
 
 
 
(1) asks minor

As when negative doubles are in effect, South’s initial pass does not rule out a hand with defensive values in diamonds. North must remain aware of this. It is probable that West will place the contract in the suit in which EW have at least an 8-card fit. At matchpoints North can act over 2NT as South must have values in spades, but couldn’t double without clubs being covered. Given encouragement, South can bid his weak suit and make it stick. In this way NS achieve a 70% score. 3* would be a top. It’s nice when you can guess between a 70% and 100% result. . Note the division of sides is 8-7-6-5. If the South hand were more balanced, then a penalty double of 3 would be more attractive, possibly in a 7-7-6-6 division of sides. Now consider the situation with the minors interchanged.

 
N-S
North
N
North
J5
A9732
A98
AK5
 
W
West
Q8
QJ108
1043
7632
 
E
East
A763
K64
KQ652
Q
 
S
South
K10942
5
J7
J10984
 
W
West
N
North
E
East
S
South
1NT
2
Dbl1
Pass
2
Pass
2
Pass
3
All Pass
 
(1) ♣&♠

North has to decide what action she should take after the opponents fortuitously land in their 8-card fit at the 2-level. For North the time is ripe to reveal her heart suit, leaving clubs as a possible resting place. Now South can bid 2 naturally as his double has already shown a limited hand with values in the black suits. Although 2 works this time, North takes the safe route and shows support for clubs. Once again NS can choose between a good score and a top, as 2 can make but was never declared.

These examples show why the Ambiguity Double is referenced to the lower ranking minor. With the higher ranking minor one can always bid it later, nonforcing, without going up a level. The primary aim is to reach your best part score contract while maintaining an option of catching the opponents in an indiscretion.

Against the Field

Against the Field

What distinguishes matchpoint from Teams is the amount of consideration one gives to what others are doing with the same cards. At matchpoint scoring emphasis is placed upon reaching a common contract and outscoring the field through clever declarer play, and/or uninformative bidding practices. There are added advantages to be got from uncertainty. The general perception is that accurate bidding gives a pair a better chance of reaching the right contract but a lesser chance of beating par. An example from a recent club game illustrates the downward trend.

Playing in a mixed field of 13 tables using 2/1 methods, how might West approach the problem of what to open in third seat holding AKJT3 6 AKQ9 KT4, 20 HCP with 3+ losers and 7 controls. In making decisions, sooner or later, one will tend to bid what is best according to what is most probable given the partial information available at the time. Only rarely can one bid with perfect certainty, so it is usually a question of how much information one feels is needed to make a decision and achieve a good result. Most follow the expert advice inspired by successful Wall Street traders: ‘bid on rumor, defend on count.’

As West holds 20 HCP, there are 20 HCP up for grabs, and the fact that 2 players have passed already, it is reasonable to assume partner holds the expected number, 7. That should be enough to cover one loser, but not necessarily 2. Should one explore for the perfect cards opposite or merely blast to 4, the most attractive contract, with high expectations of making it? On this deal we can tell you that 10 of 13 pairs played in 4 and you will score 70% if you play in 4 without a club lead. Using Wall Street logic, if you took the gamble, you deserve the reward. Of course, your gain from taking an unusual route to a common contract would be an innocent opponents’ loss.

If West plays by the book by opening 1 to begin a cooperative auction, who knows where it might lead? After a pass by North, East now faces a problem with 9876 AQ754 JT9 7. From his point-of-view the expectation is that the other three players hold 11 HCP each. In his book, Passed Hand Bidding(1989), Mike Lawrence placed considerable emphasis on the possibility that partner may have opened in third seat with a load of garbage, and that the opponents, if given the chance, may be poised to enter the auction, or at least gain information valuable for their defence. A jump raise would show this degree of support, 4 trumps and an unspecified singleton, thus serving 2 strategic purposes simultaneously.

Of course, nondescriptive bids based largely on HCP ranges are not conducive to accurate slam bidding. 4NT usually constitutes a desperate attempt to extract some useful information albeit above game level. Three Wests felt it is incumbent upon themselves to try RKCB, and finding there was an ace missing, they signed off in 5, held to 12 tricks. This awful approach scored an undeservedly high 33%, 37% less than any blaster to game who escaped the club lead.

To be sure there are ways to reach 6 with 2/1 methods, and 2 pairs out of 12 achieved that, scoring 11 matchpoints while being held to 12 tricks only. A pair of ‘super-blasters’, the kind that can ruin an opponent’s a good game, got to slam in an auction that was the mental equivalent of arm wrestling: 2 – 2( an Ace or King); 2 – 4NT; 5 (3 key cards) – 6. Overall they scored 42%, so we can cancel the committee.

Only one pair reached slam presumably by legitimate 2/1 methods as they are both bridge teachers who always have their bids. That good result may ease their consciences as they preach the word to their congregations of unrepentant transgressors. They got to the slam, yes, but devoid of sharp practices scored just 50% overall, a field-happy result.

Finally, the only pair of Precision bidders in the field managed to bid slam informatively and scored 67% overall. They adhere to the strategy of ‘accuracy in construction, aggression in competition’, made feasible by their limited-bid structure.

 
Both
East
N
North
Q4
1086
8743
A865
 
W
West
AKJ103
8
AKQ9
K104
 
E
East
9876
AQ754
J106
7
 
S
South
52
KJ32
52
QJ932
 

John

Bob

Pass

1*

1**

2

4***

4

4♥

6

Pass

 

1

16+HCP

1

0-7 HCP

2

game force

4

splinter, 4+spades

4

A

4

A

6

to play

 

 

The auction was brief and to the point. Declarer decided the final contract without knowing everything about responder’s hand, but he knew the essentials. It is worth noting that responder’s 4 bid promised the ace, so was informative. It was not of the vague ‘wait-and-see’ kind which crops up in co-operative 2/1 auctions.

So now we can see how the slam could be bid with 2/1 methods, in fact, in a superior manner: 1 – 3 (splinter by a passed hand); 3 – 3; 3(forcing) – 4, etc. Below game level the opening bidder knows more about responder’s hand than does the Precision bidder and is in a position to extract even more information. So why didn’t the field reach slam? Well, the system lends itself to a great deal of variation. Maybe responders don’t play a limit–raise splinter by a passed hand. Maybe 3 is a preemptive jump shift, or maybe a fit showing jump, or a nondescriptive mixed raise. Does the pair play Drury? Is responder strong enough for Drury, and if so, what are his options on the next round? The fact there are so many choices indicates none is very good, although each might work best on any given deal. Overall it’s a mess.

Swinging to Catch Up

There was one peculiar result manufactured by a competent veteran pair – 4 making 5.

Checking their scores reveal a series of tops and bottoms during the session. One can imagine a state of mind in which declarer feels desperate to get back in the running after a disappointing result on the previous board. After a nondescriptive auction to 4, declarer can see his side has missed a slam if the Q drops. To generate a swing he hopes the Q will not drop, so he goes against the field and finesses on the second round of trumps, the only way to hold himself to 11 tricks.

Some would accuse him of antisocial behaviour for operating in this selfish fashion, asserting that a player should strive to preserve the integrity of the field, such as it is, especially if he is having a bad game. Personally I have lost many a matchpoint by playing against the odds in an attempt to make up some ground. I blame Hugh Kelsey for suggesting one should modify one’s approach based on what one thinks the field has done. This is akin to driving downtown traffic while constantly looking in the rearview mirror. If the field is in 6, 2 overtricks in 4 will be wasted. So you may hope the Q doesn’t fall. However, if it does fall, you can’t beat the slam bidders, and all you can hope for is to match the others who, like yourself, play in 4. You will score below average by making 12 tricks, but you will not score a bottom. If the Q doesn’t fall, you will have a decent score making just 11 tricks. It pays to overcome your disappointments.

Here is an example of declarer play that may be more in line with what Kelsey had in mind.

W
West
K92
K863
AQ6
K62
 
E
East
Q1064
Q542
K87
A3
West
East
1
1
2
3NT
Pass

One can see what declarer was thinking when he opted for 3NT rather than 4. His hand taken in isolation is very suitable for play in a NT contract with decent chances of making as many tricks in NT as in a heart game. He knew he was bidding against the field. I picture The Field as a Granny full of commonsense advice, a bit behind the times, and mostly unaware of what’s going on behind the scene. Granny won’t bid a slam unless she can count on 12 tricks off the top, and it is pretty obvious that on these cards The Field will be playing sensibly in their 4-4 heart fit, normally making 10 tricks.

The opening lead was a non-life-threatening fourth-highest 3, a reprieve from the quick establishment of defensive tricks in clubs. Two aces are missing so timing will be important. Hearts, which are known to be divided 4-4, seemed to be the suit to tackle. If the hearts are played in the manner of those in 4, usually declarer will take 2 heart tricks, but be held to 9 tricks, thus getting a bottom. Nevertheless declarer won the diamond lead in his hand with the A and played the hearts abnormally, ducking to 9 on his right, an onerous safety play not usually recommended at matchpoints. Ominously the RHO regained the timing for the defence by switching to clubs. Declarer won the A in dummy and ducked another heart, losing to the J on his left when the T appeared on his right. This went against the rule of restricted choice, as with JT9 initially the RHO might have played the J previously. Disaster ensued, down 2 being the woeful result.

Rather than worry about how the field might handle the trumps in 4, declarer might have considered how to play for the maximum number of tricks in his NT contract. Spades are a 7-card suit and hearts an 8-card suit, but the spades lack only AJ8 whereas hearts lack AJT9. Spades will have to be played eventually, so a reasonable play is to win the K in dummy and finesse the 9. This gives a 3-times better chance of making 3 tricks than does playing on hearts and has the added attraction that one can still entertain the hope that the hearts are behaving badly. Furthermore, it is often advantageous psychologically to make your early play towards the hidden hand.

With the RHO holding AJ8 the play yields 3 spade tricks and the freedom to establish a trick in hearts for the 9th trick. This would be a good recovery at Teams, whereas at matchpoints it is a ‘costs nothing’ play, because down 2, down 1, or making 9 tricks will score the same zero. The best result is got when upon winning the A the RHO persists in diamonds – now 10 tricks come home – another top attributable to a misguided defence. Well, doesn’t Granny advise, ‘always return your partner’s suit’?

Ah, Sweet Mystery of Bridge

I remember as a boy listening on the radio to Jeannette MacDonald singing “Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life’. It was most embarrassing for a youngster to hear a middle-aged woman proclaim to the world at the top of her voice that at long last she had finally experienced deeply satisfying sex. Yes, even as a boy I knew she wasn’t referring to watching a glorious sunrise over frosty Kansas stubble fields. The mystery to me was that the females in my family were lapping it up, even my own mother. Right then I realized I was headed for trouble later in life.

Henry Kissinger once confessed that to be known as an expert one must tell the people what they already have been led to believe. I was reminded of that when I read for the first time the much praised book by Jeff Rubens entitled, ’The Secrets of Winning Bridge’.  It is chock full of commonsense, but has he uncovered any secrets?  As Fred Gitelman points out in the introduction of the latest edition, what Rubens does so well is put into words the ideas we already believe about playing bridge. That is no mean feat. Does the book advance our ideas beyond what is commonly held to be true? No, but being a good teacher is achievement enough.

Al Roth was Rubens’ ultra-conservative mentor, whose ideas may have been based on his experience that if a Manhattan millionaire wants to give you his money for the sport of it, you’d be a fool not to take it. And you must not give it back. He wrote of bidding as ‘painting a picture’. I think he was referring to the works of Impressionist School, where with a few deft strokes the artist may capture the essence of a subject, leaving it to the viewer to fill in the details from his own imagination. Presumably the artist then hurries off to Café Montmartre for a few quick one with his friends. The bidding tools available to the bridge player are necessarily crude instruments, so we paint with broad strokes and it becomes expedient that one captures the essence of one’s collection of cards within the limits of the inadequate tools at hand. This process goes beyond the bounds of systemic rules, and some creativity and imagination are required, especially in contested auctions, otherwise we are merely painting by numbers, numbers of high card points, that is.

Location, Location, Location
As he is addressing the average bridge player, Rubens is quick to point out that HCP  evaluation is accurate about 90% of the time when both partners hold flat hands. That is comfort for the masses, but he then points out that HCP evaluation is not perfect as there are cases where the expectation is far from reality. Here are two hands he uses to illustrate the shortcoming of relying solely on HCP totals.

Responder

 

Hand A

Hand B

KT3

 

AQJ2

AQJ

KJ94

 

AQ

AQ32

AJ

 

KQ3

KQ

8765

 

A432

A432

.

With Hands A and B the standard opening bid is 2NT. The responder has 12 HCP. The simple approach is for responder to bid 6NT on a combined HCP total of 33 HCP, yet with Hand B 10 tricks are the limit, whereas with Hand A 12 tricks are easy. What is wrong? As Rubens describes it, whereas the top cards remain in place, the movement of the apparently insignificant 2’s and the 3’s from one suit to another makes a big difference. The thought that insignificant cards are often crucial some may find disturbing. Are we therefore condemned to a bridge life governed by hidden factors?

The solution is rather simple: as with real estate, the value of controls depends on location, location, location. That means more than the locations within one’s own hand, but the locations with respect to the controls held in partner’s hand. One can discover the degree of fit through an honest exchange of information with one’s partner. Furthermore, it is not the weak responder who should be asking the questions and making the decisions, it is the stronger hand, as the holder of the most controls can better place the controls opposite and better evaluate the fit. Standard bidders don’t follow this principle; they want to preserve the right to decide no matter what, exercising what they call judgment.

There is a relay system that allows for better evaluation, the Viking Club, because the initial response structure is based largely on showing shape. Asking for controls follows later in the auction. So both Hand A and Hand B are opened 1 and the bidding proceeds to 3 with responder showing 12-14 HCP with 3=4=2=4 shape. With Hand B the opener soon discovers the existence of a mirrored distribution in a division of sides of  6=8=4=8, all even numbers. It is not difficult to avoid 6NT and stop in a heart game contract where declarer may play along elimination lines with the hope of avoiding 3 club losers. With Hand B opener uncovers a more likely distribution, 7=6=5=8, which provides 12 tricks of the top. (Note the odd numbered splits allow for the discarding of losers.) This division of sides is much more likely than the other which justifies bidding 6NT if one is making a blind guess. It is a question of probability based on partial knowledge. Gather more information about the division of sides and the probabilities change.

Late in life I have discovered the importance of the division of sides. I call it the sweet mystery of bridge. It is a mystery that can be explained, but most players don’t want to talk about it. Instead, they are eager to tell you how many points they held.

Yin and Yang Hand Types
Jeff Rubens is recognized as the man who put forward the Useful-Space Principle that states that in a constructive auction space should be assigned where it is most useful regardless of the natural or traditional meanings of the call. Transfer bids are a good example of such an assignment. Today overcallers realize that their job is to remove useful space when the deal belongs to the other side thereby undoing Rubens’ good work.
Overcalls are getting to be very light and the suit bid can be weak. In the face of interference the emphasis is clearly on showing support for partner’s suit, and authors have devised methods to distinguish the kind of support partner can expect. There is the other side of the coin: how much value exists in the overcaller’s suit. This aspect has been largely neglected. Obviously with the sides balanced in HCP, the more your side holds in their suit, the more points they are likely to hold in yours – a reason for caution.

It is best when painting a picture with your bids is to attempt to capture the essence of your holding by separating flat (Yin) hands from distributional (Yang) hands as early as possible, and among flat hands to distinguish hands that are well stocked in the opponents’ suit and those that are not. Suppose partner opens the bidding and your RHO overcalls. For flat hands the high card content is a major means of evaluation whereas for shapely hands losing trick count and controls come to the fore. Troubles occur when responder’s reaction can be a mix of the two categories. We are thinking here of the all encompassing negative double which can be made with a long suit and limited values or with a flat hand and scattered values. The long suit may never enter the consciousness of the opener, who will tend to use high card content as the default means of evaluation.

Flat hands have little potential for contributing significantly to the number of total trumps. The difference between the longest suit and the shortest suit sets the absolute limit. A 5-4-3-1 shape is excellent as it contributes 4 to the total trumps if there is a fit in the 5-card suit, 3 if the best fit is in the 4-card suit, and even 2 in the third worst candidate. Of course, you will not uncover the best fit unless you bid, sometimes incautiously. The one thing one should not do is press on aggressively when holding top honours in an opponent’s suit.

Information Reveals the Unusual
Bidding systems are based largely on the assumption of normal circumstances, and encounter difficulty when conditions are not normal. A bid is most informative when it reveals something unexpected. An overcaller normally has values in the suit he chooses to bid, and an advancer may also. So bidding a topless suit has a deceptive element that may work to one’s advantage. If the AKQ in a suit are missing, the chances are they are distributed around the table with no one player the wiser. If someone holds two of these cards, that player will know that something unusual is in the offing. So in competition, especially with a flat hand, one does best to keep partner informed of the abnormal state of affairs when the opponents are bidding a weak suit. Here is an extreme example from the 2005 Bermuda Bowl Final.

 
57
E-W
North
N
Rodwell
Q10963
AQJ9
3
1062
 
W
Versace
K8653
Q9865
A87
 
E
Lauria
AK82
1072
J107
KJ3
 
S
Meckstroth
J754
4
AK42
Q954
 
W
Versace
N
Rodwell
E
Lauria
S
Mechstroth
Pass
1
1
Dbl
1
2
3
4
Dbl
Pass

 

According to the analysis of Eric Kokish, Lauria and Versace are known for their aggressive style in competition which leads them to bid many a hopeless game. Furthermore, the Italian’s attitude towards doubling is less shape-restrictive than one expects (but doesn’t always get) from American players. Presumably with this cat-and-mouse style one has to rely on the opponents’ reactions more than is healthy in order to glean from the auction the necessary information on the lie of the cards, which leads to the dangerous condition of reliance on the opponents more than one’s partner.

The HCPs are divided 19 to NS who have a 9-card spade fit and 21 to EW who have an 8-card heart fit in addition to a supplemental 8-card fit in diamonds. The Law of Total Tricks if crudely applied leaves to the expectation of 17 total tricks in the play. Indeed, Meckwell could come to 9 tricks in a spade contract, but what about EW? With the expectation of only 8 tricks it appears rather too aggressive to bid even a vulnerable game, as the Italians are wont to do. As the cards lie, they should be held to 6 tricks, so the number of total tricks was 15, not a total one wants to encounter at the 4-level, or even the 3-level, as Hamman-Soloway discovered when they reached 3, unopposed and undoubled, off 300.

One can see on a double dummy basis that the problem is that EW are missing the AK in one red suit, and AQJ in the other. Versace took the final fatal step, however, the blame lies with Lauria who can see in his hand the AK of the suit introduced freely on his right, representing 7 of the 12 HCP he holds. Any bid by him at this stage will be altogether too encouraging. The warning signs are up. Leaving Meckwell to play in a spade partial making 9 tricks would give Italy 4 superfluous IMPs to add to their final winning total. Which proves what? Overall, aggression pays, but it should be exercised with discretion.

In a competitive auction one problem is how to best describe the hand, another, how best  inconvenience the opponents. Over 1 Lauria had 2 reasonable space-saving options: a responsive double or a pass. Of course, we are all reluctant to pass, Lauria more so than most, so a double would fit the bill, if it were defined to show this type of hand – an opening hand with nowhere to go linked with a willingness to go somewhere. He chose to be disruptive, which didn’t inconvenience Meckstroth one bit. It is safe enough to bid 9-card fits missing top honors. As for Verace’s 4 bid, well, sometimes one can be too clever – or should I say, too trusting, which is not the same thing.

Real Matchpoints

Play bad bridge and you lose  –  Robert Hamman

It is in human nature that conservatism increases in proportion to uncertainty. After World War II and The Great Depression, anxious parents filled piggy banks and taught their kids to save their pennies and the dollars would take care of themselves. Of course, we can now see that they would have done better to borrow to the hilt to buy stocks in devastated and discredited companies like Mitsubishi Heavy Industries of Japan.  

It was a time when Charles Goren was the King of Bridge. He was known for not doing anything flashy – he left that side of the game to his partner, Helen Sobel. While his bidding system is a thing of the past, his books on card play are still worth reading. Today’s attitude is more upbeat, and the current King of Bridge is the aggressive and inventive Jeff Meckstroth, who plays a system that remains a mystery to the uninformed masses.

In his book, Secrets of Winning Bridge (1969), Jeff Rubens gives his opinion that matchpoint game does not qualify ‘real’ bridge, because one’s score on a given board depends on how one’s results compares with the large number of pairs who play the same cards as you do. I ask, ‘what’s wrong with that?’ It’s like major league baseball: over a long season you must score well against the poorer opponents while holding your own against the better ones. Situations arise that are beyond one’s control, however, and overall it’s technique that determine how well you will do.

In a matchpoint contest each board is scored on the basis of a ranking from best result to poorest result. The rankings are added over all the boards. This gives a statistic based on the sum of ranks, a perfectly valid indicator of achievement. A board passed out, defended at 1NT or bid to 7NT carry the same weight. So what does the final statistic measure? At best it measures your overall efficiency in all aspects of the game, at worst how well your opponents played against you. Bridge is a game, the rules are arbitrary, and your score, for better or worse, is what you live with until next time. Don’t take it personal.

What is the relationship between the results at the tables and the double dummy results? One would like to believe that the two are highly correlated. Achieve the double dummy result and you should score well. That is not guaranteed on any given board. More often the results at the table reflects how closely the bidding has conformed to the bidding system most favoured by the majority of the players, in my club 2/1 GF with 5-card majors. The bidding system possesses a certain degree of accuracy but the design is geared to seeking high scoring contracts like 3NT and 4 of a major that will succeed under normal circumstances. Go down in 3NT with 25 HCP and you are assured of not having suffered a bottom score. It is even worse than that. Here is what can happen.

 
E-W
West
N
 
64
AK974
42
K962
 
W
 
KJ85
Q3
AK98
A74
 
E
 
AQ9
865
Q1076
J53
 
S
 
10732
J102
J53
Q108
 

Eight pairs got to 3NT uncontested after West opened 1NT. One East, Blaster Bob, merely raised 1NT to 3NT, whereas 7 others went through an invitational sequence, having subtracted a point due to the poor 4-3-3-3 shape as they had been taught to do. At these tables the bidding proceeded as follows: 1NT – 2; 2 – 2NT; 3NT – Pass. There are 2 advantages to this long-winded  approach: East will be absolved of blame no matter the result, and the opening leader may be deceived into thinking East holds 4 hearts for his Stayman enquiry. At one table an expert pair did better (in theory) using the delicate sequence that follows.

W
Scientific 
N
Active Alic
E
Serious Sam
S
Pushy Pete
1
1
2
2
2
Pass
3
All Pass

Against the field’s adherence to 2/1 bidding with a strong NT, Sid and Sam were playing a weak NT system in which a 1 opening bid promises at least 4 cards in the suit.  Without interference 2 would be a transfer, but after an overcall it could best be described as ‘nonforcing but constructive.’ Which is to say, any squeak for an opponent reduces their elaborate structure to natural rubble. Similarly, in an uncontested auction opener’s 2 rebid would be a strong reverse and 2NT would show a standard strong NT opening bid. After interference with diamonds established as trumps, 2 was merely forcing to 3. Sam evaluated his cards in the light of these developments. A return to diamonds would not show his true worth, and he had a weakness for playing in 4-3 major fits, so he gave a raise to 3, ending the auction, but arriving happily at the optimal EW contract. Three rounds of hearts were lead, declarer discarding a club on the 3rd round. Sid gave a sigh of relief when both defenders followed to the A and Q.

‘Phew,’ exclaimed Sid, ‘lucky the diamonds were 3-2. 3NT is down off the top on the heart lead, so we should score pretty well’. As with most statements made immediately following the play this was misguided wishful thinking, for pairs in 3NT were making 9 or 10 tricks even on a heart lead. S&S scored 1 out of a top of 8.

Five pairs in 3NT made 10 tricks on the fourth-best lead. Two players led the A to look at the dummy. In one case South played the 2, upside-down attitude, blocking the suit, but getting an above-average score. Immediately upon checking the score this pair agreed the method which they were trying for the first time was superior to standard hi-lo they had been playing together for 20 years. At another table South unblocked the T, but North continued with a low heart, giving declarer his 10th trick.
South: What’s wrong? I was unblocking.
North: You played the Ten, denying the Jack
South: So what’s the difference? Just cash your King.

Blaster Bob’s partner, Passive Polly, once more unlucky, was the only declarer to go down when two Grandmasters got it right, partly because they approach all games bid by Bob with an appropriate degree of suspicion.

A rose by any other name may smell as sweet, but a contract by any other route may not be a good. It depends on what information has become available to the defenders. Probabilities are not fixed stars in the firmament, they move around as information becomes available. Probability is linked to information which is linked to choice.

On aggregate Sid and Sam may gain on their use of the weak NT, but there will be hands where the strong NT puts declarer in a better place because of the uncertainties remaining. Here Sid could have been more crafty. Once Sam raised to 3, Sid could guess the field would be playing in 3NT on a heart lead. If he aimed to minimize his loss if he were wrong, as suggested by Kit Woolsey in his book, Matchpoints, he would have bid 3NT despite the opponents’ actions, faking a stopper. It might have worked. How often the opening lead against a freely bid 3NT is not in the suit bid and raised by the opponents. Instead he aimed to maximize his gain, expecting the vast majority to be going down in 3NT. He was unlucky on this hand because the A and K were with the opening leader rather than divided between the defenders. Crudely speaking by going against the field Sid had a 2 to 1 chance of a top score.

There should be no grounds for complaint if 1 in 3 times one scores poorly. Indeed, we should all be glad to play a session where on two-thirds of the hands one starts with an advantage over the field. Just playing the cards well and counting out the hands is the mark of a consistent winner in a mixed field, but there is no virtue in resting on one’s superior abilities in that regard. Although there is safety within a crowd, it is regressive to suggest that there is an advantage to be got from bidding as badly as the majority. There is such a thing as progress, after all, even though there remains uncertainty in execution

Were We Fixed?
A common lament from also-rans is that they lost because they were fixed by some silly action by the opponents. My partner might say likewise, but I don’t think that way. Here is a recent deal where the defenders bid strangely to our great disadvantage.

 
N-S
North
N
Bela
J532
9853
J
J974
 
W
Connie
K
K1074
AKQ98
KQ6
 
E
Philip
1094
AQJ4
63
A1085
 
S
Bob
AQ875
6
107543
32
 
W
Connie
N
Bela
E
Philip
S
Bob
Pass
1
1
2
2
Pass
Pass
3
Pass
6
All Pass

 As she put down the dummy, Connie apologized for her bidding, something I always avoid before the results are in. ‘I know this is wrong,’ she said, ‘but I had one of my hearts in with my diamonds.’ If she hadn’t said that I would have congratulated her on her fine bidding, but one can’t congratulate someone for their poor eyesight. You see, she was apologizing for bidding the hand correctly, that is, against the standard matchpoint procedure of always doubling a spade overcall when you hold 4 hearts. Naturally by bidding correctly the pair outbid the field to an ice-cold slam and handed us a bottom.

There are lessons to be learned. Perhaps I should have passed and awaited developments? Naaa. Maybe I should add another convention to the card and adopt Roman Jump Overcalls? Naaa. Maybe, partner should have jumped to 3 on nothing? Get real, these things happen. I don’t blame Dame Fate in the guise of a nice lady for our falling one short in the rankings. There were two other hands where we scored poorly when the opponents bid to 6 with 13 tricks off the top. Painful, perhaps, that the field offered us no protection against competent bidding, but if on the last round I had counted out a hand correctly we would have ended in first place. So, control what you can control, and forget about what you can’t.

The Least Lie

During my first year of duplicate I opened 1 on a hand containing AQ doubleton and xxx. When the hand was over I was castigated by my LHO for not opening 1. It appeared he had given up an overtrick on a pseudo-squeeze. I have always felt that one should prefer to bid where the points are, and had no deceptive agenda in mind, in fact, I thought I was being informative. If I had deception in mind I would have opened 1 on the worthless suit hoping to discourage a diamond attack. Certainly there was no intention of playing in a diamond contract and it would be wrong to suggest there was. I was surprised that the rules required such an action rather than discourage it. This simple example shows the value placed on suit length without regard to suit strength.

Preempts these days hardly conform to any rules. During the 2014 Reisinger Final against Levin-Weinstein, Andrew Gromov tied the record for the worst 6-card suit opened at the 3-level in first seat. He opened 3 on: 765432 7 54 984. Not to be outdone in the record-tying department, his partner, Aleksander Dubinin, raised on AKQJ matching the previous best 4-card raise to game. In the subsequent confusion the Russians defeated their opponents’ 5 contract by 3 tricks. It would be remiss of me not to mention that Gromov-Dubinin would have won the board even if they had passed throughout.  Here is the full deal with the auction at the other table.

 
Both
North
N
Narkiewicz
1098
10842
A72
KQ7
 
W
Rodwell
AKQJ
KQ93
Q63
32
 
E
Meckstroth
765432
7
54
10984
 
S
Buras
AJ65
KJ1098
AJ65
 
W
Rodwell
N
Narkiewicz
E
Mackstroth
S
Buras
Pass
1
Dbl
1
2
4
Dbl
All Pass
 
 

Meckstroth unimaginatively passed initially. Rodwell eventually doubled 4 by Grzegorz Narkiewicz and gave up 590 to the opposition. The loss was only 1 board at BAM scoring. Meckstroth does what Meckstroth does, but how should we approach a similar situation? Larry Cohen’s guidelines regarding total tricks suggest a player in doubt should bid 4 over 4. With respect to total trumps East might expect 18 in the form of 10 spades and 8 hearts. The Law requires a reasonable balance of HCPs, which we do have here, 17 versus 23, but the East hand is pretty much useless on defence. It is reasonable for a strong hand to double expecting partner not be without an entry, otherwise one will not be doubling enough. Rodwell’s double should not mean, ‘leave it in, I’ve got them down in my own hand.’ So Meckstroth’s pass indicates he was trusting his partner more than his opponents, hard to do but always the right approach. With no sign of an entry in the East hand Rodwell has to develop tricks entirely from his own hand. Even with BAM scoring passing the double is rather too strong a position to take when your partner isn’t of the caliber of Eric Rodwell, and even then …..

Let’s turn our attention to Meckstroth’s 2 bid. When I emulate the experts and bid on nothing, it usually comes back to haunt me. Partner is more likely to be fooled than are the opponents. After all, partners are supposed to trust one another whereas the opponents are rightfully suspicious. Beyond that, the opponents can guess more easily that you have nothing, and may be encouraged to bid on to their best contract, and play it correctly to boot given the information you have given them free of charge. If partner forces you to bid, that’s different. So I think over 1 Meckstroth should either have passed, giving up the hand early, or bid 4 on the assumed 10-card fit. It is of interest to note that 5 should make double dummy (Deep Finesse) so the fact that Levin was defeated by 3 tricks points to the fact that the insane overbid is often more effective than the reasonable wait-and-see approach. It is always hard to gauge the depth of insanity.

Bidding Topless Suits
Those who preempt or overcall on topless suits do leave clues, which relate primarily to the length of the suit bid. The deception in the clue lies in the lower than average high-card content within the suit. Usually length and strength go together, so disjointedness may steer the opponents in the wrong direction, the deception being greatest when the missing honours are split between defenders. It doesn’t work so well if one opponent is well stocked, so can see through the deception.

Last month at my club South, nonvul vs vul, opened 2 on JT9875 84 954 K9. My partner, West, bravely passed on AK843 J72 3 AQ32, and when I made a balancing double on 0=4=5=4 shape with 9 HCP, he had 2 chances for a good score: pass for penalty (500) or bid 3NT (600). John greedily chose to play the hand in 3NT. North led the Q from Q2. Declarer held up on the first lead and won the second. After a lead to the dummy’s KJT87, winning the J, he was able to count the hand and manufacture an endplay against North to yield the 9th trick. With no major fit, most EW pairs played undisturbed in a club partial.

The preemptor had deception in mind with no redeeming feature in hand. One can hardly expect to shut out the others at the table with such flimsy values. A good preempt presents the opposition with a losing option, but here there wasn’t one.

Opening Very Light
The ACBL allows very light opening bids in a suit provided a prior announcement is made. This warning is ineffective as most opening bids will be normal. It’s like the boy crying, ‘Wolf’. Let’s just assume that everyone opens light upon occasion.

Trouble arises if one assumes the HCP content is directly related to the playing potential of the hand. The HCP descriptor takes on the role of an evaluator. This is a common assumption foisted on beginners, some of whom never learn better. If the official 2/1 rule is simply that an opening bid of 1 promises at least 5 hearts and at least 10 HCP, as the newer player is led to believe, then the opening bid on less is a ‘lie’, but it is not outside the law and it makes bridge sense. So the ‘lie’ is not even a fib: it is a systemic flaw.

There are many ways to evaluate a hand that go beyond the simple point count. Taking into account the shape of the hand, a player is allowed to add points because of distribution, so a sound 1 bid may contain less than 10 HCP. In The Joy of Bridge by Audrey Grant and Eric Rodwell, the authors suggest adding 5 points for an 8-card suit, so the opening bid of 1 may legitimately contain a mere 8 HCP yielding the required 13 ‘points’. Only the bidder knows how much he owes to shape and how much to high-card strength.

Let’s consider a hand that appeared in the Ask Jerry column of the August 2014 ACBL Bulletin. Presumably Helms’ answers to questions from ‘newer players’ meet with ACBL approval. The hand was AJ 98765432 5 A7, and the question was, ‘what would you bid as dealer?’ Helms recommended opening 1 as ‘the least lie’. Certainly a 6-loser has playing potential. With regard to defensive values, Helms believes that the presence of two aces is sufficient defence for an opening bid at the one level. It is a sad situation indeed when a new player is told it is in his best interest to ‘lie’.

The offense to defence ratio is not the main consideration here: it’s the effect on an opponents’ thinking. For ‘newer players’ the least lie with the above hand is 3. This hand wouldn’t be much of a surprise to an inexperienced opponent when it is eventually revealed. The poor quality of the suit argues for treating it as a 7-carder. Bidding and play can follow normal procedures, and decisions will have a reasinable basis to work from. Of course, 3 is not the most effective bid for the opening side, because 1 gives a better chance of getting to slam. On the other hand, if partner has a poor hand, the opponents may be confused during both the bidding and the play. The opponents will not be able to come to a well-reasoned solution based on probabilities, luck will be the determining factor, and it is most likely to benefit the opening bidder. One concludes that by ‘the least lie’, 2/1 teachers actually mean, ‘the most effective lie’ within the context of the system as it has been taught to beginners. So why not start by teaching truthfully from the start?

The Effect of Mysterious Bidding
Consider the classic ending of an Agatha Christie mystery. Hercule Poirot has gathered the suspects in the library and is about to reveal the identity of the killer of the nasty millionaire with a shady past. ‘I am baffled; it appears none of you did it,’ he reveals, ‘It may have been a mysterious contract killer who mistakenly came to the wrong address.’ Agatha would get howls of protest from her fans; the out-of-the-blue ending has made a mockery of the reader’s attempt to sift the truth out of the evidence and overcome the false clues provided. Well, the same applies to playing a hand of bridge. There has to be a chance of getting it right by thinking it through, otherwise the whole exercise becomes a farce. If the ending comes by chance after one has been misled all along the way, the work of the little grey cells has been wasted entirely. ‘No, no, no, mes amis, it was suicide made to look like murder.’ Bridge players are prepared to believe that for they have seen it often enough with their own eyes.

Better Than 50%
A slam on a finesse is condemned by senior experts, especially in a matchpoint game, but some finesses are better than 50%.  As Terrance Reese has noted, there is usually a clue.

 
N-S
West
N
 
764
Q2
J62
Q10952
 
W
 
K852
AK109864
108
 
E
 
103
J753
AK4
A874
 
S
 
AQJ9
A9753
KJ63
John
Bob
1
3NT*
4♣**
4NT***
6
All Pass

John Miller opened a potent 1 (5 losers, 4 controls) and I had an old-fashioned 4-card raise, 12+ – 15 HCP. John asked for controls in the minors, and I showed my 5. He did not hesitate to bid the slam. It is always a temptation to bid a slam merely to celebrate having a convention others haven’t got, but that wasn’t the reason here. Over 3NT South passed quickly before John remembered that 3NT was a conventional raise.  It had never arisen before. Belatedly he alerted, and South noted she could take back her pass. John agreed, and she thought some time before passing again. So who would you think holds the A? It was unlucky I didn’t have another queen lurking in the background, but the doubleton spade was a hidden chance that worked as well.

Another factor that enters the calculation is that playing in 4 making 12 tricks was a below average score, because 2 players were doubled in that contract. So you don’t need a full 50% chance to bid slam. What you need is a method that convinces an opponent that you are over your head in 4. Maybe some opened a putrid 3 and were raised to 4 – that could do it.

Bridge at My Club

Bridge blogs are full of complaints. I am here to complain about the complainers who deride the game as played at the local club. They express grievances at a director’s poor decision regarding unauthorized information (UI), but UI is derived from familiarity of the personal quirks of opponents and partners alike that are an integral part of the local game. If you drop into a club where you are unknown, beware the smiling, wrinkled faces that merely mask the devious minds – the face of Santa Claus, but the disposition of Mack the Knife. Initially you, as an unknown factor, will have a great advantage, but over subsequent sessions the room will learn to peg you and adapt their methods to combat your particular modus operandi. As your scores plummet you will come to realize it is a time for a change of strategy, and, zip, back up again your scores, until the field readjusts, and so it goes.

Scientists deplore the introduction of human factors into the game, (why can’t we act more like computers?), but really, doesn’t that add to the game’s challenges? Facing a married couple who have been playing together for 40 years, one needs to know more than what’s in a book of mathematical tables – one has to know something of human nature. They won’t always do what you would have done with the same cards, and you can’t expect the said couple to forget, much less forgive, all those annoying habits they have come to recognize over decades. It works both ways.

If you come to our club seeking a partner you will probably be assigned Edna, a former club owner, now, alas, suffering from Parkinson’s disease and confined to a wheelchair. Her most enduring memories include shaking (left) hands with Pete Grey, the one-armed outfielder for the St Louis Browns. Apparently what drives her still is an abiding desire to screw up a Precision auction as long as she’s still able to do so. Your pre-game preparation might go something like this.
‘Hello, my name is Edna and I’m a nonagenarian. Do you know what that means?’
‘Does it mean you belong to an ancient sect that rejects The Book of Genesis?’
‘No! It means I’m over 90 years old.’
‘Congratulations, I wouldn’t have guessed. Well, Edna, what do you play?’
‘I play whatever you play.’
‘Precision?’
‘No, not Precision’
‘Flannery?’
‘No, not Flannery.’
‘Drury?’
‘No, not Drury – you will find I always have my bids.’
‘Stayman?’
‘Yes. Last week I came in first without any of this fancy stuff.’
‘Now we’re getting somewhere. 15 to 17 No Trump?’
‘Not with 4-3-3-3.’
‘You don’t open 1NT with 4-3-3-3?’
‘No! I don’t use Stayman with 4-3-3-3. 4NT is always straight Blackwood.’
‘That avoids confusion. How about , no, not Ogust….’
‘I won’t start without my tea and cookie. The cookies are over there on the shelf.’
‘Lots of milk in the tea? I’m guessing here.’
‘Yes, please, if you would be so kind, but make sure it’s hot.’

I daresay anyone could have a good game playing with Zia, but here you would be facing a real challenge, but the same problem at the table that your opponents will be facing. The only difference is that they will be moving on after 2 boards. Still, bridge is bridge, and the most important factor is where the cards lie. It’s important to maintain your concentration. Here is a recent deal that was particularly upsetting to my partner, John, who once more was done in by the redoubtable Edna.

 
Both
North
N
 
J109
A
K10
AKJ8543
 
W
 
AK
Q108754
AQ962
 
E
 
7432
K962
874
Q2
 
S
 
Q865
J3
J53
10976
 
W
John
N
Edna
E
Bob
S
Ben
3NT
Pass
Pass
4
5
Pass
Pass
5
Pass
5
All Pass

Ben, a naval veteran of the Korean War, has been witness to many astonishing feats in his day, especially in the port cities of the Orient, but even he took some time before passing Edna’s unusual 3NT. When John asked what 3NT meant, Ben shook his head and replied thoughtfully, ‘I don’t know.’ That made sense. Knowing Edna as we do, ‘impervious’ is the adjective that comes to mind, one should take him at his word. There is no need to call for the director. As South I would have bid a pass-or-correct 5, even 6 is a good save against 4 making, but in the light of history one can understand Ben’s reluctance to support with support. At the club passing with nothing is usually the best course of action, and doubling merely adds to the confusion, but, of course, one can’t double one’s partner even if at times you feel like it. As it was, John got to show both his suits and eventually reached the optimum EW contract.

Despite the wayward auction, on a club lead declarer has only to play the diamonds for one loser.  So, the A ruffed, a heart to the lightning-fast ace, and the K, ruffed, put declarer in his hand with the diamond suit foremost in his mind. John drew a second trump with the K in dummy and ran the 8, losing to the T. The J was returned. A third trump to dummy allowed for a finesse of the Q, losing to the bare K for down 1, leaving us to wonder if there wasn’t a better play. Just because a play doesn’t work doesn’t mean it’s wrong, although it always feels that way. If it feels good, it might be wrong. Even if it feels good and is good, some smart-ass will tell you it’s wrong.

Playing at our club where the uncertainties are greater than previously thought theoretically possible, it pays to distrust the bidding and gather information on card placement before committing to a line of play in a critical suit. In the face of partial knowledge one is supposed to assume what is most probable. Cashing the AK entails a little risk, but if one does that before drawing the last trump it enables one to ruff a third spade and conclude North began with a tripleton spade and a singleton heart. Entries to dummy are few, so declarer must unblock some intermediate trumps to preserve entries. Here the conclusion would be that the diamonds sit 2 in the North and 3 in the South. This is exactly the way it was.

There are 2 ways to approach the diamond suit under these circumstances. One way is to finesse twice starting by running the 8, as John did. The other is to play the A first and see what transpires – a discovery play rather than an attempt to drop a singleton K. If the T appears from the North, go to dummy, lead the 8 and cover South’s card. .The Principle of Restricted Choice tells us it is 2:1 that North was dealt KT rather than JT. Let’s compare the results for the 10 possible combinations. In loving memory of my high-school algebra teacher, ‘Grumpy’ Gordon, let a and b stand for the missing low cards.

Combination

Number

A First

Run 8

KJT – ab

1

W

W

KJa – Tb

2

W

W

KTa – Jb

2

W

W

Kab – JT

1

L

W

JTa – Kb

2

L

W

Jab – KT

1

W

L

Tab – KJ

1

W

L

Playing the A first loses in 3 cases out of 8. Ironically this sequence scores up the game. The commonly held belief is that optimally one runs the 8 and finesses the Q on the second round. This loses in 2 cases. The key combination is JTa opposite Kb. If Ben plays the J on the second round, it is twice as likely to be from KJa than from JTa.

There is more to the story. The optimum play clearly depends on whether you feel Ben is capable of playing the J from Jab on the first round. If you are a stranger to our club, you won’t know Ben, so you could assume that he is capable of this expert play. But if, based on his scruffy appearance, you feel Ben is not up to the extravagant expenditure, you would assume he would never play the J from J53 on the first round. Under that assumption, the optimum play is to go up with the ace on the second round once the 2 low cards have appeared from his hand. Then one loses only in one case out of ten, Kab opposite JT. Technically, John’s play of the Q on the second round was a compliment to Ben’s abilities. Maybe, Ben, knowing John’s expertise, had purposefully double false-carded? Intriguing thought; sometimes it’s hard to distinguish between accident and intent.

As the cards lay, going on a voyage of discovery would have accomplished nothing. The standard plays are based on what is most probable, so discovering the cards are placed where they most probably are adds little. That is the reason why so many play carelessly. However, one gains when the cards are not distributed as expected. Suppose John plays off the top spades before playing a second trump. The defensive signals may suggest Edna held 2 spades and Ben, 5. The distribution of the diamonds is now most probably 3 in the North and 2 in the South. That recommends an alternative line of play with this 7-card ending and the lead in the dummy.

 
Both
North
N
 
K105
J854
 
W
 
74
AQ962
 
E
 
72
96
874
 
S
 
Q86
J3
97
 

The 8 is led and South’s jack is covered, leaving the old lady helplessly endplayed. What sweet revenge that would have been against an old nemesis! Playing off the AK to a 7-card ending works most of the time when North holds 3 spades and 2 diamonds, as we have seen, but in this case success is guaranteed. So technique should have overcome psychology, which is the way we scientists would like it to end.

Well, that was just one of the exciting hands played that day that could have been dull, but weren’t. The local club presents the participants with problems they will not find in textbooks. If one wants to win, it is nobler to win by making smart plays, rather than sitting back and profiting from the opponents’ frequent mistakes. One should strive to actively take advantage of the opportunities presented. On the given deal 5 out of 8 players declared in 4, only one making an overtrick. Let’s give Edna some credit for her initiative in pushing us higher. Three players were in 5, only one making it. Playing off the AK early as suggested would result in a 90% score. So good declarer play would be amply rewarded. On the other hand, bad play is not punished as much as it would be in an expert game, which keeps the majority coming back for more. As the less fortunate transgressors often remark, ‘we had company, partner.’ Which is nice.

3NT – Everyone’s Favourite Contract

Players at all levels know the advantages of bidding and making 3NT. A priori this is the most desirable and accessible game. System designers devise ways to get the users to 3NT with a reasonable chance of success. Accomplishing this with a minimum release of information increases the chance of success as declarer may benefit from a faulty defence. Systems that define their structure on the basis of HCPs are geared towards this approach as HCPs are useful in gauging the potential for success in NT contracts, whereas they are not nearly as good at gauging the potential for success in suit contracts.

Another approach is to bid informatively in the hopes of finding a better contract. It usually doesn’t pay to bid with a view of avoiding a close game, so what is meant here is bidding to a minor suit slam. A making slam is rarer than a making 3NT, so this approach is working against the a priori expectations. Information by its very definition is what separates prior expectations from reality. If information is exchanged and the expectations are fulfilled, the bidders have to some extent reduced their chances of success in 3NT, especially when they have stretched to their limit. Many inferior players have a phobia against describing their hands and look for ways to win by guile.

The Bias towards 3NT
Here is a real-life illustration of a systemic failure which came up on BBO in a Portuguese tournament. As the opening bidder how do you view the following hand: A53 K64 AKQ9763? Would you think of it as a hand that will play well in 3NT if partner has the semblance of a spade stopper? Or would you see it as a 4-loser hand for which slam is probable if partner has cover cards in the red suits? The best contract depends on whether partner’s honors lie primarily in the red suits or in spades. A priori one would bet on spades as an honour in one suit is more probable than honours in two, but it pays to find out, if the system allows you to do so. This was the auction at one table.

W
 
A53
K64
AKQ9763
 
E
 
KJ86
KJ10
AQ105
J4
West
East
1
1
3NT
4NT
5
6NT*
All Pass
 

6NT was doubled for a spade lead, and the contract was down off the top as the AQ sat behind the KJ86. One might consider this an unlucky result, but actually it was lucky because at the other table the contract was 7NT, down 2, doubled! Nonetheless the result was horrible as 7 is an obvious lay-down contract. 6NT played the other way was cold, so why did the opening bidder bid NT with a void? The system made him do it. His incredible tunnel vision followed as a consequence of his view that his was a 3NT rebid.

Rather than opener trying to describe his highly unusual, strong hand it is better if responder describes his hand. A 4-4-3-2 shape is not unusual. Here is a sequence we could use starting with a Precision 1, that says nothing about clubs.

1

2

flat hand, 14+HCP

3

3

natural

3

3

natural

4

4

natural

5

5

control cue bids

5

6NT

 

7

Pass

 

Opener has the option of bidding 2NT/2 to ask for a 4-card major. Instead he is able to set the priorities towards a club slam in the knowledge that responder has at least 2 clubs. Natural control bids follow until responder shows a preference for 6NT, which would have scored well in Portugal. From his point of view 6NT is in keeping with the general nature of his hand. Opener should know enough by this time to bid the Grand Slam.

1NT within the 2/1 System
1NT is the anchor bid with regard to reaching 3NT contracts. In the past the lower limit for 1NT was 16 HCP. The average number of points opposite was 8, so 3NT was within grasp nearly half the time. With the passage of time the lower limit has decreased so that today , playing 14-16 limits I find this 13-point hand worthy of 1NT: Q8 KT7 KJ96 AT93. The most likely contract will be in NT, but the hand contains decent support for the majors. The average number of points opposite is 7, so game is available less than half the time which means one is bidding primarily to win the part score battle. If partner proceeds to 3NT on 10 HCP, it’s true that an extra Jack might make a difference, but a sequence of 1 – 1; 1NT doesn’t appeal to me at all. Exchange the minors with the majors and there is too great a chance of missing a major partial on a 4-4 fit, so I open 1.

In the 2/1 system described by Max Hardy (1989), a higher range of HCP is maintained, which leaves a gap between the rebids after a light minor suit opening bid. To remedy this, Hardy includes some very good hands with a 6-card minor in the 1NT category, presumably to benefit from a bolstering of the lower limit from 11 HCP to 15 HCP. The effect of this is to place a poison pill within the 1NT bid, for example, A7 K6 942 AKQ965 – a 5-loser hand with 6 controls, the equivalent power of  20 HCP. To show such power opener must bid 2NT freely at his next turn. Most of the time, this will work in giving a good description of the exceptional holding, however, there is a theoretical problem. For responder to show interest in a diamond slam this sequence is recommended: 1NT – 2; 2 – 2; 2NT – 3, where 3 is the first meaningful bid. It shows a 6-loser hand with a broken 6-card diamond suit. 2 normally shows hearts, but 2 cancels that meaning and says responder is about to show a hand with a good minor suit. However, opener may have the big hand folded into 1NT and he must bid 2NT/2 to show it. Here is a possible outcome.

W
 
A7
K6
942
AKQ965
 
E
 
KQ5
A84
AJ10876
3
West
East
1NT
2
2NT
3
3NT
?

Responder plans to bid 2/2 as a forcing relay canceling the normal meaning and enabling him to bid 3 to show a broken diamond suit with 6 losers. Opener ruins this plan by showing a ‘solid’ minor, obviously clubs. Responder follows through showing diamonds, but opener can’t tell if this was his original intent. In these circumstances 3 could have several interpretations.

  • a broken diamond suit, 6 losers
  • a re-transfer to hearts
  • hearts and diamonds

 Because the 2 cancellation has not occurred, the original intended meaning should be no longer a valid interpretation. In fact 6NT is a good contract on this particular placement of the major suit controls, but the bidding system is not helping the players to reach it. It is bad practice when one must fight one’s system. I would expect a gutsy responder to jump to 6 and hope partner makes the right choice.

Some players will not worry about missing the occasional slam because they use the hide-and-seek approach foisted on them by 2/1 designers. It appears many have a phobia about giving up information, which means they prefer to guess unnecessarily in order to take advantage of the uncertainty in the auction. The argument is that they gain overall on frequency. However, this is not an either-or choice as there are approaches that allow one to distinguish between situations for which one should take a flyer at 3NT, and for which one should go slowly and bid informatively.

Bidding within a Context
The system designer has given users guidelines to see him through under normal circumstances, but during a cooperative auction a player is free to choose one bid over another, in that way selecting the information he prefers to convey. The selection process begins at the first bid. It is best if a target contract can be assumed earlier rather than later in order to choose the information within in a particular context. If 1NT can be opened with a 5-card major, the bidding veers towards 3NT. It will be difficult for the opener to revert to his major. If one is bidding in the context of a NT contract, revealing the locations of stoppers is of prime importance, whereas in the context of a suit contract revealing controls is most relevant. It is well known that if the target is a suit contract, a player should ‘support with support’ immediately in order to set the agenda. A ‘worthless doubleton’, the anathema of a 3NT contract, can be quite useful in a suit contract.

In his book, The No Trump Zone, Danny Kleinman discusses at length the many aspects of an opening 1NT bid. Here is his guideline: ‘A 1NT opening should deliver a narrow range of value in support of partner’s suit or on defense against an opposing suit contract.’ That puts 1NT within the right context from the start.

If one opens 1, diamonds are not strongly suggested as trumps, and the search is just beginning with the contract of 5 being something of a last resort. The system designer works around the possibilities. If the best contract is 5, the only way to find out whether this is one of those rare occurrences, is to have the informative methods to discover the exceptional circumstances. Responder has need of a forcing raise, but where is it? As we have seen previously in the context of a weak NT system, Doug and Sandra Fraser play that a 3 response conveys this message. From this point on the auction is geared primarily to choosing between 3NT and 6. Subsequent bids have a meaning related to this task. It is much harder under a 2/1 system where 1-3 is nonforcing (10-12 HCP) showing 6 clubs, as it is uncertain as to where the auction is leading. Because it is difficult to establish a fit in either suit, 3NT looms large through the fog.

W
 
J
AK64
AQJ72
Q63
 
E
 
A10
85
984
AK10765
West
East
1
3
3
3NT
All Pass
 

3NT ends most auctions. The bidding falls flat because the 3 bid is interpreted as showing a heart stopper and indirectly asking for a spade stopper, which responder has. Bidding 3/3 would deny a spade stopper, not show support for diamonds. One might consider this a rare, unlucky combination for the system. Most of the time 1 will be bid on a hand limited to at most 14 HCP, the top priority being given initially to finding a major suit fit. 3 will be useful in reaching a close 3NT without giving away information concerning the weaker major suit holding, or even the strength of the diamond suit. There is value in uncertainty in such cases, which the system designer planned to exploit.

The HCP limits on 3 are not a useful measure of the playing potential in a minor suit contract. Five controls are worth the equivalent of 16 HCP, which applies to both hands. Only 2 controls are missing. The worthless heart doubleton turns out to be a useful asset. The system should provide a way to exploit this strength in the cases where the 1 opening bid is not the expected flat minimum. Needless to say, a Precision 1 auction will reach 6 with ease, because the club fit will be revealed on the first response and the focus will be on controls not the total number (28) of HCP held. Opener can ask questions of responder without directly revealing his own holding, thereby hiding behind a veil of secrecy without having to put on a false mask

The Art of Good Guessing

During the Baze Seniors Final super-scientist Eric Rodwell was asked what his 3rd seat 3NT bid meant, and he replied, ‘it can be anything I want.’ I was shocked. It was as if Albert Einstein had risen during a symposium at Princeton and said, ‘Gentlemens, forget about Cosmic Evolution for the time beings – tonight Abbott and Costello open at Minsky’s.’ Has Rodwell abandoned a lifetime search for systemic perfection and adopted the unsound method of randomization? Hardly. He was referring to his 3rd seat non-vulnerable 3NT on this hand: 62 A2 AT AKQ8532, a strange choice with 4 losers, when the hand could be opened a Precision 1. Still, it can be a temptation to occasionally bid whatever you fancy, a temptation to which many succumb in the intoxicating spirit of individual freedom. The trouble is they somehow imagine they are increasing their chances of winning rather than merely being a pain in the ass for the others involved.

In the December ACBL Bulletin August Boehm notes that even the concept of captaincy is foreign to many of the younger generation of players. They are overly concerned about how the opponents react rather than where the cards lie. Perception outweighs truth. Yes, bidding blindly does have the potential of increasing the chances of success, if a high scoring contract is reached with little information given up to the defenders. Here is an example of how not to do it from the recent Winter Nationals in India. With both vulnerable North opened a 3rd seat 1NT on T76 A5  AQJ9652 K. The BBO commentator noted that the most frequent game contract is 3NT, as if this somehow justified this strange start. The second most common game contract is 4M, he noted apologetically, when NS eventually reached 4 on a 5-3 fit without North having mentioned his diamond suit. Well if one is going to adopt this mode of operation, why not open 3NT and be done with it?  Opening 1NT is misguided deception for its own sake with little upside, whereas 3NT was unbeatable on any lead.

The key to successful master-minding is to guess according to what is most probable given what is known at the time. Guided by the predominance of 3NT contracts, our Indian declarer might imagine a hand opposite that would contain about a third of the missing points and fulfill an 8-7-6-5 division of sides, the most likely division as well as one suitable for a NT contract. In this case one might assume a  4=3=1=5 shape with 8 HCP. So it is not unreasonable to assume a hand opposite that looks something like this: Kxxx Qxx x QJxxx. On a blind lead the timing may be there to establish the diamonds, and there is nowhere else one would prefer to play the hand.

Here is the actual 8=5=8=5 combination, which in character isn’t that much different from the most likely expectation.

W
 
1076
A5
AQJ9652
K
 
E
 
KQ853
K102
4
J1072

Actually, partner was well stocked in both majors and the JTxx were most useful, so it was not necessary to rely on the diamonds for tricks: 4 spades, 2 hearts, 2 clubs and 1 diamond make up 9 tricks. With 4 losers outside diamonds declarer must not create a 5th by finessing for the K. 4 represented a 10 IMPs loss against a diamond partial. Well, one can’t apply this technique if partner’s bidding is all over the lot; someone has to provide real information, otherwise it’s like bingo.

Bidding a Grand Slam
The ACBL Bulletin contains a feature called The Bidding Box in which successful pairs compete in the bidding of 8 hands. The aim of the contest is to present possible bidding sequences using common practices. It is a question of the use of what limited information can be made available, rather than a test of alternative means of obtaining information. Indirectly it is a justification of common practices under trying circumstances. The judge’s scoring is based on a matchpoint scale with a top of 12. In the Dec 2014 issue the victorious pair was a married couple from our local club, Douglas and Sandra Fraser, who play a souped up version of 2/1. Their successes in the NABC Senior Mixed Pairs come as no surprise to those who know and admire their commitment to excellence.

Slam hands are a major component of the contests, and this is where detailed agreements such as those devised by Doug Fraser, come to the fore. Let’s have a detailed look at Problem 5 for which both pairs scored 10 out of 12 for reaching 7. The second-seat opener (East) holds 16 HCP and flat hand, for most an automatic 1NT opening bid. Responder holds 11 HCP. General rule: with 26 HCP between the 2 hands, no shortage, stoppers in every suit and a long minor, play in 3NT. However, pairs who bid 1NT-3NT are not likely to win many bidding contests.

Responder holds A7 9 KT86532 A76 – 6 losers and 5 controls. A priori the most likely distribution for a 1NT opening bid is 4-4-3-2, and the most likely division of sides is 8-7-6-5. Responder does better by considering the most likely shape given by the a posteriori probabilities based on what he sees in his own hand. Here is a reasonable expectation based on 5=6=9=6 with 15 HCP opposite.

W
 
A7
9
K1086532
A76
 
E
 
KJxx
AQxxx
Qx
Kxx

The argument for 3NT goes as follows. The opening lead in a major suit will be useful coming up to the strong NT hand with its tenaces. Slam may come down to playing the diamonds for 6 tricks and just 1 loser somewhat less than a 50% chance. Not many will bid slam on 26 HCP, and if they do they might be defeated. A jump to 3NT could result in a useful opening lead and lots of matchpoints. There is slam potential in responder’s hand, but can one explore slam without fully committing to it?

An aggressive responder might aim for a NT contract and ignore diamonds as a candidate trump suit. He can ask for aces (using Gerber) and hope for 5 cover cards for his 6 losers. That might lead to a risky 4NT, however, the Bidding Box hand is much better than expected (6 controls, not 5) so it proves rewarding to explore in a simple manner.

W
 
A7
9
K1086532
A76
 
E
 
108
AK53
A974
KQ9

1NT

 

4

4

Gerber

5

5

2 kings

5NT

6

Q

6NT

Pass

 

Does the fact that the opener has shown the A make it more likely he holds 3 diamonds rather than 2? To get some guidance let’s assume opener has a 3=5=2=3 or a 3=5=3=2 shape. How likely is it that opener was dealt the former rather than the latter? The distributions of sides in these cases are 5=6=9=6 and 5=6=10=5. The shorter diamond hand is more likely in the ration of 5:3. If opener has 3 diamonds, it is 50-50 that he would be dealt the ace. If he were dealt 2 diamonds, it is a 1 in 3 chance he was dealt the ace. Applying these probabilities to the probabilities of  being dealt 2 diamonds as opposed to 3, we find the probability of his holding 2 diamonds rather than 3, given he has shown the ace, is 10:9. So, although the presence of the ace is encouraging, it is still more likely it comes from a doubleton rather than a tripleton. Thus responder can expect to have a loser in diamonds more than half the time. Consequently he may sign off in 6NT and the opener will have to pass because he hasn’t been given the information he’d need to overrule his partner. This contract is judged worthy 9/12 matchpoints, so why should we sweat it?

What are the features that make this actual hand better than the likely hand we envisioned initially?  The AK and KQ are strongly paired, and, most importantly, opener holds four diamonds to the ace which ensures no loser in the suit. That is, the extra length acts as a cover card (the Q) in trumps. It is better bidding if responder can show diamonds early rather than late, in which case the partners can cooperate in the exploration. It so happens we have a descriptive bid in our arsenal that fits the bill – a response of 3 which shows a 6+ card diamond suit with slam ambitions (6 losers or less) including the A or K, denying the heart A or K. The bidding would proceed as follows.

1NT

 

3

4

diamond slam try

4

4NT

heart shortage  – RKCB

5

5

1430 – assures slam

5NT

6

grand slam try

6NT

7

Q, no K

7NT

Pass

 

7NT scores a top. The availability of a bid that immediately shows slam interest with a long diamond suit makes the bidding of the grand slam rather easy and less open to guesswork. It is important that opener immediately raise to 4, forcing, to set the stage for an exchange of information. The sequence is a cooperative effort in which responder reveals the nature of his hand. There is room for the opener to show the concentration of power in the club suit. Encouraged by this move, responder can count 13 tricks in NT. Finally let’s examine the Frasers’ sequence to 7.

Sandra

Doug

 

1

playing a weak NT

3

3NT

limit plus raise

4

4NT

RKCB – 2 aces

5

7

grand slam try accepted

Pass

   

Using a weak NT Doug opened a natural 1 which Sandra raised with an artificial 3 bid. 3NT showed a strong NT hand, and 4 was Roman Key Card Blackwood. 5 confirmed all 5 key cards were held without specific reference to the club suit. Sandra was looking for more than an assured 6. This is a good sequence: first the fit is established, one hand is limited, then the controls are investigated, a grand slam invited. At this point Doug bid what he thought he could make, choosing 7 over 7NT because he deemed it safer. He did not know the extent of Sandra’s support in diamonds. Doug mentioned to me that he did not take into account that this was a bidding contest problem, a fact that would change the probabilities, but merely bid as he would in a real matchpoint session where safety is a very important factor when choosing between slam alternatives. The only feature that the opener has yet to reveal is the Q. If he were able to do so safely, it might have been enough for Sandra to put the frosting on the cake (Forgive me the domestic reference.)

Miracles Do Happen
It was Comte Pierre Simon Laplace who famously boasted to Napoleon that he could explain the motions of the planets without the need to assume divine intervention. I wonder how he would do explaining the miraculous result on the following deal played late in a Swiss Team event held a church hall where divine intervention is not to be ruled out. How would you and your partner bid these cards to the obviously successful Grand Slam?

W
 
AJ986
AK83
A
Q103
 
E
 
KQ10754
J532
A74

Our bidding was simple:  1 (oops!) – 1; 4NT – 5; 7 – Pass. Partner pulled the wrong card (1) from the bidding box which set in motion a strange sequence of bids. Only after I responded in his long suit did my partner notice his slip. Knowing it would be impossible to correct the initial impression, he took charge with RKCB and found great controls opposite, which was unlucky in a way. Fearing the opponents would easily get to a small slam after a normal start of 1 – 2NT, he guessed for a winning score. Bidding 7 was based on a combination of faith, hope, and the possibility of  charity.

What, we may wonder, would have happened if divine intervention had not guided his thumb? Probably we would have got to 6, and still won the match as the Good Lord took out insurance and had the opposition stop in game.

Lesson:  Any action, however bad, carries with it a chance of success, however small. The consequences with regard to human behavior continue to be largely detrimental.