Bob Mackinnon

Lessons We Can Learn from Watching BBO

The bidding sequences of our top players are so different to the sequences played at our local clubs that it is very difficult for aspiring players to learn from the experts.

– ‘Cliveo’ on BBO

Of course, the aspiring players know that the bidding at the local club is inadequate. What they learn from watching experts in action is that the difficulties they have experienced are not all of their own making. There are better ways of doing things than they have been led to believe. The major lesson involves concepts. Expert bidding is a language that one should attempt to learn. Hearts don’t always mean hearts, and there are good reasons behind it. BBO commentators want to inform the aspiring player, but by catering to the prejudices of the mediocre and propagating false doctrines in the interest of accessibility, they are doing a disservice to bright beginners. If parents always talk baby talk to their child, how can that child learn to speak properly?

I could watch Chinese TV for years without learning how to speak the language coherently. To learn it, I would have to do more than watch. So it is with the language of bidding. It requires effort away from the screen. However, it would be a great help if someone could explain to me in simple terms its structure, where the verbs and nouns are placed, for example. So it is with bridge bidding. One wishes to know the structure and how in the main it differs from the language with which one has grown up. Vocabulary can be added later, so there is no need initially to get stuck on all the fine details.

The concept that ’hearts doesn’t necessarily mean hearts’ is easily taught. Start early with Jacoby Transfers to 1NT. Even beginners catch on to the advantages and love to play those beautiful bids. They like structure and find nothing wrong in it. For advocates of a scientific approach to bidding, victories over regulators have proved hard to win, and there is still a lot of foot dragging by those would advocate ‘hearts means hearts’ – a totally unnecessary limitation in my view. And we still have these meaningless ‘Scientists vs Naturalists’ contests, which are akin to re-fighting the Battle of Hastings.

Here is an illuminating example from the recent match in the 2009 Norwegian Premier League featuring Glenn Grotheim’s highly complex Viking Precision Club. What can we learn from one of the most complex relay bidding systems currently in use?

Tundal        Grotheim

♠ T3        ♠ AK9

KJ532   A8

T9        AK5432

♣ AKJ4     ♣ 87

Tundal Grothiem
1 1NT*
2* 2♠*
3* 4
4 4NT
5 6
Natural 2/1?

1 2
2 2NT
3♣* 3
3♠ 4

First we observe on the right the opponents in action reaching game in hearts, making 13 tricks, on an auction to which many can relate: hearts shows hearts, diamonds shows diamonds and so on. Nonetheless, there are mysteries. 2NT appears odd, but one mustn’t bid spades without the implication one wishes to play in that strain. 3♠ asks for a stopper, and responder has 2, but chooses to raise on a doubleton rather than bid 3NT. Why?

With the Big Club auction on the left I am not sure we got all the asterisks in place, but it doesn’t matter; it is the structural design that is important, not the vocabulary. 1NT is not an attempt to live on the cheap, but a trigger to a game forcing relay sequence in which Grotheim is the master and Tundal is the slave. The master asks a series of questions and the slave answers as best he can under a strict regime of responses that allow no deviations. As the BBO commentator noted, the system can pinpoint jacks, shape, HCP concentrations and controls. It can also revert to natural bidding. I should think that this example may serve as an eye-opener to the neophyte who doesn’t particularly aspire to making 13 tricks in a wrong game contract.

One could argue that ‘master and slave’ concept is unappealing to those who love individual rights and freedom of expression, but that goes against my experience that weak players love Blackwood more than any other bid and tend to use it indiscriminately against friend and foe alike. We all love being a master and hate being a slave, but why not take turns according to the lie of the cards? That’s democratic.

Another lesson to be learned is one of evaluation. The above pairs holds all 12 controls, yet some may argue, ‘you can’t bid a slam on 30 HCP and no shortages’. Think again. Even a well-endowed responder has to work hard to get a partner to admit to 2-card support for a minor suit. In fact, I have played with some who would rather die than do so. Rather than being a slave to a system, they prefer to be slaves to habit, on the grounds that minor suit slams don’t come up very often and when they do, no one bids them. Such an attitude can kill one’s interest in bridge as an intellectual pursuit.

The End Product of Learning is Discipline

This brings us to the next lesson, which is, when bidding stay cool and transmit reliable information through your bids. Don’t get caught up in objective orientated bidding where one player imagines a desirable outcome (say, 3NT) and blindly steers the bidding in that direction. That approach is akin to turning news into propaganda. At best it is a matter of ‘spin’, at worst, a matter of deceit.

More Cliveo Observations

I once played in a 48-board match against an English International who opened 1NT against me 6 times and he was never in the range on the front of his convention card.

I once opened a 7-6 hand 1NT in 3rd position in a match against Yorkshire.

Much as we are drawn to success, we can’t accept the idea that sloppy bidding practices represent a winning strategy. As for the unnamed egocentric internationalist, we have grave concerns regarding his potential for generating happiness long-term.

The recent 2009 NEC Cup was won by the Chinese Women’s National Team who play Precision. But even Precision players can come to grief if they lose their cool and try to spin the result in their favor rather than to maintain an informative, neutral approach that serves well on most deals. Here is a deal that shows them at a disadvantage against free-wheeling Canadians. An unnecessary loss of discipline nearly cost them their victory.

Dealer: West

Vul: N/S

Larry Mori
Wang Wenfei Liu Yiqian
A643 T98
KT53 A6
KJ976 83
Vinkatrao Koneru

Wang Mori Liu Koneru
2♣ Pass 2♠ 2NT
Pass 3NT Dbl All Pass
Silver Sun Carruthers Wang
1 Pass 1♠ Pass
2♣ Pass 2♠ All Pass

First we observe the Canadians in action. Joey Silver opened an off-shape 1 as he would have a rebid problem after opening 1♣. John Carruthers showed his spades and Wang Hongli passed with a good hand. The oppositions’ actions were unlimited at this point and gave the appearance of a misfit. When leading a match with 4 boards to play is not the time to court disaster in a live auction. Silver then limited his hand and Carruthers gave his preference. Even more so than before, Wang had reasons to pass. The Canadians had stolen the hand due largely to the uncertainty of the strength of their bids.

Wang Wenfei might have followed the same path as Silver and opened 1, in her case limited to the range of 11-15 HCP. Liu would respond 1♠ as had Carruthers, but it not certain that Koneru would have let this pass him by. There was less danger involved in competing when the number of diamonds in opener’s hand was unknown. NS could have a workable club fit. We will never know as Wang chose to open 2♣.

Those who play Precision know that opening 2♣ shows a hand whose primary assets lie in the club suit, usually 6 cards in length. It is difficult if not impossible to reach a diamond partial after opening 2♣ as subsequent diamond bids are artificial and used as enquiry bids. So opening 2♣ was not a constructive move, rather it was an attempt to preempt NS to some extend. It was possible that NS would be bidding spades if given an easy opportunity to overcall. This 2♣ bid was putting some spin on the ball in anticipation of competitive action. Negative thinking is bad. It was partner, of course, who bid spades, 2♠ being nonforcing, and the plan, such as it was, fell through.

Koneru was in a situation where both opponents were limited, and, most important, West had shown a poor hand with 6 spades. Mori could be expected to supply some values in diamonds and the hearts appeared to be well stopped. Consequently the danger of bidding 2NT was small, and the possible reward was high. The Precision system had failed, but Wang by opening 2♣ rather than 1 had not followed the precept:

Let the System Make the Mistakes

The loss on the board was due to be 300 points, -400 versus +100, but Liu went mad and doubled a contract that was cold, so the loss was changed to -650, or 12 IMPs instead of the 5 that charitably might have been attributed to a difference in systems. Suddenly China was behind by 1 IMP with just 3 deals to be played. A 3NT contract might have been defeated if Wang had a good club suit as advertised, but an unattractive lead from ♣KJ9xx gave dummy a trick with ♣T, a justly deserved humiliation.

Bid with Your Head Not with Your Whatever

Another lesson for the attentive is: once you have described your hand fully and accurately, let it go. Don’t bid on. Here is the part score hand that decided the match.

Dealer: East

Vul: None

Larry Mori

Wang Wenfei Liu Yiqian
T42 Q963
KT96 A84
K5 J974
T986 AQ
Vinkatrao Koneru
Wang Mori Liu Koneru
1 Pass
1 1♠ Dbl* Pass
2 All Pass
Silver Sun Carruthers Wang
1 Pass
1 1♠ 1NT Pass
Pass Dbl Pass 2♣
Pass Pass 2 All Pass

Liu opened the nebulous Precision 1 and later employed a ‘support double’ over Mori’s 1♠ overcall. Koneru wisely stayed out, and Wang was forced to bid an uncomfortable 2 on a known 4-3 fit. Good defence would beat this contract by 1 trick, meaning North must lead the 4th highest from his longest and strongest, not unheard of, and South must switch to a club into the teeth of the ♣AQ tenace in dummy, a passive play that doesn’t give up anything that declarer can’t achieve by herself at a time more to her convenience. The brilliant lead of an unsupported ace (A) was suicidal, as Wang made 2 tricks over par and scored 140. (After all, bridge teachers aren’t always wrong.)

At the other table Carruthers didn’t avail himself of the dubious advantages of a support double, rather he opted for a descriptive 1NT. Good bid! That contract was bound to make. Sun made a balancing double forcing the partnership to a 2♣ contract that was doomed to a 2-trick set on a trump lead. Cutting down on spade ruffs would be the key move, and we expect that Silver would find it. That result would win the board for the men, with 5 IMPs up and 2 boards to go. Of course, if EW had been able to double for penalty and make it stick ….but now we are dreaming again.

However, Carruthers hadn’t yet shown his 3-card heart support and it is the mark of an expert that he is always willing to bid one more for the road. That might have been OK as the same contract was being played at the other table, but Sun made the second best lead in the suit she had forced her partner to bid and that proved awkward. The contract drifted off 1. China won 5 IMPs,  and with those, the match.

Those who seek perfection might conclude that in the end the Chinese women won on better defence playing in the same contract at both tables. I don’t think so. If you can take IMPs on defence, take them, but it is the uncertainties of the bidding processes that largely determine winners and losers. If Wang had (shudder) passed on Board 28, all this wouldn’t have mattered. Liu would pass instead of bidding 2♠ on a ratty suit, and NS would play peacefully in 1NT. Dream on.

What was right yesterday is wrong today. – Zen Master Ry_kan (1758-1831)

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