Bob Mackinnon

It’s Marshall’s Call

If one wants to become known as an expert, one should repeat in public what most people have already been led to believe. That defines ‘the popular expert’, the type we encounter most often on television news. They are soothers of doubt, purveyors of complacency, and supporters of the status quo. They tranquilize us with trivia. They are like souvenir vendors at an art show. A step up is the expert’s expert, someone who transcends conventional wisdom without challenging it. He makes best use of the conditions as he finds them, skirting around familiar dangers, adjusting as best he can to an imperfect world. His actions speak louder than his words. In the bridge world Michael Rosenberg has achieved this level. A third type is most prominently represented in bridge literature by Marshall Miles, ‘the thinking man’s expert’. Here is an eccentric player whose views very often are in conflict with conventional wisdom, views that upon reflection make perfectly good sense. He promotes progress and is thought to be ahead of his time.

Let’s first state our view that if common sense and common practice are in conflict, common sense should prevail. That revolutionary principle is the foundation of Miles’ approach. His book, ‘It’s Your Call’, consists of a selection of 143 bidding problems culled from his 25 years’ experience as a bidding panel moderator. He includes the choices of well known experts, then tells us why they are wrong and he is right, giving reasons that for the most part sway the reader to his point of view. In the end he exhorts the reader to always keep an open mind and be prepared to break the rules if they are inappropriate to the prevailing circumstances. Problem 101 is an outstanding example.

At matchpoints you hold: ♠ AKQJ64 94 QJ6 ♣98. In the balancing seat how many spades do you bid after the LHO has opened 1, passed around to you? One? Two? Four? Miles’ answer: no spades at all, rather, 1NT, the call he made at the table, scoring a top for 150 when others were scoring a measly 140. He makes a good argument for this eccentric choice. There is some justification for acting unilaterally in this manner as partner is a passed hand and needn’t be informed. Many aggressive players will do this with the impatient attitude, ‘OK, you won’t bid your hand, so I’ll do it for you.’ This is known as ‘masterminding’, and quite often it works. The danger is that the bidding may not stop in 1NT. If the opening bidder (foolishly) bids 2, partner may come alive and bid his worthless 6-card club suit, hoping for a tripleton honor in partner’s hand. From his point of view that may be the most likely situation. Miles might agree that it is a possibility, but would maintain it is more likely that the hand will be passed out in 1NT.

As is well known, consistency is an essential element if one wishes to bid informatively. If one bids this way on one hand, and that way on another, partner will not be able to treat your bids with a suitable degree of credibility. Wide-ranging preempts are in this category. There are reasons why partners have rules and follow them. However, to be informative is not the main priority of a player who is making decisions – his priority is to get to the best contract given what he knows at the time of decision. Miles maintains that one should make the bid that has the greatest probability of success, even in the initial stages when you don’t know much. Problem 30 is an example.

Partner opens 1 and you have to find a call holding: ♠ AQ97 T762 A ♣ AJT6. The panel members were split between 1 on a poor suit, or 1♠ with a better suit that denies 4 hearts. Apparently there is no way in standard bidding to bid spades and later introduce hearts as a trump candidate in a forcing sequence while conveying the simple message, ‘I have better, not necessarily longer, spades than hearts’. Panelist Ed Davis would bid 1♠, treating xxxx as a 3-card suit. I like that reasoning. If one bids 1, based on probability considerations, partner will expect the suit to be headed by at least one honor. In that sense, 1♠ is more informative as it conforms more closely to partner’s expectations. In fact, it is not ideal as the suit exceeds expectations with regard to suit quality, but partner won’t be disappointed for all that. With this hand it pays to encourage in that direction.

Needless to say, bidding 1 can be beneficial if you end up playing in 3NT, as a killing heart lead may be avoided because the opponents will expect you to have a better suit. Also, partner might hold AKJx so one might end up in 6 after RKCB discloses the Q is missing. From Miles’ point of view, whether or not you respond 1 depends on what you think is most probably the best contract. The general principle is that one should not bid bad suits with good hands, so with better clubs, Miles would not hesitate to bid 1♠ on the assumption that slam is a live possibility, but that partner shouldn’t be encouraged to choose 6. The weakness in this approach is that responder has no idea of the strength of opener’s hand. That surely must be an important factor. Playing a Big Club system, where the opening 1 bid is limited to at most 15 HCP, slam would not enter the picture, so 1 is the correct bid. If opener had a better hand and opened a Big Club, then responder should answer truthfully and admit to a 4-card heart suit, especially when the opening bidder can subsequently ask directly about the quality of the suit.

The point here is that, unlike the first example, responder really hasn’t sufficient information after just one unlimited bid to justify basing his action on what is most probable. Following an up-the-line agreement is the best policy, and partner must keep in mind that spades can be a much better suit than hearts. This adds a predictable element of uncertainty that should be resolvable subsequently in a systematic manner. A partnership stands to gain much if it reaches the best contract when it is not the most popular contract.

Generally, in a competitive auction more information is available and the possibilities are more restricted, so assuming the captaincy and bidding to what is the most likely winning contract can be condoned. Yet problems remain. Here is where we can expect Miles to provide us with helpful advice. To illustrate the point, let’s consider the following situation that formed the basis for Problem 34. At matchpoints with none vulnerable, you are playing a strong NT with 5-card majors. Partner opens 1 and RHO overcalls 2♣. You bid 2♠, forcing, and the LHO passes. Now partner bids 2NT. The first question is this: what does 2NT tell you about the hand on which partner opened 1?

I would say that the minimum you can assume from this 2NT bid is that partner holds minimal values with 5 hearts and a stopper in clubs. He doesn’t have much in spades, as even with a doubleton honor he might have raised to 3♠. As to his shape, there is no guarantee he doesn’t have 1=5=3=4. Luckily there is available now a 3♣ cuebid by which means responder can obtain a more detailed definition of his partner’s holding.

Here is an important point: if 2♠ had been nonforcing and partner had volunteered a 2NT bid, one could legitimately expect a stronger hand more suitable to NT play. One would be justified in assuming a maximum 14 HCP with 2=5=3=3 as the most probable shape with stoppers in clubs. 2NT would be constructive but nonforcing, but when 2♠ is defined as forcing, partner has to make do with what little space is available.

Let’s now look at the hand that opened 1: ♠ — AK764 985 ♣ KT632. With this hand most experts responded to 2♠ with a bid of 2NT, but they hated it. Admittedly it would be an extreme position if considered to be a suggestion to play in a NT contract, but it does cover the three main characteristics mentioned above: a minimal hand with 5 hearts and a club stopper. If one is allowed to open 1 on these hands (having agreed to use the Rule of 20), then one must be allowed to bid 2NT after a forcing 2♠ from partner. Of course, there is a danger of getting too high, but that is a danger one accepted when one adopted the Rule of 20. Misfits sometimes occur and create predictable problems.

Miles’ solution is to pass 2♠ – a breach of his partnership agreements. Alan Sontag, used to playing in a Precision context, also passes. In practice they were right. Partner held 6 spades and 5 diamonds and 13 HCP, just as Miles guessed. It is wrong, of course, to assume the captaincy at this point in order to save partner from himself. He could have good diamonds that provide tricks in 3NT: ♠ AQxxxx x AQJTx ♣ x, or even the values needed to make 4♠: ♠ AQJTxx x AQxxx ♣ x. The 985 is a good holding assuming the vast majority of the HCPs held by the defenders lie in the overcaller’s hand.

One further point: how can one conclude the 2♠ bidder has a minimum hand? Overcalls on weak hands have become endemic because of the inability of the opening side to cope with their outmoded methods which are based on the assumption that overcalls are sound. These days a 2♣ overcall may be made on a load of garbage, the main intent being to direct the lead or talk the opening side out of their legitimate game. On that basis the RHO may have only 10 HCP, AQJxxx and an outside king that lies in front of partner’s ace, leaving partner with a very useful holding, indeed. 6 may be the optimum contract. While this might not be the most likely outcome, it is a possibility that the overcaller is at pains to prevent. If one cannot bear to bid 2NT, one should not have opened the hand in the first place, but having done so, one should assume one has made the correct call, bid 2NT without anxiety, and let partner take it from there. Partner knows your tendencies. It is true that the scoring is matchpoints, so a part score in spades is likely to outscore a partial in diamonds, but there is no certainty this is the case here. Wait and see.

A current difficulty experienced by 2/1 bidders is that their bids are defined on the basis of high card content, yet they act according to their distribution, as the above auction shows. No wonder experts did not approve of their own choice of 2NT, as they were thinking in the traditional mode where an opening bid promises transferable assets. So they would be happier with their bids with the addition of the Q. Bids must be interpreted in the context of a system as a whole. One wonders what would be the reaction of 2/1 players who employ the weak NT. Would the 2NT bid promise at least 15 HCP? One sees that a simple overcall can wrack havoc, so why not do it with impunity?

My personal preference when playing Precision is to treat 2♠ as constructive but nonforcing. So like Miles I would pass 2♠, but unlike Miles I would not feel any guilt for having done so. I had a similar experience at Teams when I opened a light Precision 1 , which was overcalled 2 by my LHO, a suit in which I held secondary honors. Partner bid 2♠ and I passed feeling that if partner couldn’t react more strongly, 2♠ would be high enough. I suspected his motivation for bidding was a preponderance of black cards. Indeed, partner had a fair hand with spades and shortage in hearts; he wanted to bid something, and rightfully so, but he didn’t have enough to insist on playing at the 3-level on a misfit. My LHO balanced with 3♣ which went down on a lead to my K and spade return to partner’s ♠A, and the cross-ruffing began. They were rather bitter about losing the match in this manner, feeling I should have been forced to bid again, but it is a bad system that forces one to make a bid that one ‘knows’ is wrong. You see, if I had been forced by agreement to bid on, a vapid overcall would have been enough to wreck our auction. My only regret is that partner didn’t find the double. As circumstances change and we open light on hands with few transferable assets, we must adapt to the change and not persist in outmoded traditions that no longer fit the current conditions.

So, what can partner do if he wants to show spades and force to game? The economical answer is to double to save space and bid spades later, forcing, but many consider this an unsound approach. In this age where distribution is given such importance, a second possibility exists: transfer responses. Over 2♣ interference, responder bids 2 to show length in spades. If opener bids 2♠, that may be passed (corresponding to the old negative free bid) or responder may continue on descriptively to indicate a traditional forcing 2♠ response. If the RHO raises to 3♣ over the transfer, opener and responder need choices that indicate the degree of fit and the defensive content of their holdings. For the time being transfers seems to solve a problem that previously had no good solution, but new problems are created that replace the old ones. For example, in Problem 34 opener might accept the transfer for lack of anything better, conveying the vague message, ’I would have passed a nonforcing 2♠’. Responder then has to cope with a wide range of possibilities, and for lack of information cannot assume the captaincy at this point. He must describe, not decide. He will not pass with his 6-5 hand.

Not the least problem with the old ways was the absence of a definition of the double as a balanced hand. Here I totally agree with Miles’ view, expounded in his book, ‘Competitive Bidding in the 21st Century’, that a double should present alternatives from which partner is asked to choose. In other words, a double expresses doubt. It is co-operative and never hides a self-sufficient suit, which can be shown immediately through the transfer process or a preemptive jump. A double leaves open the possibility of taking a penalty against reckless opponents. Aggressive players have been getting away with murder for years as there is often no way for their victims to uncover the nature of their combined defensive assets. To double for penalty remains largely a unilateral decision based on a bad trump split when the opponents have nowhere to hide. This is rare. We still haven’t reached the stage of evolution of the double which half a century ago S. J. Simon characterized as ‘a suggestion to partner.’ Fundamental problems require fundamental remedies. Acting on what one knows is right must become part of a system, not merely an individualistic departure from orthodoxy.

1 Comment

Robert HarrisApril 29th, 2011 at 7:18 pm

Well, the T at the head of the T762 hearts is still an honor. One would like it to be a higher card, but a call of one heart might be enough to get us into a good 3NT or 4 H. Partner surely will bid 1 S with Kxxx, KQx, Kxxx, xx, which looks to me like a very minimal opener. Mostlly I dislike the possibility of a raise to 2H on Kxx. But then a 3NT call will work. Maybe I’m too dedicated to up the line with 4 card suits.

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