Thursday, July 28, 2011

Trust Your Partner and Fourth Seat Openings

There is no reason to preempt in fourth seat. The purpose of a preempt is to keep opponents out of the bidding or to keep them from finding a contract. If you are in fourth seat and everyone has passed, you know that opponents have 22 HCP or less and probably don't have a game, so there's no reason to bid with a sub-opening hand. To do so just invites opponents to search for a part score contract they can make.

As a result of this, a two level opening in fourth seat is available for a descriptive bid if you have an opening hand. I use it to show 12+ points with a six card suit. So if I have 12+ points with a five card or less suit, I just open at the one level. But if I have a six card suit with an opening hand or better, I open at the two level. This has two positive effects:

1. It more adequately describes your hand to partner and allows you to proceed bidding without having to rebid your suit to show six cards; and
2. It hinders opponents from entering the bidding to find any contract they might have because the level is just too high to start exploratory bidding. 

With that as a preamble, here's a hand we held recently:

My partner played our system and opened 2D, although I must say that it's puzzling why North did not preempt with 2 Spades in third seat, but that was the subject of my last column; when your opponents make a mistake, take advantage of it, and we did. There is a feeling that you should not preempt if you have an outside four card major. But in this situation, North, in third seat, must preempt with 2 Spades, holding six Spades and three of the top five honors. He should forget his four little hearts, especially in third seat. If North preempts with 2S, it would make our finding 3NT extremely difficult, if not impossible.

I felt my partner probably had a pretty good hand, 15-16 HCP; I had no reason for that other than instinct. I did know that she had an opening hand with six diamonds, so I immediately thought we had a shot at 3NT since I had three diamonds to an honor. My Heart bid showed a good five card suit. Since I already knew she had at least six diamonds, she was free to bid 3 Clubs to show a Club stopper. That's all I wanted to know. When she had my unstopped suit, I bid 3NT, expecting a Spade lead into my King doubleton.

Alas, my partner started thinking, never a good sign. Finally she pulled out the five diamond card, turning a cold top into an average minus. Whenever something like this happens, I know it's going to be disastrous in terms of competition, and it was. If we play 3NT we get the cold top and win. As it was, we finished a close second.

If you want a good partnership, you must trust your partner. I know her hand and I bid 3NT, which tells her that I have a stopper in Spades, the unbid suit. By bidding 3C, she's telling me she has a stopper in Clubs and is inviting me to bid 3NT if I have a stopper in Spades. After inviting the 3NT bid, she cannot then second guess me. On top of that, she had eight diamonds, not six! She knew, or should know, I had three to an honor, so she knew we had eight cold tricks just in diamonds. She had the AK of Clubs. I bid Hearts and told her I had Spades stopped. There is no reason in the world for her to override my judgment and pull it to five diamonds. She must trust me. She started out fine by bidding 2 diamonds and then telling me about her Club stopper. Why bid Clubs if she's not understanding my search for 3NT? Up until then, she was perfect. But then she chickened out, fearful of her Heart void, even though I bid Hearts and she knew Hearts would not be a problem.

Her bid is injurious for another reason. I have Spades stopped only if the lead comes from my LHO. If she's playing the hand, a Spade lead, which is what she got, means that she will lose two Spades right off the bat, since a lead through my King doubleton is a killer. To avoid losing two Spades, I must be playing the hand with the opening lead coming from my LHO into my King doubleton.

The only way 3NT played by me can be beaten here is if North, my LHO, leads a Heart and South takes it with her Ace and switches to the Queen of Spades. Then they will take the first seven tricks. Given North's hand, however, that is extremely unlikely. A Spade switch is also unlikely since North never bid Spades and South would be looking at a Heart void on the board. So a Heart lead would be heroic and so would a Spade switch. In this hand, North has a clear lead of the Jack of Spades, especially since I bid Hearts.

But let's get back to trusting your partner. There is really no upside to doing what my partner did. What if she were right? OK, she was right. But what if she is wrong, which she was? Then there are two extremely deleterious results:

1. A very poor result, greatly affecting your competitive position in the game; and, worse,
2. A very upset partner.

Of those two, number 2 is far worse than number 1. Not only will partner be upset, but it will affect his confidence in you for the foreseeable future.
Think, also, about this. If you pass and trust your partner and partner is wrong, your partner cannot be upset with you. You will have the righteous path. So from just selfish point of view you are far better passing than making a unilateral bid that could result in the righteous fury of someone with whom you want to continue playing. Isn't it better to trust partner than to risk being wrong with all the downsides that entails? I think so.

Here, she had already described her hand to me. If her response to my 2H bid was to just rebid her diamonds, I'll either pass or bid four Diamonds (probably pass since she hasn't shown anything extra). But when she bid 3C, showing extras and interest in playing 3NT and then I bid 3NT, she can't override my judgment because I know more about her hand than she knows about mine. When I bid 3NT I should be promising three diamonds and a Spade stopper, which is what I had.

Everybody else was in either 5D or 6D (one pair, doubled, down 2), except the people who barely beat us out to be first overall; they were in 3D making six (the only way that could happen is if South leads her Ace of Hearts, which East can ruff and sluff her two spades on the KQ of Hearts, losing only a Club; never lead an Ace on opening lead unless you have the King or it's a singleton). We were the only ones who found the best 3NT contract. Too bad we didn't play it.

One of President Reagan's great quotations is "Trust but verify." In bridge it's just "trust." No verification is needed.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Give Your Opponents the Opportunity to Make a Mistake

Everybody makes mistakes. Even National Champions renege or lead out of turn, or miscount trump, or make any other of a myriad of errors. In fact, a couple of decades ago I paid to play with a pro. I was a good enough player at the time that he asked me why I was paying him to play with me. I told him I was tired of my partners making silly mistakes and just wanted to play with someone I could trust to not make those mistakes.

Early in the game we were in an auction in which the opponents went into Blackwood and my RHO responded 5 Diamonds, giving me the opportunity to double for a lead, since I had the AK of Diamonds. They ended up in 6 No Trump with my RHO declarer. I doubled, figuring that with me on lead and with two sure tricks in my hand they were going to have a hard time making the contract. When the auction was completed, my partner, the pro, immediately led a Club, thereby violating at least three rules. He didn't ask if it was his lead, he led out of turn, and he didn't lead my suit. So much for counting on a pro to make no mistakes. I never paid anyone to play with me again.

If a pro could make dumb mistakes like that in a Tournament, then you should realize that ordinary players make even more mistakes than experts. Sometimes you are in an unmakeable contract. The only way you can make it is for your opponents to misdefend or make a mistake. You should realize this and give them a chance to make that mistake. Here's a good example from a hand in a recent game:

Dealer: North, both sides vulnerable


Opening Lead: Ace of Spades

I'm sitting West. Looking at the dummy I'm almost certainly going to lose the two Aces and another Heart. So I pull trump, ending in Dummy and lead the Jack of Hearts. Queen, King, Void. Now I know that East is sitting in a tenace position with her Ace-Nine surrounding Dummy's Ten. As defined in my 16-page Glossary in The Complete Idiot's Guide to Bridge, the most complete Glossary of bridge terms ever published and all by itself worth the price of the book, a "tenace position" is when "there is only one card outstanding remaining between a holding of two cards." In this situation, the only card remaining outstanding between her Ace and Nine is dummy's Ten because the King, Queen, and Jack have already been played.
How can I avoid losing two Hearts? The answer is that with good, or just adequate, defense, I can't. So the only thing to do now is to give her the opportunity to make a mistake. If I lead from my hand to the Ten, she'll take it with her Ace and then her Nine will be the highest remaining Heart and she'll take that trick eventually since I will still have a Heart to lose in both dummy and my hand, even if she doesn't realize it's good. So in order to give her the best opportunity to mess up, I have to lead from the board to my unseen hand.
The first thing I do is to draw her attention away from the Heart trick that has just been played that got rid of the King, Queen, and Jack of Hearts. So I lead the Ace and King of Diamonds and ruff a Diamond, leaving me on the board with the following position (North's holding is irrelevant):

I'm hoping she is inattentive enough to not realize that her Ace and Nine are both good tricks with the Ten on the board. I lead the board's Two to my Eight. If she plays her Nine she'll win the trick and I'll lose the two Heart tricks. But if she forgets that all the cards between her Nine and her Ace have already been played except the Board's Ten that I led away from, she might think that I'm going to win the trick in my hand if she doesn't take it with her Ace.

She doesn't even hesitate, going up and taking the Ace. That leaves my Ten on the board as my 11th trick. I gave her a chance to make a mistake and she made it. The result was that we got a top Board. Several pairs bid and made Four Spades. One was down one in Four Spades. One played Five Hearts our way down three. We were the only pair in Clubs.

The moral is, never give up. If it looks hopeless but there's a chance that opponents will misplay, give them that chance.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Doubling One No Trump

Most experts will agree that the hardest contract to make is One No Trump. The reason is that if someone opens 1N and partner passes, it means that opponents probably have an equal number of points or better because Opener's partner will bid with 8 HCP. If partner passes, the odds are that she has 5 or less. That means that the points are pretty evenly split between declarer and defense. 

If opponents' bidding goes 1 of a suit-1 of a higher ranking suit-1N-pass-pass-?, it also indicates that points are pretty even between declarer and defense because declarer has 12-14 HCP and partner has 6-9. Add them up. Probably each side has 20 HCP; sometimes Declarer has as few as 18.

Because of this, defense has just as good a chance of taking seven tricks or more than declarer, probably a better chance because defense has the opening lead. Yet one rarely sees 1N doubled. Recently my partner and I had enormous success doubling 1N. The first was in a team game where we doubled an auction of one of a minor-one of a major-1N. That one went down four after I doubled in the pass out seat and my partner sat for it. Here's the second, a hand I picked up in second seat in a game less than a week later:

I was in second seat and my RHO opened One Club. Even though I had 13 HCP, I have no call. I can't double because if partner bids hearts, I don't have a rebid, so I passed. LHO bid 1D and my partner bid 1H. My RHO rebid 1N and then I doubled in direct seat. I knew partner had enough to make an overcall, at least eight HCP and either had a good heart suit or six hearts. Either way, knowing we have at least 21 HCP between us, I'm doubling with my opening hand, especially since I had the queen of her suit. By our agreement, this is for penalty. Since my partner knows any time I double 1N I'm hoping to defend, she passed. Here's the entire layout:

I led the queen of hearts, which Declarer took with the Ace. He led a diamond and finessed my King. He led a spade to his king but East put up the Ace to lead another heart, which South took with the King. He led to the Ace of diamonds and then led a Club. Partner played the Queen, which he let ride. East then took four heart tricks with me discarding the Queen of Spades, asking for a spade lead when she got finished cashing her Hearts. I discarded one Club and my two remaining diamonds on her last three hearts, leaving me with the Jack-Ten of Spades and the Ace of Clubs. 

The only Club I had besides the Ace was the six and that would be hard for her to decipher. Since I had to discard judiciously to make sure I had the last two tricks, at least, I wanted to be certain she returned a Spade. If I asked for a Club with the six and discarded my Spades, and she misunderstood the six as discouraging instead of encouraging, I could envision him taking an extra Spade trick if I discarded my two spades, for only down one. So instead of taking a chance and asking for a Club and retaining two diamonds and no Spades, I took the sure way to make certain I got two of the last three and asked for a Spade, which enabled me to protect my Spade winner and my Ace of Clubs. She led a spade and Declarer took his King and the last two were mine with the Jack of Spades and the Ace of Clubs, for down two doubled.

A word about carding: in a perfect world, once my partner got in with the Queen of Clubs, we can take the rest of the tricks for down three. If I play my six of Clubs on her Queen, then discard the three of Clubs on her first Heart, it would tell her I wanted a Club return. If I were sure of her seeing this, I could discard all my Spades on her last three Hearts, one of which was a loser, and be down to two good diamonds and the Ace of Clubs. 

However, this is not a perfect world and everyone is fallible. There is a good possibility that my partner will be so intent on winning her Queen of Clubs so she can run her Hearts that she will not notice my six of Clubs. Then when I play my three of Clubs on her first Heart, it will look discouraging and she'll lead a Spade. If I discard all my Spades, relying on her seeing my high-low signal, Declarer will win two of the remaining three tricks and only be down one. If I clearly ask for a Spade return I'm sure they will be down two as we will take two of the last three tricks. So I opted for safety, choosing down two and 500 in lieu of risking only getting 200 on the outside chance of getting 800. I knew 500 would be a top and it was. Two other pairs defended 1N for down two but not doubled. So 200 would have tied two others for top. Playing it safe and not succumbing to greed got us a 500 top.

The key to the hand is that my partner knows I want to play 1N doubled if at all possible and she passed with a weak six-card heart suit opting to defend with two ways to get in if we can set up her hearts.

Here are the rules for doubling 1N. I want to emphasize that these are my rules alone. You can't play these unless you have a firm understanding with your partner that this is the way you are going to play. Not many others play this besides my partner and me to my knowledge. But I get more high boards defending 1N doubled than on any other contract.

1. If the bidding goes 1N-P-P_?, you double with 10 HCP or more and pass with 9 or less . If partner has a good 8, I want her to sit for the double. If not, she bids her longest suit and I pass. I'm not promising support for any suit she bids, so she knows we might be playing in a bad fit, like 4-2, but we're unlikely to be doubled. We might get a bad board, but 75% of the time when we defend we get tops because even though nobody is making 1N we are the only ones who doubled.

2. If the bidding goes 1 of a suit-1 of a higher ranking suit-1N-P-P-?, the person in the pass out seat doubles with a 10+ point hand and passs with 9 or less. In this auction, it's likely that declarer's team has an even weaker hand than the 1N-P-P auction. Partner passes with a good 8 or with less points but both of opponents' suits (so no suit to bid to rescue the hand). Once again, the likelihood is that declarer will be down one or two at every table, but you'll be the only pair to double.

3. In the auction of the hand I describe above, after partner has made a call and then opponents bid NT, a double in the direct seat is penalty. Since Partner has described her hand, she should have a very good reason, indeed, not to sit for it. I can't think of one. Here is where she must trust her partner.

Playing 1N doubled is probably the most competitive contract you can play but it will reward you because it will be the most fun you'll have at bridge, especially when you are successful. If you are too successful, if your percentage is too high, then you aren't doubling 1N enough. It never bothers me to double and have the opponents make it. You must be unsuccessful occasionally. But if you're only successful 50% of the time, you're too aggressive. The only way to know is to start doubling 1N when the bidding indicates. As you get used to it you should slowly learn when to double and when to pass and you will start to climb towards the 75% success level. Bridge is not a game for the faint of heart. Try doubling more; you'll like it.