Monday, May 29, 2017

Opening a strong, artificial two clubs

I think it may be a general truism that the more experienced at bridge you become, the less likely you are to open any given hand 2. Many hands that look like something you want to shout about, especially if they are somewhat balanced with a good minor suit, probably shouldn't be opened 2 but will be by many inexperienced players. Minors and 2 openings don't go well together because you will be at the three-level by the time you've mentioned an actual suit and 3NT, the favorite landing spot, is rapidly approaching. Once you go beyond 3NT, you need good systems to land in the right spot. So much is conventional wisdom.

But I want to talk about something a little different: overall shapeliness and suit quality. I can't emphasize sufficiently how important it is to have a twice-biddable suit when you open 2. You simply don't have a lot of room to show a two- or three-suited hand. You can happily open a no-suited hand that falls in the appropriate range (usually something like 22-24 hcp) because partner will be able to take charge and steer you to the right contract. But, when you open 2 and hear the expected 2 from partner (heaven help you if you play 2 artificially as the bust hand), your rebid, assuming it's a major, will be at the two-level--and it's forcing. So, partner's second bid is usually going to be at the three-level so any third bid that you might make, to suggest a second suit for instance, will have to be on (at least) the three-level too. Again, 3NT is rapidly approaching.

Life becomes a lot easier for responder if he can rely on your primary suit being a good one: that's to say playable opposite a small doubleton (or even a singleton). I've had several arguments with the BBO robots when they just wouldn't raise my suit with, say, xx. They end up bidding their own lame suits and we often get to the wrong spot. They should assume that my suit is a good one. Part of their problem is that they don't play any kind of puppet Stayman to eke out a five-three major fit in opener's major. So, therefore they tend to assume that 2 opener simply has a five-card suit.

Of course, I am also a believer in the raw power of a good suit. Making a game with a good six-bagger (or longer) is just going to be so much easier than with even an excellent five-card suit. The latter will need compensating values.

Here to illustrate this point is a hand I held in a robot tournament on BBO recently: AQ87435 AKJ8 AJ 8. Only 19 points but a decent six-card suit, three aces, a singleton and, by the losing trick count, only four losers. By my estimation, this was a 2 opener. I expected to make game opposite not very much. Here's what happened at 25 tables: 1 passed out, making between 9 and 11 tricks (10 mostly). Two players made sure of reaching game by simply opening 4, making with an overtrick. The auction at the other three tables, including mine, was identical: 2-2-2-3-4. We made either 10, 11 or 12 tricks (I made 12, the proper number--three tricks more than should properly be made in spades).

So, did I get lucky? Was this an anomaly? It was marginally on the light side perhaps. But I would bid the same way again.

One other hand of interest cropped up in this 12-board set. Put yourself in the position of my robot partner: Your hand is: J43 J653 KJ AJ63. We are not vulnerable vs. vulnerable and LHO deals and opens 2 (weak). Partner doubles and RHO bids 4. This is followed by two passes and partner doubles again. Your call.

I've seen so many -530, -710, -990 etc. result in my bridge career that I make it a point of honor never to make a penalty pass when I have an asset that partner is seeking. Here I have four hearts. I also happen to have seven cards in the other two suits that partner is promising. It's no big surprise that partner is short in diamonds given their bidding and my holding. Clearly, I have no diamond tricks at all unless I'm lucky. But I have a working ace and two, maybe three working jacks. This hand cries out for a 4 bid.

But not the robot. He converted the double to penalties, despite knowing that it was for takeout. So, despite our 25 hcp, we suffered the ignominy of -910 (not one of the commonest bad scores) and I lost more IMPs on this hand than I had won on the hand I mentioned above. They are actually cold for 600 their way, but of course they weren't going to bid it until I (re)-opened my mouth :( But the robot could have at least attempted to save the day by bidding 4. That would have scored 420 for the good guys and we have a cheap save over 5 (if we should take it) at -100. The first of these scores would have gained about 13 IMPs (a positive swing of 24); the second 5 (a swing of just 16).

So, that silly robot cost me either 16 or 24 IMPs! Fortunately, it made no difference to the overall result, as I still managed to win, barely, after flubbing the final board, costing myself another 14!

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

The so-called Anna Karenina principle, quoted in the title, applies to so many walks of life. This weekend, playing with Symphony Pro Musica, I am reminded forcefully that, while music performance is not a perfect example of the AK principle--especially for professional musicians--nevertheless it is close. A perfect performance is indeed very much like another perfect performance. Again, I hasten to add that there is yet plenty of scope for differences among "perfect" performances at the highest levels of the art. But, for a non-professional orchestra, where mistakes can and do happen, there are many more ways to mar a performance than there are ways to play it perfectly. In ensemble playing, every note must be:
  • properly formed (not a squeak or croak) and with the appropriate degree of vibrato;
  • the correct note (duh!);
  • in tune (and an orchestra's domain is not the equi-tempered scale of keyboards so playing in tune requires constant attention);
  • in time (not more than a few milliseconds early or late);
  • at the proper dynamic level;
  • exhibiting the correct emphasis/style.
When you have forty or fifty independent players in a (non-professional) orchestra, each playing say a thousand notes, the chances of a perfect performance are obviously small. That's not to say that the performance cannot still be very much enjoyed by the audience. On the contrary, one of the most essential aspects of musical performance is the freshness and immediacy of the performance.

So, what does all this have to do with bridge? A hand of bridge is another endeavor in which perfection is possible, but the number of ways to achieve the perfect result (from both sides' point of view) is small, whereas the number of ways to err is vastly greater. In other words, a hand of bridge is another exemplar of AK. I note with interest that we bridge players have another thing in mind when we use the letters "AK."

One of my favorite tools for researching this idea is BBO's GIB analyzer. At each player's turn, you can check to see which cards are the correct ones to play and which the incorrect. The only flaw is that GIB will tell you the immediate ("proximal") effect of the play of a card, but it cannot (or doesn't) tell you the "distal" effect, taking into account the reaction of the player's partner (this in the case of a defender). As an example, defending a suit contract, partner opens with the appropriate card of his "AK" holding in a side suit. Dummy has two cards in the suit. You have both the queen and the jack and perhaps some other cards. From GIB's point of view the play of the Q or J is entirely equivalent. But which you choose can have a major difference to the result when partner leads to the next trick. Still, the GIB tool is an invaluable resource.

As an example, let me share this defensive problem (note that it wasn't necessary to ask GIB this time). It's the second board of the session and you hold 75 9432 AK65 982, not vulnerable vs. vulnerable, dealer. You pass and LHO opens 1NT (15-17). Partner passes and RHO bids 3NT, alerted. Opener now bids 4S which is passed out. Partner asks before leading and we are told that dummy has four spades and five hearts. "No," dummy says, 3NT means I want to play in 3NT.

Partner leads the deuce of diamonds (third and lowest) and dummy comes down with: T843 AKT T98 AT3. Well, he does have four spades. You can see that this is going to be a tough session. Even when the opponents have a major misunderstanding, they land on their feet. Anyway, you win the king and now contemplate your lead to trick two.

You have twelve cards in your hand and I can tell you now that there are only two correct cards to play (and they are absolutely alike) while there are ten possible errors to make. A perfect example of the AK principle.

This is how your thinking should be going. Partner has either one, three or five diamonds. Five is ruled out because LHO opened 1NT. That leaves one or three. If it's one, that means opener has five which is quite possible. We have no outside entry so it seems reasonable to cash the ace and give partner his ruff. Perhaps we should give him the ruff now as the diamond ace can't go to bed. What if he led from Qx2, which appears probabilistically to be the most likely holding (he wouldn't tend to lead from a xxx side suit after this auction)? Then we'll always get our three diamond tricks. This is true whether he started with three or one (where the Q will be replaced by a ruff). Does anything else jump out?

Could he also have Jxx of trumps? Yes, this is entirely possible (we expect opener to have four spades). If partner's trumps are any better than this, he'll be getting a spade trick anyway, whatever we do. Providing that we are on lead at trick four, that hypothetical trump trick can be promoted by playing the thirteenth diamond!

The problem might have been easier at IMPs where all that matters is defeating the contract. At MPs, it's important not to give away silly overtricks, chasing some chimera. Yet, this problem is no harder than playing a scale in a major key. Unfortunately, I didn't think it through quite as well as I've shown here. I picked one of the ten unhappy cards (A) instead of either of the two happy cards: the five or six of diamonds.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Doubling preempts with two places to play

I'm back on the subject of the ineptly named "Equal-level Conversion" after a double, a topic I last covered three years ago in Equal Level Conversion. I'm not entirely sure I still agree with my previous blog, but that's another story.

An odd thing happened to me playing with the GIB robots on BBO. Well, I shouldn't say "odd" because much of what they do is sub-par and humans should expect the unexpected. Nevertheless, I thought the GIBs would have more of a clue in this auction.

Here was a situation I faced with a hand that was something like the following: AKJ7 Q4 KQJT3 86.  My RHO opened proceedings with 2. I don't recall the vulnerability. Double seemed like the obvious call (to me, at least). LHO passed and partner (GIB) bid the inevitable 3. I "corrected" to 3, showing two places to play (the pointy suits). Partner bid 4. Just to be on the safe side, I checked the explanation for my 3 bid: "twice rebiddable diamonds 19+ points" or something like that.

But if I really had that hand, I could have jumped in diamonds rather than doubling (we hadn't agreed Leaping Michaels). Admittedly, bidding 4 takes us past 3NT but it would describe a hand with something like "twice rebiddable diamonds 19+ points" and no heart stopper (although 3 would also tend to show a hand like that).

My point here is that, when the opponents have preempted, it's very much more likely that we want to double with a two-suiter than when the bidding starts with the one-level. Two-suited hands over any ordinary opening bid can be shown with Michaels, overcalling twice, or (with a suitable agreement) some other shape.

But, over a preempt, you no longer have Michaels available (unless you are playing Leaping Michaels and they open a weak two) and you simply may not have room to bid twice. Therefore, it's much more likely that you want to double with a two-suiter rather than some magnificent one-suiter (which you may be able to show with a simple jump).

Even when the "correction" is not at equal level (as it was in my example), I believe that pulling partner's response to the next cheapest unbid suit has to show a two-suited hand, even if that may force partner to an uncomfortable level.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Applying pressure

As my regular readers will know, I'm a fan of so-called pressure bids, that's to say wide-ranging preempts opposite a passed hand. I'm also a non-fan of making tram-ticket overcalls opposite a passed hand. Still unconvinced? That's good. I don't need you doing it to me at the table!

But here's an illustrative tale from a team game on BBO (sorry, I don't know how to make this show only one hand):

Dealer: S
Vul: Both
♠ KQJ32
♥ 3
♦ T985
♣ T42



South West North
  p    1C    ?
HTML Bridge Hand Layout Creator

What to do? Surely this is worth in intervention with such an obvious lead-directing situation. But partner is a passed hand so, especially vulnerable, this counts as tram tickets. It's just not good enough for an overcall. What about 2? Well, gee, this could go for 800 or worse? Yes it could. But it almost never does.

Let's see what happened at the other table. My counterpart couldn't resist a 1 bid. East bid 2 and West bid 3NT. South, in the pass-out seat felt sure that, on a spade lead, this was going down. So he doubled. The defense wasn't perfect and my teammates were +950.

Now let's rewind to my turn over 1. With some trepidation, I bid 2. The next two players passed and I started worrying that the next call would be double. But no, West rebid his clubs (3). Note the effect of the pressure bid. The opponents have been talked out of their cold 3NT. The damage wrought by the 2 call has already been done! Despite having the chance to get out for -110 or -130 on a deal where presumably the opponents belong in game, partner now bid 3! I detest that type of action. If partner has preempted, then preempt as high as you're willing to go at your first opportunity. Fortunately, nobody doubled and I managed to drift off three (perfect play would be down two) for -300.

So, even with partner kicking an own goal, we still won 12 IMPs! Even if they double and I play it no better (I might take a bit more care in a doubled contract) we'd still be up by 4 IMPs :)

Here's the whole layout. As you can see, my opponents weren't the best, but the 2 call did give them a serious problem.

Dealer: S
Vul: Both
♠ KQJ32
♥ 3
♦ T985
♣ T42
♠ AT9
♥ KJ
♦ Q7
♣ AKQ875
♠ 75
♥ T7542
♦ AJ62
♣ J6
♠ 864
♥ AQ986
♦ K43
♣ 93

South West North East
  p    1C    2S   p
  p    3C    p    p
 3S    p     p    p
HTML Bridge Hand Layout Creator

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Never give up!

I've always found this to be one of the best bridge sayings, especially of course at IMPs. Sometimes, it is proper to give up at matchpoints and settle for one less than your target, rather than risk two less.

But on the following hand, I judged that there'd be very little field support for going down so I persevered to the very end.

Dealer: W
Vul: None
♠ KT953
♥ T86
♦ 52
♣ Q54
♠ 42
♥ 3
♦ AJT974
♣ JT76
♠ QJ86
♥ KJ752
♦ Q
♣ 982
♠ A7
♥ AQ94
♦ K863
♣ AK3

2D p p Dble
p 2S p 2N
p 3N p p
HTML Bridge Hand Layout Creator

Ever have that feeling when dummy goes down that you haven't got a hope of making the contract? I certainly had it. The J was led and when East played the Q I had to make up my mind whether to take it or not. It seemed almost certain that it was singleton but there was little point in end-playing him at trick 1 so I won with the king. I would certainly look a bit silly if the diamonds were divided 5-2 and hadn't taken the first trick. At that point, if I'd known that clubs were 4-3, I'd have played off three clubs and endplayed East for 10 tricks. But I hoped that the spades might just be 3-3 so I played ace and low to the nine, thus ducking a spade to East. East had an easy out with the club so now my best possible result was making (though I didn't really expect to). I played off three rounds of clubs finishing in dummy and tried the ten. No good, West showing out. Hoping for an endplay, I played the fourth spade. East was down to five hearts at this point and got out with the knave. My first thought was that obviously he didn't have the king because he'd lead low. But no, he wouldn't as that would put me in dummy (to enjoy the last spade) if I guess right. Plus, he (the robot) knew at that point that his partner wouldn't be able to return a heart after cashing out the diamonds. I therefore won with the queen and then played low to the ten, end-playing East again for the contract.

Nine other humans were in 3NT, four were in spade games/slam (all down) and one was in 4NT. Only four players made nine tricks, despite the fact that really the only skill required was to take to heart the old adage: Never give up.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Inverted Minors with a big fit for partner's minor

A couple of hands have come up recently that have illustrated a pet theory of mine regarding inverted minors. They haven't happened to me personally but have been related to me. Take this one, for instance:

KQ92 A6 AJT952. Matchpoints, favorable vulnerability. LHO passes as dealer and partner opens 1!

Now, it's a well-known principle of 2/1 bidding* that when we have a hand good enough to force to game, we show our longest suit first. Guess what? We have enough to force to game and our longest suit happens to be clubs.

So, let's start with 2, for now ignoring the spade suit. Partner probably has a balanced hand with three or maybe four clubs but that's not important for now. Our job is to bid our hand. Of course, if partner has only three clubs, then his automatic rebid is 2NT.  Anything else would be uncivilized. No, seriously, Howard Piltch taught me many years ago that you may not bid a new suit as rebid if you don't possess four of your minor. I still agree with that scheme. And, furthermore, 2NT is forcing! The only non-forcing bid is 3m.

So, assuming four clubs, partner's rebid over 2 is likely to be 2 or 2 (or possibly 2NT with stoppers in both suits). If partner rebids 2, he most probably doesn't have four spades (although he could be 4414 or 4405). Our 2 will simply be taken as a fragment and no harm is likely to be done.

But, it should be allowable for responder to raise 2 or for opener to raise 2 to show four. After all, most of the time these raises never occur because the emphasis is always on finding stoppers for no-trump. But if they do happen, the meaning should be clear: a potential double fit has been found. Since responder would never raise the minor without a game-forcing hand with an eye towards 6m (clubs in this case), it's hard to imagine anything going seriously wrong, provided that both partners are open to this possibility.

In the case cited above, the hand opposite was: A74 KJT9 JT3 K86. The club slam is cold** and much of the time, will make seven unless LHO happened to overcall 2 with 2. But, in practice, almost every table played the hand in 3NT which not only goes down on a diamond lead, but obviously wouldn't score anywhere near as well as 6.

So, here's my suggested bidding sequence: (p) 1 (p) 2 (2) p (p) 2 p 2NT (p) 4 (or other keycard ask, followed by the two-key-card response...) 6.

If you start with 1, it will be almost impossible to persuade opener that you have six clubs in addition to four spades, which is why nobody got to 6. I wouldn't advocate suppressing the major with, say, a five-card minor and a relatively balanced hand. That would be taking things too far. Yet I expect most people will disagree with doing it even in this situation because it was fed to them with their mother's milk that you may not suppress a four-card major when you raise partner's opening minor. But there's a time to break just about every rule. And this is one of those times.

*  inverted minors are often used in "standard" but they were invented for a 2/1 game-forcing context so that's what I'm assuming here.

** unless you decide on a backward finesse against the club queen, you will see her pop up before you have to decide finesse-or-drop.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Half a loser is better than one

Continuing my series on beginner/intermediate mistakes, I'm often surprised at how people end up pitching, not losers, but half-losers or even, in some situations, actual winners. Here's a hand I watched recently on BBO played by someone who I know to be a good player.

Dealer: S
Vul: Both
♠ Q
♥ K9874
♦ 654
♣ AQ63
♠ 9432
♦ J8
♣ 9
♠ 75
♥ T
♦ KQT72
♣ T7542
♠ AKJT86
♥ 3
♦ A93
♣ KJ8

S   W   N   E
1 2  P  P
3  P  4 P
P   P
HTML Bridge Hand Layout Creator

North was hoping for a reopening double, but when 3 came around, was happy to raise to game. The opening lead was 9, won in hand. Trumps were drawn without having to cross to dummy.
At this point, declarer ran the clubs, pitching the losing heart, making 11 tricks after giving up the inevitable two diamonds.

What's wrong with that, you might ask? +650 was indeed the par result. But double-dummy defense starts with an unlikely diamond lead, knocking out the stopper there prematurely. On an the A lead, of course, every declarer will make 12 tricks. Why did this declarer make only 11 (like most declarers in this contract)? I don't know what goes on these thought processes. But here's the way it should go:

After the actual lead, there are three losers, one of which can be pitched on the long club. But these three losers were not created equal. The heart "loser" is, in fact, only half a loser--because the A hasn't been knocked out yet. And, given the actual auction, with West making a vulnerable 2 overcall, that heart loser is really about a 90% winner. So, unless the opening leader hits on the magic diamond lead, the 6 is practically cold.