The New Year is just around the corner. I don't have to worry about resolutions, I make the same one every year. In match points, no opponent will ever catch me in the "death zone." What is the death zone? It is any time that opponents score +90 to +110 on any board. Every year I resonate for anyone who will listen "no opponent is going to play a contract against me at the two level or below." It's sort of like "not through the Iron Duke" but my Duke seems to be made of play dough. Yes, this is a comment on "balancing" and now you know why I have to make the same resolution every year!
I never seem to get any of those hands that my teachers pass out or that writers cite as examples. You know, KQJx, 109, Kxxx, Jxx, and now this expert in the balancing seat offers up a 2 spades for +110 after a 1h/2h auction. I guess those hand are only dealt to teachers and authors, I certainly never get them . Nine times out of 10 my partner gets that hand, and I end up with a rag like 10xxx, Jxx, QJx, KQx. Cackling hen that I am, I reach for my water bottle and hope nobody will notice my green card creeping out of the box. Now I can only hope that they have 25 hcps and are cold for 3 or 4 hearts, nothing else can save me.
Pondering this problem about a year ago, I stumbled onto the Gainesville Duplicate Bridge Club home page and saw that Jon Shuster had posted two bridge notes, one on balancing and the other on pre-balancing. John is one of the top players in the Gainesville area and a bridge author and commentator as well. With some help from my friend, Evelyn Kliensasser (one of Jon's partners), I was able to get John to forward to me copies of his two notes (the site had since deleted them). Jon shares the bridge world's belief that match points are all about competing for part scores. In his words: "If you let opponents play in their comfort zone, they will get good scores. It pays to take significant risks to push them into less comfort."
Brave words, but I am told by the best bridge players in Gainesville that John is super aggressive and successfully puts his master points where his mouth is. In a single page Jon provides several balancing options with marginal hands (8 hcps) and demonstrates how to fit the balancing bids (2s,2NT,x) to the hand.
As informative as this is, my competitive world did not open up for me until I read his note on pre-balancing. It was only then that I realized what was wrong with my discussion example. If my partner did indeed hold KQJx, 109, Kxxx, Jxx, I should not have had to sweat blood about balancing, partner should have taken me off the hook with a pre-balancing double or even with a bid of 2 spades.
It is easy to convince yourself that this is insanity with an unlimited hand sitting behind you, but we already know that in a 1h/2h auction, or a 1d/1h auction, at best opponents are going to put us in the "death zone" even with minimal values. What is the best that can happen if we take action? We will get to 2 spades (hopefully undoubled). Next in line would be that they play 3 hearts and we beat it one trick. With my hand I might bid 3 spades over 3 hearts thinking that my hand has no defensive values, but even 3 spades down 1 is outside the death zone. If south has an invitational or game going hand he is not going o mess around with doubling me, not unless I am vulnerable and he is world class.
Bottom line, balancing is not a one man show. It is a partnership effort and needs a partnership understanding. Not only are finite standards important to taking partner out of the hot seat, but the negative implications of a failure to pre-balance may keep partner out of trouble when it is their hand. Jon notes that in a 1/1 auction by opponents it is usually correct to pre-balance with 7-8 working points and two unbid 4 card suits. When opener's partner makes a simple in suit raise, Jon's standard is at least 4332 distribution, not more than a doubleton in the bid suit and 10 working points. If pre-balancer passes and you have 9 hcps and a hand like
10xxx, Jxx, QJx, KQx, you can pass without ducking under the table. We don't want to aggravate them until they find their game.
With aggressive pre-balance understandings, partner will know that you may have a very limited hand with which you want to compete. Try not to jump to game. Remember, the more you have, the less pre-balancing partner probably has. The pre-balancing partner is now the Captain of the ship. (See my earlier post on Captaincy).
If you want to review Jon's notes, e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org
and I will attach them to a return mail. The good news is that his notes are shorter than this post.