I looked up the word “preempt” in the dictionary. The word means that “you occupy a position to prevent others from doing so.” If you bear that thought in mind, you will have better success with your preemptive bids. Let’s face it, all preempts are a “crap shoot”, it is simply a question of measuring your tolerance for risk against the potential reward. The gamble is that you will go for a "big number" and the reward is that you will take up several levels of bidding space and hopefully jam your opponents into a flawed auction where they fail to reach their game or slam.
As part of the big picture, here are some considerations that I think merit consideration.
1. Mental Toughness. I know, we all think we are “grinders” who can put the bad results behind us. In reality, many of us are not. It takes experience and discipline. So if you are not there yet, then be more conservative in your approach.
2. Matchpoints vs. IMPs. In matchpoints a well intended preemptive bid gone bad only costs you a bad board, and often not that bad at all, since you can count on others to join you in your decision. If the scoring is IMPs, you need to be more circumspect since -1100 is 15 IMPs. Results like that can easily cost you a 24 board knock-out match, or put a major crimp in your Swiss game.
3. It’s Not About Points! If you really want to demonstrate that you are a novice, ask how many points you need to make a preemptive bid. Points are not the measure, it is “How many tricks will your hand take?” More to come on this issue.
4. Positional Differences. Let’s work backwards. There is no point to preempting in 4th seat, you can just pass the hand out. So opening bids at the 2 level and higher in 4th seat are not preemptive, they have some other meaning. In 3rd seat, partner is a previous pass, so if you have a preemptive style hand, there is little risk that you will miss a game and the bidding room the preemptive bid takes up is almost guaranteed to be that of opponents. When we preempt in 1st seat, there are three hands around the table, any one of which can hold the balance of power. Since 2 of those hands will be held by opponents, the odds are 2:1 that it will be opponents who will bear the burden of a 1st seat preemptive bid. When we preempt in 2nd seat, one opponent has already passed, so our concern now is the remaining 2 hands. Since one of those is held by partner and the other by an opponent, the effectiveness ratio of the preemptive bid has been reduced to 1:1, or cut in half. Do you think about that when making preemptive bids?
5. What is the Risk? Are you worried that your partner will not show up with a good hand and that your preemptive bid will go down? That thinking is misguided. The real risk is that partner will have too much and opponents will not have enough to make a game. If that happens, then any result greater than -150 will be a disaster. An even a greater risk is that partner will have a great hand and a fit and we will not find our game because it was our bidding space that got occupied, not opponents.
6. Swimming. Swimming (as in “with the fishes’) in the bridge context means that you take some action in the bidding auction because you feel that most other pairs sitting the same direction will take a similar action. Sometimes I think about this when considering a preemptive bid, particularly if I am having a good game and want to reduce the risk of having a late bad board that will be costly. I really don’t advocate this type of thinking. I think at all times it is more important to stay with your bidding standards (whatever those may be) and do the right thing. Trying to guess what the field will do is a risky exercise and smacks of “masterminding” the auction, a big no-no in bridge partnerships.
7. Quality of Opponents. When you have close decisions about whether to preempt, I think it is fair to consider the experience of your opponents. The reaction of most players is to make conservative decisions against better players and more aggressive decisions against weaker players. I do not agree with this. Remember, the single justification for making a preemptive bid is to rob opponents of bidding space and make it difficult to find a tight game or slam. Opponents with modest bidding skills will have trouble reaching tight games and slams no matter what you do. Much of the time if you leave them alone the risk will be minimal. On the other hand, if your opponents are very experienced and have good systemic bidding tools, they probably will find those tight games and slams if you don’t do something to make it difficult for them. So step right up to those experts and make it difficult for them. It is guaranteed they will hate you for it!
8. Vulnerability. In 1st and 2nd seat, vulnerability will be a big factor in deciding how many tricks you want to have in your hand to make the preemptive bid you are considering. To a lesser extent that is also a consideration in 3rd seat. No matter what position you are in, -800 is not going to feel good!
In Part 3, I will give you some guidelines on when not to preempt and discuss the ambiguous meaning of the term “disciplined” as it is commonly applied to preemptive bids.