Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Making Negative Doubles Positive (Part 1)

I learned all I thought I would ever need to know about bridge in the fraternity house over 50 years ago. The rules were simple. No matter what you held, you opened one club. Another time honored rule was that you doubled whenever you were really ticked off, often over an overcall to intimidate the opponents and get partner’s juices flowing. Doubles were an omnibus bid like 1 club, and were only negative in the sense that if partner did not save you, the opponents would usually make the contract with several overtricks. The redouble was also frequently used, not as SOS, but as a bluffing macho move. The only other thing you needed to know was the phrase “not through the iron duke” which was repeated every time you covered an honor with an honor. In the end we seldom knew who won or lost, and if you did lose, you accused the opponents of using hand signals. Rubbing an eye brow was much in vogue!

This is a long explanation of why 50 years later negative doubles never seem to jump to the front of my brain. It is not uncommon for me to write on subjects that don’t store well in my mind, so here is a basic review of negative doubles—a primer if you will for others who may have experienced something like fraternity/sorority house bridge.

1. Recognition: True negative doubles only occur when partner has opened the bidding at one of a suit and his LHO has made an overcall. So in all bid/direct overcall sequences, you first instinct should be to see if a negative double will work to more fully describe your hand and keep the bidding one level lower.

2. Distribution: Since this is basic, let me make this very simple. In all bid/overcall sequences other than the major/minor or minor/major sequences, your negative double shows 4 cards in all unbid suits. In the major/minor sequences, you negative double shows 4 cards in the unbid major only.

3. High Card Points: Again, trying to demystify, you can make a negative double if you would have bid your suit had there been no overcall. For example, if the bidding is 1c/1h/x, you are showing a 4 card spade suit. Since without the overcall you would have bid 1 spade with a bad 6 hcps, that is all you need to negative double. There is one exception, if the bidding is 1d/2c, look for 8 and not 6 hcps. You will find out why in time!

4. When is a Double Negative? Until you have a reason to change the rule, make negative doubles “ON” through 3 spades. Mark this on your card and make sure you and partner are on the same page. Thus, if opponents make a 4 club or 4 diamond jump overcall, a double is for penalties. Gobble Gobble!

5. Five Card Suits: We have assumed until now that the suits shown by the negative double are 4 cards in length. What do you do if you hold a 5 card suit? You bid the suit rather than make a negative double so partner will know that you hold 5+ cards in the suit. There is one significant exception to this rule. If you hold a 5 card suit, but do not have sufficient points to make a free bid (e.g. 10 points at the 2 level), then you can make a negative double to show the suit even though it is 5 cards in length.

Testing the Basics: (See answers at the end).
(a) The bidding is 1c/1s/? You hold (i) Qx, Kxxx, xxxx, xxx? (ii) Axx, xxxx, Qx Kxxx (iii) QJx, KQxxx, Qxx, xx.
(b) The bidding is 1d/2c/? You hold (i) Kx, Qxxx, Kxxx, xxx (ii) xxxx, xxxx, Kx, KQx (iii) Kxxx, KQxx, AKxx, A.
(c) The bidding is 1s/2h/? You hold (i) xxx, Qx, Axxx, Kxxx (ii) x, QJxx, AQxx, Kxxx (iii) xx, xx, KQxxx, Kxxx.
(d) The bidding is 1h/3d/? You hold (i) KQxx, Jx, xx, Axxxx (ii) Kxxxx, AJX, xx, Axxx (iii) Kxx, Kx, AQxxx, xxxx.

My bidding Choices:
(a) (i) Pass. The Queen of spades is probably dead meat and this may be a 3 hcp hand. (ii) This is a nice negative double despite my 4 small hearts. I also have some defense if opponents get too high. I also like my spade stopper if partner wants to play no trump. (iii) With 5 hearts and 10 hcps I bid 2 hearts. Now if partner has 3 card support we have found an 8 card heart suit. If the hand only had 8 hcps and not 10, I would make a negative double.

(b) (i) I am going to pass without four spades to go with my four hearts. What do I bid if partner bids 2 spades over my negative double? When you figure this out you can change the rule! (ii) The same strength as (i) but with 4-4 in the majors I make a negative double. My minor suit honors make this a very attractive no trump hand as well. (iii) Negative double of course. I have 19 hcps, but the negative double is not limited in hcps. This smells slamish and with my single club may play better in a major suit contract if we have an 8 card fit. There is plenty of time to show my strength after partner further describes his hand.

(c) (i) I have the right holding for a negative double but I also have 3 card support for partner's spades. Support majors with support! I am going to bid 2 spades and forget the negative double. It will be the last chance I have to show my spade support at the 2 level. (ii) I am going to make a negative double to show my 4-4 in the minors. With my 12 hcps and good hearts, the right spot may be 3 NT, but a negative double is a good way to start to describe this hand. (iii) Over 1 spade I would not bid 2 diamonds (not enough for a free bid) so I am not going to negative double. Pass and wait to see what partner does.

(d) (i) Since negative doubles are on through 3 spades, I am going to double to show my nice 4 card spade suit with a negative double. Note that negative doubles are on over jump overcalls as well. Forget about your 5 clubs. (ii) With 5 spades I bid 3 spades, hoping to catch partner with 3 card support. (iii) Pass smoothly. Partner has a diamond shortage and will assume you have made a trap pass and double back in. When he does make another smooth pass and get out your calculator.

Once of my favorite subjects is the pitfalls of "meaningless overcalls." Have you noticed how much easier RHO’s overcall has made it to describe some of these hands? Absolutely essential in many cases. Think about that the next time you consider making a crap overcall! Part 2 of the sequence will deal with bidding action following the negative double. Happy Thanksgiving to all readers.

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