Date Line: Rochester, New York.
A little over 3 weeks ago I blogged about balancing, “Expiring in the Pass Out Seat.” Opponents open and there are 2 passes to you. There is, of course, another pass out seat that may be more famous in the balancing context, that is having the last bid after 1 of anything/2 simple raise, pass, pass,? So much is written about the need to balance that it should not be necessary to comment on it again. Dig my blog out of the archive and look at the criteria for balancing. The same considerations apply whether you are sitting to the left or the right of the opening bidder; you just have to reverse some of the thinking.
In the matchpoint context, you just cannot let opponents play any contract at the 2 level if they have found an 8 card fit. That’s it, it is that simple, and you need to do something (like balance) unless you have a penchant for suffering. It is a discipline in which there should be no discretion. Make this a competitive philosophy. Larry Cohen, in an article in Audrey Grant’s Better Bidding (January/February 2005) made the oft quoted statement “When I used to Play with Marty Bergen, if he were in the balancing seat (after 1 heart/2 hearts) he would simply close his eyes and bid something in this auction.” Larry even provides a balancing guideline: “If you have shortness in the opponent’s suit --fewer than three cards-- bid a suit or make a take out double. High card points have nothing to do with it.”
Ok, we know when to balance, but when do we not balance. Some authors and experts insist that you need to balance if the opponents' contract if successul will result in +90 to +110. In fact I said that, but you should have known it was pure “horse manure” because I ain’t no expert! Here’s the drill: You do not need to balance in the pass out seat if the opponents have not found an 8 card fit at the 2 level. So if the auction goes 1s/p/1NT/p/2S? This is not a fit showing auction, you can pass. The same goes for the auction 1d/p/1h/p/2d. The auction 1d/p/1h/p/2h is a little tougher. Now you need to figure out if opener would raise hearts with only 3 card support. Older style players tend to do that if pressed when they have some good cards in the heart suit. Other players, equally good, tend to virtually guarantee 4 card heart support. There is absolutely nothing wrong with asking responder about his expectation or the partnership understandings. If you get a wishy-washy answer, consider balancing on general open warfare principles!!
There is one untouched subject, what some call “pre-balancing” and others call “balancing in the direct seat.” This is where you make a balancing bid even though the auction will not be over if you pass. For example, opponents open 1 heart, partner passes, responder bids 2 hearts and it is now your bid. I have a personal theory that most bad balancing decisions that you blame on your partner, are rooted in your own failure to pre-balance. Ask yourself “why didn’t partner make a direct take out double or overcall?” If the problem is shape (maybe he had 3 hearts), then you have to help him out, since balancing in the pass out seat is going to be equally unattractive. That means that you have to double or bid right in front of opponent’s unlimited hand. Just do it when it is right.
Notice that Larry’s Guideline qualified your duty to balance in the “balancing seat” by saying it only applied when you have less than 3 cards in opponents' suit. OK, that’s sensible so you are off the hook with 3 cards in their suit, but how do we avoid defending 2 hearts when the balancing seat does have 3 cards in their suit. Well, if the balancing seat has 3 cards in the suit in the and opponents have 8, guess who holds 2 cards in the suit. Partner in the pre-balancing seat, of course. He sat there like an intimidated mouse worrying about the potential big hand hovering over him and now we go for -110 and a bottom shared with all those other teams who are not enlightened.
Marty Bergen had a pneumonic label for these weak pre balancing bids. He called them OBAR BIDS, standing for Opponents Bid And Raise – Balance In The Direct Seat. Larry Cohen first wrote about this in his book To Bid or Not to Bid (1992) (p. 109). The key to your OBAR bid is that you, as pre-balancer, will have 2 or fewer cards in opponents' fit suit (in my example hearts). While you may have to be a little circumspect when vulnerable, Larry suggests that it would be right to pre-balance with 2 spades holding KQT98, 73, JT85, 84 or to double with KT73, 4, KT85, KJ86. Note that in each instance all the points are working points and with the spade overcall he clearly can wants a lead in the suit if opponents end up in 4 hearts. What? You say you are 4-4 in the minors? Bid 2NT asking partner to take a pick, but this needs to be a little better hand since you are committed to the 3 level.
If you agree to use weak OBAR BIDS, you probably need to tell opponents via an alert that partner’s pre-balance may not meet traditional standards. It keeps the playing field level.
Why does this all work? It is something called the Theory of Reciprocal Fits, but it is just the Law of Total Tricks dressed in a little different gown. See Principles of Logical Bidding (1997) by Allan De Serpa, page 9. If they have an 8 card fit, it is very likely that we do also. Partner and I have 26 cards, 5 of which are in opponents' suit. That leaves 21 cards remaining, and we always have an 8 card fit unless the three remaining suits are 7-7-7. As common as that may seem, the odds are over 93% that we have an 8 card fit. The theory doesn’t say you will make your bid, just that it is right to compete by balancing.
In my final Florida Game we finished 1st overall (everybody claimed it was a good-bye kiss – not likely, but it seemed that way). This good result in spite of the fact that we passed out a sequence 1d/p/1h/p/2h for a rotten board. I should have known that my sometimes partner Bob Scarbrough would have 4 card heart support. The compensating justice was that twice we were permitted to play 2 spades when opponents did not step up to their minor fit balance. It does not pay to flirt with Mother Nature, or for that matter the Theory of Reciprocal Fits. Asked about balancing over 2 spades, Larry Cohen says "I don’t like it, but you gotta do what you gotta do!" It helps to play the cards like Larry.
If you want to comment directly, the quickest way to get to me until October will be my Rochester e-mail, firstname.lastname@example.org. Send sweaters, not e-mail.