Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Reopening Doubles

There was bridge before negative doubles. If you played bridge in the 1950’s, and are still alive to tell about it, you will remember after the sequence 1s/2c/, a double of the 2 club overcall was a serious event intended to teach discipline to any who would make the call with anything less than a solid suit and an opening hand. It was not a negative double, an optional double, a BOP double or a DSIP double, it was for penalties and woe onto opener if he took the double out. These first round doubles are probably what brought about bidding boxes, because the always came out with a serious growl.

In 1957 Al Roth first wrote about the idea of a negative double and it became part of the Roth-Stone system. At the time the double was called “Sputnik” after the famous Russian satellite. As the negative double gained popularity it also became necessary to prevent the proliferation of cheap overcalls since responder could not double for penalty. If, instead of the perfect negative double hand, you had a stack of good cards in the overcalled suit (a hand that you would have previously inspired a penalty double) you not only could not double, but with 5 or 6 cards in overcaller’s suit, you most likely had no suit to bid. Out of this dilemma was born the so called “automatic reopening double.”

Last Thursday I was dealt 9, K54, AJT8, A9842. When my RHO opened 1 spade. I decided to make a 2 club overcall, non-vul against vul opponents. I suppose some might double and others make an Unusual NT bid, but I thought 2 clubs best described my hand and was good lead direction. Now the bidding went pass, pass, pass, so the reopening double must not be “automatic” after all. This experience led me to believe that even among experienced bridge partnerships, there may be no definitive agreement on the standard to be applied to the reopening double. I asked several players about this and got a variety of comments. Here is a sampling.

(a) It is automatic, no questions!
(b) You do it if you have the right hand.
(c) You do it if you have a doubleton, single or void in the overcalled suit.
(d) You do it because your partner expects you to.
(e) You do it unless you have a minimum opening hand.
(f) The double shows extra values, so pass without them.
(g) You do because you don’t want to give up the hand.

What this indicates is that if you have not discussed this issue with your regular partners, now may not be too soon to do so. Oh, did I say that my LHO held K4, J, KQ42, KQJ753! His partner opened a 11 hcp “Rule of 20” hand and decided if there was an exception to the term “automatic”, his hand was it. Since he also had a single club, it was an ill fated decision.

Setting aside all the well intended advice I received, I decided to see what a real expert would say. In August of 2006, Karen Walker wrote an article in the Bridge Bulletin about this very subject in her series “12 Habits of Highly Effective Bidders.” Karen may lack the glitz of some of the top Bridge Super Stars, but she is very solid, reliable, sensible and an excellent writer. Her web site is always one of my first stops.

Karen rejects the concepts of “automatic” or “always double with shortness in overcaller’s suit.” She also rejects the concept of doubling “for partner” pointing out that except for rare occasions where partner has a monster trump stack, partner is not in a position to make a unilateral decision about whether to leave the double in. He needs to know whether opener’s hand is suitable for joining a defense.

Ideally opener should have not only shortness in the overcalled suit, but also support for the unbid suits and 2½ quick tricks. When you put this all together, a good guideline is that “if you were sitting behind overcaller and he opened rather than overcalled, would you make a take out double?” If so, make a reopening double, and if not pass or take some other appropriate action.

What if opener has a void in the overcalled suit, is that ideal? Hardly! First, the void gives opener extra length in the unbid suits, so the slow quick tricks like KQxxx may not be winners. Another reason is that when opener gets in, partner expects him to lead a trump through declarer. It is hard to lead a void (a certain director call) and the failure to lead through declarer often means that partner is going to ultimately get end played in the trump suit.

Do you pass with all hands that do not meet the “acid test” of a double? Obviously not. If you have a distributional hand such as 6-4 or 5-5, you are probably better off declaring, so you need to make a descriptive bid. If you have a strong single suited hand that is close to an opening 2 club bid (4 losing trick count), you can jump in your suit to show the strength. If you have a real good hand (again 4 LTC) without any clear direction, you can always make a cue bid forcing responder to describe his hand.

Assume partner has reopened the bidding, how do you know when to pass for penalties? Mel Colchamiro in his book “How to Play Like an Expert ….” advocated applying the Rule of 9 in determining when to leave in partner’s take out double. Since opener’s hand often looks like a take out double hand, I would apply the Rule of 9 to the reopening double as well. Her it is! Leave the double in if the total number of cards you have in overcaller’s suit + the total honors you have in that suit + the level of the contract equal 9.
So if the contract is 2 clubs doubled and you are sitting behind the overcaller with KQxxx, whack it! 5+2+2=9. Are you Smarter than a 3rd Grader?? Arrest your partner if he doesn’t show up with 2 1/2/quick.

To see some example hands where you should not make a reopening double see www.pattayabridge.com/conventions/negativedoubles_main,htm

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