Saturday, October 1, 2011

O Captain! My Captain

What’s Walt Whitman doing popping up in the Blog? I was tucked in last night reading myself to sleep on my iPad2, when I see this e-mail pop up at midnight from my left coast babe Elinor (elsnie on BBO). Elinor is a long time reader so I always take her mail. I see rolling across my screen “Help, my partner and I are coming to blows over this hand.” Obviously she’s “on line” with the chat wires burning up. Here are the hands she gives me. Vulnerability or position make no difference in this hand.

North: AKxx, 9xxx, xx, xxx
South: QJxx, AJx, AKxx, Ax

Elinor sitting South opens 1 diamond, pard bids 1 heart. Now it rolls back to Elinor who bids 2NT and pard (assuming she would have rebid 2 spades if she had 4 of them), bids 3NT. Is 2NT the correct rebid, and if so why? No memorizing here or playing on auto pilot, you only get a perfect 10 if you can explain the bid and understand the logic as well. I don’t perceive that any of my high stepping partners and other so called BBO experts will have much trouble with this, but I have many novice and intermediate readers as well, so bear with me.

As you can see, the 3NT contract is in for some hard times and 4 spades can be made by my cat Axel. Granted he is a precocious cat!! It helps that his tail hangs over my keyboard all day. He say’s “ Boss, we have written about this before—he is right but it was ages ago and lost in a hard drive a couple of computers back.

Elinor reads the Blog so naturally I will stand up for her. It’s a little beside the point, but her 2NT rebid also happens to be 100% correct. With the South hand you pass the 4 card spade suit even if it is AKQJ. What is at work here is the “Captaincy Principle.” I know, they promised you would only have to memorize a few bids and not penetrate bridge theory. If this principle were not at “the very heart and soul” of bridge bidding, I would fold my tent and move on, but once you understand this little principle you will forever be a much better player.

In researching this post I read a one page description of the Captaincy Principal by Harold Schachter, a bridge expert and writer from the Lakewood, New Jersey area. As he describes it, every auction has a “descriptive” phase and a “captaincy” phase. During the descriptive phase both partners have equal responsibility for the final contract, and their only duty is too describe their hands (as tightly as they can) in terms of hcps and distribution.

There are some bids that describe the hand with the opening bid, such any no trump opening. It describes both a point range and a balanced or semi balanced hand. We immediately know that partner is the Captain. There are many responses to one level suit openings that describe the hand and end the descriptive phase. These include 1NT, single or limit raises and weak jump shifts. All of these responses make opener the Captain. In all of these cases the opener has the combined knowledge of both hands and directs the hands to the final contract.

Partner of the Captain (the “Crew”) has no responsibility except to answer further “inquiry bids” (think game tries; fourth suit forcing, New Minor Forcing, Key Card Blackwood). If the Captain does not want to be passed out he must be careful not to make any non-forcing bids and the crew must not pass until he hears a bid that is not forcing. Don’t be a “Mastermind” and assume Captaincy until you are sure you are best positioned to do so. There is lot to like about being the Crew (think blame free). As the crew, know what is and is not a forcing bid and keep giving answers until you hear one that isn’t.

In 2/1 GF auctions it often takes several rounds to find the Captain, and both partners share information with each other until the conclusion of the descriptive phase. Since the hands already are in a game force you have the bidding space to do lots of exploration. In non-game force hands players tend to first describe and limit the strength of the hands. In 2/1 auctions we normally bid to describe distribution since we don’t want to consume valuable bidding room with jump shifts, splinters and other space eaters.

So why did Elinor bid 2NT. Did she want to become the crew and blame her partner for any problems? No, her bid is the ultimate in the descriptive category, showing 18-19 hcps and balance and makes partner Captain. Note that by bidding one spade she would have said nothing about the size of her hand, or for that matter hand pattern, and we would still be looking for a Captain.

How do we avoid losing a 4-4 spade fit? The Captain uses the inquiry bids available to her, either NMF or Check Back Stayman to find out about Elinor’s holding in the majors. With both 3 hearts and 4 spades, if NMF was the agreement, she would show her 3 card heart support first (pard might have 5 hearts) and if the Captain now bids 3NT (denying the 5 card heart suit), Elinor would bid 4 spades. If the Captain used NMF, she must have one or the other, or alternatively, be a historical footnote in the partnership.

What if Elinor had this alternative hand: QJxx, Jxx, AQxx, Kx and the bidding went 1 diamond, 1 heart: Do you just bid 1NT and skip the 4 card spade suit? No, No, No – that's not the way ACBL land does it. They show the 4 card spade suit bidding one level suits up the line. Sound and feel familiar? But how does that sequence square with the duty to limit your hand as soon as possible. A rebid of 1NT would show 12-14 and balance, what could be better than that?
It’s an aberration. The Captaincy principle conflicts with the perceived need to find a 4-4 spade fit if there is one and gives way to showing the spade suit. Yes, partner could use NMF just as in the 2NT example, but in this instance to make a NMF bid responder must have 11 hcps. If she does not, we miss the potential major suit fits.

This is all based on the theory that 8 card major fits will usually play better in the major suit than in No Trump. “Usually” is the operative word. Some experts have found complex solutions to work around this issue, and for them bidding 1 spade shows a distributional hand with diamonds and spades whereas the 1NT bid shows a balanced hand and says nothing about spades. I should also note that most weak no trump pairs skip the spade suit to rebid 1NT, since for them that rebid is usually 15-17 and balance.

Bridge author, Professor Alan DeSerpa, in his book Logical Bidding says “Having one Captain and a crew of one is better than having two captains with no crew or a crew of two without a Captain. Consequently, the sooner one partner can surrender captaincy to the other the better.”

So how did Harold Schachter get this all on one page? Simple, he is an expert and I am simply a story teller. Send comments to

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Raising Partner's Forced Response to a Take Out Double

Despite rumors to the contrary, I have not been dispatched to a nursing home, but I feel ready! My 4 month absence from bridge and blogging resulted from something almost as bad, working. I made enough to pay my weekly entry fees at Citrus Bridge Center for the winter and discovered something that I should have known – I am a better lawyer than Bridge player. Some might say that is not saying much!

Occasionally late at night I would sneak in and watch a few hands on BBO. It is amazing how clever you can be when you can see all four hands. In August I was watching one of my favorites, Pat Peterson (patpete2) who was mentoring one of her better club players. Pat is a true expert (as opposed to a BBO expert) and recently earned the title of Master Bridge Teacher awarded by the American Bridge Teachers Association and was nominated as Teacher of the Year.

The game was IMPs with both vulnerable. I didn’t write fast enough to scribble down the North-South hands but North opened with a bid of one club with a good suit and solid hand. Pat sitting East made a take out double and the action starts there. Here are the East-West hands:

East: AQJ85, A952, A53, K

West: T9632, QT43, KT94, void

South had Q empty 6th of clubs and nothing else and decided to pass. They may not have been playing inverted minors or maybe it didn’t meet South’s standard. I don’t think I could have been so restrained.

The first test comes with the West hand. What would you respond with West’s hand following South’s pass. Only 5 hcps, but a strong playing hand with only 7 Losing Trick Count. Pard did not double without majors and West has mega support and great distribution.. But remember, you can’t see East’s hand and it might be KJxx, Kxxx, AJx, xx. Also if you respond 2 spades, in standard, you are showing a hand that presumes 9++ points and suggests some defensive values. I can visualize advocates for 1, 3 or even 4 spades. If I don’t pull the trigger and bid 4 spades, my choice would be to show a little patience here and respond one spade which is what West did. If South had made a preemptive raise of 3 clubs, I think a responsive double would have been in order telling partner to take a pick.

North, holding strong clubs and a desire to compete, now bids 2 clubs. Here is the next examination. What do you now bid with the East hand. Even if you downgrade the King of clubs, it is still a very nice hand. If North had not rebid the clubs, you would have bid two spades showing the fit and 17+ points. Hearing that action, it would be pretty easy for West to bid the spade game.

But what is the effect of the intervening rebid by North? If East bids 2 spades over the 2 club rebid, is East still showing a big constructive hand and inviting West to bid again or is East simply competing with a hand that doesn’t want to sell out to 2 clubs when there is a known 8 card spade fit? If East held something like KJxx, Kxxx, AJx, xx you would want to bid 2 spades simply to follow the Law of Total Tricks. You didn’t want them to play 2 clubs did you?

Frankly, this dilemma has always bothered me a bit. I really didn’t know the meaning of a raise to 2 spades by doubler after an intervening rebid by opener. I found that in Standard bidding the raise to 2 spades, with or without an intervening rebid, clearly shows extras and is forward going, and is not simply competitive. Other choices might be 3 spades or even 4 spades, but in Standard those bids would really show block buster hands as partner has been forced to respond and may have “Squat”. So what does partner do with the hand where he merely wants to compete and not sell out to 2 spades?

I “Googled” the issue and came up with only one relevant hit. I found a 2009 discussion of this issue in Robin’s Bridge Blog. Recognizing the problem with Standard agreements, the author (who did not claim to be an expert) suggested an optional agreement that in competition a bid of 2 spades could show a hand with 4+ spades and 14-16 hpcs and a jump to 3 spades showing a better 17+ hand. This special agreement (alert!!!) would provide differentiation and probably works, but ignores those minimal take out hands where you simply want to make a Law of Total Tricks bid.

Who do you call when you have a “Law” problem? The Sheriff, of course, many time National Champion Larry Cohen and the author of “To bid or Not to Bid - The Law of Total Tricks.” Larry claims to have withdrawn from competitive bridge to play golf, tour the United States giving seminars and to host some wonderful bridge cruises. If you have read his Bridge Bulletin articles or books, you know that he speaks Bridge in a language that we can all understand. When I posed this question to him he acknowledged that “in or out of competition 2 spades would show extras in standard bidding.” He went on to say “By Agreement (alert!!!), ever since my (Marty) Bergen days I play that double and raise is just a Law of Total Tricks bid - a 4 trump raise. With a better hand (like 17+) the doubler has to cue bid." He says that this arrangement applies even if opener has not taken a rebid. So if the auction went 1c/x/p/1s/p/2s, the two spade bid does not show extras and is simply showing 4 card support.

What if doubler holds something like AQJx, Kxx, Kxx, xxx? Yes you have 4 trump, but the Law of Total Tricks is clear that when you have 4333, it is not have a “Law hand.” You have no ruffing values. Partner is still a forced response.

OK, what does Larry rebid with the East hand. Well, he chose to make a cue bid of 3 clubs. Even if we end up at 3 spades, we are have competed to the correct level with 9 trump and with the West hand a bid of 4 spades would have been indicated. He notes that if you have this agreement/understanding that it is alterable since it is not Standard bridge

The finale: Would I be writing about this if E-W reached a makeable game (actually it makes 5). The breakdown I think came as a result of West not remembering that a simple raise in Standard by East shows a good hand with extras. In the real auction, over 2 spades by East, South, bolstered by the fact that North had a real club suit, now bids 3 clubs. West bid 3 spades and it got passed out at that level. The failure to bid game was a combination of misunderstanding and suspect valuation on West’s part. Time to smile and move on! We have all been there.

If you are one of those LOTT non-believers who wander around looking for that hand where the Law of Total Tricks does not work, then just play Standard. If you want to play better bridge and be more competitive, follow Larry’s suggestion. Don’t forget to discuss it with your partner and also to “alert” the “double and raise” bid as simply showing 4 trump and not extras.

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Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Signals, Discards and Such

Signals to partner’s leads come in three principal varieties and they are all collected in the southwest corner of your convention card. Note that the card does not ask for detailed information, it simply asks for your primary signal to partner’s opening leads. Thus you can have specific situations where your leads utilize something other than the primary signal. For example, if your primary signal is count, you can have scenarios where you and partner agree that you will show attitude and others where you will show suit preference. As we will see, most functional signaling systems employ a balanced use of all the systems mentioned above.

As we all know, you can’t have secret signals that you and partner have agreed upon. You don’t have to alert or announce, but if asked by declarer you must indicate your general agreement concerning your signals and discards. It is important to know that you must only disclose the nature of your agreement and you do not have to interpret the play of any specific card. For example, if your primary signal is attitude and on the opening lead partner plays the 6 of the suit, you do not have to express an opinion as to whether the card is a positive attitude signal (unless of course you have some agreement about 6’s).

Note that there is also disclosure for defensive carding. This does not seek to regulate when carding is attitude, count or suit preference. Defensive discards would only be non-standard if in signaling you used upside down attitude and/or count. Upside down would be just the reverse of standard. Note that you cannot use upside down suit preference signals, those must be right side up. UDCA is a recipe for disaster for novices and intermediates, and most others.

There is also a disclosure if your discards are other than standard (attitude). If you use Odd-Even or Lavinthal you not only must mark the convention card, but you may use such dual carding system only on the first discard. After the first discard, your discards must be single message discards. Encrypted signals are not permitted, so no home brew or secret codes. Of course you can make faces if nobody catches you.

The fact that you have a carding system or discard agreement does not bind either partner to follow it with religion. If you choose to ignore the system (since you either forgot or you are being cagey and trying to hoodwink declarer), that is allowed as long as you are deceiving both declarer and partner. Again no secrets. Likewise, both carding and discards are only suggestions to our partner. He is not bound to follow your advice and may choose not to do so freely for any reason. The only person he has to answer to is you, and on a good day you will accord him the courtesy of being silent.

Some time back I had some e-mail interchanges with some real experts. I enjoy e-mail contact with Eddie Kantar, Karen Walker and Mel Colchamiro, Bridge Bulletin contributors all. One of the questions I asked each of them was their view on how players of all levels should go about selecting a carding and discard system. While they all said it in different ways, the standard reply was use a system that partner can apply and still stay in tempo. In other word the KISS principal. One e-mail said that if partner has to think about carding, it is too complicated. This is particularly important if you play with a number of partners with varying ability.

Two of the best books on carding, signals and discards are Countdown to Winning Bridge (1999) by Tim Bourke and Marc Smith and Defensive Signaling (2001) by David Bird and Marc Smith. The later is a monograph of less than 100 pages and is excellent if you can find it. Each of the books takes you through all the popular methods of carding and signaling and illustrates why no one of them standing alone is sufficient. The recommendation is to combine them into a comprehensive system.

I have long harbored a personal prejudice against dual carding systems. Half the time I never could figure out what I wanted to do without getting out of tempo, half the time I could not find the right size card in the suit that I wanted to discard, and most of the time I was wrong about the suit that needed to be played. In Countdown to Winning Bridge the authors give you a typical hand to defend. It’s a hand in which you (East) hold AJxx in both minors and you know partner has to hold the King in one minor suit but you don’t know which suit it is. Here is a direct quote from page 127:

“Note that if East-west are playing Lavinthal, Revolving, Odd-Even or some other method of signaling in which a discard tells partner which minor to switch to, then East must guess which suit to ask for. Half the time he will guess wrong as he has no clue which suit to ask for. Any method of signaling which requires one partner to make the decision for the other is quite clearly flawed. (emphasis mine). On this hand a combination of signals will lead you to the optimum defense.”

Now for some rules on discarding. The experts having summarily dispatched dual carding systems, I will give you a recommendation directly from Countdown to Winning Bridge. What is recommended is a different type of attitude signal when discarding. Be careful, this is not very sophisticated and may slip right by you:

“An efficient method is to treat all discards as discouraging denying interest in the suit thrown. The basic philosophy is that you throw from a suit in which you do not have anything. One reason for this is that sometimes you will not be dealt a card which is obviously high or obviously low, (or the right spot for an odd-even signal) or you will not be able to afford to throw a card carrying the message you want to send.”

If you read Frank Stewart's bridge column this morning (July 6), you will see that was the central theme. East threw the ten of spades to get a spade lead and that wold have been the setting trick if not discarded.

If you have one suit you want played, discard cards in the other two suits. If you have two suits and you don’t know which suit you want led, just discard two cards in the third suit and partner should be able to solve your dilemma. Do not be afraid to let partner work out part of what is going on. Often times he can see things a lot clearer from his side of the table and defense always should be a team effort. This concept of throwing losers and keeping winners may seem too simple for those who thrive on needless complexity, but it is both effective and efficient.

I touched earlier on the fact that all signals are suggestions only. My favorite partner is Howard Christ (apologies to all others), a true expert and the Head Director of the Ocala Duplicate Bridge Club in Ocala, Florida. When we first started our partnership many years ago, I was very nervous and worried about everything. Early on he told me “Don’t over-educate declarer, only signal me only if you think I can’t figure it out for myself.” There is not much Howard can’t figure out, so I get to divert my attention to really important stuff like defeating the contract. Novel idea huh? Well, to each his own.

Hope y'all having a great summer.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Evolution of Zero Tolerance

I was kibitzing at Bridge Base on Line recently watching some self styled “Experts” play a few hands. The spectator box had over 100 chattering kibitzers demonstrating how smart they were when looking at all four hands. One of the experts sitting south had just butchered a cold 4 spade contract and of course the chat really flew, indeed questioning his intelligence and minimal bridge skills. I usually ignore all the chat but one particular line really got me: It read “Where is Myrtle Bennett now when we really need her?” A really nice touch if you like bridge trivia.. No one else picked up on this clever comment, so I got to wondering how many of my readers have ever read the story of the bridge pairing of Jack and Myrtle Bennett and Mayme and Charles Hoffman, a landmark event in the long road to zero tolerance.

In the 20’s and 30’s bridge was the great American pastime for men and women. If you were entertaining friends in your home, after some bathtub gin and a fine supper, out came the card tables for an evening of rubber bridge. At the time, women often were more knowledgeable about the game than men. Men usually knew less about the fine points of bidding and got by with their card sense, some bullying and more than a little bluffing, much to the chagrin of their spousal partners.

The Bennett’s had been married about 10 years in 1929 and were living in Kansas City, “Mazura” (as the locals would have said it). They were very demonstrably affectionate to each other and were still very much in love. At the same time, they both had hot tempers and short fuses, so martial spats were not unusual. Jack Bennett was a very successful traveling perfume salesman making upwards of $20,000 a year in 1929. Most weeks Jack was on the road. Myrtle spent most of her time spending Jack’s money on clothes (she was a stunning blonde beauty who dressed very fashionably). When not otherwise occupied she would either be playing golf or bridge at her country club. The Hoffman’s were very much like them, an affluent young couple enjoying the new liberties that the roaring 20’s permitted. They were upstairs neighbors to the Bennett’s in a very upscale apartment building.

On Tuesday, September 29, 1929, the four of them decided that they would play a round of golf. Jack in his plus fours, white shirt and tie and Myrtle in her most fashionable sport suit. After the game they had a couple of “pops” and Myrtle e invited Charles and Mayme back to their house to “raid the refrigerator” and play some bridge for 1/10 of a cent a point. The Bennett’s were enjoying the game immensely because they got off to big lead. But as the lead began to dwindle, the smile disappeared from Myrtle’s face. She got visibly unhappy with Jack’s recklessness and inconsistent play. Suddenly the Hoffman’s pulled ahead and this hand was dealt by Jack sitting South. Everybody vulnerable.




The gold standard for opening a hand in those days was 2 ½ quick tricks, but that didn’t deter Jack, he boldly barked one spade. Charles quickly overcalled 2 diamonds. He had played with Jack before and was not to be kept out of this auction. Myrtle with her good distribution and spade support was happy to bid 4 spades. Mayme not being a Law of Total Tricks babe, declined to take a sacrifice. When it got back to Charles he gave 4 spades a whack thinking his Q of spades was well positioned and that if Mayme did not have a diamond stack he might get two diamonds and a heart. Mayme has a second chance to bail out, but in those days women did not take out their husband’s penalty doubles.

The story is clear that Charles led the Ace of diamonds, and with a single on the board Mayme played a small diamond to get a club shift. Charles next led the club Jack taken by Charles in his hand with the King. Jack had 9 trump and, ignoring the bidding, decided to play for the percentage 2-2 split. When that failed he drew the last trump instead of playing on the club suit to establish club winners. Charles took his trump queen and returned a diamond trumped on the board. Eventually Jack lost 3 hearts for down 2 -500.

After the play of the hand everything went wrong as Jack and Myrtle got at each other’s throats. Going to the offense, Jack shouted "you overbid!" Myrtle replied: "You are a bum bridge player." As the argument escalated in front of the horrified Hoffman’s, Jack reached across the table and slapped Myrtle’s face a few times. Jack announced that he was going to a hotel for the night and then on to make a sales call in St. Joseph in the morning (where he incidentally had a girl friend stashed). In a parting shot Myrtle yelled “Nobody other than a bum would hit a woman in the presence of friends.”

As Jack packed his bag, Myrtle rushed into a bedroom occupied by her mother and grabbed a .32 automatic that was in her mother’s nightstand. As Jack came out with his bag he saw Myrtle with the gun and quickly stepped into a bathroom and locked the door. Myrtle not to be deterred so easily, got off two rounds through the door, both of which missed their intended mark. The bath had another door that led to the living room and Jack exited trying to make it to the front door. Charles Hoffman tried to cool things down, but before he could prevail, Myrtle cut loose with two more rounds, both of which found their intended mark. Jack not only goes down 2 in 4 spades but repeats himself going down to the .32 automatic, never to sort another bridge hand.

Myrtle was charged with first degree murder and a trial was held 17 month later in the court room of Judge Ralph S. Latshaw. Myrtle was represented by a silver tongued orator, James a. Reed, a three term United States Senator from Missouri, by then retired at age 68. He was a formidable lawyer, but then so was the prosecuting county attorney who had a long list of convictions in murder trials. There was extensive courtroom drama with toe to toe battling over the admissibility of almost every piece of evidence. Judge Latshaw rode hard on both attorneys, but in fact became a significant part of this sideshow.

Myrtle attended the trial everyday in a different stylish outfit and cried through out the proceedings. The jury finally took the case after impassioned closing arguments and were out for 5 hours. One juror said that they could have been back much sooner but three of them were trying to learn to play bridge. In the end it was ruled an accidental death and Myrtle Hoffman was acquitted of all charges. One juror stated “ She was only a woman unused to guns. We reckon that if she had been trying to hit him she would have missed. One wag stated that the verdict showed shooting a bum bridge partner was justifiable homicide. Myrtle not only went frree, she got $30,000 in life insurance since her husbands shooting had been ruled accidental.

Back to the hand. No less an authority than Eli Culbertson, editor of the
Bridge World, testified at the trial that there were several ways that Jack Hoffman could have made the contract and saved his life and marriage. There are at least three lines of play that could have succeeded. Some as simple as taking finesses or establishing the club suit with a ruffing finesse before drawing trump and even a strip end play option. Do you see them? Do you think Jack Bennett deserved to be shot? Do you think that Charles and Mayme were the cause of the shooting, since apparently Myrtle only objected to the slapping becasue it occured in the presnce of good friends!

One writer wrote about this story well after the trial and after Mrs. Bennett had settled in as an executive at the famous Carlyle Hotel in New York City. She would occasionally fill in at the bridge table if the guests were short handed. Playing with a stranger one evening who had badly miss-bid his hand, he remarked as he laid down the dummy “I’m afraid you will want to shoot me for this.” Mrs. Bennett reportedly had the good grace to faint.

Friday, April 22, 2011

No Trump by the Numbers

We always seem to notice the 23-24 hcp no trump hands that make 3NT. Naturally, these are always held by our opponents. Do we take equal cognizance of the 26-27 hcps hands that go down at 3NT? These are, of course, dealt to us. What does it really take to make game when partner opens 1NT. It may surprise you that the probabilities do not support 23 and 24 point no trump games. You are a favorite to go down unless our BBO screen name is “ 0 Lordtay.” When the scoring is IMP’s, the game bonuses may support the risk, but at match points you need to play the odds (unless you are desperate or a sadist).

Ron Klinger, noted expert and author, stated in is book Basic Bridge that 3NT has a success rate of only 60% with 26 hcps and only 50% with 25 hcps. In match points you want to avoid anything that is not even money. By way of contrast, Klinger states that the success rate of 4 hearts or 4 spades with an 8 card fit is about 80% with 26 points. Presumably the reason is that two-thirds of the time the suit will split 3-2 leaving you a potential ruffing trick in each hand. The ruffing values combined with better hand control make the suit contract safer. There are some relics out there who disagree, but I don’t play 3NT like they do.

If the suit contract makes 80% of the time, how do you know how to avoid the 20%? Well one sure indicator are the 4333 hands. If both partners have a flat 4333 hand, the advantage of the suit contract disappears. Do your chances of making 3NT go up with flat hands? No, actually they go down.

Marty Bergen (no intro needed) said “4333 hands are bad for suit contracts and equally bad for no trump contracts and 4432 are not a whole lot better.” Even in a suit contract, if you and partner have doubletons in the same suit, the ruffing advantage disappears. It took a while for the bridge community to understand that hands that are 5332 generally play better in no trump that flat hands. In a recent News Letter Larry Cohen (a former Bergen partner) said that most marginal no trump hands that make 3 no trump have been shown to include a 5 card suit. It is common today for teachers to recommend opening 15-17 hcps hands at 1NT even with a 5 card major and to advise adding a point to the response hand if you have a 5 card suit. The more interesting question is should you deduct a point for flat (4333) hands. I think the idea deserves consideration. Start looking at those hands and compare your results to form your own opinion.

Another interesting question that you never see discussed are the 4432 response hands with only one four card major. If partner opens one no trump and responder holds 8+ hcps and a single 4 card major, are there any circumstances where you might choose to not use Stayman? Is not Stayman a can’t lose proposition? Is it possible that I am over medicated and should melt down my ACBL card?

How about the free information you give away to the opponents when you use Stayman? It shows responder has a 4 card major. If opener bids 2 diamonds it shows opener does not. If opener bids two of a major it shows that major and when responder bids 2NT it shows that he had 4 of the other major and less than 10 hcps. Opener has shown that his distribution is 4333 or 4332 and responder has shown his distribution to be 4432 (one major only). If opener doesn’t bid game you know he did not start with a maximum no trump hand. If there were a strong probability of finding opener with a 4 card major that matches responder’s, then you might say “pish tosh” let’s get to important issues. I won’t bore you with probabilities, but the chances of opener having a matching 4 card major or even both majors are very poor. So, if you think you had all this information do you think you could make an intelligent opening lead and defend the hand better? Let’s hope so. If not see my teacher, Pat Peterson: or come watch her defend a hand.

Michael Nissler, a California teacher and expert, has an excellent bridge web site known as BridgeHands. I asked Michael if there are 4432 hands on which he would not use Stayman. He said that he would give that question a resounding “it depends.” Wow! A “chink in the armor.” He continued, “If you are going to pass on Stayman with 4332 and simply raise no trump, the time to do it is when responder’s short suits (the 3 and 2 card suit) have significant high card points.” That adds protection and enhances the no trump play.

Michael mentioned another Californian, Gene Simpson, a Grand Life Master, who is closing in on 30,000 master points. You gotta like this guy. When asked for his to 25 tips on winning bridge, the first on the list was get a good partner. You can find Gene’s list published on the Internet. When I asked Gene about this issue, he said when responder has 12 hcps it is best to bid your no trump game instead of majoring in majors. He also said that if responder’s major has no high card points, it is better to raise no trump and avoid Stayman.

Do you think these Californians are like “Cheech and Chong” or is their thinking apparatus working one gear above ours? We report, you decide.

Be forewarned, most club players will be rotely using Stayman and you will probably be going against the grain. Most of the time a 4 card major will not be located so it won’t make any difference. If your analysis is correct you will get a top. Even if an 8 card major is found, it may make the same number of tricks in no trump. "Ca-Ching, Ca-Ching!" Be selective, and make sure when you stray from the asylum the scoring is match points. If all goes wrong “ Close you eyes and think of England.”

In responding to opening no trump bids, I always think the 8 hcps hands present the most challenges. Here’s some advice from expert Gordon Bower on 8 counts:
• With 4333 (any 4 card suit) pass.
• With 4432 pass if your long suits are clubs and diamonds
• With 4432 and one 4 card major it is borderline. Most of the field will be bidding of course, so you may choose to bid just to avoid swings, but I am not certain that in the long run it will be the winning action.
• With 4-4-3-2 (both majors), the odds are well in favor of your bidding
• With more shape (5422 or 5332) bid!!

With an 8 count, I suggest that you consider passing more often if the shape is not favorable, or just taking your shot with no trump. Often when you pass, overly aggressive balancers will often come rushing back in and holding a good 8 count you can "whack" them for penalties.

If you have not visited the site BridgeHands, I urge you to do so and sign up for the bridge blog “Polling You”. This teaching blog section is destined in the future to be a fee based members only teaching site with multiple levels of membership enabling different levels of access, but for the present you can sign up for a free introductory membership. Go to the site, sign up for a membership and also request e-mail notification each time a new poll is posted. The animated videos with commentary by Michael are excellent. I think you will be impressed with the professional quality of the presentation.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Negative Free Bids -- A Definite Postive

Well, if you believe that there is a cost to everything, then you will know that “free bids” are not free. In Bridge, a free bid arises when your partner opens the bidding, his LHO make an overcall and you as responder choose to bid a new suit. The bid is called “free” since even if you don’t bid, your partner (opener) will have another chance to bid and the hand will not be passed out. Thus, you have taken action when you were free not to do so. If you are fortunate, you can make a free bid at the one level (1c/1d/1s). In modern duplicate style this does not show much more that a bid that you would have made without the overcall.
If, however, the overcall requires you to go to the 2 level to show your suit, Standard American bidding requires you to have 11+ hcps and a 4+ card suit. A two level bid free bid is forcing one round and very invitational. So what do you do if you have a nice 5 card suit that you want to get on the table but do not have the required 11 hcps? Well, sometimes a negative double will help you out. After 1c/1d, a negative double would show 6+ hcps and both majors, but when you have a 5 card suit often your suits and distribution will not fit negative double requirements. So you are left with lying to partner or losing the suit. Most often it is better to lose the suit than lose a partner, but there are notable exceptions to that rule. On a good day opener may double the overcall and give you a chance to show your suit, but he might not have a hand appropriate for a reopening double. On a bad day after you pass your LHO raises the bid to 2, 3 or 4 diamonds? Now you and your suit are history.
Enter the concept of a “Negative Free Bid”. Negative because you promise opener that you do not have the hcps to make a classic free bid, but that you have a good 5+ card suit with 5-10 hcps. If you are at the top of your Negative Free Bid range (9-10 hcps) you can make a jump shift. (1c/1d/2h). This most often shows a good 6 card suit. A Negative Free Bid is non-forcing, partner may pass and with a minimal holding will do so. More important than hand strength is suit quality. It might be something like AQJxx or KJTxxx with little or nothing outside. Remember, you may end up as declarer and opener’s pass with minimal values does not guarantee a fit.
Negative Free Bids are "on" through 3 diamonds so free bids of 3 hearts and 3 spades are forcing. Negative Free Bids are very useful in combating those pesky weak jump overcalls. If the bidding goes 1c/2s (sound familiar) with xx, Qxx AJT9xx, xx, you can make a negative free bid of 3 diamonds. We do not want to get shut out when one opponent has already shown a single suited hand with little in defensive values.
The concept of lowering the free bid requirement is driven by the very real possibility that opener may have 3 or 4 cards in your suit and without the negative free bid we will never find our 8+ card fit. In duplicate, effective bidding in competitive auctions depends on finding fits. So, if the bidding is 1d/2c and you find yourself holding xxx, KQT9x, Qx, xxx you make a negative free bid of 2 hearts. This announces that you have a good heart suit with less than 5-10 hcps, and also serve as lead directing if we defend.
Now we know how to bid the minimal hands with good suits, but how do we show partner that we really have a classic free bid with 11+ points and a good suit? Instead of making a bid at the 2 level we double the overcall. Yes that would be a negative double, but is really a two-way bid. Opener assumes it is a real negative double and bids accordingly, but at responder's next he bids his suit signaling to opener that you really hold a classic free bid with 11+ hcps and not a negative double. The bidding proceeds naturally from that point.
Alerts: The Negative Free Bid must be alerted by opener and if asked indicate that it shows a single suited hand with 5-10 hcps. The same alert should be made for jump shift indicating that the hand is in the 9-10 hcp range and likely 6 cards. If responder makes a negative double, alert the double and indicate that responder has either a true negative double or a single suited hand with 11+ hcps. If responder rebids a new suit after a negative double, alert that the double was not negative.
Opener’s Rebids:
I am going to lay out some recommended rebids by opener, but don’t let this detail keep you from getting started. Responder’s negative free bids are very descriptive (most often a 5+ card suit and 5-9 hcps). With that detail, bidding continuations should be almost natural.
For those that want my recommendations here they are:
Pass: Shows a minimum hand and does not promise a fit. Don't run to : 2NT without extra values. It’s easy to under use “pass” in this context!!
Rebid opener’s first suit
: Long suit without a fit.
2 NT
: 16-18 with a stopper in opponents overcalled suit.
Free single non-competitive raise
: Fit plus 15-18 support points.
: If Opener’s RHO bids over the negative free bid or doubles the bid, a double or redouble by opener is a support double or redouble. Opener may also pass since the support double action is not mandatory with a minimum hand.
Jump Raise
: Minimum Opener with a 5+ card fit and great playing strength.
Cue Bid
: If opener wants to show a supportive hand for the negative free bid and wishes to convert it to a game forcing auction, he makes a cue bid. 1d/1s/2h/p/2s.
Jump Cue Bid
: If opener makes a jump cue bid that shows 4+ card support for the negative free bid suit and a single or void (splinter) in the bid suit. e.g. 1c/1s/2h/p/3s. This bid also shows a big playing hand.
Is this a new concept? No, Marty Bergen first wrote about it in 1986 in Better Bidding by Bergen Vol. 2. It was also detailed by Karen Walker in a 5 part-part series in the Bridge Bulletin in 2005. Many Experts have this treatment as part of their arsenal, but the time has come for Intermediates and Advanced Players to give this serious consideration. Even if you don’t adopt it as part of your system, it is likely that you will be playing pairs that have so it is a good idea to arm yourselves with some information. Can I say it too often? "In todays competitive environment you can't announce a good suit too early."

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Kaye Thomas Does Elgin Illinois

When I practiced law in Rochester, New York, I was fortunate to have as a law partner Kaye Thomas. Kaye practiced tax law for our firm and was my “go to” guy for all complex tax matters and everything else that required raw intellect. Not only was he an incredible resource but he had writing skills that could boil the most complex legal concepts down into a language that even I could understand. Kaye took a law job in Chicago many years ago and then went into the publishing business in that area. Recently I got an e-mail from Kaye saying “I have taken up bridge and am playing on line. In doing an on line internet search I came across your bridge blog. I recognized the writing style as it looks like you stole it from me.”

Maybe he is right, because certainly I didn’t come by this “Rock and Roll” style honestly. He thought I might be able to repay him for all the advice he had so freely given to me. Now get this, this guy has never played in a club game and is one of those BBO night riders who has never seen a real opponent with a face, doesn’t know what a convention card is and has never experienced the ignominy of having all the bidding cards fall out of the bottom of the bidding box. He has no partner, doesn’t know what a score card is and doesn’t have a clue about registration or the partnership desk. So he says “there is a Sectional Tournament in nearby Elgin, Illinois next weekend and I thought I might as well saunter over and start half way up the ladder. Start me off at the front door and spare me anything that I can pick up on the fly.”

Unless you have written “tech manuals”, it is hard even get your arms around this problem, much less organize it and detail it. After about a week of furious e-mails back and forth daily, I am pleased to say that Kaye has joined the ACBL and has a vague idea of the match point duplicate protocol. I, on the other hand, am exhausted, and now realize it would been less of a headache to fly to Chicago and be his first partner. I expect that it will not be too long before Kaye is on a first name basis with the ACBL directors since BBO players alert their own bids and are prone to making strategic aggressive claims.

In a future blog I will report if Kaye manages to retain the same partner for more than one session, for that matter for one complete session. Look out you 299ers, he is on the way. Now that I have concluded all my pay, deal, sort and play advice, I realize that I haven’t given him a strategy for knocking some of those 299er heads together, so here are some guidelines Kaye to get you through the first 24 boards:

1. Identify vulnerability before the cards come out of the tray and make vulnerability part of your bidding strategy? If vulnerability is unfavorable, don’t be carried off the battle field on your shield. If vulnerability is favorable, don’t let them play a contract if you can hold your losses to down 1 or even 2. Remember that when opponents play the hand, a score of -90 to -120 is the “death zone”. Even the best players find it near impossible to double low level contracts, and the urge to take another bid, rather than suffering the ignominy of letting the hand be stolen, is almost irresistible.

2. Accept that in match point duplicate that you are not the master of your own result? In match point games, inequity plays out on every hand. Good players defending will steal an extra trick from poor players and good players declaring will do the same thing. Play the hand for its full potential and don’t worry about the “gifts” that other teams may be getting on the same hand. Pouting about “fixes” is the quickest way to fix yourself. “If you want justice, go to night court!”

3. Do not fret over any hand that has been played. Can I say that again or often enough? Once the hand is done, it is over!! You are never going to see that hand again; the odds are 1 in 465 billion! Looking backward only will set in motion mood swings of highs and lows (more lows than highs) and will prevent you from playing with equanimity. Don’t give away the next board worrying about the last one.

4. Accept the fact that a badly defeated contract can still be a great board. If you are in a contract that is going down from the minute the dummy hits the table, play extra hard to minimize your losses. If you have bid the hand correctly, other teams will keep you company.

5. Realize the value of average plus boards and their place in determining overall results. Good results in match point duplicate are not produced by a massive array of high boards. High and low boards will frequently even out. At the end of the day if you have more boards in the “average plus” range than in the “average minus” range, you will have a good result.

6. Be a winning coward. Grand slams are for bridge heroes. Heroes are usually carried off on their shields. The risk-reward ratio is out is whack because we are competing against teams composed of imperfect people and not robots! Bidding and making a small slam in the right denomination will invariably get you an average plus good board even if the hand makes 13 tricks.

7. Be a tranquil declarer. When you declare, do not panic. You can’t develop a playing strategy if your mind is running in all directions. Tranquility is a state of mind and no battle plan was ever created in the middle of a full retreat.

8. Plan your work and work your plan. Once you have a plan, execute it with confidence. Don’t appear to be frazzled and torn by indecision. Thank partner for coming down with exactly the cards that he bid (effusively if you are disappointed). If opponents think you have it “in the bag” and are about to “claim”, they might just fall asleep and start pitching cards carelessly. Never give the opponents even the slightest reason to kindle their hope.

9. Bid on the KISS principle. If you have two choices, make a bid that you are sure partner will understand. Game day is not a bidding examination. If there is any concern that your bid will send partner “into the tank”, then it is wrong even if it is 100% right. Save the bidding lesson for later.

10. Reward partner for balancing. If partner acts courageously in a balancing situation, give him a little room for his bravery. Don’t hang him out to dry. Remember that he has already bid some of your points. It is not necessary or advisable for you to bid the same points again!

Well, Bon Voyage Kaye. If the door prize is a watch, send it to me.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Sometimes Hands are Almost Unbiddable

Recently, on the next to last Board, I was dealt x, Txxxx, Kx, AJxxx. Partner and I were riding a 60% game going into the last set so I was hoping for something prosaic that would not cause a big swing. I was thinking maybe partner will pass or open a club, heart, diamond or 1NT, and I will skate out of this hand without serious injury. The Bridge Gods don’t let you off the hook that easy. By now you have guessed that partner opened 1 spade. We were playing Standard American with 1NT forcing. Thus, a 2/1 bid showed 10 hcps. I am not above telling a little lie but usually it is the "least worst lie" and would indicate the lack of a better bid.

Whether you are playing SAYC or 2/1 game force, my hand is what the 1NT forcing bid was designed for, so I decided to play it straight and run in the same direction as the rest of the field. The opponents passed (darn it) and partner now bids 2 diamonds.

Well, what do we know about partner’s hand? If he held 6 spades he would have rebid spade, so 5 spades it is. Partner also has 0-3 hearts since he would have bid 2 hearts with 4+ hearts. Another rule of 1NT forcing rebids is that if your clubs are at least equal in length to your diamonds, you always bid clubs. This gives responder more space and options for his rebid. So what we have left is that partner has 4-6 diamonds and 0-3 hearts. Oh, we need to one more rule. Responder does not introduce a new suit on his rebid unless he has 6 of them. So now that I have gathered all this intelligence for you, what action do you take after partner bids 2 diamonds? Hint: Going to the restroom is not an option! Further hint: There are no winners in this game except those that look in partner’s hand!

I had a lot of a lot of partners and friends, whose bidding skills I respect, look at this hand. Most took a view, but nobody was satisfied with their answer or strongly convinced that the course of action selected was the right one. About this time I got Larry Cohen’s free newsletter ( noticed he was doing a 2/1 game force series and in the current letter discussing the 1NT forcing response and its continuations. How timely I thought, so I sent the hand to Larry and requested that I be able to quote his response in this blog.

Larry is good about staying in touch and sure enough I got an e-mail back from him shortly. Here is his entire response:


Sure, you can quote me.

This problem is a headache beyond belief. I would answer by asking if you want me to submit it to the Bridge World Master Solvers Club.


So, if you are a Bridge World subscriber, you will see this hand and expert analysis in the coming months. When I get it I will also reproduce the results in a follow up blog. Are you truly an expert? Here is your chance to find out.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Bridge Opportunities Expanding in citrus County

Bridge is alive and well in Florida. The ACBL recently noted that Florida is the game’s fastest growing geographic area. That is also true of Citrus County. As part of that growth and expansion, Pat Peterson recently announced that she will expand bridge at her bridge facility to include a Friday afternoon game.

All of Pat’s games (now Monday thru Friday) are held in the Nature Coast Bank building at the corner of Highway 486 and Citrus Hills Boulevard. Her new Friday game will start on March 4th at 1:00 and will be directed by Daryl Drew, an ACBL certified bridge director.

Why support Pat and her games? Well, first I will admit bias, since Pat is my teacher, mentor and close friend. I have taken every bridge class that Pat has offered since 2004 and some of them, like “Play of the Hand”, twice. If Pat offers that course again I will be the first to sign up. I read recently that a lady had been born with 13 toes – maybe that is what I need.

Pat is not only a superb teacher but also an outstanding player and director. She is a model of decorum at the bridge table and sets the right tone for the way a bridge game should be run. She never fails to offer a charity game or a special game when permitted. Pat offers basic instruction to novices and beginners and constantly brings new players to the game. Without Pat Peterson, bridge in Citrus County would be an afterthought with dwindling participation.

Need more inspiration? Well there is the wine and cheese party to kick off the inaugural Friday game on Friday, March 4, so come and start the weekend off right. If bridge doesn’t appeal to you, just come for the wine and cheese and leave. See y’all on Friday.

In closing I would like to thank the Verla West Bridge Club of Citrus Springs for hosting me to many pleasant Friday bridge afternoons. I wish them luck as they continue to serve their clients.

Writ by hand. tommy solberg

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

When All Seems Hopeless Good Things Can Happen

It is probable that few of my readers have read Clyde Love’s book on Squeeze Plays. This is the all time classic from the middle of the last century and is still on top of the heap. I confess that I have started it more than once, but never finished it. It gives me a big headache. Even if you don’t know anything about Squeeze techniques, if you bring the hand down to the point where you only have one loser and then just play off the rest of your winners, you will often find that mysteriously you have an automatic squeeze on somebody. You look like a magician, and if you get that look of shock and surprise off your face, you may pass for an expert. The thing you should do at that point is say “Sorry, I should have claimed back at trick 2 since the Squeeze was elementary.”

This post is not about squeezes but does demonstrate that good things can happen in other situations if you just let it happen. Before we get to the play, I want to discuss the bidding. The hand is one that I watched on BBO on January 2.




First a bidding commentary. South opens the hand one diamond and West passes. You are playing Standard Inverted Minors so a raise to 2 diamonds is a good 10 hcps with no upper limit and 4+ card support for diamonds. In the auction North responded 1NT in preference to 2 diamonds. She later asked me what I thought of that choice. When you play Standard Inverted Minors there is a tough range where your hand is not quite good enough for a single raise but too strong for a preemptive raise to 3 diamonds (0-7 hcps and diamond support). You have to find a bid for the hands that fall in between these values. Most players with that in-between hand will bid 1NT. Often 1NT will be passed out for a good board. On a good day your diamonds will produce 5 tricks.

What about North hand. It has 10 hcps, but it has a balanced shape that is a negative in a suit contract. It also has only 1 Quick Trick, no Aces, mostly secondary honors and the two black Kings are not supported by other honors in the suit. If North bids 2 diamonds they might end up in a no trump game that is unmakeable. Also notice that if you play 1NT, you want the lead coming up to North’s two black Kings, not coming through them. I think her choice is a good one since Standard Inverted Minors was their agreement.

I think the hand would go easier if they played Criss Cross Inverted Minors. North could then bid 3 clubs (showing a limit raise for diamonds) without worrying about the bidding getting out of control. South with minimum opening values would bid 3 diamonds which is to play. When you play Criss Cross, the single raise in diamonds shows an opening hand thus permitting responder to better describe her hand. The response of 3 diamonds is always preemptive, in or out of competition.

Following the 1NT response, East and South pass, but West decides to balance with a 2 heart bid. What foolishness!! If North doubles, it goes down 2 for minus -500. North, without any trump tricks, decided not to do that, but now took the opportunity to show her good diamonds by bidding 3 diamonds which was passed out.

West led a spade. You will note that if he had laid down his Ace of clubs, my cat Axel could have played the hand. Generally, experts say that it is not good to lead unsupported Aces against suit contracts unless opponents have bid a game or higher. Then it is permissible, but you still need a reason for doing it. Now you have to move into the South seat and make 3 diamonds. It was surprising to me that the traveler showed that most did not make the hand without a club lead. Take hint from the title of this blog. When all else fails, just lay down your winners and good things can happen. Stop reading here and try the hand.
This is an interesting hand because it is an automatic. There is no lead that can beat the hand and nothing the opponents can do on defense to upset the result. It is apparent that you need to avoid 2 losers in the club suit, and since opponents correctly didn’t lead clubs on the opening, don’t expect them to do so after they see the dummy. After winning the spade you go after trump. East wins the second diamond with the ace and returns a heart. Declarer wins the return in the hand. Now is the moment of truth. Declarer must clear his two hands of hearts by ruffing the third heart in the dummy. You must play on hearts before you lead spades. You simply play the Ace, give up the next heart, and when you get back in ruff the third heart in the dummy. If at any point you try to lead toward one of your club honors you are done for. There is no way that you can succeed in the club suit unless you get the opponents to lead a club. They will not willingly do that.

When all else fails just play out your cards. Lay down the Ace, King and a small spade to “throw in” one of the opponents. In this layout it doesn’t make any difference which opponent wins the spade trick, they are both end played. If East wins, he must lead a spade or heart, either of which will give declarer a ruff and sluff, pitching one of his clubs. If the lead is a club declarer will make two club tricks. If West wins the third spade, he must lead a heart or club, both of which are deadly.

My cat, Axel, whose favorite perch is in front of my screen, commented “Don’t sell me short Doc, I can make that hand since all you have to do is lay down your cards in order, high cards first.” Well, he is probably right because the strip and endplay is an automatic, and even if you don’t know what that is, you can hardly avoid executing it. As you lay down the third spade simultaneously "claim", it will sound very impressive in the post mortem.”

So the moral of the post is when all else seems lost don’t give up, just avoid a renege and that may carry the day.