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.