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


Anonymous said...

With all the intricacies you try to trach, it is NO WONDER that hesitations dominate so many auctions!

Maybe all you note is more valuable in a team game (where missed or wrong game contracts are disasters), but at matchpoints, relative simplicity and proper tempo will usually do fine.

Lakshmanan Valliappa said...

Yes, 2NT is the right bid.

You didn't explain why 2S is wrong. It's because 2S would promise 17+ points and longer diamonds than spades. You have the points, but not the distribution.

Where I disagree with you is on the 3NT response. I think that it is also correct. An new minor artificial bid usually shows a 5-card heart suit and North doesn't have that. If you play check-back stayman, then you can bid it, but most intermediate players don't.

3NT happens to be a disaster on this hand because of the wasted honors, but move South's Queen to be in clubs and it would have a lot of play. No system played by non-experts will catch this.

p.s. nice blog.

greenman said...

An interesting way to view this from a captaincy principle. Imho this priniciple is certainly very valid, but I doubt if it is the objective rather than the result of this bidding sequence.

The way I play it is: a) 2Sp would show a reverse with 5D, 4Sp and 17+pt, b) by bidding 2NT the strong hand will play the contract and will be hidden for the eyes of the defense, and c) using CBS an existing 44 or 53 fit in a Major will always be discovered unless opposite a bare bone minimum (2NT non forcing).