Tuesday, July 24, 2012

This Fiish Will Bite on Anything!

I was salivating over a 3 NT contract last week at the Wednesday game at Temple Beth El. I could see that everyone would be in 3NT, so I dedicated myself to getting that extra trick that must be lurking somewhere in this computer generated hand. Here are the N-S hands:



The opening lead from West was the heart 3, I put in the J and it held. I knew that the odds of the diamond suit splitting 3-3 were about 35% and the 4-2 break was 48%. The true odds of running diamonds from the top was about 39% since the JT doubleton in either hand would also work holding the 9 of diamonds. If I get lucky and run 5 diamond tricks, maybe somebody will discard a spade and help me out.

I started with the Ace of diamonds and I see Greg Giles, who is sitting East, smoothly play the Jack of diamonds. Greg was someone I did not know, but his face was totally innocent, so I credited him with a stiff Jack and decided to go after West’s ten that was bracketed by my Q-9. I came back to my hand and led the 3 toward my Q-9 tenace and see Greg taking my trick with the 10 of diamonds. Did he start with the JT? Oh no, worse than that, he had played the J from JT5 and I went for it like a rat to cheese!

While clearing my head, I hear a loud roar of laughter at the table. I am about to lecture my opponent for gloating and look across the table and see it is my partner Jim Bailey who is laughing telling me I got suckered by a clever false card. Well, at this point I am thinking that if I have to go down, there is nobody else I would rather take with me than Jim.

It is all very humiliating: Here I am the Prince of Probabilities being taken down like a novice. Still licking my wounds in the aftermath, and clinging to a faint hope that I can patch up my reputation, I turn to the Encyclopedia of Bridge looking under suit combinations. Sure enough, I found the exact card holding with the following play advice:

1. For 5 Tricks play the top honors hoping that the Jack and Ten drop in 3 rounds. It is a 39% probability.

2. For 4 Tricks (a safety play) start by leading small to the 9 in case East is void or has a single that is lower than the 9. This play will take 4 tricks 90% of the time.

3. When playing against players who are not devious and unlikely to false card the Jack when holding JTx, cash the Ace and if you see an honor drop from East, finesse the 9 on the next play.

So my claim is that I did not make a mistake or get suckered, I just misjudged Greg’s character. He is in fact a deceiver and a ruthless one at that. How did it all work out? We got a zero on the board, but I was able to swallow my pride and recover for a high finish. The moral of this story is never trust an innocent face. Or better yet, just mindlessly lay down the top 3 honors no matter what you see.

If I substitute the ten on the board in place of the nine, should you now finesse the ten or play the diamond honors from the top? I don’t have to look in the Encyclopedia of Bridge to know that finesse is a 50% probability, so at first blush it looks like the finesse is the percentage play. But wait, adding the 10 in place of the 9 changes everything, since the Jack becomes a significant card. No defender would play the Jack from Jx since it would give declarer the whole suit, and this changes the odds on the 3-3 break from 39% to 52%. Thus, playing the honors from the top is 2% superior to taking the finesse. For those who want the mathematical explanation of these phenomena, see my blog post of September 23, 2007 entitled “The Odds and Ends of Bridge (Post Graduate Course).”

Will all of this convince Jim Bailey that I am not a fish? Absolutely not, so perhaps I should just admit that I got bamboozled by an innocent face. A pretty face works equally as well, so powder your nose ladies.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Larry Miles RIP -- Spadewood Lives On

Larry Miles was one of my early bridge blog readers. He often sent me comments and I could tell Larry was not your average bridge player. I eventually asked him where he was from, and said L.A. I replied I have a brother in Los Angeles, and he said that he meant Lower Alabama, Mobile to be precise. It turned out that his summer home was in Newark, New York, about 45 minutes from mine. We arranged a few summer games, but his favorite partner was his wife Julie, so our opportunities were limited.
Larry was everything I ever wanted in a bridge partner. He was kind, modest, self-effacing, polite, caring, and always the southern gentleman that his momma brought him up to be. As I found out later, his bridge skills and analytical abilities matched all of his excellent personal traits. He was one of the best that I have ever seen at solving play of the hand problems and was well versed in classic bridge literature.
Larry developed serious health problems and died about a month ago. So he and I never got to complete our games planned for this summer. I just wished I had a final game and a chance to tell him how much his friendship meant to me and the inspiration he provided to me. Larry had his own thoughts on how to bid certain hands and hated both Blackwood and Gerber over 1NT openers. He found often they resulted in confusion and thought them deficient in reaching light suit slams when partner opened 1NT (15-17). If the partnership had 31 or 32 hcps, had all 4 aces and could find a 4-4 fit, he wanted to be in slam.
 In no trump auctions he wanted to get rid of both Gerber and Blackwood, and he developed the perfect foil to accomplish this, SPADEWOOD. When partner opened 1NT, he used both Stayman and Major Suit Transfers and 2NT to show a hand that wanted to play minors. This left open the 2 spade bid which was “Spadewood.”
 Spadewood initially starts out as a range ask (not uncommon among some expert players) and opener bids 2NT with 15-16 hcps. This rebid can be passed if responder only wished to play at game against maximum no trump hand. So that takes care of invitational hands. If opener has 17 hcps, he shows the number of Aces starting with 3 clubs = 0, 3 diamonds = 1 etc. If responder is interested in slam he then starts by bidding his 4 card suits up the line in an effort to find a 4-4 fit. This also confirms to opener that all four Aces are held. If no fit is found they play the lowest game level no trump available. If responder wishes to sign off after finding that not all aces are held, he likewise bids the lowest game level of no trump. These no trump bids, which are to play, most often come at levels lower than the competition due to the efficiency attained with Spadewood. Larry claimed that he would often be playing 3NT when opponents were trying to remember how to stop in 5NT.
The final contingency: Opener rebids 2NT but responder wants to make a slam try anyway. Responder now asks for Aces by bidding 3 clubs which is like Gerber, but at one level lower. It is well to remember that “Spadewood” supplements Stayman and Transfers and is simply another way for responder to get information when responder has a balanced hand.
Initially I thought this might be some strange home brew, but played it with Larry to accommodate his strong feelings about it. I find that it is very sound and works just the way it was advertised. You get the information you need, most often at one level lower than opponents, and you find more light slams that can be played in suit contracts with 4-4 fits. Like all conventional bids, you have to give up something in exchange. In this case it is 4 suit transfers meaning you will play some minor suit part scores with the no trump hand on the table.
Larry’s favorite bridge topic was “Spadewood”. He only once wrote a definitive comment about the convention and that may be lost to posterity. Out of respect to my friend Larry, I wanted Spadewood to live on and not expire with him. I think Larry would be pleased. Larry was important to me as a friend. As a collateral benefit, he always made my bridge game look better than reality. Larry always read my bridge blog posts with a critical eye. I hope he is reading this one. I will be looking for your comment Larry.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Equal Level Conversion Examples (Part 2)

1. Opening bid is 1 heart. You hold:





This is the early example shown by Robert Ewen in 1973. He suggested you try for a spade contract by making a t/o x, since if partner bids clubs you could “convert” to 2 diamonds. Note: When one heart is opened we use ELC with a major minor holding, with the minor having 5+ cards and the major 4 cards. If you had one more club and one less diamond you would bid the same way. If you make an ELC double it also implies shortness in the opening bid suit.

2. If the hand is xx, KJxx, AQJxxx, x (hearts and spades reversed from ex. 1) we could use ELC if the opening bid was one spade, since we could convert to diamonds at the 2 level over 2 clubs. If the opening was one club we could not double on this hand since if Advancer bids 1 spade we could not convert to diamonds at the one level. A “double and bid” with a club opening would mean the big 17+ hcp hand.

3. Opening bid is 1 diamond. You hold:





 Do you really want to overcall a heart? Do you want to use Michaels on a 5-4 hand? I hope not to both questions. Perfect for an ELC t/o x. It neatly solves a problem hand. If Advancer bids clubs we convert to the better major hearts. Advancer surely doesn’t have a 4 card major or we would have heard about it. He may well have a 3 card heart suit. Think positive, on a better day Advancer bids 1 spade! We may be the only pair not to lose the spade suit. If RHO opens 1 club, it’s the same story. Note: If the heart suit were better quality you could overcall 1 heart, but you still risk losing the spade suit if Advancer’s holding is 2 hearts and 4 spades. If the major suit holding is 5-3, it is always better to make the overcall since that holding is not suitable for the ELC double.

4. Opening bid is heart. You hold:





You make a t/o double; responder bids 2 hearts, Advancer bids 3 clubs (maybe 8+ hcps and 5 clubs), pass by opener: Doubler coverts to 3 diamonds. Diamonds will be the best suit we have. If Advancer had 4 spades he would (hopefully) have shown the spades at the 2 level rather than bid the 5 card club suit.

 5. Opening bid is 1 club. You hold:





Double. If Advancer doesn’t respond in hearts, we bid spades to convert Advancer’s diamond response. Despite the popular belief that you can show both suits by overcalling spades and bidding hearts next, it is surprising how often the heart suit gets lost in traffic. If the opening bid is one diamond instead of a club, it is the same story.

6. Opening bid is 1 spade. You hold:





Double and convert to Diamonds if Advancer bids clubs. Again, we preserve our chance to find the 4-4 heart fit.

7. Here is one for real men (and ladies too!)!  Opening bid is 1 club. You hold:










 Double of course! If partner shows diamonds you convert to hearts. ELC. If Advancer has more spades than he does hearts, he should take a preference to spades. If you trap on these hands you might lose game in one of the majors.

 Here are some Balancing Examples:

8. Opponent opens one spade and there are three passes to you. In the balancing seat you hold:





With the club single 1NT is not attractive. Certainly a re-opening bid of 2 diamonds will get votes, but isn’t double the best choice if you play ELC doubles in the balancing seat? If partner bids the expected 2 clubs, we convert to 2 diamonds. If partner bids hearts, we are happy whether he has 4 or 5 card suit. Given the bidding and balancer’s holding, it seems likely that we will find partner with some diamond help.

9. South opens 1 heart and North raises to 2 hearts. All pass to you in the balancing seat. As West you hold:





The question is not whether to balance, but how best to do so. If you bid 2 diamonds, you will surely lose any spade fit. Better to make an ELC double. Suppose balancer’s partner holds Q10xx,xxxx,xxx,Ax. Then the hand makes an equal number of spades or diamonds.

10. South opens one heart, responder bid 1NT(F). You hold:





Here you are in the pre-balancing seat. You have 21/2 quick tricks and 11 hcps, and 5-4 distribution in suits that have not been bid. A pre-balance is a command performance. If you bid 2 diamonds, you just know that partner will have 4 spades. Make the pre-balance with an ELC double. If partner bids clubs, just convert to 2 diamonds. It's at the same level so you haven’t shown extras

 General Reminder: When you have the big 17+ hand, you can’t make a Double and ELC conversion. You have to make a cue bid or jump in the converting suit. Also, if your “double and bid” action is not ELC, (1s/x/ p/2h/3c) then you do have the big hand.

Equal Level Conversion Doubles (Part 1)

I always wanted to do a post on this subject, but felt it may be too complex for many of my readers. In June’s issue of The Bulletin (Pg. 26) I saw that Larry Cohen made a passing reference to Equal Level Conversion. Since his 2 short paragraphs left much unsaid, I have decided (for better or worse) to put a little meat on the bones. It’s been a while since I have written anything for my advanced readers, so here it is! You will find the endnotes grouped on at the end (duh!) This is a 2 part post, the next post will consist of examples and answers.
As we all know, the “Gold Standard” for take-out doubles is that doubler has support for the other three unbid suits. The only common exception to this is the “double and bid” situation.[1]. Since modern bridge theory supports single level overcalls with hands as good as 17hcps, double and bid action generally shows a hand that has a good 17+ hcps and a re-biddable suit. Since doubler has the best hand at the table, and it is his intention to take a bid over whatever partner’s action might be, it is not important that doubler can’t support partner in one of the unbid suits.

 These combined disciplines have stood the test of time pretty well. They set a sensible standard, promote partnership trust and set the stage for competitive bidding or a good defensive effort with a head start on count and values. Yet, there seems to be a recurring problem with certain two suited hands that are not 5-5. You are sitting in the second seat and see one heart opened on your right. You hold something like AKxx, xxx, AJ10xx, x. What call do you make?

 Most partnerships would overcall 2 diamonds. The problem is that you may catch partner with Qxxx, x, xxx, Axxxx and we miss a good play for game in spades. It is easy to bury a spade suit with this type of hand. Another approach is to overcall the 4 card spade suit[2]. The problem with this is that I like the assurance that partner’s overcalls have 5+ cards in the suit. If you have to question that each time a major suit is overcalled, you have lost valuable hand count information and may miss a 9 card diamond fit in which you could have competed. You could try to trap pass[3], but explain that to partner when the bidding goes 1h/p/3h, and our options are gone.

 There is a way that you can “have your cake and eat it too”, and not have to sweat your way through these awkward holdings. You simply make a take out double (!) and if advancer bids 2 clubs, you bid 2 diamonds. You are going to say, “Wait a minute, I have just shown a hand of 17+ hcps with double and bid. No, not if your partnership understanding is that you can make Equal Level Conversion (“ELC”) take-out doubles.  Under the ELC understanding, the bid of a new suit by doubler is not forcing if it is at the same level as Advancer’s[4] bid. Now doubler can bid 2 diamonds and Advancer will know that it is not forcing and also know that in this sequence (1h/x/p/2c/p/2d), I started with 5 diamond and 4 hearts. On a good day advancer will respond 1 spade over our double and we have found our 8 card spade fit. Even If Advancer bids 1NT (somewhat rare), he has a heart stopper, and surely he must have Qxx of diamonds. We can play it in NT, but without the club stopper, a bail out to 2 diamonds may guarantee the plus score[5].

I need to answer a few quick questions before they are asked:

1. How do you now show the 17+ hand if an ELC double and bid sequence is non-forcing? In the 1h/x/p/2c/p auction you can either cue bid hearts (e.g. 2 hearts) or you can jump in diamonds (e.g. 3 diamonds). Both are a one round force in these auctions.

2. What do you do if opener’s partner (responder) bids 2 hearts and Advancer bids 3 clubs? Bid 3 diamonds, it is still equal level conversion.

3. What if advancer jumps to 3 clubs after a pass by responder? Same answer as question 2.

4. What do you do with 6-4 hands? This is the good part, bid them the same way as 5-4 hands. This overcomes their unsuitability for Michael’s Cue bids.

5. Is the ELC double alertable? No, but you must mark the box for Min. Off-shape T/O in the upper left hand corner of your convention card. Notice that it is not marked in red or blue[6].

6. Is this something new that you are springing on me? No, it has been in the literature a long time. Mr. Robert Ewen (a British bridge writer) commented on the sequence in 1973, although he did not use the term ELC[7]. Max Hardy commented on ELC extensively in his book on bidding 2 suited hands written in 1996[8]. Notwithstanding this exposure, the convention was not used extensively until Eric Rodwell and Jeff Meckstroth added it to their partnership agreement. “Meckwell” refers to their agreement as Minimum Equal Level Conversion, but the principles remain unchanged. Bridge World Standard 2001 seems to indirectly endorse ELC, but they appear to limit its use to the situation where your unsupportable suit is clubs[9]. Many players who use ELC would use it over any one level opener if the hand holding is correct. See examples. in Part 2.

 Here are some general rules to help you spot ELC situations. If the opening bid is minor suit, the two suits must be majors. It the opening bid is a major, the two suits must be a minor and a major. In minor-major situations, the long suit is always the minor suit. In the major-major combination, the holding can be 5-4, 4-5 or even 4-4[10] if the rest of the hand fits ELC. If doubler’s rebid is at a higher level than advancer’s responsive bid, this is not ELC, it shows the traditional “double and bid” hand.
Part 2 of this post will contains several examples of the use of the principle of ELC doubles. These should be very helpful to you in demonstrating the flexibility of ELC and better understanding its use. What can be better than showing distribution and strength, all at the 2 level? As Max Hardy said, “Fits take tricks”. It’s a good thing he was a bridge author and not a poet!

[1] I am aware that some partnerships play off shape takeouts where over 1 heart you can double with almost anything as long as you have 4 spades. I leave to each reader to decide if this is good bridge and how you distinguish between real take out doubles and off shape doubles made only to show 4 cards in the opposite major. I am going to ignore it.
[2] This was the suggestion of Mike Lawrence in his Complete Book on Overcalls in Contract Bridge (1979). It would be nice if you could make Mike declarer when you do this!
[3] A respected technique 50 years ago, this flies in the face of modern bridge teachings. With today’s aggressive bidding, opponents will have your underwear up around your ears before the auction gets back to you.
[4] “Advancer” is bridge writers’ terminology for the partner of the take-out doubler. It also applies to the partner of an overcaller.
[5] This decision may be different in match points and IMPs. I think that ELC is equally effective in match points and IMPs, but surely the knock-out player will like it as he will not want to miss that major suit game.
[6] While the double may not be alertable, in fairness to opponents, I would alert doubler’s equal level conversion. It is akin to the situation in 4 suit transfers where a 2NT response to a 1NT opener is conventional and the invitational 2NT is preceded by 2 clubs. You don’t have to alert the 2 club bid (it could be Stayman), but if responder next bids 2NT, you alert it as invitational and possibly no 4 card major.
[7] Doubles for Takeout, Penalties and Profit in Contract Bridge (1973).
[8] Competitive Bidding with Two Suited Hands (1996). Max called it Equal Level Correction. Max used ELC in connection with his preferred 5-4 conventional bid which he refers to as Top and Bottom Cue Bids. See the book for an explanation.
[9] Bridge World 2001 Expert Survey, See sections 307 and 308.
[10] Using ELC with 4-4 major suited hands is rare, since often they will accommodate themselves nicely to traditional take-out doubles. Some players just say, “Stop the music, enuf is enuf". See the examples.
[11] As usual, the author disavows any knowledge of the subject matter of this memo.