Thursday, July 30, 2015

Funks and Slumps

     The lead article in Larry Cohen’s August Newsletter caught my eye. I have suggested many times that my readers subscribe to the newsletter but I am sure that many of you have not followed through. Did I tell you it is free! And did I tell you that you can subscribe by visiting his website at Most of the newsletter is at the intermediate level, balanced with both bidding and play and you have access to his library of articles that he has written over recent years.

     The article deals with how to fix funks and slumps in your bridge career, times when nothing seems to right for you, you get all the fixes, your partner makes mistakes, you catch the wrong pair at the wrong time, your partner leads out of turn and then later revokes, two more boards down the chute. You got this cloud hanging over your head, fully expecting to get ticketed for speeding on the way home. Partner in her cheery tone says “bad luck partner, we’ll do better next time” and it’s only a game!!! The hell it is only a game, this is bridge! We have got to fix something.
     The process repeats itself for the next two weeks, but it is getting progressively harder to hang these 41% games around partner’s neck. Is it just possible that I am contributing to this disaster? We change from North South to an East West seating where we hope it will be easier pickings, but now all the East-West teams are ganging up on us and we are fast becoming the kick around team that everybody fattens their average on. Most slumps will not last longer than 4 weeks, and if they don’t turn around in that time you need to consider Larry’s fast fixes for the Funky Slump.

     If you have the Funky Slump, then it is almost assuredly caused by losing control of the bridge basics that were once written in blood. It time to go to your Funky Slump Checklist and do a line item check off. What, you don’t have a list? How convenient that Larry created one for you and I helped him out. Hereeeeee’s Larr-rry and Tom-me-ey.

1. Make Sure You Are Planning at Trick One. Are you playing too quickly at trick 1. The success of your contract often depends what you do at trick one. This is the main problem for almost everybody, including your blogger. Here is Larry’s formulaic thinking for No Trump and Suit Play and you must do it every time the dummy comes down.

(a) No Trump Contacts. Analyze the opening lead. Is it 4th best and if so what does that mean for your contract. Count your winning tricks that you can take without giving up the lead. Do not count finesses or other “maybes” or tricks you can take if the suit unexpectedly breaks in your favor. Can you afford to give up the lead and what will happen if you do? Can you identify a dangerous opponent who you do not want on lead and arrange the sequencing of your play to keep the lead where you want it. Check your entries and don’t leave a length suit on the board that you can’t get at. If you don’t have adequate entries, consider a safety play.

(b) Suit Contracts. Count your losers from the hand with the trump length. If you are in 4 spades and have 4 losers, you got to figure out a plan to avoid 1 loser. There are basically 5 ways to avoid a loser. (i) a successful finesse (ii) ruffing losing trick from the hand in the dummy (iii) discard loser’s from declarers hand on dummy’s length suits (iv) discarding losers on losers. (v) if counting loser’s doesn’t work, count winners. If you have a wealth of trump in the dummy and some distribution, you may be able to set up a cross ruff and cash most of the combined trump one at a time. If eliminating losers relies on trumping in the dummy you may have to defer drawing trump.

2. As Defender . You want to be declarer’s best friend? Here is the road map: Lead your unprotected Aces and when you run out of Aces start breaking new suits for declarer. “That'll do her.”

3. Bidding. If partner open the bidding and you have opening count, don’t let the bidding stop until game is reached. The only way to do this is to keep making forcing bids that opener can’t pass. Make sure you have complete understanding with partner so you know which bids are forcing for one round and which are game forcing and which bids can be passed. If partner passes a forcing bid, you can put down this checklist and go directly to the partnership desk.

4. Doubles. Review the basics of take-out doubles and negative doubles and the responses to those actions. Do not worry about responsive doubles and support doubles unless you are really clear on the bread and butter doubles. I can’t think of a bid that is more ignored than the support double.

5. Be ready and in shape to compete. Here is one that you seldom hear mentioned, but maybe it should be at the top of the list. Come to the table with a clear head, no big meals, drugs or alcohol before playing. Be aware that if you are sleeping poorly or are over medicated or hung over or all three, you can’t expect to play at your best level or maybe at any recognizable level. You are an athlete, so don’t break training.

6. Cut Down on Conventions. Filling your head with uncomfortable clutter and memory makes it hard to take tricks and remember what the contract is. Missing a convention is depressing and it is bound to interfere with subsequent play. When I wrote about Easely Blackwood,  I said that the number 1 convention in Larry’s book was Blackwood. He quickly wrote that it was number 2. That’s bad news and good news. I don’t like to misquote him but at least I know that he reads the blog. Larry thinks you can get along very nicely with 6 conventions:

(i) Negative Doubles (ii) Blackwood (iii) Stayman (iv)Jacoby Transfers (v)4th suit forcing (vi)DON’T over 1NT openers. If you must have 8 he would add (vii) Weak jump shifts in competition and (viii) 2NT Feature Ask over Weak 2’s. Notice thank God, no Lebensohl. That I would nominate as the first to take off. Heresy, I Know.

     I would finish with “The road to Hell is paved with Good Conventions.” I once wrote a blog by that title and later had a discussion with Larry about who used it first. He strongly argued that his use came before mine. I see from his recent article he seems to be weaking and now introduces the phrase with “Someone once said.” And just when I was ready to concede. Put it in Google and see the result. Comments and Insults to



Saturday, July 11, 2015

The Hesitation Waltz

Is there anything more entertaining in Bridge than watching a good old fashioned “Break in Tempo” infraction being processed? It starts with that blood curdling scream for the Director, the arrival of the director at the table with great pomp and circumstance, the allegations and accusations of high crimes that flow seem to rise to the level of sexual assault or worse. This is followed by fervent denials that no break in tempo occurred since partner always takes 30 seconds to fidget and pass, and finally that these miscreant opponents would not know a Tempo Break if they saw one. Well it’s entertaining unless you are involved. Let’s look at a few issues that create misunderstanding:

(i) Is a Break in Tempo clearly defined under the Laws of Bridge: No. Whether a break in tempo occurred is not a matter of law but rather, a question of fact, there is no bright line test. If you read some of the appeals you will see that this is a “facts and circumstances” test that takes into consideration many factors, including the skill of the players. In club games I believe in restraint if the players possess less skill and have less experience. The novice you beat up on today will be the missing half table next week.

(ii) How about ethics? Unless it is done with the intention of passing unauthorized information, players have every right to take the time they need to make a decision. I think it is safe to say that less than 1% of the Tempo Breaks are intentional. Bridge is a difficult game that requires difficult decisions that are not always susceptible to “in tempo” responses.

(iii) So What is the big deal? You can break tempo, but in doing you will be deemed to have passed unauthorized information to your partner. Partner is not barred from the auction, but you will have put serious handcuffs on his continuing action in the auction. Partner must now choose from among the “logical alternatives” available to him the action that is least suggested by the break in tempo. Mostly those alternatives are pass or bid, but they can also include whether to pull partner’s double or leave it in or make a sacrifice at a higher level. This is the decision the director will make, but if you are aware of your obligations you can you can make a selection that will minimize your risk of using the unauthorized information and the resulting damage. And by the way, passing is not always safe if that alternative was suggested by partner’s hesitation.

(iv) Are we destined to be Penalized on this Board? Not at all. In most cases the director will wait until the completion of the board or later to make a decision. An adjusted score will only be awarded if the director concludes that your fellow competitors suffered some damage as a result of the unauthorized information. In most cases the directors conclude that no damage has occurred and the board will be scored as played. As a practical matter, most infractions result in a “no damage” conclusion, especially ones that occur early in the auction.

(v) What’s new? In bridge if it happened within 10 years it is new. In the 2008 update of the Laws a procedural change was made providing an alternative way to deal with tempo breaks. If you decide that a break in tempo has occurred by your opponents, all you need to do is ask them in a civil tone if they agree that there has been a break in tempo. If they concur, then the auction and play can continue to the end of the hand and there is no immediate need to call the director. At least in club games, if your opponents think a break in tempo occurred, it probably did. As you can imagine, this often breaks down into a "he-says she-says" disagreement to be settled by a director who was on the other side of the room eating a brownie or replenishing the coffee. If you are waiting for the director to say that there was not a hesitation, don’t hold your breath.

At the end of the play if the offended parties believe that there has been actual damage resulting from the unauthorized information, then director can then be called to settle the issue. If it is agreed that no damage has occurred, you have avoided a director call with all the resulting trimmings.

 Still, this procedure is elective and if you want to get the director to the table that is your right. My experience with the alternative procedure is that it works well, saves time, avoids lack of continuity in the play, circumvents potential acrimony and avoids disruption.

In writing this post I am not attempting to discourage tempo calls. At clubs, I think players for the most part are indulgent in an effort not to intimidate their fellow competitors with what are nothing more than tactical calls. At Sectionals, Regionals and Nationals, don’t expect this courtesy. Knowing your rights is being prepared.

(vi) And now the disclaimer. I am not the first person to write on this subject, there is ample material on the internet, and I have benefitted from the writing of others, especially my sometimes partner, Jim Thomas, who directs for the ACBL I am not a director and do not profess to be an expert on the Bridge Laws. If I have made mistakes, let’s hope they are small ones and are counterbalanced by the value of my main message.