Monday, November 10, 2008

The Law of Total Tricks and Other WMD's

This is a special blog for my non-life master readers. It’s not likely to make me a hit with my partners and other highly regarded bridge players of my acquaintance, but then I can’t figure out how to publish this anonymously so here it is. Whether you are a beginner, novice, aspiring intermediate or in some other ascending category, you have to stop whatever you are doing right now and start pulling some cards out of the bidding box that are not green. You cannot – let me say that again – you cannot let good opponents freely engage in constructive bidding. This is what they do best. Leave them alone and they will get to an optimum contract 99% of the time. That is their specialty. You need to compete in the bidding.

Most competitive bidding takes place when one side does not have the 26 hcps required for game. The odds show that each side will hold 26 points about 10% of the time, so that 80% of the time it is a matchpoint battle for part scores. Now you may not always have the cards to compete when you and partner hold 15 hcps total, but then there are times when you need to sacrifice even when they hold 26 hcps, so the saying that “matchpoints is a part score battle” is well justified by the odds.

If you are going to compete, you need some weapons of mass destruction (WMD's) and you need to use them as often as possible, and sometimes even when you think it is a total embarrassment.. Bidding today is not you mother’s bridge of the 20th century, it is guerilla warfare. Go watch some Texas Hold’em Poker on television and you will get in the right frame of mind. I was watching a teenager at a final table the other night playing for about $1,000,000 in real money, and in an interview he explained that the game is simple: “if they check, you raise, if they raise, you re-raise, if they raise back, you go all in.” Do you think you can translate that to bridge?

A good starting point is always following the “Law of Total Tricks.” If you are not consistently following the Law, you are already backing up. This is not a new concept; it was first introduced by a French bridge theorist Jean-Rene Vernes in 1966 and later republished in an article by the Bridge World in 1969. It did not take on any real popularity until Larry Cohen popularized it his books To Bid or Not to Bid and Following the Law in the 90’s. Cutting through all the arithmetic, it simply says count the number of trump you think you and partner have in your best suit and bid for that number of tricks in that suit.” It is a rule for competitive bidding that gives aspiring players an edge, since you do not need to do anything other than count cards. This article assumes that when partner takes a bid, makes an overcall, weak 2 bid or weak jump shift or preempt, you can get a reliable count on his suit holding.

I am aware that from the beginning certain bridge experts have been claiming the Law does not work in certain situations. In fact, two world class players published a book “I Fought the Law of Total Tricks” which seeks to undercut the Law and explain why in certain specific situations it is not as reliable as advertised. If you are inclined to buy it, write to me, mine is for sale at a significant discount. Most of the experts hate the Law, since they dwell in a place where only years of experience and impeccable powers of reasoning can resolve the game’s competitive bidding enigmas.

Although it is commonly referred to as the “Law”, of course it isn’t a law, simply a rule of application that will be right more than it is wrong. The Bridge World analyzed a number of hands from World Bridge Competition and found a very small standard deviation, most of which can be explained by easily remembered adjustments. First, it doesn’t work as accurately with square hands. That doesn’t mean that it won’t work, it just is not as efficient. The answer, subtract one from your Law count if you are 4333. The other most common cause of variance is that it works better when you have no honors (Ace excepted) in opponent’s suit; so again reduce your Law count if your holding in their suit is KJx or something similar. Even if you don’t remember the adjustments, don’t let it concern you – they are better learned by experience anyway. The time to be really bold is when you have some good distribution. Often these hands will play better than the law projects

How about high card points? The Bridge World concluded that the law works most reliably if the point count difference is no greater than 15-25. They also advised using it only when vulnerability is favorable or equal. Maybe at the World Competitive level those things make a difference, but at club games I would not worry about points or vulnerability. Even good opponents are not predisposed to double your “Law” bid because they assume you are stealing: they are predisposed to take another bid to a level where they are no longer protected by the law, because they do not want this brash pair of novices stealing a contract from under their noses.

This last tendency leads to another part of the Law that is often not as well understood as it should be. While the Law states that the number of prospective trump should determine your competitive level, it also applies in the same manner to your opponents. If the bidding goes 1s/2s, you know they have an 8 card fit and are fully “Law” protected at the 2 level. If -110 is where you yearn to be, just pass with your 8 card fit. If on the other hand you have a known 8 card fit with partner in a suit subordinate to opponent’s suit (in this case clubs, diamonds and hearts), bid to the 3 level anyway in seeming violation of the law. Why? Because even though the law does not protect you, it does protect them at 2 spades, and that makes a 3 level competitive bid worthwhile. In most cases they will give you a disdainful look and swat you like a fly as they dance their way to the 3 level. Now we got the Law back on our side!

A discussion of other WMD’s will be continued in future blog posts. In the meantime, don’t sit quietly unless you’re sitting at my table.


The bug said...

I think your rendition of WMD`s was very good. Do not wholly agree though with unfavourable vul. I subtract 1.I find the double at this vulnerability too great.

Tommy Solberg said...

Well Bug, I accept your comment as one person's tolerance for risk.My preference is not to overthink vulnerability since I don't plan to be doubled and I can tolerate minus 100.If you are in high level competition or playing IMPs watching vulnerability makes more sense.At club games playing matchpoints, low level doubles are very rare for the reasons pointed out in my post.Players tend to bid more rather than double.Thanks for you personal insights. tommy