Bridge authors are prone to reporting brilliances and ignoring mistakes. Brilliances are newsworthy because they are rare. Mistakes are so common they tend to be ignored, however, it is often errors that are the more significant factors in determining who wins and who loses. Many experts concede that brilliances don’t determine winners because the opportunities to execute them are rare; avoiding non-random errors is where we should concentrate our efforts. Often the responsibility for making an avoidable error is one shared by both partners.
After the most horrific decade in human history Johnny Mercer cheered up the survivors with a song that began, ‘Accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative, …. and don’t mess with Mister In-Between’. It was a big hit. Good psychology, bad advice, as Mister In-Between usually does OK – he is a realist. The people who attacked Pearl Harbor were optimists. Yesterday at our local club game, two of our best players, both aggressive optimists, came in last at 37%. What went wrong? On checking the scores I found they had been defeated in 6 games for a total of 5 matchpoints out of a possible 72. In addition they doubled two games that made for zero matchpoints. By way of contrast, the winners at 61%, who may be categorize as In-Betweens, went down in just two freely bid games, once in 3NT with 25 HCP between them, and once in 3NT when it played better in 4♥. They didn’t defend any doubled contracts.
Taking results over several sessions, one concludes that the best approach is to be aggressively optimistic, but only to the extent that the cards will back you up. In doubtful contracts the opponents have to have a way to get it wrong. Information is the key. We want to induce errors by the opponents, and the best way of doing that is through concealment. There is a conflict of interest – accuracy in order to get a good match with reality, and concealment in order to benefit from the errors of unaware opponents.
The withholding of information from partner is a risk, but if a normal contract is reached via a scantily informative auction, a gain may result from a misdirected defence. Here is a hand from a recent Sectional where the opening lead to a common contract was a disaster. Concealment was the key.
A crude form of Relay Precision was used to reach 3NT, as follows:
1♣ (16+HCP) 1♥ (GF, 5+ Hearts)
1NT (shape?) 2♠ (4+ clubs)
3NT (to play) Pass (nothing to add)
If I could have found a fit in one of my suits, I would look for slam, but the distribution appeared to be against me after John showed length in hearts and clubs, so I went directly to 3NT. As it happened John had nothing to add. This uninformative approach left responder pretty well in the dark. The opening lead was a diamond (the ‘unbid’ suit) from ♦Q95 and I wrapped up 12 tricks although 13 tricks can be taken when hearts split 3-3. No matter, 690 scored 38 out of 38. On a double dummy basis the best contract is 4♥ making 4, which no pair will reach.
A relay bidding system in which one player asks questions and the other answers is ideal for concealment. The nature of the answer is important. Here John showed his shape without making promises with regard to the quality of his suits, so the opening leader could not imagine the clubs were open to attack (♣A852 opposite ♣KQT3). If one thinks relays are unfair, consider that in a natural system one sometimes (often) bids a bad suit systematically, which may happily discourage the dangerous lead, as on this similar combination to be played at matchpoints.
Declarer will be pleased not to receive a heart lead. The question is how to capitalize on a favorable club lead. Concealment is again the key. One approach is to win in hand and finesse the ♦J. If this wins, an optimistic declarer may return to hand with a second club and finesse again. Cognizant of the recommendations in the Official Encyclopedia of Bridge for the maximum number of diamond tricks, one might think this is the best approach, however, one must take into account of the play outside the diamond suit. By exposing the strength of the club suit declarer greatly increases the chances of a switch to hearts, a suit in which 3 tricks can be taken off the top. Even if 6 diamond tricks are taken, the number of club tricks have been reduced to 2, so 10 tricks become the maximum available.
Alternatively declarer can win the ♣Q in dummy and play diamonds from the top. This decreases the chances of 6 diamond tricks (from 40% to 33%) while it increases the chances of 5 tricks (from 55% to 63%). If playing the ♦AK drops the queen there are 11 to 13 tricks off the top, a great matchpoint result. If the ♦Q is still outstanding the third round may give the opportunity of a signal pointing to a heart switch, but this isn’t certain. A passive defender may clear the clubs, and 10 tricks are now at hand.
Having a long suit to run can catch the defenders off guard. Often the defenders do not coordinate their discards well. Thus a long suit is more valuable than just the number of tricks it provides on its own. Its power may get transferred to other suits. Having 9 tricks to run helped a lot on the following deal where two good players got it wrong.
The auction had a surprise ending. 1♦ was Precision, nebulous, so 2♦ didn’t promise more than 5. 2♥ was nonforcing (!), showing 5♠ and 4♥, the standard approach. If the system had been designed for this hand, 2♥ would be the ideal forcing bid, but bidding systems, like welfare states, cater to the less fortunate. Hoping that I held 6♦ and 4♣, John jumped to 6NT thinking there would be 12 easy tricks off the top. Mind you, 6NT missing 2 kings is not a bad situation to put yourself into, if you can run off 2 suits.
The auction had not been accurate, but the meaning of 6NT was clear enough. A passive lead was called for from this collection: ♠ KT742 ♥ KQ4 ♦ 4 ♣ T843. The ♣3 did no damage and declarer arranged his tricks wisely. He won the ♣A and ran diamonds first, then clubs. The opening leader pitched spades. It appeared to him that his partner was guarding spades, so his task was to keep hearts and a safe exit card. With 4 cards remaining John had kept ♠ AJ9 ♥ A. He finessed the ♠9 to the ♠T, won the ♥A return and played the ♠A dropping both missing honours. The ♠J was his 12th trick. Wow!
One can see the importance of being able to run off tricks at the start. It also helps to have controls in the short suits, aces and kings, which serve to discourage leads in those suits and hold everything in place for subsequent end plays and/or squeezes. Of course, 2♥ was entirely the wrong bid and contributed greatly to the confusion, however, one needs scan The Bridge World over only one session of The Master Solvers’ Club to discover experts suggesting outrageously inaccurate bids in a supposedly natural setting.
When one has something to hide, it is best to arrange the play so as to make it appear that everything is proceeding normally. Don’t telegraph weakness. If the opening lead was favourable, encourage the defenders to keep to the same path. They want to believe they have made the right move initially and will tend to follow the path of least initiative believing that switching merely adds to the cost. Consider who, if anyone, made errors on this deal from a recent matchpoint game that led to a top score for EW.
Is there an error being committed in the first 5 calls? It looks routine, but North might have doubled 1♣ to create a diversion. Not a perfect double in isolation, but it gives East pause and provides South an easy entry into the auction. The Law of Total Tricks would justify a weak jump response to 3♠ by South. This is a great contract in theory, and one South did play in 3♠ undoubled, making 9 tricks for a NS top.
North’s belated takeout double didn’t give me any problem as a jump to 3♥ was obvious. We weren’t about to let South bid spades informatively. One might argue that 3♥ was against the Law with only 8 hearts, but there was a presumed double fit, the strength lay primarily in the heart suit, and the void in spades was valuable offensive asset.
Forced to the 3-level, South made the bid she was going to make anyway, but lost was the implication she was weak. Do you agree with Jack’s raise to game? I don’t. I think he should double after which I would raise to game on the strength of my void. The bidding on the first round allowed him to show his 4-card heart support and served to limit his hand. A double at this point should be considered to be co-operative, not unilateral. With poor intermediates in hearts and clubs and only one ace it looks like a time for suggesting a penalty (at matchpoints). If the double stands West must not lead a heart and destroy the defence’s communications.
Finally North got beyond his limit by doubling for penalty. This was the final and most costly error, but the seeds were planted by North’s initial pass and fertilized by the competitive jump to 3♥. North is counting on his partner to supply some defensive honours, perhaps the ♠A and the ♦K, but an understanding partner will not double 4♥ for penalty without the tricks in his hand, leaving it to his partner to balance with a double if appropriate. It may not be bad when East makes a normal contract undoubled. If he goes down, a plus is a plus, and NS have no score to protect.
Now to the details of the play. The opening lead was the ♥T, a strange choice, I thought. As declarer we all love trump leads. Obviously South was expecting more strength with the doubler. I ran this to my ♥J, and, as I wanted to encourage a trump continuation, I played to the ♦K losing to the ♦A, hoping to give the impression I wanted to trump diamonds with low trumps in the dummy. Indeed, a second trump was played to my ♥Q, my LHO following with the ♥9. Now we could tackle clubs in relative safety, running ♣T to the ♣A. After a third trump from my RHO did my work for me, I was in position to run the ♣9 successfully and claim 10 tricks, losing just the ♠3.
After the hand South was chastised for her bid, but I feel she made the right call as 3♠ down 3 doubled was the theoretical NS par. You don’t get there if you don’t bid. North made the point that if South had passed, Jack might also have passed 3♥ for a below average result, but she had been asked to bid by the belated double and she felt she had good reason for doing so. In turn she might have countered that if North had not entered the auction, EW might not have bid game. (Indeed, two pairs languished in 2♥.)
Very often the perception of an error lies in the result, which isn’t a fair assessment. It can be no more than a matter of style. Sometimes passing keeps one out of trouble but more often it gives the opposition too much latitude. If one is determined to take action, the best time to act is immediately. If you wait-and-see, you’ll need a bit extra in order to keep a passing partner out of trouble, the implication being that the opposition bidding has improved your hand. Good players know when to balance, and good partners know when not to punish a partner for a bid made under pressure.
The final double was a partnership error made by a pair working at cross purposes. If South thinks of North’s tepid takeout double as no more than a lukewarm assurance of already suspected values, she must pass 3♥ to avoid getting too high. Let North double 3♥ if he has a maximum allowing an escape to 3♠. If North thinks 3♠ is a pressure bid in the hopes of pushing EW too high, he must pass 4♥. If South is better than advertised she can always double on the way out to protect her plus score.
(Did you notice I was the only one not making a misteak?)