Deal Of The Week: February 11, 2023
Twelve Bridge Truisms
Simple Tips to Get You Out of Jams
(This lecture, presented at the 2023 Future Stars between sessions was revised from an item on the VVBC pages with a few new points. The talk I balked at is the subject of the next DOTW...)
For the purposes of this talk, a truism is something that is obviously true but something we sometimes forget in the heat of the moment. Bridge expertise consists not only of learning these basic concepts, but also of remembering them when they are relevant to save time.
- #1: Declarer’s mystery last card will never be in any suit previously ruffed in hand.
Somehow, play patterns, whether I'm watching online or live at a table in time trouble, seems to bog down near the end, especially when it comes time for the defenders to find discards. In many hands this is because the defenders are guessing or desperately trying to remember what happened previously to get a count that they should have gotten at the time. But in many hands, your decision is clear and involves no counting.
♠ 9 8 7 ♥ T 9 6 4 ♦ A Q 9 ♣ K T 2
You pass as dealer and RHO opens 4♠ in fourth seat and everyone passes. You lead a spade into this dummy:
♠ (void) ♥ A K J 8 5 ♦ J 8 6 4 2 ♣ 8 5 4
Declarer pulls trumps in three rounds, partner following twice, cashes the A♣ and then leads the Q♥ and overtakes in dummy. Two more heart winners follow, declarer pitching small diamonds. When both defenders follow to all three hearts, declarer shrugs and ruffs a club in hand and plays four more spades to get to twelve tricks. What do you keep?
This is hardly a difficult problem since declarer has already shown out of hearts and clubs. If you've counted the trumps you will know that declarer began with eight and with three hearts and a club on the side will have one final card at trick thirteen, which must be a diamond. Even if you haven't counted you cannot fail to note that declarer has no hearts or clubs and must either have a spade or a diamond, so you know what to keep.
What's surprising is that so many players miss this and take minutes agonizing over their trick twelve discard. Also surprising is that so many declarers expect the defenders to lose their minds and somehow give up on three high diamonds in the endgame. And there is a much better way to play this hand, which we'll see when we encounter it again in the next DOTW...
- #2: The last card in a suit can’t take a trick if its owner does not have an outside entry.
Especially in notrump, but also occasionally in a suit contract, the defenders will set up one or more winners in a side suit. The defender that has those winners also needs an entry, and when the discarding gets difficult, preserving the entry is more important that preserving winners that cannot be cashed without one. As declarer this sometimes helps when it is not certain which defender has kept the side suit winners: a defender who pitches a winner probably doesn't have the established side suit, unless he has another winner to get in with; a defender who pitches an established side-suit winner may be forced to do so to keep the entry.
- #3: When you lead toward a suit in dummy headed by the ace-queen, LHO will usually play low in tempo. You should already know what you’ve decided to play from dummy in this expected case.
If you consider it a supreme skill of bridge to gauge the alpha waves in this situation to try to smoke out the offside singleton king that happens once every two years or so, you should be playing the stock market, not bridge. The number of times you will lead intending to finesse and change your mind based on the way LHO plays a card is vanishingly small. And the time you spend thinking about the remote possibility of an offside singleton king doesn't do much for your esteem in the eyes of the opponents. I watched an expert pull off this play once, but when I asked much later (out of earshot of partner) he gave three good reasons for his decision: 1) the distribution revealed so far made it a possibility, 2) partner looked like a man going to his own funeral as he waited for declarer to call a card from dummy, and 3) partner had already semi-detached a card from his hand, indicating that his play was forced. In the vast majority of cases, you will not get such indicators, and they are certainly not going to come from reading the alpha waves as so many players seem to do.
The lesson is to take finesses only after you have decided what to do when LHO follows low smoothly, which will usually happen. Before you lead a card from hand for a finesse, you should know what you will do if the finesse wins, and have a good idea what you will do if it loses and the expected suit is led back. Thinking about it after LHO plays a low card as expected is silly; nobody gets clues from this.
- #4: Although distribution inflates the perceived total, there are only 40 high-card points in every deck.
If you add up the points shown by the four players and get to 50 or 55, that means there are wild distributions out there or perhaps both sides have good fits, and there will be many potential tricks both ways. If the bids indicate there are only 30 or 35 points, someone is hiding something and since there are two opponents and only one partner, it is best to tread carefully!
- #5: A player known to have a doubleton cannot have more than seven highcard points in that suit. (Thanks to British bridge writer/teacher Danny Roth for this one. Read his books!)
Quite often you will suspect, from a lead or a switch, or be able to count out, that a player began with a doubleton. When you work out where the missing highcard points are, be sure you are not crediting that player with more than seven in that suit. Roth's book contained the quip that "the number of players who have represented their country in international competition and who do not seem to recognize this is surprising."
Many of Danny Roth's books begin with seven 'roll-calls' that declarer and defenders need to work out during the cardplay: the distribution of spades, hearts, diamonds and clubs in each of the four hands, the number of highcard points in the two unseen hands, and from those, the number of tricks the opponents can take or easily establish, and the number of tricks we can get. Each of these roll-calls is partially answered when dummy appears and the players see two of the four hands; the rest are slowly revealed in the cardplay, but can often be worked out from clues in the bidding or play before their exposure. The cardplay is a race to work out the seven roll-calls before the other side and having done so, guide the strategy to cater for the layout you have visualized.
It's not easy, and it's not something every player does on every deal. The key is to do a small part of it first, then add more and more as you go along, until working out where cards are is an unconscious habit, and when what you expect does not match what you see, you have clues to discover why. One or two or three hands in every Danny Roth book contains a surprise, where you are asked what you would do at trick six, but choosing the right trick six play only counts if you have made the right conclusion from an earlier play and made a crucial unblock, or signal, or picked up on something important. In real life we never get tapped on the shoulder at the crucial point of a deal; we have to stay aware and collect and process data throughout.
- #6: A player known to have a doubleton headed by a spot card cannot have ANY highcard points in that suit.
This one is even more common because people make doubleton leads from Tx or 9x or 7x all the time against suit contracts, and if you suspect one you can place all of the missing high cards in that suit in the other hand right away. But be careful, sometimes what looks like a doubleton lead turns out to be something else...
- #7: Just because ACBL rules, or the convention your partner wants you to play, says you CAN do something, doesn’t mean you HAVE to do it.
Lots of examples of this:
Judgement trumps rules. First bids by opener or responder should be in the longest suit unless there is a good reason to do something else.
- ♠ A 8 4 2 ♥ 9 ♦ K Q T 4 2 ♣ K J 2 — I saw a player open this hand 1♣. His defense was that 1♣ in his system promised three! Opening bids are important and three-card suits are an exception we make when we have to open but our longest suit is not allowed. What's really happening here, I suspect, is that the player is considering opening bids from the bottom up until he finds one suitable that fits the requirements: so 1♣ is bid before even considering 1♦. That's a recipe for disaster!
- ♠ K J 6 ♥ K ♦ A Q 9 5 ♣ Q J 8 4 3 — There is a new ACBL rule allowing a 1NT opening with a singleton, as long as the singleton is an ace, king, or queen. That doesn't mean it is recommended! Partner will transfer to hearts quite often; are you comfortable with that? 1♣ is a better opening bid, but even better than that is 1♦, which allows a 2♣ rebid if partner responds 1♥ as expected much of the time. (Rebidding notrump with a singleton in partner's suit is another no-no.)
- ♠ K Q 7 5 3 ♥ 7 ♦ (void) ♣ A K J T 8 5 2 — This was a dummy I saw many years ago as declarer, after partner began by opening 1♠. I played the hand (in 3NT) shaking my head and rolling my eyes since we were clearly cold for 6♣. When I asked at the end why partner had chosen 1♠ as an opening bid, the response was "because we play five-card majors!" The next hand began; partner opened 1♥ and I alerted. RHO asked and I said "could have as many as seven or eight clubs or diamonds." That pretty much ended that partnership.
- ♠ A J 6 5 4 ♥ (void) ♦ (void) ♣ A J T 9 7 5 3 2 —This whole concept goes beyond opening bids. In this online open game hand, partner opened 1♦ as dealer and to my shock, at eight out of ten tables the response was ... 1♠. It would seem most players feel that bidding a game-forcing 2♣ denies a spade suit. It does not. Some may say that responding 2♣ runs the risk of LHO jumping in with a 4♥ bid. Big deal! We continue with 4♠ and it is clear that I have at least five spades and longer clubs. You may find a spade fit by responding 1♠, but you can bid this hand any number of times to uncover that: responding 1♠ you will never be able to convince partner that your clubs are three cards longer.
- #8: If a bid is not alerted as expected, you should assume it is natural and make normal bids and plays based on that assumption. (We’ll protect you if it turns out otherwise.)
What happens here is that a player loses focus by assuming that the opponents play the same system and have forgotten to alert. LHO opens 1NT and RHO bids 2♦ and there is no announcement or alert. If you assume that 2♦ is a signoff and choose your call based on that, you cannot lose. If you suspect that they play transfers and choose a call that you would not make over a weak diamond signoff, you are doing so at your own risk. And if you ask, or conspicuously check the opponents convention card, and then pass, partner may have unauthorized information and be restricted. Just assume for now that the call is natural and call the Director if it turns out otherwise. If it is discovered before partner's next bid, the Director can roll the auction back and give you another chance; if the auction continues further and it is too late to go back, the score you get will be adjusted if you are damaged.
- #9: Bridge is a timed event. To be a “fast player” you need not play at lightning speed; you only need to avoid causing needless delays. And vice versa.
I wrote this article for the local bridge newsletter a quarter-century ago; it didn't quite fit the space and I needed to shrink the text a bit to get it in, and as a result few read it. I sent it to the site above, run by a Director in England, and he posted it. It contains the advice above in its conclusion. But something amazing happened: every five years I get an e-mail from somewhere asking to reprint it at a tournament in some distant land. My little article, to quote the Canadian humourist Stephen Leacock, has been to every quarter of the globe, and at times into every eighth or sixteenth of it!
- #10: There are virtually no hands that can make a takeout double of a one-level bid and then double the same suit at the two-level for penalties.
Two important points here: 1) whenever you make a series of calls in an auction, they must be consistent: there are no bids that say 'cancel my last call, I actually have THIS...' and 2) sometimes you have no choice but to pass a strong hand, when RHO makes the bid you were about to make. The solution to this common problem is NOT to make an "offshape" takeout double and invite partner to bid a suit you do not have. That would be inconsistent bidding. Passing in that situation is almost always better that wading into an auction where you may be outnumbered and have no fit with anything partner has.
- #11: There are virtually no hands that you may pass because they are “in between” a weak two opener and a one-bid.
Ain't no such a thing, as they say in Texas. If you choose to pass a six-card major suit that is not quite an opener because the suit quality is not quite good enough for this position or vulnerability, that's reasonable. But there is no sweet spot between a 2♥ opener and a 1♥ opener. If the suit is good to go, pick a level and go with it! Passing because you're in the 11-12 range gives up on a chance to buy the hand, for you will not get another chance to show this hand type on most deals.
- #12: Improving players think better bidding is the route to a better score. Experts know that if your bidding is merely OK, but you take one more trick than the field on most deals, you will win! The play’s the thing (often)!
Some players, maybe not you, but some out there, appear to have the attitude that good bridge is in getting to the best contract, because the cards determine how many tricks you can make. The reality is that there is a wide difference in skill levels at the cardplay phase and just as many, if not more, matchpoints are available by taking your tricks on defence and maximizing your tricks when declaring. Two or three hands in a session are flat and everyone takes the same number of tricks, but most involve key decisions in the play that may decide whether you make or go down, or determine how many overtricks you score, and affect your result as much or more than getting to the right contract. Saying that bridge is mostly about bidding properly is like saying baseball is 90% pitching, Formula One is mostly about who has the best car, Stanley Cups are won by teams with the best goalies, and other dubious maxims that when viewed rationally make little sense.
So if you are focussed on good bidding, as many players are, be careful not to overlook defense and declarer play. It's less exciting to study finesses and cardreading and counting and signals, but cardplay is about tricks, which has a direct effect on your score for every hand you don't pass out. You'll find a whole new game here, where there are endless interesting coups to bring off and all sorts of new concepts to discover. Bridge is about tricks, and while auctions try to predict them, the cardplay phase is about actually getting them and is at least, if not more, important.
(Thanks to everyone who attended our little tournament on February 11 and listened to my rantings!)