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Better Preempts

Every preempt has a chance to score a big victory and a chance to suffer a big defeat.Defeats occur when the preempt earns a large minus score. However, not all numbers are equally costly when measured in IMPs.Suppose you are my teammate in a KO match. After playing, I come back beaming and proudly announce +800 on the first board. Is that a good or a bad result? It all depends:

  • If you scored -1440 defending 6NT, then my +800 loses 12 IMPs
  • If you scored -140 defending 3S, then my +800 wins 12 IMPs

The value of a raw score when measured in IMPs depends on what other scores are possible on that board. +800 was terrible when my alternative was to make a vulnerable 6NT. It was great when my alternative was a small plus in a partial.

The notion that the value of a score is relative has an important implication when you are preempting/sacrificing (i.e., bidding for a minus score).Do not intentionally bid for a minus with significant side-suit defense.

The more defense the preempter holds, the less likely the opponents can bid and score a big number on their own.

South
x
KQJ10xxx
xx
xxx
Your hand is probably worth zero tricks on defense. Chances are excellent the opponents can make a game since partner is unlikely to hold four defensive tricks. If the opponents double your 3 preempt, even if you go -800, the IMP loss will be small.

South
x
AJ10xxxx
Kx
xxx
Your hearts are at least 1 sure trick and your diamond will take a trick around half the time. While you would still preempt, this hand is far more likely to defeat a game contract.

South
x
A109xxxx
Kx
Qxx
Your hearts have a sure trick and both minors are worth 1/2 a defensive trick. With 2 likely defensive tricks in your hand, it won't take much from partner to defeat a game.

South
x
AKxxxxx
Qx
xxx
Your hearts are 1-2 defensive tricks and your diamond is half a defensive trick as well. The opponents often will not have a biddable game. If partner has a scattered 9-count, the opponents only have 22HCPbetween them. If the opponents double your 3 contract, you could lose a lot of IMPs.

My First Tip
Evaluate yourdefensebefore making any preemptive jump opening, overcall, or raise. When you have defensive values, the opponents often will not have the combined strength to bid to a game. In these cases, a minus score in a doubled contract will normally IMP poorly.

The ace of your suit is bad for preemption because it is almost certainly a defensive trick, and may lead to more (for example: giving partner a ruff, or providing a quick entry to lead towards partner's tenaces). Side-suit high cards are also bad.

On the other hand, secondary honors (QJ10) in your long suit(s) are good for preemption because they protect you from going down too much while having little to no defensive value.


My Second Tip
At the other extreme, preempt aggressively with a weak hand, good shape, and no defense. For example:

South
x
QJ10987
J10xxx
x
W
N
E
S
?
This hand hasnegativedefense. Your partner's AKxxxwhich look great on defense will take one or even zero tricks.The opponents are a favorite to make anything they bid.

What should you bid to stop them?Some players would pass this weak hand. Others would step out with 2, or even 3. I would open it 4. Crazy? Some people think so. But they are viewing this hand with blinders on. 4 will give the opponents a terrible headache, will win more often than it loses, and when it loses, the cost will almost always be cheap because we have no defense.

Conclusion
Players have argued for years about whether conservative or aggressive preempts are "better". That argument is misguided. Neither style is better. In some situations, it pays to be aggressive, in others conservative. The biggest determining factor is your defense.

  • When your hand has defensepreempt conservatively.The cost of being wrong is high!
  • When your hand has no defensepreempt hyper-aggressively.The cost of being wrong is low!
My next articlelooks at more factors that affect how costly a preempt may be if it goes wrong.
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