Hitting The Curveball

In competitive auctions, your opponents will sometimes take an unexpected auction. In theory, these should be simple hands to handle. If the opponents violate principles of good bidding, you should be in a strong position, right? When the enemy throws you a curveball, you may find yourself facing an auction you have not seen before; be careful not to make a snap decision! Let's look at an example:

South
J9x
Kxxxx
KQx
Kx
W
N
E
S
2
X
3
4
4
P
P
?

Opener's auction is strange and many would say bad. Good players almost never preempt and then bid again. It is tempting to glance at your high cards and double to punish your opponent for his "foolish" bidding. Don't make a snap decision to double out of contempt for his inferior bidding; think the situation through.

Step 1: Form an estimate of a hand a rational player might hold to bid this way

Don't take the position that your opponent is just crazy and hence his rationale can not be understood. Try to think it through first. Your opponent must believe his hand was improved by the raise to justify bidding again. Furthermore, his hand couldn't be too offensively-oriented originally since he bid only 2, not 3 or 4. What type of hand might fit that bill? Either he has an extra spade or he holds extra shape (6-4-1-2 or 6-5-1-1) for his 2 call. He did not open 3 originally because his spades are weak but now that he has been raised he can see his full offensive potential will be realized. Maybe he holds something like: QTxxxx, x, x, AT9xx.

Step 2: Analyze partner's sequence

What is the meaning of partner's pass over 4? With opponents clearly sacrificing, partner's pass is forcing and expresses doubt about whether to defend or bid on. Think of it as an invitation to bid 5 much like the auction: 1 -- 2 -- 3 is an invitation to bid 4. But unlike an invitation in a constructive auction, you can not pass.  Instead, your choices are to bid 5 or to double 4.

Step 3: Analyze the tricks you expect to take on offense and defense

There is one huge difference between an invitation in competition and one in a constructive auction. In constructive bidding, the only consideration is offensive strength. You accept partner's 3 when your side rates to make 10 tricks on offense and refuse it when you rate to make fewer. In a competitive auction, you have a potentially lucrative alternative to declaring -- collecting a number by defending. That means the evaluation problem has become more complex. You must evaluate the tricks both sides can take. If you feel the hand:

• Has the defensive strength to collect a large number against 4-X, double regardless of your offensive strength
• Has the offensive strength to make 5 and lacks the defensive strength to collect a large number, bid 5
• Lacks the offensive strength to make 5, double and collect a small number against 4-X

Step 3a: Offensive strength

Offense is driven by the partnership's shape and working high cards. On this hand, the most important shape factor is partner's spade length. Partner clearly holds either 0, 1, or 2 spades. Can we tell which? We hold 4 important high cards (K, KQ, and K). If partner had 2 spade losers, would he really invite 5 while missing all those crucial cards? That seems impossible. Therefore a singleton or void spade is far more likely than two. Let's assume a singleton spade for partner. Give partner as little as: x, AQxx, Axxx, QJxx and 5 will be an easy make. I would expect 5 to have excellent play and 6 to be possible if partner has extras. For a more detailed method of estimating offensive tricks in competitive auctions, please refer to my previous articles on short suit total.

Step 3b.: Defensive Strength

What about defensive prospects? It is reassuring to know that 5 rates to make, but we are not ready to make a bid yet. First we must analyze the tricks we rate to take on defense--if we can hold them to 6 or fewer, defending will score more than declaring. Let's start by looking at our hand only. The spades are probably not worth a trick. While partner probably has the A, the K is unlikely to also score since declarer is probably short so I'd count it as worth 1/4 of a trick at most. The diamond and club holdings are more promising. The diamonds in our hand could take a trick, and so could the K. All in all, our hand seems to be worth perhaps two defensive tricks. If we can take 2 tricks, partner would have to take 5 tricks in his hand for our side to hold them to 6 tricks in 4-X. Given his invitational pass, that seems highly unlikely. 3-4 defensive tricks in his hand seems much more likely and as few as 2 is possible. Therefore, unless LHO has made a horrendous overbid so that our hand unexpectedly takes additional tricks, we will do better by bidding 5 than by passing. Remove one of your high cards so that 5 is no longer such a certain make and defending becomes more attractive.

Conclusions

Don't make an impulsive bid out of contempt or anger. Yes, the opponents may have perpetrated a silly auction, but if you allow that to goad you into a poor decision, they will be rewarded for their silly bidding. So even when your opponents bid foolishly, choose your action carefully. As a general rule, when opponents bid to a high level, they have extra values or distribution to justify it even if the route taken to that contract violates precepts of good bidding. Foolish auctions can end in good contracts, so make your decision based on your hand rather than the sound of their auction.

When guesstimating what your partner might hold, consider the important cards you hold that partner is missing. You may be able to infer that partner must hold extreme shortness in one suit to justify his auction if you hold a lot of missing cards in other suits.

Hand evaluation in competitive auctions involves estimating both offensive and defensive strength. We have been trained since our earliest days to evaluate offensive strength. Unfortunately, defensive valuation is never taught in bridge books. I recommend this process:

• Evaluate your suit holdings one by one. In each suit, form an estimate of the defensive tricks your high cards will take. Add them to form a defensive estimate for your entire hand.
• Estimate the defensive tricks your partner's auction normally shows. For example, an opening bid is normally worth 2 tricks. A strong 1NT opening, 3 tricks. A takeout double is normally 2-3 tricks.
• Make adjustments when you suspect the opponents have extra distribution. For example, if you think the enemy will be void in a side suit, then your side will take no tricks in that suit. Or if an opponent rates to hold a 6-5 pattern, the defense can score at most two tricks in the short suits and may take fewer than normal on defense.

Estimating defensive prospects is not an exact science, but with practice you will improve. It is surprising how often you can guess accurately when the partnership will or will not defeat an opposing contract. Many competitive decisions get easier when you know whether you can or can not defeat the enemy's contract.