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Passing with Good Hands

“Advanced players know the rules. Experts know when to break the rules.” - Anonymous

Perhaps the most prevalent trend in bidding in recent years is increased aggression. Players are opening, responding, overcalling, and preempting lighter than ever before. Among other reasons, this puts a lot of pressure on the opponents in the bidding. Decisions become more difficult in competition than they otherwise would have been. As such, players often feel compelled to act with marginal values in competition, lest the opponents be “stealing”.

That’s all well and good, and I don’t disagree with a strategy that prevents the opponents from robbing me blind. But it is not always desirable to act even though your values make it appear automatic at first glance. The best option may be to pass with a decent hand. I will look at some situations in which passing with reasonable values is, in my view, a winning strategy. Specifically I want to examine competitive situations. The only likely reason to pass on a good (in context) hand in a non-competitive auction would be due to a misfit being discovered. And in that case, our hand is not as good as we thought it was.

Penalty Passes

The most obvious time to pass with a good hand is when we hope partner will reopen with a double so we can penalize the opponents. This is an area that, despite having been analyzed a great deal through bridge history, I believe still troubles many players and leads to mistakes. One error that I have found to be common in potential penalty pass situations is that players often don’t consider alternative contracts for the opponents.

Let’s suppose we hold AKQxx x xxx Qxxx with both vulnerable, partner opens 1, and RHO overcalls 1. I don’t see our club fit as a liability in defense against spades, because we can use our clubs to tap declarer out of a long spade or two that he was entitled to anyway. However, our hand has a different problem, which is defense against hearts. If we pass then LHO might bid 2 (neither the overcall nor the response to it need have significant high card strength, so this danger exists despite our strong hand). Now if RHO raises to 3 we either risk a double with a hidden club fit and partner knowing little about our hand other than good spades, or we get blocked from the auction entirely.

Let’s suppose instead that after we pass our partner is able to reopen with a double for us, we pass that, but then LHO redoubles for rescue and RHO runs to 2. If we bid 3 now, how good of a hand does that show? Is it something you have discussed with your partners? Or should we pass and see if partner can double 2, even though he still doesn’t know about our club fit? After all, the opponents have short spades in one hand and long weak spades in the other, so their hands might fit really well. I think we have only ourselves to blame for this predicament. We complicated the auction chasing a rainbow when we knew the opponents had a more attractive place to play. I much prefer to bid 2 over 1 to show the limit raise in clubs, and go from there. Had one of our small clubs been a heart then the opponents would not have clearly had a better contract, and we could confidently go after them.


Length in the Opponent’s Suit

Having discussed some situations when not to pass with a good hand, when should we pass? On the same auction at the same vulnerability, we hold 98xx Jxx AQxx Qx. Many players would “fake” a negative double, or even (shudder) bid 1NT in this situation. I strongly believe that PASS is most likely to achieve a good result. If partner reopens with a double then we can happily bid 2. That leaves us well placed to act aggressively if we get another chance, and if not then we should be in a fine contract. On the other hand, an immediate negative double is likely to stick us in a 4-3 fit with the long hand taking the ruffs. Even worse, if we double and LHO raises, partner will stretch to bid that heart suit on minimum hands.

However, the best result from PASS usually comes when the auction gets passed out. That suggests some spade length in partner’s hand which means the opponents are not in a good contract. I can’t describe how often I have gone +200 or +300 simply by leaving the opponents to stew undoubled in their incorrect contract. And on the other side of the coin, there are even more times that I have survived all kinds of competitive adventures because the opponents saved me from myself.

I find it interesting that there are certain situations, such as holding a strong balanced hand over a strong notrump opening with no penalty double available, where players are well-trained to pass since “no bid describes my hand”. In contrast, this seems to be a particular situation where many simply can’t stand to pass and would rather mis-describe their hand with an off-shape negative double or a 3-card raise of the minor. I don’t see why. Not only will passing often work well for the reasons I described, but when you do bid your partnership has the added comfort that your bid can be trusted.


Partner was Under Pressure

There is an entirely different type of situation in which we would often want to pass a good hand. That is when partner may have been under pressure to enter the auction. Always be on the lookout for situations where partner may have overbid out of necessity. A common situation is partner bidding 4 over 4. Let’s suppose that with neither vulnerable, the opening bid was 4 and partner has overcalled 4. We hold Qx xx KJxx AKxxx. This should be an automatic PASS, and I'd also pass with even stronger hands. Partner simply has to overcall 4 on hands that are quite moderate here, or else good games and saves will be missed. If partner holds the equivalent of a minimum opening bid with six spades and he doesn’t overcall, then we would also pass on this hand and be racking up undoubled undertricks instead of playing in our game. Another problem with bidding is that sometimes partner has a five-card spade suit. If he is 5341 with a good hand then what else can he reasonably do?

I can’t stress enough that you must avoid hanging partner in these situations. It is winning bridge to get into the auction as soon as you safely can, but only if you can stop in a making contract when you are right. It is best to accept an occasional missed slam on hands like the one above. The general theme should be that the first player into the auction is entitled to take a chance, but his partner shouldn’t hang him for it if he has little information. It’s no use getting to a good 4 contract when under pressure if partner then puts us in a bad 5 contract.

These are just a few situations that lend themselves to passing with fair values. I’ll try something different this week and suggest a discussion point of "passing with a good hand in auctions where your opponents are likely to overbid".  If you can think of a specific situation where it applies, I'd love to hear from you in the comments.  I look forward to reading the discussion and wish everyone a great 2012.

Josh Donn Josh Donn is the reigning Blue Ribbon Pairs champion. He also has a junior world and another open national championship to his credit as well as several other top-ten finishes on each stage. His main interests lie in bidding theory and issues of bidding judgment. Outside of bridge, Josh is a Casino Accounting Manager. He has worked at some of the largest casinos in the world and is an expert in casino operations, regulations, and software. He grew up in Syracuse, NY and currently resides in Las Vegas, NV.

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