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FredKit Fred Stewart and Kit Woolsey have forged a world-class partnership since 1999. In 2009 their team emerged victorious from the US Bridge Championships. More recently, they were able to string together four strong sessions and a lights-out final to win the 2011 Cavendish Invitational Pairs—a third victory in the event for each of them but their first as a partnership. They are a fascinating partnership to know, as their talents are not confined to the bridge table. Stewart is a 3-hour marathoner, which gives him a shot to medal in the over-60 division on any given Sunday. Woolsey is, hands down, one of the best backgammon players in the world and is also known to be an exceptional author/analyst; his seminal work, Matchpoints , is regarded as an all-time classic.Today’s hand comes from the 2010 USBC Quarterfinals:

Stewart-Woolsey play a Precision Club system and are notorious for their light openings and hyper-aggressive preemptive style.

Two Clubs
Stewart-Woolsey’s 1 opening shows 16+ HCP. Although South’s hand has 16 HCP the J should not really be included in that evaluation and the Qx value is dubious as well. But are strong, artificial opening bids made on HCP alone? What constitutes an upgrade? South has 8 winners and, given the propensity of Precision players to open with marginal values, is probably more powerful than North would be able to envision. The auction, however, is unlikely to die in 2, which may allow for South to have his cake and eat it too by coming out of the woodwork on the next round. Also, Precision 1 openers tend to invite preemption at unfavorable vulnerability, which is a likely possibility given South’s shape. Opening 2 gets South’s suit in play at a low level, but does the tactical gain compensate for the loss of fully communicating the hand’s value to North?

Two Hearts
2 is defined by Stewart-Woolsey as a natural 1-round force with 5+s and implies some game interest. In a competitive auction, it’s usually advisable to declare a fit as soon as possible in case of a preemptive barrage. After West’s double a heart fit is unlikely for North-South, so raising clubs would seem indicated. However, bidding 3 probably won’t preempt East-West out of their expected spade fit and 2 may lead to some pleasantly surprising developments.

South’s only option after opening 2, and a reasonable shot. South has eight winners and, considering North’s free 2 bid and East’s pass, nine tricks appear likely.

Pass of Four Clubs
By agreement Stewart and Woolsey were in a forcing pass scenario following the 3NT bid. South has already described an exceptional club suit, so defining a double as ‘clubs’ would be overkill. There are three hand-types South would like to be able to convey: offensive, defensive, and neutral. Sadly, pass and double are the only non-bids available. How should they be defined? Many partnerships would label the double as showing defensive strength, which leaves pass somewhere between offensive and neutral.

Pass of Four Hearts
North can be quite certain that East-West are not going to play in 4 so he is presented with the same options South encountered over 4: pass and double. Although South has expressed an unusually powerful hand, the auction and North’s Jxx indicate that North-South can expect to take at most one club trick on defense. North has some nice side cards with defensive orientation in 4, but with most of partner’s values in his long clubs, it’s not clear that 4 is going down. On the other hand, as the partnership is forced, passing would encourage partner to bid. North doesn't know that South has a super-max yet, so North may not think 5 is better than doubling 4.

So, either passing or doubling 4 could be right. Does one of these choices lead to a smoother auction later? Well, if North were to double 4 and South passed 4, then taking the plunge to 5 would be much more appealing. However, if North passed 4 and South doubled 4 North can feel good about defending. Which option gives North the best chance to make the winning call?

Pass of Four Spades (South)
South should appreciate by this point that his hand is much more powerful than his partner may believe. Although he can’t be sure that game will make, is passing with the expectation that partner will make the correct decision wishful thinking? Should South bite the bullet and bid game for the second time or give partner the last word?

Pass of Four Spades (North)
Passing a forcing bid is usually a no-no. But South presumably is limited to 6 HCP outside of clubs. Even if the partnership has a club trick, setting 4 is no slam dunk. But what about the possibility of a missed vulnerable game or even a double game-swing? There’s even an outside shot that 5 is a reasonable sacrifice.

Throughout his career Woolsey has advocated that some widely-embraced philosophies (e.g., “Don’t double the opponents into game”) shouldn’t be sacrosanct. Rather, players should simply make the call or play with the highest expected value of return. But was passing a forcing auction with other reasonable options available taking a good idea too far? Did Stewart set him up for failure with the super-maximum 2 opener? How might they have worked together to reach the right contract?

We pulled the tape, now we invite you to make the call.

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