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Battling the Bogeyman
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My mom taught me bridge. Mom had a lot of rules in life. Her first rule was “Mom is always right”. When I tell the students in a bridge class this rule, all the ladies nod in agreement. Any men in the class have enough life experience not to disagree. I then tell the class that mom's second rule of life was “always tell the truth”. More nods. Anyone disagree with these rules? Nope! They make perfect sense.

The story continues that as was one of four boys, I did not know that much about girls when at the junior prom my date asked me: “does my prom gown make me look fat?” Mine did not seem like the best answer, but I blindly followed the rules set down by the one who was always right.

I discovered that the real #1 rule is survival.

We give children “rules” as a crude guide and place to start because life is complicated. Bridge is complicated too. All your bridge teachers and mentors will give you advice encapsulated as “rules”. These rules are not truths. Like my mom's rules, they are merely aphorisms. They are road signs pointing to a destination that, like a good life, cannot be reached without an understanding of all the conflicting issues that complicate matters.

Rules have their place. But if you want to progress in this game of ours you need to realize that the #1 rule is always think situations out for yourself. One cannot think out all situations as a child in the world, nor think through all the hands as a beginning bridge player at the table. Having rules helps us get started. But as your game progresses and you acquire experience and knowledge, you need to understand the bogeymen so often encapsulated in the “rules” that you were given.

 

The Hidden Bogeyman

Fortunately, my mom was a good bridge player and she never burdened me with “rules” when teaching me bridge. Her approach to bridge was like Pirates of the Caribbean.  (“The code is more what you'd call 'guidelines' than actual rules.") Her approach to life was a different story. One of her rules I referred to as the 3,600 Mississippi rule. For some reason we could never go into the water until an hour after we ate.

A better reason for me not to go into the water would perhaps be that I could not swim. I was asthmatic as a child and could not breathe after a couple of strokes even on an empty stomach. It never occurred to swim instructors that maybe they should teach me the side or breaststroke rather than the crawl. Apparently, they too were blindly following a swim instruction rule book and not thinking about the specific situation.

Given my at the time limited aquatic skills, I was never going anywhere in the lake where I could not stand. In human history, there has never been a death certificate with a C.O.D. of “could not stand up in two feet of water because he was weighed down from eating too many hot dogs”. Yet, we still have this count to 3,600 rule. Why?

Many rules are born out of fear of an adverse result. Moms hear urban legend type stories of some kid drowning because of cramps and they institute an hour of boredom each beach day to make sure that bogeyman never gets their child. Many of the bridge “rules” you will be told have that same problem. The rule can encapsulate a hidden fear. When you embrace a rule that does, you also embrace that fear. If you “never underlead a king”, you will never give the opponents a free finesse, but you will also fail to defeat a lot of contracts.

Proficiency at this game requires players to make accurate, high value decisions. That requires proper risk vs reward analysis. These decisions will be skewed when the fear of an adverse result is overstated. The truth is there is no drowning in bridge.

You will achieve many horrible results in your bridge career. It is all just points. Death at the bridge table is unlikely. In the history of the game, death by partner happened only once. And I suspect that Mr Bennett had more problems with his wife than his poor bidding and play. In any event, bridge murders did not proliferate despite the jury giving Myrtle Bennett a walk. So relax. Be fearless.

However, note that being crazy is not being fearless. Not understanding nor caring about the consequences of one's actions is not the same as accepting a possible adverse outcome with equanimity.

Here is a bridge decision faced by my very experienced partner this week. In all probability way more years of experience and MP than you.

964  K10  Q82  AKQ32

After two passes at favorable vulnerability, you open one club, partner responds one heart. What do you rebid?

The Deal

My partner rebid 2. I raised to 3, she tried 3, I bid 3 and she bid 3NT. West led the 10 and remarked: “that was nicely bid” when he saw dummy. Well, my half anyway. 

West
J2
A93
K106
98754
North
AK107
QJ64
43
J106
East
Q853
8752
AJ975
South
964
K10
Q82
AKQ32
W
N
E
S
 
P
P
1
P
1
P
2
P
3
P
3
P
3
P
3N
?
D

If you analyze the deal double dummy, 3NT is -1 if East ducks the first diamond. East actually put up the ace and returned the jack. This is not the winning double dummy line. But East naturally thought South had six clubs for her bidding. If so, 3NT was at least making on the diamond duck. Ace and jack gives declarer a guess of cover or duck. This board occurred against the best pair in the room. Expert players can swiftly win ace from AKJxx and return the jack. Sadly, my partner guessed to cover. The contract was -1 for half a MP on a 20 top.

Most declarers in NT took 9+ tricks. Not everyone got to game, so 3NT making was a 72% board instead of a 2% board for going minus. Pairs who played clubs – same start as ours, but passed after 3 - took 9 or 10 tricks. Even 3 making four as just a 35% result.

The reason why notrump declarers took nine tricks was South either opened(*) or rebid in notrump. A likely sequence would be 1-1; 1NT-2NT; 3NT. West had no information and the diamond lead that we pinpointed for our expert West defender is otherwise not a natural lead. Some declarers took ten tricks after a club or spade lead, played on hearts and West did not find the the diamond switch.

One could argue that 3 is “always safe” and 3NT might be just down if the E/W hands were transposed. So, is this luck? No, but we will get back to that. Lets deal with one bogeyman at a time.

(* Hardly any weak NTers in this event.  This is not an “upgrade” for me. KnR evaluation confirms with 14.55. Rounding up that much to 15 is widely optimistic, though common in today's upgrade happy bridge world.)

Descriptions & Decisions 

This was an auto 1NT rebid for me. My partner is not stupid by any means. But, for whatever reason, she got scared of the bogeyman. “I do not have a spade stopper”. “Maybe partner should play the notrump to 'protect' spades”. “My clubs look so good.”

What is wrong with the 2 rebid is that it violates a very important principle of bidding. One that is seldom pointed out.

In bidding, one does only one of two things: you give partner descriptive information, or you make a decision. Good bidding is knowing when to to which. Here, the descriptive bid of a 1NT rebid is appropriate. It shows is a balanced 12-14 count without a 4-card major since partner responded 1. And that is exactly what South holds. If one decides to rebid 2 instead because of whatever bogeyman (no stop, North should play, clubs are nice) what one is actually doing is making a decision.

Worse, you are making a decision without appropriate information. You have no idea when your rebid is made whether any of these bogeyman might pop up on this deal. If the bogeyman lives in your mind, then catering to those fears means that you think it is 100% certain the bogeyman will get you. That is a completely wrong risk analysis by a huge factor.

By giving in to the bogeyman, what you are doing is misdescribing your hand to partner. Suddenly, your rebid was a decision. It was supposed to be descriptive. Partner now thinks you have an unbalanced hand with (most likely) six or more clubs. When you start making decisions based on fear when all you were supposed to do is make a descriptive call, bad things can, and often do, happen. You end up running of the cliff because you are looking over your shoulder for the bogeyman.

The “I need stoppers to open or rebid 1NT” is about the second worst bogeyman. If the opponents did not bid a suit, you do not need to have it stopped. Bidding and rebidding in notrump is simply a descriptive call regarding your range and shape.

Before we get back to this hand, we should discuss the worst bogeyman of all. 

The Actual Result

People naturally respond to rewards and penalties. People fear failure. LOSER! You just got a 2% board! Stressing the actual result can the worst bogeyman of all. Conversely, people naturally assume a good outcome means that they did well.

Never assume that whatever percentage pops up on your Bridgemate is an indicator of your bridge skill on that deal. Most often, the result is simply one possible outcome. The proper test of whether you are in the right contract is how happy you are when dummy hits. Not how happy you are after the last card is played.

The proper test of how well you played or defended the hand can be even tougher. It is not whether the Deep Finesse analysis on the hand record says you can make or break the contract. It is whether you took the best line of play given the information you had. Unless the opponents are showing you their cards, you had less information than the stupid computer. And right now, robots might have some cool “Terminator” skills, but playing bridge hands well without peeking is not among them. In fact, computers are just plain awful declarers and defenders when they cannot peek.

Focusing one's attention on the result is simply another bogeyman. Stressing results will retard your development as a bridge player. The way you get better at this game is by FINDING YOUR MISTAKES. Your mistakes. If finding partner's mistakes made any difference then everyone would be world class.

So why do bogeymen persist in bridge?

Because we allow them to.   

Rationalizing the Bogeyman

If a player reviews the results and hand records from this regional tournament, one can easily look at outcomes and justify actions. It happens all the time.

For example, suppose on this deal that after P-1; 1-2; 3 you make four. But +130 is only 35% . A player might check the line score and see all the +150/400/430 scores. “Notrump is supposed to make only 8 tricks”. All these people “overbidding” to game are supposed to go down!

“Unlucky”, they say.

“Wrong”, say I.

Over time, your results will normalize to reflect the value of your decisions. And if you think you should be in 3 on an eight-card minor fit, with a balanced hand opposite a balanced hand, 25 combined HCP , a good 5-card suit and stoppers in all the suits, the better players will always crush you. These hands belong in 3NT.

Charles Goren point out seventy years ago that 25 combined with a 5-card suit should generally make 3NT. Just because it does or does not on a particular hand does not change this fact that 3NT is the percentage action. One does not get to look at the hand record and see what works before selecting a contract.

I should point out that my objection to my partner's rebid was not because we got a bad board. I am OK with the bad board because we deserved it. Even though we eventually reached the proper contract, we went about it in such a circuitous manner that it pinpointed the winning lead for the defenders. Yes, partner could have guessed right to make it since the opponent's defense was also effected by our inaccurate bidding. But the fact remains that she was faced with a guess that no other declarer had to face because they bid the hand sensibly and did not give away useful information to the opponents. It is not unlucky to guess wrong when you created that guess in the first place.

In your career, you will miss maybe twenty or thirty thousand errors you made simply because you stopped looking for a mistake when the result was “normal” or “good”.

Stressing the outcome as incorrect game theory applies to other games. Consider this observation from one of the world's great poker players,  Daniel Negreanu, discussing a poker hand on his blog:

"Turns out he had Q9 and hit the 9 on the turn to beat me that hand. Many would look at the hand and think "unlucky." I don't see any value in that. What's the point in labeling it as lucky or unlucky? Did I play the hand the best way that I could? No. There is value in analyzing your plays, not your variance."

Don't Mistake Mistakes

Here is a hand from the same tournament:

West
74
Q2
KQ7
KQJ1065
North
J1065
K10753
652
3
East
Q82
AJ4
AJ1083
72
South
AK93
986
94
A984
W
N
E
S
1
P
1
2
X
XX
2
P
P
3
?
D

Standard carding. Partner led the A, 4, 5, 2. South continued with the K and shifted to the 9. Declarer covered Q, K, A. J ruff, pull trump and gave up the A to make ten tricks.

N/S did not manage a club ruff. But -130 was a 68% board for us. The light opening bid and response made it difficult for E-W to get to 3NT. Oh, look at that! They have 25 combined HCP, stoppers and a minor suit. The spade suit here is as shaky as the diamond suit in the previous hand. Here is it simply impossible for even Deep Finesse to beat 3NT by E. At most tables, South passed, and West opened 1. Now it was easy. 1 response, 2 rebid then 3NT.

68% for us. Trying for a club ruff could be disastrous. We talked them out of their game. Cue Joey Silver: NEXT!

Nope.

South was supposed to shift to the heart before cashing a second spade. Had North held the KJ instead of K10 the spade continuation would have let a contract through that would have otherwise been set. Even worse, 3NT now has no chance, so you really need to go plus. Though -1 wont be your best plus, -110 is a sure bottom. Moral: just because the result was good did not mean mistakes were not made.

If you hear a click when playing Russian Roulette, does that justify your choice of entertainment? The outcome itself does not justify the initial action.

Finding mistakes can be hard. But you will not notice them if you stress the results. People who are concerned about results tend to improve slowly – if at all.

Finding partner's “mistakes” is an exercise in futility. Worry about your game. I used to keep track of my parents' mistakes. Like the beginning of every grammar school year when they would buy me those round scissors with a flat blade that cannot cut much of anything. Glue you could eat. The safe, plastic ruler. And then they would toss in a nickel plated, titanium alloy compass that you could use to punch through quarter inch plate steel. I eventually figured out to stick a marshmallow on the end of it or it was to risky to go rummaging through my book bag.

I think now that just might have been a way of legally arming me. Bullying is in vogue as news item these days. But bullying never used to be a problem. Maybe because back then the math nerds had these scary ninja weapons. You did have to remove the marshmallow safety first to make it scary, but you could then threaten a would be bully: “Back off or I will trisect your angle”. And he would be too stupid to reply that it cannot be done with a compass and that safe, plastic strait edge.

So maybe our parents actually knew what they were doing. As I said, mistakes can be hard to identify and you really need to think about everything.

BTW, as a final observation, I would classify "do not lead dummy's long suit" as a very "good rule".  Notice that not doing so here cost a trick.  From South's perspective, leading a club could be highly dangerous.  I just wanted to point out that (a) my "good rule" is not 100% to work every time and (b) if you held E/W to 9 tricks defending three diamonds you likely defended "badly", even though you achieved the optimal result.

Other Bogeymen

Many bidding “rules” you will hear encapsulate some fears. Some of these fears have some rational basis. But that does not make them truths that need to be absolutely followed. For example, I often hear a lot of “rules” about preempts.

  • Weak-twos or preemptive openings require two of the top three honors.
  • Do not preempt with a side-four card major.
  • Do not preempt with a void.
  • Weak two bids must have a six-card suit.

These items are rule category of “always wear clean underwear”. Wearing clean underwear is reasonable advice, but the world is not going to end otherwise.  Again, there never has been a C.O.D. of "had an accident, paramedics refused to pull him from the burning wreckage due to dirty underwear."

It is OK or not OK to embrace any of these “rules”. These “rules” actually relate to style. What is important is to have an agreement with partner to synchronize your preemptive style.  What one cannot do successfully over time is preempt randomly with every possible hand. If AKJ109xx and J9xxxx are both 3 openings, partner is never going to get his decision right.  Partner has to know what your preemptive bid might look like.  "Anything" just puts your partner on an impossible guess.  Again, we find these are more like guidelines than actual rules.

Whatever you and partner decide to do, keep in mind that other bridge players have a different set of "rules". The clean underwear rule does not matter if one goes commando.

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