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Better Preempts: Tipping the Scales
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I think of the decision to preempt as a balancing act. I balance positive preemption factors such as good vulnerability against negative ones like poor seat position and bid when the balance is in favor of preemption. Two important contributors to preemption decisions have so far received short shrift:
  • suit quality
  • side suit distribution
Suit Quality
Which suit would you rather hold whenpreempting?
  1. AKxxxxx

  2. QJT9xxx
While the first suit contains 4 more HCP and rates to take more tricks,the second is preferable for preemption.The first suit contains one to two defensive tricks. If the suit breaks badly and you suffer a number in your contract, the opponents may not make agame meaning the number will be very costly when measured in IMPs. The second suit has no value on defense and hence any number you surrenderrates to be counter-balanced by the game or slam the opponents can make and may not cost too many IMPs.
More importantly, suit 2 is less likely to be penalized. That may seem counter-intuitive when the suit is 4 points weaker in HCP.Understanding why will help youchoose when to act conservatively and when to overbid.
Against the first suit, an opponent holding 4 trumps will hold something like: QJ9x.His trumps are worth two defensive tricks and may have no value if he declares (in a suit). Two extra tricks is a huge swing. If we convert 2 tricks into HCP, that is like saying the hand has 6 HCP more when it defendsthan when it declares. Consequently your opponent will resolve questionable decisions in favor of defending: at the worst possible time for you,on a deal whereyour suit means you have chances to defeat a contract they bid.
Against the second suit, an opponent holding 4 trumps might have AKxx.His holdingis worth 2 tricks, both on defense and on offense. If the defender converts a takeout double, he risks missing a game or slam since his high cards are working on offense. He will often resolve close decisions in favor of declaring.
When you preempt, you must think not only about your offense and defense, but that of your opponents too!The more you fear the possibilityof a number, the more important your intermediates become. In anysituation where preemption is unattractive, for example, vul against not in second chair, the Q-J-T-9 assume great importance.
Suit Quality and Shorter than Normal Suits
Intermediates are especially important when preempting on a shorter than normal suit. When you have intentionally made an extreme overbid because the situation was highly favorable to preemption, you have chosen to play with fire; when playing with fire, it is a good idea to put some asbestos in yourunderwear.
  • QJT9xx is far safer than QJxxxxfor a 3-bid
  • KQT8x is far better than KQxxxfor a 2-bid
There is another interesting point about trump spots. In practice, a preempt on KQJT9x is no more likely to be penalized than the same preempt on KQJT9xx.The opponents don't know you have preempted on a 6-bagger. Axxx won't look like a good holding to convert a takeout double. Consequently, you can often get away with outrageous overbids on shorter suits when the suit quality is exceptional. Even if your preemption style is extremely risk-averse, when the situation favors preemption, allowing preempts on shorter suits with excellent trump quality can double or triple the frequency of yourpreempts with no additional risk.
North
x
KQJ109x
xxxxx
x
W
N
E
S
P
P
?
A 4 opening on this hand is relatively safe and will wreak havoc on enemy bidding.
The opposite is true with weaker suits. Kxxxxx is far more likely to be penalized thanKxxxxxx.Your shorter suit means an opponent is more likely to hold 4 and since your hand contains the small spots, their 4-card holding is very likely to contain high ones thatlook good for defense.
North
x
Axxxxx
K10xx
xx
W
N
E
S
P
P
?
Despite the good shape, good vul and good seat position, 2 is enough. A 3 preempt could easily run into a stiff penalty and with a couple of defensive tricks in your hand you will often defeat an opposing game so a number on these cards would be costly.

Side Suit Shape
Which of these hands would you rather hold for your 2 preempt? (And more importantly, why?)
Hand 1.
South
KQJ10xx
xx
xx
xxx
Hand 2.
South
KQJ10xx
x
xxx
xxx
Both hands count to 8 losers, but intuitively the second onefeelsbetter. Why?
Hand 2 will take more tricks on average* than Hand 1.
What is the difference between them? The second hand has lost a 2nd-round heart loser and replaced it with a 3rd-round diamond loser.There is a better chance partner can provide ahigh cardto cover a 3rd-roundloser (a queen) than a 2nd-roundloser (a king). Further, if partner has shortness in diamonds, there could be an extra trick via an additional ruff. Occasionally partner has AKallowing you the timing to discard a 3rd-round diamond loser. Each possibility is extremely minor. But there are three of them and in total they mean that the second hand will take perhaps 1/10 of a trick more an average than the first.That difference is small, but it isn't zero. All hand evaluation metrics, such asHCPand Losing Trick Count conflate small difference for the sake of simplicity.** Experts recognize this and mentally compensate.
Hand 2 provides slightly better chances of defeating an opposing contract.
On hand 1, the opponent's trump suit is guaranteed to be dividing for them. On hand 2, they might run into a 4-1 break in a heart contract. A preempt can fail by pushingopponents into a successful contract they might not otherwise have bid. That is slightly less likely to happen on hand 2.
Hand 2 provides slightly better chances that the opponents have a big fit
If the opponents misjudge when they do have a big fit, you will score a big win.
All of these advantages are small. However in sum they add up to a measurable advantage for Hand 2. In close decisions, such slight differences can tip the balance from pass to bid or may encourage you to a larger overbid. For example, NV in third chair, I would preempt 2 with hand 1, but 3 with hand 2.
In general, I preempt cautiously with flat outside shape. All these shapes make for marginal preempts:
  • 7-2-2-2
  • 6-3-2-2
  • 5-3-3-2
The last shape is so poor that I never preempt with it. When holding one of the first two shapes, if conditions favor preemption, I preempt only to the "normal" level (2-level with 6 and 3-level with 7) when I might bid an extra trick holding a side singleton.
Side suit shape is especially important when preempting on shorter than normal suits. Agood general rule is to always have a side-suit singleton when preempting a level more aggressively than traditional guidelines recommend. So when preempting at the 3-level on a 6-bagger,6-3-3-1, 6-4-2-1 and 6-5-1-1 are excellent 6-3-2-2, not so much. At the 2-level,5-4-3-1 good and 5-5-2-1 excellent. 5-4-2-2 and 5-3-3-2, not so much.
Conclusions
Interior suit quality and side suit distribution frequently tip the balance on preemptive decisions, either from pass to bid, or from lower preempt to preempt one level higher. Interior suit quality can be more important than suit length. I.e., astrong 6-card suit is a safer 3-level preempt than a weak 7-card suit. Suit quality is so important it is an errorto make hard rules about suit length. Even if your partnership plays a sound preemption style, when suit quality is superb, you should permit preempts on shorter suits because it will greatly increase your frequency of preempting without adding meaningful risk.
When preempting on shorter than normal suits, in general, you will not be happy when your 5-card 2-bid or 6-card 3-bid is doubled for penalty. Excellent suit quality and good side-suit shape ensurethat opponents disproportionately bid on over your preempts.
__________________
* I often use the phrases "rates to" or "on average" when discussing preempts. What do I mean by that? To properly evaluate a hand, you must consider its worth opposite a range of possible hands for partner. Suppose we could play these hands opposite the same 100 dummies, count the number of tricks we took in each case, and then divide the tricks by 100. Thatwould be the average tricks each hand was worth and wouldbe a measure of the offensive value of each.
** Atruly accurateHCPcount is so complex it would be completely unusable at the table. 4-3-2-1 point count is a simplification that treats many holdings that differ greatly instrength the same. AJTcounts as the same 5 HCP as KQ tight, yet the first is almost twice as strong as the second. Experts make many counterbalancing mental adjustments because they recognize the conflating effect of these simplifications.
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