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The Red Badge of Courage

Vulnerable at IMPs, you hold:

South
xx
xx
xxx
AQJxxx
W
N
E
S
1NT
P
?

What is your call?

When I first started playing, the bridge books advised bidding 3--natural and invitational--on this hand type, but I prefer a gambling raise to 3NT. 3NT may be cold when partner holds the K and outside stoppers. Other times 3NT will need the club finesse to succeed and sometimes 3NT will have no play when clubs do not run. Facing a range of possible 1NT opening hands, I estimate 9 tricks will make more than 36% of the time, which is approximately the percentage you need, vulnerable at IMPs, to make game worth bidding. Aggressive game bids like this 3NT require courage. You must accept that -200 and lose 7 IMPs is a possible outcome of your bid. While not all expert bidders may agree with my 3NT choice, all of them have the courage to back their judgment. They are all capable of making intentional choices that will cost under some circumstances, when they feel the payoff justifies the risk. 

In contrast to the expert, the result merchant lives in a world of fear. Result merchants can not stand to go down. When they go down, they punish themselves, and often everyone around them, with their criticism. The result merchant feels guilt, shame, and anger when a contract fails and hence he strives to make it someone else's fault. The result merchant is a disagreeable partner, but if he plays well and you can accept his acerbic comments, is there any other reason to be wary of him as a partner? Yes. The result merchant is a poor evaluator of risk. Since the negative feelings associated with going down are so unpleasant to him, the result merchant often avoids bids where he risks going down and as a result his choices are often less than best.

I recently played a KO match against a weak team. On an early board we had the following auction:

W
N
E
S
P
P
2
X
3
4
P
P
5
X
P
P
P

Unsurprisingly, 5 went for 500, giving us 11 IMPs. Why would North, who could bid only 3 at first, later become so reckless to bid 2 tricks more? One word: Fear.

  • North raised mildly to 3 initially rather than 4 because he feared the potential penalty in 4.
  • When I bid 4, he had a new fear: the fear of giving up -420, when his sacrifice might be cheap. His new fear now drove him to ignore his previous valuation and bid on to 5. This happened with no apparent recognition of the contradiction these two positions represented.

 A few boards later this similar auction came up: 

W
N
E
S
P
P
3
3
P
4
P
P
5
P
P
X
P
P
P

Again 500, and another 9 IMPs away. For the second time in 8 boards, this player ignored the age-old advice to raise a preempt to the max immediately and then subside. What was his thought process this time?

  • He did not raise to 5 because he feared the penalty in 5-X
  • He did not raise to 4 because he feared it would push us into a 4 game
  • When we bid game despite his pass, he feared giving up -620 to our game when his sacrifice might be cheap, so he now bid a delayed 5.

This player, although not strong, has more than 20 years of experience in tournament bridge. He is aware of the advice to raise preempts to the max immediately. Yet his fear drove him to ignore it. I know that none of my readers would have bid this poorly but all of us have allowed emotions to affect our bidding choices at some time. And all of us can learn a lesson from his errors. Your opponents are not the enemy. Fear is.  

IMP reasoning

IMPs is a game of risks. Every opportunity to bid higher is an opportunity to convert a plus in a safe but low contract into a minus in a higher one. Yet every pass of a low-level contract risks missing a larger plus score in a higher contract. Many bidding decisions are exercises in comparing those risks. For example, consider this decision, encountered recently by a young player:

South
A
Axx
Axxx
AJ10xx
W
N
E
S
1
2
2
3
P
?

With this good hand, 3 would be cold and game was clearly possible, but it offered potential obstacles. In 3NT there might not be enough fast tricks and 5 was awfully high. South was nervous and after much agony, he passed. 

Was this a good decision? If game fails, bidding it would swing approximately 210 points against the overcaller since he will lose 100 points in game and also the +110 he could have earned in 3. If game makes, he wins an additional 450 points (600 points for game minus the 150 points for 3). In other words, there was a much larger reward for playing game than for playing a partial.

This player understands the math of vulnerable game bidding, so why didn't he bid one? He was certain 3 would lead to a plus score. If he bid game and it failed, he would go minus instead. That would feel like taking money out of his pocket and handing it to someone else--painful. If he stopped in 3 and game made, well, he was still collecting +150; he would still finish with some money in his pocket! Emotionally he could bear the pain of not collecting +600 because since the outcome was uncertain it didn't feel like it was already in his pocket; he could not bear the pain of converting +110 to -100 because the +110 was an absolute lock--almost as though it was already his--so he would be paying out if his bet lost.

I have had negative things to say about fear, but it has its place at the bridge table. Consider this hand, held by the same young player a few deals later:

North
Q
QJxxxx
xx
xxxx
W
N
E
S
P
P
1
X
2

2 was bid without fear or trepidation. The player reported later that he felt mischievous, not fearful, when he bid 2.

The reward profile for bidding on is reversed. On a bad day, 2 could result in -800. What's worse, it might produce a big negative number when the opponents do not have the cards to bid game so the potential IMP loss runs to 12 or 13 IMPs. Since the opponents fit is certainly in spades and 2 is not such a huge preemptive weapon, the best-case outcome for a 2 preempt is +5-6 IMPs when we:

  • find a 5-X -1 (-200) sacrifice against their NV 4 game
  • cause them to overbid to 4-1
  • Cause them to underbid to 2+4

So why did the same player who was too fearful to bid game blithely risk 800 and a 12-13 IMP loss? With such a bad hand, he was expecting a minus score whether he passed or bid. Also, he knows the chance of being caught for a guilt-inducing number is small. This scenario gives him a chance to seek a thrill. If he can bid 2 and get away with it, even if "getting away with it" simply means getting the same -420 he would get if he passed, then he feels triumphant, earning a psychological reward (if not an IMP one). Therefore, psychologically, this situation felt much safer than it actually was since he didnt think much further than "there is not much chance I will get caught".

Conclusion

Emotion is always a bad guide for bidding. Fear, contempt, anger, and excitement all drive players to bid too quickly and to fail to consider the mathematical factors that determine whether a bid is worth the risk it offers.

You may never make the mistakes illustrated by these four real-life examples. But at one time or another we have all made bids on emotion that short-circuited our IMP or matchpoint reasoning. We can all improve at containing emotional reaction so we can analyze rationally and pick which risks we want to accept for objective reasons. My next article will have suggestions for training ourselves to recognize and improve emotional decision-making so we can more often make bids we feel proud of.

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