High-level Competitive Bidding

It is very exciting when both sides bid to game level or beyond - and also somewhat daunting. One poor judgment can see a "top" disappear into an embarrassment, sometimes too embarrassing even for a "one that got away" story later. However there are a few tools that can help improve the good to bad story ratio.

Help is the operative word. Do I bid on, double or pass? High level competitive bidding will remain one of the more risky and exciting parts of bridge. Even with the best training, there will still be disasters when the cards lie badly, but there will be more triumphs and a greater sense of science behind them.

The Competitive Bidding Principle

Just to ensure we start with the best foundation, remember that the aim of competitive bidding in regular matchpoint pairs is not to bid what you can make. Rather we are hunting the best possible score on the board, the par score, even if that means bidding to go down - provided it scores better than allowing the opponents to make their contract.

The goal during competitive bidding is to assess how many tricks each side can make and, if the opponents can make a higher contract than you can, to outbid them provided that the penalty they earn is less than they would obtain with the contract you outbid.

If you can make eight tricks in hearts and they eight tricks in spades, and they bid 2S, then you should bid 3H. You expect to go down but also expect the -50 or -100 score to be better than the -110 that their 2S would produce. Any positive difference (even 10 points) to the majority of the field is decisive in terms of matchpoints!

The challenge of course is to be accurate with assessing the number of tricks each side can make. Bidding 3H when  they cannot make 2S may or may not be such a good idea. You need to marshall all your available judgment tools.

Counting HCP

Start with the basics. If you partner makes the opening bid then you have reasonable confidence in their minimum high card points (HCP). If you have a fit then the sum of your HCP adjusted for shortages gives a first indication of the number of tricks your side should make.

The fact that both sides are bidding, however, suggests that the hands are very distributional, which in turn suggests more tricks might be won with less HCP or even total points than normal. But how much less?

Counting Losers

A little more useful, when partner opens and you have a fit, is to count your losers and and them to those indicated by your partner's opening bid. This gives a better indication of the number of tricks your side might win, as it captures some of the power of distributional hands. 

But some of the assumptions behind loser count, such as considering every card after the fourth to be a winner, become less assured when opponent's hands are also very distributional. In addition loser count doesn't help estimate the trick potential of the opponents, nor does it take into account the information provided by the opponents' bidding.

Counting Total Tricks

Counting total tricks is a better general guide for competitive bidding. Total Tricks refers to the sum of the number of tricks each side can make with their preferred suit as trumps. High level competitive bidding, where both sides can make their contracts, only happens when each side has a great trump suit fit.

Consider the following hand where the Total Tricks count is 16, with NS able to make 8 tricks with spades as trumps and EW able to make 8 tricks with hearts as trumps.

         North
         S Q632
         H 84
         D K832
         C A62
West              East
S 98              S T75
H AQJ53           H KT2
D J94             D AQT
C 854             C QT93
         South
         S AKJ4
         H 976
         D 765
         C KJ7 

The Law of Total Tricks suggests that the number of total tricks will equal the number of total trumps, which is simply the sum of the two sides' trump suit fits - if each side has an 8 card fit the total tricks will generally be 16. Importantly for our purpose, it is often possible to assess the number of total trumps during the bidding.

Note that if above hand you swap the DK from the North hand with the D7 from the South hand so that NS can now win 9 tricks and EW only 7, the Total Trumps and Total Tricks stays unchanged at 16. It is the side suit shape and location of the side suit honours that generally determines how the total tricks are distributed.

Clearly the longer the trump suit fit each side has the higher the number of total tricks are available - and the higher both sides, with roughly similar points, need to bid. Each side would expect to make or, if all the side-suit cards are badly placed, to go down with a lower score than their opponent's contract would make. 

A few Total Tricks guidelines for competitive bidding follow:

  • Bid on if Total Tricks suggests both your opponent's current and your possible new bid might make - eg bid on at the 3 level over opponents' 3C if there are 18+ total trumps as the two contracts might both make
  • Don't bid on if Total Tricks suggests both contracts might fail - eg don't bid on over opponents 3C if there are only 16 total trumps as the current and proposed contracts might both fail
  • Use your informed fine-tuning judgment (see below) if the Total Tricks suggests only one of the contracts might make - eg if opponents have bid 3C and there are 17 total trumps

Fine-Tuning 1 - Your Offence/Defence Ratio

Your Offence/Defence Ratio (or ODR) is a useful tool in the decision to bid one more or not. It is based on recognition that hands of the same point count, loser count and distribution can have different offence and defence values. Consider the following:

  • S KQJT9  H 843  D A43  C Q2
  • S A8732  H Q53  D A43  C Q2

Both hands have 12 HCP, 8 losers and the same shape, yet should be bid differently. The first hand has five tricks playing in spades, whereas defensively it might only earn 2 tricks. Because of its offensive strength it would be important to bid it early and to strive, other things equal, to win the bidding.

The second hand has, in contrast, 3 or 4 tricks playing in spades and probably 3 in defence. Consequently it is more defensive/neutral with less need to determine the trump suit. Note the HQ, and any intermediate honour in a short suit, is more likely to win a trick in defence than as declarer. On this holding you would be happier to defend if partner does not support spades.

A few general ODR guidelines:

  • Qs and Js in your long suits are offensive, but in short suits are defensive
  • Honour sequences particularly in your long suits are offensive
  • The greater your ODR the more you should strive to compete further

Fine-Tuning 2 - Imagining the Hands from the Bidding

The ODR and Total Tricks guidelines still do not take full advantage of all the information provided by the bidding. You need to build up your own picture of the full hand - don't be daunted, this is easier when everyone is bidding.

Start with re-evaluating the value of your honour holdings in the opponent's suits. A KJx holding in a suit bid by the opponents, for example, has nire value over the opponent bidding the suit (you can count on 1-2 tricks) than if you are under the opponent who bid it (you will be lucky to get any).

Slightly tougher is to use the bidding to judge the length of side suit fits for both your partnership and your opponents. If each side has a double fit, that is a fit in a side-suit as well as trumps, then this suggests even more total tricks and even more competitive bidding. On the other hand, if you are short in your partner's second suit or have length in an opponent's second suit, it suggests the opposite - more restrained bidding.

Make the Judgment

So it is simple really! (Not.)

  1. Estimate the total trumps from the bidding and hence the Total Tricks 
  2. Bid on if both contracts look like they could make, and 
  3. Trust your fine-tuning assessments of ODR, side-suit keycard location and side-suit fit/shortages when it looks close. (And remember that you are doing well if you get it right 75% of the time.)

Working through an Example

You hold 

S 96
H KT97
D AQT65
C 32

and partner opens 1H which is followed by a 1S overcall. What do you bid?  

You seem to have a nine card heart fit and at least half the HCP. Game is possible but by no means certain. You would be happy to bid to 3H as an invitational bid. The interesting question is what will you do if the next bidder confirms a spade fit for the opponents, and should this possibility affect your immediate bid now?

You seem to have two immediate options: bid 3H at once or bid 2D first. (2H is too wimpy - you may never have another chance to show your invitational strength. Even if the opponents bid 2S and it comes back to you, your 3H bid then may only indicate a ninth heart, if that.)

An immediate 3H bid makes it harder for the opponents to continue to interfere - but equally makes it harder for you and your partner to make informed decisions should they bid on to the 3S or higher level. 

Assuming 2D is still forcing after an overcall, this bid and a subsequent heart bid has the advantage of describing your hand well, equipping your partner to make a good decision if necessary about bidding on or not at a later stage. Of course it also informs the opponents to some extent, and on the whole bidding a new suit on the way to showing support for partner's suit should be done only with a good side suit and when you think your partnership has at least half the HCP - it is a constructive bidding sequence trying to help your partnership find the level it can make, rather than a destructive bid (such as say jumping to 4H) which tries to prevent the opponents find their level.

If you are still unconvinced that 2D followed by a heart bid is better, put yourself in partner's position after you subsequently 3H and then 3S pops up from the opponents. How does partner (or you) make a good decision about bidding on, passing or doubling?

North East South West
            1H    1S
 2D    2S   P     P
 3H    3S   ? 

         North
         S 96
         H KT97
         D AQT65
         C 32
West              East
S AKJT8           S Q752
H 32              H 85
D 74              D 32
C KJ98            C AQT65
         South
         S 43
         H AQJ64
         D KJ98
         C 74 

It is fine-tuning judgment time with (17-)18 total trumps shown by the bidding, but Partner (South) should be happy to bid on knowing that you have a side suit fit, and noting his side-suit honours are clustered (and thus more offensive) and are not devalued by being under the overcaller. In this case total tricks equals total trumps and both 3H and 3S can make, and 4H is likely to be the par score (and better than letting the opponents make 3S).

Change North's first bid to 2C with the hands now:

         North
         S 96
         H KT97
         D 32
         C AQT65
West              East
S AKJT8           S Q752
H 32              H 85
D 74              D AQT65
C KJ98            C 32
         South
         S 43
         H AQJ64
         D KJ98
         C 74 

Again it is fine-tuning judgment time with (17-)18 total trumps, and partner would probably now be happy to pass knowing that you do not have a side suit fit, and his honours could well be under those of the overcaller, even though his side suit honours are clustered in the one suit. In this case total tricks still equals total trumps, but 4H would indeed make thanks to the fortunate lay of the minor suit honours (and proving that no guideline or fine-tuning judgments are perfect) -  but 3S will also go down.

Now consider a different adjustment to the initial layout. Notice there is no change to HCP, loser count, or Total Trumps.

         North
         S 964
         H KT97
         D AQT65
         C 3
West              East
S AKJT8           S Q752
H 3               H 852
D 742             D 3
C KJ98            C AQT65
         South
         S 3
         H AQJ64
         D KJ98
         C 742 

There is however a change in total tricks which have jumped sharply from 18 to 22 - both sides can now make 11 tricks each. This illustrates the importance of the fine-tuning judgments, in this case noting the offensive value of singletons in the opponents' suits. North can even guess partner's singleton spade given EW's 9 card spade fit. It also highlights that the Law of Total Tricks, while a very useful base, should never be the final arbiter in such situations.

 

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