The 12 Habits of Highly Effective Bidders   (December 2011)

10.  They allow their opponents to make mistakes. 

One of the most powerful tools for inducing opponents’ errors is the preempt. Some players look for any opportunity to use this tactic. Others look for excuses not to, fearing that they’ll preempt partner, or be doubled and go for a number, or push the opponents into the perfect contract and tell them how to make it.

Those are all good reasons for restraint, but modern bridge is not a game for the risk-averse. If you insist on holding textbook hands for your preempts, you’ll be passing far too often and your opponents’ auctions will be way too easy. To be a tough opponent, you have to be willing to take reasonable chances with less-than-perfect hands.

The most effective preempting style strikes a balance between being a madman and a pushover. Your goal is to put maximum pressure on the opponents without misleading partner or suffering too big a penalty if you’re doubled.

One way to determine whether you should bid – and if so, how high – is to apply the old Rule of 2, 3 and 4. The Rule advises that if you’re red against not, the “safe” level for a preempt is two tricks higher than the number of playing tricks in your hand. If it’s equal vulnerability, you should overbid by three tricks and if you’re white vs. red, by four tricks. 

The arithmetic is based on the idea that if partner has a trick for you (he usually does), a doubled penalty won’t be more than the value of the opponents’ game. If partner has nothing, then the opponents ostensibly have a slam.

The Rule can be helpful when evaluating borderline hands, but there are some caveats. One is that it doesn’t take position into account. Most pairs like to promise more disciplined preempts in first and second seats, so overbidding by four tricks (white vs. red) can be too aggressive. When you’re red vs. not, overbidding by only two tricks may be too conservative, especially in third seat.

It can also be difficult to count playing tricks in side suits. An outside king is considered half a trick, but what is Jxxx or Qxx worth? You can evaluate these holdings with another guideline called the Losing Trick Count (LTC).

The LTC counts one loser for each missing ace, king and queen in suits of three or more cards. In shorter suits, you count only missing aces and/or kings. A queen in a suit with no other honors is counted as half a loser, so Qxx or longer is 2.5 losers. A Jxxx suit is three losers.

Using the LTC, a typical weak two-bid has 7-9 losers (depending on vulnerability) and therefore 4-6 playing tricks. A weak three-bid is 6-8 losers.

These trick-counting methods are handy tests when you’re considering a preemptive opening or overcall, but they aren’t substitutes for bridge judgment. Suppose you’re dealt one of these hands in first seat, white vs. red:

  (1)  QJ7654   J3   Q5   876

  (2)  AJ10984   3   543   J108

Both hands have six high-card points, four winners and nine losers. Using the Rule of 2, 3 & 4, that would qualify (barely) for a weak two-bid at this vulnerability, but that calculation doesn’t reflect the big difference in suit quality.

Hand (1) isn’t what most partners will expect for a first-seat preempt. No matter what the LTC tells you, this just looks like more than nine losers, and unless partner has a spade honor, it probably is. The balanced distribution and poor intermediate cards will be fatal flaws if 2S is doubled.

Hand (2), however, offers much more potential. Although the AJ10 is technically two losers, a double finesse could easily make one of those disappear. Almost everyone would open a non-vulnerable 2S with this hand, and most would consider it even if red vs. not.  

 ©  2011   Karen Walker