There’s an old joke that's often repeated in auctions similar to this one (East-West vulnerable):
West North East South
1H 1S 4H
West alerts his partner’s 4H bid, and when asked, explains it as “Transfer to 4S”. If South looks perplexed, West adds, “By you.”
The reference is to the widespread proclivity for taking "four-over-four"
sacrifices. There's a natural tendency to exploit your advantage when you hold
the master suit, so it's tempting to try 4S with
♠9743 ♥63 ♦K62 ♣J874
Some players believe it's virtually automatic to "complete the transfer" and bid 4S with this hand. They can cite several reasons: You have a spade fit that partner doesn't know about, the vulnerability is right, maybe you can push them to 5H, it's just downright cowardly to let them play 4H.
This all presumes that the opponents are making 4H and that they can't profitably double you in 4S, neither of which is a given. East showed a distributional raise with limited high-card values, not game-forcing strength. For all you know, partner has the best hand at the table and 4H was a sacrifice over your spade partscore. If your side can actually make 4S, partner will probably have enough to reopen with a double when 4H is passed back to him.
There's also a danger that your sacrifice will give the opponents a bigger
plus score than their game is worth. Even if partner has a singleton heart (not
guaranteed), 4S doubled could go down four (minus 800). Count your possible
losers opposite a typical minimum overcall such as
♠AJ865 ♥7 ♦953 ♣Q62
Try to estimate the number of tricks you might take on defense, too. Note that you have chances to beat 4H if partner holds this hand.
It's true that you have to be willing to take some risks to keep your opponents from playing "easy" vulnerable games, but it's important to resist being stampeded into rash sacrifices. Here are some tips for making these decisions:
Don't let the familiar rhythm of an auction goad you into making an "automatic" bid. Be thoughtful, not reactive, when considering the wisdom of "4H is a transfer to 4S" and other theories.
Don't assume that the opponents are always in the perfect contract. Just because they breezed confidently into game doesn't mean it will be as easy to make as it was to bid.
Be willing to stretch to show trump support in competitive auctions, but don't be pressured past your comfort level. It's acceptable to compete at one level higher than your hand might be worth, but not two.
Resolve close cases in favor of defending. If you believe there's a chance of defeating the opponents' contract, go for the plus score, especially at matchpoints. Even a "cheap" sacrifice will be a bad result if their game was going down.
The same advice applies to team scoring, but there are situations where you may want to take a close (one-trick, maybe two) sacrifice as "insurance" against suffering a big swing. You're accepting the loss of a few IMPs if saving was wrong (their game was going down), but avoiding a big loss if passing was wrong (their game was making).
Know your opponents' system. In the auction above, if East-West are playing a big-club system, responder could have quite a good hand. The 1H opener shows a maximum of 15-16 high-card points, so East may bid a "preemptive" 4H with just about any hand that isn't interested in slam. Big-club players are especially fond of making this bid when they have a spade stack.
© 2012 Karen Walker