The 12 Habits of Highly Effective Bidders   (June 2013)

10.  They allow their opponents to make mistakes. 

As competitive bidding styles have become more aggressive, today's players have more opportunities than ever to make their opponents pay for pushy preempts. In general, the higher the preempt, the greater the chance of picking up a big penalty, but there are exceptions.

The most notable are 4H and 4S opening bids, which have wider ranges than other preempts. The bidder could have anything from a solid 9-card suit to an iffy 6-carder with a long side suit. His decision won't always be affected by the vulnerability, but if he's red, he often expects to make his bid.

To compete successfully over these preempts, you need to judge the conditions carefully. The best situations for entering the auction are:

It's important to have clear agreements about how to handle these openings. Ideally, your methods will help you find the best contract when it's your hand and also allow you to penalize opener when he's "speeding" or catches an unfavorable layout.

The most popular agreement used to be that a double is takeout over a 4H opener, but best played as penalty over 4S. The reasoning is that you'll want to penalize 4S more often than you'll want to look for a 5-level contract, and you need to be able to do so when you have the wrong distribution for a takeout double.

Although the double of 4S could be based on a trump stack, it's rare. More often, it's a semi-balanced hand with quick tricks such as
    ♠J43   A7   AK106   ♣AQ84
Partner can pull if he has great offensive strength (usually a very long suit), but is expected to pass with most hands.

The downside of this agreement is that you have to use 4NT to show a strong three-suited takeout of spades -- a hand such as
    ♠3   AK103   AQJ76   ♣KQ6 .

The 4NT overcall is economical (it uses no auction space), but it commits you to the 5-level with a hand that would also be suitable for defending 4S doubled. Partner has no say in the bid-or-double decision, and if he's broke, forcing him to bid at the 5-level could be a disaster. This use of 4NT also leaves you with no way to show a two-suited hand.

Those limitations have prompted modern players to move more toward playing double as takeout over both  opening bids. This removes your ability to make a "pure" penalty double of 4S, but it offers more flexibility when you're dealt other hands. In addition to giving partner the option of passing for penalty, this agreement also allows you to use the 4NT overcall to show a two-suiter (the minors over 4H, any two unbid suits over 4S).

In practice, these two approaches aren't really all that different. Whether you play the double of 4S as penalty or takeout, 4S doubled will frequently be the final contract. More about how to make those decisions in the next issue.

   2013   Karen Walker