The 12 Habits of Highly Effective Bidders   (August 2013)

10.  They allow their opponents to make mistakes. 

Bridge is a game of errors. The winners of an event aren't necessarily the ones who had the superior bidding system or executed brilliant squeezes. More often, it's the pair or team who made fewer mistakes than the rest of the field -- and who took full advantage when their opponents stumbled. 

Many of the biggest IMP gains and matchpoint tops come from doubled penalties. The recent USBF Team Trials (the competition to select the USA teams for the Bermuda Bowl) illustrated the power of the penalty double. The winning Wolpert team built their lead by aggressively doubling partscores and games, and then backing up their judgment with good defense.

The typical penalty double is made at a relatively high level, after the opponents have reached their final contract, or in certain "obvious" situations at lower levels. Penalty doubles in other low-level auctions are less common, but can be just as profitable. Competitive bidding has become so aggressive that big numbers are often available in early rounds of the auction, even when the opponents have shown a trump fit. 

Many of these opportunities are lost because modern pairs have replaced old-fashioned "business" doubles with a variety of takeout-oriented doubles. Some non-penalty doubles are conventional -- negative, responsive, support, maximal -- and apply only in clearly defined situations. Others -- including those called cooperative, re-takeout, action, "Do Something Intelligent" -- are used in a wider range of auctions and can be more difficult to field.

These new uses make competitive bidding more flexible and accurate, but they also limit your ability to make the opponents pay for overbidding. It can be argued that the trend toward "designer doubles" is one of the main reasons that hyper-aggressive preempts and raises have become so popular. If your system doesn't allow you to penalize wild bidding, it becomes essentially risk-free. The more often your opponents can get away with these obstructive actions, the more positive reinforcement they have to repeat them.

Still, most experts prefer to follow the "when in doubt, it's takeout" guideline for low-level doubles. Larry Cohen emphasized the value of this approach in his excellent Bridge Bulletin series on doubles (in the June through December 2012 issues). He advised that doubles at the one- or two-level should almost never be played as penalty. If they aren't standard takeout or conventional doubles, they're usually the "Do Something Intelligent" variety -- you have enough strength to compete, but no accurate way to describe your distribution.

It is possible to play this flexible takeout style and still have some penalty doubles available. Cohen explained his "almost never penalty" advice by offering several important exceptions. These should be standard treatments in any bidding system, but it's not an exhaustive list. Serious partnerships will want to discuss other types of auctions where doubles should be penalty.

Some of your decisions will depend on which conventional doubles you currently play. You won't be able to cover every possibility, so focus on the most common situations and try to develop general default agreements that can be applied to ambiguous auctions..

Here are two simple situations that weren't included in Cohen's summary of doubles that should be penalty. Would you include them in your list?

   You         LHO     Partner     RHO     
   1NT          2H           DBL        

In standard bridge, this is a pure penalty double and opener is expected to pass. Some pairs, however, play partner's double as negative or "stolen bid" (in this auction, a transfer to spades). Which agreement is most valuable?

  LHO     Partner    RHO     You  
   1D          Pass         Pass       1S      
   2D          DBL       

Is this a responsive double, showing clubs and hearts, in your partnership? Absolute penalty? Cooperative?

More about how to treat these doubles in the next issue.  

   2013   Karen Walkerralker