Take a look at your convention card and count the number of conventional doubles in your system. An experienced pair will usually have at least four or five -- negative and responsive, plus some combination of support, game-try, snapdragon and defenses to 1NT openings. They may also play other takeout-oriented doubles that are agreements rather than listed conventions.
Many of these artificial doubles are considered indispensable (try playing a session without negative doubles, for example). All of them, however, replace old-fashioned penalty doubles, which can also be essential in some auctions. The more "takeout-ish" doubles you add to your system, the more opportunities you give the opponents to interfere without risk.
It's important to weigh the tradeoffs when deciding whether to assign a special meaning to a double. You also need to develop clear agreements about when the meaning is "on" and "off". How does your partnership define the doubles in these auctions?
LHO Partner RHO You
1D Pass Pass 1S
If you play responsive doubles, you might assume that partner is showing clubs and hearts. The "book" definition, though, is that double is responsive (takeout) only in auctions where the opponents bid and raise the same suit. This is often indicated by ORO (over raise only) on the convention card. If that's how your partner understands the convention, then his double is penalty.
Most pairs use "ORO" because the best conditions for competing are when the opposition has shown a trump fit. When an opponent competes in an unsupported suit, you're more likely to need the penalty double.
LHO Partner RHO You
1H DBL 1S DBL
If you play this double as responsive (showing the minors), you're giving your opponents a license to steal. The 1S bid is a common psychic, and even when it isn't, spades could be your best contract. You need the penalty double to show spade length and tell partner your side has the balance of power -- a hand such as ♠KJ93 ♥742 ♦J63 ♣AQ4 .
With longer spades and a weaker hand -- ♠KJ1093 ♥742 ♦63 ♣K43 -- you can bid a natural 2S.
Partner RHO You
1NT 2D DBL
In standard bridge, this is a penalty double. Some pairs, however, play it as negative (takeout) or as "stolen bid" (here, a transfer to hearts). Either agreement can streamline the description of some hands, but at the cost of passing up your best result when you hold other hands.
Light overcalls of 1NT openers have become more frequent because they can be so effective in disrupting your auction -- and because the bidders so often get away with them. You need to have a penalty double available to contend with this interference. On deals where you want to declare, you can use freebids and the Lebensohl convention to find fits and stoppers.
There are valuable exceptions. After a 2C overcall (natural or artificial), many pairs play a double as Stayman to make best use of auction space. Space issues can also make it advantageous to play negative doubles at the 3-level. Even the most aggressive overcallers usually have long, strong suits for 3-level bids, so constructive bidding tools will be needed more often than penalty doubles.
The ideal set of agreements will strike a balance between your desire for flexible conventional doubles and the need to keep your opponents honest. The latter is especially important for play in clubs and local tournaments, where other pairs can take advantage of their familiarity with your methods. It's another situation where bridge is a bit like poker. If your opponents know that you'll always fold or raise when they bluff, they'll keep doing it.
© 2013 Karen Walker