The 12 Habits of Highly Effective Bidders    (May 2006)

5.  They are not slaves to their systems.  (Part 3)

I once played a pair whose convention card proclaimed “The Law!” as their General Approach. They demonstrated their allegiance to that method when one opened a vulnerable 3H and his partner raised to 4H with three trumps and a balanced scattering of low honors.

This was alerted by opener, who explained it as a “forced bid” in their system with any hand with three trumps, regardless of strength or distribution. After they were doubled and set 800, both opponents shrugged and mumbled, “Live by the Law, die by the Law.”

The Law of Total Tricks

The source of their “system” was the Law of Total Tricks, a bidding theory popularized by Larry Cohen in his 1992 book To Bid or Not to Bid. Some Law principles are quite complex, but the most widely used ideas are in the first few chapters. The simplified version of its advice is that when deciding how high to compete, “trumps are everything!” and high-card points hardly matter.

Cohen’s book revolutionized competitive bidding. It also created a legion of disciples who sometimes interpret the term “law” too literally. As a result, more bridge crimes have probably been perpetrated in its name than any other bidding theory.

The Law is a bidding tool, not a system, and it’s not an absolute. Just like point-count and other evaluation methods, it can be an effective aid in making competitive decisions, but it’s important to remember that its purpose is to improve your judgment, not replace it.

The most successful pairs rely heavily on Law guidelines, but they don’t treat them as automatic. They consider adjustment factors explained in later chapters of the book and they make careful decisions about when to apply the principles.

The Law seems to be most accurate when the high-card strength is fairly evenly divided. The Law strategy in these partscore auctions is to bid to -- or allow yourself to be pushed to – the trick level equal to the number of trumps you and partner hold. In general, the Law posits that if you have an eight-card fit, the two-level is “safe”, but the three level is not.

“Safe” doesn’t mean your contract will make. It means bidding to that level may be a profitable save, but many other factors affect your decision. These include the vulnerability, your trump strength, your holding in the opponent’s suit, the existence of double fits, and the location of outside honors. Depending on your evaluation of these assets and liabilities, it may be wise to stop below – or bid past – the Law level.

“Automatic” raises

Many bidding strategies are designed to take you to the maximum Law level right away, without waiting to be pushed. One that some consider almost “automatic” is raising partner’s weak two-bid with three-card support. If partner opens a vulnerable 2S, blind followers of the Law would bid 3S with  
   J73  Q964  K842  Q3 .

Their logic is that with nine trumps, the three-level should be safe, and since this must be the opponents’ hand, you should further the preempt immediately.

More thoughtful bidders will pass. They’ll downgrade their hand because of the soft honors and dubious ruffing value. They’ll imagine a typical hand partner might hold and count losers and winners. In short, they’ll look beyond Law principles and base their decision on the expected outcome on this specific deal.

The passers may be most influenced by the vulnerability. The Law leaves it to you to decide how likely it is that you’ll be doubled. Here, 3S could easily go down two, and that may be a poor score even undoubled. Your hand has just enough defense that the opponents could have only a partscore, and partner’s preempt may have already impeded their ability to find their best spot.

With experience, we all learn when to spurn the “always” and “never” rules we were taught as beginners, and the same applies to more sophisticated guidelines. Blind faith in any method – whether it’s the Law or a convention or the point-count system – is not just losing bridge, it’s no fun. If you don’t have the freedom to evaluate your hand and use all the available clues to make your bidding decisions, you’ll get just about as much mental stimulation from the game as a computer does.

Next: Fine-tuning “Law” conventions

©  2006 Karen Walker