The 12 Habits of Highly Effective Bidders    (December 2007)

   7.  They strive to be sensible, not brilliant.  (Part 5)

“When in doubt, go with the field” is oft-quoted advice that can simplify many bidding decisions. The theory is that when confronted with a bidding dilemma, you should think about the other players holding your cards. Will they open your hand, make a game try, bid the slam? If you know the answer, it’s usually wise to go for a similar result.

Not everyone agrees. Many players are convinced that the best way to win a pairs game is to shoot for a monster score, take chances and hope for luck. They believe average bidding gets you average scores.

In practice, this is seldom the case. At matchpoints, declaring the “normal” contract will usually score over average because there will be a few pairs who overbid or underbid. Scoring 60 percent or so on every board will often win.

Another consideration is that your score doesn’t depend entirely on the auction. If you’re in a mainstream contract, you may still get a top by outplaying other declarers.

The same advice applies at teams except that the field is just one other pair. If there’s a sensible action that will probably be taken by your opponent at the other table, you do the same and hope to score IMPs in the play or on a board where there’s a more challenging problem.

Patience is part of the strategy, too. Matchpoint tops and big IMP gains are most often the result of your opponents’ errors rather than your brilliancies. Your goal is to settle for decent results on routine hands and wait for the opponents to offer opportunities for bigger scores.

This doesn’t mean you should be obsessed with duplicating other tables’ results. If you think others will bid your cards differently, but you’re convinced your approach is better, you should go with it. The problems come when you over-think simple decisions or choose to be different for its own sake.

Here’s a matchpoint decision that can suffer from too much analysis:

J62   AKQ5   Q52   QJ6

Most pairs will open 1NT with this 15-point hand. Deep thinkers might agonize over the its flaws – soft honors, no spade stopper, no spot cards – and downgrade it to open 1C (or an eccentric 1H). That evaluation may be technically superior, but it’s poor matchpoint strategy.

If you open 1C, you’re essentially gambling that it will get you to a contract that scores better than average-plus. Even if you end in the field contract, you may have engineered an unfavorable swing by telling the opponents too much or making the wrong hand declarer. Starting with 1C could also allow a cheap overcall that gets the opponents off to the killing, “non-field” opening lead.

Your bidding system itself can be responsible for deviations from the field. If you play unusual conventions that land you in unpopular contracts, you may need to do damage control after the auction. Here’s a typical matchpoint problem:

   PartnerKJ64    A43   872       763

       You:    AQ72   KJ     10643   K94

You open a 12-14 1NT, passed out, and get a club lead. RHO wins the ace and returns the 10. You can cash out for seven tricks, but if you stop to consider the field contract, you’ll know +90 will be a poor score. At most tables, the auction will go 1D-1S-2S and it appears that those declarers will score an easy +110.

You’ll need +120 to salvage the board, so you must try the heart finesse. That risks a minus score, but the matchpoint difference between –100 and +90 was probably negligible.

Know your customers

Personal knowledge of your opponents can be helpful. At a big tournament, you may have to make educated guesses about how strangers might bid your cards. That decision is easier in a team match or local game where you know the players’ bidding styles.

Psychology may enter the equation, too. Years ago, my team had a big lead in a match against my friend Barry, who was holding my cards at the other table. In the second half, I was dealt an ugly 12 points that I wouldn’t normally open. I figured that Barry, who would be bidding like a madman to make up the deficit, would open it, so I did, too, which propelled us to a poor game.

When Barry played the board, he employed some reverse psychology. He knew that I knew he would tend to open this hand and that I would be trying to duplicate his result, so he passed. His team still lost the match, but Barry was so happy about outsmarting me that he bragged about it for weeks. Shortly thereafter, he retired from tournament bridge and eventually became a poker celebrity. It didn’t surprise me a bit.

   ©  2007 Karen Walker