The 12 Habits of Highly Effective Bidders   (August 2008) 

They strive to be sensible, not brilliant. (Part 13)

It was midnight, and my husband, Mike, was relating the details of his just-ended online practice session with partner Richard. The lowlight of the evening had been a seemingly routine 3NT with 25 high-card points and double stoppers everywhere, but only eight tricks. That result troubled Richard, who believes that a properly designed bidding system should always get you to the proper contract.

An hour later, the telephone rang. “That’s Richard,” I joked, “with a new toy that will keep you out of that game.”

Sure enough, Richard had been pondering the problem and had invented a complex relay that would have landed them in a making 4C on the offending deal. After a half-hour discussion of the “Richard Relay”, Mike hung up, muttering, “I sure hope this never comes up.”

One of the joys of our game is that it offers so many opportunities to use our imagination and ingenuity. We all know the dangers of inventing new meanings for bids during an auction, but too much tinkering away from the table can sometimes be just as detrimental.

If you’re considering a bidding innovation for your system – whether it’s an existing convention or your own creation -- here are some questions to answer before you make the change:

Do we have a legitimate need? A worthwhile addition should solve a clear problem, fill a “hole” in your system or make use of an otherwise idle bid. The Richard Relay, however, is a solution in search of problem. Their 3NT contract was unlucky, but over the long term, getting to game when you hold plenty of stoppers and high-card points can’t be considered a system defect.

How often will it be valuable? Another drawback of the Richard Relay is that it’s an OBR creation – a system change based solely on One Bad Result. The typical OBR fix is perfect for the hand you just played, but so restrictive and obscure that it’s unlikely to be applicable to other deals. 

What do we give up? In the July issue, we looked at some pitfalls of design-your-own conventions and three clever but flawed ideas I’ve tried. Here’s another that demonstrates the potential costs of being too inventive:

Brilliant idea #4:  Five-Way Bergen Raises

The proposal: Used after partner opens 1 of a major, this is similar to Four-Way Bergen (discussed in July), but it assigns five possible meanings to the 3C, 3D and jump-raise responses. Opener uses asking bids to determine responder’s hand type, locate shortness and side-suit values, make low-level slam tries and investigate notrump contracts.

The scheme is a masterpiece of theory, but an excess of science sometimes suffers in practice. Like other conventions that assign multiple meanings to one bid, the asking sequences can collapse if the opponents interfere. Another problem is that the follow-ups are too focused on finding unlikely slams, often at the expense of stopping in sensible games.

Your actual table results can also be affected by less obvious consequences. These bring up three other questions you’ll want to consider before adopting a complex agreement:

Is it too memory intensive? One forgotten meaning or misinterpretation in the asking sequence can be a disaster, and your convention will have to deliver several future triumphs to make up for that one zero. Even if you never make a mistake, just retaining this and other complicated agreements in your system can tax your memory and affect your overall concentration.

Is it too informative? The detailed exchange of information that makes the five-way raises so accurate can also be its downfall. If you have to invoke an asking sequence to get to a routine game, those extra questions and answers may give your opponents a defensive roadmap, plus chances to make lead-directing doubles. Other pairs holding your cards will be finding game in three bids, and the defenders at those tables will have few clues.

Is it anti-field? One eccentricity of the five-way convention is a sequence to evaluate 3NT after partner’s 4-card raise. That’s a dubious goal, as it’s a top-or-zero position that trades an above-average score (your expected result for bidding and making a “normal” game) for either a small gain or big loss. Even if 3NT is technically superior to the field’s major-suit game, the math doesn’t guarantee a superior table result, especially if your investigation tells the opponents what to lead.

In the next issue: Sensible tests for new agreements

©  2008   Karen Walker