Thursday, January 3, 2008

Grant Baze bridge letter,advice

As I haven't played much bridge over the holidays, I thought it would be a good time to post a favorite bridge article. It is by Grant Baze, a very fine player and gentleman. Grant wrote a sweet, encouraging note to Frank about staying positive in the face of health adversity.


Baze on Bridge - Circa 1985
December 2, 1996

My mother told me that George Bernard Shaw once said "I quote myself often. It adds spice to the conversation." With that thought in mind, this message is an article I wrote ten years ago; I have edited it somewhat, mostly elaborating, hoping to make it more clear.

I believe the only inviolate rules of bridge relate to decorum and ethics. In fact, my objection to the word "rules," in a bridge context, is so strong that I prefer to use the word "guides." Guides are of a technical nature and are tools with which you approach the logic of a particular hand. Judgment, in particular, is not the selection of an appropriate guide; judgment is a synthesis of applicable guides modified by logic, common sense, experience, and intuition.

Choose to ignore some guides rarely. One guide relative to specific auctions is "Do not give an immediate raise of partner's second suit without four trumps." In my experience, violation of this guide invariably leads to disaster. Here is a selection of six important general guides, as opposed to specific guides.

1. Your partner is your best friend.
2. Trumps speak.
3. The 5-level belongs to the opponents.
4. With 6-5, come alive.
5. Three notrump ends all auctions.
6. Aces, spaces, and his majesty's faces.

1. Your partner is your best friend. When you sit down to begin a session of bridge, be comfortable with yourself and your environment. Relax. View the entire playing area and meld yourself into it. Regard your partner with respect, affection, and tenderness. Remind yourself that for the duration of the session your partner is your best friend and that part of your responsibility is to make his life and his decisions as easy as possible.

Always root for your partner to do the right thing. If he misplays or misguesses, sympathize and console; he hurts worse than you. This not only makes the game more pleasant, it makes it more rewarding in a personal and practical way. Your partner will play better, you will play better, your results will be better, and you will more closely approach harmony with life and bridge. Although bridge is basically an exercise in straight line logic, the great players have a metaphysical, almost mystical, relationship with the game and, in my opinion, appreciate it more for that reason.

Do not misunderstand this as a "Pollyanna" guide; if anything, it is "Machiavellian." The scorekeeper does not appear at the end of the session and say: "Grant, you played great. You get a 70% game. Your partner played badly; he gets a 40% game." At the end of a session, one score appears, and it reflects how you and your partner performed as a pair.

2. Trumps speak. If you have good trumps, especially unexpectedly good trumps, you should strive to bid in any auction. Should I bid the game or slam? Should I take the push? Should I take the save? Should I open the bidding? Should I overcall? In close decisions, when you own good trumps, the answer is "Yes."

Good trumps often tip close decisions into trivial ones. The reasons are several. First, good trumps are disaster insurance. Normally, the opponents can not destroy you if they can not gain trump control. Second, it is difficult for the opponents to know when they should be doubling if they do not have trump power. Third, the opponents will be much more inclined to take a push if they do not have trump cards. Fourth, the guide of total trumps, the principle of concentration, and (to a lesser extent) the principle of in-and-out evaluation are particularly valid in these situations.

The guide of total trumps applies (in this case) to competitive auctions in which the high card strength is relatively even between the two pairs. "Relatively even" is not defined anywhere, but I guess it as within an 18 - 22 high card point range. The guide tells us we should bid to a level equal to the total number of trumps we have between the two hands (e.g., with nine trumps in the partnership, we bid to the three-level). This guide pertains to trump length in the combined partnership hands.

The principle of concentration applies to hands that have the same distribution. This principle tells us that high cards concentrated in your long suits makes your hand stronger than high cards distributed at random amongst your suits, and much stronger than a hand where your high cards are concentrated in your short suits. As an example, AKxxx, Kxxx, xx, xx is a much better hand than xxxxx, xxxx, Ax, AK. This principle pertains to the importance of trump quality.

The principle of in-and-out evaluation says secondary cards in partner's suit and primary cards in outside suits is a better hand than primary cards in partner's suit and secondary cards in outside suits. Secondary cards (Queens and Jacks) not in partner's suit may be valueless, but if they are in partner's suit they are almost certainly valuable. Primary cards (Aces and Kings) are likely to be useful whether they are in the trump suit or not. In other words, Qxx in partner's suit with an outside Ace is better than Axx in partner's suit with an outside Queen. The second derivative of this principle is that secondary cards in trumps are better than secondary cards in outside suits. This principle pertains to the importance of trump quality, as does the principle of concentration.

3. With 6 - 5, come alive. I once said, "with 6 - 5, keep bidding until somebody doubles. Either they double you, or your partner doubles them." I meant this as an exaggeration, of course, to stress the point that with huge distributional hands you bid a lot.

Balanced hands are defensive in nature. The offensive potential of a 4333 hand is basically just a function of its power. This power is just as useful, often more useful, on defense. If the power is split between the partnerships, and all hands are balanced, the first pair to get to the three level loses (Providing the other pair has the common sense to defend). The law of total tricks clearly explains this concept.

Distributional hands, however, are offensively orientated. If you are 6 - 5, add an ace to the high card point total of your hand. Add another ace if you have twelve cards in two suits, and add a third ace if you have thirteen cards in two suits. Even then, your hand is stronger than the adjustment indicates.

Also, with distributional hands, there is a much greater chance of a double game swing if you defend. Here is another specific guide: "At IMP's or total points, never risk a double game swing." If you go down one when they were going down one, it is no big deal. This does not mean you randomly overrule partner's decision; if he is aware your hand is distributional and doubles the opponents anyway, you need a very good reason to pull his double.

The corollary to this guide is "with 6 - 4, bid more." In short, appreciate the power of distribution in competitive and constructive auctions. Temper with common sense and, in competitive auctions, with vulnerability. Please do not ignore that last sentence. Do not blame me if you go for 1700 because you kept bidding "until somebody doubled," when you have 6 - 5 distribution and no high cards, especially now that the powers that be have (inadviseably) changed the scoring rules.

4. Three notrump ends all auctions. In a decision auction, when one player bids 3NT, he is saying his hand is more suitable for NT than for suit play. He has secondary values, a double stop in some worrisome suit, no fit but much power, or whatever.

Additionally, 3NT is usually a good choice of contract. It requires only nine tricks, it is not susceptible to a bad trump split, and more than other game contracts, it will make in practice more often than it should make in theory. If the contest is matchpoints, there is another advantage to 3NT; 430 versus 420 will often be worth half a board to your score.

I want to reiterate an important point about the bid of 3NT. It is a slam depressant for suit play. In slam going auctions, a 3NT bid is trying to slow the auction down. The message it conveys is that the 3NT bidder has slow cards and no redeeming fit.

I will give what must be a good example, since I saw a very good player miss the solution at the table. Your hand is Jx, Axxxx, Axx, KJx. You deal, the opponents never bid, the vulnerability does not matter. 1H - 1S - 1NT - 2C (New Minor Forcing) - 2D - 3C - your bid. You have no spade fit, no club fit, non-rebiddable hearts, and a diamond stopper. 3NT seems the right choice, doesn't it? Well, it is not. In fact, 3NT is a terrible bid.

You have serious doubt about the final contract. You have only a single diamond stop, good suit cards, what may be an acceptable fit in both partner's suits, and enough bidding space that you do not have to make a commitment.

In this sequence, Jack and one spade is an acceptable spade fit. I would rather bid 3S than 3NT, but the best bid is 3D. I will become hopelessly sidetracked if I pursue the auction of this hand further. I do want to note that if partner had bid 3D instead of 3C, 3NT by you would become a reasonable choice because it would describe your club holding.

5. The 5-level belongs to the opponents. Be very slow to jeopardize the possible plus position you create when you push the opponents to the five level. If the decision is close whether to push on, double them, or pass, then you should pass. If you push on and go for too much, or it is a phantom, or you double them and they make it, you have a terrible result. If you double them and beat them one, you may have gained little or nothing. If you pass, in most cases the worst that will happen to you is that you break even. This is almost analogous to a statement made by Daryl Royal: "If the (foot)ball is in the air, only three things can happen, and two of them are bad."

6. Aces, spaces, and his Majesty's faces. The standard 4-3-2-1 point count is wrong. It underestimates Aces, overemphasizes everything else, and does not factor in spot cards. Let us play rubber bridge. I will deal myself three Aces and a deuce, deal you four Kings, and deal the rest of the cards at random. You will go broke in a hurry. Same with two Aces versus four Queens, or one Ace versus four Jacks. The point is, the ace is the most important card in the deck by an enormous factor, much more than is reflected by the point count system. I will digress for a moment to discuss the value of the picture cards.

An ace represents power; not just trick-taking power, but control power, tempo power, and conjunctive power. Depending upon how many cards you have in the Ace-suit, you can take the Ace whenever you want. An Ace stands alone in its power; it does not need a companion card or care about position.

A King has control power, tempo power, and conjunctive power. Each of these powers, of course, is less than the power of an ace. The trick-taking power of a King, however, may be worth nothing. Without a companion card, the trick-taking power of a King may be strictly positional, and depend upon the location of the Ace.

Queens and Jacks have no tempo power and at best third or fourth round control power. Their primary power is conjunctive and, to a lesser extent, positional.

O.K., back to my theme. Voids and singletons are next in importance. I will limit this discussion to singletons; you can extrapolate the information to voids. The opponents can not lead a Queen through your singleton. If you had the King instead of a singleton, the power of the King would be positional, and there would be no control left once the King was gone. The singleton retains power until that hand runs out of trumps; not only does the singleton retain power, it may be a source of several tricks, which is even beyond the power of an Ace.

Furthermore, partner's knowledge of the location of your singleton will help him in determining how the two hands mesh. I think singleton showing bids are the biggest advance in bidding theory since I have been playing bridge. A singleton opposite my KQ10 -- how many NT can we play? A singleton opposite my three little -- what suit and how high can we fly?

Next in importance are Kings. They lead a suit, you win the Ace and lose a trick somewhere, and they run their suit or at least cash a trick or two. They can not do that if you own the King as well. The King is not only a trick, it has real power as a control card.

Aces, singletons, and Kings are suit cards, indicating you should make a serious effort to play the hand in a suit. It is in suit contracts that the standard point count is most ineffective. I strongly suggest you adjust the way you evaluate your high card points. Add a half point for every Ace. If it is clear the contract is going to be in a suit, add a full point for every Ace, and give negative weight to Queens and Jacks. Give positive weight to good spot cards, particularly for notrump contracts.

Choices of suit or notrump and selection of level are matters of judgment -- evaluation of the trick-taking potential and control power of a hand. In suit contracts and high level notrump contracts, tricks and controls are the true measures of the worth of the combined hands of a partnership.

If we can remember most of this we will, indeed, have a happy year.

See you at the table!

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