Baze on Bridge

Reprinted from Bridge Bulletin, June 1987

I believe the only inviolate rules of bridge relate to decorum. The rest of the rules are of a technical nature and are only guides to approaching the logic of a particular hand. Judgment is not the selection of an appropriate rule – it is a synthesis of applicable rules modified by experience and intuition.

There are some rules, however, that we should be very reluctant to break. One is, “Don’t give an immediate raise of partner’s second suit without four trumps.” In my experience, violation of this rule has led to disaster. Here are six other rules that should become familiar.

1. Your partner is your best friend.
2. Trumps speak.
3. With 6-5, come alive.
4. 3NT ends all auctions.
5. The five level belongs to the opponents.
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. That not only makes the game more pleasant, it makes it more rewarding in both 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 logic, the great players have a metaphysical, almost mystical, relationship with the game, and, in my opinion, appreciate it more for that reason.

2. Trumps Speak. If you have good trumps, especially unexpectedly good trumps, you should be inclined 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? When you own good trumps, the answer is yes when the decision is close.

Good trumps often tip close decisions into trivial ones. The reasons are several.

First, good trumps are disaster insurance. You normally cannot be destroyed if the opponents cannot gain trump control.

Second, it is difficult for the opponents to know when they should be doubling if they don’t have trump power.

Third, the opponents will be much more inclined to take a push if they don’t have trump cards.

Fourth, the principle of concentration (by definition), the law of total tricks (by instinct) and, to a lesser degree, the principle of in-and-out evaluation are more valid in these situations.

The principle of concentration tells us what we know by instinct:

♠ A K x x x      A x x x      x x     ♣ x x

is a much better hand than:

♠ x x x x x      K x x x      A x     ♣ A

You want your high cards concentrated in your long suits.

The law of total tricks tells us that in competitive auctions where the high card strength is evenly divided, we should bid to a level equal to the total number of trumps we have between the two hands (e.g., with nine trumps we bid to the three level).

The principle of in-and-out evaluation says secondary cards in partner’s suit and primary cards outside provide a better hand than primary cards in partner’s suit and secondary cards outside. Secondary cards (queens and jacks) not in partner’s suit may be of no value at all, whereas primary cards (aces and kings) are almost always useful. In other words, Q-x-x in partner’s suit with an outside ace is better than A-x-x in partner’s suit with an outside queen.

3. With 6-5, come alive. I gave a talk in Palo Alto in which I said, “With 6-5, keep bidding until somebody doubles. Either they double you or your partner doubles them.” This is an exaggeration of course, but the idea is valid.

Distributional hands are offensively oriented. The offense of a 4-3-3-3 hand is basically just a function of its power. If the opponents do not have much distribution, this power is just as useful – perhaps more useful – in defense.

If you are 6-5, however, add an ace to the offensive potential of your hand (add another ace if you have 12 cards in two suits and a third ace if you have a true two-suiter, i.e. 7-6). Also, with this kind of distribution, there is a much better chance of a double game swing.

Here is another almost rule. At IMPs or total points, never risk a double game swing.

There is a corollary to this guide, and that 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, use vulnerability.

4. 3NT ends all auctions. In a decision auction, when one player bids 3NT, he is saying his hand is more suitable for notrump than suit play. He has secondary values, a double stop in some worrisome suit, no fit but much power, or whatever. And 3NT is a good contract to play. It requires only nine tricks, and a good declarer will make the contract incredibly often. At matchpoints, 430 versus 420 will be worth half a board.

One more thing about bidding 3NT — it is a slam depressant for suit play. It says, “I have slow cards.”

5. The five level belongs to the opponents. If you have pushed to opponents to the five level and 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 your bid is a phantom sacrifice, you have a terrible result. The same is true if you double them and they make it. Even if you double them and beat them by one, you may have gained nothing. If you pass, in most cases the worst thing that will happen is that you break even — you gain in other cases.

6. Aces, spaces and his majesty’s faces. The standard 4-3-2-1 point count is wrong. It underemphasizes aces and over emphasizes everything else, and it doesn’t factor in spot cards. Let’s play rubber bridge. I deal myself three aces, you four kings and the rest of the intermediates randomly. You will go broke in a hurry.

Same with two aces versus four queens, or one ace versus four jacks. An ace represents power — not just trick-taking power, but tempo power. In most cases you can take it whenever you want, and it stands alone in its power — it doesn’t need a companion card nor does it care about position. A king, however, may be worth nothing. Without a companion card, a king’s trick-taking power may depend solely upon the location of the ace.

Singletons and voids are next in importance. They can’t lead a queen through your singleton. Partner’s knowledge of the location of your singleton will greatly help him in determining how the two hands mesh. With a singleton opposite my K-Q-10, the question is how many notrump can we play? With a singleton opposite my three little, what suit and how high?

Next, kings. Suppose the opponents lead a suit, you win the ace and lose a trick somewhere. They run their suit or at least cash a trick — but not if you own the king as well. The king is not just a trick — it is a control.

Aces, singletons and kings are suit cards, indicating the hand should be played in a suit; and it is in suit contracts that the standard point count is at its most inefficient. Adjust the way you evaluate high-card points. Add a half of point for every ace. If it is clear the contract is going to be in a suit, add a full point for every ace. Give negative weight to queens and jacks, positive weight to good spot cards.

Choice of suits or notrump and selection of level are matters of judgment — evaluation of the trick-taking potential and control power of a hand. Remember, tricks and controls are the true measure of the worth of the combined hands of a partnership.