Welcome to my column. Let me give a short introduction for those of you who have never played with or against me. I grew up in Salinas, went to Salinas High School, graduating in the class of 1985. My parents taught me bridge when I was in junior high school, but I didn’t start playing duplicate until my senior year at the Naval Academy, when, on my summer cruise, I did a foreign exchange program with the Chilean navy. The Chilean Naval Lieutenant who was in charge of the three of us midshipmen (I was the only one from the Naval Academy) asked about our hobbies and I told him bridge was one of them. He was aware of a regular bridge game on the Naval base, and got me hooked up.
My first time playing duplicate was in Spanish. We predictably did miserably and my partner walked away quite disappointed that he had answered the call to come out and play with me that night. But I was hooked. Once I graduated, I found a duplicate club in my area and I have been learning ever since. I spent my early bridge time in San Diego, cutting some very big teeth in the shark pool of Adventures in Bridge. I learned from the good players very quickly, taking my lumps. I spent most of my mid-career playing in a couple of tournaments a year, and not much in club games because I had a job and a family. I had a long time tournament partner in San Diego who died of cancer and I didn’t play for several years. I moved back to Salinas in 2008, and played regularly in the Tuesday evening game until the pandemic. I am currently a Ruby Life Master. In this column, I am going to attempt to shed light on problems in bridge that I see people struggling with and offer tools that will allow you to compete with better players and make better decisions.
The first topic I am going to take up is one I see over and over again with my partners, competitive bidding. I am going to describe the problem, and then in subsequent columns offer you ways of thinking and some bidding tools that can help you in these situations. The question of whether to compete and how to compete comes up in a lot of hands. When playing matchpoints in particular, when to compete and when it is necessary to double for penalty become very important if you want to get 60 and 70% on those boards instead of 30 and 40%.
As players develop, I see an evolution in their strategy of competing. Younger players seem afraid to compete, partly because they may be timid to start with as they are just learning the game and partly because they feel a stigma about “going down” in a contract. As these players start to mature, they look at score sheets and see that they are getting bad matchpoint results because -50 and -100 are getting good scores while they are letting their opponents get 110 or 140. Then, I see these players start to “over-compete,” either because it is an “auction,” and they don’t want to lose out or because they have seen the bad scores from letting the opponents make 2 or 3 when they could be going down 1 instead. Actually, the opponents were going down in their 3 level contract, and you were going down in your 3 or 4 level contract as well. This is what is called a “phantom sacrifice.” One very fine player I know, who is really good at “judging” most things, has a bad habit of these phantom sacrifices. I tease him about it and, as a result, he has become much better at discerning when is the right time and when isn’t. This can be a very tricky landscape.
Over the next several columns, I hope to cover the various competitive situations and give you some tools to help you figure out when it is right to compete and when not. First, I am going to do a column on competing for part-scores. This is the most common situation. I want to help you not only on deciding when to compete on the technical merits but also on thinking forward to the next bid. So, if you decide to compete, you have a plan for what to do if the opponents continue to push you. Following on that, I will do a column on game-level sacrifices—when you should make them, when you should double them, and when you should take the push. There is an expert “unwritten rule” here taught to me by Bob Crossley at one of his bridge boot camps that I find very useful here.
Then I hope to do a column showing you the various tools for distinguishing between what is a game invitation and what is just competing. When the bidding goes 1S-X-2S-3H-3S is that a game invite or just not wanting to let them play 3H? If that’s competitive, how would you invite game? There are tools for this sort of situation, because this problem is not only a beginner/intermediate problem.
So, next column I will get into when you should compete for part scores, and when you shouldn’t, and when you should double for penalty. I will also try and include scoring caveats in what I tell you. The rules in general I will give you are for matchpoint scoring, and I will explain when strategy should change in IMP, or team, scoring.
Also, I am always open to topics you would like me to tackle. I have experience with a broad set of bidding tools, I have played weak NT with and without a forcing club system, I know most conventions and I can research what I don’t know.
Until next time.
Chuck Messenger, February 2021