Master Solvers Panel

By John Swanson
Lancaster, California

The problems this month are from the Baze Senior Knockout Teams held at the recent Fall Nationals in San Diego. Levine (Wold, Passell, Jacobus, Clerkins – brothers Jerry and Dennis) faced Nickell (Katz, Levin, Rosenberg, Rodwell, Meckstroth) for the title.
They encountered a number of unusual and difficult bidding situations. Our panel (Wafik Abdou, David Berkowitz, Ed Davis, Andrew Gumperz, John Jones, Eric Kokish aka EOK, Roger Lee, Mike Lawrence, Jo Anna Stansby) will provide insight about possible bids.
How would you have fared?

Problem 1.

North-South vulnerable
IMP scoring, you are South holding:

♠AQJ965 ♥AJ3 ♦63 ♣65

South    West      North     East
2♠         Dbl        2NT*
*Puppet to 3♣, likely a non-invitational hand with some undisclosed suit

J.S.: East was inconsiderate to bid 2NT when you were drooling over the possibility of defending 2♠ doubled. So what now? Speculate with a 3NT bid or accept whatever scraps are available by defending?

Berkowitz: Double. Create a force, hope partner can double them (although I probably will double them anyway). What, pray tell, am I missing?

J.S.: I envy those who can see decisions which I regard as complex or difficult as black and white, like how a religious zealot views life. I draw comfort in that most of the panel regards the situation as a bit more murky.

EOK: Double. This is not the freebie it seems to be as it’s going to lead to North facing an awkward decision after East runs to his suit and I pass. However, as we seem to have enough strength for 3NT it’s too big a position to pass, then pass quietly again. With no source of tricks, it may well be better to defend at the three-level even though we will have to double and put our side at grave risk.

Davis: Double. We have more HCP than they do, but with the cards likely to be poorly placed for us partner will need extra values for us to make 3NT. There is a reasonable chance LHO will make the best lead for their side and it will certainly not be a spade lead against 3NT on this auction. But we should be able to beat them in whatever they bid as long as they don’t have nine trumps between them. After doubling 2NT I will double 3♦ or 3♥ by either hand. If they bid 3♣, I will pass if partner doubles but will let them play 3♣ undoubled if partner does not double it. I’m reluctant to double 3♣ since they will make if partner is 1-4-6-2 (a perfectly acceptable distribution when playing that equal-level conversion of clubs to diamonds does not show extras).

Lee: Double. I’ll choose to show some life in case partner can start doubling.

Stansby: Double. Sets up a penalty double if partner wants that, else puts us in position for 3NT.

Abdou: Double. Maybe pard can double their runout suit; if he doesn’t, I can get him to bid 3NT by cue bidding spades. My long suit is good for two or three tricks on offense, but is not promising on defense.

J.S.: Will your double, followed by 3♠, really be interpreted as a transfer to 3NT? If you decide that 3NT is better than defending, you will probably have to bid it yourself.

Gumperz: Pass. The opponents might be in the soup, but at these colors we would need to beat them at least four tricks to show a profit against our game, so my primary focus is 3NT. Looking at our minors, 3NT should be played from partner’s side. How to get partner to bid it? No direct bid will help so our options are to pass or double. Either would encourage the enemy to name their minor suit, which will help partner judge when a 3NT contract is viable. However, my double of 2NT would also encourage partner to double an enemy runout. I am not wild about my defense against a minor since East could easily have a spade void. If I double 2NT, I won’t know whether it is safe to defend 3m doubled. However if I pass 2NT and partner unexpectedly doubles, I can happily convert. So I will pass 2NT, planning to bid 3♠ later (to show my spade stopper) unless partner makes an unexpected penalty double of a runout.

Lawrence: 3NT. My shape suggests East is void in spades. Their hands may play well. I’d rather get to 3NT before East gets to show his suit. Double is a distinct alternative. However, if I double and it gets back to East who now bids 3♣ or 3♦, what I’m left with is a pained double or a slow pass. Neither appeals. Would help if I had agreements here, but I don’t.

Jones: 3NT. It’s not at all clear to bid 3NT. However, it’s absolutely clear not to bid 3NT after letting East show which suit he holds so that West gets the opening lead right. So if I’m bidding 3NT, now is the time.

J.S.: Knowing the result might have prejudiced my view, but the big payoff comes from making a vulnerable game, not defeating a non-vul part score a trick or two, doubled or not. If you buy into that proposition, methinks it better to bid it immediately, leaving West in the dark as to which suit partner holds. 3NT might be better from partner’s side, but that is not certain and neither is it certain that partner will bid 3NT regardless of any entreatment by you. Jerry Clerkin did bid (an unprejudiced) 3NT. What should West lead, holding: ♠K108742 ♥7 ♦QJ ♣K742? A diamond hits partner’s suit. Even so, declarer can still take nine tricks with inspired play. At the table Michael Rosenberg guessed to lead a heart and dummy hit with: ♠3 ♥9652 ♦A98 ♣AQJ83. East, Bobby Levin, played the ♥Q. How should Jerry continue? The winning play is to duck. If the defense switches to diamonds, you can withhold the ace until the second (or third) round and bring home the contract. At the table declarer won the first heart and led a club. The play is complicated but if West inserts a middle club rather than following with the deuce, the contract cannot be made.
At the other table, East, Mike Levine did not bid over the double of 2♠, and Nickell passed for penalties. Accurate defense would have set the contract five tricks, but the defense fumbled here and there, winding up +300 only. However, Jerry misjudged the play in 3NT (West did err and follow low on the first round of clubs giving him another chance to make), going down two, a loss of -11 IMPs for Levine.

Problem 2.

East-West vulnerable
IMP scoring, you are South holding:

♠876 ♥KQ963 ♦2 ♣10543

South    West      North     East
Pass      Pass      4♠          4NT
Pass      5♣        Pass       Pass

Lee: 5♠. It’s way too much of a position to defend in this situation when 5♠ looks cheap (or making, on a great day).

Jones: 5♠. I would have bid 5♠ the last round.

J.S.: Then you might have had a different problem. Say your 5♠ bid is passed by North (surely a forcing pass at this vulnerability), South bids 5NT and North’s 6♣ call comes back to you. Of course, that could also happen if you bid a delayed 5♠.

Gumperz: Pass. My general rule in preemptive auctions is to play the contract that, if successful, rates to have the larger payoff. If both sides were vul, that rule would make pass a standout. Par for us is nine tricks in spades. A successful -500 sacrifice wins only 4 IMPs, while defeating 5♣ would be worth 12 IMPs when compared to a phantom sacrifice. At the actual colors the decision is much closer. A successful down two, non-vul versus vul, sacrifice wins +350 points, while a phantom sacrifice loses -400 points. But what are our chances of beating 5♣? Unfortunately, they are hard to judge. Partner did not double, so he doesn’t have a serious 4♠ opening. However, the opponents made an odd decision to play in our four-card minor rather than our singleton. That suggest partner holds at least three, possibly four diamonds. If partner holds a moderate diamond holding like ♦Q10xx, our defensive chances are respectable. Both minors are breaking badly so the hand may not play well. Further, non-vul in third chair, partner may have a very nonstandard 4♠ opening, perhaps six spades and five diamonds. We don’t want to punish partner for his enterprise. I see chances for two heart tricks, a diamond and a spade. We won’t score all of those, but a down one set against 5♣ is easy to imagine.

J.S.: There can be a wide variation in the strength of a third-seat preempt at any level, especially at favorable vulnerability. And partner may well double the 5♣ bid if he preempted with two plus defensive tricks, but that is not a certainty.

Lawrence: Pass. Close ... 5♠ rates to be down two at most. Could conceivably make if North has solid spades and a club void. Against that, 5♣ may be down.

Stansby: Pass. I expect 5♠ to be down three, so I will try to set them.

J.S.: Obviously your partner’s 4♠ opening bids aren’t as sound as those of the partners of the other panelists.

Davis: 5♠. This could be wrong as partner has a wide range for a favorable vulnerability third seat 4♠ bid. He could have a diamond trick, the cashing ♠A and a stiff club honor which means we might have a trick in each suit against 5♣. Or he could have long spades and nothing else where they will make a slam. We surely have a good save against 5♣ if it is making. If I bid 5♠ and they then bid a slam I would take the save in 6♠ unless partner doubled. I might have bid 5♥ over 4NT instead of passing (or I could bid 5♥ now over 5♣). That could, however, hurt us by giving them a forcing pass over 5♥ and also over partner’s correction to 5♠ which would help them determine whether to double 5♠ or to bid a slam.

 Abdou: 5♠ seems like good insurance. Maybe they will guess wrong; maybe it’s a double game swing.

Berkowitz: 5♠. Passing is a possibility because we cannot assume clubs is their longest suit. The 4NT takeout (two suits) can be 6-5 in the minors, and LHO can be 3-5-2-3 and he would bid clubs for fear partner has the rounded suits. That said, I still have a great hand for spades and I haven’t beaten 6♣, yet let alone 5♣. If both sides were down one, life will go on. I cannot afford a double game swing by passing.

J.S.: I agree. But there is a better insurance policy available:

EOK: 5♥. Speaks for itself, although what it has to say may attract some colorful language from North if I have misjudged.

J.S.: After a spade lead a club slam is cold while a heart lead guarantees two defensive tricks – declarer can’t score a fifth trump trick without surrendering a trick in each major. If you bid 5♠ and the opponents press on to 6♣, partner will surely lead a top spade, holding: ♠AKQ9542 ♥72 ♦1043 ♣7. At one table South bid 5♠ and West judged to double, rather than to invite slam with a pass. The defense collected a paltry, but par, +100. At the other table Frank Nickell found the lead-directing 5♥ bid. He played there, down five, after what I consider strange, make that very strange, passes by each of the other three players.

Problem 3.

North-South vulnerable
IMP scoring, you are South holding:

♠KQ975 ♥K98 ♦A842 ♣4

South    West      North     East
1♠        Pass      1NT*     2♣

Berkowitz: Double, taken from a beginner’s book on takeout doubles I presume.

Lee: Double. I play this is takeout so this just seems completely routine to me.

Lawrence: Double. This hand is strictly an agreement hand. We do, or we don’t.

Gumperz: Double (takeout). Because opener’s double is played as takeout, bidding two of a suit instead can promise, or nearly promise, a five-card suit. This hand is only a problem if you play opener’s double as penalty. Using double as an overcall of partner’s forcing 1NT for several years. Double doesn’t show any extra values, it merely says I was passing a penalty double of 2♣.

 Abdou: Double, I play this as takeout, specifically shortness in their suit. If not available, 2♦ is my second choice.

EOK: Double, but only because there is room for North to show a red suit so cheaply. I am aware that I’m about a king short and would rather have the ♠A than the ♠KQ if North passes the double.

Stansby: Double (takeout). It doesn’t show extras when partner can bid all suits at the two-level.

J.S.: I had not previously thought about the requirements for a takeout double of an overcall of a forcing notrump response varying depending upon the overcalled suit, but it makes good sense. Even so, is this hand strong enough?

Davis: Pass. My distribution is right for a takeout double but I need more strength; the cards will lay badly for us if partner has length in clubs. Whether playing double for takeout or not, pass is the prudent action since we are vulnerable at IMPs. At match points and particularly if not vulnerable, it would be worthwhile to contest the auction, especially if Double was for takeout.

J.S.: Nickell elected to pass in this situation and his side failed to reach an excellent heart game even though partner reopened with a takeout double, holding: ♠106 ♥AJ1062 ♦QJ109 ♣J8. At the other table Mike Passell, sitting South, did double and North, Marc Jacobus, bid and made 4♥.

Problem 4.

Neither side vulnerable
IMP scoring, you are South holding:

♠A764♥AQ82♦A8743 ♣--

South    West      North     East
Berkowitz: Pass. Partner is still to be heard from, and missing a white game (which one you say?) is not the end of the world.

Gumperz: Pass. We have an appalling guess. Pass feels wrong when you might defend a cold 3♠ while 7♥ makes opposite: ♠x ♥Kxxxxx ♦Kx ♣xxxx. However, any call other than pass could also be disastrous. I simulated the layout in a BBO practice room. My results suggest we are overwhelmingly likely to fit in one of the reds. Unfortunately, bidding either red suit makes it almost impossible to find a fit in the other red suit. I wish I had a conventional way to show two suits. For example, an equal-level conversion double, or the agreement that bidding four of either minor shows that suit and four hearts. Unfortunately, I don’t have either agreement. So let’s look for the least flawed call:
3NT - No texture in the spade suit, a club void, suit-oriented high card values. Not my cup of tea.
4♦ - Terrible suit. Virtually rules out play in hearts. Not my cup of diet coke.
4♥ - Rolling the dice. If you catch a four-card fit, you will be fine. If you catch two or three, not so much. Likely rules out play in diamonds. I am rarely averse to rolling dice, but in this case the chance of missing a diamond fit tips the balance against a 4♥ call.
Double - planning to convert 4♣ to 4♦ and then hope partner raises or converts to 4♥. Not my cup of strychnine.
Pass - Risks defending 3♠ undoubled, but if partner does bid, you have a much better chance of finding your red suit fit. Much as I hate it, I think pass gives us the best chance to find our fit.

J.S.: My advice to readers is to forget that any suggestion of a four-level overcall on a four-card suit ever appeared in print.

Abdou: Pass, going for my plus, pard may have enough to reopen. Doubling is a second choice but will be forced to convert clubs to diamonds, an unsavory solution. Tougher problem if we were vulnerable with a bigger game bonus on the line.

Lee: Pass. Partner is still there, and I just don’t have anything reasonable to bid at this point.
Stansby: Pass. If partner reopens I’m happy. If LHO raises then I will make a penalty double.

Jones: Pass. I have a good hand, but no bid comes close to describing it. If 4♦ were for the red suits, (not the way I normally play it), then possibly 4♦. Without that agreement, I must pass. I recognize that even tougher bids may await me later this hand.

EOK: Pass. I would also pass if I could show diamonds and hearts by overcalling four diamonds. Although I can appreciate that a handful of experts would double, this is the sort of problem that tempts me to say “wtf?”*

J.S.: *“wtf” is a difficult-to-pronounce Canadian word meaning: “I am void in clubs.” It turns out that Eric Rodwell was one of the handful of experts willing to double:

Lawrence: Pass. I saw Rodwell double and the commentators started talking about how he would bid diamonds if partner bid clubs. What he heard was 5♣. That was evidently too many clubs, for Rodwell passed. Correcting to diamonds would have been better. I was thinking pass when the hand came up so that’s my choice.

J.S.: Equal-level conversion does have its limitations.

Davis: Pass. I am willing to defend 3♠ undoubled if partner passes. If partner bids 4♣, I’ll bid 4♦ and hope we find the best place to play. If partner doubles, I will cue bid 4♠ to try to reach slam in a red suit. It might work out okay to double 3♠ for takeout, as beating 3♠ a few tricks undoubled will be poor compensation for missing a game our way. However, there is substantial risk to doubling with a club void with no long strong suit to bid over a club bid by partner.

J.S.: North, Levine, after two passes did bid 4♣.and South, Eddie Wold, tried 4♦. It seems that North, holding:
♠J ♥7 ♦K1096 ♣AQ109765
had an easy 5♦ raise. But Levine aggressively bid 5NT, forcing partner to choose a minor suit slam.
Against 6♦, West, holding:
 ♠2 ♥KJ1063 ♦QJ ♣KJ832
led his singleton spade rather than a trump, then misjudged which rounded suit to discard when declarer led a spade at trick two (he needed to discard a club) allowing Wold to win three aces plus all nine of his trumps.
At the other table Meckstroth failed by a trick in his 5♣ contract.

Problem 5.

North-South vulnerable
IMP scoring, you are South holding:

♠8 ♥K1065♦AQJ93♣J87

South    West      North     East
1♦        Pass      2♣         Pass
2♦        Pass      3♣         Pass

Gumperz: 3♥. We are running out of bidding room. Our best option is 3♥, leaving room for partner to bid 3NT (which I will pass). If partner bids 4♣, I will continue to 5♣ and hope we are neither too high nor too low. A 2♥ bid on the previous round would have left us better placed. After my 2♥ partner could bid a slightly distorted 2NT holding, say, ♠AQx ♥xx ♦xx ♣AKxxxx. If he instead bids 3♣ in that auction, there is a stronger inference his spades are weak and we belong in clubs. After 1♦ - 2♣; 2♥ - 3♣, I would raise to 4♣. I do not play that 4♣ asks for aces (4♦ would), but even if it did, we’d survive.

Lee: 3♥. It’s rare that I’m willing to play 3NT with this shape, but this hand is so weak that I think, on average, the nine trick game looks best if partner can bid it.

Jones: 3♥, showing values in hearts. I’m passing 3NT if partner bids it.

Abdou: 4♣. I would have rebid 2♥ rather than 2♠. Usually I prefer to have some modest extras but the partial club fit with a singleton in the fourth suit makes it attractive to pattern out. Now I’m forced into 4♣. 3♥ is flawed here since pard may bid 3NT with one spade stopper and clubs will be the safer game.

Davis: 4♣. I play that 2♦ shows five or more reasonable diamonds and does not deny anything else other than four or more clubs. Over partner’s 3♣ bid I don’t think I have enough to make a 4♠ splinter bid. But I will cue bid 4♠ over a 4♥ cue bid by partner.

Lawrence: 4♣. I play that if I rebid 2♥ I deny five diamonds, so 2♦ is required. A splinter of 4♠ is possible, but is too much for me. I would bid 4♠ if I had the ♣Q.

Stansby: 4♣. 2♥ by me on the previous round would lead to a much smoother auction and, in my style, would show an unbalanced hand.
EOK: 4♠. Not completely safe as 2♦ did not limit my hand, and I would not do this if 3♣ is not forcing. It’s easy to see how the stiff spade can be especially important to North, and neither 3♥ nor 4♣ will necessarily get this information across in time to matter.

Berkowitz: 4♠, but only if playing 1430 keycard, so that my 5♣ response to a likely 4NT ask from partner doesn’t get us too high. Else I would content myself with 4♣ as I don’t exactly see 3NT in our future.

J.S.: A 4♠ splinter seems a bit pushy regardless of the keycard agreement. It does, however, have the advantage of relieving you of any further bidding decisions on this deal. Also, it makes it easy for partner, holding:
♠Q952 ♥A2 ♦-- ♣AKQ10532
to bid an excellent club slam. The less ambitious 4♣ raise should do the job also. After partner makes a try with 4♥ you would cooperate with 4♠. The 3♥ bidders will play a club contract but will likely miss the good slam. A trump lead against the slam, somewhat indicated by the auction, gives declarer an opportunity to go wrong in the play.
But neither East led a trump and best play brings in twelve tricks regardless. At this point, with one deal remaining in the first half, Nickell was ahead by +18. They picked up a game swing on the last board, but there were many more exciting deals to come.
Stay tuned to find out who wins.

Happy New Year!