Linda Lee — My personal bridge blog

Big Bad Misunderstandings … the better players have them too (more?)

In the last while I have seen a lot of misunderstandings during bidding when watching the USBF team trials and other high level events on BBO.  In some cases the pairs have played together for years.  Then there is the problem of having to remember pages and pages of complex sequences.  Rhoda Habert told me that she and Sylvia threw out a lot of the system notes to make their life easier.

I read an article in Bridge World on this topic.   (Unfortunately right at the moment I can’t remember who the author was but I think it was Danny Kleinman).  The basic thesis was that if you have good instincts and judgment than you may be best to let yourself work things out at the table.  If you have a great memory than you should have all those notes .  I think it is clear that top players today have made things so complicated that the “system” will sometimes cause problems, one way or another.

I use to think that having hundreds of pages of notes was a good thing.  I am changing my mind though.  The longer the partnership has played together, the more practice, the more hands they have bid the more the system becomes routine.  Things obviously seem most complicated when you are learning them.  It isn’t really that playing Lebensohl is less complicated than transfer advances, its just that we are more used to one than the other.

Another article talked about how your best partner is one that shares your philosophy.  That is true in bidding and defense although maybe the rules around defense are simplier and more forgiving thatn those around bidding.

One of the ways that I have attempted to solve some of the problems about system holes is rather than trying to work out every case my partners, Ray and I or Colin and I for example have worked out overriding principles to handle what happens when you are out of system.  I call these metarules.  For example, if a double might be penalty or might be takeout than if you are sitting under the bidder its takeout and over the bidder its penalty.  You might not like this particular rule but it does clarify things some times.  Of course both partners need to understand the metarules and agree to them.

On his website MIchael Lawrence has an example of a spectacular bidding misunderstand revolving around Blackwood for you to try.  Ace asking bids (especially now that people play all sorts of things as ace asking) is one of the worse culprits.  I have seen a lot of pairs get into trouble when something as simple as a double of Blackwood happens at their table … these are experts.  We have over these years managed to take a very simple (if not all that useful convention) where 4NT asks for aces and make it so complicated that Eddy Kantar has written a large book on the topic which he has updated many times.

So now I am coming around to a number of conclusion.  Don’t feel that long detailed system notes are necessarily a good thing.  Play with a partner with a compatible vision of bidding.  Recognize it takes a year or two to really build a partnership (and even then you will feel you have a long way to go).  Don’t expect system notes to take the place of judgment.  What do you do when you are not sure?  Make the safest bid you can and try to hedge a bit.  If you are not sure than partner probably isn’t either.  Try to make it easy for partner.

There is an interesting article on the Bridge World website about partnership styles by Larry Cohen who played with Mr. Conservative (Ron Gerard), Mr Aggressive (Marty Bergen) and Mr. In-Between (David Berkowitz).

Here’s a recent example of an auction that could have two different meanings.  You have agreed to play that when you double a weak notrump it is shows strength (at least the top of their range).  You have also agreed that now your side will keep bidding until you the auction reaches 2 .  You must either double them or bid before that.  You have had no further discussion and have never had this auction come up.

Second hand doubles and third hand (the partner of the 1NT bidder) is forced to bid in their system.  He bids pass which forces a redouble.  Responder redoubles and the notrump side bids back and forth until they reach 2.  You are now out of the force.  First, does fourth hand (the partner of the doubler) show some values by passing thoroughout?  Does the fact that they passed 2 knowing it could be passed out mean anything?  What do subsequent bids by the doubler mean?

Clearly there needs to be some mechanism for the doubling side to stop bidding.  After all the double really only shows 15 HCP points and advancer can have zero.  Do you think responder should bid over the redouble to show “nothing”?  What does a bid by responder show at any time during this sequence?

I am not going to give you an answer.  I think there is more than one way to play this sequence.   You might argue that one way is better than the other or more common than the other.  It doesn’t really matter.  What matters is that you and your partner come up with the same answer at the table and that you do your best to be “forgiving”.  If you can find a way to do something that lets partner clarify the situation that would be a good thing to do.   Partnerships that work best are those that are on the same wavelength.  They won’t always figure these things out but they usually will.  They are compatible bidders.

I would love to hear what you think about this.

It will be interesting in the upcoming US Senior trials and the Womens trials to see how many system problems occur.  We certainly saw a few in the Open Trials.


KevinJune 5th, 2011 at 3:36 pm

I too noticed a large number of experts with major bidding misunderstandings. Grand slams off the trump Ace at BOTH Tables in the USBF Open Trials!

I favor keeping things simple, but I don’t think this necessarily precludes long system notes provided the system notes describe a consistent approach.

I happened to recently read the system notes of two local advanced pairs. I was shocked that they each employed 5+ different NT systems for their NT ladder (i.e. a different system for a 10-12 NT opener as opposed to a 20-21 or a 15-18 NT rebid or a 15-18 overcall.

Although I play a weak NT with substantial system notes, I keep the same NT system over almost any NT bid; even there we have NMF auctions to deal with, but the memory load is minimal.

To improve your partnership, try removing some conventions.

Jeff LehmanJune 5th, 2011 at 5:01 pm

Although I doubt any expert would find my set of partnership agreements extensive, it does clearly cover the follow ups to double of weak notrump. The second double by our side is for takeout and the third and subsequent doubles are for penalty. I think I read this approach in a book by Mike Lawrence, but I am not sure. So … if someone in your partnership was relatively short (doubleton or less) in the suit then bid by the weak notrump pair, then, under assumption that member of your partnership did not have a long suit of their own, that member should double for takeout. It is certainly possible to get a bad result this way, because the partner of the doubler might be broke, but at least you should not suffer a misunderstanding.

Provided each partner agrees and remembers, it is hard for me to see how having partnership agreements can be inferior to not having partnership agreements. OTOH, I think that one should be cognizant for finding ways to streamline partnership agreements … not necessarily by having them omit addressing a particular situation, but by having the way one situation is addressed be the same as for a similar situation, so that partners don’t have to learn two sets of agreements when one will do.

“Default” agreements can also be subject to different interpretations. Often they might begin something like “when a call is not clearly forcing, it is not forcing”. That’s great … unless partners disagree on whether the call is “clearly forcing” …

Linda LeeJune 5th, 2011 at 5:47 pm

A lot of what you say is true JEff. My “meta-agreements are your default agreements. And yes you have to be on the same wave-length even with meta-agreements. You obviously are the “scientist” type.

Consistency is very important. Long complex sequences must be logical to both partners and consistent.

When you have played something for a while it starts to “seem” simple. Perhaps the biggest problem is adding too much too fast.

It is fine if you and your partner have discussed the continuations after a weak notrump (and you should) but the example asks the question what do you do if you haven’t.

Rainer HerrmannrJune 6th, 2011 at 7:12 am

The question is

do you have misunderstandings because of too many agreements, which may be forgotten or differently interpreted.


do you have misunderstandings because you have too few agreements.

Misunderstanding are something which is not unheard of in Individuals, where agreements have to be kept to a minimum and everybody tries to use “common sense”.

Unless you are playing with a clone of yourself I do not know how to accomplish the same wavelength except by agreements, which may be implicit, by knowing your partner’s tendencies.

Sometimes bidding problems are repeated in bidding panels after some time and even the same person, who happened to be on both panels sometimes gives a completely different answer, if he does not recollect the problem from the past.

Of course powerful agreements which cover many scenarios are easier to handle than agreements to very specific scenarios.

What really has changed is that auctions have got more contested and more competitive, creating more and more unfamiliar scenarios, which are prone to different interpretations.

In constructive bidding the number of bids taken to reach a final contract has gone up over the years and with it the amount of information exchanged. In other words modern bidding systems

are more complex and try to classify hands in more detail.

For example some responding structures over notrump allow responder to pinpoint a short suit below 3NT, something not possible in the old days.

With more bids the chance for having a misunderstanding has increased.

On a per bid basis I am not convinced that the number of misunderstandings has increased. But on average we take more bids per deal now than in the past.

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