Roy Hughes

Double for Takeout, but how much?

We have been examining some low-level doubles that used to be for penalties, but are now played for takeout by many modern partnerships. It is good to be aware not only which doubles are for takeout, but by how much. I found the following in the blog of Daniel Korbel (Nov 29, 2007). South holds

♠ A Q 8 7 3 ♥ A Q 5 3 ♦ – ♣ A J 8 5

and the bidding proceeds

West North East South
  pass pass 1♠
pass 1NT 2♦ ?

The author recommends a double. While not necessarily disagreeing, I find this a pertinent, no-compromise example of playing this double absolutely for takeout. A different approach is to play that double shows extra values with no clear direction, e.g.

♠ A K J 4 2 ♥ A 4 ♦ 8 7 ♣ A 7 3 2

Here you would like to compete, and if double is available for hands of this type, it is clearly the best action. It allows partner to play for penalties with good diamonds or suggest any of the other four denominations at a convenient level. If double were not available, one could imagine an expert panel unhappily casting their votes among pass, two spades, two notrump and three clubs.

Some doubles more for takeout than others. Suppose over a one heart opening, you hold:

♠ K Q 4 2 ♥ – ♦ A Q 8 7 2 ♣ K 7 3 2

The mainstream action is, of course, to double. But now suppose you hold the same hand, but in fourth chair, with the one heart opening on your left followed by two passes. Do you reopen with double? I think the majority of experts would, but many would be reluctant. In one of my favourite books, How to Win at Duplicate Bridge (1957) by Marshall Miles, the author says flatly not to reopen double with a void in this position. You can also ask yourself if you reopen with a double after opening one diamond and having LHO bid any number of hearts.

Negative doubles also range in how much they are for takeout. One-level negative doubles are almost never passed, but two-level doubles sometimes are, and three-level doubles more often still. If your partner opened one diamond, would you make a negative double of a three spade overcall on

♠ – ♥ K Q 8 2 ♦ K 8 7 6 3 2 ♣ J 6 2

If you answer yes, then you are clearly a member of the school for whom takeout doubles are for takeout.

Doubling after Passing

Today’s question is this. Suppose you are East, playing IMPs with no one vulnerable, and you hold

♠ Q 9 2  ♥ 6 2  ♦ Q 8 5  ♣ K 10 9 7 3

You are playing with an expert that you met five minutes before the match; your agreed methods are "normal five-card major two-over-one". Your partner opens one diamond and your right hand opponent overcalls one heart, giving you a problem. Not wanting to double without four spades, or raise diamonds on three, or bid two clubs without a better hand, you choose to pass. Your left hand opponent raises to two hearts, and two passes follow. What do you do now?

It could be right to pass. We might have no eight-card fit, say if partner is 4-3-4-2. But it goes against the grain to let the opponents play in a fit at the two level, especially below two spades, in a suit where we hold two small. We would like to compete, but we don’t know in which strain; even defending two hearts doubled might be right. It seems that the ideal, most flexible call, is double. Is there anything wrong with that? No, it seems perfect, unless … might it occur to partner that it is meant for penalties?

When I was a youngster playing in Toronto duplicate clubs in the early 1970’s, the one thing you wanted to be clear on, in unfamiliar partnerships, was whether or not you were playing negative doubles. (Four-card majors and strong notrumps went without saying.) Sometimes an old-timer might be reluctant, and the young scientist would explain how things worked. "If you have a penalty double," he would say, "just pass. I will re-open double and you can pass for penalties." This possibility, that responder might hold a penalty double and have to pass, had some further ramifications. A later double by responder of the overcalled suit was for penalties, as in this sequence:

West North East South
1♦ 1♥ pass 1NT
pass 2♥ dbl

It would also be for penalties if East doubled one notrump, North having passed instead of repeating his hearts. Things were a little more complicated if responder made a second-round double of a third suit, for example:

West North East South
1♦ 1♥ pass 2♣
pass pass dbl

This was usually played to show a penalty double of one heart, with tolerance for defending clubs, something like queen-third or better. It is impractical to require East, who must have long hearts, to hold a club stack as well. Allowing a double with moderate trumps makes it less likely that a nimble East can get out of trouble by bidding on nothing.

Perhaps, though, if responder makes a delayed double of a direct raise, it is for takeout. After all, everyone plays this double for takeout:

West North East South
1♥ pass 2♥ pass
pass dbl

Isn’t this double the same as in today’s question? Doesn’t it show a hand not quite good enough, in high cards or distribution, for an immediate double?

However, it is a dangerous business in bridge to attempt to infer the meaning of a call by drawing an analogy to a similar situation. Everyone plays this last double, that of a single raise, for takeout, but it is because we have considered this precise situation and defined double to be for takeout. Does that meaning of "takeout" transfer to the following sequence?

West North East South
1♣ pass 3♣ pass
pass dbl

Maybe, particularly if three clubs was weak. How about this one:

West North East South
1♠ pass 3♠ pass
pass dbl

This definitely feels like a penalty double to me. If opener thinks he can’t make game with normal splits, he probably won’t make nine tricks if the splits are bad, so why not double with something like

♠ A Q 10 8  ♥ A K 2  ♦ 4 3 2  ♣ 9 8 6

So back to today’s question. The bidding has been

West North East South
1♦ 1♥ pass 2♥
pass pass ?

and you hold

♠ Q 9 2  ♥ 6 2  ♦ Q 8 5  ♣ K 10 9 7 3

Have a look across the table. Any partner under thirty probably belongs to the "low-level double shows values with no good bid" school. Go ahead and double, as long as you are in tempo. That is the best call, keeping all strains in play. We might even get to a good two spades on a four-three and push the opponents to the three-level. With an older partner, don’t chance an accidental -670. A bid of two notrump for the minors is likely to be just as effective. With the right partner, you might even bid two spades, on the theory that any hand worth bidding and holding a real spade suit would have bid at the one level.

Obviously, ambiguity about the meaning of low-level doubles is intolerable in an expert partnership. In a later post, I will propose clear rules about the meaning of low-level doubles, rules that will include situations where we pass first and double later.

When the Opponents are on the Run

In his comment to my opening post of Partnership Matters in Bridge, Glen Ashton may have provided the modern expert understanding for the meaning of otherwise undiscussed doubles: "values with no good bid". Is this the way to play? What are the consequences? What more explicit agreements should we make? Over the next few weeks, I intend to explore various low-level doubles in the hope that some overall, guiding principles may emerge. As readers of my first book, Building a Bidding System, may recall, I am particularly fond of having my bidding methods defined by a few simple, elegant and powerful rules, rather than by hundreds of rules and case-by-case exceptions.

Many partnerships who employ the "values with no good bid" agreement for low-level doubles make an exception when the opponents are apparently trying to escape from a penalty. A typical rule might be: "if our side has made a penalty double, redouble or pass, then subsequent doubles from either side are for penalty." Suppose we have that understanding, and suppose further that we have defined a double of an opening one notrump bid to be for penalties. Then the following double of two hearts would be for penalties:

West North East South
1NT dbl 2♥ dbl

It is perfectly reasonable to make this situation an exception to the "low-level doubles for takeout" rule. But is it necessary? Could the above double of two hearts be played for takeout? The answer, of course, is yes. Many partnerships do play such doubles for takeout, and the idea is not new. What are the merits of this approach?

Suppose advancer (South) has a moderate hand like

♠ Q 10 4  ♥ 5 3  ♦ K J 8 7  ♣ J 9 3 2

If double is for penalty, and pass not forcing, this is quite awkward. There is no suit to bid, and selling out at the two level when relatively short in the opponents’ suit is losing tactics in the long run. A takeout double, though, is perfect: North can pass for penalties with hearts, take out to a new suit, or move towards game with extra values. Now let’s change South’s hand slightly, in particular giving him another heart, something like

♠ Q 10 4  ♥ 10 6 3  ♦ K J 8 7  ♣ 9 3 2

Now advancer can pass. His partner, the original doubler of one notrump, will reopen with short hearts or significant extra values. If two hearts is passed out, the declaring side will have at most seven trumps, and there is a fair chance that defending is as good or better than trying to find a playable spot.

Does playing the double of a runout as takeout lose opportunities to collect a penalty? To answer that properly, we have to ask clarify whether advancer’s pass is forcing, i.e.

West North East South
1NT dbl 2♥ pass

Is this pass forcing on North, or can he, with minimal values for the double of one notrump, pass out two hearts? If advancer’s pass is forcing, then it would seem that the agreement to play takeout doubles of runouts does not lose many opportunities to collect penalties. Whenever advancer would have made an old-fashioned penalty double, he passes; the doubler of one notrump reopens with a takeout double on all hands that would have passed a penalty double. Conversely advancer, with any hand that would welcome a penalty double from partner, makes a takeout double and allows his partner to pass for penalties.

The situation is different if advancer’s pass of the runout is not forcing. Now, advancer may be frustrated if he holds some hand like

♠ K 2  ♥ K J 9 8  ♦ A Q 10 2  ♣ 10 5 2

Now there is no way to collect the penalty without taking the risk of having two hearts passed out.

How bad is that? I would argue that the advantage of having a takeout double of the runout available is worth more than the occasional lost penalty. If the doubler of one notrump routinely reopens whenever holding fewer than three of the opponents’ suit, we will do well in the part score battles, the 5 and 6-IMP swings that are so important in team play. We are also better placed than the penalty-doublers when the trump length is in North’s hand. Occasionally we will have a juicy holding in the opponents’ suit, with a hand too strong to pass. That will be unfortunate, but perhaps we can achieve par by bidding three notrump.

Consider another sequence where double has traditionally been for penalties:

West North East South
1♠ dbl redbl 2♦

Surely this double, where we have the balance of power and the opponents are possibly in grave danger, must be for penalty? Again, the answer is: yes, if you want to play it that way. But it is also quite feasible to play that double, by either West or East, means only that the doubler is happy if partner wants to pass for penalties, but otherwise he should bid something. This treatment can proceed through several rounds, e.g.

West North East South
1♠ dbl redbl 2♦
pass* pass dbl* pass
pass 2♥ pass* pass
dbl* pass pass redbl*
pass 3♣ pass* pass

Here all the asterisked East-West passes are forcing, and all the doubles for takeout. (South’s redouble was SOS)

In conclusion, it would seem that it is quite feasible to play low-level doubles for takeout even in situations where penalizing the opponents is an obvious priority. Some low-level doubles really should be for penalty, though, but that is a topic for another day.

Partnership Matters in Bridge

Welcome.  In this new blog, I plan to put forth for discussion a number of topics relating to the partnership aspect of the game of bridge.  Today’s post will be about how to agree on the meaning of below-game doubles.  Bidding methods will keep us occupied for a while; later posts may also visit defensive card play and how to make your partnership the best it can be.

When I sit down with a new partner to discuss methods, I find it essential to come to an agreement about low-level doubles.  I suspect there may be no more dangerous area for unfamiliar partnerships.  Scores like +1100 and -670 matter a lot.

In my early days of bridge one could assume that, in the absence of agreement to the contrary, the meaning of "double" was that expounded by Goren.  The only takeout doubles were those of a suit bid below game, made at the first opportunity, with partner not having made any bid; all other doubles were for penalties.  So

1 club (1 spade) double

was for penalties, since partner has bid.  It’s not that negative doubles were unknown; they were just not standard.

Now, of course, it is normal to play negative doubles, responsive doubles, game try doubles, snapdragon doubles, support doubles, and so on.  These bids are by and large useful, but a modern problem has arisen.  When is partner’s double for takeout, when is it for penalties, and when is it something else?  Mistakes are likely to be costly; firm understandings are essential.

Many partnerships today have a very simple rule: all doubles below game are for takeout.  If my partner in a pick-up game suggests this, I tend to go along, for I am delighted to have a firm, all-encompassing, clear rule.  However, I think a serious partnership can do better.  Suppose the opponents bid like this:

1 spade – 1 notrump; 2 spades – 2 notrump; 3 spades

If you were to suddenly come into the auction with "double", wouldn’t it have to be for penalty?  Is anything else remotely possible?  I think most experts would take that double as penalty, whether they had any agreement or not, and even if they had the "all doubles takeout" agreement.  But if the double was of two spades (in the same sequence), there might be doubt.

One view that appeals to me is that doubles of suits below game are for takeout "until we have finished bidding".  The idea is that low-level doubles are used to help us find our fits and determine what level we should bid to.  If the opponents want to bid after that, we can double them for penalty if we so desire.  I think there may be something to that, but I don’t know how to define "until we have finished bidding".  Does anyone have an answer?  In the next post, I will explore some more low-level doubles and how we might agree on what they mean.