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:
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.
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:
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.
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.