Roy Hughes

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.


Jonathan FergusonNovember 30th, 2007 at 5:40 pm

I don’t think age has as much to do with it as how good the player is. I’d double back in with any expert and pass with any novice/intermediate.

Partner should look at his own hand to help resolve the ambiguity. 90% of the time on this auction he’ll be looking at 2 or 3 Hearts and he’ll know you weren’t trapping. If he has only 1 Heart, he might have doubled back in himself.

sartajDecember 18th, 2007 at 2:07 am

Disagree in principle to the suggestion that “Partner should look at his hand and resolve the ambiguity”.

Prefer the guidelines suggested by the author that either “All low level doubles = no clear bid” Or
“theoretical logic” which argues that the double of 2H is for penalties.

Neill CurrieDecember 19th, 2012 at 4:00 pm

Read with interest about your playing unlimited strength overcalls. Is there anything you have about them that you could email, or is it online somewhere? Looking for an overview, possibly explanations of various treatments etc.

Roy HughesDecember 19th, 2012 at 6:59 pm

My latest book, “The Contested Auction”, devotes a fair bit of space to requirements for overcalls and schemes for advancer.

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