Breakin’ the Rules: Penalty Doubles by Joshua Donn

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Penalty doubles are one aspect of bridge where a creative player can garner a sizeable advantage…

By Joshua Donn
On 15 December, 2015 At 12:53

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Joshua Donn
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“Advanced players know the rules. Experts know when to break the rules.” – Anonymous

Penalty doubles are one aspect of bridge where a creative player can garner a sizeable advantage. If you wait around to hold KQJT9 of trumps before doubling the opponents you will lose a lot of opportunities along the way. Here are a few general ideas that help govern my philosphy about offbeat penalty doubles:

  • Either defender can double if trumps aren’t breaking.
  • If on lead, only make a marginal penalty double with a good lead available.
  • Penalty doubles can induce the opponents to misplay, and even cause them to go down in a cold contract.
  • You can plan your auction around the possibility of a later penalty double.

First is the idea of doubling with short trumps, which has really caught on in recent years. In a matchpoint event against expert opposition I once held   Qxxxx  Axx  K10xx with both side vulnerable. My RHO opened 1, I overcalled 1, LHO made a negative double, partner jumped to 4, and RHO bid 4.

I considered this a great opportunity to double as partner almost surely held five trumps. It’s true that I could pass and wait for him to double, but why not mislead the opponents as to where the trumps are? Also, partner might not be able to double since he won’t know my defense is so good in context. Combine all that with the fact that this was an auction where an opponent might easily be pressured to overbid, and double stood out to me. We collected an easy 500 on a hand where we would not have made 4.

It’s important to be careful about the trump length of the opponents. I happened to be playing against opponents who I knew always open 1 with five even when holding a longer minor, but absent that consideration there would have been the (admittedly small) possibility that the opponents held nine spades. If responder had bid 1 showing at least five of them rather than making a negative double, a penalty double by me would have been risky at best. Now the opponents could easily have nine or ten trumps. Knowing their trump length was the key to my penalty double.

Here is a hand to demonstrate my point about only taking a chance with a good lead available. First, note that the auction 1NT p 2NT p 3NT is a frequent source of lucrative penalty doubles. You know the opponents have minimum values for game, so when suits are not breaking then they will probably have a hard time creating tricks. That principle applies regardless of the strength of your hand, since partner always holds the remainder of the strength that the opponents announced they are missing.

Sitting over the opening bidder on this very auction, I held  108xx  Jxx  QJ109x  x.. While double may look ridiculous to some people, I found it to be a good opportunity. The opponents were limited and the suits seemed to be breaking poorly for them. Also, my diamond length and the lack of a stayman bid implied club length in dummy. Thus, I could infer that any missing club honors might be offside for them. However, more importantly, the key to this double was that I had a very good lead to make. Not only would I not be blowing a trick on lead, but I might set up my suit immediately if partner holds the ace or king of diamonds.

In practice partner held Kx and the opening bidder held Axxx. He ducked two rounds of the suit, not imagining that I could hold no outside entry for my double. That cost him a second undertrick beyond the one that was inevitable on the layout. That demonstrates another one of my ideas; penalty doubles can induce a misplay. Doubling with short trumps also applies that principle, although smart declarers are much more aware of the possibility than they were previously.

My all-time favorite (and rather comedic) example of that principle was performed by a friend of mine named Scott Waldron. Playing against opponents who I shall politely refer to as inferior, he faced the auction of 1NT p 6NT to him. He deviously doubled on a balanced hand with 0 high card points! His partner actually held three queens and out, and all three suits gave declarer the option to finesse in either direction. His partner naturally led the only suit in which he didn’t hold a queen, and then watched as declarer took all three finesses through Scott into the waiting queens. His double turned a possible -1440 into +500! Now, I obviously don’t advocate doubling on Scott’s hand, but it does provide an extreme example of the idea that doubling can cause the opponents to misplay.

The last idea I listed is making a bid to entice the opponents to bid something which you can double for penalties. A great way to do that is a strategy which my friends all call “Joeling”, named after Joel Wooldridge . Long ago, Joel developed a propensity to jump directly to game in competition with more strength and less shape than one would normally expect. This frequently caused his opponents, blissfully unaware of his balanced defensive hand, to overbid in their own suit, allowing Joel to double for a lucrative penalty. This strategy works especially well when your side holds hearts and the opponents hold spades, since few among us can resist bidding 4 over 4 in competition.

Joeling also creates a psychological advantage. Some opponents will become annoyed that you didn’t have what you were “supposed to have” and this can affect their subsequent play. They may even remember next time when a similar auction arises, and fail to compete effectively when you hold a “normal” jump to game.   Larry Cohen used this strategy against me earlier this year when he jumped directly to 4 after 1 – (X), on a 12 count with three trumps (and I know what you are all thinking, but he was not playing Precision at the time). Although we didn’t bid 4 this time, I really admired his choice from a psychological standpoint. He was taking advantage of his known reputation as a “law-abiding” player who only preempts to the level of his combined trumps.

There are certainly more creative situations for penalty doubles, but that covers the main ideas I apply at the table. I encourage readers to share their interesting ideas and stories on the topic in the comment section below. Until next week, I wish you all good luck in your doubling exploits!

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