Mistakes in the bidding: Unsound penalty doubles

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Judging whether to make a penalty double is not as easy as you may think. In this article we will look at some unsuccessful penalty doubles and …

By David Bird
On 27 September, 2016 At 15:53

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52 bridge mistakes to avoid
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Source: 52 Bridge Mistakes to Avoid – eBooksBridge By David Bird

Judging whether to make a penalty double is not as easy as you may think. In this article we will look at some unsuccessful penalty doubles and try to analyze why the player should have known that it was not the right moment for such an action. We’ll begin with a type of double that you will see countless times, particularly in the less experienced reaches of the game:

N-S Vul. Dealer NorthaaxxWest, who had resisted doubling 1NT, was very happy to double 3NT on the next round. He led the 8 to East’s Q, ducked by declarer.

At Trick 2, East switched to the Q in the hope that the defenders might enjoy four tricks there. (This was optimistic after declarer’s spade duck at Trick 1.) The queen was covered by the king and ace and West returned a heart, declarer winning with the J. A diamond to the ace revealed the 3-0 break. Declarer finessed the J and took the marked finesse of the J to Mistake 1 N W E S West North East South [9] bring in that suit. Seven diamonds, two spades, one heart and one club gave him two overtricks and a score of +1150.

‘I had to double after your overcall,’ West exclaimed. ‘I held 11 points!’ We cannot condemn West’s double merely on account of an adverse entry on the score-sheet. We must try to write down a few reasons why he should not have doubled. Think of some yourself before reading my own suggestions.

  • North obviously held strong diamonds and West’s Q96 sat under them
  • Nothing had forced North-South to bid 3NT. They obviously thought they could make it and West had no surprise for them
  • If 3NT went down, it would be a good score for East-West anyway
  • South’s spade honors would sit over East’s holding
  • An overcall by partner does not promise any defensive strength. West should have paid more attention to the opponents’ bidding.

The next deal comes from the semi-finals of a USA2 under-21 trials. N-S Vul. Dealer North

aaxxNorth led the 9 against 3 doubled. South won with the K and returned N W E S West North East South [10] the 7. Declarer ruffed with the K and was not pressed thereafter to record three doubled overtricks for +770. What did you make of South’s two penalty doubles?

The double of 3 would appeal to some, although the risk of a red-suit removal was evident. The subsequent double of 3 was… well, I mustn’t be rude, particularly as they were juniors. Let’s just say that it was poorly judged. North had not been able to overcall 1, yet he subsequently contested the part-score with 2. What should South make of that? North was likely to hold a shapely hand with very few points. Consequently, there was every chance that one of the opponents would have a singleton spade (not so, in fact). How many clubs did South think were going to stand up against 3, when West had pulled the double of 3 to 3? At most one. So, South was doubling 3 with a probable two tricks in his hand, opposite a partner who might have no defense whatsoever. This was the auction at the other table:aaxxWest made a slightly risky double of 1NT. The defenders were then caught in a ‘doubling rhythm’. I can’t see why East should double 2 (which can be made). I certainly don’t understand for a moment why West thought he should double 2. Had he not already shown his hand to the full? Eight tricks were easily made, for another 670 in the minus column, and the total cost was 16 IMPs.

Let’s look at something different, a spectacularly unsuccessful double of a Stayman bid. It comes from a match between England and the Netherlands. West North East South [11] N-S Vul. Dealer WestaaxxThe England West decided he was worth a lead-directing double of South’s Stayman bid. North promptly redoubled, to show interest in playing in that contract. Look at the diagram. How many tricks do you think the Netherlands South made?

The 8 lead went to the ten and queen. Declarer led a trump, West inserting the 10 and dummy’s Q winning. When the K was led, West captured immediately and returned his remaining heart. Declarer won with the nine and played two more diamond winners, throwing a spade from dummy. West ruffed the next diamond with the 6, overruffed with the 7. These cards remained in play:aaxxA spade went to the king and ace. When West returned the K, declarer played the 5 from dummy. West could not make another trick, whichever card he returned! He eventually scored the A, the A and only one trump trick from his KJ1086. Declarer made two redoubled overtricks, entering +1560 on his score-card. That was 14 IMPs compared with +630.

It’s an amusing story but our purpose here is to examine the penalty double of the Stayman 2. Was it simply unlucky or was it a bad double? This is how I see it:

  • There was limited value in asking for a club lead, particularly if the opponents ended in a suit contract. West had already bid clubs and his holding was not particularly wonderful.
  • The 1NT overcall warned West that good clubs sat over him.
  • There was no little chance that partner could contest in clubs
  • Doubling a Stayman bid gives the next player extra options.

The next deal is from a round-of-16 match in the 2014 Spingold: N-S Vul. Dealer SouthaaxxSouth led the 6 to declarer’s ace and a trump was played to the king. A heart back to the ace and a second trump saw South rising with the ace. When he switched to a club, declarer rose with the A, drew the last trump and claimed an overtrick for +1050. That was 9 IMPs away compared with N W E S West North East South [13] 4+2 for +680 at the other table.

To avoid making such doubles ourselves, we must sit back and consider exactly why South’s final double was a clear-cut mistake. Ponder on the matter before looking at my list. This is how I see it:

  • North held long hearts but insufficient strength to overcall 1 (or 2). It was clear that he had long hearts and very few points.
  • The longer North’s hearts were, the less defensive trick potential there was in South’s KQ82.
  • South’s defensive values were no more than his AJ5, which could well be worth only one trick
  • North’s 5 was surely going down, so East’s 5 was bid to make.
  • If East had misjudged and 5 was going one down, this would be a good board for North-South anyway.

The next deal arose during an NTU semi-final in China: Both Vul. Dealer EastaaxxAn overtrick was easily made, for +990. It was a poor double because the game was freely bid, albeit after an apparent sign-off by North on the first round. The defenders’ hearts would be worth little, since an early ruff was likely. West’s main defense lay in diamonds and her partner’s single heart N W E S West North East South [14] raise did not promise anything much in addition. West had no ‘surprise’ for declarer and could expect a good board anyway if 4 went down.

The last penalty double to receive our inspection arose in a European Championship match, a good while ago, between England and Finland: N-S Vul. Dealer SouthaaxxTony Forrester (South) ruffed the A lead and played a trump to the ace, felling East’s king. He then made the remaining tricks on a cross-ruff. That was three doubled overtricks and an unusual route to the score of +1390.

Why did the Finland East double 4? He may have thought it was a sacrifice because Forrester had not bid 4 on the previous round. Even on a good hand such as South held, though, there was no need to bid 4 immediately when 3 had been doubled. If anything, East held less defense that his partner would expect for the original take-out double at quite a highlevel. If West did have the hoped-for two defensive tricks, he would have doubled himself. Finally, East’s K was likely to lie under the ace in the South hand (it did not, in fact).

The various penalty doubles we have seen were very poor examples, each with several arguments against them. Most unwise penalty doubles have only one or two pointers against them. If you look back and fix in your mind the sort of reasons why these penalty doubles were unproductive, there is every chance that you won’t make similar doubles yourself. A few of my partners will think I should do the same!

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