To sacrifice or not to sacrifice

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We’ve all heard expressions such as The five level belongs to the opponents and Only Jesus saves. But we also know that there are times when …

By Ana Roth
On 23 September, 2016 At 20:28

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Source: To sacrifice or not to sacrifice

We’ve all heard expressions such as The five level belongs to the opponents and Only Jesus saves. But we also know that there are times when it is correct to sacrifice. So, what are the guidelines for making good saves?

A hand came up in a Swiss at the weekend that prompted me to write up my thoughts on this subject. Over the years, I’ve analyzed this question quite extensively, but I’ve never published anything about it. Although it is a complex subject, I think I can sum up my most significant conclusions in just four points:

  1. As far as possible, never make your sacrifice bid when it is the “last guess;”
  2. Ensure that you are following the “LAW” (law of total tricks) given the actual vulnerability;
  3. You should have the right type of hand: good distribution (at least one singleton or void) and a paucity of defensive values;
  4. The auction should be the right type of auction.
Let me further elaborate on these points, starting with the first. If you’re going to sacrifice, do it as soon as you can, before they have had a chance to exchange all the information they need. Force the opponents to make the last guess. Let’s say partner opens 2 and the next player bids 2. You have a so-so hand with good heart support. Your partner will not be bidding again (not if he wants to continue being your partner, that is). So the entire responsibility of the auction now rests with you. Are you going to bid 5 over their eventual 4? Is 4 as high as you’re willing to go? Or 3? It doesn’t matter. Get in there. Forcethem to make the last guess. Should they bid on or “take the money?” They don’t know and at least some of the time they will get it wrong.
But I can hear some of you asking “why would I want to sacrifice if they aren’t even going to bid a game?” Obviously if you are going to take preemptive action, you must believe that they probably have at least game. The problem with waiting to find out is that they will likely know exactly what to do when you do finally come in with 5. They are unlikely to get it wrong when they’ve had all of the three and four levels to themselves. You simply have to back your judgment and bid now.
The LAW (total tricks equals total trumps) becomes a little more complex when considering a sacrifice. And before you tell me that the LAW has been repealed, or debunked, let me state up front, that I’m familiar with the vagaries and inaccuracies of the LAW. Regardless of the somewhat dubious relationship between total trumps and total tricks, you do need a relatively high number of total tricks for a successful sacrifice. The more the better as then you might even make your contract!
Let’s suppose that they are red and we are white (the usual situation when contemplating a save). For now, we assume that they will make 620. We want to be no worse that -500 for our plan to pay off. If they have the hearts and we have the spades, we only have to take 7 tricks to be right. That’s only 17 total tricks. Many deals that aren’t totally flat have at least 17 total tricks, so this appears at first to be quite a good proposition. But what if they can take 11 tricks while we can take only six? Not only can they bid on and make their 650, but if they double us, they will get 800. They can’t go wrong! So, we really should have the expectation of at least 18 total tricks on the hand. The only time this will be a bad save is when each side can take exactly nine tricks. We’ll try to avoid such situations by heeding points 3 and 4. For similar reasons, if you have the hearts (or a minor) and they have the spades you’re going to need 19 total tricks on the deal. Requiring good support and side shortness becomes even more important.
So, how much support to do you need? If you have the spades, you obviously need at least a nine-card fit. If they have the spades, you’re really going to need a ten card fit (or perhaps a nine and an eight card double fit) since they might easily be bidding game on nine, or even eight, trumps. How do you know how many partner has? You don’t, but you should estimate on the conservative side (note this particularly when you’re a passed hand and partner takes some preemptive action).
The third point is really just a corollary of the second. For the LAW to work as advertized, you need pretty good texture. There are more total tricks when the deal is “pure” and when there’s a healthy dose of shortness around the table. Purity is having honors in your good fits and not having quacks (or even kings) in their good fits. Quacks in their suits are tricks that you might, if lucky, get on defense. But they will almost never be useful on offense. In your suits you should have kings, queens and, if possible, aces. Aces are almost always useful whichever contract you end up in, even aces in their suit – unless, that is, partner has a void there. I have a personal rule which is inviolate. If I hold the queen of their suit, I never sacrifice however many other good reasons there might be.
With 18 or more total tricks, there will normally be some shortness in every hand – this is not a fact per se, simply an observation based on studying the law of total tricks. In any event, just in case your partner doesn’t have his share of shortness, you should be absolutely sure that you have shortness.
Now, we come to the final, and least formulaic point. Did they limp into game? Or did they get there in one or two bold strokes? Of course, if you are following the first point (never make the last guess), you won’t be in this situation anyway. You will simply not allow them the luxury of making invitational bids. But if they do somehow get there after an invitational sequence, one or both of them is probably stretching a bit (they’re vulnerable, right? and vulnerable games are meant to be bid). What that means is that they’re going to need luck and skill to pull it off. And, assuming you have confidence in the ability of you and your partner to defend well, why would you want to try for, say, eight risky tricks when you could try for four with safety?
There’s another reason why you should be wary in such a situation. The greatest number of IMPs are typically swung when the contract is different at the two tables. Let’s say your teammates, who we all know are eminently more sensible than your present opponents, actually stopped in 3 on this board and made 140. Your opponents are headed for -100 so you will gain 6 IMPs by quietly putting the green card on the table. Now, let’s suppose that you take a save at 4 that will only cost you 500. You will actually lose 8 IMPs instead of winning 6. That’s a swing of 14 to the opponents! Two such bad decisions and you just got blitzed! Note that if your teammates had also made the overbid of 4, your phantom sacrifice costs a mere 8 IMPs.
There’s another type of auction where you should be a little wary too. Let’s say that RHO opens 1, you overcall 2, LHO bids 3 and partner bids 4. Without a lot of thought, RHO now bids 4 and it’s back to you. Originally, your 2 call was constructive. You have a good hand with seven hearts. Partner has at least three, quite likely four. Surely, this is a great time for a favorable vulnerability sacrifice.
Before you dive in, bear this in mind. We have jammed their auction and they’ve had no chance to really describe their hands (they might have done better to be playing fit-showing jumps). Maybe they have slam but don’t know it? If you bid 5 now, the auction could go pass, pass, double, pass, 5! This is the classic pass-and-pull which says that your LHO has a very suitable hand for a slam. RHO concurs and bids a making 6. Without your 5 call, they might not have had the tools to find their slam. This kind of situation occurred even though both you and your partner were heeding the first point. Partner bid as high as he was willing to go – but he didn’t know about your seven card suit. Obviously, the kind of judgment needed here is far more complex than anything I can condense into a rule. But it’s worth bearing in mind.
Finally, a hand. You hold: K9842 K93 J972. We are at favorable vulnerability. Partner deals and opens 2 and your RHO doubles. You pass. LHO bids 2. Partner (of course) passes and RHO bids 3. You pass and LHO bids 4. Back to you. Should you bid 5?
Are you kidding? You would be violating every point of the four. First, if your hand had been right for a 5 sacrifice, you would have bid it over RHO’s double before they discovered their spade fit, right? Secondly, you have a nine-card fit which violates the LAW – as mentioned, you really need a ten-card fit (or a good double-fit) if you have to go to the five level. Third, you have defense! Given partner’s weak two, he could easily have two tricks. If two diamonds are cashing and your heart king is well placed, they aren’t making 4. Finally, they limped into 4 without any conviction. Neither of them really knows if 4 is making. They took the last guess. Don’t hand them back the advantage now!
What about this situation? You hold KT2 J93 JT7542. Again, we are at favorable vulnerability. Partner deals and opens 3 and RHO doubles. Your call? Following point 1, we are going to make the bid now that we will live with for ever. What should it be? For point 2, we appear to have a 10-card fit which at these colors suggests that we might go to the five level. For point 3, you have no defense whatsoever, and partner won’t have much. You might cash a spade trick. It’s possible, though less likely, that partner has another cashing ace. If partner is disciplined, he won’t have a king on the side. But you can be sure that they will find their way to at least 4 and maybe even a making 6. Point 4 is immaterial, because we are following point 1. Thus, we are going to sacrifice now. The only question is how high.
I think an immediate 5 is about right. If we bid 6, they will have no choice but to take the money, so in effect, we will be taking the last guess. If we bid 4 it will cause them some inconvenience, but if they have good agreements they will still have a good chance of getting to the right spot, be it 5, 6, or 7. The Goldilocks bid, in my opinion – but you will find many different opinions – is 5 as they will be very tempted to bid on but won’t be able to accurately judge how high (they may already be too high).
Over the years, I’ve realized that if you have any doubt whether you should be sacrificing, then don’t. It’s generally right only to do it when it is obvious. But there is really only one cardinal sin as far as I’m concerned. Don’t wait to find out how high they are willing to go. Speak now or forever hold thy peace.

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