Saturday, April 3, 2010

The Dubious Joy of Defending 1 No Trump

In his March Newsletter Larry Cohen published an analysis of 1,000,000 bridge contracts played at 1NT. The deals were randomly taken from Bridge Base On Line and analyzed by “Bridge Browser”, a powerful data base program. One no trump contracts can be arrived at in a variety of ways including 1NT openers passed out, 1NT responses passed out and 1NT rebids, as well as 1 no trump overcalls and no trump continuations by advancer. They all have one thing in common; whoever won the auction played and prayed for 7 tricks at no trump.

Does playing 1 No Trump contracts sound like something you would like to do for a living? Well, it should be, and those who actually play bridge for a living hear the cash register ringing if any opponent permits them to play a 1 No Trump contract. I think there is a correlation between bridge skills and the desire to play 1 No Trump contracts. I often hear novices complain about being left in dreaded 1 No Trump contracts. The more experience they get, the better they like that predicament.

All of this joy is for good reason, one that I have always known but not been able to prove. It is a high honor to be allowed to play 1 No Trump contracts and you can surely count among your friends, those opponents who permit you to reside there. The results of the analysis of 1,000,000 1NT contracts demonstrate that declarer is an overwhelming favorite to make his contact and very likely to make overtricks.

Here are the facts: Declarer (whether by opening bid or overcall) will make his contract 71%of the time. Declarer will actually make overtricks 40% of the time he plays a 1 NT contract. Yes, there will be “no joy in mudville” on occasion, but not often. You should expect to beat 1NT 29% of the time, but 17% of those times it will only be -1. As my partner Bob Scarbrough says, “Down one is good!”

These facts do not really not surprise me. I actually wrote a blog post on February 1, 2008 “Interfering over 1NT Opening Bids” encouraging players to aggressively get in the face of opponents opening one no trump. You can’t always steal the bid (in fact you rarely do) but you can get them playing something other than a 58% 1NT contract. As my partners and I have observed, a multitude of more interesting things can also take place if you put a little sand in their gears. I recommend an aggressive form of DONT. A survey of defenses used by the experts is available at If I had to choose another defense, I would use expert Bart Bramley’s system aptly named SCUM. Yeow! What more is there to say after that alert!! Whatever you do, don’t sit on your hands waiting for a 5-5-2-1 distribution, a holding that occurs in about 3% of the hands.

In his excellent book To Bid or Not to Bid, Larry Cohen said that there is one thing worse than playing 1NT contracts, and that is to defend 1NT contracts. That is just an expert speaking from experience, but now we have the facts to back that up. When balancing after two passes, I am persuaded by Mel Colchamiro’s “Rule of Two.” Mel says if you are in the balancing seat you should reopen the bidding if you have two distributional points, no matter how many high card points you have. I also follow that rule and have rarely been disappointed with the results.

One of the interesting things from the analysis of the 1,000,000 deals is that when the 1NT contract originated from a 1NT overcall, the results were significantly worse than when the declaring side opened the hand. In fact, the 1NT overcaller only averaged 49% of the matchpoints and went slightly minus in IMP’s. This means that the success rate for opening 1NT was actually higher than 71% since that stat included overcalls. It is enough to know that the margin of safety is reduced when making a 1NT overcall, but the reasons for this are not quite as clear.

At first blush you think “I am receiving the opening lead through the hand that opened the bidding and I know where most of the strength in the hand is located, right in front of me.” Countering that is the fact that that when RHO open’s the bidding, and you hold 16 hcps, on average the other two hands at the table will likely have only 11 hcps divided between them. If they are divided 6-5, with the opening hand sitting behind the dummy, it is possible that you will never get to the dummy and will be playing the contract out of your hand. Now that is something that is not fun! Other factors affecting the result may be that opening leader will have a lead directing bid that may prevent him from giving declarer a trick on the opening lead. I think this points out the importance of playing “systems on” over NT overcalls and hopefully finding a better place to play.

If you take nothing more from this analysis, understand that it is a losing game to let opponents play 1NT contracts. Why you might ask why am I encouraging a course of action that may actually prevent me from playing the 1NT contracts that I so enjoy? That’s easy – nobody ever takes me seriously! Sigh!

There is another factor. Once you engrain a line of thinking in the minds of most bridge players, it seems to close their mind forever to the possibility of an improved model. This is pure denial and the history of bridge points out that lie. Innovative thinking has brought bridge a long way since its inception and the process continues on an accelerated basis. More interesting is that not all of the good ideas in bridge come from experts. I recently read a quotation from Leo Tolstoy that I thought very descriptive of this mind boggling tug of war that we have all endured from time to time. Leo died at his dacha in 1910, but before passing he said:

“The most difficult subjects can be explained to the most slow witted man if
he has not formed any idea of them already; but the simplest thing cannot be made clear to the most intelligent man if he is firmly persuaded that he knows already, without a shadow of doubt, what is laid before him.”

Do you think Leo played bridge? Remember, in bridge an open mind is always better than an opening hand. Quote me if you like!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Tommy, I have been preaching this for years. However, it takes nerves of steel to balance vul vs NV. AT MATCH POINTS IT IS MANDATORY. I prefer Brozel. It defines the two suits and pard can often make the killing bid. I like to double with Spades and a minor. With one suiters, I pass and pray. BR SPADEWOOD.