Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Equal Level Conversion Doubles (Part 1)

I always wanted to do a post on this subject, but felt it may be too complex for many of my readers. In June’s issue of The Bulletin (Pg. 26) I saw that Larry Cohen made a passing reference to Equal Level Conversion. Since his 2 short paragraphs left much unsaid, I have decided (for better or worse) to put a little meat on the bones. It’s been a while since I have written anything for my advanced readers, so here it is! You will find the endnotes grouped on at the end (duh!) This is a 2 part post, the next post will consist of examples and answers.
As we all know, the “Gold Standard” for take-out doubles is that doubler has support for the other three unbid suits. The only common exception to this is the “double and bid” situation.[1]. Since modern bridge theory supports single level overcalls with hands as good as 17hcps, double and bid action generally shows a hand that has a good 17+ hcps and a re-biddable suit. Since doubler has the best hand at the table, and it is his intention to take a bid over whatever partner’s action might be, it is not important that doubler can’t support partner in one of the unbid suits.

 These combined disciplines have stood the test of time pretty well. They set a sensible standard, promote partnership trust and set the stage for competitive bidding or a good defensive effort with a head start on count and values. Yet, there seems to be a recurring problem with certain two suited hands that are not 5-5. You are sitting in the second seat and see one heart opened on your right. You hold something like AKxx, xxx, AJ10xx, x. What call do you make?

 Most partnerships would overcall 2 diamonds. The problem is that you may catch partner with Qxxx, x, xxx, Axxxx and we miss a good play for game in spades. It is easy to bury a spade suit with this type of hand. Another approach is to overcall the 4 card spade suit[2]. The problem with this is that I like the assurance that partner’s overcalls have 5+ cards in the suit. If you have to question that each time a major suit is overcalled, you have lost valuable hand count information and may miss a 9 card diamond fit in which you could have competed. You could try to trap pass[3], but explain that to partner when the bidding goes 1h/p/3h, and our options are gone.

 There is a way that you can “have your cake and eat it too”, and not have to sweat your way through these awkward holdings. You simply make a take out double (!) and if advancer bids 2 clubs, you bid 2 diamonds. You are going to say, “Wait a minute, I have just shown a hand of 17+ hcps with double and bid. No, not if your partnership understanding is that you can make Equal Level Conversion (“ELC”) take-out doubles.  Under the ELC understanding, the bid of a new suit by doubler is not forcing if it is at the same level as Advancer’s[4] bid. Now doubler can bid 2 diamonds and Advancer will know that it is not forcing and also know that in this sequence (1h/x/p/2c/p/2d), I started with 5 diamond and 4 hearts. On a good day advancer will respond 1 spade over our double and we have found our 8 card spade fit. Even If Advancer bids 1NT (somewhat rare), he has a heart stopper, and surely he must have Qxx of diamonds. We can play it in NT, but without the club stopper, a bail out to 2 diamonds may guarantee the plus score[5].

I need to answer a few quick questions before they are asked:

1. How do you now show the 17+ hand if an ELC double and bid sequence is non-forcing? In the 1h/x/p/2c/p auction you can either cue bid hearts (e.g. 2 hearts) or you can jump in diamonds (e.g. 3 diamonds). Both are a one round force in these auctions.

2. What do you do if opener’s partner (responder) bids 2 hearts and Advancer bids 3 clubs? Bid 3 diamonds, it is still equal level conversion.

3. What if advancer jumps to 3 clubs after a pass by responder? Same answer as question 2.

4. What do you do with 6-4 hands? This is the good part, bid them the same way as 5-4 hands. This overcomes their unsuitability for Michael’s Cue bids.

5. Is the ELC double alertable? No, but you must mark the box for Min. Off-shape T/O in the upper left hand corner of your convention card. Notice that it is not marked in red or blue[6].

6. Is this something new that you are springing on me? No, it has been in the literature a long time. Mr. Robert Ewen (a British bridge writer) commented on the sequence in 1973, although he did not use the term ELC[7]. Max Hardy commented on ELC extensively in his book on bidding 2 suited hands written in 1996[8]. Notwithstanding this exposure, the convention was not used extensively until Eric Rodwell and Jeff Meckstroth added it to their partnership agreement. “Meckwell” refers to their agreement as Minimum Equal Level Conversion, but the principles remain unchanged. Bridge World Standard 2001 seems to indirectly endorse ELC, but they appear to limit its use to the situation where your unsupportable suit is clubs[9]. Many players who use ELC would use it over any one level opener if the hand holding is correct. See examples. in Part 2.

 Here are some general rules to help you spot ELC situations. If the opening bid is minor suit, the two suits must be majors. It the opening bid is a major, the two suits must be a minor and a major. In minor-major situations, the long suit is always the minor suit. In the major-major combination, the holding can be 5-4, 4-5 or even 4-4[10] if the rest of the hand fits ELC. If doubler’s rebid is at a higher level than advancer’s responsive bid, this is not ELC, it shows the traditional “double and bid” hand.
Part 2 of this post will contains several examples of the use of the principle of ELC doubles. These should be very helpful to you in demonstrating the flexibility of ELC and better understanding its use. What can be better than showing distribution and strength, all at the 2 level? As Max Hardy said, “Fits take tricks”. It’s a good thing he was a bridge author and not a poet!

[1] I am aware that some partnerships play off shape takeouts where over 1 heart you can double with almost anything as long as you have 4 spades. I leave to each reader to decide if this is good bridge and how you distinguish between real take out doubles and off shape doubles made only to show 4 cards in the opposite major. I am going to ignore it.
[2] This was the suggestion of Mike Lawrence in his Complete Book on Overcalls in Contract Bridge (1979). It would be nice if you could make Mike declarer when you do this!
[3] A respected technique 50 years ago, this flies in the face of modern bridge teachings. With today’s aggressive bidding, opponents will have your underwear up around your ears before the auction gets back to you.
[4] “Advancer” is bridge writers’ terminology for the partner of the take-out doubler. It also applies to the partner of an overcaller.
[5] This decision may be different in match points and IMPs. I think that ELC is equally effective in match points and IMPs, but surely the knock-out player will like it as he will not want to miss that major suit game.
[6] While the double may not be alertable, in fairness to opponents, I would alert doubler’s equal level conversion. It is akin to the situation in 4 suit transfers where a 2NT response to a 1NT opener is conventional and the invitational 2NT is preceded by 2 clubs. You don’t have to alert the 2 club bid (it could be Stayman), but if responder next bids 2NT, you alert it as invitational and possibly no 4 card major.
[7] Doubles for Takeout, Penalties and Profit in Contract Bridge (1973).
[8] Competitive Bidding with Two Suited Hands (1996). Max called it Equal Level Correction. Max used ELC in connection with his preferred 5-4 conventional bid which he refers to as Top and Bottom Cue Bids. See the book for an explanation.
[9] Bridge World 2001 Expert Survey, See sections 307 and 308.
[10] Using ELC with 4-4 major suited hands is rare, since often they will accommodate themselves nicely to traditional take-out doubles. Some players just say, “Stop the music, enuf is enuf". See the examples.
[11] As usual, the author disavows any knowledge of the subject matter of this memo.

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