Living with Partners

We had a partnership misunderstanding.
My partner assumed I knew what I was doing.

Occasionally my wife and I are invited to play duplicate bridge on a Wednesday afternoon. There are usually three tables and partnerships change every week. This is a pleasant way to pass an afternoon, in particular when its followed by some snacks and a glass (or two) of wine. It also teaches us some important lessons about how to 'live' with different bridge partners.

There are a variety of ways to play and score duplicate bridge (e.g. see
duplicate bridge movements). This Wednesday group picks the pairings are random, and they play 25 boards, 5 boards against each of the other pairs. It works well, and you just need to be careful to play the right boards, to sit in the right direction (North-South, East-West), and manage the way the last set of 5 boards 'swing' from one table to another.

most important lesson is to realise that if you are a good bridge partner then you will attract good bridge partners. Another lesson is that a good bridge partner is not necessary a very good bridge player.

A third lesson is that
scoring 25 hands on three tables is never going to be a perfect description of the strengths or weaknesses of any particular pair. As a pair competition, the comparison is made (and scored) with the other pairs that played the same hand. A pair sitting North-South (N-S) at table 1 plays against another pair (East-West or E-W) as opponents. But in reality they are actually playing against two different pairs (also sitting N-S) who have played, or will play, those same cards at the other two tables (tables 2 and 3) and with two other pairs as opponents. Their opponents (sitting E-W) at table 1 are actually playing against the pairs who also sit E-W and have played, or will play, the same cards at the other two tables (tables 2 and 3). These 'opponents', sitting E-W at tables 2 and 3, are actually the allies of the pair N-S sitting at table 1. For example, N-S at table 1 might have to play a particularly difficult hand against a strong pair playing E-W, whereas on a different table their competitors playing N-S may play the same hand against weaker opponents. To be completely fair all the other pairs should be either be the allies or the opponents of N-S on table 1 for all the hands, but this is impossible. A fairer competition should at least ensure that all the pairs are allies or opponents an equal number of times. Depending upon the number of pairs and the number of hands to be played, even this might not the case. And there is no practical way to 'smooth over' these differences. It is for this reason that the fairest competition is teams of four players, playing all the hands as both NS and E-W at two different tables, and scored and judged at a team. The Mitchell Movements, where there are two sets of scores for two separate groups of players, one group always playing N-S, and the other group always E-W, works well for a larger number of pairs. The Howell Movements is the pair rotation movement usually adopted for a small number of tables. All the hands are played, in our case 25, but pairs do not compete equally with all other pairs, and are compared with other pairs an unequal number of times. On the positive side Howell does mean that pairs play against a variety of opponents, play a convenient number of hands in an evening, avoid pairs having to 'sit-out', and it produces a winner at the end.
The way the scoring works means that a good or bad score at one table (as compared to the 'ideal' or best score when the hand is bid and played 'perfectly') can help or penalise other pairs at the other tables. This can mean that a pair that bid and played perfectly can score a 'zero' just because the other pairs at the other tables messed up, bid foolishly or play the hand badly. Also luck plays a role in that some days the points are sitting with some pairs and not with others. On top of that
ad-hoc pairs tend not to play so well in defence.
Vulnerability can play a role. Ideally each pair should play the same number of non-vulnerable and vulnerable boards. This would be possible when playing 4 boards per table, however it is not possible when playing 5 board per table. You can imagine that some pairs might play more aggressively for vulnerable games, and also might play for sacrifices with favourable vulnerability. Equally a weak pair might suffer more if they make more mistakes and are playing more hands with unfavourable vulnerability, whereas a stronger pair would be expected to do better with an unfavourable vulnerability. Some experts have noted that Howell appears to advantage pairs that make the first overcall, i.e. initiate a competitive auction.
scoring is not uniform. Let's imaging a hand in which each pair has 20 high-card points (HCP), and two opposing players could open 1NT (followed by passes). Only one pair will be able to open and take the auction, and the other pair must play defence. If the declarer bids 1NT and makes 7 tricks they score 90 points, but if the other pair defends well and makes 7 tricks (1NT-1), they only score 50 points non-vulnerable. Yet they made the same 'contract', i.e. winning 7 tricks with No Trumps. This is why experts always suggest to compete if possible, i.e. make a one-level intervention (over-call) with as few as 8-9 HCP if the suit is good and can be led by partner. This is all the more true if you are not vulnerable and the opener bids a minor. A two-level over-call is different, i.e. it should promise a very good five-card suit with 11-12 HCP or better. And if vulnerable, it should be even stronger. They also advise to raise partner with the minimum and to sacrifice with a good fit, provided the vulnerability makes it worthwhile. It is said to be advantageous to compete to the two-level, if not vulnerable and with a shortness in opponents suit. But to be very cautious before competing to the three-level, the suit must be a good 9-card fit.
Also there is the issue of
'tops' and 'zeros'. If a pair score the best, they get a 'top', but it is not symmetrical, i.e. if they don't score a 'top', it does not mean they score a 'zero'. When a pair does not score a 'top' their score depends upon what is played on the other tables. Equally, for a particular hand, if one of the other pairs at another table scores a 'top', that does not mean that automatically the remaining pairs score a 'zero'. The conclusion is don't aim to score 'tops', aim to avoid 'zeros'. What does that mean? As mentioned above it means being competitive up to the two-level, but very cautious at the three-level. Always bid game if you have a better than 50% change of success. Always make 'normal' leads (safe, non-descriptive), and remember unusual leads don't lead to 'tops'. If the hand looks odd, play it simple and safe, a plus score may be enough. If the hand looks like it will be bid the same at other tables, try to look for the overtrick. If in doubt, bid and play what you think the other tables will do. There are a number of conventions that are designed to help pairs score better at duplicate bridge, so use them. The most effective conventions are 'new minor forcing' (after a round of bidding, responder bids a new minor suit which is forcing for one round and shows invitational strength), negative doubles (e.g. 1-Pass-1♠-Double… means 7+ HCP, a 4-card and no ♠ stopper), weak-two's, Jacoby Transfers, and optionally the Michaels Cuebid and the Unusual NoTrump (both used to show hands with two 5-card suits or better).

Most bridge players prefer consistency in their partners rather than brilliance.