When I started playing on BBO last summer, I played IMP games because I thought that more like “real bridge” whatever that may mean. Soon, however, I realized that “real people” play match point games in their clubs, so I’d better practice match point games to get back in tune with those.  IMPs can come later.   So between June and now I’ve played on the order of 1,000 deals with and against robots on BBO.  What’s key:  all from the South position, all sessions starting with Deal #1, with both Non Vul and North the dealer.  I didn’t think about these facts, they just happened that way.

The Thanksgiving holiday cancelled our regular club in-person game and my partner suggested we play in the on-line game being held that night instead.  OK, I said, but you have to know I have never played in a BBO match point tournament with real partners and human opponents.  I’m bound to be slow and in trouble.  He overcame my objections and we signed on early so I could learn how the Chat feature worked.  

Soon enough game time arrived and the Director started the game a few minutes late.  Up comes the first deal and I see the familiar presentation with my preference showing the cards in the hand diagram layout, not the, for me, dispreferred so-called “pictures of cards” layout. [I cannot imagine why anyone prefers that layout, but my editor at BBO says a majority do.]  I’m sitting at the bottom of the table, in what you’d think of as the south position, but I’ve failed to notice that my partner has seated me in the North player’s position and BBO rotates the compass position so that each player sees himself at the bottom.  The diagram clearly marks me as the North player, Dealer, but I don’t notice that.  I’m studying my hand, which is an interesting 1=5=5=2:

  ♠5  AKJ107   J9875   ♣93

None Vul., as this is Board #1.                  

I’m waiting for the bidding to get to me, when the Chat Screen blasts to my attention :  YOUR Bid….

Migod, I’m the dealer and people have been waiting for me, I don’t know how long, to make a call.  I think:  I can’t hesitate this long, conveying some sort of unethical info, and then Pass, which is what this hand deserves; better to stretch and open 1.  The auction careens out of control for our side and we end up in 3, not a disaster.  I go down three when hearts broke 5-1 and I, in seeking to get a diamond ruff in dummy, enable defenders to shed some diamonds and keep me from taking a secondary club trick or two that I might have earned had I been more savvy.   Off to a terrible start, at least in part because I was unaccustomed to the position at the table, never before having been a BBO North.

I later likened the feeling to driving a stick shift in a right-hand-drive car for the first time, in downtown London.  [My first time actually driving in a stick was a Volvo in downtown Gothenburg Sweden, back in the day when it was right-hand drive.] All your instincts are wrong. 

The whole evening had disconcerting moments.  One of the worst occurred after several rounds had begun to accustom me to the North position and I looked up and saw East cards.   I was sure I was confused.  I know I was.  I typed into chat:  There must be something wrong.  I’m playing North and it says I’m East.  They summoned the director who said we’re playing a Howell movement and you don’t sit the same way each round, even though you don’t change every round.  More confusion and this time embarrassment.  I know about the difference between Howell and Mitchell movements, but in the clubs table cards tell you where to sit next.  And this delay causes award of average score on some boards, where I think we had average results, but I’m not sure.

We got through the evening with a lousy performance, all due to my inability to concentrate on what I was doing.  I apologized afterwards and decided to drown myself in a stiff dose of on-line BBO instant bridge with no humans, where I could sit South the whole time and play at my accustomed slow pace.

Aftermath Stupor

Still I couldn’t stop thinking about the on-line game I’d just botched with people and I erred on the first deal.  Here’s the situation I faced, where I held:

 ♠K6   AQJ643  A104  ♣93,

non Vul, as South and hear the auction:

Now what?   I passed and at the conclusion of the board realized that not only was 4 the winning call, that likely had the wherewithal to have made that call.    On reflection, can there be any doubt? 

At any rate I’ve hearts on my mind when I (virtually) pick up my hand for the next deal and see a nice collection, which I open 1 and hear my partner raise to 4 and then see his dummy come down.  You know this all happens with in the flash of an eye on BBO.  You cause the only delays.    Look at that dummy:

♠764  K10985  A5  ♣732. 

Only now, do I study my hand:  

♠AQ9852   AJ6   Q97   ♣A.

A nice collection indeed, well worth an opening bid, but I had hearts on my mind when I had clicked 1 without a second thought.

So here I am in 4 with a spade lead.  Now what.  Plan the play.  You’re playing on BBO, so take all the time you want.  Here you’ll want to think about the normal contract of 4♠ and how your result will stack up against 4♠-declarers’ results.

Seems obvious that the opening spade lead is a singleton and the East has ♠KJ10, so the spade declarers will lose one spade trick, but only a dunderhead would lose more than one.   What lead will the spade declarers get?   A club lead will neither help nor hurt.  A diamond lead is strongest for defenders.  A heart lead likely helps declarer, but seems an unlikely lead, unless West has a singleton or doubleton, given what I think I know about robot leading practices.   Hard to know what the auctions will be at the 4♠ tables because, although I think the auction will go 1♠ --  1NT  --  3♠  --  4♠, not all will agree. 

With a spade or club lead, 4♠ will lose one spade, maybe one heart; that’s all.

With a heart lead, 4♠ will lose only one spade.

With a diamond lead, 4♠ will lose a diamond and a spade, and maybe a heart.

How about our 4 contract?   If we lose a heart to East, he’ll likely give West a spade ruff.  I don’t know if robots think, “How can that be a singleton; I see six spades in my hand and dummy; for that to be a singleton, declarer must have six; did he canapé or something?”    Or will he just return partner’s suit without such thoughts? 

We are lucky not have received the killer diamond lead.  If you believe, as I did, that West has a singleton spade, then he more likely has heart length than does East, more likely has the Q than does East. 

I think it’s worth aiming for a top board given that I’m in this odd contract.  Finesse for the Q through West.  If it wins, all is well.  Draw trumps concede a spade to East and win twelve tricks.   If East wins the heart and he leads a spade, duck it.  We can do no worse than make four.

If East switches to a diamond we hope he has the King.  The entries aren’t right to take a heart finesse against East and draw trump, unless East only three. 

On balance, I like finessing against West for the Q.  Worst, I’ve said, is make four.   In those layouts, spade declarers will make four or five depending on how they play hearts and whether they suffer an opening diamond lead.

In decision theory classes we teach that you should take bets that payoff when you win a 50:50 prop, but break even or maybe do worse when it loses.  Taking heart finesse against West looks like a good bet.  Take it; play A and run the J. 

In practice taking the heart finesse against West produced twelve tricks.  Of the fourteen spade declarers, the twelve who played in game all received a diamond lead and eleven made only five.  What did I learn earlier in life about making lemonade? 


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