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Swiss Team Strategy (Aug/Sep 2004)


What is the strategy that experts use when they have a disaster? I asked the panel the following question. You're playing a seven-board Swiss match against a team that's close to your skill level. On the first board of the match, you get to 7 vulnerable. Your combined values are 36 HCPs, but there's a big problem. Your partnership had a keycard mind loss and you're missing the A. 17 IMPs for the bad guys. What strategy do you recommend for the next six boards? Would your strategy be any different if your team was significantly better than the opponents?

Point No. 1 and the most important point

Get the bad result out of your mind. You must put all your effort into playing the next six boards. You canít think about who messed up. You canít apologize. You canít blame.

Point No. 2

It makes a difference what round it is. Losing an early match can be overcome with good play in subsequent matches. You will probably play poorer teams since you will have a bad record and good teams usually have good records, not bad records. If this is the final match, you wonít be able to overcome losing, however all victory points can be crucial in determining your final placing. Most experts say play normally. There will be other hands where you or your teammates will win IMPs. You donít know whatís happening at the other table. Iíve even seen teams gain IMPs on the hand where you bid 7 off the A. The opponents could be playing in a cue bid for instance.

David Berkowitz: Most important, get the result out of your mind and think positively. You should however be on the lookout for some minor anti-percentage plays to go against the other table. The worst thing that can happen is the other team also got to 7, and now you hand them the match. Nothing crazy from you, especially board two. Against weak opponents just expect to play good bridge and pick the IMPs up.

Curtis Cheek: Play "normally". Just getting the hands right will create about 10-20 IMPs over six boards, and who knows what weirdness is being perpetrated at the other table. I feel insulted when my teammates come back and say they lost 15 IMPs because they were shooting, trying to recover a big negative swing. What do I have over at the other table, mashed potatoes? At least give me a chance to help out.

Jeff Rubens: It sounds as if you are considering the scoring to be win-loss. If so, I would play normally unless an opportunity to take a moderate off-percentage opportunity arose. This strategy is more likely to be successful the more favored my team in the abstract, but even if the original chances were even, I think that, mostly, trying to win the normal way offers the best chance.

Jill Levin: I prefer teammates that do not try to win it all back. I'm much more understanding of one huge accident than wiping out my entire plus 30-game. Assuming my teammates are capable of a plus 30-game I would shake it off and not alter my strategy.

Michael Kamil: You don't state whether the form of scoring is win-loss or victory points, but I'll assume victory points. I wouldn't change anything. I think it would be unfair to play God when I have teammates who might be gaining points at the other table. Also, any strategy change I might make would probably involve some odds against maneuvers. Since I rate to gain or lose equally in the next six boards, why go anti-percentage? No difference regardless of opponent's skill level.

Steve Garner: My strategy is to sit tight. I've found that when disaster strikes on board one, even in a short Swiss match, it has a relaxing effect -- just play your normal game and eventually you'll catch up. If you go looking for swings, you'll probably get blitzed. Yes. Sit even tighter.

Nick Nickell: I do not change strategy. My experience is that when I or my teammates "push" because they think they are behind, it just gets worse. Sometimes you just take a match that your teammates were winning at the other table and turn that into a loser. If an opportunity comes along where you can take a slightly off percentage play to create a swing, then you may choose to do it. You should not try to create swing opportunities, just react if one comes along.

Marinesa Letizia: I actually would continue the match, just as I started it. Spotting them 17 IMPs is tough, but there's nothing more frustrating to teammates than coming back with a great set to find you had your 17 IMP disaster, and then blew another 15 trying to make it up. You would have actually won had you just sat in your seat after the disaster. This approach is very boring but it often works, and it is certainly the best recipe for team camaraderie. It's an even stronger position against a weaker team.

David Bird: Personally, I would not vary my tactics in the slightest after a big loss on the first board. Playing against the odds in any way is like throwing good money after bad. Every victory point is worth fighting for and the fact that you are starting from a bad base has to be accepted.

Richard Freeman: Play normally, but bid a close slam.

Ralph Katz: I would not do much different. Maybe try to push the opponents around a little more, or if I am playing an expert team, I might take a finesse instead of playing for a squeeze.

Peter Weichsel: I really need a little more information to know my strategy. If it were the first match of the day, I probably wouldn't do anything too nutty. However, if I felt a need to win the match, obviously, I would have to do some swingy stuff. There are other factors, as well. Clearly, on a typical victory point scale, there is a mathematical advantage to create swings, since there is more to gain than lose, but personally, I am not inclined to do too much swinging. That is more a matter of style.

Grant Baze: The problem is incomplete. Are we playing win-loss or victory points? Is this the first match of the day, the last match, or somewhere in between? If it is the last match, what do we need to do to win the event, or are we just playing for pride? If we lose the match by a small margin and finish second or third, will that meet our objective (Someone on the team needs x points to reach some goal, or some such)?  Do we need to win the match, do we need to blitz, or . . . . .?  As John Travolta says in "Phenomenon," "Specifics, Bob(?), specifics." Anyway . . . 40 years ago, the bridge wisdom that was told to me by all the great West Coast players is that the worst strategy you can adopt in a knockout match (at the time there was no such thing as a Swiss Team) is to have a bad result and press hard trying to win it back. The theory is that if your teammates have a terrific set and you lose the match because of your efforts to recover from a bad result, your teammates will go bonkers. As far as I am concerned, that wisdom is still sacrosanct as far as knockout matches are concerned. However, while that wisdom applies to Swiss matches as well, it is not sacrosanct.

At victory points, if we have many matches left to play, I follow the wisdom of the sages and play normally. If we lose the match, we have not lost the event. As the number of matches we have left to play decreases, the more likely I am to ignore the accepted wisdom. If the disaster happens during the last match of the event, my partner and I as well as the opponents know we have to press. Press is different from shoot; if you press and miss, you still have a chance; if you shoot and miss, you lose.  As we approach the last board of the match, and it is clear we are losing, we have to be willing to shoot.

If our team is significantly better than the opponents, I would play normally. 17 IMPs is not hard to pick up if your team is significantly better.Ē
Point No. 3

Some experts look for small swings. They are willing to take a slightly anti-percentage play in order to create a swing.

Bobby Wolff: I suggest taking slightly different views on several (if possible) of the remaining hands. Those different views could be: Opening the bidding with my shortest minor instead of my longest (may get a luckier opening lead from the opponents for you or get a luckier bidding sequence that leads us to a makeable final contract not reached at the other table). Overbidding or possibly marked underbidding to accomplish your main objective of getting to a different contract at your table, which could luckily result in a favorable swing. A different opening lead against a prosaic sequence such as 1NT Ė Pass - 3NT. Holding Jxxxx xxxKQxxx I would suggest leading the K instead of a spade. Doubling the opponents in a close contract---Holding QJ10x 1098xQxxxx and hearing the opponents bid 1 - 2 - 4. Keep in mind that all of the above is probably anti-percentage but still possible enough to experiment. Of course if a couple of things work or other good boards appear, change back to your normal game (but NO discussion with your partner). Against poor opposition I would only take very close different views on boards two through four before I may look for a major swing if I hadn't found one yet. Remember your opponents can be your best friend so don't stray far.

Marty Bergen: Look for opportunities, but don't go crazy. Level of opponents is relevant.

Henry Bethe: If the Swiss happened to be win/loss I would tend to take abnormal but reasonable actions: for example, invite 3NT on seven HCPs and a five-card suit, and not invite on nine HCPs and 4333 opposite partner's 15-17 opener. If the Swiss is victory points I continue to play bridge: It is one board of 56. In fact this loss means that my good decisions in the rest of this match will be better rewarded than if the opponent's had had the accident. The IMP odds remain the same but the victory point odds are very favorable to me. For example a ten IMP swing only costs me two victory points but gains me four.

Joe Kivel: I have found from sad experience not to change style or "shoot" after one disaster. So I'd certainly not change anything if I were playing a weaker team. On the other hand, if after two more boards nothing happened, I would make some unusual plays, like when holding A109 opposite KJ8xx, take the anti-percentage play of finessing the ten.

Zeke Jabbour: First, the superior team: Let's not panic. Don't concede; don't take a hit of the stuff that caused the brain to break wind in the first place. With 36 points and a suit, they may have a quantitative notrump auction at the other table and arrive at 7NT. Even if they don't, we have six boards to chip away at their lead. I would suggest NOT bidding 40% vulnerable games that come up early in the match. At the other table, they don't know about the grand slam disaster. They will bid them, and we are odds-on to pick up six IMPs on such hands. If, instead, we lose ten more that's only a couple of victory points.) Conversely, we should bid close non-vulnerable games; they won't at the other table--six more possible IMPs. Three six-IMP pick-ups and we're back in the lead. Of course, if a hand comes along that inspires an epiphany that will erase most of our deficit, take advantage of it. (Russ Arnold and I had one recently. We bid a sound 20 HCP game that we felt the opponents would not bid.) On balance, play solid bridge, mildly reversing standard strategy and hope for something good to happen. Even should you choose not to reverse strategy, if you play well, something good can happen in six boards. Against the inferior team you have a different problem.  They will probably NOT get to a grand because they will definitely use Blackwood (ironic, isn't it?). In this case, bid all close games and plan to out-play and out-defend them. 17 IMPs is a salvageable number in six boards. Play in the present; forget that first board (kind of).

Jill Meyers: I would play my own game but would bid any close slams, even on a finesse or missing the trump queen. I also might shade my opening notrumps a little. If playing against a weak team, I might bid some games I wouldn't otherwise bid, particularly in notrump.

Dan Morse: No big change but I would be aggressive and not miss any close games or slams.

Another point. Your swings have more to gain than to lose. Losing by 17 is three victory points. If you bid a slam on a finesse and it loses, you lose only three additional victory points. If the finesse wins you gain five victory points.

Fred Hamilton: I would play the next six hands looking for an opportunity to gain at least a game swing back. However, I do not feel way overbidding is the way to go about it, rather a deceptive bid or a penalty double of a contract that might go down two or three that I would ordinarily chance. If my team was clearly stronger I would play fairly normally so as not to make matters worse and hope that we picked up some and would count on my teammates to come back with a good game. I donít like it when my teammates try to make up a loss and we had the bad result covered, but not the extra one!

Ron Smith: I assume this is victory points. If itís early in the day, I would expect partner and I to play a little more aggressive, but avoid getting BLITZED. If it's later in the day where winning becomes everything, I would be swinging a little harder. If it's the last match, I would, and partner also, look for my best shot and try and recover some IMPs via shooting.

Geoff Hampson: Donít give up any more IMPs! Tactical deceptions are called for, such as opening the weaker minor with normal openers, shaded 1NT and 2NT openings, bypass of four-card majors, etc. If my team were the better team I would probably be patient for the next four deals, and see if they dropped much back before steaming.

Larry Cohen: Steve didn't say, but I presume victory point scoring. If win-loss, I would start swinging for sure. If a 30-point scale, where winning by just one IMP is worth 18-12 victory points, I also might tend to swing a little more than with a 20-point scale where if we lose by say ten IMPs, it isn't too disastrous (14-6). Also, is this match one of the day? If so, losing isn't so bad Ėweíll get an easier draw next round. If late in the day when in contention, swinging would be more relevant. In all cases, though, I think that down 17 (pretty sure) with only six deals to go, calls for some strange strategy.

Steve Bloom: Good question. Against weak opposition, I do very little. 17 IMPs will often come our way at one table or the other. If we are not playing pushovers, then my approach to swinging is to be a little bit off. Years ago I watched Lew Mathe and crew play the last quarter of a Spingold, down 52 IMPs. They lost, of course, by two! No one on their team ever did anything outlandish. After a 1- opening, Pender overcalled 1 on a hand most everyone would bid 4, and won five IMPs for +140 versus -50. Likewise, they opened weak two bids that were slightly off, or preempted on chunky hands. Every bid was reasonable, but rated to be different than the standard action. More importantly, opponents tighten up when they have a big lead. Play on that. Try to put pressure on them at every opportunity. They are likely to choose a safe action over the percentage action, and send some of your IMPs back.  This is particularly true in card play. A well-timed swindle is always fun, and seems to work more often against tight opponents. Furthermore, if you demoralize them, more IMPs will go your way.

One final story. We were down quite a lot in a regional semi-final against a good, but not great team. We had a good card, with some nice pick-ups, but still looked to be down 15-20 with eight boards to go. I was considering some swinging, when, lo and behold, my LHO tried something really weird. That backfired, and the lead was single digits. He did something bizarre on the next hand, and we were leading! By the end of the match, we had won comfortably, without ever swinging. What happened? I suspect that this player did not want to return, sheepishly, to his teammates and say, we had an awful card, but I think we held on. Looking at 20+ IMPs thrown away, he couldn't just sit there, content to sit on his lead.

Playing from behind is mostly mental. If you can make the other team feel like they are letting it slip away, they will! Finally, the form of scoring is important. At victory points, you have blown a lot of points with your disaster, and a 12 IMP swing your way will be worth more victory points than a 12 IMP swing their way will cost, but you don't have to get back all 17 IMPs. Aim at winning back some of the IMPs, and salvaging, say, an 8-12 loss.

Chris Willenken: Strategy would be very different at 20-victory point and 30-victory point scoring. At 20-victory point, IMPs won are now worth more than IMPs lost, but only by a small margin. So, I would look for opportunities to create a different (but still sensible) auction from the other table. Perhaps a pass on Kxx AJ9xxxxxxx instead of opening 2 for example. I might stretch to open 1NT on a good 14 or a shoddy 18, or maybe I'll open in a chunky four-card major. Obviously, wild gambling actions still have a negative victory point expectancy.  The only other thing to say here is that I would not look to get the IMPs back with speculative penalty doubles. In my experience, speculative doubles are a hugely losing strategy for swingers, especially considering that the other pair knows that they are +17 and are not likely to be out on a limb for the duration of the match.

In 30-victory point scoring, I'm somewhat desperate. However, my policy is to always assume that my teammates have a good game in the other room. So, I'd assume that they will pick up seven IMPs or so, and I'd be looking to get the other ten. I wouldn't do something crazy on board two; I'd be following my 20-victory point strategy, hoping to pick up a game swing and revert to normal bridge. However, if board six rolls around and nothing good has happened, I may play some bad bridge.

By the way, there are two good reasons to always assume that one's teammates are having a good game. The first is secondary assumption. As declarer, we often place a card in an opponent's hand because that placement will make it easier for us to make our contract. When I enter an event, I'm trying to win it. That task will be much easier if my teammates play well (and often impossible if they don't), so I just assume good results from the other table. The second reason is teammate confidence. There's nothing worse than having a great game and losing because teammates turned a bad game into an irrecoverable one through wild swinging. I hate playing on teams where the results are not under my control, and I imagine that most other players feel the same way. So, I try my hardest never to have an irrecoverable game, even if I feel there might be a slight equity sacrifice in some cases.

Mel Colchamiro: If roughly equal in ability with the other team, do nothing--at least for the next four boards. If better than the other team, definitely do nothing for a while. I donít know how anyone else feels about it, but down 17 at board one, my objective is to get to minus four IMPs (eight victory points) or down five IMPs (seven victory points). I'm an old golfer and when my tee shot goes into the woods I've learned that pitching out into the fairway is the best course of action. Trying to be a cowboy is a big time loser(for me). Besides, my objective is not to win this Swiss match, but to win the event. Having said that, with only one or two boards to go and there is NO CHANCE that we have a good result or that teammates would have achieved a good result, I might make a move, particularly in the play. But even then I would be careful to pick my spots-- I am down 17 IMPs but still have three victory points equity, so if I create a 12 IMP swing in our favor I gain four victory points, but if my swing action produces a 12 IMP loss, I go to zero victory points, a loss of three, so swinging is not really my style. Mostly, I would, and do, just sit and just play.

Allan Falk: First, one has to know whether the event is victory points or win/loss scoring (even though win/loss have fallen from favor, victory points should be specified), since obviously getting blitzed at victory points is a different proposition in dealing with teammates than the fact that losing by 30 is the same as losing by three. There is a further problem--whatever strategy I decide is right, my partner has to be on the same wavelength, but without discussion (normally one cannot leave the table in the midst of a Swiss match to talk with partner). So I can't unilaterally decide I'll become hyper aggressive--if my partner does the same thing, we'll just be out there in the ozone on every hand. Nor can I decide to hope that all the close contracts fail; again, partner might do the same and we'll miss games and slams that aren't close. We also can't change our style of doubling (whether for penalties or converting takeout to penalties). So I would say that if I come to a close decision whether, say, to play 3NT or four-of-a-major, or 3NT or five-of-a-minor, I will lean towards whatever I suspect will not be chosen by my counterpart. Similarly, if I have to select from two almost identical opening leads, I will also try to do the opposite of whatever my counterpart does (we've all held, say, Q10864 in one suit and Q10732 in another on opening lead, and generally opted to lead the stronger suit against, say, 3NT; now I would lead the slightly weaker suit, hoping for a favorable swing--if both suits are 5332 around the table, the lower spot cards don't matter; but with Q10964 and Q10732, I would lead the stronger suit anyway--I can't afford to give away that large a percentage in looking for swings).  I would also work harder to find some Moysian fits on hands where 3NT is an obvious option but appears to have a weak suit with not more than one stopper. I also would avoid some close calls that are questionable, like overcalling a mediocre suit with scattered values--getting a lead in that suit might easily give up a crucial trick (and partner's lead of another suit might build tricks), so not inducing partner to make a lead he wouldn't normally like could be just as useful as the usual tactic of being overly aggressive. As the match wears on, if I don't think I've recouped anything, I will expand my risk taking slightly. Still, I don't want my teammates to come back announcing they had a great match, only to find we buried our team by snowballing our initial boneheaded result with a series of ever more obscene disasters. If we are the much stronger team, I normally expect my teammates to produce one game swing by superior bidding, play, or defense, and partner and I have six boards left to do the same, so I would be even more cautious in deviating from my usual decision making protocols.Ē

Eddie Kantar: Bid and play aggressively; make close doubles. A seven-board match is a very short match to spot the opponents 17 IMPs.

Point No. 4

Only a few experts go the other way. They swing from the trees. As you can see, they could very easily make things worse.

Kit Woolsey: It would depend entirely on the scoring of the event. If it was victory points and this was the first match of the day, I would just play normal bridge. If it were win-loss, or circumstances were such that there was a big bonus for winning the match, then I would play normal "50 IMPs down" bridge -- preempt aggressively, double aggressively, etc.

Authorís note: Normal bridge for Woolsey is 20 IMPs down bridge.

Kerry Sanborn: I would take every opportunity to create a large swing. At the other table, nobody knows about the disaster, so they won't be looking for big swings but will be playing "close to the vest". I would play the same way against any team, but if able to garner a couple of smaller swings such as part score plus positions, I would return to solid play.

Conclusion:  

Disasters happen and when they do the most important point is to keep playing bridge. If you are going to swing, and most of the panel says donít, make them small type swings. Open 1 holding four diamonds and three clubs. Lead top of nothing instead of fourth best against 3NT. If you have K32 opposite AJ1054, the percentage play is to play the king and then finesse the ten. You can pick up the whole suit when they split 4-1. Anti-percentage would be to lead the Jack and finesse. Expect to pick up 18 IMPs on the next six boards since you are on the superior team. Any team with you on it must be superior.