Judgment v. the LAW

Interpreting partner’s bids in a competitive auction can be tricky.

My favorite bridge book is Larry Cohen’s To Bid or Not to Bid. This best-selling tome promulgated the LAW of Total Tricks, a very clever technique for determining how high to bid in competitive auctions. The LAW had been developed in the sixties by an obscure Frenchman named Jean-Rene Vernes, who wrote an article about it in Bridge World. Cohen refined its use and introduced it to many thousands of players. This technique fundamentally differs from the previous approach, which relied on experience and judgment, in that it is based on actual research.

There is one very large problem with basing one’s decisions on the LAW. It depends upon being able to determine how many cards are held in the respective trump suits by all four players. There is not much that one can do about one’s opponents. Fortunately, as one moves up the bridge ladder, the percentage of opponents who are willing to bid 4S with only seven trumps decreases markedly.

Dealing with partners who are committed to using “judgment” is a different matter. I have a few partners who insist on using the competitive techniques of the days before the LAW was discovered. Here is an example of a hand that demonstrates how difficult it can be for a mixture of techniques to survive.

I was sitting West, and this agglomeration was burning my fingers:

A K J 3    A K 10 8 2    8    A Q 10 4

North dealt and opened 1. My partner passed, and South ventured a heart. I doubled. North bid 2, which was followed by two more passes. As I do in every competitive auction, I tried to count trumps and points. I had more than half of the high-card points in the deck, but both opponents had bid. They must surely have almost all of the missing honors.

I put six diamonds in North’s hand and no more than two in South’s. That left four for my partner. I expected him to have no more than three spades or clubs. The only possible eight-card fit was in hearts. We would never find it, and we would be facing a 4-1 split. Notrump was out of the question. If I doubled again, I would expect partner to bid one of his three card suits. I did not want to play in a 4-3 fit even at the two level opposite a hand with no entries at all. So, I passed.

This was my partner’s hand:

Q 6 5 4 2    7 6 2    9 6 3    8 5 2

He did not bid 2 over the 2 rebid because he “did not want me to get too excited.” He was using forty years of bridge judgment, and his was a reasonable concern. I would in fact have raised him to 4. However, the opponents not only cannot beat this contract; they cannot stop us from taking eleven tricks.

Sitting in his chair I would have bid 2 with his hand without giving it a second thought. While it is true that the hand lacks the points for a traditional “free bid,” I would deem it mandatory to inform partner of a strong preference for one of his two suits. In fact, I would have bid even without the Q!

To be totally fair, if I had passed with his hand, my partner would not have passed the second time with mine. He would have had no clear idea of where we would have ended up, but he would have felt the need to tell me that he had much more than his original double indicated.

So, if we had switched chairs, we would have been fine. What’s more, either of us would have done better with a like-minded partner. I don’t like the idea of having to channel the ghosts of Charles Goren and Edgar Kaplan to interpret my partner’s bids, but I guess that I will need to do it or run the risk of more zeroes in situations like these.


In reality, North’s bidding was cagey. Most people would have opened her hand (which included seven diamonds, not six) 3, but that would have made it easy for us to find 4 irrespective of which chair I sat in.

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