Diamond Article - Balanced = Bad
Balanced is Bad
As we learn bridge, it is tempting to associate balance with strength. After all, when we open 1NT, we are showing a higher number of HCP than when we open 1 of anything else. Not only does this bid promise more HCP than 1c, 1d, 1h, or 1s, but NT is higher ranking than the other four bids and scores better!
With all of these factors combined, it seems very natural to make a connection between a hand being balanced and a hand being strong.
Yet, quite the opposite is true. Consider what you already know: The strength of a hand is defined by both its HCP and its shape.
With HCP, the greater the number of high cards a hand has, the stronger it is. This makes logical sense, because it is our high cards that take tricks. If we have four aces, we almost certainly have four tricks. High cards equal either the potential for tricks or the certainty of tricks.
But high cards alone only take us so far. Consider this hand with four aces.
This is a sixteen-point hand with only four tricks. Without any supporting spot cards or shape, this hand can’t make even 1 of anything.
Shape often brings much greater strength to the hand than high cards. Consider this hand:
Only 10 HCP and yet, we could bid and make 7s.
Which hand would you rather hold? The ten-point hand that can make 7? Or this sixteen-point hand than can’t even make 1?
NT hands need more strength from their HCP, because they have no strength in their shape. Strength is a balancing act. A push-pull between high cards and shape. The greater our shape, the less strength we need in high cards. The worse our shape, the more strength we need from our high cards.
Still not convinced? Check out this hand:
This hand has twenty eight HCP and probably can’t even make 3NT (We could only hope to generate an extra trick from spades or hearts if either suit is 3-3 in the opponents’ hands. As this is unlikely, we probably won’t make 3NT.)
Why is balanced so bad? Because our shape isn’t helping us. Think about where our tricks typically come from in notrump. Our long suits. In fact, most teachers will teach their students to automatically play their longest suit in notrump. I do not, but I can certainly understand the rationale… long suits result in tricks!
And that’s really the problem with a balanced hand, especially in notrump: There’s simply nothing to work with to create tricks. Consider a few small changes to the hand above.
I have less HCP now, but I can easily make 3NT. Why? Because I can use my length to develop tricks. Which of these hands would you rather have? The two balanced hands with twenty-eight HCP? Or the two hands with five-card diamond suits and only twenty-two HCP between them?
Balanced = bad no matter what the contract is. When I start to convince students of this, the are more accepting of balanced being bad when there is a trump suit. They still assume that balanced is good for notrump. But looking at the two hands above, you can see that that isn’t true.
Balanced is just as bad in notrump as it is in a suit contract, because there’s just nothing to work with to create tricks.
Why is balanced bad in a suit contract? What are our two favorite ways to get rid of losers? Discarding and trumping. If you are balanced, there is no long suit to discard on and there is no shortness to allow you to trump.
Okay, so now you believe me. Balanced = bad in all contracts. How does that affect your bidding?
If you need to make a decision about whether to be aggressive or conservative, look to your shape. If your hand is balanced, be conservative. If it’s shapely, be aggressive.
The strength of balanced hands is very well quantified by its HCP. If your hand is balanced, adhere strictly to the levels dictated by your HCP. If you are on the cusp between two bids, consider downgrading the hand for lack of shape.
If you have a distributional hand, understand that your HCP no longer accurately reflect the strength of your hand. Be prepared to think differently about this hand and assess its true strength outside of the traditional HCP levels.
There are tools we can use to examine the strength of a distributional hand. We will explore them next time. For now, I want you to try to reorient your thinking and in particular, I’d like you to start with the Rule of Twenty.
I often hear students say: “Well, I know she opened, but what if she has a weaker opening hand? You know, what if she used the Rule of Twenty?”
What I’ve realized over the years is that although we’ve used the Rule of Twenty to assess a hand by both its strength and shape, that students often feel that hands that needed the Rule of Twenty to open are some how weaker than those that didn’t.
I’d like you to examine that belief. Let’s start by considering two hands:
Which hand would you rather have? The fifteen HCP hand? Or the nine HCP hand?
I would much rather have the nine HCP hand. While it’s tempting to think that a hand that has nine HCP can’t possibly be as strong as one with fifteen, I feel the nine HCP hand here is far stronger.
Still think fifteen HCP is better than nine? I’ll give both hands the same dummy. In both cases, the contract is 4s.
Which one would you rather play? With the balanced fifteen HCP hand, we have at least one spade losers, two heart losers, one club losers, and one diamond loser for a total of five losers. Worse, there is nothing we can do about these losers. We cannot discard because we are completely balanced. We cannot trump because we are completely balanced. We can’t even finesse because our high cards are all aces and kings! We are going to lose at least five tricks on this hand and there nothing we can do about it, despite the fact that between the two hands we have twenty-five HCP!
With the nine HCP hand, we have maybe one spade losers, one heart losers and worst case scenario three club losers. We have five losers in this hand as well. However, many of these losers were counted worse case scenario. Examine the spade suit. It is highly unlikely that we will lose a spade. The opponents’ spades would have to be 3-0 AND we would have to play the wrong top honor.
The clubs also we counted worst case scenario, assuming a 5-0 split. Even with a 5-0 split, we are unlikely to lose three club tricks because we should be able to trump two of our clubs.
It’s quite possible this hand may make 5 or 6 spades, but I would suggest that making 4s is a near certainty.
Next article, we’ll cover some methods for assessing distributional hands.