“Oh, I had a good hand, so I knew it was right to go to slam.” “Sorry, partner, but my hand was so poor, I just passed.” During the post-mortem, your partner might ask, “Well, how do you define ‘good’ and ‘bad’ hands?”
There are a couple of well-known ways of defining if a suit is good or bad; having two of the three top honours or three of the five top honours … here’s my piece on suit quality if you’re interested. But the art of assessing whether or not your hand is good/bad as a whole is just that, an art. I’m sure you will find many experienced players helpless to define it; they may fall back, on, “Well, you know, you just feel that your hand is good or bad.” It’s a valid approach, but not useful for the beginner.
To define it, one needs a little bit of bridge philosophy. Bridge, in general, is a game of possibilities. When you open 1NT, you’re not guaranteeing that your hand will take 7 tricks; you’re saying that your hand has the possibility of taking 7 tricks. Partner says, “Oh, well, in that case I can possibly contribute a couple of tricks,” and raises to 3NT. Which, as we all know, sometimes makes with overtricks and sometimes goes down ignominiously and sometimes makes nine tricks on the nose.
The art of hand evaluation is the art of assessing those possibilities, and this is the point where long experience at the table leads to “feelings” about a hand. Partner opens 1NT and you try to assess the potential of a hand like S x H x D Txxxxxx C KQxx. Will partner have the right cards to stave off attacks in the majors while she establishes the diamond suit? Does she have aces to cover the singletons, in case diamonds are the best trump suit? Is there a 4-4 club fit? What happens if … and so on. Experienced players will frequently “feel” that, against a 1NT opener, the 7-4-1-1 distribution is worth much more than the mere 5 HCP we see, because they’ve seen this distribution pay off many times in the past and produce 10, 11, or 12 tricks.
So they will assess the mere 5 HCP of S x H x D Txxxxxx C KQxx more highly than the ugly 8 HCP of S QJ H QJ D xxxxx C Qxxx. “Ugly” is a term of possibility, of course. But experienced players have seen their stiff QJ combinations fall underneath declarer’s banging down of the AK time and again. The possibility is that the hand with the stiff QJ combinations will play out poorly at the table, and that the 7-4-1-1 will play out lucratively. The shapely 5 is worth more than the ugly 8.
As you can probably see by now, experience is a valuable asset in hand evaluation. The more hands you’ve played, the more data you have absorbed about what works in the auction or play and what doesn’t. So the questions of hand evaluation for the new player are mostly answered simply by the course of time. But all the keen intermediates I know are looking for rules of thumb with which to assess their hands, so that they can be aggressive or passive at the right times in the auction.
I’ve got two for you. One you know, one you don’t. The one you are already aware of is the process of adding points to your HCP count based on your distribution; you add points for short suits if you have trumps with which to take care of declarer’s losers in that suit.
I have to emphasize that this is only applicable to hands that you intend to play in a trump suit. Short suits at no trumps are a liability, not an asset — and that’s another rule of thumb that you may already have validated by your experience.
Your textbooks and teachers will have told you that you don’t add points to your hand based on a trump suit unless you’re sure of what that trump suit is going to be. For instance, partner opens 1S. You are able to value two hands with identical point count differently, depending on whether or not they have cards in the spade suit: S xxxx H x D xx C xxxxxx is worth more to your partner than S x H xxxx D xx C xxxxxx. So in the first instance, you value your hand with an additional 3 HCP for the singleton heart and 1 HCP for the doubleton diamond, bringing your 0 up to 4 HCP. The second hand is even worse than 0, at this point, although we don’t actually express HCP as a negative value 😉 The point here is that you actually can quantify your singletons and doubletons (and voids) as valuable and we assign specific HCP values to make that easier.
The rules of thumb are:
- Before you know if you have a trump fit with partner, add 1 point for a doubleton, 2 points for a singleton, and 3 points for a void.
- When you know you do have a trump fit with partner, add 1 point for a doubleton, 3 points for a singleton, and 5 points for a void.
My own experience has told me that when you have more than one of those features in a hand, like the S x H x D Txxxxxx C KQxx hand I mentioned above, the synergistic effect of those two singletons is increased. They also tend to dictate how the hand is played out — it’s hard to imagine a line of play that doesn’t include ruffing one of the majors, right? So every declarer will face the same problems and distribution, which tends to flatten the board. For me personally, when I see a shapely hand like 7-4-1-1, I like to bid it up fast and I value it more highly than even the rules of thumb above would do.
So this is what is meant when you hear an experienced player say, “My hand improved during the auction.” Once they learned there was a trump fit, their shortness became more valuable. Similarly, when you learn that your singleton is in partner’s proposed trump suit, it’s not worth anything and your hand decreases in value.
My second point of hand evaluation is one that comes up all the time in defensive bidding, but I’ve never heard it taught. To be honest, I must have read it somewhere years and years ago, but I have no idea where or by whom it was written. (If anyone knows who expressed this in writing, I’d like to know where, please, in the comments!)
I can explain it better in a quiz format, I think. Here’s the auction. Your partner opens 1S, next player bids 2H, you bid 2S, next player bids 3H, your partner passes, next player passes. Your decision point is whether to bid 3S or to pass. (Yes, it’s also possible to double, and that’s a whole topic on its own. I’m keeping this simple.)
Which hand would you rather have of:
(a) S Qxx H x D KJxxx C Jxxx
(b) S Qxx H xx D KJxx C Jxxx
(c) S Qxx H xxx D KJx C Jxxx
My answer would be that I slightly prefer (a) to (c), but I’d much rather have either of them than (b). (a) and (c) are better hands than (b); I might bid 3S with (a) or (c) but I would be less likely with (b).
Why? Well, let’s look at the probabilities. The auction you’ve heard is suggesting that there’s an eight- or nine-card fit in the opponents’ hands and the same in yours. In my experience, if I have a two-card holding in the opponent’s trump suit, it’s matched by a two-card holding in partner’s hand. Similarly, if I have three of their trumps, he usually has one, and vice versa.
Even if they only have an eight-card fit between them, if you have exactly two cards in their trump suit, then declarer is guaranteed a three-two split. And as you probably know by now, it’s easier to manage a 3-2 split than a 4-1 or a 5-0. However, if you have a singleton in their trump suit, that increases the chances that partner has 4 trumps and declarer has a problem.
So if you look at the three hands defensively — let’s say, for whatever reason, you pass 3H and they play it there — the possibilities are best when you have a singleton and worst when you have a doubleton. But what if you bid 3S and partner plays it there?
Well, if you have hand (a) and a singleton heart, partner has probably got a maximum of one loser in their suit. If you have hand (c) and three heart cards, partner has probably got a singleton and again, only one loser in their suit; a chance of there being two losers, of course, if there’s a 3-2 split. But if you have hand (b), you almost certainly have two losers in their trump suit and they will absolutely cash them, possibly as the first two tricks.
And if there were imaginary hands (d) and (e), they would contain a void in their suit and four cards in their suit, respectively. Those are clearly the best hands to have, since it’s likely that partner has the opposite holding in a 4-0 split. This will be tough for them to play and, if you’re playing the hand, you will have no losers in that suit.
So my rule of thumb is,
Two cards is the worst holding in the opponents’ suit. Three is a little better, but not much; a singleton is better still, but either four or zero is best.
I expect you will have already realized with experience that four cards, or a void, are best. What your teachers won’t have told you is that a two-card holding is the worst. How that plays out in hand evaluation for me is not as black-and-white as you might think; if I have a two-card holding, it makes me merely pessimistic about my chances, whereas I regard a singleton with optimism. There’s no “always do such-and-such” or “never do such-and-such” here; merely a feeling. But if you base your feelings on the two-card holding, that will make them a little more reliable.