The Points You Lose Not Doubling

Chapter V from
Why You Lose at Bridge (1946)

S. J. Simon

This chapter is loaded with dynamite.

Earlier in the book I bawled you out for doubling slams on holdings on which a double to you seemed automatic. Now I am going to urge you to double a different type of contract on holdings that appear to be inadequate—hence the dynamite. For it is well known that nothing annoys partner as much as an unsuccessful double, where doubling them into game is almost beyond the pale. So, if you are nervous, stop reading now—or you may get fascinated.

The theory of doubling is the least understood theory in Contract Bridge. A mass of research has been poured into every other phase of the game with a large lake of resultant literature into which the student may dip. But doubling has been ignored. Certain sidelights of it, informatory [take out] doubles, lead directing doubles, have received their share of attention, but the basic principles of doubling—ordinary straightforward honest-to-goodness business doubling—have been taken for granted. In the whole of Bridge literature I know of no single book that has made a serious attempt to analyse the theory of doubling, and to give the reader at least, some hint as to when to double, when not to double, when to leave a double in, and when to take it out.

Even the very elementals, the mere mathematics of doubling are seldom stressed. The Bridge player is left to find them out for himself, and how well he does it can be seen by the number of players who still double a small slam holding, two aces. Not by you, by now, of course!

How, then, can he be expected to measure a double in anything except the number of Aces and Kings and trumps he may be holding ? It is not a fair thing to expect from a Bridge player, spoon-fed from his first deal in every other department of the game by every player who considers himself superior. Why should he be forced to work it out for himself? And how can he possibly get it right?

Let me try and do a spot of spoon-feeding. I have only a chapter to devote to the subject and since starting to marshal my data I have become aware that I should like a book. Perhaps later I may have the opportunity to write such a book. But all I can attempt here is a short analysis of basic principles which I hope may set you thinking along the right lines.

Let us first of all think about the varying conditions under which business doubles occur. At first sight there appear to be a great many, but, ignoring all the minor variations, they boil down to two main situations.

    (1) When opponents have monopolised the bidding.

    (2) When they have not.

These are the two basic situations, fundamentally different and calling for quite a different technique for their successful exploitation. The essential difference is this.

In the first case your double is final. Partner has not bid and is not being consulted. You double because you think you can defeat the contract and that will be the best result on the hand. The responsibility is all yours. It is, in its essence, a solo flight.

In the second case the responsibility can be shared. Partner has bid, there is a possible contract of your own in the offing, and your double now becomes an expression of opinion that that is your best result. If partner does not like the double he can take it out. In fact I classify this type of double as "A proposal to partner."

Solo Flight or Proposal to Partner. Clearly the requirements are very different. And now let us study the requirements for each.

Solo Flights

The first thing to get into your head is that, though the responsibility is all yours, you are not doubling on your hand alone but on the combined value of the two hands. You can see your own thirteen cards, you have heard the bidding, you can estimate partner's probable strength. If you think you can still defeat the contract--go ahead and double, but remember in your estimate it is not true that: the bigger the hand, the better the double. There is such a thing as a hand being too good.

It must have happened to you a score of times. How often have you not sat gloating over some such 20 hcp collection as:


and waited patiently while the enemy has bid up to 3NT. Rubbing your hands, you have doubled. And then the unbelievable happens. The enemy makes 3NT. Or 4NT. And sometimes they have even the cheek to redouble.

Think back. How often has it happened? How often have you sat there impotently while the declarer has waltzed his way to the contract, forcing you to lead away from your tenances, putting you to embarrassing discards and squeezing you for an overtrick as a final insult.

And it is not bad luck. It will happen most of the time when your hand is as strong as that. Because it is much too strong. It is in fact so strong that it is quite clear that the enemy are overbidding and must have a long suit somewhere to compensate. And it is also quite clear that if they can establish and run that suit before you can establish your diamonds you will be put to a series of impossible discards, and they are going to get away with their overbidding because all the strength against them is concentrated in one hand.

For, unless opponents are complete lunatics, your partner has one of the nicest Yarboroughs ever dealt to anyone. And if you still think that your hand is strong enough to defeat 3NT with a Yarborough partner, well, let us play out such a hand and see what happens.

You are sitting West, holding the hand in question, when North, the dealer bids one club. East passes mournfully, South bids 2NT. You pass, waiting. North bids 3NT confidently. East and South pass. You double. North looks less confident, wriggles a bit, but finally passes. All pass. You lead the King of diamonds and dummy goes down. This is the situation as you see it

       You            AQ109xx

A filthy opening bid, followed by a gambling 3NT, bid confidently to frighten off doublers. But you were too strong to be frightened. Still, you concede North full credit for sticking for the double. Clearly he is hoping for six tricks in clubs and the other three from Heaven.

Come to think of it, South has not got so much either. The only missing high cards are the Queen, the Ace and Jack, the Queen and the Jack. Clearly he holds them all and equally clearly you are not going to defeat this contract.

Try it any way you like, with any opening lead you like, and even assuming the diamonds are only stopped once, the contract is cold. By the time the declarer has run his clubs you are in trouble with your discards and. can be squeezed or end played according to your choice.

Note that I have been very fair in the example I have chosen. I have made opponents as near lunatics  as possible, I have not even given North a seven card club suit. Actually, against your holding, a seven card suit is more probable than not, and in that case you must take four tricks quickly or you will be squeezed into allowing declarer to make 4NT.

I do not go so far as to advise you never to double 3NT on this type of hand. Only don't expect to get them too many down and don't be too surprised if they make it. Your hand is much too good.

But now supposing we make your hand weaker and remove from it the Ace of spades and the King of clubs and we give only one of these cards to your partner. The King of clubs for preference. This leaves your hand as follows:


Now the opponents are no longer near lunatics, with the Ace in their hands the bidding is quite sound and if you double it is clearly a gambling double. And yet the contract, on the hand as I have given it, will now be defeated a comfortable two tricks. For you open with the  King, switch to the  King, and now merely have to wait for partner to get in with the  King to lead through another diamond.

Interesting--isn't it? Your own hand is weaker, the opponents are a whole Ace stronger, and yet the contract is defeated.

And this brings us to a point which every Bridge player knows perfectly well through painful experience, both in defending a hand and in playing the dummy, but which very few seem to remember while the bidding is in progress.

It is not your combined strength that counts so much as the way that strength is divided between the two hands.

 (a)        A10x                        (b)       10xx
              KQ10                                   KQ10
              AKJxx                                  AKJxx
              Kx                                       xx

If, with the clubs bid over me, I must double 3NT on one of these hands, I would far rather double on hand (b) for there, at least, there is a chance that partner holds the club suit and can lead through a diamond--while in Hand (a) I know that the clubs will be run off against me.

In hand (a) I hold such strength that the opponents must be overbidding and partner is marked with a Yarborough. In hand (b) partner cannot hold very much but he can hold something. And that may make all the difference.

You are not doubling on your hand alone, but on the combined value of the two hands. And, just as in the cases I have quoted, partner is marked with Yarborough or near Yarborough, so in other cases he will be marked with quite a good hand and action may be taken accordingly.

For every contract reached by opponents there is some sort of inference as to the strength held by partner. If opponents stop in 4 and you hold a Yarborough--there is an inference that your partner must hold a few high cards or they must be in a slam. If one opponent refuses every opportunity to support the other in a suit in which you yourself hold only a singleton there is not only a clear inference he dislikes that suit, but that your partner has the rest of it. If the opponents stop in 2NT and you have only four points, it is clear that your partner must hold between 12-14. And so on.

The better the opponents the more certain your inferences, and the weaker the less. And against complete duds you cannot infer much at all. For as they don't know what they are doing themselves, how can you possibly deduce anything from what they are doing?  So, for the purposes of this chapter, you are playing against reasonably good opponents.

Now, the moment you stop looking at your hand alone and start thinking about inferring strength from opponents bidding you will realise that there are two manners in which a final contract is reached.

        (a) Confidently
        (b) Eventually

The confident contracts are those in which at least one of the opponents has not made a sign off bid during the auction, for instance:

      N S       N     S          N S
1 2 1   3  1 2
4 4 2 3NT

In the first two examples above neither opponent has at any time signed off, and either of them can hold an undisclosed balance of strength. It may not be a very great balance for neither has made a slam try, but it may be quite enough to redouble. Or, of course they may have stretched their hands to the limit and beyond it. In the third example, North has signed off with 2S, but South has jumped to 3NT and again may have enough to spare to redouble; or he may have overbid his hand.

One point about this confident bidding is that there is nothing beyond your hand to tell you whether opponents are stretching or bidding with something to spare. As long as either opponent's hand may hold undisclosed strength you cannot infer partner's holding with anything approaching accuracy. And you cannot double unless you are sure you have them down in your own hand, and pretty sure at that. And unless you are so sure, then the contracts are not worth doubling for confident bidding seldom goes down much and you are redoubled with an alarming frequency.

These, then, are the doubles to avoid--the doubles of confident contracts on good hands that are not good enough. Yet these are the doubles that are most frequently made, while the players that indulge in them allow masses of eventual contracts to escape unscathed in a series of fifties.

And all because they have never reflected that, whereas in a confident contract partner's strength can only be hoped for, in an "eventual" contract it is practically guaranteed. I hope you all know what I mean by an eventual contract. It is a contract just staggered into after both partners have shown the limit of their strength, and it is occurring all the time. For instance, this is a typical example. 

             N            S   
            1        2D.
            2        2NT

Over 2D. North has bid 2, not forcing under any system that I have ever heard of, and showing a clearly limited hand. Over 2 South has bid 2NT, showing a fair hand (else he would have passed) but denying the strength to bid 3NT. North has managed to find the extra strength to bid one more for game--but clearly neither side has anything to spare.

Now I do not say that this contract is seldom made; it is made quite often. But it goes down nearly as often and as it goes quite a lot down not infrequently. The result depends on how the opposing cards lie for a declarer. When they lie well, he makes his contract. When they lie badly, he goes down. When they lie very badly, he goes a lot down.

But when they lie very badly, the opposing strength is divided between the two hands, so for the moment, he is going a lot down undoubled, while the defenders are looking at one another, shaking their heads, and agreeing that neither of them had a double.

And that is nonsense. What they mean is that neither of them knew enough to diagnose that together they had a double. For, as neither of them had bid, neither felt entitled to place the other with any strength at all. And that is just bad thinking--a relic of early teaching that "a bid shows strength and a pass shows weakness." It is true most of the time, but not all of the time.

Once you get it into your head that a pass does not compel you to assume that partner has a Yarborough until proved otherwise, it is an easy transition to the point where you can recognise the occasions when partner is definitely marked with some strength on the bidding. And once you can recognise these occasions, the diagnosis of the double becomes very simple.

All you have to do is to look at your own hand and decide whether the cards in it are lying well or badly for the defense. Sometimes you will be unable to form an opinion. Sometimes it will be clear that they could not lie worse. But sometimes it will seem to you that they could not be lying better. And then you will know that you have a double!

To return to the bidding I have given earlier:
1 2
2 3NT

Suppose that against this bidding you are holding the following:


Now, if you are sitting West, this is not so good. You are sitting under the spades and your partner is sitting under the diamonds. The indications are that the cards are lying well for the declarer. True, the contract might still be defeated--for the cards might not be lying so well for him as the bidding indicates; for instance, if South holds the Queen your prospects are much improved--but the odds are against the double. You won't be redoubled, but you won't get them many down and they might even make an overtrick.

But if you are sitting East, this is a peach of a hand. You are sitting over the spades and whatever diamond honours your partner may hold are sitting over the bidder. And in addition you have a suit which can be established in two rounds--or one round if partner has an honour. And why shouldn't he have? The bidding has marked him with quite a lot of high cards.

The double stands out. It might be worth as much as four down. And even if the cards do not turn out to lie as badly for the declarer as you thought, the chances are that he will still go down. And he will certainly not make an overtrick. The odds are all in your favour.

Now take another example of everyday bidding:
1 2
3 4

You hold

There is not even the beginning of a reason for doubling. There is no reason at all why partner should be able to produce a trick. He possibly holds a few high cards in a side suit but high cards in side suits are uncertain values against a suit contract.

The opponents have reached 4 missing the two top honours in the suit. They will have their compensating values elsewhere. Your hand does not contain anything in the nature of a surprise for them. The declarer will have allowed for losing tricks in trumps. But supposing you hold:


Now that is quite different. Declarer still has high card strength against him--only your partner holds it. The bidding shows that. But he is not reckoning to lose many tricks in trumps--one at the outside. And you have quite a nasty surprise for him. Your partner's hand may well be something like this:


or even better.

If your partner is educated in diagnosis he might well himself double 4. The fact that he is void is an incentive. It means that you must have quite a few.

There is a great deal to be achieved in the intelligent doubling of suit contracts by inferring partner's trump holding. A secondary suit is usually bid on a four card suit. The support is seldom more than four cards. If, therefore you hold a singleton in that suit, your partner is marked with four. And if you have a void, he has five. It helps quite a lot if you realise it. And so my advice on solo flight doubles boils down to this: against confident bidding, wait for a moral certainty. But against eventual contracts, when you can infer that cards are badly placed for declarer, double on a couple of picture cards and hope.

Of course, inevitably there will be cases where you will have inferred incorrectly and then you must resign yourself to accepting the reproaches of your partner who will want to know how you dared double when he held two honour [quick] tricks and they still made it. Apologize, and pass on to the next hand. On no account explain that on the bidding you expected him to hold three quick tricks and that he has let your down by only holding two. He won't understand. [Unless he has also read this chapter!]

But quite seriously, reflect on all the contracts that you have defeated by several tricks because "neither of you had a double." I think you will find that it is worth being wrong sometimes.

Proposal to Partner

It is well known that the juiciest penalties are obtained by doubling opponents in low contracts. Modern bidding has improved enough to make really satisfying doubles of high voluntarily reached contracts a rarity, and as we have seen, the ones that can be successfully doubled are defeated more on the rocks of distribution than any unsoundness in the bidding. Occasionally a plum from a super-misfit and taking-each-other-out partners, may fall into your lap but that is of financial interest only. You did not even have to pick it.

It is at the low levels, where players are tempted to butt in with a bid, that the opportunities still occur. And most of them are still allowed to escape. For, unless the player sitting over the butter-in was about to bid the suit himself, he seldom doubles. Either because he does not know how, or because, as happens frequently in my own case, I cannot trust my partner-of-the-moment to take out the double if he does not like it. Therefore I offer you this suggestion: Arrange with as many of your partners as you can to treat all business doubles [below game] as purely tentative.

[Editor's note: The following section is now (2006) out of date, as the majority of modern players use negative doubles (and many use support doubles as well) at the low levels (up to 2 in SAYC, and to 3S. or higher in other systems). The modern way of making a low (one or two) level penalty double is for the partner of the negative doubler, lacking support for the implied suit, to pass the negative double, thereby converting it into a business double. I have left the section in, however, because the principles expressed here by Simon continue to be relevant, although applied slightly differently nowadays.]

Take the following bidding for instance:

1 2 Dbl pass

The majority of Norths would not dream of disturbing partner's double unless they had opened under strength, or with a psychic, or because they would rather try for game.  But on all other occasions they will pass, satisfied that so long as they have their two quick tricks, nothing else is open to them. And while this situation exists, it is clearly impossible to make speculative [cooperative] doubles for opponents will make far too many of them with overtricks, and partner will be demanding indignantly what you doubled on.

It may seem impossible to double 2 on such a holding as:


And yet, to my mind, this is not only the best bid on the hand; it is the only possible bid. Study the alternatives. 2? Clearly misleading--the suit is too weak. 3? Now what do you expect partner to bid over that? 3NT? Is there any reason to think he can make it? 3? Now, that is really obliging of him. Actually you know as well as I do that he is far more likely to bid 3. And what are you going to bid then?

But the double has endless potentialities and, if partner's hand really fits, might turn out to be sensational. Supposing partner holds


The contract is unlikely to be defeated less than two tricks, probably three, and possibly four. And yet, there is no game in the hand for you.

Yet, how can you reach for this dazzling prospect if partner is liable to pass your double on some such hand as:


Here you have a probably small slam in hearts and the enemy will certainly make 2, if not three. But what are you to do if your partner stoically regards your doubles as entirely your own business, considering his responsibility at an end as long as he has his bid? If you cannot double, you may be missing a sizable penalty with no good contract of your own. If you do double, they may make it with overtrick and there might be a small slam of your own to be made.

Clearly, partner must learn to cooperate. he must be taught that your double of low contracts is not an order to pass, but merely a suggestion to be considered. And when he has grasped that, he must be taught what the features are in his hand that should cause him either to accept or refuse the invitation. And before you can teach him that, you must understand yourself what are the features in your own hand that cause you to favour a double rather than finding a contract of your own.

Let us therefore study the qualifications that make a good tentative business double of an intervening bid. The essential point to grasp is that a double is not a success unless it scores more points than you would have scored in your own contract. For instance, if you double their non-vul 1 and get it seven down [1,300 at the time Simon wrote this, and 1,700 today], it is not a success but a downright failure if you can make 7NT vulnerable.

So the first essential to bear in mind when making a tentative business double is that it should, at the moment that it is made, seem to you your best prospect of collecting the maximum number of points on the deal. And that is the message your double sends to your partner. Later on, you may change your mind--but that is later.

Thus, if it seems probable to you after your partner's opening bid that the hand contains a game, then clearly the points you expect to gain from the double must exceed the value of the game. As a rough guide this means that you have to defeat a vulnerable overbid by three tricks and a non-vulnerable overbid by four tricks to show any worthwhile profit. And that, except against the rapturous "it was only an overcall partner" butter-in, now rapidly becoming extinct, is a lot to ask, particularly if your hands fit. And the very fact that you can see prospects of a game argues that you have a fit in the suit bid by partner.

It has probably never occurred to you that a fit in partner's suit is a disadvantage in doubling a contract in another suit. Reflect on it and it becomes obvious. The fact that, between you, you hold most of a suit, means that the enemy holds few of it and that therefore you cannot hope to make many tricks in that suit. If your partner bids 1 and you hold five hearts, you are unlikely to make more than one trick in the suit and you might well make none. And you have excellent prospects for a game in hearts. But if you hold a singleton, you will almost certainly make all the high hearts your partner holds and ruff some of the small ones in the bargain. Correspondingly, your prospects of a game in hearts are poor.

Therefore as a general rule, a tentative [cooperative] double should not contain too good a fit with partner's suit. Three cards should be the extreme limit. With four the result is unlikely to be good. And with five the loss, except in very rare cases, is a certainty.

To my mind the ideal tentative double contains a singleton in partner's suit, no particularly good suit of one's own, a few trumps to an honour, and a total point count of about nine.  This is a hand on which prospects of game seem remote and as little as two down doubled an excellent result.

This, then, is the tentative [cooperative] double. But what are the features in partner's hand that should decide whether to leave the double in or take it out? Well, there is only one governing feature that is decisive. That is the trump-holding. All the others are subsidiary to it. The rule is this: The better the trump-holding, the less strength is needed elsewhere to let the double stand. And vice versa.

Here are the rules I have made for myself for low level doubles. With three trumps or more, leave in the double on the weakest of opening bids or even slightly weaker. With a doubleton, leave in on any good opening bid of three honour [quick] tricks or more. With a singleton take out the double on anything under 3 1/2 to four honour tricks. With a void--take it out irrespective of anything.

For it is not an advantage to be void in the suit your partner has doubled at a low level. It does not mean only that your partner must have a lot but that dummy will have quite a few. And if dummy has quite a few trumps a double of a low contract is not going to be a success. But you know that as well as I do. You have seen far too many powerful trump holdings ruined by dummy's possession of something like 986 to dispute the point. If partner could have led trumps through even once--it would have made all the difference. But partner couldn't. He was void.

Now, a few pages back, when we were discussing a double of an enemy contract at a high level, I wrote that a void in enemy's suit was an incentive for it meant that your partner might have quite a few. Here, for a low level double, I am rubbing in that a void could not deter you more. This is not a contradiction, it is a logical extension.

A high level double does not expect to make more tricks than the declarer. To achieve success it relies on high card tricks plus whatever trump tricks may be going. Therefore, it is far better to hold a void in trumps than three small ones. It increases the chances of your partner having a trump trick.

But a double of a low level contract, for any worthwhile success must take more tricks than the declarer. It is, to all intents and purposes, playing the hand in the declarer's suit. If, for instance, you double 2 and get it three down, it means that you have made eight tricks with spades as trumps, i.e., that you have made 2 yourself. Viewed from this angle everything becomes beautifully clear. It is obvious now why it is necessary to have a few cards in the suit partner has doubled.

For if partner doubles 2 and you leave it in with a void, it means in effect that you are permitting him to play a spade contract with a void in his suit. And, you never do that if you can help it, do you?

Thus, every extra trump you hold is invaluable. Not only does it increase your own joint trump holding, but it decreases declarer's. If you hold three trumps, dummy is unlikely hold more than a singleton. With a doubleton you can lead trumps through twice, which may permit your partner to draw trumps.

Even with a singleton you can lead through once. But you cannot lead through with a void. So, unless your partner's trump holding is so strong that he can afford to draw trumps himself, declarer will make his small trumps (and far too many tricks) for your satisfaction. In low level doubles, it is just as essential for the defense to stop declarer making his small trumps as it is for the declarer in high contracts to stop the defense from making their small trumps.

There are, of course, hands on which it is better for declarer not to draw trumps but play for a cross ruff. Just so there are such hands for the defense. You can recognise them as you meet them. They in no way affect the principle that most of the time it pays to draw trumps. And that in low level doubles the defense can seldom draw trumps if the doubler's partner is void.

* This classic article was written by S. J. Simon and originally published in 1946. I have made a few minor grammatical changes and coalesced many of the author's successive one and two-sentance paragraphs found in the original.