Double or Overcall?

Neither side vulnerable
The bidding has gone:


There have been many trends in defensive bidding over the years, but none so important as in the choice between the double and the overcall. In the early days, a double was used to show a good hand, with distributional requirements a secondary consideration (at times even ignored). An overcall showed playing tricks, and usually denied the values for a double. As time went on, distributional requirements for a double increased, and so did strength requirements for an overcall. The minimum for most overcalls now stands at near opening-bid values, and the maximum allowable strength for an overcall has increased correspondingly. Double followed by a new-suit bid now shows more than the "16 HCP and a good suit" requirement, which held sway for decades.

As South, what call do you make with each of the following:

(a) Q 10 8 6 5   A 4 3   K 9 2   J 7

(b) Q 10 8 6 5   A 4   K 9 2   A J 7

(c) Q 10 8 6 5   A 4   A Q 9   A J 7

(d) Q 10 8 6 5 4   A   A Q 9   A J 7

(e) Q 10 8 6   A   A J 9 5 4 2   J 7

(f) K Q 10 8 6   4   A Q J 9 5   J 7


Q 10 8 6 5   A 4 3   K 9 2   J 7

(a) Pass. This is about as strong and suitable a hand as we would recommend passing under these circumstances, not because it approaches the current standard requirements for an overcall (it doesn't), but because it often pays to "cheat" on those requirements when you have spades, when you are not vulnerable, and when the game is matchpoints. Even so, we think it goes slightly too far to overcall with these cards. There are good things that can happen if you act immediately, but also bad things--not only can you get bopped every now and then, but frequently partner will do too much in an offensive direction. On some sequences (admittedly not all), you will be able to bid spades later with reasonable safety.

Q 10 8 6 5   A 4   K 9 2   A J 7

(b) One spade. About forty years ago, anyone who recommended overcalling with these cards was considered either a hypermodern innovator (if already an acknowledged expert) or a fool (otherwise). Or both. Nowadays, a majority of experts would consider it an error to double one heart with a decent hand and a five-card spade suit. As an interesting comparison, observe there is no technique of declarer play about which a corresponding statement could be made.

Q 10 8 6 5   A 4   A Q 9   A J 7

(c) One spade. As little as, say, twenty years ago, most experts would have doubled one heart, planning to bid two spades if necessary, though they would have considered this hand close to a minimum for such a sequence. Nowadays, most experts would overcall one spade, intending to double next time in appropriate sequences. Thus, the upper limit for an overcall has moved up.

Q 10 8 6 5 4   A   A Q 9   A J 7

(d) Double. This hand is close to the borderline. It is either slightly too strong for an overcall or just within the limits. We think most experts would double, because their early training still reminds them about being "too strong for an overcall." But just in case you're keeping score, today's "Old Turks," who recommended overcalling with hand (b) in the late fifties, have not given up their theories with advancing age. They, including the Editors, believe that this hand too should be an overcall.

Q 10 8 6   A   A J 9 5 4 2   J 7

(e) Two diamonds. The traditional theory is to double so as not to miss a spade fit. There were always two strikes against that theory. One, partner sometimes seriously misevaluated his hand because he expected support for clubs. Two, doubler was always uncertain how to act when advancer (doubler's partner) showed general values, or suggested defending--it is hard to judge defensive prospects with a long suit unmentioned. Of course, doubling one heart sometimes worked out marvelously. A lot depended on which black suit partner held. Nowadays, however, doubling takes a third strike--converting a club response to diamonds shows a much better hand.

K Q 10 8 6   4   A Q J 9 5   J 7

(f) Two hearts. There was a time when bidding two diamonds, keeping spades in reserve for next round after an anticipated heart raise, was an idea gaining popularity. However, that movement has stalled. The planned sequence doesn't always work well when it comes off, and is often unnecessary when there is a spade fit. Furthermore, the expected heart raise is not always forthcoming, and two diamonds sometimes gives advancer a hard time. A one-spade overcall would get more support. However, nowadays it is fashionable to use a Michaels cue-bid with a wide variety of strengths and appropriate distribution.

(Adapted from "Rate Your Own Game" in The Bridge World.)


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