How to be a Fast Player

by Matthew Kidd

speedy Gonzales

Tournament bridge is a timed event. But some players never got the message. I’m sure you have been trapped behind a slow pair before, forced to start every round late. Or maybe you have heard your opponents begin the bidding 1♠ 2♠ and waited an eternity for opener to come up with a second bid. Or worse you have partnered with a slow player and found there is never time to stretch, grab a snack, or run to the restroom. It gets to the point where you can choose the correct card from dummy 95% of the time seeing only one hand, though glaciers melt before your partner reaches the same conclusion.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. You too can be a fast player. The secret is to save little bits of time here and there without rushing and to anticipate the actions of the other players.

Play quickly without rushing

  1. Greet your opponents politely at the start of the round, but save conversation for after the round, during breaks, and after the session when you have time.
  2. Arrive at the next table ready to play. Discuss previous hands, later. There is plenty of time after the session. Most clubs provide hand records and many post the results online, often with the hands, contracts, and opening leads included.
  3. Count your cards face down in groups, e.g. 4-3-3-3. This is faster than counting them one at a time and a good review of hand patterns. Mix it up. Count out 4-4-3-2 on the next hand. Maybe 5-4-1-3 on the following.
  4. Lift up the entire bidding card stack with the card for your bid on top. Replacing individual bids is slower than returning them all. Also, replacing individual cards scuffs up the bidding cards faster.
  5. Make your lead before writing the contract in your private score sheet, on the traveler, or entering it into an electronic scoring key pad.
  6. Spread the dummy before writing the contract in your private score sheet, on the traveler, or entering it into an electronic scoring key pad.
  7. Write the contract in your personal score, write it on a traveler, or enter it in an electronic scoring key pad when no one is waiting for you to bid or play. Good times include while someone else is leading, spreading the dummy, or thinking. At the end of the board while you’re recording the score is ideal once you are used to it.
  8. Claim frequently when all of the following are true:
    1. You know exactly how many tricks each side will win.
    2. You know your exact line of play.
    3. You know how you will briefly explain your line of play to your opponents in a manner you know that they will quickly understand.

    Resolving a disputed claim may involve a director call. The resolution will surely take more time than playing the hand to its conclusion. See below for some advanced considerations.

  9. Keep results from prior hands to yourself. Pairs who have not played the boards (yet) do not need to know. Conversations do get overheard and a few players are actively listening. After the session with the hand record is the best time for discussions.

    If curiosity is killing you, look at the electronic results or score slip quickly. If you must comment after a hand, keep it quiet, brief, and vague. “I might have tried a cue-bid” is much better than, “if I had cue-bid 4♣ we would have found the cold heart slam.” Likewise, “I can switch when I get in” is much better than, “switching to the ♣10 when I’m in with the ♥K defeats it.” If the deal is displayed on an electronic scoring system after the result is entered, you can point to part of the deal to clarify a vague comment, e.g. “perverse suit combination,” when referring to a suit that always gets blocked no matter what the defense does.

  10. Only ask partner if he is out of a suit if absolutely necessary.

    The Laws permit a partner to ask and it can be appropriate when playing with a beginner or someone who is starting to lose it. But beyond a certain level, find a new partner if yours can’t follow suit. Gold LMs asking each other, “No clubs?” is ridiculous. Note: If defenders ask, they must always ask to eliminate the possibility of unauthorized information (UI) being passed based on whether or not they ask, which creates a big time waste.

    If partner is in the habit of having you ask, try to wean him of this habit. The time savings are considerable. You might get a couple of bad boards as a result of partner revoking a couple of times but most partners soon adjust to not being asked. He might even play better when his train of thought is not regularly interrupted by the question.

  11. Bring your own pen or pencil. Stop complaining about the lack of pencils, their dullness, the poor or non-existent erasers, etc. Come prepared.
  12. (Informal games only) If you are in the pass out seat and intend to pass, put your lead on the table, implicitly ending the auction.

    You should be planning your lead in advance if you expect to be on lead after passing in the passout seat. If partner is unlikely to have any questions about the auction, e.g. 1N-3N or 1♠-1N-3♠-4♠, lead face up. I don’t recommend this in a formal event such as open regional pairs because technically this is a violation of the rules and on a really bad day someone who doesn’t know you might suspect you are communicating UI based on whether you lead face down or face up. However, in a club setting this tactic tends to speed things up considerably without adverse consequence, an important consideration against habitually slow pairs.

Anticipate the Bidding

In a timed chess game, it is crucial to think on the opponent’s time, anticipating his most likely moves and your possible responses to each one. The same skill is essential if you want to be a fast bridge player.

Suppose partner opens 1♣. Immediately start deciding what call you will make if RHO passes, if RHO overcalls 1♦, if RHO overcalls 1♥, etc. The order of consideration should be dictated by your hand rather than strictly up the denominations and levels. For example, if you are short in spades, it is quite likely that RHO will overcall 1♠ or preempt 2♠. So after deciding your call if RHO passes, work on the 1♠ and 2♠ cases next. Your thinking might be, “will I make the dodgy looking negative double or pass?”

If partner preempts and you have support, decide how high you are willing to extend the preempt or whether perhaps a 2NT response is merited with a strong hand.

If partner opens a major and you make a simple raise, decide what you will do if partner raises to the three level or makes a help suit game try in each of the three side suits.

If you are in second seat, figure out what call you will make if the dealer passes. If you have a short suit, decide whether you will double if dealer opens or preempts in that suit. Then think about what one level overcalls you will make (if any) if RHO opens at the one level.

If you are in fourth seat and hear 1N on your left, decide what call you will make after two passes. If you hear 1♠ on your left, decide what call you will make if partner passes, and then responder also passes, raises to 2♠, or bids 1N.

You cannot anticipate every scenario. Partner may open 1♦ and RHO may put in a 4♥ bid before you have gotten anywhere near to considering that case. Or RHO may bid 2♠ (alerted) and when you ask for an explanation, you are told it’s Butterfield-Duncan three way bid showing either a club preempt, 5-5 in the red suits, or a 22-24 balanced hand. Rarer cases aside, you will have a prepared call 50-80% of the time. Get it on the table. One advantage of the anticipated action is that you are playing in tempo (a fast tempo), whether you have a solid bid or a sketchy bid which is good ethics. Second, it is human nature to trust what looks like confident bidding. Sometimes you’ll get away with things, at least until your opponents realize you are playing fast because you are thinking on their time rather than because you always have the perfect hand for your bid.

All this anticipating may seem like work but it rapidly becomes second nature and keeps you focussed on the game. Another benefit is that you will find it much easier to remember the auctions and many of the high cards after the session. Usually, there will be some consideration to jog your memory, for example, “I was prepared to splinter… but RHO interfered” or “I thought about responding 1N but rejected the bid because I only had 8xxx in overcaller’s suit.” Or, “I was exactly 4=5=1=3 because I was debating between a 1♥ overcall and a takeout double if dealer opened 1♦ before he actually opened 1♠." Sometimes what you were thinking about during the auction can even help you during the play if your mind wanders and you forget your starting hand.

Anticipate the Play

You should also be anticipating the play. If dummy has the KQJ… of a suit and you hold the ace, immediately starting thinking about when you should take your ace and what you should return. The answers may not be clear at trick one, but you should be thinking about what information would influence your decision and be extra careful to watch for that information as the hand is played out.

If you hold the ace in front of dummy’s KJxx you should anticipate declarer leading up to the combination. If you hesitate when the moment arrives, declarer will place you with the ace and get it right. If you duck smoothly, declarer will be at a guess if partner has the queen and declarer doesn’t have enough information from the bidding and play to place you with the ace. But don’t duck reflexively. Anticipate whether declarer could possibly have a singleton or perhaps a doubleton where the second diamond could be pitched on a winner in dummy if you duck.

When you have a discard coming, particularly your first discard, try to plan which card it will be, both consistent with your partnerships signalling methods and the overriding imperative of trick preservation. One frequent decision is whether to make an encouraging discard in suit or a discouraging discard in another suit, hoping partner can then infer which suit you prefer.

Is it a one or three hand? When the offense has a 5-3 trump fit, declarer would often like to draw exactly two rounds, preventing a ruff by the defender with the short trump while retaining control with the last trump in dummy. If you have the ace of trump, it is often right to duck one round, leaving declarer with the unpleasant choice of drawing one round or having three rounds drawn.

There are many more cases. Defense is hard and experience helps you anticipate better. Try to categorize each hand into one of the five main lines of defense: being active (establishing and cashing winners), being passive (trying to make declarer break suits, e.g. Jxx vs. Qxx), forcing declarer, cutting down ruffing power (i.e. repeated trump leads), and creating tricks with your trump (i.e. ruffs/cross-ruffs or trump promotion / uppercut). You will not always be right, not every defense fits neatly into one of these categories, and some situations are a tradeoff, e.g. partner can get a ruff but at the cost of destroying a natural trump trick. Nonetheless, forming a high level plan for the defense early in the play will make you a better and faster defender. Burt and Lynn Rose-Hall’s book How the Experts Win at Bridge has a good discussion of these main lines of defense but any good book on defense for intermediates will cover them explicitly in some form.

Claiming Considerations

The purpose of claiming is to save time when the outcome is obvious. However, “obvious” and whether you will save time depend on the skill level of your opponents and what they think of you as a declarer.

  1. Don’t claim against weak pairs.

    Often they will not understand your claim and will ask you to play out the hand anyhow at which point you’ll have to pick up your train of thought and no time will be saved. Against such opponents it is faster to play the hand quickly, at least until you are down to trump only and they have none.

  2. Save concessionary claims for decent opponents.

    If a claim involves giving up trick(s), be sure to state that at the beginning of the claim; for example, “I claim, conceding a club at the end. I’ll finish drawing trump, unblock the ♠Q, …” Good opponents will have anticipated the claim and might throw in their cards without waiting for your full explanation. Against a mediocre pair, lose the inevitable loser(s) before making the claim if it does not affect the play. Concessionary claims involving trick(s) that may be taken at an arbitrary time, e.g. by the master trump as you run a side suit and retain control with a single lower trump, should only be made against strong opponents.

    In a weak field, play out the entire hand if there is any way the opponents can go wrong. If you claim, you will lose on average to your counterparts, one or two of whom might gain a trick from poor defense.

  3. Reserve sophisticated claims for strong opponents who know your skill.

    A claim like, “I’m playing for the major suit squeeze against RHO. Does it work?” should only be stated against strong opponents who will understand what is being claimed and who also know you have the skill to setup the proper position. Make sure the director also knows you have the skill. Anything more complicated, e.g. a double squeeze, should be played out, both because it will probably save time (funny Henry Bethe story) and because even strong defenders can make a small discarding error that turns a non-working double squeeze position into one that works.

  4. Good defenders who know your distribution seldom go wrong.

    If your distribution is an open book from the bidding and play, you can assume good defenders will not throw away their winner. Just make a concessionary claim.

Tough Situations

Some situations are tough. Being a fast player doesn’t mean playing quickly all the time. If you and your partner are both fast players there should be plenty of time to think when you need to at team play and usually enough time at pairs. Here are some situations that I find vexing:

  1. Someone is lying or miscounted their hand.

    Sometimes it is clear someone is lying in the auction or at least that this is more likely than the one in a million layout that could produce the auction legitimately. But who is lying? Is it RHO who has a bit of reputation for psyching? Is it LHO paying you back for keeping him out of a slam three months ago when you made a favorable vulnerability takeout double with 4=4=0=5 shape and 3 HCP? Is it partner who has been known to double count aces? Bridge logic will not help you here. You need to know the people.

  2. When there are many lines of play.

    A typical case is a slam contract where both your hand and dummy are flat and both have many tens and nines. With no long suits to attack, you are in a murky world of many possible finesses (often two way), honors that might drop, and multiple squeeze possibilities. Even if the contract is secure, you must consider the precious overtrick at matchpoints. The notrump case is usually the toughest.

  3. Certain 1NT contracts.

    The one bridge book no expert has dared to write is How to Play One Notrump. Perhaps this isn’t a coincidence.

  4. Too many things to show partner in the auction.

    This usually happens in slam investigative auctions. Deciding which to show first, perhaps giving up on showing another feature, can be tough.

Get on with it

Don’t waste time in these situations:

  1. You’re a beginner.

    Your initial goal should be to get a 1000 hands (40 sessions) of experience. You can’t think through every situation in seven minutes because you often don’t know what to focus on. Try something, learn what happens, ask questions at the end of the session, study hand records, fire up a double dummy analyzer like Bridgify, and keep reading bridge books. Many things are much easier to remember after you have screwed them up once or twice. Just let it happen.

  2. The contract is hopeless and no one else will be there.

    If partner passes your splinter bid, just get it over with. If it amuses you to save a trick by finding an endplay and you can do it quickly, fine. Otherwise, get on to the next hand.

    If you might have company, for example when distributional hands lure you to a bad slam, you need to play the hand seriously. The exact number of undertricks could be the difference between a 20% board and a bottom, enough to change your overall score by about 0.4% which can often change your ranking if you have ~55% session.

  3. You have a pure guess.

    Sometimes it really is a 50-50% guess and no discovery play can change this. For example, you are in 4♠ and the lead is the ♥K which you take with your ace. RHO wins your trump finesse with the ♠K and returns a heart to the jack. Eventually you have to lead to the ♦KJxx in dummy. There is nothing to help you guess how the diamonds honors are split if they are split. Both opponents would still pass during the auction with either honor. LHO had a natural sequence lead that was better than leading small from ♦Qxxx so there isn’t the slightest negative inference from the failure lead a low diamond from ♦Axxx versus ♦Qxxx. RHO had a natural heart return.

    You best bet is to play low and insert the jack if LHO doesn’t hesitate. But if LHO is a good player he will duck smoothly with the ace and you truly have nothing to go on. Don’t pause mid-trick for a minute. Flip a mental coin. Or create a guessing rule. Barry Crane played for the queen to be over the jack in minor suits and under the jack in major suits.