The Laws of the Land (Part 2)

When first introduced to ROT, the Rule of Twenty, I fell under its spell. Here was a device with which to promote to an opener a hand not otherwise qualifying due to a shortfall of high card points. Add those HCPs to the combined length of one’s two longest suits, et voila! It was like old-fashioned Kool-Aid – simply add water and stir.

But no, not exactly, for then came the “yes, but” codicils regarding which position (first or second, because in third, there are other options available); disposition of the HCPs themselves (optimally, they should be in one’s long suits); and the presence or absence of cuties – Quick Tricks (QTs), that is. I’ve said it before, and I say it again: Lions and Tigers and Bears, oh my!

We play a disciplined ROT opener, in that the hand must contain the equivalent of two QTs and that the HCPs be within the long suits. Even with those prime requisites serving to lessen the potential for being blitzed after opening light and winning the contract, there is plenty of opportunity to go off the rails. We can’t count the number of times that the bidding went something like:

Jo Ann Opp A Gordon Opp B
Pass 1♠ Pass
2♣ Pass 2/2 Pass
4NT Pass OMG*

* “Oh My Goodness! Sound the general alarm: she thinks I have a full opening hand!”

Other than the ACBL’s comprehensive Laws of Duplicate Bridge, regulations promulgated and enforced by the League, there do not appear to be any devices which apply unconditionally, regardless of the strength implied by their title, “law” or otherwise. Even the Rule of 11, a definitive math-driven analytical tool, proceeds from the assumption that the opening lead is fourth-best – a premise which can be and has been upended by player error or deliberate variation, irrespective of what may be inscribed on the convention card.

Ergo, when I chanced upon The Law of Total Tricks – that is, when it was thrust upon me as a learning module by She Who Must Be Obeyed (the fictional Rumpole of the Bailey’s amiable sobriquet for his stalwart spouse, Hilda) – I was duly circumspect.

In his 1992 volume, To Bid or Not to Bid – The Law of Total Tricks, renowned and generously instructive author, lecturer, and ambassador of bridge Larry Cohen credits Frenchman Jean-René Vernes with having originated the concept during the 1950s.

Fundamentally, LOTT or the LAW (as Larry Cohen dubs it) indicates the level to which a partnership can generally safely bid, depending on the number of total cards held in a given suit: the 2-level for 8; the 3-level for 9; and the 4-level for 10.

I should have italicized the word fundamentally, as all sorts of contextual vectors apply in determining when and how to deploy the tool.

The first time I sought guidance from the LAW occurred during the course of a competitive auction. Partner, as dealer, opened 1♠. My RHO overcalled 2. With 11 HCP and four of partner’s Spades, including the top honor, I cue bid 3, doubly confident based on combined points and the litmus test of the LAW. So far so good – until my LHO raised the stakes with a bid of 4, whereupon my partner, thank you very much, took us to game with 4♠. Were we done? No. Pass … Pass … 5 … Pass … Pass … [help!].

My noggin became a battlefield, assaulted on all sides by objective and subjective data points, the latter being a minefield. Partner has at least five trumps … maybe six? I have four to the bullet. Suddenly, my useless doubleton in hearts is no longer at least a one-trick liability, in that partner is likely void. Do we have a triple fit in spades and the minors? Wait a minute, there is no such thing as a triple fit – not unless there are five suits instead of four. Did my LHO hesitate before pulling out the 5 bid? Ignore that. You’re not supposed to take that into account. What about the LAW? Does that still apply? Should I factor in Losing Trick Count? I don’t even know what that is yet.

I had succumbed to analysis paralysis. I sensed frustration and fidgeting on both perpendiculars. I had to do something to break the logjam. I look upward, inhaled deeply, and lifted 5♠ from its cradle and tabled it. Then Pass, Pass, Pass.

We wound up scoring 5♠ on the button. Partner, it turns out, had opened a ROT hand at the one level, having eschewed making a preemptive 2♠ bid because of the playing value of a three-suiter (no Hearts) and being wary of a shot in the dark at the two level, vulnerable, while missing the Ace and the Jack.

Our opponents, not vulnerable, had overbid with 5 to deny 4♠. They did not want to risk inviting 6 doubled.

At break, partner complimented me on the 5♠ bid and asked whether I had prayed for guidance. “It seemed like you were beseeching heaven almighty.”

“Not really. It was just that I’d taken so very long to think about whether to go for it or pass –”

“It wasn’t long at all. You looked around the table at everybody’s bids, tilted you head way up, shook it off, and then whipped out the 5♠.”

“That’s amazing, because it seemed so much longer to me. Funny how the mind works. But anyway – no. Not to a high power. I was phoning a friend. Telepathically.”

“What? Who?”

“It’s a long story. John Q. Law. A police officer in Frenchtown, New Jersey.”

“Oh, yeah? I’ll bite. What did he or she have to say?”

“The usual: do it. Pay the fine.”


(To Be Continued)