The Virtue of Passing

Author: Michael Berkowitz
Date of publish: 09/22/2019
Level: General Interest

It took me a long time to like passing. It feels so, for lack of a better word, passive, and I always wanted action. Little did I realize that my wild overcalls, offshape doubles, and undervalued notrump bids often stole some of the most exciting action.

I like to think of categories of pass. There are the “my hand is terrible” passes that comprise most of the genre, but there are also times where you pass with a good hand, even an opening hand or better. I’ll lump those into three categories below.

Patient passes
Sometimes you can’t properly describe a hand by making a bid immediately, or you need more information.

♠ A109543  
♥ A1074  
♦ --  
♣ 987

If I were first seat, I would pass. Opening 2♠ undersells the value of this hand. Imagine if partner opens or even overcalls 1♠. This is now a game forcing hand! Meanwhile partner will pass 2♠ with: ♠♠KQ943 ♠Q532 ♠AK4--a hand where 4♠ is a great contract and 2♠ might barely make. Note: I wouldn’t describe this hand as either too good or too bad for a preempt. It simply has too much potential to be a preemptive hand. If the auction begins P 1♠ P 1♠, I would definitely bid spades at that point.

Being patient runs the risk of your opponents getting into the auction, but it also gives partner a say, which can make up for the problems.

A frequent type of "patient pass" comes up when you have already shown values in the auction. Holding ♠KQ7 ♠K765 ♠K5 ♠K1098 you open 1♠ and partner bids 1♠ and now the opponents interfere with 2♠. What do you do? I guess in a passing lesson, it's no surprise that you should pass, but many feel obliged to bid 2NT to show a stopper. While 2NT should promise a stopper, it should also show 18-19 points. Here, you should simply pass and let partner describe her hand. 

Remember that if partner made a forcing bid, but your RHO has interfered, then you no longer need to bid since partner will get a chance to describe her hand. Even in a game forcing 2/1 auction: You hold

♠ KQ1065  
♥ A5  
♦ KJ10  
♣ 983

You open 1♠ and partner bids 2♠, game forcing. Your RHO now bids 3♠. You can pass since your partner will continue the auction (maybe by bidding 3NT or 3♠). If you have nothing new to share and partner will get a chance to bid again, you can simply pass.


Problem Passes
Sometimes your opponents will bid and you want to get into the auction, but have no good bid available. Consider: ♠32 ♠K54 ♠AK62 ♠KJ52. 1♠ is opened on your right. You’d love to be able to do something, anything, but passing is your only option. If you double your partner will almost certainly bid spades (and possibly a lot of them) and give your dummy a displeased glare.

Problem passes can also happen at a high level. You open 1♠ with ♠Q32 ♠654 ♠KQ4 ♠AJ32. The auction proceeds (4♠) Dbl Pass. Oy! I think some partners just like watching you squirm. While on a low-level you would just bid something, here it seems your best chance is to simply beat the contract. You should only take out this high-level negative double with a good destination (i.e. into a contract you think you might make).

Penalty Passes
Penalty passes or trap passes (for the alliteration averse, clearly not this author) are an important tool to add to your inventory. Sometimes the opponents bid your best suit. For instance, with no one vulnerable, you hold

♠ 52  
♥ K84  
♦ 953  
♣ AQJ98

and partner opens 1♠. your RHO, to your surprise, bids 2♠. I’ve seen people double, bid 2NT, 3NT or, worst-of-all, stare at 2♠, ask “are you sure you meant clubs?” Then turn to the other opponent and ask “does that have any conventional meaning?” And then, finally, pass.

Don’t do that! You know that partner won’t have many clubs, and is highly likely to reopen the bidding with a double. Let partner do the dirty work by making a takeout double which you will happily pass.

You should always weigh the likelihood of game or slam being makeable and the vulnerability on the hand, but taking a sure 500 or 800 is rarely a bad idea. Consider that when the opponents interfere in a suit you control (a) your strength is likely opposite partner’s shortness which lends itself to defense and (b) other suits are often splitting poorly.

The bottom line: when you don’t believe that a bid or double would accurately describe your hand, consider that passing won’t necessarily end the auction.