Author: Michael Berkowitz
Date of publish: 11/07/2022
Level: General Interest

UNO is a great beginner's card game if someone bothers to explain the rules to you. I learned when my sister threw cards at me and said, "let's play." How was I to know that the objective is to get rid of all of your cards rather than to amass so many cards that you can't even hold them all? I also think that my sister's victory dance at the end was poor sportsmanship regardless.

Bridge is not really one game. Your objective may change depending on the form of scoring: IMPs, Rubber Bridge, Matchpoints, or more. Matchpoint play is likely the most common form of scoring used by readers of this article. It’s the game you play that ends with you having some percentage next to you and partner’s name, another mysterious number, and then (hopefully) the number of masterpoints you won. What exactly does any of it mean?

When we are talking about matchpoints, we are playing duplicate bridge. In duplicate bridge, each board is played many times. Your score is only compared to other pairs sitting in your direction. This makes it more fair. The people you are scored against faced the same bad cards, bad splits, and good opponents.

Each time a board is played, the players holding your cards either did better than you, worse than you, or the same as you. If your score is higher than the other pair holding your cards, then you get a matchpoint. It does not matter if your score is 10 points higher (like making +120 for 1NT+1 vs +110 in 2=[making], both contracts taking eight tricks) or 2000 points higher. If your score is the same as the other pair, then you get a half matchpoint. If your score is worse, you get no matchpoints. The total number of matchpoints available on the board depends on how many other players played it. Online (or using The Common Game) there can be hundreds of comparisons. At a club, there may be as few as two comparisons.

Those mysterious percentages are the number of matchpoints you won out of the total matchpoints available (x 100%). What does this form of scoring mean for strategy?

Since our scores are compared directly to each other, each point matters. At total point forms of scoring like Imps or Rubber Bridge, you don’t worry too much about overtricks or extra undertricks. You try to make your contract (or defeat the opponent's contract as a defender). At matchpoints, you want to achieve the best score. That might mean holding your opponents to 3NT rather than letting up an overtrick. This scoring can be frustrating for newer players. You can get a bad result for 3NT making if other players play 3NT and take overtricks.

Let's try applying this logic to the following deal, playing matchpoints.

West    North    East    South
1NT
Pass  2 Pass  2
Pass 3NT   All Pass
 Vul: NoneDlr: South DUMMY  KJ32 AJ102 J102 43 Lead: 5 DECLARER  A76 Q95 KQ987 A7

The Auction

We opened 1NT with 15 points. Partner used Stayman and then bid 3NT over our 2 response. The lead is the 5. Dummy comes down with 10 points. It's likely that this auction was repeated at almost all of the tables.  East plays the Q at trick one.

The Play

How do we play this at matchpoints?

Always start by counting winners. We begin with two spade tricks, one heart trick, no diamond tricks, and one club trick. We need to find five more tricks to make our contract. The problem is that as soon as we lose the lead, our opponents can win all of their club tricks and the ace of diamonds.

How many clubs will the opponents take? If the suit is 5-4, they will take four tricks (assuming the suit isn’t blocked). The lead of the 5 suggests a 5-4 split. The only lower card than the 5 that we don’t see is the 2 so it’s possible West led from a 4-card suit or a 5-card suit, but not a 6-card suit (there would need to be two lower cards after their fourth-best lead). In other words, if West had KJ852, the 5 would be the lead. For West to have six, they would have two cards lower than the lead. With KJ8652, they would have led the 6 and not the 5 and as declarer we would know there are at least two cards lower than the six missing. This type of inference is difficult and you can just keep in mind that a 5-4 split is the most likely division of nine cards.

If we really wanted to make it, we could try to find 8 tricks in the majors. All we need is for the heart king to be onside, the spade queen to be onside, AND spades to be 3-3. Calculating odds can be difficult, but our instinct should be to think, “this is unlikely”. One finesse winning is 50%. Two finesses winning is 50% of that: 25% total. A suit splitting 3-3 is about 33%. So 25% of the time, both finesses will win. Of that, only 33% of the time will the spades split evenly giving you about 8% odds to make it. At a total point form of scoring, we may go all out to make it. Plus 400 is likely to help us more than minus an extra fifty will hurt us.

At matchpoints, we don’t want to risk those extra undertricks. If we play a diamond, we are going to go down one in all likelihood. If we take a finesse and it loses, we go down an extra trick: four clubs, a diamond and a heart (or spade). Since we had a very normal auction to a 25-point game, we don’t want to risk that extra 50 points. It’s ok to give up on the hopes of making your contract if those odds are slim. Safely going down just one trick can be a good result.

The full deal:

 Vul:NoneDlr: South KJ32 AJ102 J102 43 85 8763 A6 KJ952 Q1094 K4 543 Q1086 A76 Q95 KQ987 A7