Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Bidding, Passing, and Playing Conventions

One of the joys of partnership games is the ability to provide information to your partner in the form of partnership conventions.

Bridge is the poster child for this, of course. In fact, the bidding conventions for Bridge are so involved that it is probably the biggest turn-off for those who don't like the game.

In Bridge, the auction for the contract involves a narrow range of possible bids which must be called in order (the lowest being 1 Club, and the highest 7 No Trump), as well as a few oddball bids that can be thrown in at certain times, such as Double (only over an opponent's bid), Redouble (over an opponent's Double), and Pass.

Players get bonus points for playing contracts in higher ranked suits, and also for minimum bids of 4, 6, or 7 (the maximum). Because of the way the point system works, it is often better to bid and fail a contract by a trick or two than to let your opponents make a contract.

What conventions do is add language onto the auction. So while you may be saying "I want to play the contract in 1 Club", you are also telling your partner about your hand: how many clubs you have, how many high cards you have, and so on, as well as denying all other possible combinations that would have resulted in other bids.

As astonishing amount of information can be sent back and forth in this simple and terminating language, despite the fact that each statement back and forth also requires the partnership to eventually make a higher contract as a result.

The reason it works is because more information is almost always better than less information. Information is powerful.

In addition to the bidding conventions, Bridge also has play conventions. For instance, if you play a low card in a suit followed by a high card in the same suit, or vice versa, depending on your convention, it communicates more about your hand to your partner. Other card conventions include odd-even discarding, or suit preference. Your partner can use this information to play the best card to take advantage of this information.

One thing to note is that your opponents, if they are watching, are also gaining the information that your partner is, assuming that conventions are required to be public knowledge. In Bridge, a gentleman's game, this is the case. I imagine that this is not so in other games!

Other games also allow partnership conventions, but for some reason, they are used less. Which is a shame.

A great example are games where you pass cards to your partner, such as Team Hearts. Team Hearts is played exactly like regular Hearts, except that you always pass to your partner. A single player, and not the partnership, still has to shoot the moon. It makes for a much more strategic game.

Passing three cards allows for great partnership passing conventions, and in this case, the information goes only to your partner, not your opponents.

We typically play something like:

3 cards of a suit: out of the suit.
2 over 1: out of the 2 card suit.
1 over 2: out of 1 card suit.
1 between 2: out of both.
All low cards: I'm planning to shoot the moon.

And the partnership would do well to decide which partner tends to pass the red cards and which tends to pass the black cards, to avoid both of them trying to empty three diamonds to each other.

Like Bridge, Hearts players can also use playing conventions such as high-low or even-odd discarding, or suit preference.

I just played Tichu for the first time, and my first action upon learning the rules was to decide on a convention for passing, before even playing my first game. This is much harder when you are only passing one card to your partner!

Amazingly enough, I found conventions about what to pass to your opponents on the web, by Aaron and by Alex, but nothing about passing to your partner other than "pass your third-worst card" or "pass a good card to let your partner call Tichu". Somehow that doesn't satisfy me.

First off, I'm assuming that you are not allowed to convey any information by the orientation of the card passed, e.g. upside down or sideways. Even if this were permitted, software versions of the game wouldn't let you do this, I'm assuming.

The conventions we came up with on first go were something like:

Always pass the Dragon or Pheonix. This lets both parties know where they are or are not. If you have both in your hand, pass the Dragon. (Unless you are definitely calling Tichu.)

Only pass the Dog if you are planning to call Tichu and your partner is not.

Passing odd and low - 3,5,7,9 - is a generically good hand.

Passing even and low - 2,4,6,8 - is a generically bad hand.

Passing 10-A we didn't get to, but one could use something like:

Jade: Prefer singles to be led
Pagoda: Prefer doubles to be led
Sword: Expect to go out second
Star: Have bomb

Or something like that. We need to add playing conventions, such as starting with an odd or even single, or an odd or even double.

One might ask "Does this really give your side an advantage in the game?" and I think yes! It must. More information is better than no information, even if it only helps once every few hands or so.

And best of all, it adds a layer of strategy to an otherwise straightforward tactical game.


1 comment:

Coldfoot said...

Concerning more information is better, consider how valuable even a little information can be: By simply looking at the bottom card when playing 5 card draw poker, a player who cheats in this manner has 20% more information than his opponents.

He goes into the hand knowing the location of 6 cards instead of only the 5 he is dealt.

He will eventually win all the money.