“Advanced players know the rules. Experts know when to break the rules.” – Anonymous
Walking the dog (henceforth referred to as WTD) means bidding less than you think you can make with the intention of bidding more on later rounds of the auction. The idea is to be allowed to play at the level you want, preferably doubled. Of all bidding strategies in bridge, WTD perhaps ranks only behind blatant psyching as the riskiest.
The most obvious risk of WTD is that your initial underbid is followed by three passes, which can lead to some amusing results. There is a well-known story of a player who passed in first seat with 10 solid spades and three singletons only to see the auction be passed out! The player asked his partner what he held, to which he received the reply “nothing really, just a couple of aces.” But there is another risk, which is a little subtler than the first but in my opinion far more dangerous; you give the opponents more room to judge the hand. I will consider both risks as I give my recommendations about WTD.
Before delving into specifics, I want to emphasize a word of warning. Anything recommended in this article is not intended to be even a remotely frequent strategy. More than ever before, the risks I state are real and are difficult to judge, so wait until the conditions seem ideal before attempting these maneuvers. There are more than a few stories such as the above, and I know none of you dream to become the subject of such a gory tale.
You Want to be Doubled
One reason to employ the WTD strategy is when you hope the opponents will double you in your final contract. You try to convey that you got pushed into a contract rather than that you wanted to play there, and that can cause the opponents to double you based largely on table feel. The great S.J. Simon said it best in his classic Why You Lose At Bridge, “If [the opponents] are going to double on the bidding, then I have the right to make the bidding sound the way I please.” One factor that is often overlooked by players attempting this strategy is trump length. If your partner overcalls 1 and you hold seven hearts, then it’s a lucky day indeed when your opponents will double you at the level you wish. Fewer cards in support with a long hidden side-suit is a much better situation in my view.
I once held such a hand playing with GIB robots. On the auction 1– 1– 4 to me with only the opponents vulnerable I held AJxx – Q KQTxxxxx. Bidding 5 to look for a possible slam should work at least a fair amount of the time, as the trump honors and aces you need are the exact cards partner knows will be good for slam. However, this particular partner lacks judgment in uncommon auctions, and more often than not slam won’t be there anyway. I decided my goal should be to get doubled in 5. I bid 4, and then over a 5 bid I continued with 5, and did indeed get doubled and the contract made easily.
What stands out about my choice, to me, is that I didn’t have too many spades for the opponents to double the final contract. If my black suits had been reversed then I would be much more likely to either investigate or to blast to whatever contract I hope to make. Bidding slowly would never get me doubled anyway since at least one and probably both opponents would be void in my suit, so all it would accomplish would be to let them work out a sacrifice that I don’t want them to find. Here the opponents likely held a few spades so doubling us would not seem unreasonable after it looks like we were pushed higher than we wanted to be. I feel confident enough in that logic that I probably would have attempted the exact same thing playing with humans.
You Want to Buy the Contract
The other likely reason to try WTD is because you want to buy the contract at a certain level. You fear that if you simply bid it the opponents will believe you and sacrifice, but that if you can make it seem like you were pushed there then they will be willing to defend. In Terence Reese’s Develop Your Bidding Judgment he discusses how to handle picking up all 13 clubs as dealer. His conclusion is that the best chance to buy the contract in slam is to open 5 or 6, because if you open 7the opponents are likely to believe you and sacrifice in a long suit. Personally I like 6for just that reason. If you open 5and then bid 6 and potentially 7 it will seem suspicious, but opening 6 and then bidding 7 later if needed is more plausible. However, this is completely dependent on your opponents. If you think the opponents might believe you are taking a chance then you should probably just open a ‘straightforward’ 7.
Another situation in which the opponents often sacrifice is bidding 4over 4. Normally if your hand is worth opening 4 then you simply do that without concern of the opponents bidding 4. That is because partner is well positioned to make a good decision as long as your bid was accurate. But consider a hand that is worth a 5 sacrifice on its own, perhaps x KQJT9xxx QJTx – in third seat with no one vulnerable. It seems likely that if the opponents bid 4 then you will want to save in 5 on most auctions. While there are no guarantees on how well any strategy will work, I think a tricky strategy would be to open 1, planning to rebid 4. Imagine LHO with a 15 point hand with AQxxxx of spades. He would have to overcall 4 over a 4 opening bid and you would be forced (if your judgment agrees with mine) to bid 5 if partner can’t double. But if the auction goes something like 1 1 1NT p 4 back to him, he will pass it out, especially given the 1NT call on his left. If partner had one trick for you in hearts then you have stolen a game, rather than doubling the opponents in a game that might have even made.
Quantitative Notrump Underbidding
One last example of WTD has to do with intentionally underbidding your hand in hopes of being doubled. This one is very opponent-specific so I wouldn’t consider it a normal strategy. However, against the right person at the right time it can work brilliantly and also deliver a psychological blow. Certain opponents often make a penalty double after a limited notrump auction. The two most common examples would be 2NT P P, and 1NT P 2NT P 3NT. There are players who have been known to always double on the first auction, thinking that declarer will have trouble making 8 tricks with a broke dummy. I have heard stories of players passing a 2NT opening bid with 7 or 8 points and having the player in fourth seat double them. They must have gotten quite a laugh as they put down dummy and made an easy overtrick.
I must admit that I have never had the guts to try that one, but for a slightly safer alternative consider the 1NT auction. If you raise to 2NT with enough values for game then you won’t necessarily miss game anyway as long as partner accepts the invitation. It’s true that you have given away a little more information about partner’s hand, but given that you hold extra values, that is unlikely to matter. On a great day you might even get lucky and have partner pass the 2NT bid and then find game couldn’t make due to a poor fit or bad breaks. Of course inviting game when you are too good is a generally losing strategy, so you have to be confident that your opponent likes to double on this auction to ever risk this. I would also recommend an understanding partner and teammates, unless you intend to try an old gem like “I pulled out the wrong bid.” or “I didn’t see the king of spades!”
I will reiterate one final time that nothing I’ve recommended should be tried on a regular basis. I’m sure many will disagree with some of my strategies, and that is fine. The real lesson is not to do everything I’ve suggested. It is to combine everything you know about your opponents with a creative mindset at all times. If you don’t fall into the trap of bidding by rote then you will find opportunities to steal a great result, and earn a reputation for not being predictable at the same time.
Josh Donn is a former junior internationalist for the United States. He has a junior world and open national championship to his credit as well as several other top-ten finishes on each stage. His main interests lie in bidding theory and issues of bidding judgment. Outside of bridge, Josh is a Casino Accounting Manager. He has worked at some of the largest casinos in the world and is an expert in casino operations, regulations, and software. He grew up in Syracuse, NY and currently resides in Las Vegas, NV.