The Defensive Signal (Part One)

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This article deals with the subjects to treat with partner when setting up a defensive signal system. It deals only with team-of-four matches, where what matters is beating the contract, less with duplicate match-point tourneys. The article ends with the suggestion of a fairly simple system which can be improved easily or further simplified; the system applies both when following suit and when discarding when you cannot follow suit.

Defensive signals are necessary to counterbalance the advantage declarer has by seeing all his side’s cards. The race to establish suits and winners starts at the end of auction; it’s a contest in which defenders have the advantage of the first blow, the opening lead. That advantage immediately shifts to declarer, or at least evens up, because declarer alone makes decisions for his side’s two hands and can plan the play on his own. With defensive signals defenders can act in unison, nullifying or at least minimizing declarer’s inherent advantage. But they always must be aware that their agreements must be like cogs in a machine, not scattered understandings.

 I. The kind of signal; its hierarchy; its importance

The defensive signal can supply information of three kinds:

‒ Count, C: showing the number of cards held in the suit being played.

‒ Attitude, A: encouraging or discouraging continuation of the suit, even when its play has been initiated by declarer.

‒ Suit Preference, SP: calling (or at least suggesting) for a suit other than the suit being played.

The Count (C) signal is solely informative; it allows partner to  “read” the hidden cards and thereby build a picture of the entire hand. On the other hand, Attitude (A) and Suit Preference (SP) express order or prohibition, leaving little room for partner’s inventiveness: he’s to do what has been communicated with the message, and there need to be “bloody good reasons” to disobey the order, as Captain Queeg told his subordinate officers in American writer Herman Wouk’s novel “The Caine Mutiny.” Captain Queeg was only dealing with his ship’s management, but such transgressions at bridge can drive to sterner punishments than being fettered for a while: can drive to the pair’s break up for ever.

The pair’s first task is deciding which of the three kinds of signal is the primary one. It must then determine whether it should be unique, that is, that all signals are either C, or A, or SP, or whether there are secondary, or even tertiary in particular situations. For example, a pair could use odd-even signals to indicate Attitude (odd = encouraging, even = discouraging), with Suit Preference embedded in the discouraging signals so that low discouraging cards call for the lower suit, etc. In such a case, when it is obvious that a suit preference signal cannot be made, it may be deduced, or at least guessed, that partner is signalling Count. In the example, the pair’s hierarchy of signalling is A-SP-C. Most pairs employ Count or Attitude as primary signals, with Suit Preference only the third option.

When a pair uses more than one kind of signal, it must establish not only the hierarchy; it must determine the importance as well. To clarify the point, let’s return to the military metaphor: both the captain of a ship and the lieutenant outrank the seaman, who in theory should obey an order from either with the same speed. In practice, though, it’s slightly different: the higher the rank of the orderer, the prompter the obedience. In the same way, in bridge, the primary signal can be given great or minimal importance and priority over the others. Needless to say, the greater importance assigned to the signal equals greater strength of the message it conveys. Hierarchy and importance can be different in different situations: lead, response, return, shift in another suit, etc. What’s important that it’s all covered by agreements that have been reached in advance (and duly written in Convention Card!).


II. Tools and Mode

So far we have established kind, hierarchy and importance of signals. This done, it’s time to define the tools which we can use to send them and the mode in which they are sent. Let’s back to ships. It’s surprising but true that until the end of the 19th Century fleets had no sound agreements about signalling during a naval battle; some suggested blank shoots from naval cannons, other suggested flags, but both were problematic: blank might be mistaken for actual shoots, flags might be obscured by the smoke of battle. The situation in bridge signals is no much less awkward, and again the best  way to not be sunk at once is to make defined agreements earlier. For the Count we’ll use the pip cards from 2 to 9; these are the ordinary tools. The 10 and honours aren’t ordinary tools, although in some unambiguous cases can be used as such. In most cases, though, playing an honour is an imperative signal of Attitude or Suit Preference, even if the agreed main or sole kind of signal was the Count.

The mode, in North America, is the following:

‒ Count: higher card first, then lower one (hi-lo count) for even number of cards; the contrary for odd number of cards.

‒ Attitude: high encourages, low discourages (Echo convention).

‒ Suit Preference: higher for the higher rank suit other than trump, low for the lower one.

In Italy the general practice for Count and Suit Preference is identical. But when it comes to Attitude, odd-even (O/E) is preferred (odd encourages, even discourages). In North America, this mode is called Italian Carding.

– The Suit Preference Signal as depicted above was invented by Sy Lavinthal in 1934 (2001 ACBL Official Encyclopedy).

– In his book “Better Signalling Now” (2002 Chess & Bridge Ltd, London), Mark Horton attributes O/E to Benito Garozzo, but the great champion himself once said that it was invented by Giorgio Belladonna.

 Recapping. There are three kinds of defensive signals: Count, Attitude and Suit Preference. They are used (one, two or all three), based on a predetermined hierarchy and importance. The tools are the pip cards from 2 to 9, but, sometimes, 10 and honour cards can be used as well. The mode in Count and Suit Preference is the order in which the cards are played; the mode in Attitude can be the sequence, as in American Standard, or Odd/Even, the so called Italian Carding.


III. Sharpness

Whatever may be the kind of signal, A, C, or SP, it needs of two cards to be explicated. For example, if the agreement were on Hi-Lo Attitude, even the 8 can be misunderstood if the partner doesn’t hold the 9 or cannot see it; on the other way, each case has to be viewed in its situation: if that 8 comes form a suit named by partner in the auction, there’s little chance that it would be his lowest card. Needless to say, the signal is sharper if it’s as close as possible to the utmost cards, which are the 2 and the 9; a utmost card suffices to send the signal, it needn’t another one. The more the played card is next to the utmost, the easier is to identify it as the highest or the lowest one; to put it another way, the 3 is almost certainly a low card, the 8 a high one


IV. The 10’s issue

The issue of the 10’s raises two questions: should it be signalled as honour? And if not, can it be used as ordinary tool for carding? The response to both questions is “No.” It can’t be signalled as honour (can’t in the sense that it is inconvenient to do it), and can’t even be used as ordinary tool. If the 10 were to be used as ordinary signal, the 9 wouldn’t be longer the highest utmost card, and too often the 10 must be preserved as a potential winner, or to protect an higher honour, or to promote a lower card. Loss of one utmost card would impair the sharpness of the partnership’s entire system of signalling.


V. Suit Preference in discarding

When we no longer have cards of the suit being led, a great number of new tools become available to us. The mode can remain as it was, but there is another way to communicate Suit Preference beyond either high or low (or odd or even), by simply discarding any card from a unwanted suit. And with the additional advantage that one card is sufficient, partner doesn’t need to wait for a second one. Beyond that, discarding from unwanted suits allows us not to weaken those suits where we have possible length winners or holding such as Kx, Qxx, Jxxx, J10x, 10xxx etc. Admittedly, this practice is not always possible: we sometimes must retain pip cards in a suit that’s interesting to declarer, either to mislead, to protect partner’s honours, or for both purposes.


VI. Flexibility

Sometimes we don’t have the due tools for the signal we would send, and, trusting on partner’s intelligence, we must bend and twist in some way the ones we have. The hand below is taken from the book of the German championess Sabine Auken “I love this Game” (2006 Masterpoint Press). In 2001 Germany won the Venice Cup making up in the final sixteen deals for forty-seven IMPs to France; Sabine played with Daniela Von Arnim. Each of the sixteen chapters of the book tell the story of those hands: what happened at the table, what could or should have happened, what happened to others in similar hands.

The matter of defensive signal is treated in chapter 6, where Sabine reports a pretty complicated case happened at 2004’s Generali World Master in Verona, a world individual championship with pre-dealt hands and a required system for all to play. According to the conditions of contest, the signalling priority was as follows: Count in standard mode, Attitude second and Suit Preference third. The importance wasn’t defined, then it had to be the same from first to second signal and from second to third.

The defense clearly needed to discourage the continuation and call for a diamond shift, a Suit Preference not easy to guess for North because it was the declarer’s opening suit. Only one pair found the way to set the contract, Fredrik Nystrom with Eric Kokish; at all other tables the leader continued club. How could South get partner shift to diamond? Jean Paul Meyer, the vugraph commentator, said that South had to respond ♣J to show even card Count. A very young Agustin Madala played the 9 for the same reason. Alfredo Versace played the 3, a discouraging signal, writes Sabine. Alan Levy, later asked about the hand, recommended the 10, Suit Preference for the lower ranked suit. Sabine agreed with him (and with Brian Senior, who took care of bulletin, and with Zia Mahmood, interviewed by Senior). Fredryk Nystrom shifted to diamond because Eric Kokish had bid 3 instead of 3♣, and after had played the jack, making sure his partner that he held four clubs. (Incidentally, the men’s tourney was won by the Italian Norberto Bocchi, the women’s by Tobi Sokolov of the United States).

In my opinion, being the Suit Preference signal had been assigned only third priority rank in the Convention Card, the honour (that is jack or ten) would have been an outstanding Attitude signal, and only should have been played from three cards, encouraging partner to cash the other high club and pick up the other loser in the suit. Assuming this, and knowing that partner knew that we had an honour at least, jack or ten, any other card than the honour showed four cards and discouraged the continuation. With Attitude and Count so eliminated, the 9 and 3 remained Suit Preference signal cards for spades and diamonds respectively. As Alfredo Versace said playing the 3.


Paolo Enrico Garrisi

Many Thanks to Hanan Sher for his invaluable help.


The Defensive Signal: Part Two »

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