Helping Partner II: Smith Reverse Tempo Doubles
By Nick Smith

One of the harder areas of the game is judging when to leave in low-level penalty doubles and when to pull to your own game. In a continuation of our series on helping partner, Nick Smith gives some tips for improving accuracy in this department, and introduces us to the Smith Reverse Tempo Double.

Many of you will have given Smith Peters a try. It's a simple principle: you peter on declarer's lead at trick two to show enthusiasm for prospects in the suit originally led. It's a handy way to alert declarer to the distribution of the danger suit and prevent partner getting a count on the second suit, all at the cost of no more than one natural trick in that suit.

The same family now brings you Smith Reverse Tempo Doubles. Indeed you may find you are already playing this handy little convention without even knowing it. Give yourself a typical 14-count:

SQ 8 3
HQ 9 6
DQ J 10 9 8

You open 1NT (12-14) at love all, matey on your left doubles and partner extracts that lovely blue redouble card. Good news — this is to play, perhaps 9+ HCP [surely 7+ with your declarative skills? —Ed] and an interest in penalising the opposition.

Matey on your right now grimaces for a while and emerges with a 2D call (not alerted, presumably natural). Do you:

(a) Forget the bidding boxes and shout "double" at the top of your voice
(b) Double calmly in tempo, hoping everyone will meekly pass it out and let you collect a 4-figure penalty, or
(c) Suck your cheeks in, weigh up the merits of a number of possible calls and then nervously pull out the red card?

It's no contest, is it? With such a big prize at stake, you are duty bound to make it as hard as possible for your opponents to run to a playable major. More importantly, you must do everything you can to dissuade partner from calling again (e.g. the idiot may fancy a crack at 3NT with 12 points and a small doubleton diamond). No, a whacking great hesitation before you bid will leave him feeling ethically bound to grit it out in 2D doubled. Or, to be more precise, aware that, if removing the double is the winning action, then the TD would put the result back to 2D doubled anyway.

So (c) it is.

The average county player will hesitate for 30 seconds, chalk up +1100 five minutes later and brazen it out with such comments as "I was a bit worried that we might score more in 3NT but the defence went rather well, didn't it?" That's fair enough in the last set of a Gold Cup quarter-final (where winning is all that counts) but it's not going to gain you many friends at your local duplicate.

So the real skill, for those who aspire above county level, lies in achieving a hesitation that is just long enough to get the desired result (my partner and I have computed this at 10.4 seconds, or 9.77 seconds if you are on something) but short enough to be conveniently forgotten by the end of the (no doubt tortuous) play. If no one mentions (or even remembers) the hesitation, the sooner you can safely try the same manoeuvre again. If either opponent registers the hesitation with the TD before the opening lead, you have clearly overcooked it.

Indeed it is a good idea to conceal the stonkingness of your double for as long as possible, perhaps even wasting the odd trick (at Pairs) to take only 800. Declarer feels secretly proud of his cunning line of play with a Yarborough and everyone's a winner.

Fortunately, there is a lot more of a margin for error here than there is with singleton hesitations. These days, you can't get away with even a 4-second pause when following suit with a singleton. You have to squeeze in that necessary pseudo-fumble and nervous glance at no one in particular, followed by a 62% increase in the speed with which you transport the card from your hand to the table and the obligatory "sorry" — all into 2.3 seconds! Not easy. (Against familiar opponents, it's probably time to try the psychic non-hesitation with a singleton.)

More ambitious partnerships should be alert to the need for reverse tempo doubles at all times. But let us say that, despite your painfully slow double of 2D, your right-hand opponent decides to remove himself to 2H. Now what? Do you double again? If so, at what speed?

A top player will now double 2H in normal tempo. This simply says that you have honour to three in the bid suit (no better). Partner, whose hand is relatively undefined, must make the final decision as to whether to try for a penalty, bid his own suit, have a bash at 3NT, or whatever. He will get it wrong (doesn't he always?) but at least you will be well-placed for the post-mortem.

Reverse tempo doubles apply when the only alternative call is Pass (showing Jxx or worse). Here the Pass/Double decision is a simple one which any good player could manage in tempo. If you hesitate, then double and chalk up minus 670, partner will plant his flag on the moral high ground and claim he was ethically bound to pass out 2H doubled on his singleton trump.

On a really good day, following your much speedier second double, one or other naïve opponent will wander back to 3D. Now you can double at any speed you like.

Those with a well-developed sense of rhythm can use the following scale when doubling in a routine pass-or-penalty-double situation:

2 second pause (i.e. in tempo) = Qxx or Kxx or Axx
4 seconds = 3-card suit to 2 honours
6 seconds = 4-card suit to one honour
8 seconds = 4-card suit to 2 honours
10 seconds = Christmas has come early — remove this on pain of death!

A similar scale applies to passing. Pass in tempo with Jxx but hesitate for a while with proportionately weaker holdings. This ensures that partner only makes a penalty double himself with correspondingly good trumps — he can't justify it to the TD otherwise.

Always remember the Golden Rule (not © Julian Pottage): "the more you want partner to pass at his next call, the longer you should hesitate over your own bid."

Just put 'Smith' on your convention card for extra insurance.