3. Hand Evaluation

I know, you want to get on with the bidding. But wait! Bidding is a little language for exchanging information with your partner about your hand: its strength, its shape, its stoppers in other suits. You can’t tell your partner anything without first knowing what you want to say.

Learning this is the work of a lifetime. Further, this judgement must change with every step of the auction; our ♠KJ75 becomes decidedly less valuable when the opponent to our left bids spades, The same holding became decidedly more valuable when partner bids or supports spades.

Since we have to have some estimate of strength to even begin to play bridge, we must adopt simple methods that beginners can learn and then refine our methods as we progress.

Our First Estimate

The basic “high card points” (HCP) of a hand is found by adding up points for each Ace (4), King (3), Queen (2), and Jack (1). This means a deck has 40 points, and an average hand is 10 points.

The number of points in a hand with adjustments for suit lengths or other factors is called its points. Thus if we say a hand has 10 points, that total may include some adjustments such as adding points for length or deductions for doubleton honors; but if we say a hand has 10 HCP then we mean that many points attributable to honor cards.

If counting HCP is all you do, it isn’t that bad for most hands. We will now describe a number of adjustments that you should make, but on a lot of hands the adjustments cancel each other out and the basic HCP count is a pretty good evaluation of the hand. If you use the “Rule of 20” that we will describe shortly and the basic count, you’ll get most hands right.

We need to correct for badly placed honors. Subtract one point from stiff Kings or “bad doubletons” (a doubleton which has a Queen or Jack but not the Ace) such as Qx, KJ, and KQ. If partner bids the suit, remove this correction. Subtract one for each singleton K, Q, or J. Subtract one for no Aces, and add one for three or four.

If HCP is all we do, then we are claiming that these hands all have the same value, 13 HCP:

  • ♠AQ7 ♥K54 ♦K32 ♣J432

  • ♠AQT ♥KT9 ♦KT9 ♣JT98

  • ♠AKQJT987 ♥- ♦KT987 ♣-

  • ♠A32 ♥K54 ♦KQJ ♣5432

  • ♠QJ ♥QJ ♦QJ2 ♣KJ7654

Clearly we need to account for distribution, intermediate cards such as 10’s and 9’s, and the way our honors are grouped together or scattered. The third hand will take eight tricks in spades for sure; the last one might well take very few tricks.

Add points for length: add one point for every card in a suit in excess of four. Subtract one point for a flat (4-3-3-3) hand.

If you get a very distributional hand, such as a 6-5-1-1, be very aggressive; such hands will take a lot of tricks. “Six-five, come alive” is wise advice.

A “good” or “upgradeable” hand for a given point count is one with the honors concentrated and / or touching, and with more than its expected share of 9’s and 10’s, with Aces and Kings more than Queens and Jacks. A “bad” or “downgradeable” hand is the opposite. .

Revaluing

As the auction continues, revalue your hand. Discount the values in suits bid on your left, and discount bad holdings such as QJ doubleton in suits bid by the opponents. But don’t discount such things in suits your partner bids.

“When you and your partner find a fit of at least 8 cards, stop and smell the roses”, says my teacher, Mike Moss. It is crucial to take a moment to re-evaluate your hand. There are two parts to this process.

First, add points for shortness. Count 1 for a doubleton, 3 for a singleton, and 5 for a void. (If you are the original opener and have supported partner’s suit, count a void as one point for each trump you have).

Alas, you will frequently find you have a misfit, and your evaluation of the hand must decline unless you have such a strong suit you are able to make it the trump suit on your own. When you have a misfit, your HCP alone should be considered.

Now, let me admit that every single statement in the last four paragraphs is sometimes wrong. That’s why it takes a lifetime to evaluate hands correctly. There are always hands that refuse to play by the rules.

Losing Trick Count

Secondly, when a fit has been found, and only then, make a Losing Trick Count (LTC). A full exposition of LTC is in “The Modern Losing Trick Count”, by Ron Klinger. Here is a simplified (albeit less accurate) version.

Warning

LTC is used only when you have found a fit.

In each suit count a loser for each Ace, King, or Queen you do not have, up to the number of cards you hold in that suit. A stiff King is one loser and a doubleton Queen is two losers. The maximum number of losers per suit is the smaller of three and the suit’s length.

Add a loser if the hand has no aces. A Queen without another honor is 2.5 losers.

Example: ♠AQ8 ♥Q8 ♦KJ32 ♣AQJ3 has 1 + 2 + 2 + 1 or six losers.

Take your number of losers, add those of your partner’s hand, and subtract from 24 to get an estimate of the number of tricks you should take with your agreed-upon trump suit.

Unfortunately you can’t say, “Partner, how many losers?”, so you have to infer this from the bidding: an opening hand is about 7, a limit raise is 8, a simple raise is 9. A two-club opener is about 4. The hands in-between are 5 or 6.

Thus if you open one spade, and partner raises you to two spades, you want to be in game if you have five losers: 5 + 9 is 14, and 24-14 = 10. If you have six losers, you might want to seek more information with something like a help-suit game try, because you should be safe at the three level.

Use your adjusted point count together with your LTC to decide on game and slam tries. Often the LTC reveals that a hand is better or worse than it first appeared, such as an opening hand with an LTC of six or eight. When in doubt, go on with a known nine-card fit, but hold back with only eight.

Conversely, when you have a misfit, you usually want to stop as soon as you can. However, it is often true that 3N is the right place if you have the points for game. Most of the time you want to be in game if you have the points for it.

One final note: two hands of approximately equal value play better than two hands with much different strengths. In other words, 12 opposite 13 will usually play better than 20 opposite 5, because you will have fewer entry problems.

Bergen Method

Marty Bergen has invented a more elaborate method in his book, “Better Slam Bidding”. His long series of articles in the ACBL Bridge Bulletin are comprehensive. I urge you to consult his lessons as there are many fine points to cover.

The initial “starting points” for Bergen are determined by a five-step process:

  1. Calculate the Work Count, or “Formal HCP”. The Work Count underestimates Aces and 10s, and overvalues Queens and Jacks (“quacks”).

  2. Add 1 for every card over 4 in a suit

  3. Add 1 for each “good” suit, a 4-card suit containing three of the five honors.

  4. Adjust for the following features:

    • -1 for a questionable honor in a short suit, such as a stiff King, or a “dubious doubleton”, a doubleton honor lacking the Ace. Thus, subtract one for KQ, Qx, Jx, etc.

    • -1 if you have 3 “quacks”; subtract 2 if you have six.

    • -1 if the hand has no Ace.

    • +1 if the hand has three Aces.

    • +1 if 5-5 or better

    • +3 if you have a void – the theory being that you are going to have a fit.

  5. Classify the hand as upgradable or downgradeable.

A hand is upgradeable if:

  • It has10s, 9s, or 8s – these intermediate cards make a big difference. A normal expectation is one of each.

  • A good shape, such as 5422 or 6331, rather than 5332 or 6322.

  • The honors are in your long suits, or together, rather than in separate suits, or in short suits. An AK doubleton will not help to set up other tricks compared to AKx, AKxx, or AKxxx.

A hand is downgradable if it has a poor shape such as 4333, or 5332.

When you have a close decision, use the upgradable or downgradable factors to help make the decision.

Bergen Revaluing

As the auction proceeds, and a fit is found, adjust your hand as follows.

If you are going to be the dummy, add 1 for each doubleton, 2 for a singleton (but 3 if you have four or more trumps), and add up to five points for a void, but no more than you have trumps).

If you are going to be the declarer,

  • Add 2 for a singleton, 4 for a void, and exactly 1 point if you have two or more doubletons. Do not add anything for a single doubleton.

  • Add one point for each trump after five.

  • Add one point for a side suit with 4+ cards.

If you believe from your own count and that promised by partner that the partnership has 33 or more points, you should explore for slam; below 33, forget it.

Finally, when it becomes clear the hand is a misfit, count formal HCP only.

Examples

Let’s look at a comparison of the basic and Bergen models.

  • ♠AQ7 ♥K54 ♦K32 ♣J432

    This hand has 13HCP - 1 for a flat hand = 12 HCP in either system. The hand has the honors in different suits, which is not a plus.

  • ♠AT942 ♥KJ832 ♦ void ♣AKQ

    This hand has 19 points, 17 HCP plus 2 for length in the basic system.

    In the Bergen system we add 2 for length and 3 for the void and 1 for the 5-5 shape, for a total of 23 points. Clubs has three honors, but it doesn’t get the “good suit” bonus because it doesn’t have four cards.

  • ♠AT942 ♥KQJ4 ♦ void ♣AKT7

    This hand has 17 HCP, plus one for length in the basic system. In the Bergen system we add 2 for the 2 “good suits”, hearts and clubs, and 3 for the void, for a total of 23 points.

  • ♠QJ ♥QJ ♦QJ2 ♣KJ7654

    This hand has 13 HCP, minus two for bad doubletons, plus two for the six card suit, or 13 points. In the Bergen system we have seven Queens and Jacks, and no Aces or tens, so our adjustment is -2. The Bergen method would not open this hand 1♣

One cannot emphasize enough the need to revalue continuously as the auction proceeds.

Assuming a fit has been found, the losing trick counts here are 8, 3, 2, and 8, respectively.

There are several other hand evaluation methods. In the end, it takes judgment, not a mechanical adherence to points.

The Hand

As a final example, here are the West / East hands of an example we will use repeatedly in this document. It is a real hand from a tournament, and I happened to be West. East was Dealer.

West           East
♠K862          ♠AQ
♥AKJ95         ♥T632
♦T5            ♦AKQ6
♣KJ            ♣964

To evaluate the East hand, we get 15 HCP, and a balanced hand with shape 2=4=4=3. We’re feeling neutral: the honors are all together, but the shape is uninspiring.

To evaluate the West hand, we have 15 HCP. Using the simplest evaluation, we add one for the fifth heart. If we were using Bergen, we’d add one for the fifth heart, one for the “good” heart suit, and subtract one for the dubious doubleton clubs. We’re feeling good about the shape of 4=5=2=2, although 4=5=3=1 would be better. Our honors are pretty well together – if we changed the ♥K to the ♦K we’d be less enthusiastic.

We’ll be back later to see how we would bid these hands.