I invited Dennis Roberson, author of Winning 42 and co-founder of the N42PA, to share his thoughts on indicating and prearranged bidding practices in the game of 42. These two topics have long been issues in the 42 community, and I thought his comments might be enlightening to others interested in the discussion.
Whereas Dennis has strong feelings on these subjects, he understands there are some fine 42 players out there who will disagree with him either in part or in whole. He offers his heartfelt and honest thoughts on these subjects, for objective review, and does not intend to preach, but perhaps to teach, from his own perspective.
Thank you, Dennis, for sharing your thoughts in this matter. Hopefully, others will benefit from your wisdom and playing experience as I have. - Paul Proft, 23 April 2008
Indicating Doubles and Prearranged Bidding Practices
On the issue of “indicating” doubles during play of a hand, whereby a player who cannot follow suit plays a domino from the same suit in which he holds the double, in order to indicate to his partner that he has that double:
There are some players who do not believe this is fair play, and some who do. Here are my feelings on the subject:
Every play you make during a hand "indicates" something about your hand (both what you have and what you don't have), to your partner as well as to your opponents. This “indication” happens regardless of whether you intend to communicate this information or not.
For example, if your partner clearly will take a trick, and you do not follow suit or play count, then everyone in the game knows that you do not have the 6-4, or other count domino, which you would have given to him if you had it.
Or, if you have the two highest dominoes of a suit, you may choose to throw away one of them, and your partner will wisely surmise that you would not have thrown away such a good domino unless you had the next highest domino of that suit. Or if our opponents take a 6 trick without the 6-4, and it is not in my hand, I now know it is in my partner’s hand.
Much of the game of 42 is all about learning where unplayed dominoes are. This information is learned by watching what domino is played by each player, domino by domino, trick by trick, throughout each hand.
We could write a whole book on all the different things that domino plays indicate about your hand to other players, in a variety of situations – whether you are the bidder, the opponent, or the bidder’s partner. Every single play you make indicates something about your hand to all three players, not just your partner.
Some players choose to use an opportunity, when not following suit, to play a domino from the same suit of which they also hold the double, which their partner may be able to react to with a subsequent play, by possibly leading back to this double with an off, for his partner to win the trick.
If players choose to play this way – indicating doubles – I can hardly find a logical reason for how someone can say this one, and only this one, way of information being gleaned about your hand from a person’s play, can be separated as unfair, or cheating, from all other countless pieces of information about your hand that is being learned by your partner about your hand on every other trick during the hand. Trying to single out double “indicating” as an improper play, because it communicates information, to your partner seems completely hypocritical to me. I am gathering information about my partner’s hand every time he plays a domino – how is it OK to learn some information but not other? Indicating doubles cannot logically be extracted from every single other piece of information communicated willfully or otherwise by each play during a hand, in my opinion.
Further, whatever is being “indicated” is being indicated to all three players, not just one, and there is no secret about it.
Throwing away a double that you don't need because you have the next highest one in that suit is just one example of dozens of important things that can be accomplished by a particular play during a hand. Throwing away a domino you don't need in such a situation is smart playing, and you don’t need to want to tell your partner anything for it to be a smart play. You are protecting important dominoes and throwing away unimportant, or less important, ones. And your partner may or may not find this information very useful during the hand. It may not change his play one iota. Further, your opponents may be able to use the exact same information to their advantage, and set you. Again, the information is being communicated, intentionally or not, to all three other players.
Having said this, I personally do not find the practice of indicating doubles specifically to be a significantly important tactic in the context of play over the course of an entire match, or tournament. I’ve even seen it backfire.
Playing count or some other domino when you can’t follow suit is usually more prudent than indicating a double. In any given instance, this could be more important to helping your partner make his bid. Choosing to indicate a double instead of give your partner count could get him set, when on a later trick the opponent forces that count domino from you. I have seen this happen on more than one occasion.
Also, a "false indication" can occur anytime, sometimes with undesirable results. If you and your partner over-rely on indicating doubles, what happens when you have nothing to indicate, but your partner assumes you have tried to indicate something with your last play, and then he plays accordingly? He could go set. In other words, you have no doubles in your hand, and you throw away the 3-1 on a trick simply because it’s your best play at the time. Your partner believes you have the double-trey, and leads his 3-0 off. The opponent, however, has the double trey. He plays it, and his partner adds some count, and voila, the bidder is set.
I come across some players who talk as if indicating doubles is an incredibly important tactic to winning 42. They make it sound as if it happens practically every single hand and is regularly the difference between winning and losing a match. That's just plain crazy.
In a recent tournament I played in, there were only two occasions the entire match when I even had an opportunity to indicate a double to my partner when he was playing a bid. TWO times - that's it. And only in one of those two times would it have even mattered to him. I find this to be a pretty typical frequency during a match. Just stop and think about all the things that have to happen for doubles indicating to be successful:
1) Your partner wins the bid;
Wow! That’s a lot of stuff that has to happen for this one little thing to work. In a typical match, I find that those five specific things will converge into the 'perfect storm' maybe once or twice, AT MOST. I have specifically kept track of such circumstances during matches to make my own determination of the value of indicating doubles. It is simply not a regular difference-maker opportunity. Sure, it works sometimes. But as I have already pointed out, it can also backfire and get you set. I would suggest that the number of times indicating backfires could easily equal the times it helps. So you might not have really gained much by depending on the practice.
I find that indicating doubles is most important to players who choose to make wild bids no matter what, meaning they have several offs, overbid their hands, and are desperately looking for some tip from their partner on what to lead back that their partner could catch. So either they get lucky or they get set. In either case, by playing this way they are really not in control of their destiny in the match. They are turning the game into a game of luck more than skill. The reason I love 42 is because when played properly and smartly, 42 minimizes the importance of luck, and maximizes the opportunity for skill, more than any other game I have ever played. I love that. 42 is NOT best when played as a game of luck. Players who turn it into a game of luck by constantly making wild bids unsupported by their hands are hurting the game, and the potential of the game. They are denying themselves the opportunity to enjoy a truly great game to the fullest.
When I win a match or a tournament, I want it to be because I made good, smart-but-aggressive bids, played my bid properly, helped my partner, knew how to set my opponents, and had a little luck in hitting my partner when I did get the bid. I don’t take a whole lot of satisfaction from winning a match just because I bid high and got real lucky for awhile. Anyone can bid 37 on bad hands all night and either get lucky and win or go down in flames. I don’t consider that fun; certainly it’s not challenging.
To summarize, I do not believe trying to communicate the presence of a double in your hand during play can be considered unfair or cheating, because you spend the entire hand communicating information about your dominoes. Nonetheless, I consider that specific tactic to be highly overrated as to its frequency and value in the big picture of a match. I consider it used more by wild bidders who depend on it as a crutch, as they choose to rely on luck rather than skill. And such folks are denying themselves the opportunity to enjoy a truly great game to the fullest.
Setting the opponents:
Players who choose to bid wildly often say something like: "well, I knew I couldn't set him, so I'd rather go set bidding, and just maybe I'll get lucky." That is a RIDICULOUS and completely false statement. You have no way of knowing whether you might set your opponent until you know what trumps are. So just because you have a bunch of low dominoes and offs that you can’t really bid on, you are going to bid 36 or more and hope you get lucky? What if your opponent plans to bid on aces or blanks? You thought you had a bad hand, but lo and behold you have two or three of his trumps! You could set him.
And if your partner still has a bid after you, your wild bid may have just knocked him out of a very good bid that his hand fully supported. Just because you don't have a bunch of high doubles or count, does not mean you will not set the opponent. Again, this is a RIDICULOUS way of thinking. The art of setting in 42 is highly underrated, and underpracticed, and is just as important and skillful as learning to bid and play a bid properly.
In one tournament I played, we were losing 6-5, and my partner bid 84. Our opponent, with last bid, raised him to three marks on a terrible hand simply because he “decided” he could not set my partner. We set him on the second trick and won the match. Thank you very much! We didn't have to sweat trying to make our 84. I love people who play like that. He very well may have been able to set my partner, but there is no way he could have known that until AFTER he knew what my partner's trumps were or what my partner’s off was. He chose to try to get lucky with a wild bid, when in fact either luck OR skill could have allowed him to set our 84 bid. Instead, he just basically gave us the hand and the match. Again, I love opponents who play like that. I love to sit back in a match against wild bidders and set them all day long. I have beaten teams 7-1 and 7-2 without ever playing a bid! Tell me who is the better player in that circumstance - the one who believes you should bid no matter what, and hope to get lucky, or the one who won the match?
On the issue of “show-bidding” during the initial bid process of each hand, before play, whereby using pre-arranged verbal signals contained within a specific bid amount, a partner communicates specific characteristics or dominoes in his hand to his partner, who is yet to bid.
Here are my feelings on the subject:
This practice inherently requires a private meeting and understanding in advance between partners about their signals, and thus is clearly pre-meditated cheating. Even in the complicated card game of bridge, where it is normal for some information to be learned during the bid process about others’ hands, this type of pre-arranged signaling, or cheating, between partners is called “the gravest of offenses.”
When using this practice, partners agree beforehand that a certain bid indicates they have a certain important domino in their hand; or a certain bid indicates what specific suit they are bidding on, or that they have “x” number of doubles in their hand, etc. The purpose is to hopefully allow the partner to then bid much higher on his own hand than he might have otherwise.
This practice is no less improper than talking across the board, or using a physical signal to indicate dominoes in your hand. It’s cheating, period. One of the most fundamental and important rules of 42, and what is greatly responsible for it being such a wonderful and challenging game, is that no player should know any specific information about his partner’s hand when they bid.
(Some people try to compare this practice to a tactic sometimes used during play of “indicating” doubles. But the two have absolutely NOTHING to do with each other. They are two completely different subjects. For example, one happens only during bidding, and the other happens only during play. One is secret and known only to the two partners; the other is not secret, and is available to all players. Etc. The two situations are NOT the same thing.)
Show-bidding clues can unfairly influence the partner's bid to be much higher than he was prepared to go originally, prior to knowing what specifically was in his partner's hand. Now his pass, or his 30 or 31 bid may become an 84 bid, or at least a 36. It is nothing more than pre-meditated cheating to beat someone by "talking across the board" with your bid.
I don’t want to touch on the subject in much more detail, because that could just end up teaching people how to cheat, and I don’t want to do that. But unfortunately, if you play a lot you will come across folks who cheat this way. I encourage you to seek out groups of people who openly frown on such play, and such players.
But I would like to touch on two related subjects to this topic.
First, some folks discussing the issue of show-bidding throw out the concept that by bidding 30 on your hand, your partner can then use that information to assume that you have at least some doubles in your hand, and thus take that into account for his bid. This is often called having a good “helping hand.” Such a generalization is not the same as show-bidding. If I bid anything: 30, 31, whatever, ALL THREE other players are going to assume I have some doubles, not just my partner. It doesn’t take a pre-arranged signal to figure that out!!!
However, I can bid and make 30 on a hand with no doubles at all. So you’d better not assume too much about my 30 bid. But then some people say they will purposely bid 30 to communicate to their partner that they have a good “helping hand” – meaning doubles and/or count.
Now we’re getting into the area of intent. In other words, if I bid 30 on my hand’s merits, with the full intent of playing it if not raised by other players, then I have not “show-bid” to my partner. But if I pre-arrange with my partner that I will bid 30 to tell him I have some doubles and/or count, or my hand has such-and-such domino or dominoes, then that is cheating. That is show-bidding. You did not bid your hand on its merits, and your intent of the bid is primarily to communicate secret information to your partner, to influence his own bid. In other words, you did not bid for the purpose of bidding, you bid for the purpose of telling your partner about your hand, whatever your prearranged signal means to the two of you.
I would point out that if you’re bidding 30, and you don’t know what your partner’s trumps might be for his bid, or what his offs are, then you don’t really know whether your doubles, or your entire hand, helps him much at all. It might, but it might not.
The 30 bid and the idea of your partner considering it a potential “helping hand” can be a problematic discussion in this regard, because what is one’s definition of a “helping hand”? It could be different from one player to the next. Absolutely, if your partner bids 30 you should take into account that he/she likely has a couple of doubles. That is not rocket science. You may choose to use that information to help your bid or not. But there are seven doubles after all, so you still are not going to know exactly which ones your partner may have – even if you have a couple yourself.
But if you have an understanding between partners that you will not bid 30 without two or three doubles, for example – that is cheating, just another form of show-bidding. Again, the first player’s intent is not to win the bid and play his hand; it is to tell his partner secret information.
I say again, one of the most fundamental and important rules of 42, and what is greatly responsible for it being such a wonderful game, is that no player should know any specific information about his partner’s hand when they bid. This is what makes the skill of bidding in 42 so important and challenging.
I will bid 30 – and make it – with no doubles at all in my hand. Or maybe just one double. Whatever. My honest 30 bid communicates nothing to my partner other than he has the opportunity to consider taking more risk on his hand because of it, rather than if I had passed, if he chooses to do so. That is what I consider a generic “helping hand.” My partner doesn’t know any specific dominoes or characteristics of my hand, but he now can choose to gamble that my bidding hand is stronger than a non-bidding hand in terms of hopefully providing him doubles help for his offs or trump. Anything more than that which is purposefully and secretly communicated is cheating. Period.
I love the challenge of trying to scrape out a 30 bid with a challenging hand - perhaps one that has no doubles in it whatsoever, but is still mathematically a reasonable 30 bid on its own merit. People who use the 30 bid instead for cheating deprive themselves of some of the greatness of the game of 42.
By never trying to make a 30 bid with only one double, or even NO doubles, a player has never fully learned and appreciated the wonderful breadth of the game of 42. And he has limited his own potential and growth as a player in the process. I love the challenge of trying to find a bid in a hand that others might pass on, and then making it. It is how I continue to grow and learn as a player, even having played all my life. One of my favorite examples in my book is Hand 36, where I show a hand I drew in a real game: Three trumps, four offs, no doubles. The hand is a very logical 30 bid. I bid it and made it. There was nothing lucky about it. What a thrill that was, because it almost never happens. But I've never forgotten it, and I couldn't wait to put it in my book, to show people how to be fantastic bidders. It doesn't take an expert to bid 36 or more every hand and hope he gets lucky. It does take an expert to scratch out 30 from a weak-looking hand that others wouldn't even give a second look. Hey, a mark is a mark.
I have also heard it suggested that show-bidding would be OK if all four players agreed to use the same signals, because then there is not really any “secret” being told. Every player knows what the show-bid means during the match. I can’t imagine a game of 42 whereby the teams agree that a 30 bid means you have the “x” domino, and/or “x” number of doubles, or whatever. It totally destroys part of this great game.
Part of what makes 42 great and unique is that the bidder must take a risk on his hand without knowing how much, or if at all, his partner will be able to help him (with either trumps, doubles or count). In my opinion, the best 42 players are the ones who find the best balance of maximizing their bid while minimizing their risk – and then read other players’ hands during play. The excitement and challenge of the game comes in not knowing where certain dominoes are during the bid – in your partner’s hand, or your opponents – and which opponent? . . and then slowly discovering or guessing where some of them are during the course of the first few tricks, and adjusting play accordingly if necessary. If everyone knows where most or all the keys dominoes are beforehand, then 42 is reduced simply to a game of luck – pretty much like all other card games. The strategy and risk is all but eliminated. This is why I love 42 so much – when played properly and smartly, it minimizes luck and rewards strategy more than most any other game.
If your group wants to play with agreed-to bid signals among all four players, fine, but I think I lay out a pretty good case for why that diminishes the game – no one can ever bid or play or appreciate a true 30 bid in such a game. In such a game, the opponent is much less likely to bid at all once you bid, because he may have just learned that you have the domino or dominoes that will set him. He won’t even risk a bid at that point. I know I wouldn’t. So you lost the opportunity to set him and win a mark. Such bidding practices greatly ruin the strategy, the offense, the defense, the setting, the risk-taking – just about everything that could otherwise be part of the game. If your bid signal means you have the double-five, your opponent will definitely not bid with a five-off and risk that his partner may help him, because he already knows you have it. Again, you lost the opportunity to set him and win a mark – which would have happened if you kept the location of the double-five a secret during bidding.
Setting is vastly underrated, undertaught and underappreciated as a critical skill in 42. Great 42 players take as much or more pride in setting the opponent with strategic plays than they do by making a bid. And the art and challenge of honest bidding is short-changed when a player resorts to cheating through showbidding.
The true and full extent of challenge, excitement, strategy and reward of the game of 42, both bidding and setting, can only be realized when no one knows anything specific about another player’s hand during the bid process.
(Posted with permission)