Signalling from the Top
Several months back a correspondent asked for advice – almost as if to an 'agony column'. His partner, he confided, wanted to adopt upside-down signals, "were they a good thing?".
Signalling, we should define our terms: it is the legitimate way defenders communicate. When not seeking to win a trick or establish future tricks ('necessary cards') one has freedom selecting from the remaining cards. Such occasions occur routinely following to partner's honour-lead, playing 'second hand low', when discarding and more.
The word 'signal' applies to follow-suit signalling though like many bridge terms, it is overworked. But that at least preserves a difference with 'discard' – when not following suit – and explains 'Signals & Discards' on system cards. Once signalling was uniform: to encourage a suit you played unnecessarily high, to show you held an even number you played high-then-low. The first is an attitude signal, the second count (or length).
There is no reason why high should go with liking and even-count; in some parts of the world it is usual for low to encourage – and high-then-low for odd, not even. That gets called 'reverse' where the other arrangement is the norm – but that's confusing if you come from those places where it is the norm. Thus the preferred nomenclature is 'standard' for high-low is encouraging/even and 'upside-down' for high-low is discouraging/odd. Naturally there's no reason why you shouldn't play standard for count and upside-down for attitude – or vice versa. Add to the mix options for discards and you have a murky brew. It's always worth asking opponents what they do.
I don't believe there is a clinching argument for superiority. But should you switch? Maybe: keeping partner happy has high priority and, strange as it might seem, changing methods is relatively painless. Even playing different mixes with different partners is nothing like the headache of multiple bidding systems. Much better to be on the same wavelength when it comes to when you signal and what you signal. If you rarely indicate attitude partner has to work very hard – but then so does declarer. If you are a frequent count signaller, then partner can often picture the whole hand easily – but then, so can declarer. You and partner have to accept the pitfalls as well as the benefits.
Showing honours by the play of low cards is necessary because you need your honours to take tricks. But sometimes you can; when you have a solid sequence you signal with the highest. But methods and philosophy can muddy this primordial signal. This deal came from the Swiss Teams at the Peebles Winter Congress (sadly, the last ever), both vulnerable dealer North, you are South:
- Five-card major in a strong no-trump context
Your lead of the diamond queen goes four, seven (high discouraging), ace. Declarer leads a low heart, nine (high even), queen, king; partner returns the diamond three to the nine and king. East finesse in trumps, five, four, queen to your king. You cash the diamond knave and partner discards the heart knave (high encouragement): do you play the fourth diamond or something else?
I expect you can guess what happened: North held the spade knave and could have overruffed dummy, the club ace would have been the setting trick. But South's heart play allowed declarer to draw trumps and claim (♠AQ963 A65A1042 5). Signalling is communication and there is no right answer if one player isn't able to read the signs – whichever way up.
Full Deal (not in the newspaper):
I have wanted to do a 'public service announcement' on signalling terminology for some time. The correspondence was real and my advice about changing methods and the greater importance of agreeing a philosophy reasonably summarised above. I was reminded of it when the featured deal occurred recently with the partner with whom I most see eye-to-eye on approach. Unfortunately there are few things more painful in a partnership than a defence gone wrong.
I was North and threw the heart knave on the third diamond 'to make it clear' I did not have the heart ace – but it did not. We are rare signallers, seldom giving count and making few revealing discards (only one in the event's six sessions). That led partner to think my heart pitch was a wake-up/alarm-call not to play another diamond. As North I didn't know the diamond count but I knew a heart was ineffective (either minor would be better). It took dummy to point out that given I could afford the knave, if I had the ace as well, I could have discarded that instead.
I'm convinced of the priority of honour-signals – they are ur-signals which, when absent, the complications of spot-card signalling methods attempt to replace. Nevertheless I stand by the conclusion written; if your signals aren't communicating then it's a partnership job to fix them.
Published Saturday 14.Dec.2019