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July 4, 2000

Matchpoint Strategy

The Scorecard is the publication for ACBL District 16. I was asked and consented to write
a regular column aimed at the 0-299 masterpoint player. I will post my columns here as
they may be of benefit to the same readers that benefit from my newsletter.

Scorecard, Volume 32, No 4 - July/August 2000

How best to improve your results in a matchpoint pairs game? What is the best methodology?
The answer is the same thing that is taught in business schools … continuous
incremental improvement. Try to improve some aspect of your game each and every time that
you play. As I have stated in previous columns, play each hand as though it was for a
national championship. Work on your concentration and try to stay focused for the three
hours it takes to complete a matchpoint game. If you are not tired at the end of the
session then you have not tried hard enough. It is important to keep your focus even on
those games that have gone poorly.

When you examine the recap sheet that is posted following the game, one of the numbers
that is usually shown is percentage game. Do you know what this means or how it is
calculated? A 100% game would mean that you received a top on every board. A 0% game would
mean that you received a bottom on every board. Neither of these results is realistically
possible. A 50% game (called average) means that, in general, your scores beat the other
pairs half the time. The number is calculated by taking the total number of matchpoints
that you received and dividing it by the total number of matchpoints that were possible
(top times the number of boards played).

A quick example will make things more clear. If you played 27 boards and the top result on
any board is 8, then the total number of matchpoints possible is 216 (27 x 8 = 216). If
you and partner racked up 108 matchpoints then you had a 50% game (108/216 = .500). If you
and partner scored 130 matchpoints then you had a 60% game (130/216 = .602). If you and
partner scored 76 matchpoints then you had a 35% game (78/216 = .352).

Just what does it take to win? The pair with the greatest matchpoint score! Generally what
does it take to win? A number of years ago the ACBL studied the results from a regional
tournament. The results showed that a 57% game would win the section about half the time.
Coming in first half of the time is a good goal, so you should aim at consistently posting
a 57% game.

How best to achieve a 57% game? One school of thought is that you go for the gold on every
hand. Have you ever set out with the goal of a top on any given hand? I would estimate
that if you try for a top that you could get one (if you are really good) about one time
out of four. The problem comes when you realize that when you try for a top and fail that
what you receive is a bottom or zero. Let us assume for a minute that you are better than
good, in fact you are great. Let us assume that you can get a top every other time you
try. That is twice the rate that I think is even achievable. Out of every two hands you
will get one top and one bottom. What percentage game is that? Matchpoints won divided by
matchpoints possible on an 8 top that would be 8/16 (.500) or about a 50% game. If you are
merely mortal like the rest of us and get only one in four it would be 8/32 (.250) or
about a 25% game. That simply does not work as a solid plan to post 57% consistently.

My way of thinking is less dramatic and more down the middle. What if instead of the chase
the top strategy you adopted a goal of getting exactly ½ or 1 point over average on every
hand? In our mythical game if 8 is top, then 4 is average. One-half point over average
would be a matchpoint score of 4½ on each hand. What percentage game would that produce?
27 hands times 4½ matchpoints per board is 121½. 121½ divided by 216 (theoretical
maximum) is a 56+% game!

How do you go about getting ½ matchpoint over average on every hand? That answer is
straightforward. Simply do the normal thing! If you do the normal thing then you benefit
from any mistakes made by your true opponents. By the way, you do know that your true
opponents are the other pairs sitting the same direction at the other tables and not the
guys at the table with you, right?

To illustrate the point look at a quick example from our imaginary game. On Board #1 every
pair achieves exactly the same result by playing 4 and taking 10 tricks, therefore
everyone gets average. On Board #2 every pair except one achieves the same result (one
pair decides to play 3NT and only takes 9 tricks). Look at how that changes the matchpoint
result:

NS# |
Board #1 |
MP |
Board #2 |
MP |

1 |
+420 | 4 | +420 | 4½ |

2 |
+420 | 4 | +420 | 4½ |

3 |
+420 | 4 | +420 | 4½ |

4 |
+420 | 4 | +420 | 4½ |

5 |
+420 | 4 | +420 | 4½ |

6 |
+420 | 4 | +420 | 4½ |

7 |
+420 | 4 | +420 | 4½ |

8 |
+420 | 4 | +420 | 4½ |

9 |
+420 | 4 | +400 | 0 |

So what does this illustration teach us? Do the normal thing and avoid like the plague
doing something stupid that will take your result away from the group. Safety (and above
average!) lies with the group. You want to be in the same contract as everyone else. To
bid to a different contract represents danger. You can no longer achieve that slightly
above average result. Be consistent in your efforts. Avoid zeroes, but graciously accept
gifts (such as the E-W pair that played Board #2 above against our N-S #9 and received a
top for nothing more than playing against N-S #9 at the right time). Part of consistency
also includes taking all the tricks that your side is due on both offense and defense.

As you play the game, keep your goal in mind. You want to aim for just over average on
each hand. A brief lapse in concentration may cost you dearly if it results in an
avoidable error (and therefore a "zero"). Keep your focus and stay consistent.
Let me hear from you.

Thanks!

Gary King