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February 25, 2001
Plus and Minus Point Count

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 33, No 2 - March/April 2001

Every skilled profession knows the limits of the tools they use. Understanding the limitations helps you apply them properly, knowing when to trust them completely, and when to use them in a more general way.

According to The Encyclopedia of Bridge, the point count system for high-card valuation that we use today was introduced by Bryan McCampbell in 1915 and later publicized by Milton Work. It is frequently referred to as Work Point Count. To use it effectively you must understand its limitations. Realize that it is merely an estimating tool. A device to help estimate the number of potential tricks that the hand may contain.

Hand shape has much to do with the accuracy of point count. On balanced hands the tool is absolutely the most precise. With two balanced hands and 25-26 points you will be able to take 9 tricks in no trump (10 tricks with a trump suit) much more than 50% of the time. So when your hands are balanced you can trust the trick-taking prediction of point count unquestionably. However, the more unbalanced your hands, the less and less accurate this tool becomes as a predictor. Look at this extreme example:

spade.gif (842 bytes)
heart.gif (841 bytes)AKQJ1098765432
diamond.gif (837 bytes)
club.gif (841 bytes)

No one would question your ability to bid and make a grand slam in hearts. Yet, calculate what point count would predict. 10 high-card points plus 3 voids at 5 points apiece for a total of 25 points. Point count predicts that you should just bid game. Should you stop using point count? The answer is no, simply learn to recognize when it is most exact and when it is less reliable. The more unbalanced your hand, the less reliable point count becomes as a trick prediction tool.

Another thing that you must understand is that all points are not created equal. For ease of memory the structure was set up as 4 points for an ace, 3 for a king, and so on. The reality is that aces and kings are worth more than the points assigned. Queens and jacks are worth slightly less than the value they are assigned.

My estimate of the true value of each honor card:

Look at these two hands:

Example A Example B
spade.gif (842 bytes)Kxx spade.gif (842 bytes)Qxx
heart.gif (841 bytes)Axx heart.gif (841 bytes)Qxx
diamond.gif (837 bytes)xxxx diamond.gif (837 bytes)Qxxx
club.gif (841 bytes)Jxx club.gif (841 bytes)Qxx

Both hands count to 8 points, yet Example A is a much more valuable hand than is Example B. Its raw trick taking potential is simply greater.

It is too difficult to count your hand using my suggested scale. Rather, use the standard 4-3-2-1 scale and assign a plus or minus value to the point count based upon the particular honors you hold. If the hand is predominately aces/kings then it gets a plus. If it is predominately queens /jacks then it gets a minus.

I would count Example A as 8+ and count Example B as 8-. This plus/minus factor can be used to help make close decisions. On a hand that is just on the threshold of game values I would bid the game if my hand was plus and decline if my hand was minus.

Remember that plus means you have not given the hand all the point count value it deserves and that minus means you have already given it more than it is worth.

There are other factors that can be evaluated in order to determine whether a hand is a plus or minus hand.

Position of honors with respect to the bidding:

Example C Example D
spade.gif (842 bytes)KJx spade.gif (842 bytes)x
heart.gif (841 bytes)Qxxx heart.gif (841 bytes)KJxx
diamond.gif (837 bytes)Kxx diamond.gif (837 bytes)QJxx
club.gif (841 bytes)Qxx club.gif (841 bytes)Kxxx

Example C is neutral with regard to ace/king versus queen/jack, but what if LHO bids spades? Now the value of your spade.gif (842 bytes)K and spade.gif (842 bytes)J is questionable. It is very likely that they are in a poor position. I would value the hand at 11-. On the other hand, if RHO bids spades then the value of the spade.gif (842 bytes)K and spade.gif (842 bytes)J has increased. If RHO bids spades I would value the hand as 11+.

Example D is worth 13 points if a heart fit is present. I would value the hand at 13+ if either opponent bids spades since none of my values are wasted in the spade suit where they would be of little value to partner. I would value the hand at 13- if partner bid spades using the same rationale.

Honor cards together are worth more:

Example E Example F
Dummy Dummy
spade.gif (842 bytes)Kxx spade.gif (842 bytes)KQx
heart.gif (841 bytes)Qxx heart.gif (841 bytes)xxx
Declarer Declarer
spade.gif (842 bytes)xxx spade.gif (842 bytes)xxx
heart.gif (841 bytes)xxx heart.gif (841 bytes)xxx

Both Examples E and F contain 5 points of value in the spade and heart suits combined. Yet, the trick taking potential for Example F is substantially greater.

Evaluate each in turn:

Example E is worth 1/2 spade trick (1 trick if the spade.gif (842 bytes)A is with LHO and 0 tricks if the spade.gif (842 bytes)A is with RHO) plus 1/4 heart trick (1 trick if the heart.gif (841 bytes)A and heart.gif (841 bytes)K are both with LHO and 0 tricks if the top heart honors are split or both with RHO). That totals to a trick taking potential of 3/4 of a trick.

Example F is worth 1 and 1/2 spade tricks (1 trick if the spade.gif (842 bytes)A is with RHO and 2 tricks if the spade.gif (842 bytes)A is with LHO) and 0 heart tricks.

Both examples are have a value of 5 points, but the trick taking potential of Example F is twice that of Example E. Hands where honors are predominately together in the same suit(s) are awarded a plus. Hands where the honors are predominately separated in all the suits get a minus.

Dont be a slave to point count. Look more closely in how the honors relate and try to use the finer points to help you make those close decisions. Your game will be better for it. Let me hear from you.

Gary King

2001 The Bridge Companion. All rights reserved.