In the Balancing Seat
Balancing — taking some action when passing will end the auction — was covered in an earlier chapter, but only in routine auctions, such as when an opening bid of one of a suit is followed by two passes or when the opponents bid and raise a suit and opt to bid no higher. It is established that it can be beneficial to try to push them one level higher with some kind of action.
When the opening bid was at the two level or higher and the next two players pass, the person in the passout seat will have objectives that differ vastly from the typical balancing decision.
The fact that the opening bidder has started the auction so much higher means that if you bid, you may have to do so at a level that is not justified by the cards you hold. Yes, as in other balancing situations, you will be bidding partner's cards as well as your own, but even if partner has more than you have a right to expect, it might not be enough.
Also, when balancing over a pre-empt, you are not trying to push the opponents to a higher level. You are trying to claim what is yours. In many of these cases, it's your hand. You just have to figure out where to play it.
No Bid, No Fit
In these days of aggressive bidding, it is normal for the partner of the pre-emptive bidder to increase the pre-emption when he has support for opener's suit. There is a measure of safety when your side has an abundance of trumps, and most astute players take advantage of that, especially when not vulnerable, even more so when the opponents are.
What that means for you in the balancing seat is that if the bidding goes 2 ♥ — Pass — Pass, there is a fair likelihood that your RHO does not have a fit for the opening bidder. That might or might not be a danger sign. Just because opener's partner lacks a fit does not mean he is loaded and just waiting for you to take some action so that he can pounce on you with a penalty double. He could simply have a weak hand. If that is the case, however, why didn't your partner do something?
Here are possible explanations for partner's failure to act over the pre-empt:
Partner has a poor hand that does not justify taking action.
Partner has a good hand but does not have a long suit to bid and does not have a stopper in opener's suit and cannot make a takeout double because he cannot stand for you to bid a particular suit.
Partner has a good hand and a hefty holding in the opener's suit and is hoping you will balance with a double so that he can convert it to penalty by passing and thereby collect a big number.
You must consider all of these possibilities when you find yourself in the balancing seat after an opening pre-empt has been followed by two passes.
If you find a partner who is disciplined enough to pass a good hand over a pre-empt when she has no good action, sign her to a long-term contract if you can. She is a winning player, in contrast to those who have been heard to say after a bidding disaster, “But I had to bid … I had 14 points.”
Being short in opener's suit is the first hint that a double might work out best for your side. Be careful, however, about doubling just because you have only one or two cards in opener's suit. If your hand is weak, your partner's trump tricks may be the only tricks for your side. To double in the balancing seat when partner might pass for penalty, you should have a minimum of two quick tricks.
Second, consider whether you will be happy about putting your hand down as dummy should your partner bid in response to your double. Sometimes partner will have length in opener's suit without good spots and will decide to bid even when she has a few of opener's trumps. Sometimes partner has no semblance of a trump trick and simply has to bid. She won't be happy to find a doubleton in the suit she selects.
Of course, there will be many occasions when your course of action in the passout seat will be clear-cut. Perhaps you will have a long, strong suit to bid. You might have the equivalent of a 1NT opener (with a stopper in opener's suit). You can show that by bidding 2NT in the balancing seat. You might have a classic takeout double with a bit extra to compensate for the higher level of the bidding.
The bottom line, however, is that those nasty pre-empts will make your life miserable when you don't have any easy decision in fourth seat. As with other competitive decisions, you will be well served to try to be consistent in your courses of action, and disciplined enough to pass when you know it's right. You will not win every battle with a pre-empt — that's why players throw them at you — but you will profit in the long run with a sound, disciplined approach.