The Bidding Game
The bidding game is the shorter of a hand's two phases, but since it decides the way the hand will play out and which team will have the advantage when the tricks are played, it is arguably the more important. The general strategy of bidding can said to be to bid as low as possible while still winning the bid, or winning the bid with as many marks as possible in the case of very strong or bizarre hands. For a skilled 42 player, bidding is never haphazard - it is a heavily weighed decision based upon three factors. These are the strength of a player's hand, the previous players' bids, and the emotional reactions of players. These must be considered together to make an informed bid and give the highest probablility of victory. In reverse order, they break down as follows:
- Emotional reactions, as in poker, can be invaluable in determining whether a hand is good or bad relative to the other players. Having a mediocre hand, but looking across the table at a happy partner and two positively glum opponents may be reason to shift a bid higher. Just as in poker, the "poker-face", reverse-psychology, attentiveness, lie detection and general telepathy go a long way here, and can easily decide the outcome of the hand if properly used.
- Previous bids are a dynamic factor. When one is sitting to the left of the shaker this hand and must bid first, this valuable information is not available. For this reason, this is the weakest position to be in during the bidding game. Unless the given hand is very strong, it is typically wise to pass or bid 30 when in this position. By contrast, the shaker is in the strongest position, as she will have some idea of the caliber of every other hand at the table when making her bid. Put this way, it is easy to see why shaking passes to the left each hand - the most disadvantaged player this hand is in the strongest position next. It is usually easy to decide how to bid when bidding last - one simply weighs the chances of the given hand winning against the given minimum bid. For players further up the order, the attainability of a bid must be weighed against the chance of being outbid, the actual occurrence of which would often render a good hand useless.
- The strength of a hand is the primary consideration in bidding for most players. This is measured in terms of how many points a hand is likely to win or could possibly win, which in turn determines the viable bidding range. It is measured both in terms of strong dominoes and weak dominoes, as well as trump choices and effective combinations. More on this in a moment.
The general sequence for deciding on an appropriate bid is as follows. First, determine how many points the given hand is likely to achieve and is capable of achieving. There are no hard and fast rules for this, but some guidelines will be detailed below. Next, adjust this figure based on the emotional reactions of partner and opponents and the caliber of prior bids. Finally, bid the lowest number that can be bid such that following players are unlikely to outbid you, or pass if this figure is outside the attainable range. Under some circumstances it is wise to consider passing on a good hand if one's partner obviously wants control as demonstrated by bidding high or looking confident. Likewise, one might consider outbidding an opponent even on a weak hand if said opposition appears certain of victory. Further, when bidding third and seeing the two prior players pass it is often effective to pass also, possibly forcing the shaking opponent to bid on a weak hand and lose. Be careful though - it is exactly this sort of psychological dueling which can win or lose hands in the bidding stage. When unsure, fall back on statistics and the strength of the known hand. In the event of a hand possibly meriting special rules, carefully consider the chance of success before making a bid, especially when bidding more than one mark. Special bidding and special rules are covered in more depth in the third article of this series.
On the Strength of a Hand
It is vital that one learn to recognize the strength of a hand and be able to estimate how many points that hand will be likely to net. Generally, this entails formulating a strategy for the hand and identifying the strengths and weaknesses of said strategy. The previous article listed the strengths and weaknesses of various dominoes and dominoe combinations, as well as the basic building blocks of strategy. When picking up a new hand, first look for potential trump suits. Any suit of which a hand contains three or more is a viable trump suit, however, it is usually best not to bid if they are three of the lowest in that suit. Having four of a viable trump makes for a much stronger hand, and occasionally players will even win by picking a trump of which they only have two - typically the 6/6 and 6/4, or 5/5 and 5/6. Usually, a good hand will have the double of the selected trump. Having more trumps is a twofold advantage - a trump is both a domino that is an effective weapon and a domino that cannot be a weakness. Be aware that any hand which contains 7 of the same suit wins automatically, and as such merits a high bid. This will happen to a player only once in every 140,957 hands, approximately, so it may be some time between occurrences.
Once a viable trump suit is selected, take a look at the other dominos in the hand. Pay special attention to points and very weak dominos. With any strategy, it is important to consider how points will be won - both those in the players hand and those in the hands of the partner and opponents. Also pay attention to how weaker dominoes may prevent trumping an important trick, allowing the opposition to take points and possibly stop. A solid bidding hand should be able to:
- Pull out or neutralize all the trumps that are in other hands, as early as possible.
- Win or trump against every, or nearly every suit. It is especially important to be able to win or trump on 4's, 5's and 6's.
- Contain no trash dominoes or, as is more likely, be able to safely hand off control mid-hand to ditch these trash dominoes.
- Be able to lead and win points and pull out points in other players' hands.
Determining a Number
Once a strategy for a given hand has been decided upon, an evaluation of risks is necessary. An estimation of how many points a hand might fail to capture is used directly to determine a viable bid. The most common bids are 30, 31 and 32, and although this seems like a small range of numbers, the point values represent very different goals. 30 is considered an easy bid because one can lose up to ten points in two tricks and still make the bid. By contrast, bidding a scant one point higher, at 31, removes the extra trick margin for error, and while loss of a ten-pointer or two fives is survivable, one additional trick beyond this will stop the bid. 32 is, then, a very difficult bid - both ten-pointers and at least two of the the three five-pointers must be captured for a victory. Interestingly, the significance of a higher bid drops off after this vital number - losing a ten point or two five points remains the primary reason for a stop on bids of 33, 34, and 35. The discrepancy begins to grow again above this point, where the loss of a five-pointer means certain failure. With experience, players will usually find that the vast majority of bids are 30 or 31, with an occasional 32 being bid on a strong hand.
Once the bid is made and won, it is time to follow through on the strategy selected, frequently using the methods detailed in the first part of this series. In the last installment, the very high and special bids will be covered, as well as special rules for mark bids.