Penality – the unit of measuring doubles


Chaos and primitivism reign in the area of doubling. The meanings of doubles are defined in far too simplistic manner compared with the variety of situations we face in the bridge life. Thus, we loose many opportunities to penalize opponents or to facilitate our own bid­ding by means of doubling. Moreover, it frequently happens that a double is completely dif­ferently understood by both partners even when the situation seems perfectly clear:  

„International Popular Bridge Monthly”  August 1986  Problem 5





































    (a)  What would you bid now ?

    (b)  You are playing with a strange partner

                 – would you have alerted the double ?

Landy:  Pass.  The double is for penalty.

Hamilton:  2©.  The double is for take out.

Soloway:  Pass.  Partner is weak in Diamonds.

Zia:  2©.  North cannot have a hand to double for penalty.

Forrester:  I do not alert. How can I alert with no idea what partner has.

Codge:  I alert since I cannot lose whereas not alerting may often prove to be costly.  

 A Q x x x

 Q J x

 Q J

 x x x

The lack of unanimity among such eminent experts is striking !

The simplistic proposition that a double is either for penalty (forcing to pass) or for take out (forcing to bid) and nothing in between, is too rigid, absurd, simplistic and puerile. Bridge is just too subtle a game for such a proposition to be tenable, as most players will admit and as justifiably proven below.

Like any other bid a double is a proposition which may be accepted or not by responder depending on circumstances. What is there­fore re­quired is a general theory and system of natural doubles which can be understood by all players and applied with reasoable confi­dence like hand valuation. The system will be called SAND, which stands for:


SAND is a system intended to cater for all types of doubles, natural and conventional. It makes it always obvious with what type of hand the double was made and with what hand and when to accept or take out a double.     

The fundamental character of any given bid can be defined as the suggestions it contains as to further course of the auction. Extending this to doubles, we easily arrive to the con­clusion that:   The most important attribute of a double is its  „PENALITY”

ie the power with which the double expresses doubler's will to play the contract doubled, or – in other words – his readiness to penalize the opponents, or – in other words – doubler’s degree of inclination to penalize.

The word “Penality” seems best fitting and means ‘the ability to penalize’ as against ‘penalty’ which has a much more static property. The idea was to use one single word; ‘Penalty Range’ would also fit the bill but was rejected for that reason.

How is the penality measured ?

As penality increases it becomes much more profitable to penalize the opponents and ac­cept the double, and as it decreases the opposite applies, with cases in betweeen. de­pending on hands. For convenience we shall measure penality by a percentage, as shown in the table below:


Suggestions  to partner

Colloquial description of the double



Pass !        (ie accept the double)




   Rather pass !

Semi–penalty, penalty–oriented



Choose !          (at your choice)

Optional (competitive? coopera­tive?)



   Rather bid !  

Semi–takeout, takeout–oriented



Bid !            (ie takeout the double)

Take out

Penality < 0% or > 100% may occur !  

What does the doubler have ?

Knowing the penality of the partner’s double allows us to picture his actual hand pretty well:

„Tell me the penality and I will be able to tell with what kind of hand you doubled. All the better too, the greater my experience and knowledge.”  (a certain minimum is assumed)

The relationship between the penality of a double and the kind of hand the doubler has is, approximately, as follows:


The greater the penality, the greater the length/strength in the doubled suit – and the smaller the length/strength in other suits (and, especially, in our suits).


For average penality (50%) those values (length/strength) are average.


The hand should contain some surplus values, making it feasible to take some action.


Shortage of distributional defensive values can be made up by possession of surplus honor strength.

What does the penality of a hand mean ?

The notion is analogous to the penality of the double, and may be defined as below:


The penality of your hand = P if...




holding this hand in a given doubling situation

you would like the double to have the penality = P



Consider this se­quence:








The penality of South hand may vary:








































Obviously, with any of those holdings – with the penality P – South would be satisfied most if by prior agreement with partner (or common sense) his double in that sequence had the penality equaling P. Ufortunately, for obvious reasons this is not possible.

How to handle the doubles ?

The notion of penality (of a double and of a hand) enable us to formulate very clear rules:


Double if...  

the penality of your hand = penality of the double


One should assess the value of the hand in respect of “penality”.

If the penality of your hand is TOO SMALL (remember that negative values, even minus 50%, are possible), the opponents may fulfil the doubled contract.

If the penality of your hand is TOO GREAT, you will be (usually) in big trouble when – quite likely – your partner removes the double. It may turn out that the contract declared by our side would not be any adequate compensation for the opponents' loss in their undou­bled contract, and even more, no contract could be made by our side (the greater the pe­nality of your hand, the smaller the chance of making any contract).

The experiences with SAND have shown that with 50% excess of penality a pass is in or­der, not worrying about the result (this is also true when the pe­nality of the hand is 150%, while the penality of the double is only 100 %).

Partner‘s action in response to the suggestions largely depends on the type of hand he possesses. It would be impossible to make a sensible decision by acting automatically in response to the doubler’s suggestions as is often foolishly recommended; cooperation is required to deal with doubles satisfactorily:


Accept the double if...




distributional penality of your hand  +  penality of the double    100%


Why only „distributional penality” ?

Well, you can do nothing about the lack of honor strength („accident at work”). Accepting the double may lead to the contract made, while takeout may cause even worse disaster. Therefore, it pays better to pass (the distribution is favorable) hoping for partner's addi­tional (hidden) defensive values and... excellent defence.

Deviations from required penality:

Bidding is a statistical process – each decision is uncertain by its very nature and even those statistically optimal are uncertain (due to imperfectness of algorithms and human mind). Thus, the calculation of penality of the hand is also uncertain.

Too small penality of the hand can be compensated by surplus honor values, since it re­duces the threat of the opponents’ making of the doubled contract (at worst, the size of the penalty will be too small – which will cause the loss but not a disaster).

Too great penality of the hand can also be compensated by surplus honor values ! – since if partner removes the double we have enough in reserve to correct the contract.

Those recommendation are in line with the general directive: The greatest the deviation from the hand expected by partner, the greatest surplus honor values we should have.

What should the penalities of doubles be ?

Obviously, it’s useless to adopt agreements like „All are positive” (100%) or “All (up to a certain level) are negative” (0%), and agreeing on something like “In this sequence the double has the penality from 0 to 50%” would be even worse. Appointing exact penality to each double would be best, and any deviations and doubts concerning the penality of ac­tual hand should be left to a player.

The penality of a double depends on the auction so far ...