Knowing when to make a penalty double (a bridge bid that tells your partner and the world that the opponents have overreached themselves) is truly the hallmark of a winning player. You’re most apt to lash the opponents with a penalty double after they’ve bid to a game contract or higher.

Nobody bids perfectly. Accidents happen, and signals get crossed. Here’s a short list of some of the ways that their (and your) bidding can go awry:

  • Hope springs eternal: Some players see every hand through rose-colored glasses. Consequently, they overbid frequently. They wind up in stratospheric contracts that they can’t possibly make.

  • Misunderstandings: Each partner interprets a bid differently, sometimes very differently. Don’t be surprised if at some point in an auction your partner thinks that you have a great hand when you’ve been trying to get the message across that your hand couldn’t take a trick even if your opponents got up and left the table. Trouble looms.

  • Sacrifice bidding: The opponents may decide that their hands just stink. They may prefer to lose points taking the contract away from you (even though they know that they can’t make what they bid) instead of letting you bid and make your contract.

When one of the scenarios in the preceding list takes place, either you or your partner must be on the ready to wield your most potent and dreaded weapon: the penalty double.

A penalty double tells your partner (and your opponents) that you think that your opponents have made a big mistake and that they can’t make their contract. Penalty doubles usually take place toward the end or at the end of a bidding sequence (after you give them enough rope to hang themselves).

After you say “double” (just that one word), your partner usually passes. Of course, you can double them again if they extract themselves (running) from the frying pan by escaping to another contract.

If you double the opponents and they don’t make their contract, you get at least twice as many points as you would have received if you hadn’t doubled. Of course, if they make a doubled contract, they rack up twice the points they would normally get for making the contract.