069: Bidding the opponents’ suit, Part 2

Bidding the opponents’ suit, Part 2: Showing first-round controls

Using a bid of the opponents’ suit in order to show a first-round control (either the Ace or a void) is a traditional interpretation that has been around for a long time. These cue bids come as part of a bidding sequence that has a specific feature:

  • A trump suit must have been determined. This is usually done by both partners bidding the same suit in a strong auction, but sometimes is done by implication.

Bids after the trump suit is agreed are showing controls and not legitimate suits. Once you’ve agreed a trump suit, there is no point in going looking for another one; you’re forcing to game, suggesting the potential of a slam, and trying to pinpoint potential problems in making your contract.

shutterstock_1796904Here’s a sequence to illustrate the first type: 1D/(1H)/3D/ … etc.  Diamonds have been bid by both partners and this agrees the trump suit. (And note, 3D is understood by both partners to be strong.) Thus, any subsequent heart bid by the diamond bidders indicates first-round control of hearts. So 1D/(1H)/3D/P/3H shows that first-round heart control and is part of a standard cue-bidding sequence that shows controls. This is how improving bidders do things; they don’t merely rely on pushing the Blackwood button to find out how many aces are held by the partnership. Note that 3H is the cheapest possible bid and is still many bids below the game level in diamonds; it will allow the partners to exchange information about controls without getting the auction too high, as often happens when you use Blackwood when your trump suit is a minor.

Playing Cards In Hand

Note that there’s another informative sequence available; 1D/(1H)/3D/P/3S (or any bid other than 3H). 3S says, “I have first-round control of spades but not of hearts.” In a cue-bidding sequence, when you bypass a suit, you deny having that specific control (the principle is known as “up the line”). If the 3S bidder later bids hearts naturally (i.e., not as a response to Blackwood), it shows second-round control — perhaps a singleton heart. And if the sequence is 1D/(1H)/3D/P/4C, the 4C bidder is denying first-round control in both hearts and spades. If you don’t have controls to show, merely return to the trump suit: 1D/(1H)/3D/P/4D gives your partner the bad news.

The second type mentioned above is when you agree a trump suit by implication.  For instance, 1S/(2D)/4C. The 4C bidder has used a splinter bid to show good support for spades, at least four cards, and a useful club shortage that is the best feature of the hand. The splinter agrees spades as trumps by implication. If the auction now continues like this, 1S/(2D)/4C/P/4D, the spade opener is showing first-round control of the opponents’ diamond suit. And, as above, if it continues 1S/(2D)/4C/P/4H, the 4H bidder is denying that diamond control by skipping over it.

Of course, both partners need to have a fairly strong hand in order to make this worthwhile.  And please note, this is a traditional bidding methodology. My next article will be on “Western Cue Bids” which are a more modern development; when one side is trying to get to 3NT after the opponents have bid a suit.



068: Bidding the opponents’ suit, Part 1

41K5JKDPHPLFirst of all I should say that this series of posts has been directly inspired by the excellent bridge writer David Bird, who lays this out completely in his book from 2000 called 10 Ways To Improve Your Bridge. The other nine are just as good, and you should buy a copy if you can find one, here for instance.  (I don’t get any money, it’s just a good well-written bridge book for an improving intermediate.)

His first method is called “Bidding the Opponents’ Suit” and it, of course, is my topic here. Over the years I’ve been struck by a certain … reluctance among beginning bridge players to use cue bids (when you bid a suit that the opponents bid first, that’s called a “cue bid”) to help their bidding along. I suspect there’s an underlying terror at the prospect that partner will forget! and somehow assume you want to play in that suit! and leave you there!! Partner will rarely forget, because after all the bid does kind of stick out, and if she does you’ll have a story to tell on her forever. 😉 But as you become accustomed to bids that don’t mean what they say (like, takeout doubles) you’ll become more comfortable with cue bidding. It has the possibility of adding a layer of nuances that would otherwise not be available.

thSo I thought I would go through and give as many meanings as possible for various ways in which you can cue bid. Some of these entries will be brief, like this one; most of you will already be familiar with Michaels. This comes under the heading of “opponents open, your side hasn’t yet bid”, which is an important distinction in some respects because most cue bidding seems to take place when “your side opens, opponents intervene”.

I’ve mentioned cue bidding before, most notably here, but I wanted to organize a lot of information in a series for your convenience.

Bidding the opponents’ suit, Part 1: Michaels cue bid

“Michaels” is a way of cue bidding in order to show your partner a two-suited hand. Here’s how it works.  Your RHO opens 1 of a suit, and you bid two of that suit.  There’s a range of meanings:

  • 1C/2C, or 1D/2D, the cue bidder is showing both majors. This is usually two five-card suits but by partnership agreement can be 5-4. The usual agreement is “at least” 5-5; I’ve seen it done with 7-6.
  • 1H/2H, the cue bidder is showing a five-card spade suit and a five-card minor, as yet unspecified.
  • 1S/2S, the cue bidder is showing a five-card heart suit and a five-card minor, as yet unspecified.


That’s all there is to it. I prefer not to get too specific about the point range; it depends on the vulnerability, your degree of personal bravery, and that evanescent thing, the “state of the match”. I’ve always felt that Michaels had good destructive potential and it possibly shouldn’t be regarded as entirely a constructive bid; not vul against vul, with good distribution (5-5-3-0), I’d be in there with a VERY low point count, perhaps 6, looking for a potential sacrifice. Vul against not, I’d want the equivalent of an opening bid and at least one good suit. Partner will know which kind you hold at the point you pass.

It’s rare that the auction goes 1X/Pass/Pass/2X. Many people would take that as being a very strong hand, not necessarily with reference to Michaels; the 2X bidder is saying, “Partner, I have a monster, let’s get to game.” I strongly suggest you should talk this over with your partner; you’ll find this treatment used a lot among older players, because it dates back to early Goren. Note the difference between that sequence and Pass/1X/Pass/Pass/2X. THAT’s what a reopening Michaels should look like, because the cue bidder has already passed.

As I wrote about recently in a post on Roman overcalls, Michaels is a way of showing SOME 5-5 hands. Another tool in that holster is the Unusual No-Trumps, and a third is Roman overcalls. My suggestion would be to play all three, if you think that showing a 5-5 hand is important. I think it usually is.

Next up: Your partner opens and next player intervenes with an overcall. Under what circumstances do you bid that overcalled suit?

0009f161fd1ce0d5c45457ec5d92b608--joker-card-trump-cardPostscript, July 8: I laughed above about the possibility of getting passed in a Michaels cue bid … and then it happened yesterday. My partner returned from a bridge-less vacation abroad and our first session back at the table had the occasional stutter. This was a priceless one.

None vul, my RHO dealt and opened 1H. I had a very appealing hand: S AKT932 H Void D 7 C AKJ952. So I started with 2H Michaels — and it went pass, pass, pass. My partner had had a jet-lagged memory lapse and, to be fair, an interesting problem; his hand was S J84 H A87653 D AQ C 63. I brought home exactly 8 tricks. According to the computer analysis, 7C, 7S, and 7NT (and 3H) were all makeable. As I remarked at the table, “Anybody can make 7NT but you have to really work your ass off to make 2H!” The point of the hand, other than making me laugh harder at the table than I have in quite a while, is that we got a well-deserved zero. So for heaven’s sake, don’t pass your partner’s cue bids!! 😉






067: Percentages

9780575064379-usI found a useful summary in a bridge book the other day, and thought I’d share it with you. It’s from Sharpen Your Bridge Technique: How to Think Like an Expert by the prolific Scottish writer Hugh Kelsey. Here’s a link — I don’t get paid, it’s just an excellent book that will help your game if you’re an experienced intermediate.

In this book, Kelsey goes well beyond what’s here; he assumes you know this stuff and uses it as a springboard to talk about how to use the information. First, though, you have to know these numbers backwards and forwards; they come up on just about every hand.

If you are missing 4 cards:

  • 4 cards will be divided 2-2 40% of the time
  • 4 cards will be divided 3-1 50% of the time
  • 4 cards will be divided 4-0 10% of the time

    If you are missing 5 cards:

  • 5 cards will split 3-2 68% of the time
  • 5 cards will split 4-1 28% of the time
  • 5 cards will split 5-0 4% of the time

    If you are missing 6 cards:

  • 6 cards will split 3-3 36% of the time
  • 6 cards will split 4-2 48% of the time
  • 6 cards will split 5-1 15% of the time
  • 6 cards will split 6-0 1% of the time

If you are missing 7 cards:

  • 7 cards will split 4-3 62% of the time
  • 7 cards will split 5-2 31% of the time
  • 7 cards will split 6-1 or 7-0 7% of the time

imagesThere’s ways of expressing this as mnemonics (although I’ve never found them very useful). The one I’ve seen most often is “Even splits odd, odd splits even”.  That is, an even number of cards will tend to not split evenly, but an odd number of cards will tend to split evenly.

Where this mostly comes in handy is:

  • When you find yourself in four of a major on a 4-4 fit, take a deep breath and ask yourself how you will handle it if the trumps split 4-1 or worse, which they will do about 32% of the time — or once in three times.  In other words, every third hand you’ll have to deal with RHO or LHO having four of your trumps.  (And every tenth hand, you’ll have to deal with RHO or LHO having five of your trumps.)
  • The reason for that old saying “Eight ever, nine never” — which is to say, if you have eight trumps, finesse, and if you have nine trumps, play for the drop — is not quite right.  If you have nine cards, you’re missing four cards, and four cards tend to split 3-1 half the time, as against 2-2 only 40% of the time. The reason why that saying works is mostly because it gives you a rationale for proceedings. If you don’t use it, you might get forced into trying to decide what will happen if RHO or LHO has three trumps.
  • And if your 3NT contract depends on either a trump finesse or a 3-3 split in the side suit, cash three rounds of the side suit first; you’ll only get that lucky 36% of the time.

I don’t think it’s necessary to know these percentages to the exact digit; I tend to think of most of these in terms of thirds, and I tend to ignore the terrible splits (because everyone will be dealing with them and no one will be prepared). But you must know them approximately; it’s absolutely necessary, so start memorizing. 😉


066: Your lead to partner’s bid suit

black_question_mark_playing_cards-r3e3b25544e5844b5b4b883ef3ef8248f_zaeo3_324This idea came up recently through the courtesy of a friend who asked me a question and provoked this piece.  “If partner has bid a suit during the auction,” she asked, “which card do you lead?”

Specifically, she was looking for a decision between two different … well, let’s call them different styles of leading. One is, “If you have an honour in partner’s suit, lead it,” and the other is the classical “Small from three to an honour” (and other ways of saying, for various distributions, if you have an honour, lead small).

It’s important to note here that I’m talking about auctions that end up in NT contracts. The problems inherent in defenders establishing a long suit and having an entry with which to cash it are entirely different from the problems inherent in defenders cashing their tricks in their own suit, or trying to avoid having their suit ruffed, as part of a trump-based contract.  Those problems are a little easier to solve since, generally, they take into account that the third round of your suit is frequently going to be ruffed by declarer.

card-largeSo here’s a basic situation. Your LHO deals and opens 1C. Your partner comes in with 1H, RHO doubles, you pass, LHO bids 2C, partner passes, RHO blasts to 3NT.  It’s your lead and partner has bid hearts.

First off — there are very, very few situations in which you don’t want to lead a heart, and most of them involve your immediate ability to cash five quick tricks, like S AKQJT.  Those don’t come up often. Partner has stuck his neck out to get that bid in there and, for better or worse, you have to try to establish that suit without knowing exactly what it is.  So, yes, you do pretty much have to lead a heart. If I bid a suit and partner doesn’t lead it, I give serious consideration to the idea that he’s void.

That being said, let’s imagine a couple of holdings that you have, or could have, that would face you; starting with your not having much in partner’s suit. If you have a singleton, by all means lead it. It might be that partner has the mythical AKQJT — those don’t come up often either — or at least the actual distribution of the heart suit here will be known rapidly.

If you have a doubleton, you might have two little ones or sometimes you have an honour. Similarly, if you have three cards in partner’s suit, even four; sometimes they include an honour. Do you push out the honour?

160307_r27772-1150The argument in favour of pushing out the honour is, as my correspondent put it, “Partner needs to know where the honour is.” That makes a lot of sense. If you start Q from Qxx or Qx, that’s one card partner doesn’t have to locate and neutralize, and it will make a lot of further guesses in that suit easier for partner. The corollary is, by the way, that if you start Q from Qxx in partner’s suit, start squandering your entries as fast as you can. You want to make it possible for partner to get in if he has the dreaded Jxx in an outside suit: if you can cover the Q with your K and see it swallowed by the A on the board, you can get him in with Jxx. So play your high cards like there’s no tomorrow.

One thing to consider is — who’s your partner? I learned a long time ago that making cheap overcalls on K9854 in an eight-point hand is a good way to get a bottom score. (I even used to overcall on 10-pointers with Jxxxx, but now I have reformed.) Is your partner the K9854 type or even the Jxxxx type? In which case, don’t lead Q from Qx or Qxx. Or rather, if you do, the suit is just as dead and the lead is just as bad. You can blame the result on your partner, and partner will have to live with it. So if you recognize that partner tends to overcall on crappy suits, lead your smallest from three to an honour and tell partner you had a classical education.

That classical education tells us, in the table of standard leads, “small from three to an honour”. There’s a reason for that. If this card play was taking place in a vacuum, and you held Q93, you would lead the 3. Partner, with AKT82, goes up smartly with the K, fires back the 2 (to show 5), you take your Q, lead back the 9. You either have to sell to Jxxx in declarer’s hand or you take all five tricks.

But that auction included a declarer who bid 3NT of his own free will. If that declarer also had a classical education, he always has at least one stop in your suit and frequently 1-1/2 stops, something like AQx or AJT8. If you start with Qxx, what is really good is if you can put partner in to lead through declarer and hope your Q comes in handy — so lead small. Even more so if you start with Kxx.

And when, as sometimes happens, dummy hits with Kx to shore up declarer’s command of your suit, the pip you lead may make a lot of distance. If you start with Q93, leading the 3 may find K4 on the table, or K8, and declarer can take the chance to run the lead around to his J. But if you push out the 9, using the principle of middle-up-down (MUD), declarer doesn’t have that option and you’ve managed to do some damage to declarer’s plans.

Playing Cards In HandIf you have reasonable support for partner’s suit, whatever your style, be damn sure you don’t block the suit, especially if you have three or four to begin with. Nothing is more frustrating than going to bed with two uncashable tricks because partner wouldn’t unblock her Q under the K to get you in. This is the same idea as one I mentioned above, burning up your entries to put partner in with weaker holdings to cash his long suit. Keep your eyes open and do your best not to get stuck with a card like the J that will block the suit — try and keep one high and one low, so you can come in and out and leave your partner in control.

imagesSo in the last few paragraphs, I’ve suggested that leading the Q is best, leading the 9 is best, and leading the 3 is best. Which is it? Honestly, hard to say.  There are pros and cons to every point of view. As always, I recommend talking with your partner about this. You may be surprised to find that she has a preference and has merely never expressed it.

But what I do know is that it’s vital to pick a preference in consultation with your partner and stick to it. The worst thing is if you have a partner who does either at random “to confuse the opponents”. It does, but it also confuses partner, who is never quite sure what your opening leads are promising. As I understand it, mathematically you will make more tricks in the long run if you lead 3 from Q93, but it’s not a very big edge. It’s probably worthwhile asking your partner what she prefers and sticking to it. The thing to avoid is an uncomfortable conversation at the end of the hand where you say, “Oh, yes, I promised to push out the honour, but I had a FEELING …” Just stick to your agreements. And if it costs you a hand every now and then, chalk it up to the greater good of building partnership confidence.

065: Roman overcalls

deck-of-cards-1024x537The jump overcall is defined as when one side makes an opening bid and the other side bids a new suit at one level higher than necessary. For instance, North opens 1C and East bids 2H. If East had merely bid 1H, that would show a five-card heart suit and about 8-15 HCP. But the jump overcall is used to mean something different.

In Standard American, a jump overcall is usually played as being “weak”, the equivalent of opening a weak two.  In the case above, you might overcall 1C with 2H if you had something like S xxx H KQT9xx D Qx C Jx.  A six-card suit precisely and somewhere between 6-12 HCP, depending upon vulnerability and nerve. (If you overcall 3H, you’re showing a hand that would have opened a pre-emptive three-bid had it been first to speak; seven heart cards and about 7 HCP.)

This, of course, is primarily meant as obstructive. It’s not likely that you can bid to a game after the opponents have opened of their own free will; occasionally, though, you can bid a thin game if you have lots of trumps and well-fitting hands. But what you’re really most interested in doing is (a) indicating a good lead to partner, and (b) forcing the bidding to a higher level before the opponents have had a chance to exchange information comfortably.

cmm642Those are both good things to do, and the weak jump overcall is useful in that respect. You might find that you seem to be giving away a lot of 50s and 100s and the occasional 200 … that’s what happens when you bid pre-emptively. It’s always worth looking back at your scores to see if your WJOs are paying off or costing you more than you think.

I don’t say it’s likely that WJOs are costing you matchpoints. It depends on your bidding style, the strengths and weaknesses of your usual opponents at the Tuesday night game … whether you play your cards better than others. But as I said, your hand records will tell you your matchpoint gains and losses and you’ll be able to decide if you want to continue playing WJOs.

That’s because, as you may have gathered from the title of this piece, there is another way to play jump overcalls that actually works, and more to the point, it fits well into your existing bidding system and solves a problem.

thIn order to explain — let’s give you a hand like S AJxxx H x D Qx C AKxxx and you are second to speak at equal vulnerability. “Great!” you think. “If she opens 1H I can bid 2H Michaels, showing spades and a minor.” But, in the way of such things, your RHO comes up with an opening bid of 1D. Of course, it would be best to show both suits at the same time; if you merely bid the spades, you’ll have a hard time convincing partner you have five clubs too. You have another way of showing two-suiters in your arsenal, but over 1D, the Unusual 2NT usually shows the two lowest unbid suits — hearts and clubs, in this case. So your methods for showing two-suiters have a hole in them. You’re pretty much stuck with overcalling 1S and trying to catch up later if you can.

However, the clever Italians — I believe this is from the famous Blue Team and Benito Garozzo, one of the greatest players of all time — came up with a way of describing ANY two suiter with a single bid. They kept Michaels and the Unusual NT, and added Roman overcalls.  (So named because they lived in Rome!) This is how they work.

A Roman jump overcall shows the suit you bid, and the unbid suit above it, 5-5 or better.  

So in the above example, after RHO opens 1D and you’re 5-5 in the black suits, you can bid 2S. That shows spades, the suit you bid, and clubs, the unbid suit above it.  It doesn’t matter which two-suiter you have, if you play Michaels, UNT and Roman overcalls, you can show any two-suiter.

shutterstock_1796904Note the “unbid” suit above idea. That lets you show, say, 5-5 in spades and diamonds after RHO opens 1C. 2S shows spades — the next suit above is clubs, but that’s been bid, so you ignore clubs and show diamonds.

To test it another way:  RHO opens 1H.  If you bid 2H Michaels, you show spades and a minor (in this case probably diamonds, because you have another way to show clubs). If you bid 2NT Unusual, you show clubs and diamonds. And if you bid 2S Roman, you show spades and clubs.

How many points should you be showing? That’s up to you. My own thinking is that two five-card suits are a considerable and unusual asset that is very valuable in the play, and is worth a lot more than whatever your HCP counts up to. I confess that, depending on the vulnerability, the precise hand, some timid opponents, and my particular degree of aggression on any particular night, I might do it with zero HCP or a very poor point count (then it becomes pre-emptive). In a situation like that, the minute I get a preference from partner for one of my suits, I drop him in it. But if I have more, I bid more. If I hear a preference from partner and bid again, I should be showing about an opening bid.

As you can see, when you have a situation that calls for this precise bid, it comes in very, very handy; you’ll be bidding in a way that few others in your field have the tools to do. You have to balance that against the frequency of how often the WJO comes up, and what results you’re getting from using it. You may find that Roman overcalls don’t come up all that often and you’ve just traded a common bid for a rare one; that’s a common complaint. But if you’re what I like to call a “busy bidder”, someone who likes to get in there and show distribution and suggest leads and stir things up a bit, Roman overcalls may just be useful to you.  Perhaps you should take them for a test drive some night and see what you think. They are, not surprisingly, alertable.

Oh, and what do you do when you have agreed to play Roman jump overcalls and you pick up a hand that qualifies as a weak jump overcall?  Simple — overcall at the cheapest level and if you can, repeat the overcall. That guarantees six. Of course, you’ll have to use your judgment as to whether you have the points to bid twice. At least you will have interfered and gotten partner off to the best lead.


064: The 2NT response to an opening bid

thMy partner is out of town at the moment and messaged me asking for a quick explanation of what it means if you open 1 of a suit and partner responds 2NT.  “There’s no quick explanation for that one!” I said.  In fact it’s one of the bidding sequences with the most meanings, depending on what system you play and how advanced you care to get with it.  For his benefit and yours, I’ll try to lay out as many meanings as I can — organized from the one that beginners should learn to the ones that experts play.

In Standard American Yellow Card, the system that most North Americans learn first, there is an easy answer.  After any opening bid at the 1 level by partner, a response of 2NT shows 13-15 and is forcing to game.  As an instructive website tells us, “very few players play that” and I agree.  I suspect that beginning players frequently forget that it’s forcing to game and I bet a lot of partners get passed in 2NT, making 4 or 5.  So let’s cross that off the list, shall we?  If you have 13-15 against partner’s 1-level opener, just bid game or keep making forcing bids until you get to game.  1X – 3NT is not a terrible idea if you have 13-15 and flat distribution; the opponents won’t quite know what to lead and a lot of other pairs will be playing in 3NT (after first having gone daisy picking looking for an impossible slam and pinpointing the best defence to opponents).

That’s the basic, basic level.  Here’s how many Standard American players play this bid, and it’s the one I play with my current partner, a studious and smart player with a year’s experience.  People refer to it as “2NT limit” because it is NOT forcing to game and can be passed. This is also the level where conventions start to get complicated, because there are actually two meanings depending on the opening.

  • After an opening bid of 1C or 1D, a jump to 2NT shows 10-12 HCP, flat distribution, NO FOUR-CARD MAJOR.  So if partner opens 1D and you have S Axx H Axx D xxx C Kxxx, that’s perfect for a 2NT response.
  • After an opening bid of 1H or 1S, a jump to 2NT shows 10-12 approximately the same holding.  However, this bid comes up very rarely for me, because you pretty much have to have two-card support for partner’s major (or else you’d simply raise his major) and that usually gives you a five-card biddable suit somewhere else.  In fact you pretty much have to have precisely 4-4-3-2 distribution for this and usually one of the four card suits is NOT the other major — because then you could bid it.  So if partner opens 1S, I would bid 2NT with S Qx H Kxx D KQxx C Jxxx but not many other hands.  And yes, you can try 2D as a response with that hand, although many players firmly insist that you must have a five-card suit to respond at the two level.

I think that people recognized this difficulty and so they wanted to take a little-used bid (1 major opener/2NT response) and change it into something with a more common meaning; that’s where Jacoby 2NT comes in.  I would say that a lot of intermediate players play Jacoby 2NT, and I think it probably should be the most common North American interpretation of this sequence.  Here’s how it works:

P556When partner opens 1 of a major, your jump to 2NT is Jacoby 2NT and shows trump support with 13+ HCP.  It is forcing to game and suggests a slam, depending on how many more points than 13 responder has. “Trump” support is a minimum of three cards but certainly can be four or more, and frequently is.

This is a bit beyond the scope of this piece but I’ll give you the further responses, so you can go over this with your partner and see if you’d want to play Jacoby 2NT or not.  Essentially once the game force (2NT) is established, opener tries to show shortage at the 3 level — singletons or voids — to see how useful the trump fit will be.  If opener doesn’t have a shortage to show, she’ll make a response that shows her point range.  Let’s say that opener opened 1H and responder bid 2NT, which shows a trump fit in hearts and 13+ HCP. Here’s a table for opener’s rebids:

  • (1H/2NT) / 3C — shows a singleton or void in clubs.
  • (1H/2NT) / 3D — shows a singleton or void in diamonds.
  • (1H/2NT) / 3S — shows a singleton or void in spades.
  • (1H/2NT) / 3H — shows no voids or singletons, but 16+ HCP.
  • (1H/2NT) / 4H — shows no voids or singletons, but 13-15 HCP.

Note how the higher point count is shown at a lower level — that’s because it leaves you more room to investigate slam. The sequence 1H/2NT/4H shows a minimum and should be passed unless the 2NT bidder has at least 18 HCP or thereabouts.  Note also that if the opening bid is 1S, 3H shows a singleton or void in hearts, 3S shows no shortness but 16+ HCP, and 4S shows no shortness and 13-15 HCP.

It can be a bit tough to remember to “bid your SHORTNESS” after the 2NT response … it doesn’t come naturally.  But experience tells us that once you have a trump fit, that’s the most useful information to convey.

As usual, there is one further wrinkle you have to take into account.  All of the above sequences are based on the premise that the 1(major) opener is the first of the partnership to speak.  But what happens if one partner passes, her partner bids 1(major), and then the bidder who originally passed bids 2NT?  Well, if she had 13 HCP she would have opened the bidding in the first place, so that’s not possible.  Most pairs play that it means about the same thing as the Standard American 2NT Limit version: 10-12 HCP (therefore, a maximum pass) and no support for partner’s major.

The Jacoby 2NT convention is quite complicated, but when you have the right kind of hand patterns, it can be a great way to reach (a) a game without giving away much information, and (b) a slam that the rest of the field might not reach.

220px-Bridge_bidding_sequenceThere’s one further conventional meaning for 1X/2NT and that’s from the Acol system played primarily in the UK: Baron 2NT.  However, an important note — Acol is based on 4-card majors and a 12-14 1NT opener.  That means that a lot of Acol sequences are quite different than Standard American sequences and there’s a different structure of logic underlying many sequences.  So even if Baron 2NT sounds good to you, be warned, it may not be best for you if you’re playing Standard American.

If partner opens 1 of a suit and you have 15+ HCP in a hand with no 5-card suit, you can bid 2NT Baron. This is forcing to game and suggesting slam, and asks partner to bid her cheapest 4-card suit upwards, but IGNORING the suit in which she opened. For instance, after 1C / 2NT, a bid of 3H ignores clubs, denies four diamond cards, and promises four heart cards, and says nothing about the spade holding. Both partners just keep bidding 4-card suits up the line until a fit is found, if there is one. If there’s no fit, 3NT usually ends the auction.

I have to say, I never found Baron 2NT all that useful even when I played a version of Acol … where the idea of Baron becomes really useful is directly over a 2NT opening, where 3C is Baron (actually a kind of modified Stayman that asks for ANY four-card suit).   So I never bothered to learn Baron 2NT all that well and I may have the fine detail wrong; if there’s a difference of opinion, take your partner’s or your teacher’s word for it and ignore me.

Precision (or Blue) Club has a bunch of different meanings for responder’s jump to 2NT — it depends on the opening bid. That’s because Precision is based on 1C being the strong opening bid, like 2C is in Standard American — it guarantees 16+ HCP and says nothing about clubs.  So 1C / 2NT means one thing, and 1D / 2NT means something else, and 1H or 1S / 2NT has yet another meaning.  I’ve never been 100% clear what those sequences are, for the most part — I usually just ask for a complete explanation at the end of the bidding. (That’s because I’ve noticed that some Precision players are playing such a byzantine system that often they forget the meaning of their own bids, and I don’t want to give them a chance to remind each other.) If you’re thinking of playing Precision, more power to you and be prepared for a lot of memorization, but teaching you that one isolated sequence in Precision is way, way beyond the scope of this article; it would be an article all its own.

Oeffen26Which one do I recommend?  I think technically Jacoby 2NT is the best for Standard American bidders and even quite a few Acol bidders. But if you haven’t reached a comfort level with artificial bidding where you show a singleton by bidding its suit — stick with 2NT Limit, where 2NT shows “10-12 flat, no 4-card major” and is not forcing to game. In fact it’s a limit bid, much like 1H/3H or 1S/3S — it says, “Partner, if you have any extras, go to game; otherwise just pass.”

As far as alerts are concerned: check with your director, but my understanding is that none of these common 2NT bids require alerts.  The responses to Jacoby 2NT do require alerts. However, you should be very careful to indicate on your convention cards the point range for the bid — that is information to which your opponents are entitled and they’ll be damaged if it’s not there, or if, even worse, it’s different on your card and your partner’s. About 3/4 of the way down the boxes on the right-hand side of the convention card, “Major Opening” and “Minor Opening”, you’ll see: “2NT: Forcing (tick box) Inv. (tick box) ___ to ____” in both boxes. 2NT SAYC is forcing 13-15, 2NT Limit is Inv. 10-12, 2NT Jacoby is forcing 13+, and 2NT Baron is forcing 15+.  Just before you start your next session, check both your cards to make sure the correct values are there!

063: Some points of hand evaluation

Unknown-1“Oh, I had a good hand, so I knew it was right to go to slam.” “Sorry, partner, but my hand was so poor, I just passed.” During the post-mortem, your partner might ask, “Well, how do you define ‘good’ and ‘bad’ hands?”

There are a couple of well-known ways of defining if a suit is good or bad; having two of the three top honours or three of the five top honours … here’s my piece on suit quality if you’re interested. But the art of assessing whether or not your hand is good/bad as a whole is just that, an art. I’m sure you will find many experienced players helpless to define it; they may fall back, on, “Well, you know, you just feel that your hand is good or bad.” It’s a valid approach, but not useful for the beginner.

To define it, one needs a little bit of bridge philosophy. Bridge, in general, is a game of possibilities. When you open 1NT, you’re not guaranteeing that your hand will take 7 tricks; you’re saying that your hand has the possibility of taking 7 tricks. Partner says, “Oh, well, in that case I can possibly contribute a couple of tricks,” and raises to 3NT. Which, as we all know, sometimes makes with overtricks and sometimes goes down ignominiously and sometimes makes nine tricks on the nose.

The art of hand evaluation is the art of assessing those possibilities, and this is the point where long experience at the table leads to “feelings” about a hand. Partner opens 1NT and you try to assess the potential of a hand like S x H x D Txxxxxx C KQxx. Will partner have the right cards to stave off attacks in the majors while she establishes the diamond suit? Does she have aces to cover the singletons, in case diamonds are the best trump suit? Is there a 4-4 club fit? What happens if … and so on. Experienced players will frequently “feel” that, against a 1NT opener, the 7-4-1-1 distribution is worth much more than the mere 5 HCP we see, because they’ve seen this distribution pay off many times in the past and produce 10, 11, or 12 tricks.

poker_mSo they will assess the mere 5 HCP of S x H x D Txxxxxx C KQxx more highly than the ugly 8 HCP of  S QJ H QJ D xxxxx C Qxxx. “Ugly” is a term of possibility, of course. But experienced players have seen their stiff QJ combinations fall underneath declarer’s banging down of the AK time and again. The possibility is that the hand with the stiff QJ combinations will play out poorly at the table, and that the 7-4-1-1 will play out lucratively. The shapely 5 is worth more than the ugly 8.

As you can probably see by now, experience is a valuable asset in hand evaluation. The more hands you’ve played, the more data you have absorbed about what works in the auction or play and what doesn’t. So the questions of hand evaluation for the new player are mostly answered simply by the course of time.  But all the keen intermediates I know are looking for rules of thumb with which to assess their hands, so that they can be aggressive or passive at the right times in the auction.

I’ve got two for you. One you know, one you don’t. The one you are already aware of is the process of adding points to your HCP count based on your distribution; you add points for short suits if you have trumps with which to take care of declarer’s losers in that suit.

I have to emphasize that this is only applicable to hands that you intend to play in a trump suit. Short suits at no trumps are a liability, not an asset — and that’s another rule of thumb that you may already have validated by your experience.

Playing-bridgeYour textbooks and teachers will have told you that you don’t add points to your hand based on a trump suit unless you’re sure of what that trump suit is going to be. For instance, partner opens 1S. You are able to value two hands with identical point count differently, depending on whether or not they have cards in the spade suit: S xxxx H x D xx C xxxxxx is worth more to your partner than S x H xxxx D xx C xxxxxx.  So in the first instance, you value your hand with an additional 3 HCP for the singleton heart and 1 HCP for the doubleton diamond, bringing your 0 up to 4 HCP. The second hand is even worse than 0, at this point, although we don’t actually express HCP as a negative value 😉  The point here is that you actually can quantify your singletons and doubletons (and voids) as valuable and we assign specific HCP values to make that easier.

The rules of thumb are:

  • Before you know if you have a trump fit with partner, add 1 point for a doubleton, 2 points for a singleton, and 3 points for a void.
  • When you know you do have a trump fit with partner, add 1 point for a doubleton, 3 points for a singleton, and 5 points for a void.

My own experience has told me that when you have more than one of those features in a hand, like the S x H x D Txxxxxx C KQxx hand I mentioned above, the synergistic effect of those two singletons is increased. They also tend to dictate how the hand is played out — it’s hard to imagine a line of play that doesn’t include ruffing one of the majors, right?  So every declarer will face the same problems and distribution, which tends to flatten the board. For me personally, when I see a shapely hand like 7-4-1-1, I like to bid it up fast and I value it more highly than even the rules of thumb above would do.

So this is what is meant when you hear an experienced player say, “My hand improved during the auction.” Once they learned there was a trump fit, their shortness became more valuable. Similarly, when you learn that your singleton is in partner’s proposed trump suit, it’s not worth anything and your hand decreases in value.

imagesMy second point of hand evaluation is one that comes up all the time in defensive bidding, but I’ve never heard it taught. To be honest, I must have read it somewhere years and years ago, but I have no idea where or by whom it was written. (If anyone knows who expressed this in writing, I’d like to know where, please, in the comments!)

I can explain it better in a quiz format, I think.  Here’s the auction. Your partner opens 1S, next player bids 2H, you bid 2S, next player bids 3H, your partner passes, next player passes.  Your decision point is whether to bid 3S or to pass.  (Yes, it’s also possible to double, and that’s a whole topic on its own. I’m keeping this simple.)

Which hand would you rather have of:

(a) S Qxx H x D KJxxx C Jxxx

(b) S Qxx H xx D KJxx C Jxxx

(c) S Qxx H xxx D KJx C Jxxx

My answer would be that I slightly prefer (a) to (c), but I’d much rather have either of them than (b). (a) and (c) are better hands than (b); I might bid 3S with (a) or (c) but I would be less likely with (b).

Why? Well, let’s look at the probabilities. The auction you’ve heard is suggesting that there’s an eight- or nine-card fit in the opponents’ hands and the same in yours. In my experience, if I have a two-card holding in the opponent’s trump suit, it’s matched by a two-card holding in partner’s hand.  Similarly, if I have three of their trumps, he usually has one, and vice versa.

Even if they only have an eight-card fit between them, if you have exactly two cards in their trump suit, then declarer is guaranteed a three-two split. And as you probably know by now, it’s easier to manage a 3-2 split than a 4-1 or a 5-0. However, if you have a singleton in their trump suit, that increases the chances that partner has 4 trumps and declarer has a problem.

So if you look at the three hands defensively — let’s say, for whatever reason, you pass 3H and they play it there — the possibilities are best when you have a singleton and worst when you have a doubleton. But what if you bid 3S and partner plays it there?

bridgeWell, if you have hand (a) and a singleton heart, partner has probably got a maximum of one loser in their suit. If you have hand (c) and three heart cards, partner has probably got a singleton and again, only one loser in their suit; a chance of there being two losers, of course, if there’s a 3-2 split. But if you have hand (b), you almost certainly have two losers in their trump suit and they will absolutely cash them, possibly as the first two tricks.

And if there were imaginary hands (d) and (e), they would contain a void in their suit and four cards in their suit, respectively. Those are clearly the best hands to have, since it’s likely that partner has the opposite holding in a 4-0 split. This will be tough for them to play and, if you’re playing the hand, you will have no losers in that suit.

So my rule of thumb is,

Two cards is the worst holding in the opponents’ suit. Three is a little better, but not much; a singleton is better still, but either four or zero is best. 

I expect you will have already realized with experience that four cards, or a void, are best. What your teachers won’t have told you is that a two-card holding is the worst. How that plays out in hand evaluation for me is not as black-and-white as you might think; if I have a two-card holding, it makes me merely pessimistic about my chances, whereas I regard a singleton with optimism. There’s no “always do such-and-such” or “never do such-and-such” here; merely a feeling. But if you base your feelings on the two-card holding, that will make them a little more reliable.