Here’s your first introduction to cue bidding: it’s spelled C-U-E. I had a dispute with a lady long ago about that, because she had seen a reference to “Western Q” handwritten on an expert’s convention card. I had to dredge up an old copy of Ely Culberton’s textbook to convince her it had been C-U-E since about 1930 and the expert had merely been saving space.
Now that you know that, what is cue bidding? To start with, in its purest form, a cue bid shows a first-round control — either an ace or a void. But the far more important question is, when is a cue bid a cue bid? In other words, how can you be sure that your partner is showing you an ace or a void?
There are a couple of conditions that have to be in place before you can use a cue bid. The first one is that you have a “set” trump suit; most commonly this means that both partners have bid that suit and it is therefore agreed as trumps. For example — you open 1S and partner responds 3S, which in your system is strong. Spades is set as the trump suit.
There are other ways of setting a trump suit that your partnership ought to discuss. Some partnerships will agree that if you open four of a major, you guarantee an eight-card suit and thus that’s the best trump suit even facing a void. Some partnerships say that any auction that proves an eight-card fit sets a trump suit. For the most part, though, a basic rule of thumb is that if both partners bid the suit, it’s trumps.
And once the trump suit is set, the second condition kicks in. That is, a cue bid has to be a suit that has not been previously bid by either partner. If partner opens 1D, you bid 1S, partner bids 3S — then 4D by you is NOT a cue bid, because your partner opened that suit. 4C and 4H are cue bids. And obviously you cannot make a cue bid in the trump suit, so 4S is not a cue bid.
And of course cue bidding takes second place to ordinary bidding logic; you need to be in a game-forcing auction. For instance, partner opens 1S and you bid 2S, showing 6-9 HCP and at least three spade cards. When your partner then bids 3C, she’s not cue-bidding — she’s merely trying to see if you’re at the top or bottom of your range, and 3C is usually a real four-card suit. A good rule of thumb is that cue bidding is not the obvious meaning if one partner has limited his hand during bidding (like you did to 6-9 when you bid 2S). If partner now wants to force to game, she has to find other ways to do it; the partnership hasn’t shown the strength to be cue-bidding.
There’s one important thing before we move forward. Unfortunately the language of bridge isn’t sufficiently rich in this area; we use the same word to describe a cue bid that we make to inform partner of a control, and a cue bid of the opponent’s suit that we use to inform partner of various other things. If you play Michaels, for instance, and your RHO opens 1D, when you cue bid their suit and bid 2D, you are showing 5-5 in the majors. Yes, Michaels is a cue bid. And also it’s a cue bid if you bid the opponent’s suit in a context where it isn’t conventional. We surely need more words to describe these situations, but just remember there are more kinds of cue bids than the ones we’re talking about here, which are pretty much when the opponents are silent during the auction. The rules for those other cue bids are a bit different.
Okay, now you know what cue bids are and when you can use them. How do you use them?
The most important principle governing cue bids at the introductory level is that they are “up the line”. If you bypass the cheapest possible cue bid, you are guaranteeing to partner that you cannot make it and thus do not possess either the ace or a void in that suit. For instance: you open 1S, partner responds 3S, and you bid 4D. That’s a cue bid and you are guaranteeing either the ace of diamonds or a void in diamonds. You are also denying the ace of clubs or a void in clubs; if you had either of those, you would have bid clubs before diamonds.
After you bid 4D, if partner bids 4H, she is showing you the ace of hearts or a heart void. But if she bids 5C instead, she’s showing you the ace of clubs/club void that you’re lacking — AND she is denying the ace of hearts/heart void, because she would have bid that before clubs.
When either partner makes the cheapest possible bid in the trump suit, that’s the “I have nothing more to say” response, and the other partner should pass unless they have more strength than they’ve previously revealed.
Let’s take this as far as it possibly goes, to show you how it works with two very strong hands.
- You open 1S, partner bids 3S. Spades are trumps.
- You bid 4D, denying a club control and promising a diamond control. Partner bids 4H, promising a heart control.
- You bid 5D. Since you’ve already promised first-round control, repeating the cue bid shows first and second-round control; you either have AK or a void. It also denies that club control, same as it did last time. And since you’ve gone past game, you’re interested in a slam.
- It should be pretty clear at this point that all that’s stopping your slam is the potential for two quick club losers; the opponents are listening to the auction also and will lead clubs. So your partner’s next bid either will be 5S — which says “Partner, pass” — or 6S — which says, “Partner, pass, and I have a club control that I think will be good enough.” If partner bids something else like 5H, it’s a cue bid, saying “Partner, I have a first-round heart control AND a first-round club control, we must get to six of our suit and I’m looking for seven.”
Once you get the hang of this, it’s really helpful; every cue bid tells you a lot of information about partner’s exact holdings. For instance, if you’ve placed your partner with about 16 HCP, and you learn that does not include a specific ace, you’re a lot closer to figuring out where those points are actually resting in her hand. You soon get the hang of identifying where the holes are in the two hands.
And of course, you can always push the Blackwood button and watch the wheels go round. There is a school of thought that says if you’ve had enough room to cue bid all your aces at the four level, 4NT asks for kings — that’s very advanced and I don’t recommend it for casual partnership.
It’s also quite common for cue bidding sequences to go past the point where you can push the Blackwood button; believe me, you’ll end up in the correct contract without using it. As above, cue-bidding tries to let you decide when to stop at the five level. And, strangely enough, Blackwood tends to get partnerships exactly to the six-level. It’s occasionally useful in getting you to five of a major when six cannot be made. And it’s occasionally responsible for getting you to six of a minor when five is the limit.
But one thing that partnerships tend not to notice is that Blackwood also tends to put you in six when seven is cold. And that, at duplicate, can be huge. Once you start cue bidding, you will have a wonderful experience some night: you’ll establish the trump suit and start cue bidding and, lo and behold, you have all the first round controls, and then you keep cue bidding and you have all the second round controls, and even the third round controls, and you grin at your partner and bid seven, ready to spread the hand unless (a) partner has lost his mind, or (b) the opening lead gets ruffed. Which occasionally happens. But when was the last time you bid a grand at the table? Bidding and making a grand is almost automatically a top board. And cue bidding will help you get there.
When you start doing this, be forgiving; it takes many people a few tries before they get the hang of “up the line”. But if you and your partner have been working together for a year or so, you should definitely add this to your repertoire; it will pay off in higher scores and more master points.