052: Playing in 5NT

th5NT redoubled, I am told, is the rarest contract in bridge. Certainly I’ve never played there — like most of us, I can count the number of times I’ve played in a redoubled contract on both hands and still have a few fingers left over. It doesn’t happen very often. And 5NT in general is a contract that’s difficult to reach in many bidding systems. That’s because, for people who play Standard American, it presses the button that says “asking for kings”, and everyone has a Pavlovian response to that. It’s tough to stop in 5NT.

Every once in a while, though, you reach a situation where it might just be the contract that gets you a top board. Let’s suppose you have a hand like S Ax H KQxx D AJTx C KQx. A nice hand with 19 HCP. You open 1D and partner, in a welcome change from her usual discouraging responses, responds 3D — showing 10+ HCP and five diamond cards. Whoo-hoo! All that’s left is to check for aces before you head for slam, so you bid 4NT and partner says — 5C, showing zero aces. Damn. You’re missing two aces and the slam is not biddable. If you bid 5D, partner will just pass, right? You’ve reached game, and you’ll get an average on the board.

Here’s the thing, though. You know that everyone in the field is going to have just about the same sequence; nobody will miss getting to 5D, with 19 HCP facing 10+, so that will be a flat board. Any pair who ends up in 6D missing two aces is going down and will get a zero. What if you could play in 5NT? The extra 10 points will get you an absolute top on the board, beating all the pairs playing in 5D; it’s perfectly safe, because you clearly don’t have any losers outside the aces of clubs and hearts. But if you just bid 5NT, partner will quite reasonably think you’re asking for kings, she’ll respond accordingly, you’ll get to a slam that cannot be made, and the result will be that you tie for bottom on the board with everyone else who went down in 6D.

Of course, there is a way to manage this (or else I wouldn’t be writing this post!). You bid what’s called an “unplayable suit” somewhere between your game contract and 5NT; in this instance, either 5H or 5S (usually 5S). Partner will think for a minute and say to herself, “Wait, my partner cannot be SERIOUS about playing in 5S; we have a perfectly good trump suit and nobody’s mentioned spades before. Oh! I remember, we discussed this. Partner wants me to bid 5NT, which will be the final contract!”

So it’s kind of like a transfer bid or what people with very complicated bidding systems call a “relay bid”. You make an impossible bid in order that your partnership can stop in the right bid. And yes, you have to talk about this with partner in advance; partner cannot read your mind and tries hard to figure out what you’re getting at, but bidding 5S out of the blue is fraught with danger unless both partners know what’s going on.

Now, it’s easy to see this won’t work if your agreed trump suit is spades; it follows that it works best if your agreed suit is clubs, because you have the most choice of unplayable suits. If you have a choice of unplayable suits, bidding spades is usually the best way to get to 5NT; it gives partner fewer ways to screw up the sequence.

38370873_scaled_229x230But there’s one important thing to remember. If you’ve bid that “unplayable” suit, you cannot use it to reach 5NT. For instance, let’s say our hypothetical sequence is changed a little bit; you open 1D, partner responds 1S, you jump to 3D, partner supports with 4D, and you bid 4NT and hear 5C. If you bid 5S, thinking that you’re telling partner to roll out to 5NT — well, you know what’s going to happen, don’t you? Partner will go into the tank and come up with a situation where you had all kinds of unannounced support for her 1S bid way back in the sequence, and she’ll pass. No matter how illogical it is, she’ll pass, because if there is a reasonable way to screw it up, partner will find it, right? In that sequence, the only bid you can use to get to 5NT is 5H.

And if there is no unplayable suit? Then suck it up and play at the five level with the rest of the field. Better you should get an average than a zero. Again, you play with a smart partner, but she cannot read your mind. This is one of those bidding sequences that, when it works, the result is magnificent — but it’s not likely to come up more than once a year. Don’t strain to find it where it doesn’t exist, because you’ll get into trouble.

If it does work, you’ll have the lovely experience that I call the “lightbulb moment”. You will have bid 5S, partner will have the WTF look on her face, and all of a sudden — shazam! She realizes what’s going on, smiles and puts the 5NT card on the table, you are in perfect harmony as a partnership, and life is good. Be sure to discuss this little idea in advance so you can have that lightbulb moment!

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