When someone asks me whether I like to play pre-empts weak or strong, I sometimes reply, “Oh, I like to mix ’em up a bit.” To my long-suffering partners, that sometimes means they find me with seven diamonds to the 9; occasionally they are rewarded with seven diamonds to the KQT and a few outside honours. Good hand, terrible hand, or something in between.
Years ago, though, I came across a rule of thumb that actually made sense. I don’t always follow it, because I do believe that your opponents cannot be allowed to expect a certain range from you every single time. But it lets you make a realistic assessment of the value of your suit by assigning a numerical value to your “suit quality”.
I should mention that this is an idea of Australian bridge expert Ron Klinger, who lays it out in, among other places, his 1996 trade paperback from Gollancz, 50 More Winning Bridge Tips (for the advancing player). Amazon offers it here and I don’t make any money from the link; it’s just a good book and you should read it.
Here’s how it works:
When you’re considering whether to bid in a suit, count the number of cards in the suit (Length) and add them to the number of honour cards you hold in that suit (Strength). Length + Strength = Suit Quality. The Suit Quality should equal the number of tricks for which you are bidding.
For example: Your heart suit is KQ9875 and you are considering opening a weak two hearts. You have 6 (for each of six cards) for Length plus 2 for Strength (the KQ are each worth one) so your Suit Quality is 8 — and an opening bid of 2 hearts contracts for eight tricks, so you’re okay to bid it. Note that this mere 5-point hand is, if that was the sum total of assets of the hand, a bit lower than many people would open with. I’m not saying this is the right thing to do 100% of the time, but it can be a very good guide.
And notice that the Suit Quality should exactly equal the level of your bid. As I’ve said before in a different context, I hate it when my partners open a seven-card suit at the 2 level because they are afraid of being too high. Wrong for many reasons, but here’s another one: a seven-card suit with two honours has a Suit Quality of 9, so you should open it at the 3 level. You would open a seven-card suit with three honours at the four level, or an eight-card suit with two honours.
Suit Quality calculations can even help you decide whether or not to make a simple overcall. For instance, a suit of KQ983 can be an overcall at the one level (if you have 8 HCP or so in the hand overall); 7 tricks, 7 SQ. But you shouldn’t overcall with J9875, which has an SQ of 6.
Of course, be sensible. Suit Quality calculations are a guide, and you should use them in the context of the game, your partner, your opponents, the vulnerability, and the hand as a whole. It still won’t keep me from making terrible overcalls on five cards to the umpty-ump, but at least I’ll be aware in advance of just how silly I am being.
Incidentally, there is another guide to whether you have a “good suit” that I’ve mentioned here before, in the context of responding to Ogust. A good suit has two of the three top honours or three of the five top honours. I don’t necessarily think you should consider this as a hard and fast rule in the context of every overcall you make, but if you at least run it through your mind, you’ll have defensive ammunition in the post-mortem if the hand goes sour. And really, that’s a very useful reason to have applied your mind in this way. Partner should not be upset if you have a reason for what you do before you do it; that’s all any partner can ask. So whether you use Suit Quality or the Rule of Three and Five — or whatever you’d like to call that — you’re just focusing your attention on what you’re doing and trying to figure out if it’s the right thing to do. Suit Quality can be a useful hint.