Friday, September 24, 2010

Responding 1NT to a minor-suit opening

Generally speaking, we have so much confidence in our notrump hand evaluation that we are able to limit the ranges shown by notrump bids quite severely. Typically, an opening NT bid shows a range of just three points, rarely four (though I've known five!). As we go higher, the NT ranges become smaller (usually 2): 18-19 typically for the 2NT rebid; 20-21 for the opening 2NT, etc.

What about responding bids? Invitational bids are often 11-12. Game responses (3NT) are often played as 13-15 (or 13-16). A wider range here is OK, because most of the time, opener will simply pass. He won't go looking for slam unless he himself has 17+ (or 16+).

The tricky part arises with the 1NT responses to 1♣ or 1. Playing a 15-17 notrump (or 16-18), you can be confident in the knowledge that, if partner has a balanced hand, it will be in the 12-14 (or 12-15) range. In which case, you can bid 1NT with 6-9 (a four-point range) knowing that there is no biddable game. When playing 15-17, you can even bid 1NT with a 10 count, and probably not miss game. You might want to do this, for example, when partner opens 1 and you aren't strong enough to bid 2 or 2♣ (and you lack a four-card major).

However, playing a weak notrump of say 12-14, opener is likely to have a balanced 15+ when he opens a minor (he might also have an unbalanced hand but that's another story). If your range for 1NT is 6-9, you will miss some games unless opener stretches to raise with, say, a good 16 or 17, which can easily put you too high if responder has a minimum. The Kaplan-Sheinwold solution is to respond 1NT with 5-8 but that requires some other adjustments. The K-S solution of course was the inverted minor suit raise, defined as showing 9+ hcp, no four-card major and at least four cards in support. Note that the inverted minor concept required a little adjustment when it became applied to the "standard" bidding structure. The truly scary bid in the K-S system is the 2♣ response to 1. Not only does it not force to game, it isn't forcing to 2NT either. In theory, according to the book, you can respond 2♣ to opener's 1 even with ♠x Kxxxxx ♣QJxxxx!

I began to ponder all this after a hand at the club this week on which my partner and I, playing 12-14 notrumps, scored a big fat zero. I held ♠AJ4 A92AJ84 ♣QJ3 and opened 1. Partner responded 1NT and I had to decide if it was possible we could be missing game. Given that I had 17 hcp, including three aces (even at notrump evaluations 4 points doesn't quite do justice to an ace), I felt it might qualify for a 2NT rebid. Given that partner was relatively short in the majors, I thought my hand looked quite fine: major-suit aces that could be held up twice and fillers in the minor suits where at least seven of partner's cards would lie. I therefore rebid 2NT and partner promptly passed.

As it turned out, partner held a decent 6-count: ♠T92 J84QT74 ♣K75, but which was tragically mirrored by my hand. The opening lead was a low club and partner set about trying to find an eighth trick. Regrettably, it couldn't be done. The K and the ♠KQ were all offside. My LHO, a grand-life-master observed that our system had caused us to overbid. I wasn't convinced. A balanced 23-count will, on average, take 7.6 tricks at notrump (according to Matthew Ginsberg). Often, declarer's advantage of seeing all his resources will push the total up to 8. I had a feeling that the problem was either the expert defense, or possibly the wrong-siding of the contract. Studying the results and the hand records later confirmed this. Only 7 tricks can be taken from whichever side declares. However, every other N/S pair had taken 8 (or even more) tricks in notrump (or 9 tricks in diamonds in one case). I don't know if every other pair had played it from the strong side (this seems unlikely) but I do know that even if I had passed 1NT and partner had made his contract, we'd still be getting a zero!

In truth, it's all about the opening lead. What do you lead from ♠653 K75395 ♣A962? I would probably lead the 3, on the grounds that if I found either A or Q in my partner's hand all would be well. I'd want to reserve my certain trick (♣A) to help cash those hearts. Not so the opening leader at our table. Any heart (or the ♣A) gives away the eighth trick, even though partner has the QT6. Any of the other 8 cards is fine. From the other side, the more "normal" opening lead, the hand is: ♠KQ87 QT6K32 ♣T84. There are only five winning cards this time, none looking particularly appetizing: 32 ♣T84.

Nevertheless, the hand prompted me to take another look at the details of the Kaplan-Sheinwold system, especially the 1NT response to 1m. Some of my partnerships have monkeyed around with this system such that we don't play it exactly as it was designed (admittedly, they too, made modifications and I think eventually stopped playing it). Yet, when you look at it, it really is an incredibly well-thought-out system.

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