Thursday, March 10, 2011

To alpha or not to alpha, that is the question

Whether 'tis nobler to play precision at all is another question.  Many pairs play what I think of as semi-precision.  The 1♣ opening in such systems essentially is used to divide the bidding space into good opening hands and, by elimination, bad opening hands.  After the first round, most of the calls are natural.  These pairs seem to suffer from all of the disadvantages (particularly the 1 opening) while enjoying none of the advantages.

I'm in the more traditional camp.  Memorize and use all of the asking bids (alpha, beta, etc. – although they also go by other more prosaic names) and get the most out of the system.

The question that I set out to consider is whether or not to use alpha and, in particular, "second" alpha.  It seems to me that there are hands that are suited to alpha bids and hands which are not.  It's a question of figuring out the relevant frequencies.

Here's how alpha is supposed to work: you pick up ♠AQT72 AK7322 ♣A5, a nice hand by any measure.  You open 1♣ and partner bids 2 (or 2♣ if playing transfer positives) showing diamonds and enough points for game.  Naturally, you bid 2♠ ("alpha") showing five spades and asking more about partner's hand.  Partner bids 2NT denying Qxx/xxxx or better in spades and fewer than four controls (A=2, K=1) in total.  Actually, there are five responses in all (in steps: first, second... fifth):
  • bad support, 3– ctrls;
  • bad support, 4+ ctrls;
  • good support, 3– ctrls;
  • good support, 4+ ctrls;
  • very good support (Qxxx or better), 4+ ctrls.
Now, we trot out 3 ("second alpha").  This time partner has only three responses, since we already know whether he has four or more controls from the previous response:
  • bad support;
  • good support;
  • very good support.
Let's say that this time partner bids 3NT (good support for hearts).  It probably doesn't matter whether we are playing second alpha or natural at this point because we are going to stop in 4 regardless.

But suppose partner's first response had been 3♣ (bad support for spades but 4+ controls).  Now, when we bid 3, we get the second alpha response of 3NT, leaving us the entire four level for more bidding.  If we were playing natural bids at this point, partner would be obliged to bid 4 to show the support.  Let's give partner the following hand:  ♠K3 Q65AKJ92 ♣J94.  After 3NT, 4♣ is beta (hopefully!) and will elicit the response of 4 (exactly four controls).  Now, we follow up with 4♠ ("espilon" or control-asking bid – presumably, there's no law against invoking epsilon in a suit previously alpha'd?).  Partner bids the third step (5) showing second round control (either the K or a singleton).  We're running out of room a little (we'd like to know if partner has ♠K(x) or ♠x but bidding 5♠ will commit us to 6 anyway).  But, just for fun, we'll bid 5♠ and partner responds 6♣ (K).  We can now bid 6, 6NT (played by partner) or even 7/7NT if we're really stretching.  If both major suits behave, we will have all thirteen tricks in hearts or notrump.

To conclude:  after a minimum/no-support game force response to alpha (1st step), we might as well go to natural bidding because slam is generally (not always) out of reach and getting to the right game contract should take preference.  But, after a four-control response (2nd step), our next new suit should be "second" alpha because slam is still very much in the picture.



  1. Stephen says that second alpha is all very well if you have 5-5 as above. But most of the time, you're 5-4 and alpha won't help you find a 4-4 fit. Good point!

  2. Lance comments:
    Change responder's hand to J65-Q6-AKJ92-K94, how does Second Alpha (or First Alpha) get you to 6S? Without Alpha, after a 1C-2D-2S start, responder's 2NT would show a 2=3=5=3, 3H would show 4 hearts, and 3S 3 or 4 spades. Aren't you better placed no matter what responder's hand is?

  3. What's your opinion then on taking another step into technicality and adopting a relay? On the hand in question:
    1C 2D - single suited Diamonds
    2H 2S - high shortage
    2N 3D - 2-3-5-3
    3H 4C - 4 controls
    4D 4S - diamond but no heart A or K
    4N 5C - no club card

    partner holds K? ??? AK??? ???

    5D 6C - KS, QH and another big diamond

    K? Q?? AK??? ???

    now it just depends how lucky you feel.