Thursday, April 26, 2012

Two golden rules of bidding

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a bridge player with a good hand who makes a forcing bid below 3NT must be in want of a game (but not necessarily slam).  This is the well-known principle of "game before slam," expressed as Jane Austen might have put it.  This rule is typically invoked when the partnership hasn't yet determined which strain they will play in at game. Because games are so valuable and so common in bridge, getting to the right one takes precedence over the more remote possibility of slam. In other words, if a bid could be construed as either a probe for the right game, or a cuebid in search of slam, assume the first meaning.

What is not so firmly established in the bridge player's compendium, but which is no less significant in my view, is the following rule which applies to competitive auctions: "declare before game."  This recognizes that it is more important in competitive auctions to play the hand than it is to get to a game.  Or, if a bid could be construed as either a competitive bid, i.e. to play, or a cuebid in search of game, assume the first meaning.  It goes without saying that slams take a distant back seat in competitive auctions.

Here's an example from this week's Swiss team event at the club.  You are South holding ♠ AQ  J74  A653 ♣ K976 (nobody is vulnerable). Partner deals and opens 1♣.  RHO comes in with 2♣ (Michaels) and you bid 2, showing a limit raise or better in clubs.  LHO now bids 3♠!  Before I tell you what partner does next, let's think about the possible continuations.  What would it mean if she bids 4♣?  Apply the rule of declare-before-game.  4♣ would therefore say: "I have extra length in clubs (presumably five or more), a minimum hand and I want to play 4♣ unless you have enough to bid 5♣."  What would double mean?  Well, this obviously depends on your agreements, but we've already established that it's "our hand" and that we have a fit in clubs.  My preference would be for penalties (because of the 2 cuebid) but, given that you are sitting under the spade length, a good alternative is "BOP" (balance-of-power) asking for your opinion as to whether to bid on or defend.  [Do you know what double would be in your partnerships?]  3NT would obviously be "to play."  Any other bid at this level would, I believe, be a cuebid in search of slam committing our side to at least 5♣.  Pass covers every other possibility.  In this case, your side is committed only to 3♣ so partner's pass would not be forcing, even though she's hoping you'll be able to do something. From her side of the table it's possible, though perhaps unlikely, that the best your side can do is to defend 3♠ undoubled.

As an aside, if LHO had bid 2♠ only, a couple of things would change.  Pass in the direct seat would now be 100% forcing because we are committed to try for at least 110.  Three-level cuebids would show stoppers in search of game, not slam.

In fact, partner bids 4♣.  I think it's a toss-up whether you should pass or bid on to 5♣.  You have a lot of losers outside the trump suit.  It turns out that on this board, you can take nine tricks in notrump or eleven in clubs (partner has AQJxx of clubs, AT9x of hearts, and two small doubletons).  But from partner's side of the table, where spades can be profitably led, one trick fewer in each strain is possible.  To give credit to the opponents, the 3♠ call gave our side a real problem.  It was now unrealistic (my opinion) to bid 3NT and so 4♣ is in fact the best that we can do, practically speaking.

So, what happened?  Our side ended up in 5♣ from the wrong side for –50, losing 6 imps (and consequently one VP).  At the other table, where your scribe was playing, the auction was quite different.  North did not open, and South opened 1 in third seat.  After a heart response, the bidding died out in 1NT from the right side.  We didn't take all of our tricks and so we were –180.  Obviously, the swing could have been much greater (10 imps and another two VPs).

Our teammates were not clear on the meaning of 4♣.  In fact, North intended it as competitive, just as the rule would suggest, while South thought that it was Minorwood in search of slam.  I think it's very important to have these two golden rules of bidding well understood and agreed in a partnership, because these types of auction occur quite frequently.


  1. South thought that it was Minorwood in search of slam

    If players took minorwood off their convention card, they wouldn't be much worse off as it's incorrectly used so often. Ditto with Smolen.

  2. I echo Dave's comment about minorwood (although I am not sure I follow the problem with Smolen). I recall one former partner who frequently announced before the opening lead that I had forgotten to alert a minorwood call. I hadn't forgotten; I just thought the call was announcing a possible trump suit!

    I was thinking of Dave's comment, when hearing from a (particularly intransigent) experienced player who was arguing during dinner at a recent tournament that opener's 4D call was minorwood, in this auction:

    And that same player, amazingly, thought that responder's 4C call was minorwood in this auction: 3C-(P)-4C!. (This happened a year ago.)

    I am fine, with proper partnership agreements, on playing kickback (a substitute often for minorwood) ... but as far as minorwood, I would just as soon keep it off my convention card.

  3. Many players have these reservations about Minorwood. I know it can cause confusion at times. A legitimate issue is whether or not 4m can be both trump-agreeing and keycard-asking when the bidder has not supported the minor previously. I vote for yes, but I understand the nay-sayers. But many of the misunderstandings arise in competitive auctions where the rule of declare-before-game should guide the players concerned.
    Your examples, Jeff, of the anonymous player's all-encompassing usages of minorwood are, frankly, bizarre.