Friday, May 4, 2012

Non-forcing competitive bids

Last time, I suggested that in a competitive auction, winning the declaration is the top priority, followed by trying for the right game.  However, I didn't really justify that position, tacitly assuming that it was self-evident.  Still, it wouldn't hurt to go over an example.

Nobody is vulnerable at teams.  Let's say that partner opens 1♣, RHO overcalls 1 and you bid 1♠ showing five spades holding ♠KQJT7 9 Q9754 ♣97.  LHO ups the ante to 2 and there are two passes to you.  I hope you're not thinking of passing!  Whether or not you play support doubles here (I don't), it seems that partner has fewer than three spades.  

Given that we have at least half the high cards in the deck, our side has a right to compete (conceivably we might have only 19 but the exact number of high-card points really doesn't matter providing it's in the vicinity of 20).  Let's just take as a working assumption that they can make 2 while we can make 2♠, 3♣ or 3.  That's 17 total tricks which is typical.  And, for a further assumption, let's assume that the other table has played it in 3♠ down 1.  Right now, we are pegged for a 2-imp loss.

The problem is how exactly should we compete? One possibility is double.  Nobody would play this for penalties, I trust!  The opponents have a fit and they are going to be playing it at the two-level.  I would certainly choose double with this hand: ♠KJT73 95 Q974 ♣K7.  Such a double suggests a doubleton in the enemy suit (not guaranteed obviously), four cards in the unbid suit and tolerance for partner's suit.  Let's say that we double and partner bids 3♣.  We will pass, obviously, whatever RHO does.  There's no way that we will be getting overboard on this hand.  In our example, we are now headed for a 4-imp gain.

Now, let's go back to the first hand.  Partner might have 2-3-3-5 shape, in which case, 3 is probably our best spot.  But partner will never bid 3 over our double – we already know that he's going to bid 3♣. How about bidding 3 instead of doubling?  There's no guarantee that this will work of course but we have a reasonable shot of landing on our feet.  With the 2-3-3-5 hand, partner will pass and we'll be in our best strain.  Or will he?  What if he thinks that 3 is forcing, as many players would?  He's going to ruin everything by bidding 3NT (or something even worse). If this gets doubled and things are not sitting well, we could easily end up losing 6 or 10 imps.

Do I hear a vote for Larry Cohen's Good/Bad 2NT?  It might be OK if you play it in the pass-out seat like this.  But why not simplify the whole thing by making 3 non-forcing?  Let's make all bidding after an opponent intervenes non-forcing-constructive (not just advances of overcalls).  Any time we wish to force partner to bid because we think we have game, we can cue-bid.  If the cue-bid is no longer available, then new suits would be forcing.  Alternatively, we might make 2NT the forcing bid (if available) which leaves a little more room for showing distribution.

Now we see why declaring should be our first priority.  If we land in a making spot (3♣ or 3 or even 2♠), we will be +4 on the board.  If we end up in a making game, such as 3NT, we will be +10.  So, we gain the first 6 by being able to bid without forcing and a further 6 if we can get to game.  But we will always get to our game if our hand is good enough and partner has a heart stopper or two because 3 is available.  In any case, the probability of us being able to make a game, given that both opponents are bidding constructively, is probably only about half the probability that pertains when we alone are in a constructive auction.  It's really more likely that we can only make a part-score. Note that I'm not talking about situations where the opponents are preemptively taking away our bidding room with their fit.  In those situations, it's actually more likely that we can make game or even slam.  In such cases however, the 3-level cue-bid will never be available and we will have to rely more on bridge judgment.

Here's a real-life example: you pick up this hand at pairs (at favorable vulnerability): ♠KQJT7 9 Q9754 ♣97.  Partner deals and opens 1♣ and after pass from righty, we bid 1♠.  Lefty now enters with 2 after which there are two passes.  We are playing support doubles so we know that partner has fewer than three spades.  But we know little about partner's strength.  This is admittedly one of the disadvantages of Eric Rodwell's convention.  Especially at this vulnerability, partner might be making what he hopes is a trap pass, with a fistful of hearts.

This is a similar situation to the one we started with.  Again, with a slightly better, more balanced hand, I would reopen with a double. ♠KJT73 95 Q974 ♣K7, for instance.  Partner is now charged with doing something intelligent.  And if he does decide to convert to penalties, his trumps will be well-placed and we will have the balance of power (if he opened light with xx AQx xx KJTxxx, he should probably take the double out to 3♣).

So, what to do?  I took a deep breath and bid 3, hoping that partner had better than a minimum club hand but also hoping that my bid wasn't forcing.  Did it work out as I hoped?  Not at all.  Partner ruined everything by bidding 3NT and went three down for -150.

Par on the board was +110 for 2♠.  Even -100 for 3♠X-1 would have been about average (and in fact several pairs our way made 3♠).  Not very surprisingly, passing would have achieved almost as bad a score as our actual result.  On a top of 15, -150 was worth 2.5, -100: 8, -50: 10, 100: 12, 110: 13, 140: 14.5.

My partner thought that with such good spades I should rebid 2♠ and presumably this was the action at several tables.  All those pairs achieved at least an average board, some a top.

Notwithstanding that 2♠ might have worked well on this particular board, there are many cases where the quality of the spades would not be so good and the hand is more of a genuine two-suiter.  For such hands I suggest that, when a cuebid is available below the level of 3NT, new suits in a competitive auction should not be forcing.  Partner is expected to pass with a minimum (or give preference) otherwise do something sensible.

This is actually very consistent with the idea of playing "negative free bids," possibly the worst-named convention in the books.  Whether acting directly over an overcall, where the one-level is still forcing and, by agreement, the top half of the three-level, or acting after the opponents have overcalled and raised, it seems prudent to agree that new suits are forcing if they jumped.

I await your comments with interest.


  1. I don't think one can make the same bid with KQJTx, x, Q9xxx, xx and KQJTx, x, AQ9xx, xx. That's why 3D should be a forcing call to accommodate the latter hand, just like all other new suit bids by an UPH opposite an unlimited opener.

    The solution, methinks, is mentioned in your post: good/bad 2NT. Some partnerships have a meta rule that no competitive 2NT call is to play. That seems too restrictive to me: if I respond 2NT over an opponent's 2Xsuit overcall of partner's 1Ysuit opening bid, I can't imagine not playing that 2NT bid as an 11 point hand with a stopper in suitX. But you get the general idea: sometimes you have to compete for the partial and sometimes you have to try to find the best game: good/bad 2NT (whether the regular type or the reverse type, where 2NT is the start of a forcing sequence and the direct bid is weak and distributional) can help you do both, once you work out the rules for when it does and does not apply.

    I like the double to show a more balanced hand, but I am still never expecting partner to convert it to penalty: it just makes it easier for him to possibly bid notrump or to compete in his opened suit with extra length there or to support responder's spades with Hx holding and no stopper in the opponent's suit.

  2. Btw, the last reply was assuming that you are playing StdAm. If you were playing weak notrumps, then, once you have excluded bal 12-14 from opener's possible hand types, you are left with his having a 15+ balanced hand (with only two spades, given that you are playing support doubles) or long clubs.

    That conclusion would seem to suggest that a double will work out. Partner won't rebid clubs without six of them (assuming he would open weak notrump on 2=4=2=5, as he should) and you can handle notrump rebids as well as rebids in your spades (probably on Hx) and diamonds (your lucky day).

    If you are playing StdAm on the other hand, then a possible hand type for partner is a weak notrump with a doubleton spade. That's why my prior response suggested good/bad 2NT rather than double: you can't otherwise handle opener's having a 2=3=3=5 hand: he will bid 3C and you have missed your eight card diamond fit.

    The longer I play weak notrumps, the better I am getting at figuring out these inferences; I would love it if the Martel/Stansbys or Doub/Wildavskys of the bridge world would tell us more and shorten my learning time. (Although I do know that at least M/S use the double not as a support double but as a strong notrump hand that does not want to declare notrump ... perhaps because of absences of a stopper in the suit bid by the opponents. I once asked a couple of local stars who use weak notrumps about that, and they each suggested continuing to use support doubles.

  3. Jeff, the 2NT meta-rule can be close to 100% - with the hand you mention, you simply make a negative double and then bid 2NT at your next turn.
    With the two hands in your first comment, I agree that you can't bid 3D with both. But the better hand can bid 3H as I suggest in the post. With hearts well stopped, partner bids 3NT; else with the long club hand, partner simply bids 4C; else he gives "preference" to the pointy suits. Good judgment will now be required by responder if opener bids 4D.
    BTW, this hand came up while playing strong notrumps, so it would be fair comment to suggest that I took a too-rosy view of my 8 hcp :) Yet, there are similar hands that want to compete without getting the partnership overboard. That's the point of the proposal.

  4. Don't you think that you are overloading the 3H cue bid by forcing responder to make that call with so many forcing hands?

    Let's give opener this 1C opener: x, Axx, KJx, AKxxxx. He hears the subject auction of 1H overcall, 1S response, 2H raise. Opener passes back to responder. Responder now bids 3H.

    If opener now, holding a heart stopper, bids 3NT, he risks finding responder with this twelve count, related in my earlier comment: KQJTx, x, AQ9xx, xx. 3NT is probably down on a heart lead, with 6D a probable make.

    OK, you might say, but then responder will bid 4D over 3NT? That would be quite foolish if opener held a different hand with his diamond strength moved to the heart suit, as, say, x, AKx, xxx, AKxxxx.

    OTOH, if responder can bid 3D forcing on his hand of KQJTx, x, AQ9xx, xx and 3H on a different twelve count of, say, KJTxx, xx, AQx, Qxx, then opener will know to bid 3NT as a best description of his hand any time he owns a heart stopper. (In the olden days, players used to say that responder's cue bid was a Western cue bid; nowadays, we just say that it asks opener to give the best description of his hand.)

    The problem as I see it is that on the 5-5 twelve point hand, responder is best placed to show his second suit, while on the balanced hand twelve point hand, responder is best placed to invite opener to describe his hand, focusing primarily on 3NT.

    What, then, might a double by responder show at his second turn? I think double shows a desire not to sell to 2H, a tolerance for all other suits including a delayed spade raise, perhaps a hand such as KJTxx, xx, Axxx, Jx. Responder does not invite opener to bid 2NT without extra values (for all he knows, opener has a "weak notrump" with a heart stopper), but can tolerate a 2S call on, say, Qx, or a 3D call on a 2=2=4=5 hand, or a 3C call on a six card suit.

    I would submit that removing the force of responder's second round forcing 3D call places too much burden on the 3H cue bid. Instead, both the 3D call and the 3H cue bid should be forcing, but of different type hands.

    Back to the initial objective of competing on a much weaker spade-diamond two-suiter, that's where the good/bad 2NT -- once the partnership has worked out the details of when it applies -- can be used.

  5. You make a very well-argued case. I too worry about overloading the 3H call too much. I'm basing my proposal to some extent on frequencies. There's also the possibility with your 6D hand that opener would have rebid over 2H.
    These are the difficulties when opponents intervene.
    I'm not sure why I've been playing good/bad in direct seat only. I think it needs to be played in both seats.
    Thanks for your comment.

  6. I would want to except this (and similar) 2NT calls by responder from any rule about 2NT not being natural: 1H - (2D) - 2NT. If I am to negative double in that sequence, I promise four or more spades. Let's say, for example, that responder holds a standard 2NT call hand of Kxx, xx, KQx, QJxxx. If he is forced to negative double on such a hand (because the partnership has agreed that a direct 2NT is not natural), then opener cannot safely make his value call of 3S on a hand such as AJxx, KQxxxx, x, Kx.

    To say that responder can negative double and then bid 2NT on hands that responder would otherwise directly bid 2NT is to assume that opener's rebid will allow him to rebid 2NT: T'aint always so!

    Good/bad 2NT is, with proper agreements on when it does and does not apply, a great convention. But removing a natural 2NT from the auctions where it is most needed is a huge price to pay ... and so a partnership needs to work out some exceptions where 2NT is a natural call. Responder's 2NT call over an intervening direct overcall is one of the exceptions upon which I would insist.

  7. Gee, Robin, I wonder if readers tire of our public two-way discussion!

    Perhaps one should define good/bad 2NT to be limited to situations where there have been three bids (excluding a call of Pass from the definiton of "bid"). That way responder's 2NT call in the auction 1S- (2D) - 2NT becomes natural (there having been only two bids before the 2NT call) while responder's 2NT call in the auction 1C - (1H) - 1S- (2H) ... 2NT becomes good/bad (there having been three bids by the opponents plus one by responder before the 2NT call). I can certainly imagine situations where responder might want 2NT to be natural in the second sequence, too, but not so needed as in the first sequence. And in the second sequence one surely wants to compete further with a five card diamond suit and/or to show delayed club support on both invitational and less-than-invitational hands.