Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Suit quality in slam bidding (part 1)

This is the fourth contribution of what I now realize has become a series on slam bidding. I wrote the first one three years ago: Slam Tries. Since then, there have been two more: When to bid a slam and When to bid an NT slam. And while I note that Marty Bergen, Mike Lawrence, Eddie Kantar et al have written volumes on the subject, they have not covered the stuff that I am presenting in these short articles. This topic, however, has become so long that I am going to offer it in two parts.

One of the great things about playing "Two-over-one" is that responder to an opening bid in a major is able to distinguish between those hands he expects to play in game only and other hands where he would like to suggest a slam. Of course, opener might have slam ambitions even when responder wants to stop in game. And, before I get started, let me say up front that my ideas here are controversial but, I hope, compelling.

So, let's start by looking at the types of hand an un-passed responder might hold opposite an opening bid of 1♠ where he has fewer than four cards in spades:
  1. a weak hand that is not worth any response;
  2. an intermediate-strength hand that cannot force to game:
    1. a minimum responding hand:
      1. with three spades (this hand will immediately raise to 2♠);
      2. with two spades (or perhaps a really bad flat hand with three spades);
      3. with fewer spades (this hand will have to exercise some judgment at rebid time);
    2. an invitational hand;
  3. a hand which expects to play in game but has no slam ambitions opposite a non-jump rebid:
    1. responder knows where the hand will likely play (4♠ or 3NT typically);
    2. responder does not yet know where the hand will play;
  4. a hand that will at least make game:
    1. with support for partner – and may be worth a slam;
    2. without support for partner.
Clearly, hand type 1 will pass and all hands of type 2 (except for 2.1.1) will bid 1NT forcing. All of the other hands will start with a 2/1 bid, right? Wrong. I will allow that the standard 2/1 texts do not address this issue at all – all of them, as far as I can tell, limit the 1NT forcing response to 11 or at most 12 hcp – however, there would be little point in me regurgitating the standard dogma here.

Types 4 and type 3.2 will start with a 2/1 bid. But type 3.1 should start with 1NT forcing! That's why it's forcing! We won't miss game. It doesn't deny game-forcing values. It only denies a desire to play in a slam or to find the best game. Responder will clarify his hand at his next turn. I first wrote about this principle almost two years ago: The Forcing 1NT.

Let's say that opener bids 1♠ and responder bids 1NT. So far, we've ruled out hands of types 1, 4 and 3.2. Now, let's suppose opener rebids two of a new suit. Responder's rebids will now make it clear what type of hand he has:
  • 2♠ (type 2.1.2)
  • something else (type 2.1.3)
  • 3♠ or 2NT (type 2.2)
  • 4♠ or 3NT (type 3.1)
Now, let's look at the sequences that start with, let's say, 1♠ – 2♣. Suppose opener rebids 2, 2 or 2♠, 2NT or 3♣ (the most common rebids). Here are the possible rebids by responder:
  • 2♠ (if available), 3♠ or 4♠ (various types of 4.1 – different partnerships might place different interpretations on these three possible ways of supporting opener's suit);
  • anything else (types 3.2 or 4.2).
In the first of these, responder is making a slam try! Why make a 2/1 bid and then support partner if you didn't want to at least mildly suggest slam? You could have responded 1NT and then jumped to game (or even jumped straight to game as Precision players sometimes do) with no slam interest at all.

In the latter case (anything else), we cannot be sure where responder is heading. If responder rebids his own suit, he's interested in game or slam in his suit. We don't know which yet, but if we don't support his suit next, he's likely to give up on slam unless he has a very good hand. Incidentally, this raises the issue of whether the partnership plays strong jump shifts because if they do, then certain hand types are eliminated from a normal 2/1. However, since many 2/1 players don't see the need for SJSs, I am assuming for now that we are not playing them.

But for now, we should simply assume that the first order of business is to find a playable game, in keeping with the well-accepted principle "game before slam." Thus, we will group 3.2 and 4.2 type hands as one for now.

So, what's the point of all this? The difference between hand types 3.1 and 4.1 is ambition. Game versus slam. Now, would you seriously be suggesting slam in partner's suit if you couldn't control your own suit? Ay, there's the rub. By the process of deduction then, if responder makes a 2/1 bid and next supports partner, his suit will be a good one. Opener has a right to expect at least the A or K of the suit. This follows from the obvious inference that responder can hardly expect opener to control this suit.

And further, suppose you have a 4.2 type hand (no support for opener). You will be most pleased when opener supports your suit at his next turn suggesting honor-third or perhaps four small. When this happens you're likely to find yourself as declarer at the six level. How happy would you be if your suit was Qxxxx opposite Kxx? The answer is: not ecstatic – you will have to find one player with exactly Ax.

Let's look at an example of how not to bid – courtesy of my Robot partner in a recent BBO tournament:

Don't concern yourself too much with the play. I misclicked at trick 2 (I have a new trigger-happy mouse) but the damage was done during the auction – 6♠ is unmake-able!

The robot North has a minimum game-going hand with no apparent fit. I would argue that starting with 2 is overly optimistic with such a moderate diamond suit. After my "high reverse" of 3♣ made, admittedly on moderate "extras," my robot partner chose what is, I believe, an absolute no-no in 2/1 bidding: he showed three-card support for spades with his 3♠ call. Although I knew we were missing the ♠Q, I believed us to be in a 9 card fit with all five "key" cards, so I bid the slam.

It's better in this case to start with 1NT forcing and to see what happens next. If opener rebids clubs, then responder can confidently jump to 3NT. If opener rebids spades (promising six), then 4♠ looks right. Only red suit rebids would cause problems because we will not then be in a game-forcing situation. Do we jump to 4 (likely a Moyesian fit) or 5 (perhaps with only an eight-card fit) as appropriate? I think responder should simply bid game only unless opener makes a jump rebid, in which case responder will certainly be thinking about a slam. Poorly fitting hands are never easy to bid, regardless of system. But rest assured that the partnership will not be missing a game contract if there is one.

Not every hand is suitable for a 1NT pre-game force. You must be able to handle all of opener's rebids. Otherwise, you will have to start with a 2/1.

In the next part of this topic (coming soon), I will discuss "picture bids" and fast arrival with more example hands. As always comments are welcome.


  1. I disagree with nearly all bidding treatments where one hand (let's say responder, although similar arguments pertain to opener) decides, without knowing that his partner is limited, whether a hand is worth only game. Experts -- of which I am certainly not one -- often decry Fast Arrival for exactly that reason. Some minimums can produce slams; some cannot. It is all a guessing game when one partner makes a unilateral decision at an early turn without sufficient information.

    Let's take the hand from the Robot. I surely agree that Robot's 3S call was inane; 3NT stood out. But can you seriously decry the 2D response? The North hand has slam potential, so long as there is found a suit fit and South has mild extras. If North just counts his 13 HCP and responds 1NT, how can South find a slam on something like AKxxxx, xx, KQx, Ax, a 3D rebid to a 2D response in my book?

    Or take another example where we slightly change responder's hand while keeping in tact opener's hand. What if responder's hand is this 13 count: Qx, AKx, Axxxx, xxx? Now responder, with four cover cards, might make a slammish move after 1S-2D-3C (showing extras, as you suggested)-3NT-4S and opener will be happy to cooperate. Will slam be reached if responder chooses 1NT as his initial response?

    Bidding accurately requires an exchange of information. I would argue strongly against North Robot concluding that there is no slam in this hand merely because he has only 13 HCP and fewer than three cards in opener's suit. What I see in North's hand is a decent five card suit and three quick tricks an an honor in opener's suit; that's a 2/1 for sure. It is rare early in an auction for one partner to have sufficient information to conclude where the hand is going.

  2. Thanks for your thoughtful comment Jeff. I would argue that there are many situations in bridge where one partner makes a suggestion of a final contract level yet can be overridden by partner. 1S pass 2S is one example; 1NT is another. In each of these cases, the last bidder is saying "unless you have significant extras, we are at the appropriate level."

    Looking at the robot hand, I agree that we are on the edge in terms of looking for slam. With your suggested South hand, it's close to (or at) the playing strength needed to jump to 3S over 1NT. Now, responder would be happy to bid 4D to suggest a suit for a slam. The partnership needs to be able to stop in 4NT though if there's no fit [an argument for not assuming that 4NT is always Blackwood - a difficult concept for many non-experts, admittedly].

    Taking your second update, may I suggest that the possession of the SQ instead of SJ makes this hand considerably stronger in response to a 1S opening? Perhaps I'm over-stating the difference but I would now be comfortable with a 2D response because now I won't be embarrassed if I have to support spades at my next turn.

    Perhaps I was a little pessimistic about the Robot's actual hand. It does have a five-card suit headed by the AJ so it's not as bad as all that [see the hands in my next blog!] The trouble with the hand is that it has no good rebid and that's why I have downgraded it to a 1NT response.

    But to reiterate: North is not saying that there's no slam. He's saying that there's no BIDDABLE slam UNLESS South has significant extras. [I'm assuming here a common understanding of what I mean by a biddable slam].