Monday, May 6, 2013

Cohen versus Stewart

There is an article in the May 2013 edition of the Bridge Bulletin which pits Larry Cohen against Frank Stewart in "2/1? Help or Hindrance."

While I certainly come down on the side of Cohen and 2/1, I think both sides have made a few questionable assertions.

In my opinion, one of the major benefits of playing 2/1 is that it's easier. Yes, you read that right (Cohen agrees). In fact, many 2/1 auctions are simply a question of patterning out – no thinking or judgement required. Yes, there are styles of 2/1 that require more judgement, such as requiring that a "high reverse" by opener (e.g. 1 2♦ 3♣) shows reversing strength. But most of the time, for example you just sit down with an unfamiliar partner and agree "2/1", you rarely have to worry about such subtleties.

So, I find it very strange that most (all?) bridge teachers of novices start them off in completely the wrong direction by teaching them "standard." How can so-called Standard American be considered "standard" when 80% of tournament players (according to Cohen) are playing 2/1?

I admit that I'm a little biased. When I first learned to play bridge it was lunchtime bridge at work, a close relative of "kitchen bridge." Bidding was natural. The more you had the more you bid. But within a few months I had graduated to duplicate. One of the most popular systems in those days was Kaplan-Sheinwold, essentially 2/1 with weak no-trumps.  So, I never really was "corrupted" by this "SA" nonsense.

Let's dissect SA for a moment. It's essentially a hybrid (bastard might be more a propos) of Goren (four-card majors) and Roth-Stone (five-card majors) with perhaps a bit of K-S thrown in (for example if you play inverted minors). In other words, it's neither fish nor fowl. I'll go further to say that it encourages really bad bidding because minimum balanced openings with 12 or 13 high card points will frequently be forced to open a bad three-card minor. This is also true of course for 2/1 if you're playing a strong no-trump.

But I do wonder about some of Larry's examples of troublesome SA auctions. Surely, a tenet of SA is that a two-over-one response promises at least one more bid, with the possible exception of a sequence where opener rebids 2NT. So, I can't imagine having to worry about the auction 1♠ 2 2♠ being passed out. Still, there must be some misguided souls who would pass here, otherwise Larry would not mention the possibility.

I'm also surprised that Larry should advocate a semi-forcing 1NT. Surely, the forcing 1NT (by an unpassed hand) is a cornerstone of 2/1? I have written previously (for example, The Forcing 1 Notrump) about the benefits of being able to show a game-going hand that does not want to suggest a slam by starting with 1NT. Obviously, you can't do that if 1NT isn't 100% forcing.

But these are relatively minor quibbles compared with my thoughts on Frank's contribution. He makes a comment which I believe shows a shocking misunderstanding of the 2/1 style. In an auction which begins 1♠ 2♣ 2, he says "I suspect many Easts in 2/1 would bid 2♠ 'to save space.' Well, if I were West with such mangy spades, wild horses couldn't get me to cooperate in a slam hunt opposite a tepid preference" [my emphasis].

What he seems to miss is that East bidding 2♠ after an initial 2♣, promises three card support (not a tepid preference). Not only that, it shows (at least if you play my style) a hand that will willingly cooperate in a slam hunt, and with good clubs too (else East could have started with a 1NT response and then jumped to 4♠).

He also points out that with both partners potentially making minimum bids at all opportunities, how does a partnership know how to get to slam? Again, this seems to miss the point. As soon as a fit is discovered, one partner or the other can make a control-showing cuebid. Normally, there will be plenty of space available for these types of slam tries. It's true that some delicacy is now required. I have written about this issue before in Slam Tries. One solution is to employ either serious (or frivolous) 3NT. The other solution is to discuss the situations when a control bid demands another control bid. Admittedly, neither of these approaches is covered in the 2/1 texts, but the concepts are not difficult either.

In his auction 1♠ 2 3NT, he says that one player thought that 3NT showed "a powerhouse" and the other did not. But anyone who has read any book on 2/1 knows that a jump in a game-forcing sequence has a special meaning. Given that opener's 2NT rebid shows either a minimum balanced hand or a maximum balanced hand, there can only be one possible meaning for 3NT left: a medium balanced hand (15-17). So it seems that neither Frank nor his partner really knew the basics of 2/1. You can hardly blame the system for that!

So, is 2/1 (with 15-17 no-trumps) the best system out there? No, I don't think so. On theoretical grounds, I think that both K-S (or, if you like, 2/1 with weak no-trumps) and Precision are technically superior systems. But, 2/1 is certainly a lot easier than Precision and therefore a much better candidate for teaching beginners (which no-trump range to play is more a question of personal preference and familiarity).

Having said that, I will note that I've had all my best results playing with my favorite partner – and we play 2/1 with 15-17 no-trumps.


  1. I play 2/1 with most casual partners, but I play SA with my regular partner James (but with all the usual conventions, including forcing 1NT). As long as you have reasonable understandings (we play that 2/1 is forcing to 2NT, so opener can temporize by rebidding his major), they're both quite playable.

    1. Certainly there is a spectrum of treatments between SA and 100% 2/1. It sounds like you and James are only slightly to the left (or is it the right?) of most 2/1 partnerships.

      And, regarding teachers (your second comment), are the rebids after 1NT really so complex? Sometimes you might be obliged to bid a 3-card (or even 2-card) suit, but otherwise, things are fairly natural.

  2. I suspect the reason teachers don't like teaching 2/1 to beginners is because of the complexities of followups to forcing NT.

  3. The teachers' manual for New England Youth Bridge, a program for teaching bridge to school children, adopts 2/1 but without forcing 1NT. I am not about to say that that parlay of treatments is the most accurate parlay, but it is relatively easy to learn, and creates a base upon which students can later learn about the complications of 1NT being forcing (just as they later learn that 1S-4S is a weak call and not the call one makes with a hand that experienced players would call out Jacoby 2NT). What I am trying to suggest is that teachers of beginners should focus on what is easiest for students to learn and produces a base where the students can learn about hand valuation: what kind of combined fit and combined strength produce game. To me, that means that 2/1 is what teachers of beginners should be presenting, albeit without the complications of 1NT forcing where one has often to choose to bid three card suits or take preferences with two card support.

    A side comment: there are many versions of 2/1. Not only are there differences among players as to whether 2/1 auction reverses (whether high reverses or low reverses) show extra values, there are also differences among players whether the two level preference to opener's major in a 2/1 auction promises three cards in the major and differences as to whether opener's rebid of his opened major promises six + card length. Then there is the fast arrival vs. slow arrival differences, too. As a result of all these differences, it is hard to attribute the success or failure of some auctions to the choice to adopt 2/1 or not; so much depends upon agreements ancillary to 2/1 or not 2/1.

    1. I think I'm going to reiterate my earlier point. I believe that you can play 2/1 with a forcing no-trump quite comfortably for a session or two without having to discuss the finer points. Yes, you occasionally have to rebid a 3 (or 2) card suit but aren't we already comfortable with opening 3-card suits? And, yes, you will eventually wonder if openers rebid after a 2/1 promises six and things like that. But to me, these are easier nuances (and crop up less often) than the questions of what's forcing after a two-over-one call in SA.

      So, while I think we're mostly in agreement here, I'm downplaying the importance of the 2/1 details - and hence reaffirming my belief that new players should be taught 2/1.

    2. While I would (rather strongly) disagree with you about whether the standard responses to forcing 1NT are complicated for a beginner, let's just focus on how difficult it might be for a beginner to understand why 1NT is forcing in the first place, when 1NT is a limit bid. Add to that, the fact that 1NT is forcing only when opener has bid 1M and not 1m, and you might come around to understand the rationale for not teaching forcing 1NT to beginners.

      2/1 gf, OTOH, as you have pointed out, is easier to learn than 2/1 not gf. New suits by responder are forcing for at least one round because they have no upper limit; new suit by responder at the two level is forcing to game because then opener and responder have enough combined "points" to bid game.

      For beginners it is important to focus on the big picture issues: do we have a major suit fit, and do we have enough stuff for game? I think 2/1 gf simplifies keeping that focus; I think forcing 1NT to opening bid of 1M complicates that focus.

    3. How I love these discussions :)

      I'm completely in the dark about the complexities of openers rebids after 1NT forcing. So let's concentrate on the other question: why 1NT should be forcing over 1M (and, incidentally, not over 1m). Certainly beginners won't be bothered by it being a "limit bid." Beginners will have no reason to think that way.

      If teacher says that 1NT is forcing then I think that's good enough, at least to begin with. There are lots of "rules" in bridge which are obscure at first but, most of the time, become more obvious later.

    4. I wouldn't profess to be an expert bridge teacher, but, really, the complications seem pretty evident to me:

      1. Opener often has to bid a three card suit in response to 1NT forcing. When else do beginners learn to bid suits so short? So this exception is a complication.

      2. That 1NT is forcing in response to 1M but not to 1m is a complication.

      3. We are doing well to have beginners learn two things about bidding: that game requires about 25 points (and, yes, they do learn that distributional features, which lead to ruffing tricks and long cards being tricks, can create points, too), and that a major suit game requires combined length of eight or more cards in the major.

      From that base, we don't want them to learn a bunch of "trust me" rules, but rather reinforce what they have learned, such as how do you learn that the two hands have an eight card major suit fit and how do you learn that the two hands have 25 points?

      The fewer rules, but the greater reinforced bridge logic, the beginners can learn, I think the better.

      No one -- at least not me -- would argue that, say, distinguishing three card support from four card support for partner's opened major is not important, but it is not THAT important for a beginner.

      I hope this clarifies why, at least to some of us, it is losing teaching strategy to teach the beginners some rules that have complicated (albeit perfectly reasonable) rationales.

      Now, back to why I think 2/1 simplifies learning of beginners (while I continue to think that 1NT forcing response to 1M complicates learning of beginners). When an auction begins with a 2/1 response, then the beginner knows right away that the two hands have 25 points (thus answering one of the two basic issues of bidding, the issue that there is a game to be bid). In SA, OTOH, it is possible that neither of the two basic bidding issues (do we have game? do we have a major suit fit?) is answered by a 2/1 response.

  4. I'm guessing that many teachers don't understand 2/1 well enough to teach it (so they teach SA).

    1. Yes, indeed. That is especially true when I look at our local roster of bridge teachers ;)

  5. I strongly disagree with one statement: Precision (CCWei's version without relays, alpha-beta-gamma bids and the like) is far, far easier than 2/1 or Standard American.

    One bid by each partner is often all you need to know if you belong in a part-score, in game or in slam.

    1. Thanks for pointing that out. I've never really played the unadorned version - actually I didn't realize that CC Wei's original didn't have all of the fancy stuff.