Sunday, March 11, 2007

Smolen, Schmolen!

Your lucky day! Partner opens 1NT (15-17). Here are three different hands held by responder that we are asked to bid: (i) QJxxx, Kxxx, x, xxx (ii) KQxxx, J10xx, Jxx, x and (iii) KJxxx, Qxxx, Kxx, x . Notice that each hand is 5-4 in spades and hearts. If opener has 3 spades or 4 hearts you would like to play these hands in a major suit. If opener’s distribution is 2-3-4-5, you don’t want to walk by a playable NT contract. There are several ways to bid these hands, some more sophisticated than others, but as usual, sophistication is of minimal value and the important thing is to have an understanding with partner.

In Standard American you would start with a Stayman ask and opener usually bids 2 diamonds. Well, there goes our heart contract, but now opener is even a bigger favorite to have 3 spades. With hand (i) I next bid 2 spades and hope partner remembers that for us that is “to play.” Even if we have a 7 card spade suit, this hand looks to play better in 2 spades than 1NT. Why didn’t I simply make a transfer to spades? Because the moment I do, partner will show up with 4 hearts!! Note, once I treat this bid as “to play,” it no longer can show an invitational hand. The reason I treat it “to play” is that the same bidding sequence could be “Garbage Stayman”, and I don’t want opener bidding again. You make choices in bridge, and this is my choice.

With hand (ii) I might like to have my 2 spade invitational bid back, but due to my earlier choice, I now have to make a decision about playing in a game contract or playing 2 spades. The hand is too good for 2 spades, so I now bid 3 spades. This bid shows 5 spades and 4 hearts and is a game force. If partner has 3 spades I want him to bid 4 spades, and if he only has 2 spades, to bid 3NT. Hand (iii) is an easy game force and I bid it the same way as hand (ii), but I am now proud to table the dummy. Note that this bidding treatment gets the spade contract wrong sided. While having the opening lead come up to the strong hand has always been thought to be worth ½ trick, there may be some evidence that this advantage is overrated.

If you want to get the 5-3 fit right sided, there is another way to approach the bidding. You can start by transferring opener to 2 spades and then bid 3 hearts. Notice that with 5 spades and 4 hearts we are already at the 3 level. This better be a game force since partner is not going to pass 3 hearts. It is a little more comfortable with 5 hearts and four spades, but that does not cure the problem. Note that if opener has 4 hearts, we have again wrong sided the contract, but this time in the 4-4 suit distribution. Personally, I think the transfer and bid sequence is better left to describe a 5-5 in the majors or a 5-5 major-minor hand.

In an effort to cure the wrong sided problem a convention called “Smolen” was developed by Michael Smolen. You again start with Stayman looking for the 4 card major in partner’s hand. If he bids 2 diamonds, then you bid your 4 card major at the 3 level. This shows opener that you started with 5 spades and 4 hearts (or 4 hearts and 5 spades, as the case may be). Partner with 3 card support for spades bids 4 spades and without three card support bid 3 NT. Smolen can only be used with game force hands, there is no stopping point, but you can use the sequence described in paragraph 2 if you want "to play” the hand at the 2 level.

So, we got Smolen off the ground and all of a sudden over opener’s 3 NT bid we hear responder bid 4 hearts. This doesn’t mean that responder still wants to play in hearts; it is a transfer to spades. Why would responder still want to play in spades? Well, he didn’t tell opener that he had 6 spades because there was no “need to know.” Have you got a better way to show a 6-4 major suit hand? The reason partner didn’t make a Texas Transfer is that he wanted to fully describe this 6-4 hand. Two hands with a double fit are very powerful. My preference is to make a Texas Transfer with 6-4 if I have no interest in slam. If you use Smolen with a 6-4 hand, it usually suggests that responder has mild slam interest.

A comment from Alfred Sheinwold: "Bridge is essentially a social game, but unfortunately it attracts a substantial number of antisocial people."

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