Saturday, May 5, 2007

Responding to Partner's Overcall-- Changing Suits

This is my final post on responding to overcalls. If you want want to find the earlier posts, look in the archives. When is it appropriate to introduce a new suit in response to partner’s overcall, and should this bid be forcing, non-forcing/constructive or non-forcing? This is not a problem that you can face when you come to it, since the ACBL convention card requires your partnership to disclose your treatment. It is not so important how you play it, as long as you and partner agree.

I do not think many people play it as forcing these days. Since partner has made a simple overcall behind the opening bidder, even if responder passes, the likelihood of game is slight, and slam is not a consideration. Let’s move on to “non-forcing/constructive.” Doesn’t that sound good, particularly since virtually no one knows exactly what constructive means in this context? The ACBL in its Bridge Bulletin series, Conventional Wisdom, states that constructive/non-forcing means that overcaller is obligated to bid again except in the case where your overcall is minimum (which is also required to be defined on the convention card) and the hands are misfitting. I must say, that sounds more forcing than non-forcing. Mark the “non-forcing” box for me. It is not a coincidence that I have some comfortable authority on my side.

The last word on overcalls has to be Mike Lawrence since he is the only authority that has written a book on the subject in the last 25 years. When Mike gets through, what more is there to say? The Complete Book on Overcalls in Contract Bridge (1980) endorses a non-forcing treatment on change of suit responses to overcalls. Mike does it in 30 pages; here is a somewhat shorter version. If non-forcing was right 30 years ago, how can it not be the answer in today’s competitive environment?

In the ACBL series “How to fill out a Convention Card”, the instructions state that you would check the non-forcing box if holding K109xxx in hearts you would bid 2 hearts after 1c/1s/p/? Sounds ever so much like me! I would also do it after 1c/1s/2c/? and very likely after 1c/1s/1NT/? Of course this begs the question “What else do I have? Well I certainly don’t have 3 spades. Maybe the complete hand looks like xx, K109xxx, KJx, xx or even x, K109xxx, KJ, xxxx.

We are not looking for game, we are looking to win the part score battle. To do that we need to find a fit and the only way to find a fit is to start bidding our suits. If we wait for a hand that we can force with, we aren’t going to be bidding very much. Nor are we going to be encouraging partner to make a simple one level overcall, if he can’t do so without fear of having to take another bid.

If your system pushes partner to take another bid, almost invariably you are going to hear him rebid the overcalled suit. Rather than trying to strap partner with bidding obligations, I think it is preferable to let him decide what to do with his cards. Oddly enough, this enables you to be more aggressive as advancer.

According to Mike Lawrence, failure to act as advancer is the most serious error. He says when the bidding is at the one or two level, the rule is “When in doubt bid; only when it is not right to bid should you pass.” A change of suit overcall can put a lot of pressure on opener if he is now required to go to the 3 level to take another bid. Some opportunities are definitely better than others:

1. It is less hazardous to bid if opponents have found a fit, such as the 1c/1s/2c sequence. It is positive to act because they may well make their contract with overtricks and also positive since our losers in their suit may be limited by reason of their fit.
2. It can be a good sign that you have 4 cards in the opponent’s fit suit. It probably means that partner has at most one card in that suit, and increases the probability that partner will have a fit for your suit
3. Being non-vulnerable would certainly screw up my courage. As my partner, Bob Scarbrough, says “non-vulnerable down 2 is good.” The less we have, the more they have, and if we play our best fit and play it well, minus 100 is seldom a bad board. Are you worried about being doubled in 2 hearts? You need to seriously get a life!!
4. If you have a decent 5 card major, let partner know about your suit if you have the opportunity. The bidding goes 1c/1d/1h/? You hold Q10876, 42, 3, AJ865. Bid one spade. It will be your last chance. Positive factors overcoming your lousy suit are your shortage in hearts and partner’s probable shortage in clubs. An 8+ card fit is also likely.
5. Look for the preemptive effect on opener. The bidding goes 1c/1h/1s/? You hold 1065, Q2, KQ1095, 863. This may be a little dangerous, but I would bid 2 diamonds since it prevents opener from bidding 1NT or 2 clubs.
6. If responder’s bid limits his hand, this is the perfect opening. When opponents are in a 2/1 auction, there is no compelling need to step in.
7. Finally your overcall may deter opponents from playing a no trump contract, and if they do, you certainly would like partner to lead your suit.

If your call is not forcing, then partner should not take it as a strong lead directing preference. It may be a better time to lead his own overcalled suit. But even with K109xxx, what is the worst that can happen? Declarer may take two tricks with his AQ, but wasn’t he going to finesse against the King?

Before we leave, let’s look at situations where you are forced to the 3 level to bid your new suit. In practical application, about the only time you will do so is where responder has made a 2 level raise that limits his hand. It is also important that your 3 level bid be lower in rank than partner’s overcall so that if he has to run back to his suit, he will not have to go up yet another level. Finally, at the 3 level you need a real suit and some substantial length, a strong 6 carder or a 7 card suit.

Assume you hold 87, Q2, 42, KQJ1076, 7. The bidding is 1s/2h/2s/? At any vulnerability bid 3 diamonds. Responder has limited his hand; there is a good suit, a probable fit and the Qx of hearts is a plus. This also gives partner a chance to sacrifice at 5 diamonds. Alternatively, you hold Q82, 84, 7, KJ97654. the bidding is 1s/2d/2h/? This is a good time to pass. The Queen of spades will likely go away, the doubleton heart is of no value, the stiff in partner’s suit is bad news and there is little reason to expect a fit.

Others will certainly espouse a different approach. The elusive lure of 'non-forcing/constructive" is a powerful opiate. But, real men don’t put partner on the spot with “wishy-washy” bids do they? Do your home work, think it over, talk to your partner and experiment a little. Nothing will tell you like results. The only thing better than an opening hand is an open mind!

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