I’ve danced all around this subject, so now I have to get to the bottom line and tell you how to make a decision on whether to preempt, and if so, at what level. The most important thing is to recognize that bridge is a partnership game that is based on a communication system called bidding. It would be handy to tell partner what cards you hold, but since you cannot, you have to do that through bidding. Bidding is a form of code. Each bids means something, and the tighter the parameters, the better the communication. This means that partners have to set guidelines or standards for each type of bid, and that once set, the other partner is entitled to rely that the bidder holds the cards he advertised and make her decisions accordingly.
Within the rules imposed by the ACBL, a bid can mean anything that partners want it to mean. For example, my opening bid of 1NT means a balanced hand and 15-17 hcps with some partners, 14-17 with others and 11-14 with others. While the hcp range will vary by partnership, I must agree to play only one range with each partner. If I bid 1NT, partner relies on me to hold the cards that are equal to our standard. Standards are equally important in making preemptive bids, and not unlike my no trump example, they can mean anything you and your partners want them to mean, but they can’t mean one thing one time, and another thing another time. To engage in such a practice simply undermines partnership communication and such “masterminding” usually results in abortive communication and strained partner relations.
Let’s use weak 2 bids in 1st and 2nd position as an example. The standards for those bids are often described by suit strength. For example, your standard could promise partner that you will hold 2 of the top 3 honors in the suit. If you have another partner who likes to be more aggressive, with that partner your standard could be 3 of the top 5 honors. That standard will find you preempting more often, but the price for being more aggressive defensively is that you run a slightly greater risk of getting set by the opponents for a total that is more than they could make on the hand. A further downside is that if partner actually has a good hand, it is harder for her to engage in constructive bidding since your suit could be headed by either the QJ10 or the AKQ. As we head down the slippery slope, we tend to lose our discipline. If you think the answer lies in “inquiry conventions” like Ogust, be patient until I can tear at that a little in a subsequent installment dealing with responses to weak 2 bids.
Another important part of setting a standard is to set limitations on the defensive tricks that the weak 2 bidder will have outside the trump suit. Remember, a good preemptive bid is supposed to say to partner “good offense, no defense.” If you make a weak 2 bid with J10xxx, x, KQx, Kxx, that bid sends the wrong message since you have very poor offense and very good defense. How is partner, who is considering a save at the 4 level, going to reach the right result. You can probably beat 4 hearts, but how is he supposed to know this when you have sent him this confusing message. Whatever your standard is for the suit, I do not advise making a preemptive bid if the hand has more than one Ace or King outside the bid suit.
How weak can a standard be? I hope by now that you understand that it can be as weak as you want it to be as long as you and partner agree to it. In an extreme, you could have a standard such as "I will never have hand as good as 3 of the top 5." Thus, you would open J10xxxx, or Q9xxxx, but not open AKxxxx since it is too good for your standard. If that is what you want to do, be my guest, but it sounds like a recipe for disaster. What, you say, you want to open all three of those hands with a weak 2 bid. Well, there is no rule against it, but you have just turned your bridge partnership into a one man show and placed partner in a position where all he can do is pass, since even with a potential game going hand, he never knows which hand you are bidding. It points out the folly of each partner having the discretion to bid on whatever type of hand suits him at the moment.
Just a brief comment on making preemptive bids at the 3 level and higher. In an earlier post I spoke about the 2-3-4 rule (sometimes called the down 500 rule). Thus, the standard is that looking at only your hand (and no miracles), you will not be down more than 2 at unfavorable vulnerability, down three at equal, and down 4 at favorable. I personally like that standard, but if you need more excitement in your life, you can move the standard to 3-4-5. Expect to get in the opponents hair more often, but also expect to have more regrets and to reduce the accuracy of partners constructive bidding. You can also elect not to have any standards (open at the 3 level anytime you have 7 cards in the suit). Yum-Yum, be sure to start with my partner and me, we are friendly people.
I hear all the time "I saw Jeff Meckstroth open a 5 card major at the 2 level, or open a 6 card minor at the 3 level." Yes, if you are one of the best players in the world you can do things like that successfully, since the judgment is impeccable and the declaring skills are about 1½ tricks above yours on average. When strangers come and offer you $10,000 to play a Board–a- Match event, you will know that your time has come.