Earlier on this Blog I reviewed Mel Colchamiro’s Book, How to Play Like an Expert (Without really being One). One of the ways to be successful in bridge is to have enormous natural talent. Just as we have Savants in every other endeavor, we have them in bridge. Sadly, there are a lot less of those than players who profess to be. The rest of us rely on bridge standards, partnership agreements and following a bunch of rules. One of the rules that Mel’s book hands down to us is the Rule of 23. Actually there are 2 Rules of 23 according to Mel, and he ought to know, it is his book.
Here is the 1st Rule of 23. After the first round of bidding, neither partner will bid 2NT unless he can determine, with reasonable certainty, that the partnership has at least 23 hcps. Actually, I added the words “reasonable certainty.” I know, you are thinking a lawyer always has to use “weasel words” to add maneuvering room. Well, you could look at it that way, but my emphasis was more to prevent inventing the best possible hand that partner could have and then adding that total to your total, getting 22 and saying “close enough.”
Why do we have this rule? Only because it takes 23 points to make 2NT! I know, you are saying, “Wait a minute, I was in 3NT last week with 22 points and made 4.” Believe me, remembering and recalling all of your big success stories is a significant hindrance to long term success. Soon they become a standard in your mind. Your anomalous hand of the decade has not changed the basic math of bridge. Assuming good defense, it still takes 26 points on average to make 3NT and 23 points to make 2NT. If you have fewer than 23 hcps, experience has shown that you are better off playing a contract in a suit at the 2 level, even if you have to play it in a 7 card trump suit. Remember, in a suit contract your little trump will often cash.
If it is your turn to bid and 2NT is an option, you simply count your points and then add to them the minimum hand that partner can have given his bidding. Note that I said minimum, not maximum. So if the bidding has gone 1d/1NT (6-9), you would have to have 17 hcps to now bid 2NT since partner has a minimum of 6. If the bidding went 1c/1h/1NT (12-14), don’t bid 2NT unless you have 11 hcps.
I saw this rule in application in a recent Frank Stewart bidding quiz. You hold KT, xx, AQxxx, KQT3. You open 1 diamond, partner responds 1 spade, you bid 2 clubs, he bids 2NT, what action you take? If you can rely on partner to apply the Rule of 23, you know he would not have bid 2NT unless he could guarantee our combined holding to be a minimum of 23 hcps. Since your bidding has shown no more than 12, he must have at least 11. While your hand only has 14, they are a strong 14 (3 kings, an ace and concentrated honors ) so you should bid 3NT. The good news is so did Frank Stewart, and he didn’t even know the Rule of 23. Unlike some of Mel’s Rules, this is one that can be applied unilaterally with any disciplined partner.
Here is the 2nd Rule of 23. If the game is match points and you are in a competitive auction, if from the bidding you can ascertain with reasonable certainty that you and your partner have a combined 23 hcps, either you play the contract or they play it doubled. Is this risky business, stuff authors write about, but that mortals never apply? Not at all, after all these rules are supposed to make us play like an expert. It would be helpful if you defend like one as well. Will you "take the pipe" on occasion? Of course, and you get all those insidious grins that go along with it, but it is a good long term percentage play. Remember, this is match points and two bottoms and 3 tops still average 60%. Mel’s take on this is quite interesting, he says if opponents make a contract when you and partner hold a combined 23 hcps, you likely were fixed either way, so not much was lost with the double.
How are you going to remember the Rule of 23? For me it’s 23 Skidoo. Adios.