Is there a more welcoming sound than having partner open 1 No Trump? It is like handing responder a warm fuzzy blanket and inviting him to "nod off" and put it on auto-pilot for a hand. The narrow range of the 1NT opener and the well known responses, including Stayman and Jacoby Transfer, make finding the right contract (or at least the one played by everybody else) almost a certainty. I cannot think of another bidding sequence that is so successfully negotiated by players of all ability levels. If the board is not flat, it is simply because somebody misplayed it.
Given the compete mastery of these sequences by novices, intermediates and “would be” advanced players, it is utterly amazing how poorly the same players with the same cards account for themselves when Opener’s LHO makes an overcall. In any club game most of the partnerships either have no understandings, or at best, poor and ineffective understandings, of how to proceed once there is an intervening overcall, whether natural or conventional. The most common agreement is that Stayman and Transfers are still “on” and double is Stolen Bid. Those universal agreements are easy to understand and apply, but that may be all that can be said for them. Select your favorite partner (or perhaps one you don’t like so well) and test your own systems on these hands. In each case partner opens 1NT 15-17 and his LHO opponent makes a natural overcall:
1. The overcall is 2 hearts: You hold 73, 974, 7, QJT8765. What do you bid? The Kiss of death is “Pass” since your hand is likely to be enrtyless. You go into the tank and finally bid 3 clubs. What is partner supposed to take from that bid? Do you have a club suit? If so, is the bid “to play” or is it invitational? Will it surprise you if partner takes this bid for Stayman and bids 3 spades and you end up in 3NT?
2. The overcall is 2 diamonds: You hold KQx, Q109, 7, AQ10654. If all you have are Jacoby Transfers, Stayman and Stolen bid, you have problems. Again, is 3 clubs to play, forcing, 5-5 in the minors or invitational to slam? How do you tell opener that you have this hand and not the hand we looked at above? Will partner take 3 clubs as Stayman? Assuming you have an understanding that a 2 spade bid is a transfer to a minor, is it simply a transfer to clubs or is it minor suit Stayman (showing both minors). How do you deny a diamond stopper and ask partner if he has one. If partner has a good 15 (say Axxx, KJx, Ax, Kxx) 6 clubs is a virtual lock, but can you find it?
3. This time the overcall is 2 spades: Here we will work with two different hands. Hand (a) is 103, KQJ53, AJ3 832. Hand (b) is 854, KJ8765, 5, 864. Without the overcall you would transfer both of these hands to hearts by biding 2 diamonds. With hand (a) you would then bid 3NT asking partner to bid 4 hearts with 3 card support. With hand (b) you would cheerfully pass the transfer. Now, with the 2 spade overcall, how do you get to the right spot? You can try 3 hearts, but partner will never know whether this is forcing and whether you have hand (a) or (b). Here the problem can be solved if you have an agreement that 3 diamonds is a heart transfer, but notice the pesky overcall forced you one level higher and that may be one too many with hand (b). If 3 diamonds is a transfer, how would you show 73, 974, QJT8765, 7 ?
4. The overcall this time is 2 hearts: You hold KJxx, QJx, Ax, xxx. You would like to find out if opener has a 4 card spade suit, and if not play 3NT. How do you inquire about opener’s spade holding. If responder makes a cue bid of 3 hearts, what does that mean? In many systems it would be Stayman to help sort out the multiple meanings of the 3 club call.
5. The overcall is 2 clubs: You hold Jx, xxx, Axxxxx, xx. You would like to bid 2 diamonds and kick partner under the table to let him know that it is not a heart transfer but rather to play! Even if you have a system that will get you to 3 diamonds to play, most often the hand will only make 2. You may get an average board because everybody else will be the same -50 boat, but your systemic failure torpedoed your chance to make +90 top on this board.
6. The overcall is a 2 diamonds: Neither vulnerable. You hold A109, x, KJXX, xxxx. Generally when partner opens 1NT 15-17, you can estimate that he has 3 1/2 defensive tricks. It may not have worked out that way last week, but in time it will. You are thinking “with my diamond holding we can certainly make 2 NT, but +120 is about the best you can hope for.” Pass is an option. Partner will probably also pass and you may get a two trick set for +100, but that will not beat the 2 No Trump bidders. Here’s an idea, make a penalty double of 2 diamonds for +300. That’s a great idea until you hear partner announce “transfer.” Your “Stolen Bid” convention has stolen your penalty double. No matter what opponents bid, you can’t double for penalties. Is it any wonder that they are fearless?
You may well say “these things seldom happen to me since opponents seldom overcall my partner’s 1NT openers.” While that may have been true in the past, I do not think that is going to last very long. Observers of the game who think outside the box are already realizing that any overcall, good, bad or indifferent, is most likely to create a giant SNAFU for most opponents, much like the ones I just illustrated. Old style players using classic defensive systems (Cappelletti, Hamilton, Landy, DONT, Brozel etc.) who only bid if they have a 6 card suit or a 5-5 holding are not your problem. They are going to overcall only about 10% of the time and then only if the hand belongs to them. They are like knats, ignore them! It is going to be the overly aggressive opponents who will overcall more often than not who are going to be your nemesis.
How can this happen? How can they do it? How can they get a way with it? Isn’t there a law or any justice? Shouldn’t these people be barred by the ACBL? Those are the very same questions that arose when Weak Two bids, Weak Jump Overcalls, and Weak Jump Shifts first came on the scene. Marty Bergen and Larry Cohen made living convincing club players of the positive value of preemption and interference, particularly when you have bad cards.
We have now set the stage. Over the next few posts I hope to demonstrate how you can be a genuine "pain in the ass" when opponents open 1NT, and then in retaliation, suggest some ways that you can counter this action.