Sunday, March 2, 2008

Combating the Poison Gas Factory (lebensohl)

My last post discussed some of the easier treatments for combating opponent’s overcalls when partner opens 1NT. In retrospect, I think the “for dummies” system offered by Larry Cohen and summarized in my last post is the best if you want to keep it simple. The complete and most effective system is a treatment called “lebensohl.” Lebensohl has been around for years. In 1987 Ron Anderson wrote a book about it. This post relates only to lebensohl when partner opens 1NT and opponents make a natural or conventional overcall, although sister systems also deal with bidding over weak 2 bids and bidding reverses.

While the basic lebensohl system remains substantially the same as originally conceived, in the past 20 years experts have continued to refine it in an effort to deal with every card combination that will ever arise. With about 465 billion possible card combinations, you can imagine the complexity that fertile minds have introduced to this once useful system. It is sort of like “the challenge is no longer the opponent’s overcall, but rather the system to deal with it.” Of course when you edit out complexity, something has to give – it probably means that you are going to see a few hands in your lifetime that have no perfect response. That’s the way it goes! If you want the full dose, the “medium complicated” system described on Larry Cohen’s website ( is probably better than most.

A. Lebensohl’s 2NT Relay Bid.
At the heart of the lebensohl system is the response of 2NT relaying opening bidder to 3 clubs. This relay enables us to differentiate bids based on whether they are made before or after the 2NT relay. If made before the relay they are classified as “fast bids” and if made after the relay are classified a “slow bids.” Since we have an overcall, our ability to continue our auction and play a no trump contract depends on whether we hold a stopper in the overcalled suit(s). Using our slow and fast terminology and applying it to stoppers, the rule is “slow shows and fast denies.” This concept will be applied as we work our way through the bidding structure.

B. Lebensohl in a Nutshell (that’s a laugh!)
1. Opponent’s Doubles. If opponents double partner’s 1NT opening bid, we ignore it and all regular no trump systems are on. e.g. 1NT/x/2d is transfer to hearts. If opponent’s double is a penalty double (equal values) you may want to use redouble as a “run out.” As such it would tell partner to bid his 4 card suits up the line so we can find a safer place to play.

2. Opponent’s Overcalls. Partner opens 1NT and LHO makes a natural or conventional overcall.
a. A 2 club overcall is played as “systems on/ stolen bid.” Thus 1NT/2C/X is Stayman and 2D and 2H would be transfers.
b. If the overcall is 2D or 2H, any other available natural response at the two level is to play. e.g. 1NT/2D/2H or 2S are to play
c. Any 3 level bid is forcing to game. 1NT/2D/3H forces to game in hearts or 3NT. The same would hold true for a 3 level response in the minors
d. The response of 2NT is a relay for partner to bid 3 clubs. After the 3 club bid, passing, or bidding any suit bid under the rank of the overcalled suit, is to play. 1NT/2H/2NT/P/3C/P/3D is to play. Any suit bid over the rank of the overcall is invitational in that suit. 1NT/2d/2NT/P/3C/P/3H is invitational in hearts. (5 card suit + 9 hcps).
e. A direct cue bid by responder is game forcing Stayman. It shows at least one 4 card major and denies a stopper. 1NT/2H/3H shows 4 spades and denies a heart stopper. (remember FAST denies!)
f. A 2NT relay followed by a cue bid in opponent’s suit is also Stayman, but it shows a stopper. 1NT/2H/2NT/P/3C/P/3H shows 4 spades and a stopper in hearts.
g. A direct bid of 3NT after the overcall is a game force and denies a stopper. It would also deny a four card major, since you would have used Stayman by making a cue bid. Thus, 1NT/2H/3NT (no 4 card major and game force values, no heart stopper). Once more “fast denies.”
h. A response of 2NT followed by a bid of 3NT shows a stopper and denies a 4 card major. 1NT/2H/2NT/P/3C/P/3NT is to play. With a four card major you would have made a delayed cue bid for Stayman with a stopper.
i. Any 4 level bid is “front of the card” (i.e. whatever you play over 1NT without the overcall such as Texas Transfer, Gerber, etc).

3. Know What Your Opponent’s Overcalls Mean. Yes you need to ask now, don’t wait until the end of the bidding. If the bid of 2 clubs is Landy (showing majors) or 2 diamonds (Cappelletti showing majors) you don’t want to be making a Stayman response.

4. We Double their Overcall. Unlike original lebensohl, the double is not for penalty, it is negative. This is probably the most useful action we have. Although it usually shows shortness in the bid suit and frequently an unbid 4 card major, in final analysis it says I got some stuff partner and don’t have another bid I like. This double definitely requests some take out from opener. If responder wants to penalty double he must pass and hope that partner reopens the bidding with a double. Opener should reopen if has 2 cards or less in the overcalled suit.

5. Stopper Protocol. Stopper issues only arise where overcalls are conventional showing 2 suits.
a. Many two suited overcalls disclose both suits such as the Cappelletti overcall of 2 diamonds showing majors. If you relay and bid one of the majors it shows a stopper only in that major. If following the relay you bid 3NT, it shows a stopper in both majors. It says nothing about diamonds.
b. More troublesome are bids like the DONT bid of 2 diamonds which shows diamonds and either hearts or spades. Fortunately there are few of them. It is hard to deal with the stopper issue when one of the suits is unknown. Here’s where I take a shortcut. If you have all three stopped, go ahead and bid a delayed 3NT. Since overcaller does not have both majors, you could still use a direct cue bid as Stayman. If you have clubs (a distinct possibility) show your club suit either before or after the relay. Perhaps the easiest thing to do with “cards” is to make a negative double.
c. If the overcall is conventional and shows a single suit, don’t wait for the single suit relay. Take normal Lebensohl action immediately before they find a fit. Most single suit conventional bids are 2 clubs or double. Over either bid, normal no trump system bids would be on and lebensohl off.

6. Other Applications. Lebensohl applies to 1NT overcalls if we make them. Lebensohl applies irrespective of the range of our no trump opening. If we use weak no trumps, we simply make adjustments to high card requirements.

Lebensohl takes work, studying, patience and a regular partner. If this is not for you, return to my last post and take your choice

1 comment:

Bob Locke said...

This is a good lebensohl page, Tommy. I have one suggestion, however. My partner and I have decided to try out lebensohl but with the Stolen Bid Double in place all the way from 2C-2S. Keeping low level transfers seems a better idea than your recommendation in 2c above. What do you think?