The play of the bridge hand and defense have changed very little over the decades. Once you have learned the basics and obtained a little experience, you skills will be whatever they will be. You may be a “natural” or a “digger”, but the one thing you do not have to worry about is seismic change taking place. Bidding does not demonstrate that same stability; it has changed dramatically since the days of Charles Goren and has moved very quickly since the mid 80’s when Marty Bergen started to preach that “bridge is a bidder’s game.” New bidding concepts are quickly accepted at the expert level, and slowly but surely trickle down to the club level over time. Nowhere is that more evident than in competitive bidding. For this reason, I think an occasional review of your bidding standards is worthwhile to make sure that you haven’t been left in the dust. If you find that opponents are getting good boards against you on low level contracts (either by making them or going down 1 or 2), it may be that you need to see if “yesterday’s bridge” is continuing to work for you. A good place to start is on the important concept of “balancing.”
In this post I would like to restrict my comments to balancing in the “pass out” seat. What agreements do you have with your partner about reopening the bidding? I confess to not having discussed this with all my partners, but if asked, I probably would have replied “have at least 1 1/2 quick tricks to reopen.” In other words AK, AQ/K, KQ/A, KKKK etc. This is an old standard and the benefits are that if opponents outbid you, you will at least have some defense, and partner will know to look for the 1 1/2 tricks in conducting the defense of the contract. In a recent bridge class, Pat Peterson talked about balancing in the pass out seat, and it was then that I realized that she was recommending balancing action that did not always meet this standard. I started to review the bridge literature on balancing in the pass out seat and found that my standard is too conservative and not consistent with competitive bidding as it is taught and applied today by better players.
The following seems to summarize contemporary balancing agreements among most experts:
1 diamond, pass, pass, (?)
(a) dbl= 8+ hcps
(b) 1 of a major= normal 1 level overcall
(c) 1NT 10-14 hcps (does not guarantee a stop)
(d) 2 clubs – normal overcall
(e) cue bid (needs partnership agreement: either Michaels or Game Force)
(f) 2 of major= Good 6 card suit + opening hand (not weak jump shift)
(g) Double and bid 1NT= 15-18
(g) 2NT (needs partnership agreement: either Unusual NT or 19-21 hcps).
1 heart, pass, pass, (?) This is pretty much the same as above except that the 1NT overcall is 12-16. The reason for this is that if you reopen with a double, partner's response will be at the 2 level and you will not be able to bid 1NT showing 15-18. We take up the slack with the opening 2NT bid that now is reduced to 17-19.
The theory of getting into the bidding is based on simple addition. If you give opener 14, and his partner 5 or less for his pass, we have accounted for 19 hcps. If balancer has as much as 8 hcps that leaves partner with an opening hand. Why didn’t partner overcall or double with opening values? The usual reason,is partner simply did not have the correct hand shape to take a call.
Consider opponent’s opening of 1 club and partner holding AT98, K2, 987, AQ32. He has a very nice hand, and yet is handcuffed by his shape. Suppose your cards in the pass out seat are Q765, QJT, QJ76, 3. Alternatively, consider K7532, 763, AJ2, xx. Each of these hands has 8 hcps with the major difference being shape. The experts are going to double with the first hand and bid 1 spade with the second. Are you ready to do that? If not, you need to polish your bidding shoes.
According to expert Karen Walker (http://www.prairienet.org/) the best time to balance is when you are short in the bid suit and have values in the other suits or have a good 5 card suit of our own. Being non-vulnerable is also a huge safety net. The worst time to balance is when you have less than 8 hcps, have length in opener’s suit or are vulnerable. Think about it. What is the worst that can happen if you balance? They double you for penalty? Never happen! They bid to a higher level? Good, maybe we can set them. We find a fit and effectively compete? Even better, we get a positive score. They set us a trick or two? Non- vulnerable we are not likely to get hurt. There are many more positives than negatives.
Now for some last minute decisions you and partner have to make. In the balancing seat is a cue bid Michaels or is it a huge playing hand that you want to force to game? Marty Bergen in More Points Schmoints (1999) says Michaels cue bids are still “on.” Other Experts insist that it has to be a game forcing one or two suiter like KQT9876, AK, AQT7, void. You cue bid since you do not want to risk making a take out double and having partner convert it to a penalty double. Without being authoritative, I prefer the Michael’s approach, mostly because I don’t think that I will ever see the other hand. I also believe that in match points it is critical to show your shape as soon as possible, since you often do not get 2 bids to describe weaker two suiters.
The other issue is the 2 NT balancing bid. It can be played as a strong no trump hand (19+) or as Unusual NT showing 5-5 (or 5-4) in the minors. An alternative, if you want to play 2NT as “Unusual”, would be to show the strong balanced hand by doubling and then bidding 2 NT. Again, the risk is that partner may convert the take out double and you end up defending. Even in the unlikely event that partner should convert the double it may not be the worst thing in the world. How badly do I want to play 2NT against a potentially entryless dummy? Again, from a purely personal style, I think in match points there is some significant competitive value in showing your hand distribution with the one opportunity you are likely to have. I am also persuaded by the frequency at which I expect to hold 19 hcps in the balancing seat.
If you are going to use Michaels and/or Unusual No Trump, the hands should be somewhat better quality than those minimum hands that you might bid defensively in the direct seat. You know, sensible stuff like having your points in the suits that you bid. After all, your intention is not to preempt anybody, it is to find a fit and be competitive. Bottom line, talk it over with your partners.