Thursday, May 29, 2008

Searching for Major Suit Fits

This is more for my novice and intermediate readers, but I hope that there will be something for all readers to enjoy or criticize. Opening 5 card majors takes all the risks out of missing 8 card major suit fits. Even with a minimum hand (5+ hcps) and 3 card support, you should squeeze out a raise for partner. Even the constructive raise people will get there sooner or later if opponents don’t get in their way. Flip that suit around giving opener 3 cards in the major and responder 5, and reaching the best contract can sometimes be a problem. Let’s set the stage and then look at some solutions.

Opener holds Qxx, Qxx, AQxxx, Kx. The bidding goes 1d/p/1s/p/? Before we get to the heart of the problem, let’s do a little review on opener’s rebid options. As you sort through the possibilities, you might let your mind drift through 1 NT, 2 Diamonds or 2 Spades. This is no mindblower (a specialty of my blog), but let’s look briefly at those choices.

There are refugees from the 4 card major days who like to raise responder with 3 card support since they have spent a bridge lifetime playing 7 card fits. As a modernist, I prefer my partners to raise me only with 4 cards unless there is not better bid or and the 3 cards are a little chunky. The bid of 2 spades is out simply by not meeting either exception.

I find the bid of 2 diamonds equally unappealing. First, I think rebidding a minor should show a 6 card suit. Second, the diamond suit is not a good quality suit. Third, there is major difference between rebidding 1NT and rebidding 2 diamonds. Two diamonds holds out the potential for a hand that may have from 11-16 hpcs and is unbalanced. This does not represent opener’s hand.

The most important thing that opener can do in this auction is to limit his point count and show a balanced distribution by bidding 1NT. Opener tells his complete story at the one level and responder now is the “Captain of the Ship.” This is an important concept in bridge. As soon as either partner can do so, he should fully describe his hand, and from that point the other partner (with unknown values) calls all the shots.

We may have one problem. There may be an 8 card major fit between the hands that is yet unrevealed. I can hear all the “3 card raisers” saying didn’t we warn you about that? Enter “New Minor Forcing” or its first cousin “Check Back Stayman.”

If responder’s initial response is a 5 card major and he has 11+ hcps, he can use one of these conventions to ferret out 8 card major fits. In my bidding sequence both conventions would bid 2 clubs over 1NT asking opener if he has 3 card support for responder’s bid major or 4 card support for an unbid major. The bid is a one round force, but not a game force. If responder has 11 hcps and opener has 12 hcps, we want to be able to stop in part score in our best contract. Even if opener has neither 3 card support nor the opposite four card major, you will usually be safe playing 2NT with 23 hcps. This explanation is intended only as an introduction to these conventions, but you can see their usefulness. They are right up there with Stayman, Transfers and Blackwood. See the literature for more detail or e-mail me for a more detailed summary.

There are sometimes opportunities to find these 3-5 fits from opener’s side. If the bidding went 1d/p/1s/2c/?, partnerships playing “Support Doubles” have other options. With the intervening overcall by opener’s RHO, opener can now double that overcall to show 3 card support for spades. If opener has 4 card support for spades, he bids 2 spades. A pass or any other bid would indicate no support. If opener made a support double, then responder with a 5 card major rebids that suit at the appropriate level. At this point neither partner has limited the strength of his hand, so if responder has game force or invitational values, he better not make a minimum bid. In the heat of battle it is often easy to miss the support double until you have done so once or twice :) . One of my favorite themes is that in any competitive auction there is a cost to intervening. In this case, if RHO had not overcalled 2 clubs, opener would not have the opportunity to make his support double and finding the 8 card fit would have been problematical. See the literature for more detail on Support Doubles and Redoubles or e-mail me for a more detailed summary. And “Oh by the Way” all of these conventions are alertable.

But suppose the opponents don’t accommodate you and responder doesn’t have the 11 hcps to use NMF, and yet has 5 cards in his bid major. Let’s give him something like KJxxx, xxxx, Jx, Qx. In early May, I had hands like this twice. Both of my partner’s were old bridge hands who did play in the 4 card major days (50’s and before). I passed 1NT and my partners in each case said “why didn’t you bid 2 spades?” I explained that my modern bridge education taught me that rebidding a suit by responder shows 6 cards in the suit and is to play. They just shook their heads as a polite commentary on “form over function.”

When I am uncertain of my ground, I often check with my bridge teacher, Pat Peterson, to see if I got the lesson correct or had wax in my ears that day. After an e-mail inquiry, Pat wrote me back:

“I (Pat) have a very good mentor who is a world class player and has won in highest level competition who says it is RIGHT for responder to rebid a 5 card major when you have too few points to make a NMF bid. The reasoning behind this is that partner must have at least 2 of the major to rebid 1NT (find another partner if he doesn’t) so you are better in a 5-3 or 5-2 fit than in 1NT. I must say I do this routinely and usually it is right. There are occasions where 1NT is better, but (sigh) such is life.”

That's good enough authority for me!! Note that with the hands I have given you 1NT is not a good contract and playing in spades will bring home +110-140 depending on the diamond finesse and suit breaks. Even if it turns out that partner holds QT, Qxx, AQxxx, Kxx and we play a 7 card suit, the play in spades is still superior. A good measure of bridge ability and experience is the willingness of a player to play a 7 card fit. It doesn’t seem to bother better players and some revel in it.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Opening 1NT with 5 Card Majors

A bidding question in this morning's Frank Stewart Bridge Column got me thinking about opening hands with 5 card majors with a bid of 1NT. In an early 2007 blog, I noted that Jeff Meckstroth (2007 ACBL Masterpoint leader) told me to open all 5332 hands 1NT (15-17) even if they contained a five card major. This advice was given without qualifications or exceptions. The advantages to the partnership are too significant not to do so. Among those mentioned were:

(a) The chance to limit your hand to a narrow point count.
(b) The chance to tell partner your hand is balanced or semi-balanced (no single or void).
(c) A clear signal to responder that he is the “Captain of the Ship.” Opener can now sit back, pop a brewski and relax,
(d) One No Trump is preemptive making it difficult for opponents to make a cheap overcall.
(d) The ability of the partnership to use the well understood Stayman and Transfers as well as a narrowly defined invitational bid. It’s a big plus to eliminate partnership confusion.
(e) Avoiding difficult rebid problems for opener.
(f) Establishing the no trump bidder as the most likely declarer so that the lead comes up to his tenaces and not through his Kx stopper.

The list goes on and on, but when you have Meckstroth’s advice, you don’t need reasons. Not all experts are as aggressive about this as Meckstroth, but there are few experts who today would disqualify a hand for a 1NT opening based solely on the presence of a 5 card major. Common qualifiers are not to open hands with 5 cards in one major and two cards in the other to minimize the risk of a transfer to the 2 card major. Others specify that the doubleton beheaded be headed by a Jack or better. While on a perfect day I would rather meet these conditions, their absence would not prevent me from opening 1NT with a 5 card major. In the long run (and after all bridge is a game of long run probabilities) you miss too many benefits waiting for the perfect 1NT opener.

Back to Frank Stewart. The hand he gives you is AQJ95, A6, KT, QT98.
Without comment or discussion he opens this 1 spade, partner bids 1NT, opener rebids 2 clubs, responder now bids 2 spades, showing a doubleton spade and 6-9 hcps. What does opener do now. I have no problem with the answer. Frank says to bid 2NT since we have a max and partner could have as much as 8-9 hpcs. All of this eventually gets us where we belong, whether part score or game in no trump.

That’s what is right about this analysis, but what is wrong. First, we have succeeded in wrong siding the hand. The 17 point hand is going down on the table in full view. Second, an ancillary part of the first comment is that the lead is coming through the strong hand. Instead of opener’s nice tenaces in 3 suits threatening opening leader, they make the lead very easy and we probably lose a trick. Finally, with all this descriptive bidding (don't you just love it), we are over informing the opponents about the distribution of the hands. Why wouldn’t opponents lead a diamond or heart? If I were defending and partner did not, I would send in the frontal lobotomy team.

The strident traditionalists like Frank Stewart will resist this, but doesn’t this hand scream to be opened 1NT? I firmly believe it is perfectly acceptable to open 5422 hands 1 NT, particularly where the doubletons are well stopped. It is more often done with a 5 card minor, and sometimes with a 6 card minor, but if you don’t open the above hand 1NT you deserve to be in 3NT and find the AQJxx of diamonds right behind the dummy. Note, this is not part of Meckstroth Rule, and really not a rule at all. Opener has to use some discretion, but most of the reasons to open 5332 hands 1NT still continue to be viable in the 5422 hands. Yes, sometimes opener will transfer me to hearts with this hand, but that’s not the end of the world as we know it either. We take the transfer and hope that opener isn’t scrambling with a bad hand. Even if he is, it may well play better in a suit contract. Bridge is like most of my days, not exactly perfect!

Under the “for what it is worth” category, Frank Stewart makes a living writing about bridge and I do not.

Monday, May 12, 2008

OBAR the Pre-Balancer (Not the Tentmaker)

Date Line: Rochester, New York.
A little over 3 weeks ago I blogged about balancing, “Expiring in the Pass Out Seat.” Opponents open and there are 2 passes to you. There is, of course, another pass out seat that may be more famous in the balancing context, that is having the last bid after 1 of anything/2 simple raise, pass, pass,? So much is written about the need to balance that it should not be necessary to comment on it again. Dig my blog out of the archive and look at the criteria for balancing. The same considerations apply whether you are sitting to the left or the right of the opening bidder; you just have to reverse some of the thinking.

In the matchpoint context, you just cannot let opponents play any contract at the 2 level if they have found an 8 card fit. That’s it, it is that simple, and you need to do something (like balance) unless you have a penchant for suffering. It is a discipline in which there should be no discretion. Make this a competitive philosophy. Larry Cohen, in an article in Audrey Grant’s Better Bidding (January/February 2005) made the oft quoted statement “When I used to Play with Marty Bergen, if he were in the balancing seat (after 1 heart/2 hearts) he would simply close his eyes and bid something in this auction.” Larry even provides a balancing guideline: “If you have shortness in the opponent’s suit --fewer than three cards-- bid a suit or make a take out double. High card points have nothing to do with it.”

Ok, we know when to balance, but when do we not balance. Some authors and experts insist that you need to balance if the opponents' contract if successul will result in +90 to +110. In fact I said that, but you should have known it was pure “horse manure” because I ain’t no expert! Here’s the drill: You do not need to balance in the pass out seat if the opponents have not found an 8 card fit at the 2 level. So if the auction goes 1s/p/1NT/p/2S? This is not a fit showing auction, you can pass. The same goes for the auction 1d/p/1h/p/2d. The auction 1d/p/1h/p/2h is a little tougher. Now you need to figure out if opener would raise hearts with only 3 card support. Older style players tend to do that if pressed when they have some good cards in the heart suit. Other players, equally good, tend to virtually guarantee 4 card heart support. There is absolutely nothing wrong with asking responder about his expectation or the partnership understandings. If you get a wishy-washy answer, consider balancing on general open warfare principles!!

There is one untouched subject, what some call “pre-balancing” and others call “balancing in the direct seat.” This is where you make a balancing bid even though the auction will not be over if you pass. For example, opponents open 1 heart, partner passes, responder bids 2 hearts and it is now your bid. I have a personal theory that most bad balancing decisions that you blame on your partner, are rooted in your own failure to pre-balance. Ask yourself “why didn’t partner make a direct take out double or overcall?” If the problem is shape (maybe he had 3 hearts), then you have to help him out, since balancing in the pass out seat is going to be equally unattractive. That means that you have to double or bid right in front of opponent’s unlimited hand. Just do it when it is right.

Notice that Larry’s Guideline qualified your duty to balance in the “balancing seat” by saying it only applied when you have less than 3 cards in opponents' suit. OK, that’s sensible so you are off the hook with 3 cards in their suit, but how do we avoid defending 2 hearts when the balancing seat does have 3 cards in their suit. Well, if the balancing seat has 3 cards in the suit in the and opponents have 8, guess who holds 2 cards in the suit. Partner in the pre-balancing seat, of course. He sat there like an intimidated mouse worrying about the potential big hand hovering over him and now we go for -110 and a bottom shared with all those other teams who are not enlightened.

Marty Bergen had a pneumonic label for these weak pre balancing bids. He called them OBAR BIDS, standing for Opponents Bid And Raise – Balance In The Direct Seat. Larry Cohen first wrote about this in his book To Bid or Not to Bid (1992) (p. 109). The key to your OBAR bid is that you, as pre-balancer, will have 2 or fewer cards in opponents' fit suit (in my example hearts). While you may have to be a little circumspect when vulnerable, Larry suggests that it would be right to pre-balance with 2 spades holding KQT98, 73, JT85, 84 or to double with KT73, 4, KT85, KJ86. Note that in each instance all the points are working points and with the spade overcall he clearly can wants a lead in the suit if opponents end up in 4 hearts. What? You say you are 4-4 in the minors? Bid 2NT asking partner to take a pick, but this needs to be a little better hand since you are committed to the 3 level.

If you agree to use weak OBAR BIDS, you probably need to tell opponents via an alert that partner’s pre-balance may not meet traditional standards. It keeps the playing field level.

Why does this all work? It is something called the Theory of Reciprocal Fits, but it is just the Law of Total Tricks dressed in a little different gown. See Principles of Logical Bidding (1997) by Allan De Serpa, page 9. If they have an 8 card fit, it is very likely that we do also. Partner and I have 26 cards, 5 of which are in opponents' suit. That leaves 21 cards remaining, and we always have an 8 card fit unless the three remaining suits are 7-7-7. As common as that may seem, the odds are over 93% that we have an 8 card fit. The theory doesn’t say you will make your bid, just that it is right to compete by balancing.

In my final Florida Game we finished 1st overall (everybody claimed it was a good-bye kiss – not likely, but it seemed that way). This good result in spite of the fact that we passed out a sequence 1d/p/1h/p/2h for a rotten board. I should have known that my sometimes partner Bob Scarbrough would have 4 card heart support. The compensating justice was that twice we were permitted to play 2 spades when opponents did not step up to their minor fit balance. It does not pay to flirt with Mother Nature, or for that matter the Theory of Reciprocal Fits. Asked about balancing over 2 spades, Larry Cohen says "I don’t like it, but you gotta do what you gotta do!" It helps to play the cards like Larry.

If you want to comment directly, the quickest way to get to me until October will be my Rochester e-mail, Send sweaters, not e-mail.

Monday, May 5, 2008

1 NT Forcing to Hell and Back

This is my final post as I pack my cats and move to Rochester, New York for the summer. My posts will continue, but on a less frequent basis. Keep checking my blog or you can e-mail me at for instant contact. I will continue to monitor my Florida e-mail as well. Traditionally I have disclosed my own vulnerability to bridge regrets as a final post. Last year it was Murder on Sanchez Avenue. This post could have been entitled Murder at the Italian American Club, the scene of my downfall. I wish everybody a pleasant summer. See you'all in the fall.

I am a heavy user of 1NT forcing when partner opens a major. Sometimes I will actually have something to bid (definitely not support) and want to mark time until partner further describes his hand. On other occasions I often have something that you would gladly pass on in rubber bridge, or maybe even playing IMP’s, but at matchpoints I can't resist testing the will of the opponents to get into the auction.

The first hand that confronted me last Monday was x, xx, QJxxx, Txxxx. Partner opens 1 heart and my RHO passes. It flashes through my mind that opponents are about to freely enter into this auction if I pass. The alternative is to start a sequence with 1NT forcing and see if I can’t slow down the opposition. In my system I would raise with xxx or better, so partner can put aside any thoughts of a 5-3 fit.

I really don’t expect that partner will rebid a minor, but stranger deals have turned up in the newspapers. If partner rebids hearts, I will pass and if he doesn’t, I will simply rebid hearts and we will see if we can buy a major contract at the 2 level with 7 trump. In bridge parlance this later technique is called “taking a false preference” since you really don’t prefer hearts, but you are going to tolerate them and hope to hold our score to -100. This technique doesn’t always work since good opponents will balance over my final pass of 2 hearts, but you do find a few gifts and sometimes the opponents get one level too high. I also thought it was risk free.

Well, LHO passed my 1NT forcing, so that is one turnip out of the way (at least for a while). Now it’s all down hill, or is it? Partner goes into the tank and bids 2 spades, a reverse showing 4-5 and a very big hand (we take reverses seriously) . This is a one round force and I know from experience you don’t keep good partner’s by passing their forcing bids. I admit it, I was trying to “master mind” the hand and things just got out of control. Partner doesn’t want to hear that either, so I just rolled my eyes and bid 3 hearts. Partner apparently forgot we only have a 7 card heart suit, and the next thing I see is the 4 heart card coming out of his bidding box. It is like being on the “Last Train to Clarksville” and this Monkey can’t get off. With over half the deck (partner had 19 hcps) we go down 2 for a low board and opponents can’t make anything. Partner was very charitable; he calmly said to me “When I respond 1NT, I have 6 hcps!” Old school, but I thought better to change your ways than to disrupt a perfectly good partnership.

A few hand later I was dealt xxxx, Kx, x, QJxxxx. Again I hear partner open one heart. OK he said 6 hcps, same idea but better since I have a control in his suit – 1NT forcing. Again my LHO passed and partner goes into the tank again. Now I don’t hear a reverse, I hear three diamonds, a jump shift which is forcing to game. Any thought about bailing out with my club suit is gone; I am not bidding 4 clubs with this hand. Again, I simply sound as discouraging as possible and bid 3 hearts, but my destiny is written in the sand, 4 hearts. As I put down dummy I reassured partner that I had followed his instructions to the letter and had not only my 6 points, but an honor in his trump suit and a single. Well, partner did as well as he could (he did have 20 hcps) but 4 hearts went down. A bunch of part scores made our way, someone made 3NT and someone else made 5 clubs. It turns out that partner’s had included AKx in clubs among other his other jewels.

What is the point to these sad stories? Here it is: When points seem to be missing at the table, consider that the next bid you hear from partner may confirm their location in his hand and that your safe ploy to bail out with a false preference at the 2 level may go right out the window. As much success as I have had with that strategy, I got “snake bit” twice on the same afternoon. The only thing that saved our partnership was my “by the book” hand the second time around. Bad luck? Bad judgment? Maybe some of both, but I am a hard dog “to keep under the porch!” 1NT forcing is tattooed in the palm of my right hand!!

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Free Advice from Larry Cohen

Those who read my website will not be surprised that I blow Larry Cohen’s horn, loud and clear. As a bridge professional, I contend that he is arguably (with his partner David Berkowitz) the best in America at matchpoints. So, why haven’t you visited his website ( and signed up for his FREE Newsletter? Larry is an excellent writer with due care and attention to novices and intermediates who read his material. His words of wisdom are not commands, but always come in the form of suggestions or recommendations, leaving the door open for the reader to think for himself. His critics may say that he is too basic – duh, reaching a common level of understanding for all players without over complication is his objective! Unlike other bridge writers, he doesn’t feel compelled to establish his qualifications through complexity.

In his last newsletter he wrote about responses to minor suit openings. In the preceding Newsletter he had written about opening hands with 1 of a minor. Here is his protocol for opening a hand with 1 of a minor:

(a) 3-3 in the minors, open 1 club to help establish the 1 diamond opening as being from 4+diamonds. So, you are a “better minor” guy, go ahead. Even Larry says that he would open Axxx, xxx, AKQ, 987 one diamond because of the overwhelming strength, but not KQT.
(b) 3-4 open the 4 card club suit.
(c) 4-3 open the 4 card diamond suit.
(d) 4-4 open the 4 card diamond suit,
(e) 5-4 or 5-5 open the 5 card diamond suit.
(f) 4-5 open 1 diamond! Yes, the 4 card suit! Assume you hold x, xxx, AQT5, AQxxx. You decide to ignore Larry’s advice open 1 club. The bidding now goes 1c/1s/? Do you want to rebid 1NT with a singleton? Not me, I value my partner’s too much. Wouldn’t it have been easier with this minimum hand to open 1 diamond so that you can next bid 2 clubs without reversing? It is better to let partner think you have 5 diamonds than it is to rebid 1NT with an unbalanced hand. Actually Larry is much kinder, he says this is what I do, and do whatever you want.
(g) 3-2. Now your holding is always exactly 4=4=3=2. Open 1 diamond, this is the one exception where you will not have the 4+ diamonds. You can’t open a 4 card major. Could you open 1 club with this hand? Yes, some good players do that just so they can be absolutely pure about their 4+ card diamond suit guarantee. Larry says that he would rather not worry about 2 card club suit every time he hears 1 club and then have to “sound off” with that tiresome and annoying announcement “may be short.” How often will the hand have 3 diamonds and 2 clubs and no 5 card major? Larry says it is 3% of the hands, and he is satisfied with being 97% pure on his diamond guarantee.

How many clubs should you assume opener will have when he opens 1 club? Using the above treatment for minors, I think you will find the result surprising. Here are the percentages:

(a) 3 clubs = 17%
(b) 4 clubs = 26%
(c) 5 clubs = 38%
(d) 6 clubs = 15%
(e) 7 clubs = 4%

Partner will have a real club suit (at least 4 long) 83% of the time, and it is more likely to be 6+ than 3. Doesn’t that give you some reassurance and reduce your panic level when partner opens 1 club?

Jumping forward to the next newsletter on responses, Larry talks about Inverted Minors. This is not one of the more exotic inverted minor treatments, just plain vanilla where a single raise is 10+ hcps and support and the double raise is preemptive, not more than 7 hcps. He promises to discuss this subject more fully at a later date, but for now he advises that if you do play inverted minors, fully discuss them with your partner. Here are some of the items that need to be on that discussion agenda.

(a) Is it on after a double or overcall? Larry recommends NO and NO.
(b) Is it on by a passed hand? Larry recommends Yes.
(c) Is the single raise forcing to game. Larry recommends NO.
(d) How high is the single raise forcing ? Larry says that if opener rebids 3 of the minor or 2NT, the responder can pass with a minimum hand.

At the recent Nationals in Detroit, Larry was the top Masterpoint winner among North American bridge professionals, finishing ahead of stalwarts such as Rodwell and Meckstroth. That’s the good news. The bad news is that he barely made the top 10, with many European and other foreign players dominating the tournament.

It is generally agreed among all top professionals that there is very little difference in the quality of the play of the bridge hand or defense, since they are all equally adept and nothing ever really changes. The European and other foreign players simply have better bidding systems and develop a keener sense of both constructive and defensive bidding, and are masters at communication and strategy. Contrary to the stifling influence of the ACBL, in Europe, innovation and change are welcomed as an important part of the development of player skills and the game. The Italians may have gotten wrong sided in WW II, but they have been making up for it ever since.