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.

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