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.

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