Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Michaels Cue Bids Revisited

After Stayman, Blackwood and Transfers, Michaels Cue Bids and Unusual No Trump are probably the most common conventions. They are used by most rubber bridge players, and have now become part of the consensus Standard American Yellow Card system (SAYC) as well as more advanced systems. Today I’m going to focus on Michaels Cue Bids developed by well known professional, Mike Michaels. In yesteryear, an immediate cue bid after an opening by opponents showed a monster hand and was forcing to game. Since today we can first make a take out double and then bid to show an unbalanced hand in the 17+ range, or overcall 1NT or 2NT to show big balanced hands, the cue bid has been recruited to show hands that have 5-5 distribution.

While some partnerships may permit a Michaels bid to be made on a 5-4 hand, I prefer sticking with the original concept of 5-5, even when it involves both majors. If you want to change Michaels to some combination of 5-4, you definitely need to discuss it with your partner. The risk is with equal support, partner may take a preference for your 4 card suit and you end up singing the wrong song.

With 5-4 distribution and a hand worth an overcall, I would recommend overcalling your 5 card suit, and if it does not misrepresent your hand strength, show the 4 card suit on the second bid. It is convenient to do when your 5 card suit is the higher ranking suit and your 4 card suit is lower ranking, since then you can give partner a simple preference without reversing the bidding. The thing to avoid is reversing the bidding on a modest hand. If your 5 card suit is lower ranking than your 4 card suit, you just have to eat the four card suit. This may be the justification for permitting 5-4 Michaels, and would work best if limited to five hearts and four spades.

Let’s get the bids out of the way:
(a) a cue bid in a minor (1c/2c or 1d/2d) shows both major suits.
(b) a cue bid in hearts (1h/2h) shows 5 spades and an undisclosed 5 card minor suit.
(c) a cue bid in spades (1s/2s) shows 5 hearts and an undisclosed 5 card minor suit.

The traditional strength requirement to make a minor suit cue bid (showing both majors) is 7+ hpcs. If the cue bid shows a major and minor, I would raise the requirement to about 10+ hcps, since you often end up at the three level playing a minor suit. You must watch the vulnerability and adjust your strength up or down. With equal or favorable vulnerability, I might substantially lower those requirements. With unfavorable vulnerability, I would be at the top. The most important thing is that you have the majority of your points in your two 5 card suits. Singleton or doubleton honors in your short suits are often worthless.

Here are the responses:

(a) If the cue bid is a minor (showing majors) a simple response to the 2 level in a major can be made on weak hands if you have 3+ card support. It is not a constructive bid. A direct raise to the 3 level is generally regarded as invitational with 3 or 4 trump. "Invitational" in this sequencing surely means a hand you would have opened had partner not made a cue bid. A bid of 2NT shows a balanced hand, stoppers in the minors and opening no trump values (15-17). A cue bid by advancer (1c/2c/p/3c) is a game force. You have a very good hand and plan to get a new partner if this one stops bidding short of game.

(b) If the cue bid is a major (showing the opposite major and a minor) and you have support for the major suit indicated, the responses are essentially the same as shown in (a) above. If you do not have support for the major (singleton or doubleton) and have at least 3 card support for both minors, you can ask partner to show his minor by bidding 2NT. When partner shows his minor, you can then decide how to proceed using “judgment.” (We never seem to be able to abandon that word, do we?)

Often partner’s Michaels bid will set the stage for a sacrifice. If the bidding goes 1h/2h/4h/?, it does not sound good for the home team. If you have exceptional support for spades (4+ cards) or if you have great minor suits, you may want to make a save. In spades you would simply bid 4 spades. If you have great support for the minors and little defense, you may want to save in a partner’s minor. You bid 4NT asking partner to bid 5 of his minor. Your hand may look like xx, xx, KJxxx, xxxx. If partner has as much as AQxxx, x, Qxxxx, xx, you may be able to hold it to down 2. In match points this strategy can be very effective, as opponents heart game looks pretty solid. At IMPs, 5 level saves are much more problematical, and running up the white flag is most often the best.

You may have heard of “over/under Michael’s.” In this scheme, with 5-5 hands you use Michaels with hands in the 8-10 range and with hands over 16 hcps. If the hand falls in the middle with 11-15 points, you attempt to bid both suits and forgo Michaels. This attempt at showing the size of the 5-5 hand is just a bunch of crap a far as I am concerned. With 11-15 hcps, you often do not have the bidding room to show both suits and your story never gets told. Most good players today realize the importance of showing the distribution of the hand as soon as possible by playing what I have earlier described, known as “Continuous Michaels.”

In Frank Stewart’s bridge column last Sunday he showed a world class Norwegian pair at work. Geir Helgemo sitting south held KJTxx, KJTxx, xx, x. East opened the bidding one club. For whatever reason, Geir bid 1 spade thinking he would bid hearts next to describe this hand. The bidding went 1c/1s/2s (limit raise or better for clubs)/3s (weak preemptive raise)/ 3NT/4 h/p/4s/x. Well, he finally got to describe his hand, but he was at the 4 level before the opportunity presented itself. What is wrong with a Michaels Cue bid of 2 clubs to describe the hand. It puts partner in the picture instantly and lets him be the “captain of the ship.” The only downside I can see is that it would have deprived Geir of the opportunity of going -1100 and the loss of 15 IMP’s.

A final caution. I had a hand last Friday where my LHO made a 2 club cue bid over my one club opener. We ultimately prevailed and played a game contract in a minor suit. The trump broke 4-1, but I was able to pick up the entire trump suit with Kxxx in east’s hand. The Michaels Cue bid told me that my LHO opponent had only 3 minor suit cards and that the outstanding major suit honors were likely to my left. The play of the hand was somewhat contorted, but fully justified by the information I had been gratuitously given. Michaels Cue bids and Unusual No trump always give opponents information. Be sure it is worth the price!

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