Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Defending Against Two Suited Overcalls

Although not all good players agree, many top competitors have moved away from the “over/under” treatment of bidding two suited hands suitable for Unusual No Trump or Michael's overcalls. The classic approach has been to use two suited bids when the hand has less than 11 hcps, or more than 17 hcps. The theory holds that with the middle range hands (12-16 hcps) you attempt to bid both suits in an effort to give partner a measure of hand strength.

With the significant emphasis on interference in today’s game, and the overriding importance of describing the distribution of the hand, many good players have abandoned the over/under approach after discovering that many times they never got a chance to bid the second suit and fully describe the hand, let alone preempt opponents. Show shape first and then values! The importance of the preempting opponents is hard to overrate at any level of play.

If you don’t think so, try getting to a good contract starting at the three level. Yes, there are defenses to two suited bids, and some pretty sophisticated ones, and not unlike Bergen Raises, there are many ways to play them. I am talking about defenses like “unusual over unusual” in one of its many faces. Even for those who know the conventions, there is often disagreement over what responder’s bidding of overcaller’s suits means … and just when you get that straightened out, a sequence like 1h/2h (Michael's showing spades and an undisclosed minor) comes along and now you know only one of opponent's suits, so 50% of the conventional bids have been swept off the table.

In this post, I will deal only with defending against Unusual No Trump. Many players still play an older style of Unusual 2NT which always shows minors. More modern teaching treats Unusual No Trump as showing the lower of the two unbid suits. So 1c/2NT shows diamonds and hearts and 1d/2NT shows clubs and hearts. After any major opener, 2NT always shows minors. For the purposes of this discussion, let’s say that overcaller is a “Modern Millie” playing "two lowest," although it really doesn’t change our discussion of competing after an Unusual No Trump overcall.

If partner's opening bid was a major, Unusual No Trump always shows minors so don't bother to ask questions. If partner's bid is 1 club or 1 diamond, take a peek at their convention card and see if they play it "always minors" or "2 lowest." That information is in the No Trump Overcall section of the card.

The key to finding our best contract is that overcaller has announced two suits, (let’s stick with minors) so we use the three level minor suit responses as part of our constructive bidding. There is no universally accepted meaning of these three level bids, and over time the meanings have changed. Recently, I had a discussion about competing over two suited overcalls with expert Karen Walker, a monthly Bridge Bulletin contributor. Her internet site is a beauty, be sure to visit it at In a classic case of “do as I do and not as I have written,” she disclosed to me her most recent approach to this problem. Instead of “Unusual Against Unusual” or “Lower-Lower” as some call it, she called her modified treatment “Lower=New/Higher=Old”, but she still uses overcaller’s two suits to describe responder’s hand. Here’s how it works. Assume an opening bid of one heart and 2NT by LHO:

1. The bid of three clubs (lower suit) shows 5+ cards in the unbid major suit (new suit) and an opening hand. It generally denies a fit for opener’s major. In this case the new suit would be spades.
2. The bid of three diamonds shows a limit raise for opener’s major suit, in this case hearts. Agree with partner whether it can show just 3 card support. Also think in terms of support points.
3. The three level bid of opener’s major suit is a simple mixed raise showing 6-9 points and 3+ card support.
4. The three level bid in the opposite major (in this case spades) shows a six pack and looks like a hand that you would have opened with a weak two spade bid. Maybe KQT854.

The minor suit responses are often switched around, and in fact are shown in reverse in Karen’s presentation on defending two suited hands on her web page. Her change is recent and for what I think is a good reason. When responder shows a 5 card suit in the opposite major and and an opening hand, he will almost always lack 3 card support for partner's major. Suppose opener has 7, AKJ53, K642, 543. As responder you hold KQ6432, 53, J53, AQ. The bidding is 1h/2NT/? Responder’s hand is too good for three spades, so it must be treated as an opening hand with 5+ spades. You gladly bid 3 clubs hoping opener has some spade help or 6 hearts. Alas, the hands do not have an 8 card major fit and Opener needs to have a way to announce this without getting any deeper. Here is the bailout. When responder uses the three club bid to show the five card spade suit/opening hand, opener, if he doesn’t have a six card heart suit, or three card spade support or the stoppers to bid 3NT, can still bid three diamonds as an “escape” bid which says “pard, we have a problem, please do something intelligent.” Not perfect, but at least an early warning. Here a bid of three hearts or three spades has to be to play, either of which might be the only contract to make.

Here are some other bids to consider. Three no trump needs no description, that is good minor suit stoppers and to play. The responses of 4 clubs and 4 diamonds are splinters in those suits looking for slam in opener's major if there is no duplication of values.

Responder can also “double” which shows 10+ hcps (balance of power) looking to double one or both of the minor suits. Double generally denies the availability of one of the other bids shown above. Opener should usually pass to give responder an opportunity to double any suit advancer bids. If advancer bids the suit responder wanted to double, then responder whacks it again when it comes around. That’s penalty. If responder does not double, then competitive bidding should continue, since either we defend against their contract doubled or we play the hand.

Not a perfect result, but if you are going to let opponents play three of a minor (with a high fit probability) when we have the balance of power, reach for the jelly beans cause this ain’t going to be a pretty result!

Notice two things. You probably do not currently have a specific defense against two suited overcalls, or if you do, either you or partner will not remember it correctly. Secondly, it is very irritating to opponents when you start bidding their suits. This is a two way lesson. First, have a defense, maybe like the one suggested above or any other one that works for you. Second, use two suited overcalls as often as you can, if you bid again, partner will surmise that you really have something!

What if the two bids don’t show minors? We are nothing if we are not flexible. Bidding overcaller’s lowest suit always shows the new suit and bidding the higher of opponent’s suits shows a limit raise for partner’s opening suit. Just take your time and calmly get this adjustment correct. If you get a tempo call, be polite and deny everything!

How about those occasions where there is only one known suit? First, this comes up a lot less frequently (only 12.5 % of the time), so get the “two known suits” drill down first. Then read Karen Walker’s “Defense Against Two Suited hands (Part 3).” Wait long enough and I probably will blog about it!