We always seem to notice the 23-24 hcp no trump hands that make 3NT. Naturally, these are always held by our opponents. Do we take equal cognizance of the 26-27 hcps hands that go down at 3NT? These are, of course, dealt to us. What does it really take to make game when partner opens 1NT. It may surprise you that the probabilities do not support 23 and 24 point no trump games. You are a favorite to go down unless our BBO screen name is “ 0 Lordtay.” When the scoring is IMP’s, the game bonuses may support the risk, but at match points you need to play the odds (unless you are desperate or a sadist).
Ron Klinger, noted expert and author, stated in is book Basic Bridge that 3NT has a success rate of only 60% with 26 hcps and only 50% with 25 hcps. In match points you want to avoid anything that is not even money. By way of contrast, Klinger states that the success rate of 4 hearts or 4 spades with an 8 card fit is about 80% with 26 points. Presumably the reason is that two-thirds of the time the suit will split 3-2 leaving you a potential ruffing trick in each hand. The ruffing values combined with better hand control make the suit contract safer. There are some relics out there who disagree, but I don’t play 3NT like they do.
If the suit contract makes 80% of the time, how do you know how to avoid the 20%? Well one sure indicator are the 4333 hands. If both partners have a flat 4333 hand, the advantage of the suit contract disappears. Do your chances of making 3NT go up with flat hands? No, actually they go down.
Marty Bergen (no intro needed) said “4333 hands are bad for suit contracts and equally bad for no trump contracts and 4432 are not a whole lot better.” Even in a suit contract, if you and partner have doubletons in the same suit, the ruffing advantage disappears. It took a while for the bridge community to understand that hands that are 5332 generally play better in no trump that flat hands. In a recent News Letter Larry Cohen (a former Bergen partner) said that most marginal no trump hands that make 3 no trump have been shown to include a 5 card suit. It is common today for teachers to recommend opening 15-17 hcps hands at 1NT even with a 5 card major and to advise adding a point to the response hand if you have a 5 card suit. The more interesting question is should you deduct a point for flat (4333) hands. I think the idea deserves consideration. Start looking at those hands and compare your results to form your own opinion.
Another interesting question that you never see discussed are the 4432 response hands with only one four card major. If partner opens one no trump and responder holds 8+ hcps and a single 4 card major, are there any circumstances where you might choose to not use Stayman? Is not Stayman a can’t lose proposition? Is it possible that I am over medicated and should melt down my ACBL card?
How about the free information you give away to the opponents when you use Stayman? It shows responder has a 4 card major. If opener bids 2 diamonds it shows opener does not. If opener bids two of a major it shows that major and when responder bids 2NT it shows that he had 4 of the other major and less than 10 hcps. Opener has shown that his distribution is 4333 or 4332 and responder has shown his distribution to be 4432 (one major only). If opener doesn’t bid game you know he did not start with a maximum no trump hand. If there were a strong probability of finding opener with a 4 card major that matches responder’s, then you might say “pish tosh” let’s get to important issues. I won’t bore you with probabilities, but the chances of opener having a matching 4 card major or even both majors are very poor. So, if you think you had all this information do you think you could make an intelligent opening lead and defend the hand better? Let’s hope so. If not see my teacher, Pat Peterson: firstname.lastname@example.org or come watch her defend a hand.
Michael Nissler, a California teacher and expert, has an excellent bridge web site known as BridgeHands. I asked Michael if there are 4432 hands on which he would not use Stayman. He said that he would give that question a resounding “it depends.” Wow! A “chink in the armor.” He continued, “If you are going to pass on Stayman with 4332 and simply raise no trump, the time to do it is when responder’s short suits (the 3 and 2 card suit) have significant high card points.” That adds protection and enhances the no trump play.
Michael mentioned another Californian, Gene Simpson, a Grand Life Master, who is closing in on 30,000 master points. You gotta like this guy. When asked for his to 25 tips on winning bridge, the first on the list was get a good partner. You can find Gene’s list published on the Internet. When I asked Gene about this issue, he said when responder has 12 hcps it is best to bid your no trump game instead of majoring in majors. He also said that if responder’s major has no high card points, it is better to raise no trump and avoid Stayman.
Do you think these Californians are like “Cheech and Chong” or is their thinking apparatus working one gear above ours? We report, you decide.
Be forewarned, most club players will be rotely using Stayman and you will probably be going against the grain. Most of the time a 4 card major will not be located so it won’t make any difference. If your analysis is correct you will get a top. Even if an 8 card major is found, it may make the same number of tricks in no trump. "Ca-Ching, Ca-Ching!" Be selective, and make sure when you stray from the asylum the scoring is match points. If all goes wrong “ Close you eyes and think of England.”
In responding to opening no trump bids, I always think the 8 hcps hands present the most challenges. Here’s some advice from expert Gordon Bower on 8 counts:
• With 4333 (any 4 card suit) pass.
• With 4432 pass if your long suits are clubs and diamonds
• With 4432 and one 4 card major it is borderline. Most of the field will be bidding of course, so you may choose to bid just to avoid swings, but I am not certain that in the long run it will be the winning action.
• With 4-4-3-2 (both majors), the odds are well in favor of your bidding
• With more shape (5422 or 5332) bid!!
With an 8 count, I suggest that you consider passing more often if the shape is not favorable, or just taking your shot with no trump. Often when you pass, overly aggressive balancers will often come rushing back in and holding a good 8 count you can "whack" them for penalties.
If you have not visited the site BridgeHands, I urge you to do so and sign up for the bridge blog “Polling You”. This teaching blog section is destined in the future to be a fee based members only teaching site with multiple levels of membership enabling different levels of access, but for the present you can sign up for a free introductory membership. Go to the site, sign up for a membership and also request e-mail notification each time a new poll is posted. The animated videos with commentary by Michael are excellent. I think you will be impressed with the professional quality of the presentation.