Well, if you believe that there is a cost to everything, then you will know that “free bids” are not free. In Bridge, a free bid arises when your partner opens the bidding, his LHO make an overcall and you as responder choose to bid a new suit. The bid is called “free” since even if you don’t bid, your partner (opener) will have another chance to bid and the hand will not be passed out. Thus, you have taken action when you were free not to do so. If you are fortunate, you can make a free bid at the one level (1c/1d/1s). In modern duplicate style this does not show much more that a bid that you would have made without the overcall.
If, however, the overcall requires you to go to the 2 level to show your suit, Standard American bidding requires you to have 11+ hcps and a 4+ card suit. A two level bid free bid is forcing one round and very invitational. So what do you do if you have a nice 5 card suit that you want to get on the table but do not have the required 11 hcps? Well, sometimes a negative double will help you out. After 1c/1d, a negative double would show 6+ hcps and both majors, but when you have a 5 card suit often your suits and distribution will not fit negative double requirements. So you are left with lying to partner or losing the suit. Most often it is better to lose the suit than lose a partner, but there are notable exceptions to that rule. On a good day opener may double the overcall and give you a chance to show your suit, but he might not have a hand appropriate for a reopening double. On a bad day after you pass your LHO raises the bid to 2, 3 or 4 diamonds? Now you and your suit are history.
Enter the concept of a “Negative Free Bid”. Negative because you promise opener that you do not have the hcps to make a classic free bid, but that you have a good 5+ card suit with 5-10 hcps. If you are at the top of your Negative Free Bid range (9-10 hcps) you can make a jump shift. (1c/1d/2h). This most often shows a good 6 card suit. A Negative Free Bid is non-forcing, partner may pass and with a minimal holding will do so. More important than hand strength is suit quality. It might be something like AQJxx or KJTxxx with little or nothing outside. Remember, you may end up as declarer and opener’s pass with minimal values does not guarantee a fit.
Negative Free Bids are "on" through 3 diamonds so free bids of 3 hearts and 3 spades are forcing. Negative Free Bids are very useful in combating those pesky weak jump overcalls. If the bidding goes 1c/2s (sound familiar) with xx, Qxx AJT9xx, xx, you can make a negative free bid of 3 diamonds. We do not want to get shut out when one opponent has already shown a single suited hand with little in defensive values.
The concept of lowering the free bid requirement is driven by the very real possibility that opener may have 3 or 4 cards in your suit and without the negative free bid we will never find our 8+ card fit. In duplicate, effective bidding in competitive auctions depends on finding fits. So, if the bidding is 1d/2c and you find yourself holding xxx, KQT9x, Qx, xxx you make a negative free bid of 2 hearts. This announces that you have a good heart suit with less than 5-10 hcps, and also serve as lead directing if we defend.
Now we know how to bid the minimal hands with good suits, but how do we show partner that we really have a classic free bid with 11+ points and a good suit? Instead of making a bid at the 2 level we double the overcall. Yes that would be a negative double, but is really a two-way bid. Opener assumes it is a real negative double and bids accordingly, but at responder's next he bids his suit signaling to opener that you really hold a classic free bid with 11+ hcps and not a negative double. The bidding proceeds naturally from that point.
Alerts: The Negative Free Bid must be alerted by opener and if asked indicate that it shows a single suited hand with 5-10 hcps. The same alert should be made for jump shift indicating that the hand is in the 9-10 hcp range and likely 6 cards. If responder makes a negative double, alert the double and indicate that responder has either a true negative double or a single suited hand with 11+ hcps. If responder rebids a new suit after a negative double, alert that the double was not negative.
I am going to lay out some recommended rebids by opener, but don’t let this detail keep you from getting started. Responder’s negative free bids are very descriptive (most often a 5+ card suit and 5-9 hcps). With that detail, bidding continuations should be almost natural.
For those that want my recommendations here they are:
Pass: Shows a minimum hand and does not promise a fit. Don't run to : 2NT without extra values. It’s easy to under use “pass” in this context!!
Rebid opener’s first suit: Long suit without a fit.
2 NT: 16-18 with a stopper in opponents overcalled suit.
Free single non-competitive raise: Fit plus 15-18 support points.
Double/Redouble: If Opener’s RHO bids over the negative free bid or doubles the bid, a double or redouble by opener is a support double or redouble. Opener may also pass since the support double action is not mandatory with a minimum hand.
Jump Raise: Minimum Opener with a 5+ card fit and great playing strength.
Cue Bid: If opener wants to show a supportive hand for the negative free bid and wishes to convert it to a game forcing auction, he makes a cue bid. 1d/1s/2h/p/2s.
Jump Cue Bid: If opener makes a jump cue bid that shows 4+ card support for the negative free bid suit and a single or void (splinter) in the bid suit. e.g. 1c/1s/2h/p/3s. This bid also shows a big playing hand.
Is this a new concept? No, Marty Bergen first wrote about it in 1986 in Better Bidding by Bergen Vol. 2. It was also detailed by Karen Walker in a 5 part-part series in the Bridge Bulletin in 2005. Many Experts have this treatment as part of their arsenal, but the time has come for Intermediates and Advanced Players to give this serious consideration. Even if you don’t adopt it as part of your system, it is likely that you will be playing pairs that have so it is a good idea to arm yourselves with some information. Can I say it too often? "In todays competitive environment you can't announce a good suit too early."