Wednesday, July 31, 2013

1NT Overcalls-- Wielding the Axe

As a prelude to this post, let me welcome a new reader, Gary Cotter who resides in Oregon. Gary has found a new regular partner and he has the bridge bit in his mouth. We wish Gary and his partner much success.

          It is alarming to me that so few partnerships have bidding agreements after opponents have made a one no trump overcall of partner’s opening bid. The silence is deafening. Yet in a comparable situation, when acting on opponent’s opening bid of 1NT, everybody uses some system to interfere and compete.

          Let’s set the stage. Partner has opened 1c, so let’s arbitrarily assign him 12 hcps. Opponent has overcalled 1NT with 15-18, so let’s give him 16 hcps. Now we have located 28 points and you hold KJx Kxx Qxx xxxx. What are you going to do? Well, we could probably make one no trump, but that bid is already taken. There is the always reliable “pass and see what develops” strategy.

          On the other hand you can add them up, 12+16+9=37. So overcaller’s partner can have at most 3 hcps on a good day. The stark reality is that opener may never get to the dummy. Give another point to either opener or overcaller and it is a dead certainty. Think about this, every time overcaller wins a trick, he will have to lead away from that 16 hcps balanced hand loaded with tenaces. Most of us have played 1NT without a board entry and would rather forget it than remember it. If opponents are vulnerable spitting out the word “double” is like hunting on a game farm. Even non-vulnerable your double will produce an excellent matchpoint result since you beat all those pairs who don’t read this blog post.

          What are the risks? That we will miss a part score? Well, even if we find a minor suit to play in it may not be easy as overcaller’s points are sitting right behind partner. Even success is failure, since even if you can make 2 of a minor, that is a losing proposition if you can beat 1NT by even one trick. Is there a chance that overcaller will make 1NT? Not likely at all. He has a balanced hand and it is almost guaranteed that he does not have running long suit. If overcaller bid 1NT over 1 diamond it is likely that he is 4333 or 4432. If he had a 5 card major he would have bid it rather than 1NT. You have been faced with an opportunity to gain almost a guaranteed top if you will only double.

          The important thing is that you and partner be on the same wavelength. We don’t want him guessing or running out with that 12 point hand that he opened, so we have the start of an agreement. Imagine that, “double actually means double”, maybe too simple. To cement it in his brain, mark the box in the upper left hand corner of your convention card that says “penalty” and pencil in 1NT O.C.

          I do not want to leave this topic without saying something about the danger of the 1NT overcall. Is it more risky than opening 1NT? You bet it is. When you open 1NT, the most likely division of the remaining points is 8-8-8. When you overcall 1NT the most likely probability of the two remaining hands is 6-6. Those nice round numbers happen only 18% of the time, but suppose you hit on a totally average day, is it harder to play with a 6 point dummy than with an 8 point dummy? Clearly yes! One thing you may have noticed about playing no trump contracts, the more the two facing hands are balanced in hcps, the easier it is to make the contract. The difference is improved communication between the two hands.

          One of the things that has always bothered me about direct no trump overcalls is the hcp range. In view of the overcalls increased risk, why should the bottom range start at 15 hcp. Yes, you are sitting behind an opening hand, but if you can’t get to the board, the advantage disappears. In fact it reverses, since you will be leading to opener’s tenaces. My decided preference is to play 1NT overcalls 16-18. You gain safety and accuracy since the range is narrowed and you are not overcalling with marginal values. Larry Cohen said that 15 really means a bad 16 so I am counting him on my side. I don’t expect to change the world by this comment, but if you are going down with those 15 hcp 1NT overcalls remember where you heard it first.

          Now that we have started an agreement we need to round it out since even good hands that need attention are not always suitable for “double.” In the next blog I will flush out that thought and then turn to what action, if any, overcaller’s partner should take to avert a disaster in process.
As always feel free to comment, directly if you wish to: tommy@rochester., or