Thursday, August 22, 2013

Competing After 1NT Overcalls by Opponents


          In an earlier post last month, I commented on wielding the axe when partner opens the bidding and LHO overcalls 1NT. The first thought that enters my head is can we beat this 1NT contract? This is a simple calculation if partner displays some discipline in opening hands. I think this points up the importance of counting quick tricks when making the decision to open. If your agreement with partner is that you open all 7 LTC hands regardless of quick tricks and values, then hang to your pass card as you will need it. Despite all the hoopla (some of it from me) LTC only works if you and partner find a fit, and is not an indicator of success in defending 1NT doubled.

          Even with a reliable partner, there are many times when you may have a hand that has playing values but is not suited to doubling the 1NT overcall. Such hands have distributional features, good suits or support for partner’s bid suit. To get into the bidding you need an agreement which means you have to tell partner in advance what is going on! Novel idea! Think about turning over a new leaf.

          If you have a biddable suit, you could just make an overcall, but since your hand is not as good as your partner’s, that would mean that if we declare, opponent’s lead would be coming up to the weaker hand. Your chance of winning an extra trick on the opening lead has already diminished. If you don’t have to, you never want to put the big hand on the table. Hmm … does this issue sound familiar? Well it should, since you face it every time partner opens 1NT. It starts with a “T” and it’s not “trouble” – how about “Transfer?”

          Suppose you hold Kx KT9876 Kxx, xx. Partner opens 1 spade so he has some values (hopefully) and most likely a 5-332 distribution. What else do we know? Overcaller has 15-18, likely a balanced hand with a stopper in all suits. The term stopper has been watered down lately. I have seen expert players make the overcall with no stopper or half a stopper (Qx or JTx) in an unbid suit, and the requirement for a double stop in the bid suit is almost extinct. This trend represents the frustration of overcaller having the most points at the table and not being able to find a suitable call with a 4333 or 4432 hand. Certainly he does not have a 5 card major or he would have bid it.

          Enough digression, back to responder and his heart suit. From the analysis above we can see that one partnership treatment would be to simply play would “systems on” just as you would have if partner had opened 1NT, Stayman and Transfers (four suit if you like). This system is designed to get the hand played by opener and at the same time we destroy opponents by taking away their use of “systems.” So if Transfers are “on” responder would bid 2 diamonds.

          The probabilities are that opener has 2+ hearts, but twice as likely that he may have 3. I think the understanding should be that opener may optionally refuse the transfer if he has a single or void in the suit. In that case he may rebid his original suit or bid another suit or pass if his suit is diamonds. Note that responder’s hand has a tolerance for partner if he must rebid his suit, even if it is only 5 carder. He might be 5-1-4-3 and have no choice other than to bail out on the transfer.

          Unlike the situation where partner opens 1NT, there is no assurance of a minimum 2 card fit, so I prefer to impose a quality requirement on transfers. To transfer, responder must have a 5 card suit with 2 of the top 3 or a 6 card suit with 2 of the top 5 honors or a fit to raise partner’s suit. What do you do if you have a fit? All bids by responder are transfers, so you can’t bid his suit, you must transfer him a back to his suit to show support.

          A different problem arises if partner opens a minor. If my hand is KT9x, KJxx, Kxx, xx, now I want to find that delicious 4-4 major fit but Stayman has its risks. Unlike when partner opens 1NT, opening a minor does not say partner has a balanced hand, he could have minor(s) and even if he is 4333 or 4432, there are many of those hands that don’t  ave even 1 four card major. The odds of a major shorten when the opponent right in front of you shows a balanced powerhouse. What does responder bid after opener rebids 2 diamonds (no major)? Well, there is nothing left but 2NT, but now you have contracted to take 8 tricks in the same contract in which the opponents have already suggested they can take 7. It’s better to face this problem in this blog post than at the table. I think with responder's hand I would choose to defend (perhaps doubled), look at the Kings sitting behind the overcaller.

          I think there is a reason to stay away from Stayman and perhaps a better systemic answer would be to make every 2 level bid a transfer. This can be very simple and effective, but you want to retain your suit quality requirements that I mentioned above. You have to decide what treatment is to be given to a 2 spade response. Is it clubs, minors and if minors, what distribution. Also remember that to show support for partner, you have to transfer.

          A system that I like is called “SANTA”. Originally developed as a defense against 1 no trump openers, it can be equally effective against a 1NT overcall. Here are the SANTA responses (a) 2 clubs = 9 major suit cards 55 or 5-4 (with quality) (b) 2 diamonds, 2 hearts, 2 spades and 3 clubs are transfers to hearts, spades, clubs and diamonds respectively and (c) 2NT+ 5-5 in the minors. The transfer bids as I play it shows the same suit quality as previously mentioned. With a major minor 2 suiter, transfer to your major and t hen bid your minor. Opener can pass or correct.

          There is merit to having one system for hands that partner opens with a major and another when partner opens with a minor. This is complicated for sure and no surprise that Andrew Gumpertz has blogged about it. If this discussion interests you, contact me at and I will send you a link.

          The critical thought in this post is that standard bridge will not serve you well in these auctions, and you need to discuss them with partner and develop some conventional approach. Pick your own poison.

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