Friday, 21 September 2007

The Monkey Option

Congratulations to the 94 EBU members who managed to vote for

"2-level suit openings should all be alerted"

in the EBU's online survey.

I would like to think that they were making some ironic statement about the deficiencies in the EBU's polling methods.

Wednesday, 5 September 2007


This is a simple defence to 1NT that I've been playing recently. It's my own invention, though given how simple it is, it would be surprising if no-one had tried it before. It works like this:

2C = both majors
2D = spades and a minor
2H/2S/3C/3D = natural

Double is normally for penalties. (A possible variation by a passed hand, or perhaps against a strong NT opening, is to play double as showing hearts and a minor.) And a 2NT bid would probably show the minors, though there are other possibilities for this as well.

The advantage compared to other Astro variants is that it is easier to play. In particular, overcaller's partner is is a better position when one of the two-suited bids comes up. For example, we can compare it to "Asptro" where 2C shows hearts and another suit and 2D shows spades and another suit, showing the weaker suit with both majors. Asptro is good at finding the right major to play in when overcaller has both majors (unlike "Astro" or "Aspro"). The problem is that for both 2C and 2D there are three different possibilities for the second suit, and it is not always easy to cater for all three. It is particularly difficult over 2D, where overcaller's partner can be faced with problems like these:
  • Holding 3 spades and 3 or 4 hearts, and no interest in game. Here we want to play in 2H if overcaller has hearts. But bidding 2H invites partner to bid 3 of his minor if he has a 5-card minor. This may not be what we want: we would often prefer to play in 2S in that case (for example with 3=3=5=2 shape).
  • Holding a decent hand with 4+ good hearts, where we are interested in game if partner has hearts as his second suit but want to stop in a part-score otherwise. This is impossible to handle because if we bid 2H (or 2S) then partner will pass when he has hearts, which is not what we want.

Playing Half-Astro there are not so many hand-types to worry about: instead of three possible two-suiters in each bid, we have only one (for 2C) or two (for 2D). And after either of these bids, overcaller's partner can use the next step to ask which suit is longer.

Of course, what Half-Astro does not have is a way to show hearts and a minor. With these hands we have to bid naturally (or pass if we do not have a suit good enough to overcall). But this is not such a huge disadvantage, since showing two-suited hands without spades is less important - sometimes when we could find a heart fit opponents might be able to bid spades over it.

I play this defence because it is effective and yet very simple. You could agree it with a new partner and expect not to have any mishaps. It's one of the very few conventions I've come up with which has been taken up by people who aren't my partners!

Tuesday, 24 July 2007

Polish Club: Responding to 1C

Since I posted the link to the Polish Club system notes last week a few of us have been practising bidding on BBO. Some parts of the notes have been clarified, and we've made some slight changes to the auctions after 1C : 1D , 1M. I expect there will be a few more details changed while we get used to playing the system. The latest version is on the webpage.

This post is about the response structure that we've chosen to use.

The responses are built around a 1D negative; 1H and 1S are natural with 6+ HCP. This is not the only possible way of doing things, but it is by far the simplest, and it's not obviously worse than anything else. When playing Polish Club, a 1D negative is very useful so that all the other responses can promise enough strength for game when opener has the strong hand. With more natural systems many people have started to use transfer responses to 1C, but if these were incorporated into Polish Club you would have to worry about how to show a strong hand while leaving open the possibility of playing in a part-score. While it is interesting to investigate how you might get this to work, I don't feel it offers any improvement on the simple negative. Another possibility is to keep the 1D negative but invert 1H and 1S; this seems to be more trouble than it's worth, forcing the bidding to 2S when opener has clubs and spades, which is worse than forcing to 2H when he has clubs and hearts.

So, our 1D, 1H and 1S responses are essentially the same as in most Polish Club variants. The other responses are perhaps a little more unusual.

In WJ05, the 2C response is forcing (with at least invitational strength), and weaker hands with clubs have to start with 1D. We prefer to bid an immediate 2C on the hands which want to play in 2C when partner has a weak NT. So 2C shows about 6-10 HCP with a 5+ suit. This works particularly well if the opponents interfere: then we are pleased to have got the club suit in immediately, whereas if we had started with 1D we would be worried about missing a club fit and do not have a strong enough hand to compete at high levels without help from opener. Even if the auction is uncontested, the 2C response is an excellent way to start when opener has a strong hand, because responder has shown a suit and limited his hand, and opener's rebids are all very easy, forcing to game with 18+.

Of course we have to find somewhere else to put the strong hands with clubs, and we use the 2H and 2S responses for this. These bids are not particularly useful as natural bids. In WJ they are natural and show strong hands, but this does not come up very often, and if opener has a weak NT (as usually happens) we have so much space available after 1C : 1M , 1NT that there is no problem showing the strong hands there. In a natural system I like to use 1C : 2M as weakish (maybe 4-8 HCP), but the main advantage of this is that 1C : 1M , 2C : 2M can then be an invitational hand (rather than having to jump to 3M). This is not needed in Polish Club because the 2C rebid promises extra strength. Using 1C : 2M to show an even weaker hand would just pre-empt partner in the very likely event that he has the strong type. So none of the normal, natural meanings for 2M make much sense in my opinion. This, then, is the perfect place to put some strong hands with a minor suit. In fact we use 2H to show precisely 5 clubs and 2S to show 6 or more.

Next we need to think about the 1NT response. It's actually rather difficult to find a suitable meaning for 1NT. Here are two possibilities that we considered:

  • 7-10(11) HCP balanced, no 4-card major. This has the advantage of preventing LHO from bidding a major at the 1-level. It's also a good start to the auction if opponents do compete. On the other hand, playing 1NT this way means that the sequence 1C : 1D , 1M : 1NT is underused and gives away too much information to the opponents (they could deduce that they have half the deck).
  • Showing 5+ diamonds (6+ diamonds if less than a game force). This would probably be used in conjuction with a 2D response showing 5 diamonds and 4 clubs. This has the advantage that all unbalanced hands with positive values can show their longest suit immediately over 1C, putting us in an excellent position in competitive auctions. The problem with using 1NT this way is that if the partnership has the values for game, it has probably wrong-sided the potential 3NT contract. We like to play methods where responder can show shortage when he has an unbalanced hand, but it is not so good to point out this weakness to the defence if this hand is going to be declarer.

In the end we have chosen to do neither of those things: our 1NT response is natural and shows invitational values opposite the weak type (a good 10 or 11 HCP). This is one of those bids which is a bit infrequent but is great when it comes up; it avoids having to go to 2NT to make an invite. In fact we might use this bid even on some hands with a 4-card major. We can compare this to the 1NT response in WJ05, which shows 9-11 HCP. This seems an odd choice: it is not a genuine invite, and if you allow opener to bid 2NT on a maximum weak NT you might play an unnecessary 2NT with 14 opposite 9. If you're happy bidding 1C : 1D , 1M : 1NT on an 8-count, it seems much more sensible to do this on 9-10 as well, so that 1C : 1NT can be a real invite.

Our 2D response shows 6-10 HCP with 6+ diamonds, similar to the 2C response showing clubs. This means that our 2-level responses look rather similar to those in some Swedish Club systems (2C/2D natural and not forcing, 2H/2S show strong minor-oriented hands). However, we cannot bid 2D on hands with a bad 5-card diamond suit because we frequently have shortage in diamonds for our 1C opening. So hands with 5 diamonds in this range have to go through the negative instead - these hands will either be balanced or have 4+ clubs, since we would bid 1M with a 4-card major. We also have to start with the negative on strong hands with primary diamonds.

Our 1D "negative" in fact has four possibilities:

  • 0-6 HCP, any shape.
  • Up to 10 HCP with no 4-card major: balanced or 5D-4C.
  • Game force with 5+ diamonds, or invitational with 6+ diamonds.
  • Balanced game force with no 4-card major, not wanting to be declarer in no-trumps.

As with most Polish Club variants, this means that if the auction begins 1C : 1D , 1M both partners could still have a very wide range of hands. But it is very easy to sort things out: responder bids 1NT if he wants to play there opposite a weak NT type, and now opener can make a very descriptive rebid if he has a stronger hand. We use responder's 2C and 2D rebids artificially: 2C shows the strong hand with diamonds, and 2D shows the 5D-4C type with 6-10 HCP. We do not need to worry too much about interference in this auction because both opponents have passed at least once already.

Wednesday, 18 July 2007

Latest Developments in EBUland

For the bidding theorists amongst us, this minute from the latest meeting of the Tournament Committee is of interest:

The committee considered a letter from Bob Rowlands, addressed to various parties, including the Laws & Ethics Committee. The issue raised was the use of a system of transfer openings and responses [presumably moscito or something similar - DC] by a pair competing in the National Pairs Final. The pair was also the subject of previous similar correspondence regarding the National Inter-Club Knockout.

Mr Rowlands felt it was totally inappropriate that such a system should be allowed in events involving short rounds, when opponents have little chance to prepare themselves, and also in events such as the NICKO, which should be used to encourage club players to participate in national tournaments. If the EBU should stand by its decision to run all events at level 4, then this system should not be allowed at that level.

The committee unanimously agreed with Mr Rowlands’ sentiments, and wished to strongly recommend to the L&E that they reconsider their stance.

Despite playing a Level 4 system myself, I have to agree with this - in fact I said so in an earlier post. It just reinforces my belief that the "correct" level for general tournament play is somewhere "between" Level 3 and Level 4. It will be interesting to see what the L&E has to say about this, since they previously decided that it was "a Tournament Committee matter" ...

Tuesday, 17 July 2007

Polish Club System Notes

One of the reasons I haven't posted much on my blog recently is that I've been writing up my system notes for Polish Club. This is a system that I've been playing recently with Mike Bell, and we've tried to come up with a version which is an improvement on standard Polish Club variants such as WJ.

The notes can now be downloaded from this page.

The notes focus only on the 1C opening, and are very detailed, with a particularly extensive section on dealing with interference.

A few things that make our version different from other Polish Club variants such as WJ05 are:
  • All balanced hands without a 5-card suit in the 12-14 HCP range are opened 1C.
  • Not all 18+ HCP hands are opened 1C: some are opened 1D or 1H instead.
  • The 2C and 2D responses to 1C are not forcing; we have artificial sequences to deal with game-forcing minor-suit hands.
  • The 1NT response to 1C is invitational.
  • After an overcall, we use a mixture of natural bids and transfers by responder.
  • There are many other artificial sequences, both in an uncontested auction and in competition, including frequent use of opener's diamond rebids as artificial.

Some of the reasons for these things have already been discussed in this blog. I might write about a few of the other ideas at some point.

Friday, 8 June 2007

Doubles Webpage

I've created a new page to explain why I believe the EBU rules need to be changed.

Alerting of Doubles

Hopefully this means I'll be able to avoid cluttering up this blog with further rants on the subject. :)

Friday, 1 June 2007

Invitational Jump-Shifts

This method is quite popular amongst players of 2/1 GF: after a major-suit opening, a jump to 3 of a lower suit is invitational and shows a good suit (6+ cards). Personally I think this is a truly dreadful idea.

The problems aren't too difficult to spot. It's a very space-consuming response. This means that it will make subsequent bidding difficult, and you can't afford to make the bid on too wide a variety of hands.

In my experience the invitational jump-shift is almost guaranteed to put opener in a difficult position. Let's try these very ordinary hands, after the bidding starts 1S : 3D -

S AJ974
H J3
D Q5

Here perhaps partner can stop the hearts and you can run lots of tricks in NT. Or perhaps he can't. How are you going to find out, with no bid available below 3NT?

D 3
C 84

Here if partner has heart support you might belong in 4H, but alternatively the hand could be a complete misfit not making anything higher than 3D. Make the hand a little stronger and you know you should be in game, but will you find 4H if that's the best spot? How will partner know you have five hearts?

S AK965
H A53
D K842

A lovely hand in support of diamonds, but how do you distinguish this hand from all the other different shapes that might want to raise?

Of course, if you play a 2/1 as absolutely forcing to game, you do need somewhere to put these invitational hands. But not all invitational hands with a good suit are suitable for an IJS. It is dangerous to make an IJS on hands with tolerance for parnter's major, or with four cards in the other major, because of the possibility of missing a major-suit game. So playing IJS does not really solve the problem of what to do on these hands.

Much better, at least when one of these invitational hands comes up, is to be playing a system where a 2/1 is not absolutely forcing to game, with responder's rebid of his suit showing the invitational type. Starting at the lower level gives you so much more flexibility: not only does opener have an extra chance to describe his hand, but responder can make the bid on hands which are not such pure single-suiters, because he is not committed to showing the IJS type. For example, over 1S, hands with four hearts and a six-card minor are no longer a problem, because after a 2/1 response, responder can afford to raise a heart bid to game, and will only rebid his minor to show an IJS hand if opener does not have hearts.

Naturally this would make life more difficult when you do actually have a game-forcing single-suiter. But personally I think it is relatively easy to find a way to bid these hands. Even if constrained to play natural methods, I would much prefer to be playing 2/1 "GF except rebid" than absolute game-force. And with a bit of artificiality there is plenty of room in most cases to distinguish invitational from game-forcing hands without having to invent suits or NT bids. Certainly in a natural GF system, responder's 2-level rebids (when available) tend to be underused, and can be redefined to include the game-forcing single-suited type. Really I think that using a cheap response like 2C solely for natural game-forcing hands is a serious waste of space.

An alternative for people who want to keep their 2/1s as game-forcing is putting the invitational single-suiters into the 1NT response. This has several drawbacks. You don't get to show either the suit or the strength immediately, and if you later bid your long suit it might be difficult to distinguish this from a weaker hand. Also if 1NT is not forcing, you may well be missing a better contract if opener passes. It works better over a 1H opening than over 1S - particularly if playing Kaplan Inversion so that the "forcing NT" hand bids 1S rather than 1NT - because responder has a 2S rebid available as artificial to distinguish weak single-suiters from invitational ones. Even then, I still prefer making a two-over-one response, showing the suit immediately, if the system can be arranged to allow for it.

What does "Natural" mean?

Most bridge players understand roughly what to expect from a "natural" bid, but it's quite a difficult term to define precisely. This is unfortunate because, as well as being a useful word for describing what a bid means, it's also often used in system regulations and alerting regulations, where you really need a good definition.

The meaning also varies slightly depending on where you live. Let's look just at suit bids. In America, most people seem to consider a suit bid to be natural if it promises length in that suit, even if there is some additional information given. For example, a Muiderberg 2S opening (showing 5 spades and 4+ cards in a minor) would be described as natural. They would say it is "natural but conventional". The WBF, on the other hand, defines "natural" to be the opposite of "conventional". Of course, "conventional" is another term which is extremely difficult to define, but it is clear that the Muiderberg 2S is conventional, and so is not natural according to the WBF's definition.

In England our understanding is somewhere in between. The old Orange Book (pre-2006) summed it up quite well: a natural suit bid was

a bid of a suit which shows that suit and says nothing about any other suit. ...

So a Muiderberg 2S opening is not natural, because it shows length in another suit (even though that suit is unspecified). But, unlike with the WBF's definition, it is still possible for a natural bid to be conventional. We would say that the opposite of natural is artificial. An example of a bid which is conventional but not artificial is a 1D opening which promises an unbalanced hand. This certainly shows diamonds, and says nothing about any other suit, but there is an additional agreement about the hand as a whole which makes it conventional.

Because I learnt my bridge in England, this is the definition which feels most right to me (and not just because I'm an avid reader of Orange Books! - this really is what people mean by "natural" in England, give or take some of the details). Unfortunately, both of the conditions in that old OB definition are slightly faulty.

First of all, what does it mean to "show that suit"? The old OB definition continued:

The suit shown will be at least four cards before opener rebids but may be three cards from then on; exceptionally a bid of 2C in a 3=4=3=3 hand precisely in response to 1S is considered natural.

This definition appears to make bids such as 1H (pass) 2H artificial if they could be made on three cards. In practice, this oversight was just ignored - no-one was suggesting that these bids should be alerted - but it did look a bit silly. It was corrected in the new version of the OB, where the definition of a natural suit bid is:

A bid of a suit which shows that suit and does not show any other suit; the suit shown will be at least three cards long except that preference bids and raises may be on shorter suits. Note that in earlier rounds of bidding a natural suit bid usually shows at least four cards.

This is a much better definition of what it means to "show" the suit bid. It's also an improvement for the bids which show only three cards suit. According to the old OB defintion, a 3-card 1H opening was alertable because it was not considered to be "natural". But this doesn't seem right - it surely is a natural bid, but ought to be alerted because it is unexpected.

The second part of the definition is much harder to get right, and neither of the two EBU versions really works properly. According to the old regulation, a natural bid should "say nothing about any other suit". Presumably this was discarded when it was realised that nearly every natural bid shows something about the other suits, even if this is only from the negative inference that some other natural bid could have been made instead. And, for example, a pre-emptive opening bid which is played as denying a side 4-card major should still be considered to be natural. But the new version goes too far in the other direction, so that (for example) a 3H bid which shows heart length and club shortage is considered natural. This isn't a problem for the alerting regulations because club shortage is still unexpected, and therefore alertable, but it doesn't correspond to what we really think of as being "natural". I think the old definition is closer to the truth here, and they just needed to make an exception so that a bid could still be natural if it denied a certain amount of length in another suit (or suits).

Still, there isn't really any obvious way to define it perfectly, and it's interesting to see how various different authorities try (and fail) to do it. And that's without even considering what a "natural" no-trump bid should mean.

Monday, 21 May 2007

1M:2C Artificial: Slam Bidding

When responder has a balanced hand and is interested in slam, he can use a relay-like sequence to find out about opener's shape. Depending on the continuations being used, it may be possible to find out opener's complete shape below game level. But even if not, it should be possible to find out the most important aspects - that is, the suits where opener has length (by which I mean 4 cards or more) and where he has shortage. If you work it through, you should find that for most hands these things can all be described at or below 3NT, but for some hands with a 6-card suit or 5-5 shape, a complete description may involve bidding 4C or 4D.

We need to know how to continue after this. Relay systems have to use very different slam-bidding methods to natural systems. However, because the relay-like scheme only applies when the asker has a balanced hand, you do not need many of the very complex methods found in the most advanced relay systems. This is because when you have a balanced hand, you know that nearly all of parnter's high cards will be "working". And since you know partner's shape, you can tell which of your own cards are useful as well. So, if you are able to get a good description of the strength of partner's hand, you will be able to deduce very accurately how many important high cards your side is missing.

Standard high-card points are not a particularly good way of describing the strength of a hand for slam purposes (not for suit slams, at least); a better approach is to count points on the scale A=3, K=2, Q=1. These are called "queen points" or "slam points": I'll use SP for short. Playing standard opening bids, a minimum opener will usually have 6 or 7 SP. A hand with 9+ SP can be considered significantly better than minimum for slam purposes, and when dividing opener's strength into "minimum" and "maximum", it makes sense for the maximum range to start at 9 SP unless playing very limited opening bids.

An important question is how much to count for honours in short suits. A singleton king or queen should probably not be counted at all, though of course it could still turn out to be a useful card. A doubleton queen is more interesting. I think it is best to count a doubleton queen as worth 1 SP unless you have a 5-5 or longer two-suiter. The reason is that the main value of the queen in Qx is that it can set up an extra trick for a discard, but when you have 5-5 shape a discard is unlikely to be useful. It may make sense to compensate for this to some extent by requiring only 8 SP for a "maximum" when holding 5-5 shape. (There is no problem with having different requirements for different hand types, because responder always finds out at least this much about shape before asking for a detailed description of strength.)

The main slam-bidding tool, then, is a bid which asks opener to show his exact strength measured in SP. After responder has heard enough about shape, his 4C bid can ask about strength. Simplest is to have step replies, so that if opener has shown a minimum,

4D = 6 SP (or fewer, but this would be very rare)
4H = 7 SP
4S = 8 SP.

Whereas, if opener has shown a maximum,

4D = 9 SP
4H = 10 SP
4S = 11 SP

Sometimes 4C is not available because opener bid that to show a shapely hand, in which case 4D would be the strength asking bid. (And similarly, some agreement is needed as to what to do when opener's shape-showing bid was 4D or higher, if such a thing exists.)

Here's an example of a possible hand for responder:

S Q4
D A82

Suppose that after a 1S opening bid, opener shows a minimum hand with 5 spades, 4 hearts, 3 clubs and a singleton diamond. We can see that the missing cards are the ace and king of spades, the ace of hearts, and the ace and queen of clubs - a total of 12 SP. The king and queen of diamonds are not important because of partner's known singleton.

Say we bid 4C asking about opener's strength and he bids 4D showing a minimum 6 SP. Then we know that there are 6 important SP missing. This could be two aces, or an ace together with the SK and CQ. Either way, this will not be a slam we want to be in, and we can sign off in 4H.

If opener bids 4H then we are missing 5 SP, which can only be the SK and an ace. Since there is no way to dispose of four of partner's spades, a 6H contract would be at best on a spade finesse, and could have no play at all. So we know to stop in game.

If opener bids 4S then we are missing only 4 SP, which must be the CQ and an ace. This time we can see that the contract should be at worst on the club finesse (barring some very bad splits), and could be much better than that if the spades are solid enough. So, this time, even without any further investigation, it looks like 6H should be worth bidding.

Generally, if you are missing 5 or more SP you are very unlikely to want to be in slam; whereas missing only 3 SP slam is likely to be good. The hardest hands to judge are those where 4 SP are missing. There you would often like more information. The example above is made relatively easy by the fact that we have the minor honours in our long suits: take away the HJ, CJ or even the CT and it is more difficult to know what to do. This is fairly inevitable because our way of describing strength does not count these cards.

So, after having found out about SP, what else might be useful to know? This is a difficult question because often there are various different combinations of cards which would make slam good. But notice that it is certainly not necessary to play any form of Blackwood. If the partnership was missing two aces, then you would find out that you were missing at least 6 SP, and this is too much for slam. Similarly, if you are missing one ace together with the king of your potential trump suit, responder will discover that at least 5 SP are missing, and this is nearly always an indication that slam is not playable. Thus, if you have enough strength to warrant bidding slam, you can't be missing two key-cards.

Sometimes it's impossible to bid slam with confidence (or avoid a bad slam) without finding out the precise location of opener's high cards. Unfortunately there is nowhere near enough space to be able to do this. We need to decide which things responder is most likely to want to know. There are two things in particular which seem to come up relatively often:
  1. Minor honours in opener's long suits. If your prospective trump suit is Axxxx opposite xxx, you have no chance of making slam whatsoever. Whereas, if you have AJT9x opposite xxx, there's an excellent chance of avoiding two losers. More generally, the jack and ten of opener's long suits can make a big difference to the slam chances. It is often very useful to be able to ask about these cards.
  2. Kings and queens in doubleton suits. When either responder or opener has a doubleton, honours in that suit are often much less valuable than if they were elsewhere. It is useful for responder to be able to pinpoint a particular suit and ask whether that is where some of opener's SP are. Opener should make a discouraging bid if holding the king or queen, and encourage with nothing in the suit or just the ace (which is always a useful card). This is generally more effective than asking about suits where responder wants to find honours, becuase there are usually two or three suits where honours would be useful.
So it is worth finding ways to ask about these things. Bids in suits where opener has shown two cards or fewer cannot be to play, and so they can be defined as specific asking bids. However this does not usually result in many bids being available. One way to free up more bids is to define some of responder's bids as setting trumps. For example, in situations where 4C is the normal strength ask, 4D can be used to set a particular suit as trumps (maybe opener's second-longest suit). The replies to 4D still show SP, but afterwards any bid below slam level except in the named trump suit can be an asking bid.

Another issue is the meaning of a 4NT bid. If opener has shown a 6-card suit then this should not be natural and can be used as an asking bid (but remember that Blackwood is useless). If opener only has five cards in his longest suit then 4NT should be natural - to play if the bidding is already at the 4-level, and quantitative otherwise. A quantitative 4NT is often useful when there is no big fit and responder isn't particularly interested in SP because jacks and maybe tens would be helpful as well.

Tuesday, 15 May 2007

1M:2C Artificial: Continuations

Since I wrote about an artificial 2C response to 1-of-a-major, some people have asked me about continuations. There are certainly plenty of options. There are a few complete schemes available on the web, but I'd imagine that for most people who want to play this sort of thing, part of the fun of the method is in designing their own structure - and doing it yourself also makes it easier to remember (though perhaps not for partner!) Still, there are a few things that can be said about how best to go about it.

First of all, natural bidding works adequately well and is a good place to start. The important thing, in my opinion, is to distinguish responder's balanced hands from hands with clubs as soon as possible, and if you play natural continuations this means responder always bidding 2NT at his next turn if this is available. It follows that you can have a problem if opener's reply to the 2C bid is 2NT or higher - these rebids do not allow an easy, natural way to continue. So ideally these replies should not be too frequent, and the natural meaning probably is a little too frequent.

At the same time, opener's 2D rebid is rather underused if played as natural. So a big improvement on strictly natural methods is to bundle some more hand types into 2D. Glen Ashton has written up a convention he calls "2Dlay" (see here) where the 2D bid shows a hand which would have rebid 2D or 2NT or 3C playing natural methods. After the 2D bid, responder can rebid 2H to ask which hand type is held (with 2S showing most hands with diamonds). If you are looking for a simple approach, this is a very good idea, since it makes the system much more efficient while still quickly leading to natural bidding later in the auction.

However, natural-based continuations have their faults. My main concern is that there is often no easy way for either partner to show the strength of their hand. This is a common problem in 2/1-based systems: hands with extra values can be difficult to bid. I feel it is much better to show something about strength explicitly as soon as possible, and this can only be done using artificial methods. Now, you can arrange things so that opener describes his strength, or so that responder describes his strength. I prefer it to be opener, because responder has some catching up to do in terms of describing his shape, and having to have two ways of showing a balanced hand would make life difficult in various ways.

But since showing shape is also very important, the description of strength cannot be too detailed, and so nearly all the methods I have seen divide opener's strength into just two ranges. For simplicity we can call the ranges "minimum" and "maximum", though if the opening bid is wide-ranging this is a bit misleading - the upper range would typically start at about 14 HCP, and the very strongest hands would have to make a further move later.

Playing artificial relay-like continuations, there is actually enough space available for opener to describe his complete shape, as well as whether he is minimum or maximum, below game level. This is what responder would want to happen whenever he has a very strong balanced hand. However, being able to do this is not the only important consideration when devising continuations. There are two reasons why responder may not want opener to describe his hand completely: firstly, it may be possible to name the final contract without having had a complete description (and further information would only be helpful to the opponents), and secondly, when responder holds an unbalanced hand he might want to make a descriptive bid himself.

Trying to take these things into account, let's look at a method which is based around the following rebids for opener:

2D = any minimum
2H = maximum, balanced or 4+ cards in a minor
2S = maximum, 4+ cards in the other major
2NT = maximum, 6+ cards in the suit opened, not 4+ in the other major

After 2H or 2S, 2NT will be a further asking bid (implying a balanced hand), whereas after 2NT, balanced hands will have to continue by bidding 3C. More interesting is the scheme after 2D: using 2H as responder's next relay, opener will reply:

2S = balanced or 4+ cards in a minor
2NT = 6+ cards in the suit opened, not 4+ in the other major
3C+ = 4+ cards in the other major: bids show the same shapes as after 1M : 2C , 2S : 2NT.

Notice the symmetry here: once opener has begun to show shape, any further bids are the same for minimum hands as for maximums.

This scheme works particularly well when it comes to responder breaking the chain of relays. As said above, the first reason responder might want to do this is if he already has enough information to be able to name the final contract. In order to achieve this, the replies to 2C are arranged so that we get the most important information first. In particular, it is very useful to know immediately if opener is minimum, since responder is unlikely to be able to sign off confidently if he does not have that information. A common auction is 1M : 2C , 2D : 2H , 2S, where opener has shown a minimum and denied four cards in the other major. This may well be enough for responder to place the contract in 3NT or 4M. [Actually, making one more relay is more common, since opener could still have an extreme shape such as 6-5 with a 5-card minor. One useful idea is to use 3D as a "weak relay" in this auction, asking opener whether he has a 5-5 shape, promising that responder will be able to set the contract otherwise. This gives away the minimum amount of information.]

It is also important for opener to make a good start at describing his hand in case responder is unbalanced. If this happens then relays will stop, and the partnership will revert to natural-based bidding. So we want to ensure that opener's first reply to 2C does not make subsequent natural bidding too difficult. Most importantly, opener's more space-consuming replies must be very well defined. This is why, in the scheme above, 2S shows a more specific hand type than 2H. Over 2H, responder can bid 2S with an unbalanced hand (artificial showing 5+ clubs), which leaves room for opener's hand type to be revealed. This would not be possible if 2H and 2S were reversed.

Some aspects of opener's hand are particularly difficult to describe using natural bidding, and so we need to use the reply to 2C to help with this, in case responder declines to relay afterwards. This is the main reason why the very first thing we do is distinguish between minimum and maximum hands: showing strength is very difficult in natural bidding, particularly if you are unable to identify a trump suit quickly. Another thing which is difficult to show naturally is a hand of 5-5 shape. In order to describe these fully in natural methods, you would have to bid and rebid the second suit. So ideally, when you hold a 5-5 hand you would want your reply to 2C to show the second suit. However, in the scheme above, we only do this on maximum hands with both majors. Other two-suiters can cause a problem if responder needs to know about the fifth card in the second suit. This is particularly likely to be problematic if the second suit is the other major. For this reason, it seems to be a good idea to use opener's currently undefined 3C response to show a minimum hand with at least 5-5 in the majors (5-6 after a 1H opening).

When working out the replies to responder's 2NT or 3C relays, I feel that showing shortage is most useful. So for example, after 1M : 2C , 2H : 2NT (and 1M : 2C , 2D : 2H , 2S : 2NT) we could use

3C = no shortage (i.e. 5-3-3-2, or 5-4-2-2 with a 4-card minor)
3D = 5+ diamonds
3H = shortage in the other major
3S = shortage in diamonds
3NT = shortage in clubs

[This assumes that 5-5 hands with clubs are put somewhere else: this is possible if you use 1M : 2C , 3D for maximums and 1M : 2C , 2D : 2H , 3D for minimums. The latter sequence is not needed for a major two-suiter if that hand would bid 3C directly over 2C.]

Further asking bids are possible over 3C, 3D and 3H, but usually once opener has shown shortage it should be possible for responder to work out what the best game should be, and in particular whether 3NT will be a good contract.

After that you would need some slam-bidding methods. The sort of slam-bidding conventions you find in natural systems aren't really appropriate here. You can go a long way just using 4C as asking about general strength. I'll write a post about this at some point.

Tuesday, 17 April 2007

Using 1S:2D as a Transfer

This follows on from the explanation of the artificial 2C response to major-suit openings. If playing natural 2/1 responses (apart from 2C), 1S : 2D and 1S : 2H would both promise five-card suits. This works fairly well, but there is a lot to gain from switching the 2D and 2H responses round, so that 1S : 2D shows hearts.

Clearly this will improve the bidding of hands with hearts at the expense of hands with diamonds. But because of the importance of major suits, this seems to be worthwhile.

The most important gain is on hands not worth forcing to game.

S K5
D 52
C 8742

Suppose that you respond to 1S with 1NT on this hand, and partner rebids 2D. This gives you a difficult rebid problem. You could try 2S or 2NT, but neither of these show your lovely heart suit. Alternatively you could rebid 2H, but this doesn't express the strength of the hand very well. This is the sort of hand that the 2D transfer was designed for. You respond 2D on this hand, and if opener completes the transfer by bidding 2H, you continue with 2S. The 2S rebid is non-forcing and mildly invitational. Not only does this sequence get the heart suit into the picture, it also perfectly describes the strength.

The 2D bid should promise a decent hand. The minimum strength is about the same as a traditional Acol 2H response:

S 8
H AKJ963
D 9863
C 84

This hand is just about worth a 2D response: this time we will pass opener's 2H rebid. However, when holding only five hearts and shortness in spades, it is better to respond 1NT unless the hand has genuinely invitational values (that is, it should be good enough for a 2NT rebid).

Of course, game-forcing hands with 5+ hearts must respond 2D as well. After opener's minimum rebids, they have to bid a minor suit in order to create a forcing auction, like in Acol.

Opener is not obliged to complete the transfer, but, apart from raising hearts, the only alternative with a minimum hand is to bid 2S. This shows 6+ spades, and will tend to be short in hearts (but if the spade suit is sufficiently good opener might have heart tolerance). Opener's minimum rebids are not forcing: responder would pass with the minimum 8-point hand above. With a stronger hand, opener bids as in Acol, except that I would play 2NT as showing a good hand with 6+ spades (forcing to game).

As was said above, the problem with playing 2D as a transfer is that you have to work out what to do when responder actually has diamonds. Balanced hands with diamonds are not a worry, since they can be put into the artificial 2C response. But unbalanced hands with diamonds have to respond 2H to 1S. The loss of a step can make life difficult - especially from opener's point of view, when he holds hearts. Some further artificiality is likely to be needed to try to deal with these problems.

An alternative approach is to put all the hands with diamonds into the 2C response. This frees up 1S : 2H to be used as a spade raise. (And similarly, 1H : 2D could be used as a heart raise.) I rather like this idea, but it means that the 2C response becomes incredibly complicated, though there does seem to be just enough room to make it work. I wrote out some notes for a complete system of artificial 2/1 responses here.

Saturday, 14 April 2007

2NT Showing a 6-card Suit

This is another way to try and improve bidding after a 5-card major opening, but unlike the artificial 2C response this convention is very simple. It involves opener's 2NT rebid after a 2-level response, for example 1H : 2D , 2NT. Particularly if you play a strong NT opening and often open 1NT on balanced hands with a 5-card major, the natural meaning for 2NT does not get used very much. Minimum balanced hands should be happy rebidding the major instead.

A more useful meaning for the 2NT rebid is showing a hand with 6+ cards in the suit opened and better-than-minimum values. These hands are extremely difficult to bid if you do not have such a convention available. In Acol, you would have to jump to the 3-level. This is problematic because it takes up so much space: there is a well-known problem with trying to decide which of responder's rebids should be cue-bids and which should be natural, and the reason this is so difficult is because there is not enough space to have both things. In 2/1, the jump to the 3-level promises an excellent suit, and hands without such a good suit have to rebid the major at the 2-level. It then becomes virtually impossible to show the extra strength of the hand.

The conventional 2NT rebid solves all these problems. It describes the important features of the hand immediately, while leaving plenty of space for further exploration. The best thing is that the continuations are very simple: all of responder's rebids at the 3-level are natural. For example, after 1H : 2D , 2NT if responder wants to set hearts as trumps and start cue-bidding he simply bids 3H. Whereas, if he wants to show a two-suiter or rebid his diamonds, he can do those things too. A jump to 4C would be a splinter.

The main drawback to this convention, apart from having to find another bid with a natural no-trump hand, is the possibility of wrong-siding a no-trump contact. However, because the bid promises a 6-card major, there is a high probability that the hand will be played in the suit instead. I feel that the advantages of being able to show the hand more than make up for this occasional problem.

This really is one of my favourite conventions. It can be added to most 5-card major systems (though it is not so good with a weak NT) and requires hardly any partnership discussion apart from the basic definition.

Friday, 13 April 2007

1M:2C Artificial

If you play 2/1 Game Force (or "GF except rebid"), you need to decide what you will do on a hand worth forcing to game over a 1-of-a-major opening but without a good suit. For example, over a 1S opening:

S K5
H AQ52
D A84
C J862

The standard method is to bid 2C, establishing the game force. However, if you do this then it can become difficult for opener to know whether you have a "real" club suit or not, which makes slam bidding harder. In fact, it may sometimes be necessary to make a two-over-one response in a three-card suit (change one of the clubs in the example above to a spade).

One attempt at solving this problem is to play a natural game-forcing 2NT response. Removing balanced hands like the one above means that 2-level suit responses virtually guarantee a 5-card suit. However, there are three problems with this idea. First of all, the 2NT response consumes a lot of space, making further exploration on those hands difficult. Secondly, the range of game-forcing hands which do not have a 5-card suit is very wide: they can be any strength from 12 HCP up, and include 4-4-4-1 distributions as well as balanced hands. It is not really practical to put these all into 2NT, and so the 2NT response does not completely solve the problem it was designed for. And thirdly, it means that you can't use the 2NT response for other purposes (it is more commonly played as showing a good raise of opener's suit, of course).

A much better idea is to put all game-forcing balanced hands into the 2C response. So, 2C becomes an artificial two-way bid: it shows either real clubs or a game-forcing balanced hand. In some situations the hand might contain only two clubs.

Obviously this clears up the other two-over-one responses, since they now promise a 5-card suit. You might think that there is still a problem with the 2C bid, since we are putting even more hands into it than in standard 2/1, but in fact by making it explicitly a two-way bid, it becomes much easier to distinguish in the subsequent auction when responder actually has genuine clubs.

To see how this works, let's assume for the moment that we will play natural continuations over the 2C response. Now, assuming that opener rebids at the 2-level, we will require that responder always rebids 2NT with the balanced hand. Any other bid will show an unbalanced hand, and thereby implies a decent club suit. So for example, with the hand from earlier,

S K5
H AQ52
D A84
C J862

we will respond 2C to 1S, intending to bid 2NT at our next turn, even if opener's rebid is 2H. In standard methods it would be more normal to raise a 2H rebid to three, but playing a two-way 2C response the direct raise should show the "natural" hand type and promise good clubs. Of course, there is no reason why you couldn't bid this way even if your 2C response was defined as natural, but turning it into a two-way bid makes everything seem much clearer, as well as improving the definition of the 2D response.

Notice how by rebidding 2NT we put ourselves in the same position as those people who play a natural game-forcing 2NT response, except that opener has had one extra chance to describe his hand. We have gained an entire round of bidding, which is extremely useful.

So far this has all been very simple. However, it is possible to add a vitually unlimited amount of artificiality to the continuations after 2C. There are a number of reasons why it helps to move away from natural bidding.

First of all, consider a natural auction such as 1S : 2C , 2H : 2NT. What do opener's bids mean now? If you play natural methods then 3H, 3S and 3NT have obvious meanings, but 3C and 3D are less clear - presumably these would show a fragment, but considering that these are such cheap bids the meaning is not terribly useful. Furthermore, neither partner's strength is well defined - it would be better to give some information about strength at this point. So it seems better to use artificial continuations, for example 3C showing a minimum hand with 3D as a further artificial asking bid after that. This sort of scheme can be used throughout the system. Once you start doing things like this, the system starts to look rather like a relay system. Indeed, the 2C response is sometimes called a "relay".

Next, you might decide that it is not always most efficient to use 2NT as the bid which shows a balanced hand. Particularly after a 2D response to 2C, it makes a lot of sense to bid 2H with most balanced hands and use 2NT for something else. Doing this makes it look even more like a relay system.

And finally, it is possible to do a lot better than natural responses to 2C. In particular, using opener's 2D rebid to show diamonds is not particularly efficient: you want to use 2D much more frequently than that, particularly when responder's 2H rebid shows the balanced hand. Also, opener's bids at the 3-level need to be better defined. A typical scheme might look something like this (played by Bocchi / Duboin):

2D = any minimum without 4 cards in the other major
2H = any hand with 4 cards in the other major
2S and above = better than minimum, without 4 cards in the other major

Again, this looks very much like a relay system, with the minimum and better-than-minimum hands being treated symmetrically (1M : 2C , 2D : 2H , 2S/2NT/3C show the same shapes as 1M : 2C , 2S/2NT/3C).

Putting all these things together, the resulting scheme can be extremely complicated. But this is an area of system which rewards a bit of hard work. Balanced game-forcing hands are quite frequent, and are very difficult to bid in standard systems. A relay-like scheme is ideal for them: relays work best when the asking hand is balanced and fairly strong.

Tuesday, 3 April 2007

Announcements: More! More! More!

If my blog posts so far have been pretty esoteric, I suppose this is the one where I completely lose touch with reality. Yep, this is about how we should have more announcements. Never mind the fact that the ones we have already are so controversial that it would be suicidal for the L&E to try and impose any more - this one is straight out of the "If I Ruled the World" folder.

But I don't want you to think that I believe every situation can be dealt with using announcements. Far from it. The consequences of having too many announcements are much worse than those from having too few. We got along well enough without any announcements before last August. Announcements are only of use in a very limited set of circumstances. Let's start by listing three conditions that are absolutely necessary for announcements to work:

  • The rule must be easy to understand and remember.
  • Announcements must only apply in situations where players can be expected to know exactly what their agreements are.
  • The announcements must actually have a purpose - they must be justified by one or both of the reasons I gave in the previous post. (That is, avoiding alerts for common artificial bids, or avoiding unauthorised information from asking questions.)

These are absolutely non-negotiable. To give an example, it was once suggested that all take-out doubles should be announced as "take-out" and all penalty doubles should be announced as "penalties". This scores well in terms of being easy to understand, and does solve disclosure problems, but it still would be an awful regulation because of the second condition: in complicated auctions, no-one has firm agreements about the meanings of doubles (though they might have general agreements which are relevant), so they can't be expected to make an announcement.

In addition to the above points, there are two other things that would be helpful:

  • Ideally, new announcements should only affect pairs playing unusual methods.
  • Announcements work best when the agreement can be described easily and effectively in a short phrase rather than with a long explanation.

However, these are not as essential as the three main conditions above, and indeed these two things tend to work in opposite directions: unusual methods will generally be more difficult to describe.

Given these conditions, there are only a very restricted number of situations where announcements might usefully apply. Two in particular stand out, and I would like to talk about those.

1. "Negative" Doubles

This forms part of my wider ideas on the alerting of doubles. In contrast to the proposal mentioned above where all penalty and take-out doubles would be announced, which I think is a terrible idea, there is one particular situation where announcing doubles might well be useful. This is when there has been an opening bid, followed by a natural suit overcall from opener's LHO (below 3NT) and a double from opener's partner. Ignore for the moment the importance of making the rules in this situation consistent with the rules for doubles in general. What would be the best rule in an auction such as 1S : (3D) : Dbl ? My suggestion is this:

  • If the double is for penalties, then do not alert or announce;
  • If the double is for take-out, then announce as "negative";
  • If the double has some other meaning, then alert.

This would solve two problems that we currently have in this situation: firstly that some players who play double as penalties don't realise they have to alert, and secondly that when a double is not alerted, some opponents feel the need to check that it really is a take-out double as it is supposed to be.

But perhaps the best thing about this rule is that it also works when the opening bid was at the 2-level, or was in NT. In the auction 1NT : (2H) : Dbl , for example, the traditional and most popular meaning is penalties: so again the current rule means we have problems with people not alerting penalty doubles, but here it's worse because opponents might get the wrong idea even if it is disclosed correctly. And in the auction 2S : (3C) : Dbl , I've seen people very angry to find out that they were supposed to have alerted a penalty double. The EBU's current rule (an unalerted double is take-out) does well in minimizing alerts when the opening bid was a natural 1-of-a-suit, but people find it terribly confusing in the other situations.

Of course, my suggested rule wouldn't fit in with the rules we have at the moment about alerting for doubles in other situations. It is designed to be part of a system where, with the one exception for negative doubles, only very unusual doubles are alertable. In fact my specific suggestion was that apart from the negative double situation, no doubles would be alertable except:

  • Doubles of natural opening bids. (Below 3NT, a double of a natural suit opening is expected to be for take-out; a double of a natural no-trump opening is expected to be for penalties);
  • Certain very specific unusual doubles. (Perhaps just anti-lead-directing doubles.)

So really while the rules for the specific negative double auction may appear slightly more complicated than the current ones, the scheme as a whole is much simpler.

[Incidentally, I could do with some help in lobbying about this, so if you think this is a good idea, or even if you just agree with the basic principle that neither take-out nor penalty doubles should be alertable in auctions more complicated than the "negative double" auction, please grab your nearest L&E member or other influential person and tell them.]

2. Opening bids which are currently alertable

This is an obvious candidate for announcements because opponents will very often want to know the meaning of such a bid. As with a natural 1NT opening, the problem is opponents asking questions. For example, after a 1C opening it is easy for an opponent to ask a question in such a way that he reveals that he has clubs himself. While we could say that opponents should be able to find out the meaning by looking at the convention card, experience suggests that even when a convention card is available, opponents still like to ask directly.

In theory, all opening bids which are currently alerted could be announced instead. That would certainly be a simple enough rule to understand. But it might be wise to look at narrower categories of opening bids.

  • Two-level suit opening bids. Currently all two-level opening bids are either alerted or announced. If the alertable bids were announced instead, then that would make the rule for such bids very simple: they would all be annouced. This makes a lot of sense, particularly when the opening bid is 2 of a major, since the introduction of announcements means that an alerted 2H or 2S bid is now quite surprising, so opponents will very often ask anyway.
  • "Short" 1C and 1D opening bids. An announcement for these would be useful in order to distinguish them from the "genuinely" artificial minor-suit openings which are currently alerted. The same goes for a natural opening bid which is alertable because of some unexpected agreement (e.g. 1D "natural but could have longer clubs"). This would also have useful consequences for the alerting of doubles under the current rules - a double of a natural or short minor is expected to be take-out whereas a double of an artificial bid is expected to show the suit bid.

So there are particularly good arguments for those opening bids to be announced. Note that this wouldn't make the rules much more complicated, since "announce natural 2-of-a-suit bids" becomes "announce all 2-of-a-suit bids" and the "short" 1C/1D is an unusual method which most players would not need to worry about. Having said that, I think there is still a good case for all alertable opening bids to become announcements instead.

But there is one difficulty which I've avoided talking about so far. That is, there is such a wide variety of possible meanings for these bids, it would be impossible to define "official" wordings for announcements for them all. I used to think that this made the idea of announcements for these bids a non-starter, but now I don't believe it would be a serious problem at all. The solution is to allow players to word their annoucements in whatever way they think best, but to have a list of recommended announcements for the more common methods. (These recommended announcements would include the short ones we already have for natural two-level suit bids.) Add to this a little bit of common sense - for example if a relatively long explanation is given the first time a bid comes up, a shorter form would be acceptable if it comes up again against the same opponents - and I think it would be fine.

The 3NT Opening

It's difficult to find a good meaning for the 3NT opening. The "natural" strong balanced meaning doesn't work very well because there's too little space to bid constructively over it. More often 3NT gets used as showing a pre-empt in one of the minors, either "Gambling" (promising a solid suit) or showing a normal 4-minor pre-empt so that the 4C and 4D opening bids can be used for other purposes. However, this wrong-sides the possible 3NT contract, and, particularly when 3NT does not promise a solid suit, it can be difficult for partner to know whether to play in 3NT anyway. Also, using 3NT for any sort of pre-empt gives the opponents more options than they would have if you had made a natural opening bid.

I prefer to use 3NT to show a hand which is not interested in playing in no-trumps at all. One possibility which a few pairs have adopted is to reverse the usual "Namyats" opening bids so that instead of 3NT showing a minor-suit pre-empt and 4C/4D showing good major-suit pre-empts, 4C and 4D become natural and 3NT shows a good pre-empt in either major suit. This seems like a reasonable thing to do. But what I would like to recommend is the simpler approach where 3NT shows specifically a good pre-empt in hearts.

You make life a lot easier for yourself by showing a specific suit. As I said here, I'm generally wary of agreeing to play multi-meaning pre-empts because there is so much which needs to be discussed. Also, slam tries are more effective when the suit has already been shown because you don't need to waste time confirming which suit opener has.

Of course, this gives up the chance to show a good 4S pre-empt. But there are good reasons why being able to show hearts is more important than being able to show spades. When you have hearts, you are worried about the opponents competing in spades. You want to make a pre-emptive bid to keep them out of their possible good spade fit - or to put them into a bad spade fit. And also if you open at a lower level you might get pre-empted yourself. For example, if you open 1H, the opponents may be able to bid up to 4S and leave you unable to show your one-suiter without going to the 5-level. When you have spades you are less worried about keeping the opponents out since you can outbid them on any level. Note also that a 3NT opening prevents the opponents from bidding spades below the 4-level, the same as a 4H opening would. If you have spades, then an opening bid which shows a good 4S pre-empt will allow the opponents to get in a heart bid at the 4-level, so this is significantly less pre-emptive than a 4S opening would be.

Monday, 2 April 2007

Announcements in the EBU

Eight months on from the big changes to our alerting regulations, announcements are still a very controversial topic. It's difficult to tell exactly what the level of opposition is, because inevitably it's the people with the strongest opinions whose voices are heard, but it's certainly clear that a significant number of people don't like announcements. One interesting feature of the debate is that there is an apparent distinction between "club players" and "tournament players", with a common perception amongst the club players being that the EBU's rules are there to cater for the tournament players, at the expense of the "ordinary" club players. While the EBU might disagree, it is difficult to shake off this criticim, since it is genuinely difficult to cater for everyone at once, and there is no doubt that announcements work best in more serious events. But in spite of all the criticism, I still believe that announcements are a good thing. I'd like to explain why I think it is that despite announcements being good for the game, there are so many people who are unconvinced.

First of all, we need to understand what the point of announcements is. I feel that the EBU did not do a good job of explaining this, which was a big mistake. The most common short explanation was, "It gives the opponents information immediately, without them having to ask for it." But that's nothing more than a restatement of what an announcement is, it doesn't explain why we should have them. In fact there are two distinct reasons why we have announcements:

1. Avoiding alerts for very common artificial bids.

This is the reason why we announce Stayman and transfers. The "basic" rules for alerting in the EBU say that artificial bids should be alerted. If this rule applied here (as it did before 1st August 2006) then Stayman and transfers would be alertable. However, this would mean that when the auction went 1NT : 2C / 2D / 2H, this would nearly always be alerted. This in itself would not be a problem: the problem comes when a pair turns up who don't play normal Stayman or transfers, but play some more unusual convention instead. The danger is that their opponents will see the alert and assume it was Stayman or a transfer since that is nearly always the reason for the alert. I used to play "Keri" over 1NT where the 2C response forced partner to bid 2D: many opponents went wrong because they had assumed it was Stayman, and occasionally some of them got very upset about it, even though we had done all we were required to do. The announcement of Stayman and transfers solves this problem, because now if such a bid is alerted opponents will know that it is something unusual. (Or of course it could be a Stayman bidder who has simply forgotten the regulations, but this will be clarified easily enough.)

2. Avoiding unauthorised information from asking questions.

This is the reason why we announce the range of 1NT openings. The point is that opponents will very often want to know what the range is. But asking about the range can lead to problems - particularly if opener's left-hand opponent asks and then passes. Asking tends to suggest that the player was interested in bidding, and now the Laws say that the player's partner must "carefully avoid taking advantage" of that information. Sometimes this is not a problem, but on other occasions a director may have to be called to sort things out. Or perhaps even a director should be called, but the players don't like calling the director. Either way, it would be so much better if the unauthorised information had not been passed in the first place: then this problem would not arise. This is why we announce 1NT openings: it gives the opponents the information they need, without them having to ask a question which might give their partner ethical problems.

For the other type of announcement that we have - natural two-level suit openings - both of the above reasons apply. (Before the announcement was brought in, an alerted 2H or 2S opening was nearly always a natural "weak two". And, like with a 1NT opening, opponents will very often need to know the meaning of a 2-level suit opening.)

As I said, I do not think that the EBU did a good job of explaining these things. So it is no wonder that so many people thought the announcements were pointless. The way the announcements were presented made them seem very arbitrary - just rules for rules' sake. Even if you ignore the attempts at explaining why we should have announcements and just look at the explanations of the rules themselves, there was a lot that could have been improved. The completely unreadable "easy guide" that the EBU produced is one of the most hopeless attempts at an explaining something that I have ever seen.

But of course it can't all be blamed on the publicity. Even if the L&E had handled that as well as possible, announcements were always going to be controversial. The fundamental problem is that the two reasons for having announcements aren't really things you'd expect a club player to be interested in. Let's look at those two reasons again:

1. Avoiding alerts for very common artificial bids. The announcement is designed to make opponents aware when a pair is playing an unusal method (ie. one which is alertable but is not Stayman or a transfer). However, these unusual methods are so rare at club level that club players will hardly ever come across them. So there is little need for them to be protected by annoucements.

2. Avoiding unauthorised information from asking questions. Most club players aren't interested in subtle Laws issues like this. Some people won't understand what the problems are in the first place, while others that do have some idea of the Laws are happy to ignore any problems that come up, since they don't like calling the director anyway. In a "friendly" game where people don't mind little bits of unauthorised information occurring, there seems little need to use announcements to prevent it.

Notice that the underlying problems - unsual systems and ethical issues - are not just specific to announcements, but cause a variety of difficulties in trying to apply the Laws of bridge to non-serious events. People who enjoy themselves playing in a club where everyone plays the same system and the director is hardly ever called about unauthorised information are not going to appreciate rules which are designed for unusual systems and scrupulous adherence to the Laws.

But to a "serious" bridge player, this looks so wrong. Announcements do genuinely solve the problems with unusual systems and unauthorised information that I have mentioned. And they come at little cost since once you've got used to them an announcement is no more difficult than an alert. But how do we sell this to our club players - do we tell them they're wrong not to care about these things? I think that is pretty much what we're saying. So while we may believe that announements improve the game for every type of player, it's no wonder that so many club players think that the rules are not designed with them in mind.

Wednesday, 28 March 2007

Polish Club: Minimum Balanced Hands

One of the main issues to be resolved in a Polish Club system is whether to open 1C or 1D on minimum balanced hands with four diamonds. In WJ05 these are opened 1D (though there is some freedom to choose: you might open 1C if the diamond suit was weak). I think that the decision is close but prefer to open 1C on all such hands.

Showing the strength of these hands is not a problem in either method. Both 1C and 1D promise a minimum of about 12 HCP, and this is a fine description of the strength of hands of up to 14 HCP. The real issue is showing shape. If you open 1D then you show 4+ diamonds, whereas if you open 1C you show a balanced hand.

I feel that showing a balanced hand is marginally more useful. As has been said before, the weak NT hand type is the dominant hand type in the Polish 1C opening, and so responder will play for that until proven otherwise. This makes it easy for responder to bid 5-card suits, particularly major suits. Since it is very important to show 5-card suits as soon as possible, and majors are more important than minors, I find that this gives the advantage to the 1C opening. 4-4 fits can often be found later with a take-out double.

Of course, this decision has an effect on the 1D opening as well. It will be opened on a 4-card suit only when the hand is unbalanced. This is a helpful inference in many auctions, in particular making it easier for responder to raise. The resulting opening bid is essentially the same as the Siege 1D opening, and I like to play the Siege 1D agreements as part of Polish Club. This works particularly well with my preference to open 1D on hands in the 18-21 HCP range, since Siege includes sequences to deal with that.

However, the Siege 1D opening also requires you to open 1C on balanced hands with five diamonds (since after a 1D opening bid, opener's 1NT rebid is artificial). Sometimes this is a good thing (when it enables partner to bid a 5-card suit in competition), but sometimes it is not. From the point of view of description and homogeneity, I would probably rather open 1D with the 5-3-3-2 pattern - again, it is usually best to show 5-card suits. In fact, it is sometimes possible to get away with opening 1D on these hands in Siege. With precisely 3=3=5=2 shape, opening 1D works because we can raise a major-suit response to the 2-level. With 3=2=5=3 shape, you might open 1D intending to rebid 2C after a 1H response, but obviously this is best only if the hand "looks" like a minor two-suiter rather than a balanced hand. With 2=3=5=3 shape you are forced to open 1C unless you fancy opening and rebidding in diamonds. So most of the time you will have to open 1C. But fortunately this does still give you the benefits of showing a balanced hand, and freeing up the 1NT rebid after a 1D opening is a great help.

Interestingly, the decision to open 1C on balanced hands with 4 diamonds also often helps when partner makes a negative double. For example, suppose you picked up a minimum 3=3=4=3 hand and were playing a system where this was opened 1D. Now if LHO overcalls 2C and partner doubles, you are a bit stuck for a rebid. Consider the same hand after a Polish 1C opening - if LHO still overcalls a natural 2C and partner doubles, you now have an easy 2D response. You actually benefit from not having shown a suit immediately. If this sounds paradoxical, the explanation is that partner now needs to have support for three unbid suits in order to double, rather than just two. So he can't actually make the double so freely. But then again, the 1C opening makes it easier for partner to bid a suit of his own, and he may be able to do this instead of doubling. Obviously you do lose sometimes - for example if responder has 4=2=4=3 shape after a 2C overcall and would have been able to raise diamonds - but we knew that when we decided to show the balanced hand rather than the diamond suit.

Tuesday, 27 March 2007

Polish Club

Polish Club is one of my preferred systems, and it demonstrates many of the things I've talked about in my series on bidding theory. It features a multi-way 1C opening bid fairly similar to the simpler example, Swedish Club, which was discussed there. But there is an additional natural hand type that is included in the bid, making it essentially a three-way bid. The definition of the Polish 1C opening is usually something like this:
  • 12-14 HCP, balanced (usually without 4 diamonds) or 4=4=1=4;
  • 15+ HCP with a real club suit;
  • 18+ HCP with any shape.

The other opening bids in the system are mostly natural. The 1D opening promises 4+ diamonds, but may have a longer club suit. 1H and 1S are natural 5-card major openings. 1NT is 15-17. And 2C shows a minimum opener with 6+ clubs, or 5 clubs and a 4-card major, "Precision-style". Higher opening bids are pre-emptive.

Some slight variations on this are possible. The above is what seems to be the standard, as described in "WJ05".

One variation which is a significant change is to discard the Precision 2C opening, and open all natural club hands with 1C, freeing up the 2C bid either for another pre-empt, or to show some very strong hands. This makes a huge difference to how the 1C opening works, and I would hesitate to call such a system "Polish Club", though the name does still get used. Furthermore, I think this version is inferior, and I won't be considering it here.

But WJ05 is not perfect either, and I would prefer to make some changes. Most of the changes would be to some of the more detailed sequences later on in the auction, but some other changes are to do with the opening bids. In the rest of this post I'll explain why I like the opening bids in Polish Club, and how I would try to make things even better than in WJ05.

First of all, the natural 1D, 1M and 2C bids are an excellent way of showing shape, particularly the 5-card major openings which are very homogeneous. With 1D promising 4+ cards, this is clearly better than in systems like Standard American where a 3-card suit is allowed with 4=4=3=2 shape.

A strong NT opening is, as we saw, an excellent way to ensure that you show strength on balanced hands. In Polish Club, the strength of any balanced opening hand of up to 17 HCP will be adequately shown by the opening bid. For stronger hands, the strength is not shown immediately, so these hands are treated as two-bid hands. This is sometimes a problem, though of course it is a problem shared by most standard systems. In competition at high levels, opener's double tends to show this sort of hand.

The advantages of the 1C opening itself are similar to those of the Swedish 1C opening. It is important to remember that, when compared to the 1C opening in standard systems, the Polish 1C opening does a much better job of describing minimum balanced hands. In competition, responder will initially assume the weak NT hand type, and this means can bid his suits much more freely than he would be able to opposite a standard 1C opening since he can expect some support. Essentially, the advantage here is that we are showing the shape of minimum balanced hands, as well as the strength. While strength is usually more important for balanced hands, being able to show the shape as well is a huge advantage over standard systems, particularly since these hands are so frequent. Of course, playing a weak 1NT opening would do this just as well, but by playing Polish Club you can describe the shape and strength of both the weak NT and the strong NT hand types.

The main problem with the Swedish 1C opening is the lack of flexibility: the "strong" hand types have to take a second bid (or else risk not showing their strength), which does not work well if those hands are not pure two-bid hands. Polish Club is slightly better in this respect since it is a more conservative system. In Swedish Club, the strong hands typically start at 17 HCP, whereas Polish Club requires about one point more than that. This may not sound like much of a difference, but it does tend to make the strong types a little more pure.

I like to modify this so that the strong hand types are even purer. As I've said, I don't believe that playing limited openings is an end in itself: rather, it is important to look at whether a natural opening bid would be a better start to the auction on some types of strong hands. One particular hand type to look at is where diamonds is the longest suit:

S 9
H AQ52

My feeling is that it is much more effective to open hands like this with 1D, compared to 1C. They are difficult to describe after a 1C opening because (amongst other things) a 2D rebid is usually defined to be artificial. Also, in competition, it will be difficult to describe the shape of this hand in one bid: you might be able to make a take-out double of spades, for example, but this wouldn't tell partner about the diamond length. And if the opponents bid some other suit (say they compete to 3C) it is a very difficult hand to get across. Opening 1D makes it much easier to describe the shape of the hand, usually either by reversing into hearts or making a take-out double of spades. If you change the hand to be a diamond single-suiter then it is less clear, but I still prefer to open these 1D in order to clarify the rebids after a 1C opening.

So in my version of Polish Club the 1D opening is not limited: it can be anything up to 21 HCP or thereabouts - only with a game-forcing hand would the opening bid be 1C.

When the longest suit is a major, things are different. The 1C opening is an excellent description of strong major single-suiters. So we definitely want to continue opening 1C with these. But with a more flexible hand, or a two-suiter, a natural opening might work better in competition. My preference, for hands with exactly five cards in the major, is to open 1H holding hearts but 1C holding spades. So 1H is not a limited opening (though it denies a single-suited hand with 18+ HCP), but 1S is. The reason for the difference is mainly that you are much less afraid of competition when holding spades. Holding the boss suit you can outbid the opponents on any level. Also, on a flexible hand you have the option of doubling and correcting partner's response to spades. This would often not be possible if you held hearts, since correcting a spade bid to hearts would mean raising the level of the auction. By opening 1C you get the advantages of showing strength. Note also that contructive bidding is slightly easier over 1H than over 1S (you have more space) so there is a little bit of extra room to fit in the additional hands which are opened 1H.

By moving many of these strong hands from 1C into 1D and 1H, particularly the "flexible" hands with 18-20 HCP or so, the remaining hand types in 1C are more likely to be pure two-bid hands, or at least are easier to describe with the second bid. This is what we wanted from our multi-way 1C opening.

Of course, getting in the way slightly are the "medium club" hands, which are the main difference between Polish Club and Swedish Club. The natural option of the 1C opening bid contains hands of 15-17 HCP which are almost certainly not pure two-bid hands, and so these can be a problem. These hands are also present in the 1C opening in standard systems, but there you have the option of rebidding in a new suit - this is not usually possible in Polish Club since such a bid would show the strong variant. Generally, if the bidding is at a very low level (certainly at the 1-level), you are better off than in standard systems since when you rebid clubs partner knows you must have at least 15 HCP. But if the bidding has reached the 3-level then life is much more difficult. Perhaps, though, the most important auctions to consider are when the bidding has reached the 2-level. This can happen because of an opponent's 2-level bid, but it will also frequently be due to partner bidding at the 2-level "to play opposite a weak NT". Unless opener has support for partner's suit, his usual action in this situation will be to rebid 3C. But this obviously requires a decent club suit. So you have a problem with a hand like this:

S AQ54
H 4
C KJ643

There's not really much you can do about it: this is precisely the hand you do not want to hold playing Polish Club. The biggest worry is that the auction might go 1C : (1S) : 2H and now you're hopelessly stuck. I don't offer any easy solution to this nightmare hand, but one thing I am certain of - you should aim to open 1NT as often as possible. Change the hand slightly to

S AQ54
H 42
C KJ643

and now I would say a 1NT opening is clear despite the weak doubleton. This works best when you are at the minimum end of the range for 1NT, since there is less chance then that your extra shape will cause you to miss a game. Hands with six clubs in a 6-3-2-2 pattern can also be opened 1NT if the club suit is weak, but single-suiters are less of a problem for a 1C opening since they are generally happy to rebid 3C if necessary.

There is one more big change that I like to make to the opening bids in Polish Club, which I will explain in the next post.

Sunday, 25 March 2007

DBT14: Conclusion

I've now finished all that I wanted to say on general bidding theory. It has only covered one particular aspect of bidding theory - the opening bid. And indeed it is even more specific than that, because I've been concentrating on what I would call "protecting against opponents' pre-emption", or, to give a shorter term, "description". There are other factors to consider when choosing your system of opening bids, which will often conflict with the desire to describe hands as well as possible. I'll just mention two of these things here, though of course they really are huge subjects in their own right:
  • Pre-emption. As well as trying to bid our own side's hands as effectively as possible, we also want to make life difficult for the opponents. Some opening bids will be explicitly defined as pre-emptive, usually at the 2-level or higher. These pre-emptive openings tend to be fairly independent of the constructive part of the system - except of course that the more pre-emptive bids you want to use, the fewer bids you have available for constructive hands. But also, the system's "constructive" bids can have a pre-emptive effect, and this aspect has to be considered at the same time as all the issues to do with describing hands. A weak 1NT opening, for example, is an extremely good bid from the pre-emptive point of view, but weak NT systems can have descriptive problems as we have seen.
  • Accuracy in uncontested sequences. As was said right at the beginning, competitive auctions tend to be more important, certainly for 1-level opening bids. But obviously there are many deals where opener's side will have a free run in the auction, and these need to be considered too. What happens in an uncontested auction will depend to a large extent on the continuations used, rather than the opening bid itself. But the definition of the opening bid can still make a huge difference to how things turn out. Most importantly, the accuracy of the continuations will depend on how much space there is: there must be enough room to look for the important information without going past the side's best contract. So again there is a conflict with trying to describe hands as well as possible - while a good description is still desirable in uncontested sequences, there is also the need to leave plenty of space for further investigation, which means that the cheapest bids will need to be used more.

Still, while you can never say that one idea is more important than anything else - it is so much more complex than that - description is the main thing that I look for in a bidding system. And it is all too easy to overlook description if you are not careful: while pre-emption is generally easy to spot, and leaving holes in uncontested sequences will also be easily picked up, protecting your side against opponents' bidding is a much more subtle problem.

Let's end by listing the main principles we've come across:

  • Think-Competitive. When deciding how to arrange your opening bids, it is most important to consider what will happen in a competitive auction.
  • One-Bid-Or-Two. Your system should ensure that one-bid hands are be described as accurately as possible in one bid, while two-bid hands are described as accurately as possible in two bids.
  • Unbalanced-Hands-Show-Shape. You must show your suits, in order to find fits.
  • Balanced-Hands-Show-Strength. The strength of a balanced hand should be bounded from below as accurately as possible.
  • Homogeneity. In any particular bid, the one-bid hands should be homogeneous.

How often have you looked at your hand and thought, "I haven't described my hand as well as I would like, but I don't have a good bid available." This problem is exactly what we are trying to avoid. It doesn't require lots of artificial bidding - indeed one of the main themes is that standard natural systems are very effective. But whether your preference is for natural systems or for lots of artificiality, by following these principles as far as possible your hands will be easier to bid.

DBT13: Limited Suit Openings

Playing a Strong Club (or Strong Diamond) system means that natural opening bids can be limited to a maximum of 15 HCP or so. Since these opening bids do show shape, their maximum strength is useful information. (Even the nebulous 1D opening found in some versions of Precision at least carries the negative inference that opener does not have (or is very unlikely to have) a 5-card major, and this is a useful type of shape information since it limits how good a major-suit fit the partnership can have.) Indeed, it is often said that having limited opening bids is the real purpose behind playing a Strong Club system.

However, I would not say that it is such a great advantage. For simplicity, let's consider just the major-suit openings. The hands which are removed from 1M by the Strong 1C opening are strong and mostly unbalanced, and so these hands are usually worth a second bid in competition (though they may not be completely pure two-bid hands). So whether these hands are opened 1M or not does not really affect the homogeneity of the 1M opening bid. Responder will initially be trying to cater for opener's minimum hands, and so excluding hands of 16+ HCP from the opening bid rarely makes a difference to responder's bidding on the first round. On later rounds, opener will have had the chance to show his strength more precisely.

Of course, knowing that opener is limited is not completely useless to responder. In particular, when responder has a minimum game-forcing hand, the limited opening may be sufficient to rule out the possibility of a slam. This means that responder can take a direct route to a game contract, rather than having to leave room in case opener had a very strong hand and wanted to make a slam try. The most well-known example of this is responder's direct raise to 4 of opener's major. In natural systems this bid would only be made on a weakish but distributional hand, based on excellent trump support. But in Precision it is also possible to raise directly to game with stronger hands: those which are worth game based on high-card strength, maybe 13 HCP or so with 3-card support. By reaching your best contract in two bids you avoid giving information away to the opponents, and if an opponent has a hand which might be worth competing over the game bid, it will be more difficult for him to judge correctly now that the jump does not promise a big fit. However, responder is aiming at quite a small target here. Even opposite a very limited opening, there are not very many hands that can be certain of wanting to play in game but also fairly confident that there is no slam available. Opener may be limited in high-card strength, but he is not limited in distribution, and there are very often some well-fitting distributional hands which would make slam good. And also, if the opponents do compete, it is now opener who is disadvantaged by not knowing responder's hand.

In any case, the immediate raise to 4 is rather a special auction. There are not many other situations where the limited opening bid is immediately useful to responder. For example, if opener's LHO overcalls 3C, then responder will have to bid 3NT (say) on almost exactly the same hands as he would if the opening bid was unlimited. Of course, when holding a good hand for the bid, responder will be happier opposite a limited opening because this reduces the chance that a slam will be missed. But the point is that when opener has a weaker hand the bidding will be the same after a limited opening as it would have been after an unlimited one. When this is the case, in order to compare different systems we only need to look at the stronger hands, and ask whether they are better opened with a natural unlimited opening or an artificial strong opening.

You see the real advantage of limited openings when opener gets to make his rebid. Playing unlimited suit openings, opener's rebids have to cover all the strong hands. With limited openings these strong hands are ruled out, and so opener's rebids do not cover such a large range and can be more descriptive. But note that it's not actually necessary to remove all the strong hands in order to do this. If the natural opening contains a restricted number of strong hand types, this still makes the rebids more descriptive than a standard unlimited opening: it doesn't matter that the bid would still be wide-ranging in terms of pure high-card strength. It might make sense, therefore, to use a strong (or multi-way) opening only for hands which are particularly easy to describe by starting with a strength-showing bid (such as strong major single-suiters), and use natural openings for other strong hands.

All in all, it is not the immediate definition of maximum strength which is the advantage of limited openings. Rather, limited openings are a way of re-arranging the meanings of opener's rebids, in the hope that hands will be better defined after the second call (and with easier continuations) than if you were using unlimited openings. But of course there are very many other ways you might try to do this, and it should be better to analyse the various hand types more closely, trying to find the best way to show shape on unbalanced hands and strength on balanced hands.

Pairs who play limited openings often open lighter than is standard. That is, while they have removed a large number of strong hands from the natural bids, this is compensated by opening more hands at the minimum end of the range. However, while there is a lot to be said for opening light, I feel that the argument that light openings go naturally with a limited opening system is largely fallacious. As was said earlier, removing the strong hands from a bid does not really affect its homogeneity, since the hands removed are mostly two-bid hands. But opening light does affect the homogeneity of the bid - the hands that are added are definitely one-bid hands. So it doesn't matter whether you decide to play limited openings or not, opening light makes your bids less homogeneous. Again, limited openings may help with the rebids, but not with the initial description of the hand. So by all means play light opening bids, but you don't need a limited opening system to do so. You would only see an effect if you were prepared to play a strength-showing opening which took out significant numbers of one-bid hands, and that would mean it would have to start at about 14 HCP - maybe even less. This might be necessary if your opening bids start really light (an 8 - 13 HCP opening bid is playable whereas 8 - 17 HCP is probably not), but including lots of unbalanced one-bid hands in a strength-showing opening is not such a good idea, as we have already seen.

Saturday, 24 March 2007

DBT12: Strength-Showing Openings

Nearly all opening bids give some information about strength, but here we want to look at bids which show only the strength of the hand, giving little or no information about shape. The most important example here is the Strong 1C opening in systems like Precision. Also, "natural" systems often use 2C as a strength-showing opening, but because of the low frequency of the bid and the fact that all hands opened 2C are two-bid hands, it is something of a special case and does not really define the system in the same way that the 1C opening is fundamental to Precision. We will be more interested in 1-level strength-showing openings.

The two main problems with strength-showing opening bids have already been discussed in earlier posts, but are worth repeating.

First of all, there is a danger of violating the Unbalanced-Hands-Show-Shape principle. On one-bid hands in particular, it may turn out to be impossible to say anything about the shape of the hand if you start with a strength-showing opening bid. But even on two-bid hands, while you will get the chance to say something about shape, it might not be possible to give such a complete description as you would if the opening bid had already begun to show shape information.

The second problem is that it is difficult to give a good definition of the strength of a hand in isolation, since its power depends a lot on how it fits with the other hands at the table. So, information about strength is most useful if the shape is also well defined. For this reason, if a system has a bid which limits strength very precisely, that bid will usually show shape precisely as well - as for example with a natural 1NT opening. A bid which showed a 3-point range of high-card strength without showing anything about shape would be very suspect - the upper limit on strength is almost useless, since hands can become much more powerful than expected if there is a big fit. Limited openings (ie. those where the maximum strength is very restricted) only really make sense if they show something about shape.

Information about the minimum strength is still useful, of course. As was said in "Balanced Hands Show Strength", if our hand has close to the minimum strength permitted for the opening bid that we choose to make, we can say we have "shown" the strength of the hand even if some much stronger hands are opened with the same bid. So one of the main advantages of strength-showing bids is that they satisfy the requirements of the Balanced-Hands-Show-Strength principle, for balanced hands near the minimum end of the range. For unbalanced hands the information about minimum strength is also undoubtedly helpful, but not as much as it would be if we had shown something about shape as well.

Looking specifically now at a "Strong" 1C or 1D opening bid, this typically promises a minimum of about 16 HCP, maybe slightly more or slightly less depending on how aggressive you want the system to be. Obviously, playing a Strong 1C or 1D opening has a huge effect on the other bids in the system as well, but for now we just want to look at the strength-showing bids themselves.

Such bids are unusual in terms of the proportions of one-bid and two-bid hands that they contain. Most 1-level bids are dominated by one-bid hands. But in a strong opening bid there are very few one-bid hands. Certainly, balanced hands of 16-17 HCP fall into this category. But that is about all. An unbalanced hand with this strength looks more like a two-bid hand: it may not be a pure two-bid hand, but the system really treats it as if it is, because having not shown shape with the opening bid, there is a lot of pressure to do so later. And once you start looking at even stronger hands than this, they might not like to take a second bid in competition, but they don't like to pass either. There is certainly a lack of pure one-bid hands. So these strength-showing openings have essentially the opposite problem to the very limited opening bids discussed in a previous post: while 8-12 HCP opening bids wasted space because they hardly include any two-bid hands, strong openings waste space because they hardly include any one-bid hands.

The small number of one-bid hands also gives responder an unusual problem. Suppose that he has to deal with a low-level overcall (somewhere between 1H and 2S, say). When he has a "positive" hand, good enough to force to game opposite opener's known strength, things are generally fairly easy. But more interesting is when he has a slightly weaker hand, a "semi-positive". These are not good enough to force to game immediately, so they have to be bid carefully, not going past the best part-score. Much of the time, it will be best to pass and wait for opener to describe his hand. However, since opener can occasionally have a one-bid hand, passing may result in the overcall being passed out. So responder is forced to act on a semi-positive hand if he wishes to compete for the part-score opposite a one-bid hand.

Now, if opener actually turns out to have extra values, any action from responder effectively commits the partnership to game. So the range of strength for the semi-positive hand types needs to be very narrow - not good enough to force to game immediately, but happy to play in game if opener has any extras. This does not seem to be very efficient: you are using an awful lot of system (the semi-positive responses and their continuations) to cater for a very small number of hands (opener's one-bid hands). This takes away space that could be used for more common hand types. Well-designed systems can use transfers or suchlike to combine the semi-positives and the positives into a single bid, but you still see the problem with semi-positives when responder makes a double, or where there isn't room for transfers, or when opener is prevented from showing his hand by having to cater for responder's possible minimum.

You can contrast this with the multi-way opening bids discussed previously. The equivalent of "semi-positive" hands for Swedish Club are those hands which want to compete opposite a weak NT hand, with the auction 1C : (2D) : 2S being a classic example. This has a much wider range. At the lower end, it only needs to be good enough for game opposite the strong option, so perhaps 6+ HCP. This is almost the same as opposite a strong opening bid. But the upper limit is determined by whether it is good enough to force to game immediately, which is much higher for the multi-way opening. So these semi-positive responses, which use up most of the available space, are much better used after a multi-way opening.

Some Strong Club systems go so far as to make responder's pass forcing over certain overcalls. In a sense this avoids the problem of having a small number of one-bid hands to deal with, by requiring opener to always take a second bid. But of course this takes away one of the main advantages of strength-showing openings, which is that they describe the strength of their minimum hands (particularly balanced hands) without opener having to take a dangerous second bid.

There are also a few systems which remove minimum balanced hands from the strength-showing opening completely, perhaps putting them into a strong NT opening instead. The idea is to increase the purity of the two-bid hands remaining in the strong opening, which works well when you do actually hold one of those hands. But again, you are losing the very thing that strength-showing openings are best at, which is describing the strength of balanced hands at the minimum end of the range, according to the Balanced-Hands-Show-Strength principle.