Thursday, 21 February 2008

Systemic Opening Pass (part 2)

Following on from the previous post, let's assume we are playing a system which uses a natural 2C opener, and have agreed to pass hands of minimum opening strength with 1=4=3=5 or 4=1=3=5 shape.

The reason we might pass 1=4=3=5 hands was explained in the previous post. Hands with 4=1=3=5 shape are very similar: in particular, the singleton heart gives us a way to get back into the auction later if opponents bid hearts. The 4=1=3=5 shape is not quite so good for passing as 1=4=3=5, but the problems with finding an opening bid are the same. (In a standard "natural" system, on the other hand, it would be ridiculous to pass 4=1=3=5 hands with opening strength: there is no problem with either the opening bid or the rebid.)

Now, if a pass can be made on up to 13 HCP, we need to make some changes to the methods we use as a passed hand. In particular, there is a problem if partner opens 1-of-a-suit in third or fourth seat. Here we have the values for game unless partner has made a tactical light opening, but using traditional methods it is difficult to see how we can bid the hand. A natural 2C would normally be played as non-forcing by a passed hand, and in some circumstances a 2C response might even be played as artificial (Drury).

Since the "strong" hand types have such specific shapes, I think the solution is to use a specific response to show these hands. For example, over a 1S opening we could use a jump to 2NT to show the 1=4=3=5 type with 11-13 HCP. Normally most jumps by a passed hand are used to show hands with support for partner, but these do not come up particularly often, and with both opponents passing there is no particular need to have lots of bids which show support. So it makes a lot of sense to use some of the jumps for a new purpose.

If it is the opponents who open the bidding, there is not so much need for specifically-designed methods. If they bid one of our long suits there is no need to come into the bidding at all. If they bid our short suit, on the other hand, it is quite safe to come into the bidding even at relatively high levels, since a take-out double describes the hand very well. A take-out double does not necessarily show the "opening pass" type of hand - it could just be a normal maximum pass with ideal shape - but partner will be aware of the possibility.

The systemic pass on minimum 1=4=3=5 and 4=1=3=5 shapes makes a big difference to the 2C opening bid. The traditional Precision 2C opening shows either 6 clubs or 5 clubs and a 4-card major. Playing a systemic opening pass we can guarantee that if the hand does have only 5 clubs, it will be at the maximum end of the range. This is because, for weaker hands:
  • With 1=4=3=5 or 4=1=3=5 we can pass;
  • With 2=4=2=5 or 4=2=2=5 we can pretend the hand is balanced;
  • With a hand short in diamonds we have an alternative opening bid available: a three-suited opening bid in traditional Precision, or a 1C opening in Polish Club.

When responding to a 2C opening this information is very helpful: it means we can investigate game with an invitational hand knowing that if opener does not have the values for game, he will always have a six-card club suit for us to fall back on. Whereas in standard Precision we might play an uncomfortable 2NT contract after 2C : 2D , 2M : 2NT, if minimum 5-4 hands are passed this sequence should probably be played as forcing, which in turn makes life easier for responder when he holds a strong hand.

Playing this agreement means that a 2C opening bid will only very rarely have precisely 5 clubs. Ideally we would like 2C to absolutely guarantee a 6-card suit. Some versions of Precision do this by putting the other hands into 1D, but a systemic pass is a very good alternative for the minimum hands. A more extreme version of the systemic opening pass would pass all hands in range for 2C if the shape was right, but now you get to the point where partner will want to allow for the strong type when deciding whether to open the bidding; once this happens you are not really playing a standard system any more. Of course, there is not necessarily anything wrong with unusual systems, and it would be amusing to see how a genuine two-way pass system would fare, for example:

Pass = 0-10 HCP any shape, or 11-16 HCP unbalanced with 4+ clubs and a 4-card major
1C = 11-13 HCP balanced / 44(41), or any hand with 17+ HCP
1D = 5+ diamonds, 11-16 HCP
1H = 5+ hearts, 11-16 HCP
1S = 5+ spades, 11-16 HCP
1NT = 14-16 HCP balanced / 44(41)
2C = 5+ clubs, no 4-card major, 11-16 HCP

Partner would be expected to open in 3rd or 4th seat with any 9+ HCP. Perhaps this sort of thing should not be taken too seriously, but it might be worryingly playable. (Except that it's almost certainly illegal, of course.)

Systemic Opening Pass

Suppose we hold this hand as dealer, playing Polish Club:

S 8
H KQ73
C JT653

What do we do? The normal opening bid with this shape is 2C, but the club suit doesn't really look good enough for that. Alternatively we could consider opening 1C, but then partner will expect a balanced hand, not a small singleton in spades.

I believe that by far the best option is to pass this hand.

Now, certainly, this hand is better in terms of playing strength than a typical balanced 12-count which is an automatic opening bid. But when deciding whether to open the bidding it isn't all about strength. In particular it is perfectly appropriate to consider how well our system deals with the hand. Hands with this 1=4=3=5 shape are particularly bad for systems with a natural 2C opening, so there is no need to open them on minimum values. With only 12 HCPs, passing is not an unbearable risk.

As well as being a bad hand type for opening the bidding, there are also some reasons to think that passing will work quite well. This is essentially because of the singleton spade. The singleton improves the prospects for a pass in two ways:
  1. We are not so worried about the hand being passed out - firstly because the other players at the table are more likely to open if they have length is spades, and secondly because there is a good chance that if the deal is passed out, it actually "belonged" to the opponents in a spade contract.
  2. If the opponents do bid spades, this hand has a good way back into the auction via a take-out double.

So if you were ever going to consider passing a hand with opening strength, a 1=4=3=5 shape is the best candidate. Indeed the same is probably true in a natural system, though there the problem is not so much in finding an opening bid, as finding a rebid after 1C : 1S.

Having observed that it can work out well to pass, we could just use this as an occasional alternative on borderline hands. But it becomes much more interesting if it is an agreed part of the system. The systemic opening pass works like this:

  • We identify some specific shapes where passing seems to work well with minimum opening strength. (Let's say just 1=4=3=5 and 4=1=3=5.)
  • We agree that pass is allowed with these shapes on a little more strength than normal - say up to 13 HCP.
  • Now when a passed hand shows this sort of shape, partner will be aware that it can be relatively strong.
  • We can also define some specific bids which show these hand types as a passed hand.

Although partner will be aware of the possibility of a stronger hand, it would be a mistake to let this affect things like our style of opening the bidding in third seat. The relevant hand types are very rare. The whole point is that we would expect passing to work well even without partner doing anything differently - at least until the passed hand gets a chance to clarify what he has. So on the first round at least, partner should just bid as normal.

Once the partnership's methods are designed to cater for these hands being passed, the pass becomes even more attractive. So we could pass hands with these shapes even when the club suit is not so bad, perhaps even with a hand like this:

S AJ96
H 5
D 753

Note that these hands are still relatively bad for opening a natural 2C, because of the difficulty in investigating whether we belong in spades.

In the next post I'll go through some more implications of this agreement.