Improving Slam Methods after 2NT:
Part III: Responder offers a choice of two suits
The problem we're trying to solve
Suppose the auction begins this way:
You might have a hand like ♠Qxx ♥Ax ♦AQxx ♣AKQx with a great fit for partner. But are you willing to go past game to tell him that? What if partner has ♠JTxxx ♥x ♦JTxxxx ♣x and is just refusing to play 3NT at any cost, demanding you play one of his suits?
On the other hand, you might have a hand like ♠Axx ♥AQJx ♦Ax ♣KQTx that meshes terribly with partner's pointed-suit holdings. If you bid 4♠ on both of these hands, partner will be completely in the dark whether his ♠KJTxx ♥xx ♦KJTxx ♣x has good slam prospects or not.
Partner needs your help to decide, and in this article, we're going to show you how you can give him the help he needs.
Last Train From Spokane
You may have heard of "Last Train to Clarksville." It's not just a song by The Monkees that topped the charts in 1966. It's the name of a popular principle in modern slam bidding. You can hear how its inventor describes it in Eric Rodwell's Bidding Topics, and see it used extensively as a matter of "bridge logic" in Kit Woolsey's new offering, The Language of Bridge. The general principle is this:
Last Train to Clarksville:
- You've agreed on a suit,
- but there is only one bidding step left below game, then
- That one step asks "is your hand good-in-context for slam?"
- Bypassing that step to sign off at 4M warns partner not to go on without an exceptional hand.
- Going past 4M yourself shows substantial extras, worth slam if partner has the right poor hand.
Say after 1♠-P-4♦ (splinter), opener's 4♥ is better employed to generically ask "how do you feel about slam?" than as a heart cuebid. (In a cuebidding auction like 1♠-P-3♠-P-4♦-P-4♥, the exact meaning of 4♥ Last Train depends what 4♦ has shown. If opener denied both ♣A and ♣K by skipping 4♣, then responder promises a club control if he does anything other than sign off.)
This article isn't going to attempt to fully cover Last Train to Clarksville. Rather, it is going to apply that same idea — when bidding space is tight, use the one step available to generically discuss suitability for slam — to a situation where we haven't agreed on a trump suit yet.
Why Spokane? Amtrak's Empire Builder from Chicago splits into two sections in Spokane, one bound for Seattle (and Leavenworth, WA, site of a very nice District 19 regional once every three years), the other bound for Portland. In my Montana hometown (and almost everywhere else in the western US), there's only one train a day to anywhere; but in Spokane, there are two of them side by side, and you better get on the right one!
That's exactly the problem opener faces after an auction like 2NT-3♥-3♠-4♦: he needs to show which of responder's two suits he likes, and how much he likes them, without going past game in case responder has a weak distributional hand without slam interest. This is possible in all but one of the two-suited auctions (after 2NT-3♦-3♥-4♦ there is no space to do so available.)
Our proposed solution — "Last Train from Spokane" or the "Empire Builder Convention", if you prefer — is is as simple as can be:
- If your hand is unsuited for slam, bid game in one of partner's suits.
- If you hate both partner's suits, return to notrump, to play.
- If your hand is well suited for slam in partner's major, bid the cheapest new-suit step.
- If your hand is well suited for slam in partner's minor, bid the second-cheapest new-suit step.
In table form, depending what partner's two suits are:
|Signoff in major||4♥||4♥||4♠||4♠|
|Signoff in minor||5♣||5♦||5♣||5♦|
|Signoff in NT||4NT||4NT||4NT||4NT|
|Slammish in major||4♦||4♠||4♦||4♥|
|Slammish in minor||4♠||5♣||4♥||5♣|
The method easily extends to the case where responder has both majors and at least mild slam interest, and shows them via 2NT-3♦-3♥-3♠: now, obviously, 3NT, 4♥, and 4♠ are signoffs, while 4♣ agrees hearts and 4♦ agrees spades. (If responder has no slam interest, he should use 2NT-3♥-3♠-4♥, over which opener simply picks a major.)
North has the same hand in Examples 1 and 2, a spade-diamond two-suiter with reasonable slam prospects opposite the right 2NT opener. The auction starts the same on both deals, but then diverges:
Opener's 4♥ agrees spades and shows a hand well-suited to slam, i.e., a hand with minor honors in responder's suits where they will solidify the suit, and "aces and spaces" in the round suits. Duly encouraged, North trots out Roman Keycard Blackwood, learns that south has 3 key cards, the ♠Q, and the ♦K but not the ♣K. Perhaps with more sophisticated methods he could discover the ♦Q and bid 7♠ instead of just six. (Allan de Serpa's new book Sixpack is all about discovering "keycards and queecards" in two keys suits rather than one.)
In Example 2, opener bids 4♠, agreeing spades but warning partner he has wasted values in the round suits. If North respects this decision, he can stop at a safe level. There is no reasonable play for slam and taking 11 tricks requires successfully locating the ♠Q.
Incidentally, yes, I think you owe your opponents an Alert on the 4♠ bid. To the rest of the world, it just agrees spades; for you, it agrees spades and shows round-suit wastage.
It works essentially the same way whatever responder's suits are. Here's a pair of examples where we opt to play in responder's minor instead of responder's major.
In Example 3, opener shows a good-fitting hand that agrees clubs. With one keycard missing, you subside in 6♣. (Notice that Blackwood isn't really any help to you for the 5-vs-6 decision. If North does anything other than bid 5♣ you're committed to slam. But change south's hand to ♠Axxx ♥Ax ♦Axx ♣AQxx (plus any other two random jacks to make it up to 20 HCP) and 7♣ is a fine contract: North is mostly asking to decide whether he belongs in 6♣ or 7♣. Notice that 6NT is usually going to be off the table when opener doesn't have wasted queens (second stoppers) in responder's short suits.
Example 4 raises an interesting question: does responder's minor-suit bid promise a 5-card suit? I think that it does — or at least that it does unless responder has very serious slam interest. As responder, I want to be able to force my partner to pick a game in one of my suits when I have a weak 5-5.
On this hand, North is stopping in 5♣ even if South decides his hand is worth 4♠. Playing matchpoints, South might choose to gamble on 4NT with a double stopper in both spades and diamonds. The weaker and more distributional North is, the less willing he should be to sit for it. Also ask whether your partnership style allows for the possibility that South is 4-2-5-2.
The one time it's a bit uncomfortable is when responder's suits are hearts and diamonds, and opener wishes to show a good hand for hearts. In this one auction, the cheapest new-suit response available, 4♠, takes you past game. This is fine if responder has a good hand; it's unfortunate if responder was just trying to get to a red-suit game as in Example 5. I think this is a fairly small price to pay; if you disagree, you can simply agree that, in this one instance, opener doesn't show how whether he likes responder's hearts or not, but rebids 4♥ any time he has a fit.
As the cards lie, even 6♥ on 24 HCP is very possible on Example 5 unless the defense finds the diamond ruff at trick one.
The fine print
I don't claim to be the inventor of this convention, just one of many people to have stumbled upon an obvious use of an idle bidding step. But I've never seen it in a book, nor heard anyone call it by a name. In fact, I used to use it in my lessons as an example of a situation where two experts playing together for the first time would "surely" decipher an auction like 2NT-3♥-3♠-4♦-4♥ in the same way without discussion. (Then I had one of my regular partners tell me he would not take it that way — so I decided I better write it up and have it be an actual agreement.)
Does it actually come up? You bet it does. At the Missoula, MT, sectional in August 2017, this particular lightning bolt struck five times in three days — while I was playing with a partner who didn't care for fancy science. We kept guessing whether to go on, and got all five decisions wrong that weekend. Ouch!
Back to Part I: Superaccepts after 2NT-3♦ or 2NT-3♥
Back to Part II: The third round after 2NT-3♥-3♠-3NT
This was Part III: Responder bids two suits after 2NT