Coping with an opponent's exotic opening bid

Gordon Bower

What do I mean by "exotic opening bid", anyway?

All I mean by the word "exotic" in the title is that this is not an article discussing when to overcall an ordinary Standard American, 2/1, or Acol opening 1-bid. It's also not geared specifically to natural weak two-bids or higher preempts, though the usual methods of coping with these are touched on. For more on defenses to natural preemptive openings (and some specific suggestions on a few artificial preemptive openings) I strongly recommend the book Preempts from A to Z by Ron Andersen and Sabine Zenkel.

I don't claim that the defense on this page for any one specific convention is optimal. Cataloguing all the possible defenses and then telling you which ones I like is not my primary goal. Rather, I want to put you and your partner on firm enough ground that you won't panic and blow the board as soon as your opponent opens something you haven't heard of. Just like your choice of conventions to use in uncontested auctions, it matters only a little bit whether you choose the best possible system. What is critical is that you and your partner understand each other: a single disastrous misunderstanding will cost you more points, on average, than any one convention will gain you over the entire session.

General principles

Here are the three basic ideas that all my recommendations in this article are built from:

Use the system you already know, whenever possible. You don't want to waste energy remembering a hundred special auctions to cater to conventions you may only see a few times a year. You want to use familiar methods. Most of you already use things like takeout doubles, natural simple overcalls, and the Michaels cue bid over natural 1-level openings. Since you already understand these methods and play them well, our defenses to strange openings will be based on them as much they can be.

If their bid is strong, your bids are weak. If their bid is weak, your bid is strong. Worded another way, on any given deal, only one side is preempting; the other side is bidding to make. (And most the time, you can tell which is which.) Over a wide-ranging bid like a standard 1D opening (3 diamonds or 7; no hearts or 4; 11 points or 22) you need to be able to show a variety of strengths and distributions. But most of the "difficult-to-defend" openings promise either a narrow strength range, or a specific distribution, or both. Usually it's not necessary both to be able to preempt your opponent, and to show a strong hand, if he has made a conventional opening.

If your right-hand opponent's bid is forcing, you always get two chances to act. This means that pass doesn't have to be reserved only for hands too weak to say anything: with some better hands you can await developments. Conversely, if their bids are nonforcing, all of your strong hands have to find a descriptive call the first time around. (A call can be conventional and still be nonforcing -- "I have two suits; pass if you like this suit, bid on if you don't," for instance.)

What is standard?

Suppose you sit down with an unfamiliar partner without time to discuss details of your system beyond "standard", and your opponents open something odd. Here is what a good partner is going to assume your bids mean, in the absence of any discussion:

Unless you have special agreements with your regular partner, this is probably what you already play over strong 2C openings and natural weak two-bids.

If you and your partner have the time to prepare, you can do better by looking at the more detailed suggestions on the next page. But if you don't -- sticking to old-fashioned Standard is a lot better than sitting back and giving your opponents a free ride.

Categorizing conventional openings

It doesn't make sense to make up a new defence for every conventional opening in the book. There's no way for you to remember them all. Most of them you won't encounter very often. And, no matter how many of them you memorize ahead of time, there are new gadgets being dreamed up all the time -- you have to be ready to face something you've never seen before.

Instead, plan one defence for each type of convention you might come up against. Ask yourself these 3 questions:

  1. Is their bid weak or strong? Treat bids showing normal opening values (Roman 2D, Flannery, Precision 2C) as "strong." A bid that can be either weak or strong like Multi 2D is weak much more often than not, so treat it as "weak."
  2. Is their bid forcing or not?
  3. Does their bid promise length in a known suit? If they promise 5 of more cards of a particular suit, your job is much easier: you can safely abandon this suit as a possible trump suit for your side, and instead use it as a cuebid. If they promise only 4 cards in a suit, this becomes riskier -- you may still have an 8- or 9-card fit there and want to play it, knowing in advance about the 4-0 or 4-1 break.

This divides all possible opening-bid conventions into 8 types, which we can consider one by one on the next pages. The chart below categorizes the most common conventional openings.

Strong bids
Forcing, no known suit Forcing, known suit
Mexican 2D
Polish 1C
Precision 1C
Roman 2D
Standard American 2C
Flannery 2D
(Natural Strong Twos)
Nonforcing, no known suit Nonforcing, known suit
(Precision 1D) Flannery 2H
Precision 2D
(Precision 2C)
Weak bids
Forcing, no known suit Forcing, known suit
Multicoloured 2D
Wilkosz 2D
Bergen 2-under Preempts
Ekrens 2D
Rubin 2-bids
Nonforcing, no known suit Nonforcing, known suit
Gambling 3NT
Kantar 3NT
Ekrens 2H
Muiderberg / Tartan Twos
(Natural Weak Twos)

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©2002,2003 Gordon Bower - Last updated 05.08.03