Responding to 1NT with a weak 3-3-6-1 hand

Gordon Bower

Partner opens 1NT (15-17.) You hold SJ54 H987 DQJ8765 C2. What is your bid?

"Sign off in 3D, obviously!" you say. That was what I thought the answer was too until recently. Then I noticed that the BridgeGuys page for Trash Stayman commented, without explanation, that 3-3-6-1, 3-4-6-0, and 4-3-6-0 hands might respond 2C. It's certainly not what you see recommended in the standard bidding textbooks! (There are a handful of Internet sources, e.g. Harold Schachter's website, that recommend Puppet Stayman on hands with 3-3 in the majors and a long diamond suit.)

Responding 2C on weak 3-3-6-1 hands turns out to be a big winner. It can gain in two ways: you can play in a 4-3 major fit and ruff clubs in the short trump hand; or you can play in an 8- or 9-card minor fit at the 2-level instead of the 3 level, beating the pairs in 3D if eight or fewer tricks are available.

The standard treatment, transferring to 3D, is also an improvement over playing in 1NT. But Stayman turns out to be even better. Let's compare them side by side, first at matchpoints, then at IMPs:

HCP:Results of Stayman vs.
passing 1NT:
Results of transferring
to 3D vs. passing 1NT:
Results of Stayman vs.
transferring to 3D:
In a three-way race, which
contract scores highest:
P(MP gain)P(MP loss)Net P(MP gain)P(MP loss)Net P(MP gain)P(MP loss)Net 1NTStayman3D
074%9%+65%76% 8%+68%46%28%+18% 8%55%37%
851%45%+ 6%45%48%- 3%45%16%+30%41%41%18%

HCP:Results of Stayman vs.
passing 1NT:
Results of transferring
to 3D vs. passing 1NT:
Results of Stayman vs.
transferring to 3D:
Not vulnerableVulnerable Not vulnerableVulnerableNot vulnerableVulnerable

[The fine print about the simulations: 1NT opener is 15-17, balanced or semibalanced (we allow 5-card majors freely). Responder is 3-3-6-1 with the designated number of HCP. I specifically excluded from the simulation hands where responder has two of the top three honours in diamonds, since with that holding, there is a compelling case to be in 3NT if opener has the third high honour and can run the suit. (Yes, my bidding system has a sequence specifically to show KQxxxx+ in a minor and nothing else, asking opener to choose between 3m and 3NT. Yours should too.) 10,000 repetitions (MP uncertainties ±1%) for 3-8HCP, 3,000 repetitions (MP uncertainties ±1.7%) for 0-2 HCP.]

Both alternatives do approximately equally well at beating 1NT. If your competition was passing out 1NT, it would be a wash whether you used Stayman or transferred to 3D. But your competition is not passing out 1NT; the field is playing in 3D on these hands, and by using Stayman, you will beat the pairs in 3D substantially more often than not. You will tie about 40% of the time - either by playing in diamonds either way, 2M making 2 when 3D makes 3, or 2M and 3D down the same number of tricks. You gain when 3D goes down, and when both contracts take 9 or more tricks; you lose when 3D plays two tricks better than 2M does. Stayman outperforms diamonds all the way from 0 HCP up to 8, at IMPs and matchpoints. (With 9HCP or with near-solid diamonds, you raise to 3NT of course.) Here are a few illustrative deals:

S 9 7 6
H 9 6 4
D A 8 7 5 4 3
C 2
S A 8 5
H A 7 5
D Q T 6 2
C K J 2
[table marker] S Q T 4 3
H Q J T 2
D 9
C Q T 8 6
S K J 2
H K 8 3
C A 9 7 4 3

1NT has no chance when the diamonds don't run. Playing in diamonds, you can make 8 tricks. If you use Stayman, that's +90; if you sign off in diamonds, that's -50.

S K 9 3
H T 6 4
D 9 8 7 6 5 2
C 9
S J T 7 5 2
H K 8 3 2
C K T 7
[table marker] S Q
H J 9
D K Q J 3
C A J 6 4 3 2
S A 8 6 4
H A Q 7 5
D A 4
C Q 8 5

What a disaster - nothing makes at all your way! But 2H can go down just one while 3D is going down two, possibly doubled. (East can double your Stayman bid to show clubs, and they likely will compete to 3C over 2H -- but letting them have their clubs is better than being down in 3DX.)

S T 9 8
H 9 5 3
D K T 9 7 4 2
C 9
S A 6 2
H A K 6 4
D J 3
C J 6 4 3
[table marker] S 5 4 3
H Q 7 2
D 8 6 5
C K Q T 5
S K Q J 7
H J T 8
C A 8 7 2
On the previous two deals, bad breaks doomed diamonds and notrump. On the other hand, sometimes everything comes up roses: 1NT makes. 3D makes effortlessly, losing the obvious 3 hearts and a spade. But if you use Stayman -- 2S makes too, and with a few lucky breaks you can make an overtrick to beat the pairs in diamonds rather than just tie them.

It is safe to conclude that using Stayman on weak 3-4-6-0 and 4-3-6-0 hands is even more to your advantage. Further investigation is needed to settle which bid is better with a 7-card diamond suit.

If your system causes you to play 3D from responder's side rather than transferring to opener's side, your gains from using Stayman will be larger than reported above. If you play very classical 1NT openings (always balanced / rarely contain a 5-card major), your gains from Stayman will be considerably smaller.

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This page last updated 10.01.10
©2010 Gordon Bower