A better alternative to Michaels

Gordon Bower

The Michaels cuebid, to refresh your memory, is a very simple and handy convention to show a 2-suited hand after your right-hand opponent opens the bidding. It works like this:

Some partnerships have agreements as to what strength of hand the bid shows; others allow it with any hand exceeding some minimum strength. If you do play Michaels, make sure you know what all of advancer's bids and overcaller's rebids mean. (For instance: 1H-2H-Pass-3C: does this mean "I have a club suit, let me play it" or does this mean "pass if clubs is your minor suit, bid 3D if diamonds is"?)

Michaels has a lot going for it. It's a simple convention to use -- in my club it was enthusiastically adopted by beginners, usually after Jacoby transfers but before the negative double. It's a bid that wasn't needed in its old-fashioned sense (a super-strong hand). It gets the shape of your whole hand off your chest in one shot, unless you have a freak like a 7-5-1-0 hand.

That doesn't automatically make Michaels the best use of the cuebid. If you are going to adopt a new convention, you should adopt one that gives you the most bang for your buck - one that helps you solve a frequently occuring bidding problem in your current system.

That's where the weakness of Michaels lies. The convention works fine. BUT, if your opponent opens 1D and you have a fair hand with both majors like SAQ973 HKJ954 D8 CJ2, overcalling 1S and following up with 2H on the next round would also work just fine. The only time Michaels "does something new for you" is when you have a hand too weak to bid it naturally, and 5-5 hand patterns don't come up all that often.

Some people are tempted to simply say "OK, from now on I'm going to use Michaels when I have 5 cards in one suit and 4 in the other, too" That's not wise. Your partner won't know which of your suits to pick when he has the same number of each, and he won't know how high to bid when he has a fit for you and wants to make a Total Tricks raise. If you play "5-4 Michaels," you are gambling, pure and simple. You'll use the convention more often -- and you'll get bad scores more often because of it.

Refocusing the problem

The fundamental observation I have for you is this: 5-5 hands are not hard to bid. If you are strong, you can bid them one at a time. If you are weak, you may be able to bid one of them now, or you may be able to come in later with an Unusual 2NT (or 4NT) overcall after your opponents bid both your short suits. Similarly, 5-4 hands -- that is, hands with 5 of a higher-ranking suit and 4 of a lower-ranking suit -- are also usually not hard to bid. Overcall in the higher-ranking suit, and if you get a second chance, bid the lower-ranking suit next time.

However, weak to moderate 4-5 hands are a problem. If you overcall in your longest suit, you are likely to never get a chance to show your 4-card suit unless you reverse - consuming extra bidding space and showing a stronger hand. It's dangerous to force a hand to the 3-level if partner is weak and just wants to take a preference to your first suit. On the other hand, if you double, partner may bid the suit you can't stand, forcing you to either play a 4-2 fit or overbid in search of a better fit.

Here's a hand played at Bridge Base Online in February 2010, names removed to protect the guilty, illustrating what you don't want to have happen:

North dealer 
EW vul
S A4
H AJ942
D 2
S Q93
H KT765
D AT96
C 4
  S K875
H Q8
D K8
C AQ863
  S JT62
H 3
D QJ7543
C 52

1H X?1S
1NT2C PassPass
2D PassPassPass

Whether West bids 1NT or 2D at his first turn, he's stuck in an expensive 4-2 fit with no way to find the 4-3 spades. (A Michelangelo pair, as we will see below, would have bid this hand 1H-2H-Pass-2S.)

Marshall Miles advocates overcalling in the 4-card suit at the 1-level with a hand like SKQJ2 H86 D94 CAJ965. Playing Standard, that's a better alternative than overcalling 2C over 1D or doubling (and having to pass partner's inevitable 1H response), but with a weaker 4-card major (say S98 HAT42 D86 CAQT92) you may be in serious trouble if you overcall 1H and partner makes a big raise expecting a quality 5-card suit from you.

Remember, playing Standard, a new suit from advancer like 1D-2C-Pass-2S promises a 5-card suit; denies 3-card club support; and is nonforcing but constructive. If partner has only 4 spades he can't bid them after your 2C overcall.

An old alternative to Michaels: Roman Jump Overcalls

There was a time, 30 or 40 years ago, when not everyone used Michaels, The Unusual Notrump, and Weak Jump Overcalls. One alternative used by the Italian teams of the 60s used all the jump overcalls to show two suits. After a 1C opening for example,

Since the 2D/2H/2S bids were nonforcing, 2NT was used to show a very strong 2-suited hand.

These bids fell into disfavour after Weak Jump Overcalls became popular -- the weak jumps came up a lot more frequently; Michaels took care of at least some of the 2-suited hands; and, finally, in less-than-expert hands, these bids were dangerous. Clear agreements about suit length and strength were necessary so responder would know which suit to pick. They are still there, if you look in a thick enough bridge encyclopedia, but chances are you've never met someone who played them.

A blend of old and new

If 4-5 hands are a problem, one obvious solution would be to simply use the cuebid to show that type of hand. Using one bid to show all three possibilities (say, 1C-2C with 4 spades and 5 hearts; 4 spades and 5 diamonds; or 4 hearts and 5 diamonds) means there is no one suit your partner can count on you to have. And while there are ways to cope with that, in the ACBL, the General Convention Chart requires this cuebid to promise at least one known suit.

In the fall of 1999, I proposed a somewhat complicated combination of cuebids, Roman jumps, and 2NT bids to show both 5-4 and 5-5 hands. My regular partner, Michael Schmahl, streamlined it a bit, and coined the name "Michelangelo," suggesting the blend of Michaels and Roman Jumps.


Our overcall system differs from the standard one in 5 places:

1S-2S still promises 5-5, since the bidding is forced to the 3-level, too high to risk playing a 4-3 heart fit. 2NT is still the unusual notrump.

1C-2D and 1D-2H are nonforcing, and show approximately normal overcall strength, normally 6 or 7 loser hands. The long suit is always either 5 or 6 cards. A stronger hand can overcall in the long suit and be prepared to reverse.

The cuebids never end the auction, so overcaller's strength can be wider-ranging, as can his distribution: 4-5, 4-6 and 4-7 are all perfectly acceptable. Since overcalling and reversing is still an option, we use the cuebid with weak-moderate hands and with very strong hands, but not with above-average hands.

In Part II, we flesh out the details, covering advancer's bids and opener's rebids, and look at some example hands.

Onward to Part II
Back to the Bidding Playground
Back to Bridge Articles
Back to TaigaBridge main page
This page last updated 12.02.10
©2006,2009 Gordon Bower