A better alternative to Michaels

Gordon Bower

In part I we introduced our general structure of artificial overcalls:

Summarized in words, the jump shift promises 5+ of the bid suit and 4 of the next higher suit; the cuebid shows the only two other 4-5 hands where you can get out at the 2-level. 1S-2S still classical Michaels promising 5-5 hearts and minor and 2NT is still the unusual notrump promising 5-5 in the two lowest unbid suits.

If overcaller has a singleton in opener's suit, he may well opt for a takeout double rather than a Michelangelo jump. Over 1D for instance SAJxx HKxx Dx CQJTxx is clearly better described by a double, since we are happy to let partner play in hearts on a 4-3 fit. While overcaller may be 2-2 in the other two suits, and can be 4-6 or 4-7 in his own suits, overcaller's most common distribution is three cards in opener's suit and one card in the unbid suit. Even 5440 (4 cards in opener's suit, void in fourth suit) is possible. Some typical overcalling hands after a 1C opening:

Over a 1D opening:

And a few examples of when not to use the bid:

Responding to the Roman jumps

After 1C-2D and 1D-2H, advancer knows both of overcaller's suits. He assumes overcaller is 4-5 with a 7-loser hand. Raising to any level of either of overcaller's suits is to play. Cuebid is Western (see above re overcaller being more likely to have a fragment in opener's suit than shortness): overcaller bids notrump if he has the desired stopper, otherwise makes his most descriptive rebid. We haven't formalized our understandings of bids of the fourth suit and of notrump; right now I would expect these to be to play (rare).

Responding to the cuebid

Advancer's bids of cuebidder's known suit are to play. Bids below game in the suit cuebidder might have are "pass or correct." In the simplest and most common case, this simply allows the partnership to find out if a playable fit exists. For instance, you hold Sxx HAxxx DQJxx Cxxx and the bidding starts (1D)-2D-Pass. You bid 2H. If partner has hearts and clubs, he will pass 2H unless he has a monster; if he has spades and clubs, he will rebid 2S and you will correct to 3C. Less commonly, responder can manipulate the auction to bid as high as is safe immediately. More possibilities after (1D)-2D-Pass or (1D)-2D-(Double):

After (1C)-2C-Pass or (1C)-2C-(Double):

Overcaller's rebid

The same basic principles as after textbook Michaels apply here: with just a minimum 4-5, pass any nonforcing bid, respond politely to partner's forcing inquiries. Freely bidding again shows extras: normally, bidding one of your suits again shows extra distribution while other bids show extra strength. Unlike Michaels, however, "extra distribution" always means 4-6 or 4-7, not 5-5. This makes possible some options not available in a standard system. At favourable vulnerability, I've actually used this sequence:

Partner can conclude you must be 4-7 and wanting to sacrifice against 4H, but you can still bid 4S rather than commit yourself to 5 of a minor since partner knows your extra length has to be in the minor. That's an extreme example. Much more typically, you simply have a hand like SKxxx HKQxxxx Dxx Cx and show your sixth heart by passing if partner chooses spades, but taking the push to the 3-level if partner chooses hearts and the opponents bid on to 3 of a minor. For a Roman overcall, you are limited to a narrow normal-overcall-like strength range (typically 6 or 7 losers.) For the cuebid, I recommend the same "weak or strong" advice as is often given for Michaels: the hand suitable in strength for a reverse overcalls in the 5-card suit and then reverses.

If the opening side keeps on bidding

Here we have only one extra agreement -- in an auction where the opening side bids one of the two suits cuebidder might have, like (1C)-2C-(Double)-2D-(2H), cuebidder doubles to show they have bid his suit (inviting advancer to pass for penalty), and passes to confirm possession of spades and diamonds, but without extra length to justify a raise to 3D.

The opponents can and should keep on bidding. My suggested defence to Michelangelo use the cheapest bid of my 5-card suit as a forward-going cuebid, the other bids natural and forcing one round by an unpassed hand (including bidding my 4-card suit). Responder can pass with a shapeless hand up to 10HCP or so. Double could show a desire to penalize one of overcaller's suit (as over Michaels), but if there is an un-shown major, negative is probably more useful: e.g., 1C-(2D!)-X to imply a 4-card spade suit, and 1C-(2C)-X to show 4 cards in either major. (These common-sense recommendations align with my philosophy on defending unusual opening bids.)

Here's a hand from a sectional in July 2009 showing Michelangelo at its best:

North dealer 
EW vul
S AQ54
H T7
D 952
C 8654
H J65
C T72
  S T6
H Q98
D KT843
  S K732
H AK432
D 6
C A93


West's passes are very timid, but apparently show a respect for the Losing Trick Count and an awareness of East's opening bid style. But E-W really are in a bind: they can either pass out 2S for a likely -140, or they can be set in 3D. Notice that against a pair not playing Michelangelo, that light 1D opening followed by a 1H overcall would cause N-S to miss their spade fit. (South should double 1D for takeout, for that reason.)

In this hand from a club game in November 2008, both sides had some delicate maneuvering to do:

West dealer 
NS vul
HKQ 9752
D 76
C 8
S Q93
H 83
  S A865
H A4
C J53
  S 74
D 9543
C A762
3D3H4D?All pass

Without an agreement what a double would mean, East could reasonably have blasted 3NT. (Several pairs made 3NT on these cards, apparently after South failed to unblock the hearts.) As it played out at the table, South felt confident that North had the majors after the 2D bid, showed his 3-card support, and North took the push with his 6-card suit. Quite a remarkable deal, with 19 total tricks available despite 17 total trumps and three shapeless hands. (Not playing Michelangelo, the auction probably starts 1C-1H-X-2H, and again East will have a tough decision about selling out to 3H or gambling on bidding on.)

As I said in Part I, normally partner is entitled to expect at worst a 7-loser hand. Overcalling more lightly carries risks. If you like gambling, you can try it and you may get away with it, but there is such a thing as "too light," even at favorable vulnerability. As a cautionary tale I show this deal from a club game:

West dealer 
None vul
S T3
H AT63
C 864
S K943
H Q9742
D 83
C A3
  S QJ6
H K5
D AK752
C K75
  S A875
H J8
D 64

After East chose to open 1D instead of the more normal 1NT, I tried a excessively light 2D bid, and was lucky to escape with my skin. A good East-West pair would have succeeded in penalizing me, probably with an auction like Pass-Pass-1D-2D; Double-2H-Pass-2S; Double-3C-Double-All pass, which could cost me very dearly if they lead clubs and prevent me from ruffing any losing spades in the dummy.

Finally, here's a hand from a club game in January 2009 with some real fireworks:

North dealer 
EW vul
C J654

This was the auction:

South has to decide if his hand is "reverse-strength", in which case he overcalls 2C, hoping to follow up with 2H if 2D comes back to him, or "very strong", in which case he cuebids 2D (4M5C). If I had chosen to cuebid, my partner could have bid 3H rather than 3C. Either way West isn't going to give up cheaply. If I had been West I would have gone right to 4S, which might have shut us out.

I'd love to hear from you if you use this system or a similar one. In the future I may post some additional details on when to use these conventional calls and when not to, or further details on followup sequences.

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This page last updated 12.02.10
©2006,2009 Gordon Bower