Should you join the MAFIA?

Choosing a style of responding to a natural opening bid

Gordon Bower

Part I: The three basic styles described

No, I'm not talking about taking up organized crime. Rather, I am suggesting that some Standard American and 2/1 players consider adopting the style of responding to 1-level opening bids that is used by most Polish Club players, along with a few other converts. MAFIA is an acronym for Majors Always First in Answering.

"Ah! You mean Walsh responses!", I hear the 2/1 crowd crow. No: Walsh and MAFIA are not the same thing; Walsh is in effect a compromise style halfway between the extremes of traditional and MAFIA bidding. If you like Walsh, you might like MAFIA even better. (I am not suggesting Walsh was conceived as a compromise style; they were created independently, and on opposite sides of the Atlantic; but that's the easiest way to describe it here.)

We'll start with a definition of each of the three styles in turn.

Traditional responses

The traditional rule for responding to your partner's 1-level opening when you don't have support for him is simple:

Respond in your longest suit, if you have sufficient strength to do so.

If you have the necessary 6 points to respond, but not enough strength to go to the 2-level, you bid the longest suit you can name at the 1-level, or 1NT if you have no 4-card or longer suit biddable at the 1-level.

Consider the following three hands:

  1. S AT32 H 74 D QJ865 C 52
  2. S AQ43 H J5 D KJ762 C 76
  3. S KQJ5 H A6 D KJ975 C 84

Playing Traditional responses, all three of these hands respond 1D to a 1C opening. The second and third hands also respond 2D to a 1H opening, but the first is too weak to go to the 2-level and would respond 1S to 1H.

Walsh responses

The Walsh rule for responding to partner's opening is slightly more complicated, and sometimes causes you to bid your second-longest suit before your longest:

If you have game-forcing strength, respond in your longest suit. With less than game-forcing strength, show a 4-card major suit first even if you have a 5-card or longer minor suit.

The same exception for hands with more than 6 points but less than enough for the 2-level applies. The Walsh responses are commonly combined with with "2/1 Game Forcing" system, in which case the requirement for a 2-level response is 2 or 3 points more than in Standard American. This makes the 1NT response come up much more often, on a wider variety of hand types, than in Standard American. But a full discussion of the differences between SA and 2/1 is beyond the scope of this article.

Playing Walsh responses, only hand 3 above would respond 1D to 1C; hands 1 and 2 would respond 1S to 1C. Similarly over a 1H opening, both hands 1 and 2 respond 1S and only hand 3 would respond with 2D.

MAFIA responses

The Mafia rule for responding to partner's opening is simpler than Walsh, but even farther away from the Traditional style:

If you can show a 4-card or longer major at the 1-level, do so. If not, respond in your longer minor if strength permits, or 1NT otherwise.

The "exception" can be more compactly included in the description of the MAFIA style than it can be for either Traditional or Walsh responses. MAFIA responses originally were used as part of a 1C-forcing system, where the 1D response to 1C was artificial and the only time a minor suit was ever named was at the 2-level, but they can be used in a Standard American or 2/1 context too.

Playing the MAFIA style, all three example hands are automatic 1S responses, regardless of whether partner opens 1C or 1H.

The logic behind Walsh and MAFIA

In an uncontested auction, the Traditional response structure is very efficient at finding a fit, especially when the opening bid is 1C. There are two essential reasons why Traditional responses have lost their popularity among experts:
  1. All suits are not created equal: major suits are worth 30 points per trick, minors only 20. Even if you have a fit in a minor suit, you may look for a major suit fit or opt to play in notrump instead of a minor.
  2. Uncontested auctions are the exception, not the rule, in a strong bridge game. You may not have time to fully describe your hand if the opponents compete, so you have to describe the most important feature of your hand first.

The combined effect of these two facts is to increase the importance of immediately uncovering a 4-4 fit in a major suit, instead of waiting until after showing a 5-card minor suit that is unlikely to become trumps.

A third factor is the desire to keep the bidding low when your side is allowed to have an undisturbed constructive auction. Keeping the bidding low is not much of an argument for responding 1D to 1C; it is very easy for the opponents to come in with 1H or 1S. It is a compelling argument for responding 1S to 1H instead of immediately going to the 2-level: every additional step of the bidding ladder available to you in the rest of the auction doubles the number of possible bidding sequences you can choose among to describe your hand, yet it is virtually no safer for the opponents to compete over 1S than it is over 2C, since in either case they will have to go to the 2-level.

In summary, the primary gains from using Walsh or MAFIA are quickly finding a playable major-suit fit, and being better able to survive interference by the opponents. The main down side is that when responder bids two suits, opener might have trouble telling 4- and 5-card suits apart. You have to make some adjustments to your second- and third-round bidding to compensate for this. In fact some of the conventions commonly used by Walsh and MAFIA players late in the auction exist only to solve problems that Traditional players never have.

In Part II we will look at some actual deals and see the three styles in action, highlighting the strengths and weaknesses of each. Part III will talk more about the adjustments to your second-round bidding that make MAFIA more playable.

On to Part II
Skip ahead to Part III
Back to Bridge Articles
Back to TaigaBridge main page
This page last updated 06.09.02
©2002 Gordon Bower