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.
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:
Playing Traditional responses, all three of these hands respond
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
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
Playing the MAFIA style, all three example hands are automatic
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
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.