Should you join the MAFIA?

Choosing a style of responding to a natural opening bid

Gordon Bower

Part II: Bidding styles at their best and worst

In this section we'll look at some specific hands and see how the three systems do at handling them. Much of the time, of course, all three styles bid the same way. When responder holds both majors after a 1C opening, for instance, you bid your longer major first with 5-4 shape, 1H with 4-4, 1S with 5-5, whichever style of responses you play.

I have tried to highlight all the most common situations where the three styles lead to different results. The examples are arranged roughly in order from best to worst for the Traditional style. I won't claim this is a random sample, but I've tried to be fair to all three systems with my choice of hands.

Good old-fashioned clarity

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

The first two rounds of bidding will go the same way regardless of which style you are using. But should opener pass 2D, or correct to 2S?

Playing the Traditional style, the answer is crystal clear: bid 2S. By bidding spades first and then diamonds your partner has promised a five-card spade suit, along with either 4 or 5 diamonds. You can be certain that your 8-card spade fit is the best place to play.

A Walsh or MAFIA pair, however, has to guess: responder, with his 7 HCP, would bid the spades first on the hand above, but would also have bid the same way with 5 or 6 diamonds and only 4 spades. Opener's best call is still 2S, especially at matchpoints; but he no longer has a sure thing going for him. If responder has the 4-5 hand, the Traditional pairs might stop happily in a makeable 1NT or 2D while the modernists go down in an ugly 4-3 spade fit.

(Many Walsh pairs play New Minor Forcing and do not use 2D as natural at all in this auction.)

Three different routes to the same contract

 S Q T 4
 H K J 2
 D T 6
 C A Q J 8 3
S K 6
H A T 8 4
D A Q J 8 5
C 7 4

On these cards the best final contract is 3NT. Pairs playing all three styles will reach 3NT, but each by a different route, and after describing different features of their hands:

1C1D 1C1D 1C1H

The Traditional responder bids 1D, showing his longest suit. Opener would rebid 1H if he had hearts; his rebid of 1NT denies a 4-card major. Therefore, responder can simply raise to 3NT, knowing there cannot be an 8-card heart fit.

In the Walsh style, opener is allowed to bypass a 4-card major to rebid 1NT if he wishes, knowing responder won't have a 4-card major unless he is strong enough to show his 4-5 shape and game-forcing values by rebidding 2H, as he does on this hand. This time, opener really doesn't have hearts after all, and goes back to notrump. Opener bids just 2NT since responder might want to probe for slam at the 3-level if he has a 19-HCP monster, but this responder signs off by bidding game.

In the MAFIA style, responder shows his 4-card heart suit at once, learns from the 1NT rebid that opener doesn't have support, and sets the final contract without ever mentioning the diamonds: since the final contract won't be in diamonds anyway, why help the defence by telling them what will be in the dummy before they lead?

Same responder, different hand for opener:

 S Q 4
 H K Q 5 2
 D T 6 4
 C A Q 8 3
S K 6
H A T 8 4
D A Q J 8 5
C 7 4

This time the best contract is 4H, while 3NT will fail if spades are led and then continued after a minor-suit trick is lost. Again all three systems reach 4H but by different routes:

1C1D 1C1D 1C1H
1H3H 1NT2H 2H4H

The Traditional pair bids their suits up the line until they find a fit. Responder jumps to 3H to show game values and support; opener, with a minimum (the 1H rebid shows about 12 to 18 points), signs off in game instead of cuebidding 4C.

Some Walsh openers might rebid 1H like the Traditional pair does, in fear of the SQx; others would rebid 1NT and discover the heart fit only after responder's 2H rebid.

This time the MAFIA style serves it purpose well and uncovers the 4-4 heart fit immediately. On this hand responder just raises to game; if responder had been weaker or stronger, maximum possible room was available to choose the best game- or slam-try sequence.

But what if the opponents don't cooperate?

Consider the same two hands as last time. But suppose that instead of passing throughout, fourth seat chimes in with a 1S overcall over the 1D or 1H response.

The bidding might develop like this:

1CPass1D1S 1CPass1H1S
Pass2S??? 2H2S4HAll pass

This type of hand is where the MAFIA style really shines. Despite the interference the 4-4 heart fit is uncovered and they still will reach 4H easily.

The Walsh and Traditional pairs arrive at the 3-level with no idea whether they have a fit. Some responders will gamble on 3NT, and be disappointed when the defence scores 4 spade tricks plus a minor-suit king. Some might still bid 3H over 2S and find 4H. Some will get too high in 5D, stop too low in 3D, or defend 2S for only a small profit.

When responder is slightly weaker -- say, 10 HCP instead of 14 -- both the MAFIA and Walsh pairs will show hearts on the first round and successfully compete to 3H, while the Traditional pairs will face the same problem they do on this deal.

Conserving space, or wasting it?

Opener AOpener BResponder AResponder B
S K 7 5
H 8
D A Q J 8 4 3
C K T 6
S K 5
H J 2
D A Q T 9 4
C K T 8 7
S Q J T 2
H Q 9 6
D 5
C A Q 9 4 2
S A Q 9 4
H K T 4
D 7
C A J 9 5 4

If you have two touching suits- hearts and diamonds, say -- you can keep the bidding lower by bidding 1H, then 2D, than by bidding 1D then 2H. When you have spades and clubs, it's not so clear: 2C then 2S keeps the bidding lower than 1S followed by 3C does. But if you hold clubs and spades, will the bidding actually go that way, or not? Whichever way you play there will be some hands you wish you could have bid the other way; no bidding method is perfect.

In the traditional style, the bidding will start 1D - 2C - 2D - 2S if Opener A faces either responding hand. In both cases, opener will know his partner has 5 clubs and 4 spades, but he won't know whether there is game or not. Opener A will rebid 3C and responder will choose between 3C, 3NT, and 5C, depending how strong he is and how good his hearts are. Not bad.

The bidding will start 1D - 2C - 3C for a traditional Opener B. Now responder has a dilemma: he knows there's a club fit. But he doesn't know enough about opener's distribution -- opener could be 1-4-4-4 or 4-1-4-4, as well as 5-4 in the minors with any major-suit distribution -- to have any idea if 3C, 3NT, or 5C is going to be the right contract. the 2C response has gotten the bidding too high too fast.

Walsh and MAFIA players are both in trouble if Opener A faces Responder A. The bidding will start 1D - 1S - 2D. Responder has to gamble on any of Pass, 2NT, or 3C, and if responder doesn't pass, opener will have to decide whether to go back to 3S with 3-card support in case 1S was a 5-card suit.

Opener A and Responder B are ideal for the Walsh style: 1D - 2C - 2D - 2S is unambiguously game-forcing with 4 spades and 5 clubs. MAFIA players have bid 1D - 1S - 2D - 3C, and are half a level higher in the bidding without having established whether there is a 5-3 spade fit or not. Both systems should successfully reach a makeable game.

Opener B and Responder A highlight the need for one of the frequently-used conventions that MAFIA and Walsh pairs rely on: Fourth Suit Forcing. On these cards the bidding will go 1D - 1 S - 2C - 3C. This shows only four spades in responder's hand: a responder holding 5 spades and invitational values would have rebid 2H, inviting opener to bid 2S with 3-card support.

With Opener B opposite Responder B, Walsh pairs are in the same boat as Traditional pairs after 1D - 2C - 3C. MAFIA pairs face an awkward situation, too: they'd like to bid 1D - 1S - 2C - 3C as with Responder A's hand ... but 3C has to be either invitational or game-forcing, not both. The only solution is a convoluted auction, going via FSF even though responder doesn't really care whether opener has 3 spades or not: over 2H, opener will be forced to bid either 3C or 3D, and then responder will choose a game to play.

Flannery, anyone?

OpenerResponder AResponder BResponder C
 S K Q 9 4
 H K T 8 6 2
 D K J
 C J 8
S J 8 3 2
H 5 4
C A K 9 7 5
S T 6 3
H Q 9
D A T 5
C A K T 6 3
S A 6
H 7 6
D Q T 6 5
C K Q 9 4 2

Hands with 4 spades and 5 hearts have a long-standing reputation for causing bidding problems. Suppose you hold the above hand and open 1H, playing either the Walsh or Traditional style, and you hear partner respond 2C. What do you do?

2NT is right on, in terms of strength and honour-distribution, but what if Responder A decides his anemic spades aren't worth showing at the 3-level and you wind up off two in 3NT once the opponents set up diamonds, with 4S makeable?

Rebidding 2S would be a reverse, showing significant extra values and forcing the bidding to game - a lot of of shaky 24HCP games with no fit, if you catch the wrong hand!

Some pairs, especially those who play Lawrence-style 2/1, might have an agreement to rebid 2H even on a 5-card suit to avoid getting too high. If you do that, you'll play an awful 4H opposite Responder B.

Many Walsh players have increased the requirement for a 2/1 to 12-13 HCP and play a response of 1NT as forcing for one round. Responder C's hand poses just as big a problem to opener after 1NT as it does over 2C: Play 2H in the 5-2 fit? Get to 2NT opposite a possible 6HCP (remember, a forcing 1NT doesn't promise a hand almost good enough for a 2/1)? Rebid a phony 2-card club suit and get raised?

A significant minority of Traditional and Walsh players have decided this is an unsolvable problem, and devote an opening bid, either 2D or 2H, just to handle hands with 4 spades, 5 hearts, and 11-15 HCP! Quite a drastic solution, giving up a useful weak two-bid (which comes up about 1½ percent of the time) to handle a hand type than only comes up only about half as often, and which can be dealt with simply by using better methods over 1H.

For players using the MAFIA style -- there is no "Flannery problem!" Responder A starts with 1S and opener raises. Responder B starts with 2C, opener can bid 2NT with no fear of losing a spade fit as a result, and is raised to a makeable game. If someone with a hand like Responder C's chooses to respond 2C he can pass the 2NT rebid with a minimum; or, with a slightly weaker hand, he can respond 1NT, nonforcing, and opener can happily pass. Opener never has a need to distort his hand description by bidding a 5-card heart suit twice or keeping the bidding open with a fake second suit.

In fact, playing MAFIA the sequence 1H-2C-2S is hardly needed at all for the purposes of actually locating a spade fit, and some MAFIA partnerships use this sequence when they have strong hands with no descriptive rebid even when they don't have 4 spades, just to force responder to continue describing his hand -- "Third Suit Forcing," I like to call it, since the logic behind it is the same as for the commonly played Fourth Suit Forcing.

The world turned upside down: canapé

Consider the following simple bidding sequence:


Opener, obviously, has a minimum balanced hand with less than 4 spades. But what is responder's distribution? That depends on your response style. It may not be obvious at first, but this kind of sequence means something very different to a Traditional player than to a Walsh or MAFIA player.

To a Traditional player, responder certainly has at least 5 spades, since he bid spades first, rather than bidding 2C and then 2S. He has jumped to show a strong hand: most likely responder has game values and 5 cards in both black suits, but it's possible he has 5 spades and 4 clubs, and is offering a choice between 3NT (if opener has only 2 spades) and 4S (if he has 3.)

At first glance it might appear that the same is true for a MAFIA player. But how can a MAFIA player show a strong hand with only 4 spades, but 5 or 6 clubs? He has to bid spades at his first turn, and he has to jump in something at his second turn. A Walsh player would bid 2C first with a 4-5 game-forcing hand... but Walsh players still need a bid to show the hand with 4 spades and 5 or 6 clubs and about 11-12 points -- too much to subside at 1NT but not enough to start out with 2C.

If Walsh and MAFIA players tried to put all the 5-4, 4-5, and 5-5 hands into the same bidding sequence, opener would never be able to sort out all the possibilities. Almost all Walsh and MAFIA players handle the hands with 5-card majors with an artificial bid at the 2-level. The exact solutions that each partnership chooses vary widely. My personal recommendations for how to handle these hands in the MAFIA style are in Part III.

The effect of all this is that for most Walsh or MAFIA partnerships, bidding sequences where responder bids the major first and then the minor usually show precisely 4 cards in the major suit, and a longer minor suit.

Concluding thoughts

Traditional Style:

It is, well -- traditional. It works most of the time if the opponents keep quiet and you try not to be too fancy. The single biggest argument in its favour is its simplicity.

The Traditional style is playable without using any additional conventions at all. Traditional players should still consider adding New Minor Forcing and Fourth Suit Forcing to their convention card to gain further precision in their bidding. In a simple auction like 1C-1S-1NT, you might want to show three different strengths of spade-diamond two-suiters (weak, invitational, and game-forcing), but you have only two natural bids, 2D and 3D, available.

Walsh style:

Advantages: it avoids the worst of the problems that the Traditional style suffers when the opponents compete. Used carefully it can be used to construct long, involved auctions to precisely describe your hands. And, frankly, the 2/1 Game Force system including Walsh responses is currently the choice of a majority of US experts.

Disadvantages: often you will reach the same contract as players playing other styles, but take more bids to get there -- giving the opponents information which you didn't need to choose your own contract, but which will help them defend precisely. There are a few more hand-types that cannot be handled naturally; adopting a few special conventional treatments is a necessary price of adopting the style. The system can pose a significant memory burden.

MAFIA style:

Advantages: the style survives interference by the opponents as well as any system can. The most common contracts are usually reached quickly and directly, without giving away as much unnecessary information as Walsh bidders do. The underlying principles are almost as simple as the Traditional principles are; unlike Walsh, there are not two different sets of rules that apply depending on the strength of the hand.

Disadvantages: As with Walsh, a few special conventional treatments to sort out the details are unavoidable. The number of situations requiring the use of conventions is the same as in Walsh, but the frequency of use of them is higher. This style handles major-suit and NT bidding significantly better than Traditional or Walsh, but is slightly worse at find good minor-suit contracts when the major is unplayable than either Traditional or Walsh is.

My advice:

Whatever style you choose to play, make sure you and your partner understand the style thoroughly and think through all its implications.

Walsh and MAFIA are both much better than Traditional responses, well worth the added effort to learn them and play them well. I personally feel that MAFIA has the edge in terms of "bang for the buck," giving maximum improvement of results with minimum additional burden on the memory.

Part III is a discussion of the specific conventional gadgets I use to get the best out of MAFIA. All three styles would be improved by the addition of these conventions; but MAFIA has the most to gain from them. Indeed 'Delayed Stayman' is nearly as indispensible as 'regular Stayman' is -- and is used even more frequently!

Back to Part I
On to Part III
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This page last updated 06.09.02
©2002 Gordon Bower