Should you join the MAFIA?

Choosing a style of responding to a natural opening bid

Gordon Bower

[WARNING -- DRAFT -- suit symbols not added, and some typos may remain]

Part III: How does adopting the MAFIA style impact the rest of your bidding system?

Suppose you're convinced by the arguments in Part II that MAFIA is worth a try. What adjustments are necessary to the system? What extra benefits does MAFIA confer to the rest of your bidding system?

In this article I describe the main differences between how most North American experts play today, and how I play MAFIA with my regular partner. These are not the only ways to adapt Standard American to the MAFIA style,but I can attest to the effectiveness of these methods.

Necessary conventions for MAFIA to work:

Fourth suit forcing
Forcing for one round, not to game as some 2/1 players prefer. This is true regardless of whether you play responder's second round jumps, like 1D-1S-2C-3S, as forcing or invitational.
Delayed Stayman
Some people prefer New Minor Forcing, but the extra step of bidding gained by always using 2C as the artifical inquiry is sufficiently valuable that you might decide you are willing to give up 1C-1S-1NT-2C as a natural auction.
Many players use Delayed Stayman or NMF only after 1m-1M-1NT. Our preference is to use it after all 1NT or 2NT rebids by opener, including those after 1C-1D and 1H-1S.
This is a corollary of sorts to Delayed Stayman, which is not used widely by non-MAFIA players. In MAFIA we have to have a way to bid hands with a 4-card major and a longer minor, of weak, invitational, and game-forcing strength; responder's 2D, 3C, and 3D rebids take care of three of these. The other three all are described via the 2NT relay.
Invitations to 3NT, with or without a 5-card major, all go via Delayed Stayman. Many pairs already use the same logic to take all of their invitational hands over a 1NT opening via Stayman and use the 2NT response artificially.

Increased precision for other bidding sequences:

Responder's second-round jump shift
Sequences like 1H-1S-2C-3D, which are vaguely defined in Standard, take on a precise meaning in light of responder's failure to use FSF or DS. Exactly which meaning you find most useful for them is a matter of partnership agreement. We use these as canape jumps -- 5-5 hands always go via FSF, while the jump promises 4-6 or 5-6 shape.
Extended Inverted Minor Raises
Since a 2C response to 1D denies possession of a 4-card major, there is no need to reserve opener's rebids of 2H and 2S to show classic reverses or to explore for possible major-suit fits. Instead, we treat 1D-2C exactly the same as 1D-2D: opener shows stoppers for NT, and if notrump is unplayable, the partnership chooses which minor it prefers.
Playing a Polish Club-type system where 1C-1D is an artificial negative response, this is also an effective use for 1C-2D.
Continuations after 1C-1D
Playing MAFIA, the 1D response to 1C becomes rare, almost an idle bid. Its main use is to help handle hands unsure whether NT is the best contract, but unsuitable for an inverted raise to 2C.
Optionally, you may choose to very slightly dilute the MAFIA principle and move a few of the hands which are forced to bid up to 3D after 1C-1M-1NT back into the 1D response. This is not strictly necessary, but we have found it helpful, mostly on invitational 2452 and 4252 hands uncertain what contract they wish to play.
This is an idle bid for a MAFIA player; there cannot be a spade fit, since if opener had 5 or responder had 4 the suit would have been bid on the first round. It can still be used descriptively, when opener has a strong hand with 4 spades and 5 hearts; but in addition, it can be used to handle other strong hands if you play a style, as I do, in which 1H-2C-2H and 1H-2C-2NT are nonforcing.

Detailed discussion of treatments

Delayed Stayman

Delayed Stayman and the 2NT Relay are sufficiently important that I have written a separate article discussing my methods over 1m-1M-1NT. The basics are easy to grasp, but there are a lot of details on the third round of bidding to be spelled out.

I recommend the same form of Delayed Stayman to Traditional and Walsh bidders too, though some of the third-round continuations need to be a little different. The 2NT relay is not necessary in the Traditional or Walsh style.

Fourth Suit Forcing

Fourth Suit Forcing in some form is an essential ingredient of the Traditional and Walsh styles too. As with Delayed Stayman, the exact set of hands you use FSF on, and the third-round bidding after FSF, depend on your system style.

The need for FSF can be best illustrated by looking at 4 possible hands for responder. Suppose the bidding starts 1H-1S-2C. Responder might hold:

  1. Invitational values and 5 spades, such as SSKQ986 HHA4 DD865 CCQJ3
  2. Game-forcing values and 5 spades, such as SSAQ986 HHA4 DD865 CCAJ3
  3. Invitational values and 6 spades, such as SSAQJ863 HHK3 DDJ87 CC63
  4. Game-forcing values and 6 spades, such as SSAKJ863 HHA3 DD865 CCQ3

Each of these 4 hands has to be bid via a different sequence -- or else the partnership will have to guess blindly whether or not 4S is a playable game. The jump to 3S has to show six spades -- either hand 3 or hand 4, but not both. My preference, following Traditional practice, is to show hand 4 this way. Most Walsh and 2/1 players do the opposite, and show hand 3 this way.

Either way you play the jump to 3S -- the other 3 hands all needed sorted out! You need to know if opener has 3 spades, and if opener has a bare minimum opening or not. In the event opener doesn't have 3 spades, you want to know if he has a diamond stopper to make 3NT playable, or a sixth heart to make hearts the best contract.

Because FSF has to include some invitational hands like Hand 1 above, and because I advocate opening some hands with as few as 11HCP at the 1-level (see "How light should you open the bidding?"), it is necessary to have precise agreements about what is forcing and what is passable after FSF. Here is how I play:


1H-1S-2C-2D-2S: Opener has shown 3-5-1-4 or 3-5-0-5 shape and a bare minimum hand. Responder, holding 11 points himself, will pass, especially if he has wasted diamond honours opposit opener's shortness. If opener has Hand 2 above, he will continue to 4S, to play.

1H-1S-2C-2D-2NT-3D: Opener has a flat 12HCP or so, and has denied having 2 cards in spades. Responder has a hand with 4 or 5 spades and 5 or 6 diamonds, very unbalanced, warning opener that NT is a dangerous contract. Opener will commonly pass, but occasionally may decide to try 3NT anyway - or even 5D.

1H-1S-2C-2D-2NT-3H: This is how responder shows a limit raise with only 3 hearts (1H-3H would promise 4). Opener chooses 3H, 3NT, or 4H as the final contract.

1D-1H-1S-2C-2D-3NT: Opener has shown 5+ diamonds and 4 spades, denied 3 hearts, and probably doesn't have a club stopper since he didn't bid NT himself. Responder must have a hand like Hand 2 above, game-forcing, that just needed to make a choice between 4S and 3NT.

This only scratches the surface of my FSF style. The main lesson to take away from this section is you need clear agreements with your partner about what happens on the third round after FSF. Most 2/1 pairs would play the example auctions about as forcing, and the corresponding natural jump auctions like 1H-1S-2C-3H as invitational. Even many Traditional pairs play that after FSF, responder must ALWAYS bid a third time. My rule allowing responder to pass in two rare situations is a specific adaptation I make because of opening lighter than most in first and second seat.

Canape jump shifts at responder's rebid, mentioned above, are a logical consequence of MAFIA responses and FSF: a responder with 4-6 shape has to show his 4-card major suit at his first turn, and by failing to ask opener if he has 3-card support via FSF, he suggests he doesn't have a fifth card in his major.

Extended Inverted Minor Raises

Someday this will be a topic for an article on its own, when I get around to descibing my ideas on how best to respond to 1C-2C and 1D-2D.

Special auctions after 1C-1D

If you respond 1D to 1C playing MAFIA, you ostensibly deny possession of a 4-card major. What sort of hand might you have to respond 1D, then?

  1. A real diamond one-suiter, any strength.
  2. A hand too strong to respond 1NT, but not strong enough to jump to 2NT (and additionally unable to raise clubs, if you play Inverted Minor Raises.)
  3. A hand that probably belongs in 1NT, but is terribly afraid of one of the major suits unless opener has it covered.
  4. A hand that probably belongs in 1NT, but has no tenaces, and would prefer that opener declare.

Type 1 hands respond 1D, then rebid 2D if weak, 3D if strong, or go via some FSF or Delayed Stayman auction if invitational. Types 2-4 require opener to indicate whether his hand is suitable for declaring notrump.

After 1C-1D, opener's rebid of 1H or 1S says "I have this major suit comfortably under control for NT purposes, but the other one is wide open -- unless you have this suit covered, we need to consider playing in a minor suit, or possibly a 4-3 fit in this major." Opener's rebid of 1NT, on the other hand, shows the usual 11-14 points and says "I have both majors under control." Opener may even be 4-4-1-4 and rebid 1NT! Remember, after the 1D bid, opener's primary job is not to show major-suit length -- it is to show suitability for declaring notrump. Opener's rebid of 2C, of course, shows a 6-card suit, and 2D shows 4-card diamond support and implies a fear of notrump.

After 1C-1D-1NT, as over 1C-1M-1NT, responder needs a way to ask if opener is maximum or minimum, to decide whether or not to try 3NT. And responder still needs a way to bid either minor suit, weakly, invitationally, or strongly. For this purpose we can recycle Delayed Stayman and the 2NT Relay!

You've probably noticed that if we always respond 1M with a 4-card major, sequences like 1C-1D-1NT-2H, which show strong 4-5 hands in Traditional bidding, are idle. I take advantage of this idle bid to cure one of the few weaknesses of the Delayed Stayman structure after 1C-1M: responder cannot distinguish between 4-5 and 4-6 shape -- and sometimes can't show his 5-card diamond suit at all after responding in a major. For this reason, I allow a single exception to the MAFIA principle: a hand with a 4-card major and a longer diamond suit, which cannot be easily described after 1C-1M-1NT, may respond 1D.

This leads to a specific and very nonstandard meaning for responder's reverse: 1C-1D-1NT-2H and 1C-1D-1NT-2S are nonforcing and show specifically 4 cards in the major and 5 diamonds, with invitational values; opener chooses the final contract, either in that major, in diamonds, or in NT.

It also leads us to a reason for Delayed Stayman: if responder wants to ask opener about his major suits, and then choose for himself whether to play in the major (possibly a 4-3 fit!), diamonds, or NT, he can. Here is the full set of rebids I use after 1C-1D-1NT-2C:

Some pairs play that opener can bypass a 4-card spade suit to bid 1m-1H-1NT. These pairs typically play some kind of "Delayed Stayman for both majors" all the time.

[This section is incomplete.]

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This page last updated 29.09.02
©2002 Gordon Bower