Do you pass often enough?

Part I: Partner opens 1NT

Gordon Bower

2NT is bad news

No bridge player is happy to be playing 2NT. If you take nine tricks, you will wish you were in game. If you take seven tricks, you will wish you were only in 1NT. Even if you take exactly eight tricks, you still wish you were only in 1NT, because you had the extra stress of being in a delicate contract while other declarers were relaxing in a secure 1NT looking for overtricks for the fun of it.

If you read a typical Standard American bidding textbook such as Bill Root's Commonsense Bidding, you will be told that, when responder has a balanced hand and his partner opens a 15-17 1NT, he should

Well, OK. That is indeed standard practice. So far so good. But there is a fly in the ointment. No, two flies. Wait, three. (NOBODY expects the Spanish Inquisition!).

The first problem is that the High-Card Point was not given to us engraved on a stone tablet by Moses. Hand evaluation is fuzzier than that. Points, in and of themselves, do not take tricks. When the books say "bid 3NT when you have 25 or more HCP", they mean that with 24 HCP you will make game maybe 1/3 of the time, and with 27 maybe 2/3 of the time. Whatever point-count cutoff you pick, when you are faced with a close decision, you are going to guess wrong almost half the time.

The second thing is, does "8-9 points" mean 8-9 HCP or does distribution count too? A 5-3-3-2 hand is certainly very likely to be worth an extra trick than a 4-3-3-3 hand with the same high cards. Does that mean a 5-3-3-2 with 9HCP should just bid 3NT? Probably so. Does that mean a 5-3-3-2 with 7HCP should invite with 2NT? That's harder to say.

Thirdly, there is another, larger problem with 2NT: the more bids there are in your auction, the more information you give away. The question is, is that information going to be more useful to you for choosing the right contract, or to your opponents when defending?

How much information are you giving away?

Let's compare three different auctions to 3NT:

Auction AAuction BAuction C

In the first auction, opener could have any 1NT opening -- 2 to 5 cards of all four suits, 15 to 17 points. After the opening lead, everyone can see responder's hand of course, but before the opening lead, all they know is that responder has a strong hand and probably no 4-card major. Opening leader has only a very rough idea what his partner's strength and distribution might be.

In the second auction, opener has said he doesn't have 15, but has a good 16 or 17. Responder is similarly in a narrow range. The defender on opening lead can bet money that his side's total assets are either 14 or 15 HCP, and has a fair idea how much he can hope for from his partner. After the opening lead, both defenders know their partners' strengths within one point. Third hand may well be able to name what face cards his partner has, by thinking about what card his partner chose for a lead and studying the dummy.

The third auction is even worse. Everything I said about Auction B still applies. In addition, the defense knows that declarer has either 2 or 3 hearts, and exactly 4 (rarely 5) spades. If the opening lead is a minor, either opener's spot card or third hand's signal may give the defense a count on that suit too. The defense is going to be so devastatingly accurate that you will feel as if they can see through the backs of your cards. Against this kind of bidding, they really can. Go ahead and write down an estimate of 25% on your private score for this board before the first card is played.

My recommendation

The effect of this information leak is to narrow the range of hands that are worth an invitation. With a marginal hand, pass and hope for overtricks rather than invite and tell them how to find undertricks; with a borderline game hand, your chances of making may better if you bid it outright than if you go slowly. On the other hand, if you find a 4-4 major fit and one or both of you have working doubletons, you may well be able to make 4H or 4S even with only 23 or 24 HCP.

With that in mind, my advice for handling 8 HCP hands:

The vast majority of club-level duplicate players bid with their 4-3-3-3 8-counts. A few of them will pass with a 4-card minor, but religiously use Stayman with a 4-card major. I am in a small minority for passing, but it isn't a close decision at all. Over the years, I've had average or better results about 80% of the time I have done it. Bidding 2NT is just mildly anti-percentage with such a flat hand; bidding as I discussed in the previous section, is simply suicidal. With no doubleton you have nothing to gain from playing in a major, and are just giving away information for free.

Here is a typical hand, played at my local club duplicate in January 2005:

None vul
W dealer
S K 8 6 2
H J 8 3
D T 8 5
C A 5 4
 S 9 3
 H A T 4
 D J T 6 2
 C Q 6 3 2
  S Q J 7 4
H 9 7 6 2
D Q 8 3
C A 4
  S A T 5
H K Q 5
D K 9 7
C K J 9 7

South has a classic 1NT opening. If North invites, South should judge his flat hand to be a minimum, but many people, knowing that 15-HCP hands make up almost half of the 15-17 hands, habitually go to game with all 16s and 17s. Double-dummy the par result is 8 tricks, but it's easy to make only 7 if the defense doesn't give you any help in spades.

At the end of the night, there were four results on the traveler:

Here is another deal, a bit more extreme, from club play in the fall of 2005:

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

On the obvious heart lead, West has no hope of taking more than seven tricks. (Or on any other lead from North except the S2, for that matter.) With a better break in clubs, you can make eight tricks. But you aren't going to make nine unless the clubs break 3-2, the CQ and CT are in opposite hands, and you guess which honour will drop and which one to finesse.

If you bid this hand correctly -- 1NT, Pass, Pass, Pass -- your plus 90 would have been second from the top on the traveler. The only person who beat you is the beginner who forgot 2C was Stayman, and made 110 in a club partial. Everyone else in the room is minus 200 in 3NT. If East makes a peep, there is no way to stop short of game.

Here's another one from fall 2005, lest I be accused of presenting only hands where 3NT is rigged to fail:

None vul
N dealer
S K 8 7 3
H A K 6 2
D T 8 5
C 6 4
 S J 5 2
 H Q J 5
 D A K Q 6
 C A 9 2
  S A Q 9
H T 9 8
D J 4 3
C J 8 5 3
  S T 6 4
H 7 4 3
D 9 7 2
C K Q T 7

Are you a good enough declarer to make 3NT on these cards without any help from the defense? It can be done but it requires some very careful play, throwing South in to lead a black suit after you've eliminated the red suits. If South had been dealt the SK you would have no hope.

After 1NT-2NT-3NT, if you are lucky North might start with the S3 instead of the H2 on opening lead, and give you a fairly easy nine tricks if you guess to play low from dummy. If your partnership believes in "all invitations go through Stayman," South might risk doubling for a lead towards his CKQT, eliminating any chance of a gift at trick one.

In actual club play, the traveler showed 400 for 3NT making, 150 for 1NT making three, and -50 for one mere mortal going down. I watched the play at one of the tables that made three, and it was made only by accident -- declarer led the SJ from hand and North played low.

Again, if the SK was on the wrong side, beginner and expert alike would be doomed to go down in 3NT. Do you really want to be in a contract that requires expert play or a defensive error for it to be even a 50% contract?

There is one more hidden benefit to passing with marginal hands as responder. Many players are prone to reopen in the passout seat more often than they should, and you'll be able to hit them with a penalty double amazingly often. (This applies to their direct-seat overcalls too: please tell me you don't play Stolen Bid Doubles after it goes 1NT-2S to you! It's the most profitable penalty double in the game.)

Here's an example where West has a legitimate hand, but still gets into trouble:

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

If it goes 1NT - Pass - Pass, it's hard to fault West for bidding 2H. Still, even with all the luck he has going for him -- both face cards in dummy are working, the heart stack is in front of him rather than behind him -- he has no hope of avoiding the inevitable -200, the kiss of death at matchpoints.

Against 3NT, East will lead a diamond if his partner has been silent. If West overcalled (1NT - Pass - 2C - 2H - 2S - Pass - 2NT - Pass - 3NT), the opening lead may be the obviously singleton H6; West will take one look at the dummy, abandon the hearts, and have no trouble figuring out to switch to a diamond rather than a club. Down one.

This one isn't a deal taken from actual play -- it's a deal constructed to stack things as far as reasonably possible in favour of N-S declaring, and it is still right for South to pass. If diamonds broke unevenly or if North-South black suits weren't solid, 7 or even 6 tricks can easily be the limit in notrump; if East has the wrong face cards or West overcalled on a worse suit, 2H can easily be going down 500 or 800.

Bottom line... if you respond 2C on a hand like South's, the only good thing that can happen is a 2H bid from partner, uncovering an 8-card heart fit. This will only happen about one-third of the time. If anything else happens, you will be sorry you didn't pass. At best you might break even, getting the same 120 in 2NT as you would have gotten in 1NT. You can very easily do far worse.

Inviting sensibly

I mentioned in the introduction that it made good sense to bid game directly with 9HCP and 5-3-3-2 shape. You should also jump straight to 3NT with as few as 7 or 8 points with a good 6-card suit and an entry, for instance SKJx Hxxx Dxx CKJ9xxx. Your game prospects are much too good to invite - and your chances for success are almost the same whether your partner has 15 points or 17. I also recommend that you play very disciplined 3C and 3D responses to 1NT, showing a 6-card suit with two of the top three honours in your suit and no other useful face card; this lets your partner bid excellent games when he holds the missing honour and knows your suit will run even with only 22 combined HCP.

When holding a 5- or 6-card major suit, you will of course start with a Jacoby transfer, and then select a 2NT, 3H, 3NT, or 4H rebid as appropriate, rather than starting with 2NT or 3NT immediately.

The only problem hands, then, are hands with 7 or 8 HCP, a 4-card major, and some shape -- hands that can easily produce game opposite a well-fitting 15-count, but may easily fail to make game opposite a misfitting 17-count. Playing standard methods, your only choice is to pass the sevens, and gamble on Stayman with the eights (with a risky invitiational 2NT on the second round if you don't find a fit.)

Is it worth the price?

Some bridge authors have suggested that you lose so much information from the 2NT invitation that you should never invite at all with a balanced hand, but simply decide whether to pass or shoot out 3NT without giving away anything to the defence. That's a little bit of an extreme position, but it's not as crazy as it sounds. (You may already have experience with this solution. Do you play Lebensohl after the opponents interfere over 1NT? If so, when is the last time you had a hand that wanted to be able to bid an invitational 2NT, but wasn't able to double for penalty?)

One popular treatment these days is to stuff all of the invitational hands, 4-card major or not, into the 2C response, so that 2NT is available for some other artificial use. This is very costly, more so than the proponents of this method realize, and I strongly recommend you not do so. Stayman sequences give away the count of at least one and sometimes two suits, and help the defense a lot more than the simple 2NT respose does. Are you sure that it is worth that price to play your favorite conventional toy? There are alternatives that do not cause unnecessary use of Stayman -- for instance, using a 2S response to show either a balanced invitation or various minor one-suited hands, and a 2NT response to show either a bust in either minor or a strong hand with both minors.

A further modest proposal

Remember those 4-4-3-2, 5-4-2-2, and 4-4-4-1 7-counts that I just got through telling you you were going to have to grit your teeth and pass, because there was no safe way to get out if it was a misfit?

Something you might wish to consider, in a regular partnership, is changing the meaning of the 2NT rebid after Stayman. In Standard, 1NT-2C-2D-2NT means "pass or bid 3NT, just as if I had responded 2NT immediately", and 1NT-2C-2H-2NT says "without spades, pass or bid 3NT; if you also have 4 spades, you may choose between 3S and 4S too."

What about defining the 2NT rebid as "sorry, partner, I have a semibalanced hand with a 4-card major, I was hoping we could play 4H or 4S, but I am warning you we do not have the values for 3NT?" I think being able to bid your 7-counts without fear of getting too high gains more than you will lose by giving up the chance to pass the game-invitation buck back to your partner.

You can even have the best of both worlds half of the time: after 1NT-2C-2H rebid, responder's 2S and 2NT bids could both show hands with 4 spades, one weak, one worth a notrump invitation.

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©2005-06 Gordon Bower - this page last updated 15.06.08