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4: Overview of Openings

Seminar Four

With just the briefest of refreshers on 1NT (12-14 and balanced—no singleton or void— might be shaded to just outside this range on high or low quality) and responses (Stayman and 4-suit transfers, power jumps in all suits, Gerber and non-forcing jumps to Major game) we explored why 1NT bidding was the starting point.

Most Hands are Average!

Courtesy of WIkipedia hands with 

  • 0-11 point hands occur 65% of the time
  • 12-14 point hands occur about 21% of the time
  • 15-17 point hands occur about 10% of the time
  • 18-19 point hands occur about 3% of the time
  • 20 point or more hands occur a bit over 1% of the time: only one such hand will appear in a typical randomly dealt duplicate session.

When it comes to shape, the commonest are

  • 47% balanced: 4-3-3-3, 4-4-3-2, 5-3-3-2
  • 29% two-suited: 5-4-2-2, 5-4-3-1, 5-5-2-1, 5-5-3-0, 6-5-1-1, 6-5-2-0, 6-6-1-0, 7-6-0-0
  • 19% single-suited: 26 shapes with one 6+card suit & none other longer than 4
  • 4% three-suited: 4-4-4-1, 5-4-4-0

No-one needs to remember these numbers, the thing to take away is that you are right when you think you mostly get flat hands with 9 or 10 points. You will get very few which are both well-shaped and strong in HCPs. Our bidding system must make available as many bids as possible for common hands.

In these notes when talking about sequences, I will use these statistics to indicate how often the partnership might expect to hold a particular HCP and shape combination in an evening of 24 boards. For example, 47% of hands are balanced, 21% of hands have 12-14 points so about 10% of hands are both. You and your partner will hold almost 50 hands in a session so, crudely, your partnership will hold about 5 “1NT” openers.

Opening the Bidding: Overview

Playing pairs, open the auction as often as possible to win the part score and disrupt your opponents auction. You need maximum expressiveness on hands which are a bit better than normal in shape or HCPs. You won’t open with a hand which is balanced and weak. The general structure, though all bids may be shaded as explained later, is:

  • 1 of a Suit with 11+ and at least 4 cards in that suit
  • 1NT with 12-14 and balanced shape
  • 2NT all balanced hands with 20-22 HCP
  • 2C all other hands with an exceptional number of HCP
  • 2D/H/S 6 card suit with 5-9 points
  • 3 of a suit with a long suit and few points
  • 4 of a suit as three but with a longer suit
  • 3NT with a long solid minor trick source & at most a king outside

Is this Acol? Perhaps not: people should understand if you call it “Acol with three weak twos” if you need a label. Better is to keep a convention card to show what you play for anyone who cares. Also there are a few higher level openings on freak hands which we won't worry about yet if ever.

Weak twos see far more service than strong twos. About a third of all hands have the right HCP range and almost a fifth of these the right shape. So your partnership will probably hold a weak two hand three or four times a night. A strong two hand (at most 4% of 48%) occurs about once a night for each pair—three times less frequently. 

The “One” Bids & First Responses

If you can open 1NT, being in the right point range and shape you must. To do otherwise will mislead partner with your next bid too. The first thing to do as you examine your hand is ask yourself: “Is the the right shape and strength to open 1NT?”. When you are too strong or too shapely (or both) to bid 1NT, open 1 of a suit. Before you open 1 of a suit, you must know what you will do whatever partner responds: partner will usually make the most inconvenient bid.

Balanced but too strong to open 1NT—15+ HCP? If you have a 5-card suit, bid it at the one level. Otherwise bid one of a 4-card suit. We need to talk about what to do with two 4-card suits and 15+ balanced.

Unbalanced hands mostly have two suits or one. Maybe once every other session your side will hold a 3-suited hand and opening strength. So we concentrate on the common and tolerate some fuzziness for the exception: with luck the opponents will open and you can show all three at once! Use the “Rule of 20” to evaluate an unbalanced hand for an opening bid: add you HCP to the number of cards in your two longest suits. With 5-4-x-x shape, 11 HCP is enough. This rule is widely known and is easier to apply than other (perhaps more accurate) ways of adjusting hand values. It applies only to the opening bid. I know of one player who uses the rule of 19—the same but weaker. Simplifying, it is improper by EBU rules to open at the one level with a hand which fails at least the rule of 19. I find it quite hard enough to avoid the partnership going overboard on a rule of 20 opening.

When E opens one of a suit, W knows only of a hand with enough HCP to open holding at least 4 of the named suit! As a side effect of weak twos, the range of the one opener has to be a little wider than in traditional Acol. W should strive to keep the bidding alive with as few as 5 points both to allow E to describe his hand further and, highly important in pairs, to discourage the opposition who will very often compete for the part score after a pass, knowing the HCP are probably about 20/20. 

If E opened a Major and W has a fit, he raises. A single raise shows 6-9 and at least 3-card support with a ruffing value (ie a doubleton or better in some other suit). Three card raises came as a surprise! If E holds a balanced hand, he must be too strong to open “1NT”. If E holds an unbalanced hand, he must have 5+ in his major. So it is safe to raise with a 3-card suit. With 10-12 points and 4-card support, W raises to 3. With a stronger hand and support, W finds another bid, for example a minor suit bid even in a 3-card suit. We will address other support bids next time. An immediate game raise is primarily pre-emptive, certainly on less than 12 HCP but with extra length and little defensive strength, maybe AQxxxx and nothing outside.

Without support, W bids 4+ card suits upwards: if W omits a suit, it denies holding 4 cards in that suit. E will not introduce a 4CM that W has bypassed. While skipping a weak 4-card minor is forgivable, W must bid a 4 card major no matter how weak. E will know W does not hold one if he bypasses it. There is only one exception: if W is strong enough to force to game opposite a minimum E, he can bid a good suit first and perhaps look for a fit in the 4CM later: this is rare, expect to confuse partner if you try it. If the first suit W has can only be named at the 2 level, he applies the “Rule of 14”: add HCP to length of suit and bid it only if the total is 14 or more. W can name a 5-card suit with 9 points or a 6-card suit with only 8 HCP. As usual, judgement should be applied: a hand just meeting the rule of 14 will not name a very weak suit (ie where most points are elsewhere). 

Unable to support or bid a suit, but too strong (5+HCP) to pass, W bids “1NT”. Sometimes called “the ragbag NT”. This does NOT show a balanced hand, just a hand:

  • unable to support, 
  • unable to bid a suit at the 1 level, 
  • too weak to bid a suit at the 2 level, 
  • too strong to pass.

Other Topics

With most available bids being pre-emptive, we touched for the first—but not the last—time on positional considerations. Briefly:

  • a third-in-hand pre-empt can upset one opponent and not partner, excellent
  • a first-in-hand pre-empt can upset two opponents and one partner, fair odds
  • a second-in-hand preempt can upset one opponent and one partner, poor odds

We played two hands which Stella had “dealt” using boards 8 & 13 selected from Chisleshurst’s pairs on the 11 July. Doubtless these hands will be removed sometime, for now they are available on

On this sheet, each box (there are 33) represents one board. The board number is in the top left here shown as eg “#13”. Immediately below this, “N/All” shows the dealer (one of N/E/S/W) and the vulnerabilities (one of All/NS/EW/None). The hand itself is in the middle of the box. The bottom left gives a total of HCPs for each hand. The top right corner shows the tricks the computer thinks might be made if N or S declares NT or one of the suits: in this case 12 tricks can be made in Spades whichever partner declares: they can even make 7 tricks with C as trumps! EW can’t make any contract (you can establish a H winner but not reach it, so just 5 C and an A). I have a suspicion that the software only takes finesses it knows will work—often called cheating. So don’t be too upset if you can’t match its performance. Similarly, don’t bid to any contract your card play can’t deliver!

On Hand 13 we couldn’t see a way to bid to 6S but, when directed to declare it, Stella made her contract. The key to this hand is managing entries to establish the Diamond Suit. The learning principle is always to consider establishing a long side suit: this often means taking care with entries and can mean thinking the hand through before touching the first trick. 

Homework: ignore the fact that you can see all the cards: plan the play to give the best chance of success in 6S declared by S on the lead of a trump.

Hand 8 is an example of the need for competition in bidding. W opens “1S” (yes it’s balanced, NT wouldn’t be wrong, but the point of the hand is the Spade suit). After 2 passes, S would balance (here "balance" means keep the bidding alive) even with a weaker hand: here “2C” is obvious. W knows his partner has rubbish while N might have lots so should pass—partner is still there! When N passes, E should consider balancing in his turn. As a maximum pass, not vulnerable and with the N hand now limited, the odds favour a bid: “double” is most flexible, despite having only three hearts. No need to worry about the 4 club losers, with S having 5 (presumably) W can’t have many. S passes and W bids “2H” which ends the auction. It goes off, losing 50 and so is a poor result as S couldn’t make their 2 level contract despite having an excellent suit and most of the points. That’s bridge. 

Can you see why 2C goes off despite NS having 5 club and 3 heart winners? Because W “knows” to lead diamonds when he has cashed 3 Spades. How? E petered (high-low) to show an even number of Spades (evidently two when S followed to the second). On the third Spade E signaled for a Diamond. There are many signaling schemes used around the Orpington clubs, we will use McKenney. Here, East’s discard won’t be asking for Clubs, the trump suit and can’t be spades to ruff (declarer gets a free trump finesse). So E discard a low H asking for “not Hearts”: er, that would be diamonds then. Is he promising the A? No. But W will control his nerves and lead the K: hurrah E has the Ace and at the next trick a low diamond to the A gets a ruff at trick 6. (Even if W had only the queen, it is now established, maybe saving an overtrick.) So, perfect defence takes 2C off, maybe 2H is worth some MP after all.

There is lots more to say about signals but that could be outside the scope of a bidding seminar. For example, if W is playing the contract, N leads partner’s C suit, choosing the 9 then following with the 8 to show an even number.