Bob Mackinnon

What’s Wrong with Relays? Nothing!

I have been reading 2 excellent books, one on bridge bidding and another on a related subject, language. These books are not of a kind like The DaVinci Code which you will read from cover to cover in a weekend to see how it will all come out in the end, nonetheless, you’ll get much more satisfaction from the same effort spaced over a month.

Steven Pinker is a Harvard professor who specializes in the analysis of our cognitive processes. His best seller is entitled, ‘The Stuff of Thought – Language as a Window to Human Nature’, which is a good title as it tells us what the book is all about. The bridge book I am enjoying is Roy Hughes’ ‘Building a Bidding System’. Coincidentally Hughes is a linguist, so one can imagine that his approach to bridge bidding will be consistent with what scientists are discovering about languages in general. Language is one means by which we communicate, and the form of language to some extent determines how we think about things. So it is with bridge bidding and the terminology applied to it.

About Counting

Dr Pinker tells us that our quantitative thinking takes place in two locations in the brain. Differentiation of more from less is handled in an area different from that in which counting takes place. In the circuitry of the brain counting is closely linked to language. Those who know more than one language do their counting in their mother tongue. Some remote Amazonian tribes can count to 3 only, an ability they share with crows, yet they can distinguish the many from the few. The relatively advanced Mudurukū tribe have words for 4 and 5, but experience difficulty at the higher end of the scale. These arithmetically challenged people are not yet ready for credit cards, but they might be able to play a decent game of bridge. Adopting 5-card majors would overtax their abilities, so ACOL would perhaps be best for them. It is not that these tribes aren’t as smart as the rest of us, it is just that they have not developed an appropriate terminology and the focused approach that goes along with it.

It is easier as well as more productive to count the suits separately than to attempt to count up to 13. At the bridge table when playing a hand, one must make a real effort to count, whereas it is easy to think along the lines, ‘West has more clubs than East, so I will finesse him for the queen.’ Often counting accurately up to 4 to either side works well enough, but sometimes that is not deep enough. So the Mudurukū people with their limited counting skills could easily handle the common 4-4-3-2, 4-3-3-3 and 4-4-4-1 shapes, less well the 5-3-3-2, 5-4-3-1, and 5-4-2-2 shapes, and would have difficult with 6-card suits. All this tells us is that it is easier on the brain to estimate in an intuitive way, but that one must take more care when faced with bad splits – taking more time and shifting into a lower gear, as it were. Counting requires real effort and concentration.

Words Shape How We Think

Our perception of the world around us depends on the words we have been taught. As babies we first observe various objects without distinction. When we learn the names of the objects we learn how to distinguish between them. The greater the degree of distinction the more refined our thinking becomes. Take colors as an example. If we can name only the primary colors, we can absorb television commercials fully, but we wouldn’t be able to distinguish well between natural objects. We may even prefer fruits and vegetables that are colored to match more closely our primitive scale. We notice this trend in flower shops that sell spray-painted plants and decorated stones. I wish I knew as the names of as many flowers, plants, and birds as my wife, as her life must be much richer than mine with regard to our natural surroundings. So it is with bridge bidding. We have to teach players to distinguish between the various kinds of bids, and stop pretending that ‘natural bids’, akin to the primary colors, are somehow better than ‘artificial bids’, which allow for greater variety and description. The quality of bids lies in their potential in the exchange of information concerning the lie of the cards.

The problem begins in our bridge infancy when we are first taught how to count points and bid according to a point scale. The teacher says, ‘1NT means 15 to 17 HCP’. No. First, one should be taught how to play the cards, how to distinguish good contracts from bad, and only then how to get to the best contract. The game is all about taking tricks, not about following rules of syntax. Historically, whist came first, so a hundred years ago many people knew how to play the cards. Bidding systems were introduced to change whist players into bridge players. The early methods were primitive. In the modern age we have no pool of card players to draw upon, and the old guard are dying out. There is a different need to be met. Organizations have to teach card play first, then give students reasonable ways to arrive without prejudice at the correct contract. Bidding is the language that gets us there though the exchange of information. Relays and transfers make more sense than deceptive natural bids. Teach the basics and simplify.

When one is bidding, one is having a conversation with one’s partner. As with any conversation there are two main components: asking and telling. When we say, ‘the weather is fine today’ we are not saying much, rather we are avoiding providing any useful information. That is like a ‘pass’ that gets things underway. If one says, ‘I like your suit’, that is welcome information, and if one obtains a reply, ‘And I like yours, too’, we are off to a happy start whether or not we are talking in bridge language or merely exchanging pleasantries on the street. The question, ‘can you lend me $100 until Friday?’ is a different kettle of fish, and requires a specific answer. The natural concepts of asking, telling, and waiting are not difficult to apply to bridge bidding. Let’s do it.

Bridge Terminology

Bridge terms should fit the designated functions. Historic labels such as Blackwood and Stayman don’t fulfill this requirement and serve to fragment basic concepts. The term ‘transfer’ is a good one as that fits the function. The term ‘relay’ represents bad usage, as the term relates to expediency (minimum bid) rather than to purpose. If the function is to await further clarification without revealing anything, the bid could be termed ‘waiting’. New Minor Forcing is a ‘waiting’ bid. 4NT Blackwood is ‘ace-asking’. It is not telling except by implication. 5NT after 4NT tells all the aces are held, and asks about kings. So it is ‘asking’ as well as ‘telling’. I leave the rest as a task for Roy Hughes. In a natural system, one may not have available a suitably defined natural bid that allows one to get more information, so one is reduced to ‘lying’ in order to ask indirectly. This is a bad situation. To have rules that force perfectly honest folk to do something that is borderline illegal and subject to punishment is horrid psychologically. Even honest pros who sincerely advocate ethical behavior and strict adherence to regulations have upon occasion been called up, like Robespierre, before a Committee and subjected to punitive action. Most likely it is the law that is dishonest.

Relays as a Natural Approach

We should look at the bidding process from the point of view of information exchange rather than insist that every bid in theory suggests playing in a specified contract. In ACBL games, when a player uses a transfer bid, that player’s partner announces ‘transfer’ to alert the opponents of the special application. Everyone knows what a transfer is, and how to cope with it, nonetheless, an errant partner might be warned of an unusual application the knowledge of which he shouldn’t use. Having come this far, it is a simple next step to introduce an announcement of ‘relay’ to the relevant bids, so no one gets hurt. Everyone can appreciate the advantages of a relay and standard bidding will improve greatly with its wider acceptance and application.

Standard bidding already incorporates many relay bids, Stayman being the prime example. At one time it was felt by bridge authorities that Stayman was an asking-telling bid promising at least 1 four-card major. If it turned not to be so, errant users were subject to punishment. Thankfully that idea has long gone by the boards and the lawyers have lost a weapon. We have accepted the principle that a relay can be no more than a waiting bid telling nothing except through implication.

What are the costs? Every time one introduces an artificial bid, one loses the natural meaning, at least temporarily. So it is with Stayman, which gives up on playing in 2 with a bad hand. For most that’s a price worth paying for so much return on so small an investment. Another cost is the freedom it gives to an opponent to double the artificial bid without much fear of direct reprisal, however, that cost may be turned to profit as it gives the stronger side greater definition in the auction which they may turn to their advantage. We observe this in Precision auctions where the prevailing attitude among lesser players is to interfere with misinformation, thus giving the stronger side more options.

2/1 Examples

In my view any jump bid above a jump raise of partner’s call is by definition an unusual bid, whether or not it can be designated as ‘natural’. Opponents should have a right to ask the meaning of such a bid even if it has not been alerted. For example, what does this 2/1 sequence imply: 1 – 1 ; 3NT ??

If you assumed 3NT shows a semi-balanced hand with long, solid clubs and a doubleton heart, you were wrong. Yes, 3NT is ‘to play’, but it contains the additional information that the opener is extremely short in responder’s suit. A friend told me that holding KQJTxxx and the A in this auction he bid 6 over 3NT, and went down, as his partner was void in hearts. As I didn’t know for sure what 3NT means, I would have bid 5 as a cautious toe-in-the-water effort, which makes. This sort of self-protective maneuver in the face of uncertainty happens when what may be interpreted superficially as natural and normal is actually far from it. It is only natural to ‘take out insurance’.

My friend acted on what he thought was the correct interpretation of the 3NT bid. Sometimes fortuitously you gain from a misunderstanding, but most often you lose. Here the so-called offending side was punished for their ignorance of the finer points of 2/1, but suppose 6 had made. Would there have been a legitimate complaint forthcoming from the opponents that given a full explanation they would have led differently, even though my friend was bidding in good faith? I think not, although apparently it is always worth a try. Under my definition, unusual jumps are self-alerting, so an opponent should ask the bidder what his agreements are. His partner should leave the table during disclosure. This serves to even the playing field, and there is no offense in those cases where the unusual bid is misinterpreted yet results in a good score.

An Amusing Appeal

Currently there is a policy to punish players who forget their agreements. This discourages players from adopting superior methods. In the recent Las Vegas Nationals, a pair was punished because an obscure convention came up. Although we were not present, on the evidence in the Bulletin see if you think the adjustment was fair. West held  J65 AQT A953 QJT and opened 1 , both vulnerable, after her RHO had passed in first seat. LHO passed and partner jumped to 5. Quickly now, within 10 seconds, should you alert even though you aren’t sure what partner’s bid conveys? If you alert and say, ‘just a minute, I’m not sure what our agreement is’, can not that be construed as prejudicial? However, if the RHO announces, ‘I would like an explanation’, you would leave the table and partner would tell the opponents what he thinks is your agreement. The opponents are informed and you are allowed to take your chances, perhaps on the mistaken impression that 5 was Super Western Cue. That’s fair, and, better still, it removes many of the grounds for speculative appeals that have nothing to lose and everything to gain in the current atmosphere.

Next imagine that you eventually remember that 5 is Exclusion RKC Blackwood, but think that ace-asking bids are no longer alertable. You bid 5 to show 1 key card for diamonds. Partner bids 6. Keeping in mind that this is a matchpoint event, would you correct to the higher scoring contract of 6NT? I see nothing wrong in that, as when partner bid 5 he was committed to 6 at the very least, so you have the option of upgrading your secondary values. It appears that the K is missing (partner didn’t relay to 5NT), in which case partner’s diamonds are long and his black suits must be strong albeit short. If I were playing in the Vanderbilt against Meckwell at the other table (first round, of course), I would bid 7, as chances like this won’t come again. Perhaps that is one reason why they clobber teams like mine, but I don’t give up without a fight.

West did bid 6NT, partner bid 7, and she corrected to 7NT. The opponents were not damaged in the play as 7NT, which depended on the K being onside, was cold, but they won their appeal on the grounds that West was influenced by her partner’s actions before his 6 bid. Although East had not hesitated, North stated that he had heard ‘inaudibly muttering’. Is that possible? I know good players can see the unseen cards, but I didn’t know some can even hear the inaudible invitation. West explained her 40 second hesitation by the fact that she had been playing Exclusion Blackwood for 5 years but it had never come up! This is an extreme example of the truism that the less frequent a bid, the more informative it is, but only if you can recall the details. If the K had been offside, we wouldn’t have been given this amusing tale – or even if the North-South pair had called the director when 5 was bid.

This is really too much! Inaccuracy will always remain an inherent part of bidding and play. Let’s be more open and honest in how we treat the process. As with tax laws, the more loopholes and seams in a patchwork process, the more lawyers and their privileged clients can take advantage of the unintended consequences. Make a fundamental change and simplify with announced relays and intrinsic alerts on unusual jumps. Good play and good behavior are promoted by an accurate transmission of information around the table. Uncertainty promotes confusion.

Here is a natural exchange of information that leads to the cold 6NT. It starts by keeping the bidding low to facilitate the exchange. Do you see a better way?


J65 AK9 1 2 (forcing, no 4-card major)
AQ10 2 2 (forcing, stoppers)
A953 KQ87642 2 NT 3 (forcing)
QJ10 A92 3 3 (slam tries)
3NT 4 (slam try)
4 6
6 NT Pass


I estimate 10% of pairs at my club on any given day are capable of bidding in this straightforward manner. Half eliminate themselves by rejecting the sensible agreement that 2 is a forcing raise. Masterminds will jump to 4NT and play it in 6NT. Bingo! We admit that masterminding satisfies some egos and sometimes leads to a good result, but is it a reasonable approach? Obviously, it is best to have West declare in 6NT.

Linda Lee’s Bidding Problem

Let’s look at a recent slam dredged up by Linda Lee from a Swedish championship on BBO. Her question was: can anyone come up with an auction which reaches in a reasonable manner the grand slam in hearts? Relays are not allowed! (An equivalent sports question would be: can you swim across the river with one hand tied behind your back?) Yes, I can, using simple Precision.


KQ107 A9532 1 * 1 (game force, 5+ spades)
AKJ4 Q1065 1NT (17+) 2 (4+ hearts)
J3 A2 3 (trumps) 3 S ( A)
A96 K7 4 (♣ A) 4 ( A)
7 controls 5 controls 4 ( K) 5 ( K)
5 NT (D.I) 6 (3rd round control)
* 16+ HCP, any shape 7 Pass


The first hurdle is overcome when opener bids 1NT rather than raising spades immediately. This is a practical impossibility with a natural system. In a Big Club system the opener is the captain, so he can afford to look around without having control of the auction snatched away from him by a mastermind partner. The texture of his major suits is such that opener can see the advantage of playing a 4-4 fit in hearts if such exists. I feel it is clear that spades can wait, provided it is agreed that opener is in charge.

Sometimes one is lucky, and this is one of those rare times, as responder shows 4 hearts. The next hurdle is the setting of trumps, which paves the way for cue bidding. Responder has some responsibility at this point to limit his hand, and with less he might raise directly to game. In actuality he holds 5 controls, and expects opener to hold 6. With just one king missing, responder realizes they are in the slam zone. So he initiates a cue bidding sequence, even though his hearts are not that great.

The cue bidding proceeds smoothly as aces can be bid up the line without fear of misinterpretation. 5NT is a waiting bid, a standard ploy when trying for a grand slam without any specific controls remaining to be bid on opener’s side. Responder may not like his intermediate spades or the heart quality, but he trusts partner and gives what information he can, 6 showing 3rd round control of clubs, and awaits developments. Opener knows enough to bid 7 with some confidence. But wait! Isn’t there a danger that if responder takes more than 6 seconds to consider his options in the face of inevitable uncertainty, that the opponents may appeal on the grounds that his hesitation suggested partner bid 7? I hope not. Uncertainty is endemic; one should be able to exercise one’s right to ponder the possibilities without fear of punishment. No kidding!

Good Methods are Adaptable

Even if one concedes that the given auction works well with the given hands there remains the question of what happens if we change this or that card. For example, suppose responder doesn’t hold the Q. In bidding grand slams with 4-4 fits one requires assurance of trump solidarity. Furthermore, what happens to the cue bidding sequence if the minor suit aces are interchanged? Therein lies the beauty of the relay asking bid – opener can determine exactly the critical holdings, and responder needn’t fret about the overall suitability of his hand. Thereby we avoid hesitations.

Let’s suppose we change the natural 1NT to a relay bid, merely asking responder to describe his hand further. In his chapter on relays, Roy Hughes points out that relays work best when the relayer has a flat hand. It is probable that a Big Club opener will very often have a hand that qualifies for this treatment. We might add that transfers also work well opposite a NT hand, as they save space and make the stronger hand the declarer. Thus, transfer responses make sense after a relay ask. So after a 1NT relay responder should bid 2 to show hearts. Opener bids 2 to set trumps and at the same time asking about trump quality. Responder bids 2NT to show the Q, and we are off to the races with trump solidarity established by the time we reach 2NT.

After 2NT one might proceed with an equal exchange of information through the use of cuebids as shown before, but with responder more confident in the knowledge that his trumps are considered adequate for slam. Responder may be able to bid 6 over 5NT without hesitation, thus avoiding an ethical-legal problem. A more flexible approach is to continue with 3 as Roman Key Card in hearts, an easily recognized relay, by which opener maintains his captaincy. This approach is flexible and transparent, and it doesn’t prevent the opposition from interfering along the way if they so wish, in fact, it gives them added options. Both sides are better informed. So, what’s the problem? Must we all bid badly in order to keep the majority happy? Next question: are the majority happy or would they like to bid better but don’t know how?

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