Bob Mackinnon

A Rational Look at Irrationality

Any model of human activity must contain allowances for irrational behaviour. So it is with bridge bidding. If players always behave in a rational manner, bidding would be uniformly informative and scores would tend to cluster narrowly around the mean. A 66% score would be quite a remarkable departure, 69%, fantastic. That is what one might expect from a tournament involving only expert players, however, my impression is that even in NABC events scores are becoming more variable. This is an indication of irrationality at work, and as the players involved are experts, one must conclude peculiar bidding is becoming a deliberate maneuver intended to confuse rather than to inform.

On a much more modest level, I am continuing my experiments in the employment of 2/1 bidding scheme after years of playing Precision. Last weekend my partner and I achieved a 3rd place finish in a Victoria Sectional event, not as a result of brilliant card play, bur rather as a consequence of some highly unusual bids within the context of the system to which almost everyone in the room purported to adhere. As a matchpoint event is made up of 26 separate skirmishes, it is not good tactics to give up the battle on half the hands; one must strive to achieve a good score on every hand regardless of the relative strengths of the 2 sides. On defence keeping the opponents to their par score is an admirable and sometimes profitable objective, but the bidding that precedes the play is aimed at preventing the achievement of this objective. It is a matter of cost versus gain, and how much one is willing to invest in the worthy cause of disrupting their auction.

If one is to develop a bidding style it is necessary to take into account that not everyone is bidding according to hard and fast rules; sometimes there is a great deal of uncertainty involved in what appears superficially to be a normal action. It is the spirit of the times. In pursuit of methods that cope with wide-ranging competitive bids, we examine our own peculiar actions and the sometimes irrational motivation behind them.

Precision Denied

When we arrived at one table I announced Jack and I no longer played Precision. ‘Oh, good,’ commented my RHO, known more for her outspoken opinions that for her good sense, ‘2/1 is much better.’ As this seems to be a common opinion, I felt I should give it some consideration when I came to open the bidding on the following hand:  K74  A3  AK9874  K10, a juicy collection with 17 HCP, 7 controls, 5 losers and a good 6-card suit. This is just the sort of hand that gets underbid consistently in a 2/1 system. Playing Precision I would be thinking of slam and would open 1 to facilitate an exchange of information with partner. I was about to open 1, when the RHO’s comment caused me to reconsider. Maybe she was right and there is an advantage to opening an insane 1NT, although I hated it. Let the blind lead the blind.

All went well when partner bid Stayman then forced to game with 3 Smolen showing 4 hearts and 5 spades. The rational approach was to bid 4 as a cue bid in support of spades. Scientists might even define this as Roman Key Card in spades. Usually with so many aces and kings I prefer suit contracts, but when my RHO expressed great interest in the meaning of 3, I got a funny feeling in the back of my head and signed off in 3NT knowing that this would be an unusual contract, one that might result in a zero score against a spade slam. I played low from dummy on the expected heart lead. Why was I not surprised to see my RHO pitch a club? This was the full layout:

Dealer: South

Vul: EW




8 J1093
106 Q532
Q85 A9642


West Jack East Bob
1 NT
Pass 2 Pass 2
Pass 3 * Pass 3NT All Pass

* 5 spades and 4 hearts, forcing to game.


As the reader can see, 6 would normally have had fair chances, but not when the opening lead gets ruffed. We did much better in 3NT. The 8 won the first trick, and the J was covered with the queen, the RHO having the opinion that covering an honor with an honor is always best. On the run of the 9 tricks in the red suits a black suit squeeze developed on East and 13 tricks were made for a top score. Yes, I had to admit that 2/1 was definitely the superior approach where uncertainty becomes a key advantage.

Next we consider a hand where 2 experts were fooled because they were too logical. Let it serve as a warning to defenders who believe fully in the evidence provided them.


Dealer: South

Vul: NS

West East
A97 K8
9 K1083
K853 QJ1094
J8752 94


West Jack East Bob
Pass 1 Pass 2 NT
Pass Pass Dbl All Pass


Happy the misfortune that leads to victory! Again we have a good hand difficult to bid using 2/1 methods. A game in spades is available but there is no way to reach it normally. Systemically I had to begin with one of a minor, and chose diamonds over clubs as a lead inhibiting move, as I saw that probably I would be rebidding 2NT. I think 1/1 should be forcing in order to avoid this jump bid. Also, it is too easy for the opponents to balance with 1NT, a contract often difficult to defeat. When East doubled 2NT, a great matchpoint call in my opinion, I was slated for a well deserved bottom, but thanks partly to my off-centre opening bid, the defence got it wrong.

I won the heart lead with the Q and set about establishing 2 spade tricks. East won his K and led in order the Q, J, and 4, the last won by my ace, on which West must unblock the K. He later apologized for his failure, but it was not clear that I had not began with A972, in which case East might be stripped of clubs and endplayed into leading to the J in dummy. Unlikely. With the diamonds blocked, I had my 8 tricks for a top score. The otherwise admirable double had turned into a disaster.

There is an important point to be made about the defence. These experts were not regular partners, so their defensive carding was not a smooth as it could have been. I think East’s sequence should be Q, then 9, then 4 which would have given a correct count in the suit. West would easily have found the critical play of the K under my ace. This is an example of continuing information flow through card sequencing, an increasingly important aspect of defence as bidding becomes less and less reliable.

When one fully expects to defend the hand with partner on lead, it pays to be informative with regard to your suit strength, especially so with a bad hand.


Dealer: West

Vul: NS

West East
K853 AJ6
AQ10 K
J753 A108642
J6 A95


West Jack East Bob
Pass Pass 1 2
Dble Pass 2 Pass
3 All Pass


A weakness of the 2/1 approach is that one is expected to pass on the West hand. A consequence of this is that East must ‘protect’ at times to prevent the hand from being passed out. Of course, on this deal East’s hand had the strength of a strong Precision 1 opening bid showing 16+HCP. South could guess this, but how was West to know?

There was method in my madness. It is logical to overcall on a good suit in a poor hand with but 1 defensive feature. If clubs were to be doubled for penalty, I might buy the contract cheaply in hearts at the 2-level. Consider what might have happened if East had opened a Precision 1. Most players would take action with my hand, the higher the bid the better for some. Their partners would know this may be a light action taking up space and inviting a sacrifice. However, if the opening bid were 1, possibly on only 1 HCP less, an entirely different approach is considered normal with 2 taken to be constructive. This is an unstable approach. Taking action on a highly distributional hand with no defence is unusual but makes more sense than overcalling 2 with a 5-3-3-2 hand, a broken suit, and 13 scattered HCP, which many mistakenly do, inviting disaster.

Interchange the hearts and clubs and active players would bid 2NT as takeout to hearts and clubs. If I had bid 2NT, most EW pairs would bid 3NT on resentment, and would make it, or double 3 for a top score for them. The heart suit is just not good enough to prevent the opponents from seeing the advantages of a penalty double. Some might overcall a cheap 1 looking for a fit in a topless suit, but I chose to bid the suit on which I wanted our defence to be focused. It is difficult to become declarer when the opponents hold diamonds over your clubs and spades over your hearts.

As expected West doubled 2, but she was looking for a spade fit, not for a penalty. Later she contented herself with a ‘free’ raise, and the partnership had missed a slam in diamonds, or, I suppose more relevantly, 3NT. My 2 bid had hit one of the seams in their bidding scheme. The point is that if opponent like me are going to bid in a peculiar manner, one needs methods to cope. Those methods must retain a means of doubling risky activity. Now a deal in which we fell victim to our own habit of light initial action.


Dealer: South

Vul: Both

West East
8 Q95
KJ83 Q7
AKQ642 J93
84 AJ965


West North East South
Pass 2 Pass 3
Pass 4 All Pass Down 2 for -200


My preempt was of the light variety normally approved of in 3rd seat, nonvulnerable only. I prefer to preempt against both opponents at once, and to play that 2 is not forcing – you can see why. If 2NT (shortage ask) and 3 (feature ask) are forcing, what’s the need for a third forcing bid? Partnership discipline (!) required I make a minimum response. If left to play in 3 undoubled, down 1, we would be in the optimum spot, as 3 makes, and 4 would be down 1. This just goes to show that if one is flying on thin fuel, one has to shrink the horizon. As the emphasis moves towards competitive bidding in all seats, methods must change. West’s pass over 2 left EW in a bad position.

Holding the North cards, although tempted at IMPs to bid 4, I would definitely pass 3 at matchpoints. With a better hand South could either have cuebid a minor suit control or jumped to 4 to make. Here is a possible solid 2 preempt with 4, possibly 5, losers off the top: Q6 KQ10873 Qx 1072. Unlucky – at IMPs. This serves to emphasize the fact that the bidding priorities are governed by the method of scoring.

There were some losing actions by the opposition to be noted. One opponent vul vs not opened 1NT on AQ4 AQ1092 Q5 Q72 and at his next turn failed to find the winning bid of 5 over 5. His partner, if informed by a 1 opening bid, would have had no problem biding on with 4=4=1=4 and 8 useful HCP. She passed his double.

The opening bid was 1 on AK9 AQ10 65432 AQ and responder sold out to 3 clubs with 5-5 in the majors, a singleton diamond and zero HCP. There was no safe way into the auction even though 3 of either major makes 140. I sympathize, but even 4 of a major off 1 would represent a good score. Distribution, distribution, distribution.

Vulnerable vs not, a young player jump raised his partner’s aceless 1 opening bid to 3 on 10652 J64 Q852 K10, down 3. He had been taught something about preemptive jump raises, but not everything. Even a mixed raise would be wrong. Although the opponents could make 3NT it would be a miracle if they bid it with all these defensive cards being held by the opposition. 1-2-pass, pass, pass. Down 2 only.

The Winds of Change

These hands show in what direction the winds of change are blowing. First and foremost we must get away from the restrictions on thought imposed by HCP bounds. Hands derive their power from shape as well as HCPs, and it is not enough to tack on a few points for distribution and abide by the old HCP limits used to define our bids. If one has the stomach for it, bidding on shape alone can be quite profitable. It is unfortunate that many think solely in terms of HCP, so are disadvantaged when an opponent bids ‘on nothing’. On the other hand it is often unfortunate when a player preempts with defensive tricks on the side to give themselves a false sense of security, as in the last hand above.

Consider the hand where a player held 5-5 in the majors yet could not find a safe entry into the auction. In a constructive auction, if one bids on nothing, partner may represent the biggest problem, so one has to be able to maintain control or, at least, inform partner of the situation. If she could have bid 2, say, to show a hand with both majors, there would have been a way. The same 2 bid would have helped on the hand that I opened with 19 HCP and partner held 5-4 in hearts and spades and 4 HCP. That means one needs a forcing bid without a 4-card major and that could be 2, as a relay to 2. Certainly the current 2/1 structure leaves much to be desired in that respect.

Some players have abandoned strong jump shift responses to opening bids as being too infrequent, and have adopted preemptive jump shifts which are just as rare. Jumping the bidding takes up space, so a constructive jump has to be highly informative, hence rare, in order to justify the cost. Whatever applies in a constructive context, the opposite applies in a destructive context. In the preemptive mode, taking up space is the main purpose, so less restriction need apply, and the more often the call the less information it provides. Consequently, with wide-ranging preempts a partner needs to have an asking bid, like Ogust, in order to be able to cope.

Opening light on shape is sensible even (let’s say, especially) in first seat, so we need a check-back bid for responder. We already have the Drury convention, so it is a matter merely of extending the application to hands that are opened early. Responses are getting lighter so the opener also needs a check-back so as not to get dropped in his second bid.

Certainly the bidding structure after 1NT needs to be improved. Stayman shouldn’t be restricted primarily to finding 4-4 major suit fits, a task which it presently does not do well. The current situation with regard to bidding 1NT with a 5-card major is rather sad. It increases uncertainty on both sides on the table, sometimes for the good and sometimes otherwise. The need to do so derives from a poor 5-card major response structure. This could be improved by use of a combination of 1NT Forcing and a 2 inquiry bid.

The weak 1NT annoys many, and for good reason. To explore game, 2 as forcing Stayman is employed. Normally transfers are not employed, so 2 and 2 are nonforcing, potentially with a trap hand hoping the opposition will dare to compete. This represents the use of uncertainty as a weapon, an employment made possible by a limited bid structure. In a later blog we hope to discuss this idea with regard to optional doubles.

1 Comment

Ulf NilssonApril 1st, 2010 at 9:08 am

“Taking action on a highly distributional hand with no defence is unusual but makes more sense than overcalling 2♣ with a 5-3-3-2 hand, a broken suit, and 13 scattered HCP, which many mistakenly do, inviting disaster.”

The first statement I agree with, in the sense that that overcalling style works, if used with discretion. The second part I take exception to, though. I wrote an article explaining why, called “The suit quality paradox” published in the Australian Bridge magazine Feb 2009. I’ll find it and mail a copy to you.

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