Bob Mackinnon

The Woolsey – Stewart Preemptive Style

During the Reisinger Trophy broadcast as I was enjoying the expert comments of one of my favorite analysts, Kit Woolsey, I had to ask myself at times, ‘is this the same Kit Woolsey I watched play a few days earlier in the Seniors KO Final? That Kit Woolsey appeared to be deranged at times, not the same clear-headed, reasonable man whose expert analysis is spot-on now.’ I know that if you sit a calm and reasonable person down at the table and put 13 cards in his hand, it appears that sooner or later a transformation takes place and wild emotions take over and rationality temporarily goes out the window.

It’s not as extreme as Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, perhaps; it is more like when you lie awake in bed in the dark and begin to hear strange, creaking sounds somewhere about the house. It’s this fear of the unknown that preserves some marriages. Even snoring is better than ominous silence, although I do not subscribe to the theory held by some, perhaps guided by Nietzsche, that human snoring was developed by Gothic heroes in the forests of pre-historic Germany to ward off wild beasts after the campfires had burnt out. Well, it the same with bidding, I guess; in the face of the unknown it feels better to make some noise than to keep quiet and doze off while awaiting further developments.

One standard piece of advice with regard to BAM scoring is not to do anything that might jeopardize your teammates’ chances of winning the board. That implies one shouldn’t make wild preempts, which brings us back to the Seniors KO Teams Final, IMPs scoring over 64 boards, in which Kit Woolsey and his partner, Fred Stewart, pursued the strategy of undisciplined preempts for which they have become known. There must be a good reason behind that approach which acts to remove bidding space and deny information. One might argue that nonvulnerable against vulnerable, the losses to the opponents tend to be more damaging in the long run than the losses to one’s own partnership. My own criteria for preempts are neo-conservative, influenced greatly by Woolsey’s observations put forth in his classic book, Matchpoints (1982), undoubtedly set down during his Dr Jekyll interludes. My guidelines are as follows.

1) have 8 losers at the 2-level;

2) the suit identified is the only one that should be trumps;

3) have more HCP inside the suit than outside it;

4) there shouldn’t be secondary defensive honors in ‘their’ suits;

5) bid before the opponents exchange information;

6) be active in suits ranked above your short suit;

7) always anticipate that the opening lead will be in your suit;

8 ) preempt immediately to the highest level you can bear;

9) don’t have length in the RHO’s suit.

When I preempt I am hoping to defend against the opponents who have guessed wrong, so my first priority is not to cause partner to misdefend. It is painful to push the opponents to a game that makes on poor defence resulting from a false impression, yet it happens frequently after undisciplined overcalls and/or topless raises. Suit quality is important, more so at matchpoints. It is true that my preempts don’t always fall within my own guidelines, but they do so with enough frequency that partner should be comfortable with the few exceptions. Second-guessing partner is another way to lose.

That gives us some reference to work with when we come to see how Kit and Fred do things. Does going outside my guidelines turn a profit on average? Not on the evidence we gathered so far from the finals where Morse lost to O’Rourke by 52 IMPs.


Kit Fred
KJ10932 AQ8764 3 (Pass) 4 All Pass
83 104
6 A54 making 710, gaining 1 IMP
KQ103 A2
6 losers 6 losers


Opening 3 in first seat, vulnerable against not, puts the risk of getting it wrong mostly on the preemptor’s side. With 6 losers and HCPs concentrated in my black suits as West I could imagine 6 or 6might be biddable if I patiently pass. One test I impose is to exchange partner’s hand with that of my LHO and see the effect. In this case, we find:


Kit Pseudo
KJ10932 5 3 (Pass) Pass (Dbl)
83 K65
6 KJ1082 Pass (1 ) Pass (1NT) ???
KQ103 J975
6 losers 7 losers


NS can make 3NT or 4 , but they probably double 3 , and set it at least 2 for a profit.

If West passes, North opens 1 and NS may not get to game from there. There is not much gained by preempting. Next by contrast we see a bid that is so bad it is good. Without interference teammates were able to bid to a makable 6 on a 4-4 fit.


Kit Fred
107 K832 Pass 1 3 Dbl
7632 Q98 Pass 3NT All Pass
102 J85
K10943 Q75
9 losers 11 losers


Late in the match, NVul vs Vul, Kit took a wild swing and hit a home run, which I applaud, results merchant that I am. Kit bid opposite a passed partner even though he had 4 cards in opener’s major suit, mercifully not Qxxx. Fred had length in the other major, so with 6 cards in one major and 7 cards in the other, it didn’t look to be a good time to preempt. I actually do admire this space-consuming 9-loser preempt as I expect the opponents can make what they will bid, and I prefer a club lead against 3NT. That is not to say it is safe by any means, but often the less one has outside one’s main suit the less likely it is that the opponents will be satisfied with a penalty double. It is when their own suits are weak that they experience doubts and opt to defend. I don’t like that. Another danger lurks, as one might foresee, on the following second-seat (!) preempt.


Fred Kit
QJ7542 9 (Pass) 3 (Pass) 4 All Pass
Q2 AK10
Q A10852
K864 QJ95 Lose 10 IMPS for missing 3NT
7 losers 5 losers


This preempt doesn’t satisfy half of my criteria, so with some self-satisfaction I note it cost a lot. The misinformative nature of the call predictably caused a problem partner was not likely to solve under any circumstances. At the other table with neither side vulnerable, Wold opened 1 , rebid 2 , so Morse found it easy to bid 3NT, making 4.

If we exchange hands between Fred’s LHO and Kit, the normal reaction to 3 is a double. Both 3NT and 5 can be bid and both make on any lead, because of the placement of the red queens in front of the strong hand. There was little to gain by this preempt and much to lose, not because one will get doubled, but because so much works favorably for the opponents with the strong hand on the left. If a high preempt doesn’t scare the opponents it may actually help them make any game they bid.


Kit Fred
KQ8632 9 (Pass) 3 All Pass
54 KQ1062
A832 54 Down 1, for -100
2 QJ875 Lose 7 IMPs for preempting too high
6 losers 6 losers


It is rare that neither side has an 8-card fit; often in those cases the side that wins the competitive auction ends up holding the bag. Woolsey’s hand is quite good, and a Precision player would be tempted to open 1 . This would cause little damage as opener will rebid 2 and play there making 110 on the actual defence, or down 1 playing against Deep Finesse. In the other room Jacobus preempted 2 , which I don’t like, either, but it gave the opponents enough space to get in the auction and go minus. He defended against 3 , off 200. Both sides were vulnerable, so Kit & co. went minus at both tables. Next!


Fred Kit
QJ1098 A6432 Casen Stewart Krekorian Woolsey
96 KJ4 1 Pass 1 1
7 KQ4 2 3 4 4
K10542 87 Dbl All Pass
7 losers 7 losers Down 2 for -500


This deal illustrates the advantage of bidding early before the opponents have exchanged information. Experts often tell us that if one has 2 suits it pays show both as soon as possible. This is a fine hand with the HCPs in the long suits, shortage in opener’s suit, and it appears that hearts will play well if the LHO is able to bid them freely. Stewart’s 2 suits are not covered by standard methods. Presumably the feeling is that a spade bid takes nearly as much space as a club bid, so there is no need to show the clubs directly. Trouble arises when one feels the hand is not suitable for a simple vulnerable spade overcall. However, shape is important in itself. A Roman jump overcall of 2 shows spades and clubs, and that’s the bid I would like to have available with this hand. Sooner or later one will have to bid with this hand and sooner is usually better than later.

By the time Stewart got to show spades, the opponents had established their heart fit at the 2-level. Woolsey sensibly bid game, and was doubled, down 2 vulnerable, not a disaster as 4 would make. At the other table Wold overcalled 1 with 1 , doubled, but now Jacobus was able to jump to 4 before the opponents had exchanged enough specific information to be able to apply the axe. So, a gain of 7 IMPs for O’Rourke.

Finally we come to the multi-2 preempt which the British, especially, find delightfully ambiguous. American heroes break the law, whereas British heroes find ways around it. The ACBL has been reluctant to accept ambiguous bids, and sets its regulations accordingly, but many US experts have adopted the Multi-2 when playing in international competitions where it has been privileged by legalization. The hopeful aim of the bid is to confuse the opposition and possibly to intimidate them, aims that coincide those of undisciplined preempts, so it is not surprising that Woolsey and Stewart would find the Multi attractive. If the preempt fails to intimidate, what then? Here is an example from the last segment of the finals when the Morse team needed some big pick-ups.


Kit Fred
964 KQ Woolsey Casen Stewart Krekorian
Q1087 A96 2 * Pass 2 * 3
K652 AQ98 Pass 4 All Pass
2 10754
7 losers 7 losers Down 3 for -150


Woolsey is not content with the normal degree of uncertainty associated with the Multi-2 , so he adds to it, an imaginative effort he knew would not be matched at the other table. If Stewart had known Woolsey’s long suit was hearts, he might have bid game, but his first task was to resolve the major suit ambiguity. 2was invitational in hearts, if that were Woolsey’s suit, which doesn’t exhibit the swashbuckling spirit needed for piratical adventure. Perhaps he was the one most intimidated by his partner’s ambiguous effort. Krekorian had no doubts about Woolsey’s longer major, so he bid his values and was raised to game by Casen on very modest doubleton support. Stewart now found he was effectively shut out, although his was the strongest hand at the table.

4 doubled and undoubtedly down 3 would have produced a much needed 7 IMP swing on a board where neither side was vulnerable. But how could Stewart double when there was such a degree of uncertainty in his partner’s preempt, and here we are not referring to the ambiguity in the majors, but in the quality of the hands on which Woolsey would employ the bid? So when one preempts uninformatively it is the proverbial placing of all one’s eggs in the one basket. If the opponents get too high, that may be fine if partner has enough to defeat them, but there is no chance of punishing them when it may be necessary to do so. That is the current state of affairs generally where no one is sure partner has his bid, so one might argue that Stewart’s reluctance to double was not a direct effect of an undisciplined preempt. Nonetheless, I find it extreme not to be able to count on a free-bidding partner to contribute at least one defensive trick.

In this case it may have been necessary to double, apart from the state of the match, as Woolsey-Stewart can make 4 and maybe 5 . The preemptors had been preempted! At the other table Bates passed with the Woolsey hand, and his partner opened 1NT, which was overcalled with 2 , normal action so far. Bates employed a Lebensohl 2NT and showed his hearts by bidding 3 over partner’s forced 3 . Wold did not raise to game despite his prime controls. Note that the losing trick count gives the right trick total of tricks available on perfect defence, but neither partner could show his full values within their system. In fact, Bates made 11 tricks. There appears to be no way to invite on such a combination of hands. This loss of definition in competition is what makes interference attractive. It is obvious that adjustments to current methods are needed. (Watching the recent Italian Cup finals, I got the impression the current Italian method of coping with interference is to ignore the opposition altogether.)

That’s my take on the Woolsey – Stewart preemptive style. I await with interest further examples on BBO that will show their methods to better advantage, and prove me wrong, but somehow I doubt that will happen. Remember, everything works sometimes, but it is the frequency of success that is the most important characteristic.

1 Comment

Ulf NilssonJanuary 4th, 2011 at 7:53 am

Those guys are too much 😉

Nipped them on another board for 800 (should’ve been more) after another frivolous Multi. And this was the 2nd quarter…

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