Bob Mackinnon

My Troubles with 2/1

We bloggers have been asked to consider with which of the Victor Mollo Menagerie characters we most associate ourselves. Futile Willie came immediately to my mind, before I remembered that he was a character from S.J. Simon’s Why You Lose at Bridge – humor and analysis much more to my taste. I am intrigued by the ordinary. To me Hideous Hog is a mere Boastful Baboon, if I may mix my animal metaphors.

Why Futile Willie? Well, first, I have an inordinate fondness for the minor suits that goes back over 60 years when, playing with my big sister, Lois, I bid and made five clubs much to the amazement of my proud parents. The full details escape me, but I remember my father saying to my mother with his characteristic nicety, ‘Mind you, Vera, if you had led your accustomed trump there was no way he could have made it.’ Over the intervening decades of duplicate bridge I have pursued my dream of scoring +130 when everyone else is going down in 3NT, and it has proved a costly endeavor.

Is it not strange that as creatures of intelligence we are unable to overcome our early influences and continue to stick with our harmful prejudices? I often wonder if my life would have been happier and more successful if Mom had doubled and led that trump. Sometimes as kids we benefit from a bit of tough love, and I might have gone about my life happily bidding 3NT like everyone else. My mother was a good player, accustomed to winning the tea cup at the weekly ladies’ home game. She explained her success modestly by claiming, ‘I just bid what I have.’ Apparently, true to her name, Vera always told the truth. That philosophy for better or worse has become the cornerstone of my bridge bidding. Of course, she played Culbertson where a club meant a club, so I have had to generalize the concept to that of ‘bidding according to what I have.’

When I joined the local crowd and took up 2/1, I first re-read the books and memorized the rules, not realizing that the rules are there primarily for others to follow so we can deduce how the cards sit. Whether the bids are truthful or not is another matter. Here is the most recent example of me as Futile Willie playing 2/1 according to the book.


  AK43   Q865   Me Pard
  KJ4   Q10863   1 1
  Q763   84   2 NT Pass
 AJ  95      


With 18 HCP I could have opened 1 if playing Precision. As the dummy came down, rather than thank partner as I should, I exclaimed in exasperation, ‘Is this 2/1?’ The diamond lead was taken by my Q, and the J was taken by the A. Three diamonds were cashed, and I had the rest for +150. Superficially it looked as if we’d missed 3NT.

‘Don’t blame 2/1,’ my RHO admonished airily, ‘Bidding is like literature.’

‘No it isn’t,’ I retorted hotly, ‘it is an exchange of reliable information!’

Privately I thought that I would have been in trouble on a club lead. Was it suspicion or the intervention of some ghostly presence that caused my LHO to underlead from AKxx? Perhaps neither, just the fourth highest from his best suit. Scoring at the end of the game revealed I had achieved a much needed top. Most pairs were going minus, only a few managing to stop safely in two of a major. I got to thinking how a pair might actually stop there. Responder must pass on the first round and my RHO must balance with a double. Fine, but won’t they compete to 3 as they have a 9-card club fit? So there are advantages of responding light – the hope being that the opponents are frightened into letting your side declare the hand at the two level. Unfortunately on rare occasions partner has a good hand and puts his trust in the system.

I don’t like that result, although I’ll take it as compensation for all the correct bids that have given me bad scores recently. Really, I should have ‘lied’ and bid 1, telling myself that if I can just get through this round of bidding I should be OK. The late Alvin Roth is the guiding guru for so many 2/1 players who prefer to wait and see rather than commit, with good reason if you haven’t the foggiest idea as to what partner is up to.

Decades ago when the Italian Blue Team was in full flight there appeared in the Bridge World a rare introspection into standard American bidding practices. What was wrong then is essentially wrong half a century later with the 2/1 system that has superseded Standard American – the inability to handle hands in which the strength is markedly uneven between the opening bidder and responder. The greater the imbalance in strength, the worse the system performs, it’s that simple.

Bidding systems are designed for good performance under the most probable circumstances. So, one system may be as good as the other under the most likely conditions – one might even guess well on experience alone. When one side holds 26 HCP, the expectation is that they will reach a game either in 3NT or 4 of a major, and that by following a system they will get to the proper contract most of the time. Consider the most likely distribution of HCP around the table: 13-7-13-7. No problem here. Opener bids a suit at the 1-level, and responder has enough for game. Exploration begins with players exchanging information on an equal basis. One or the other makes the final decision. Next consider this distribution of HCP: 16-7-10-7. Again the opponents haven’t the wherewithal to raise difficulties, but a 2/1 partnership may have real problems sorting things out. At least I do. The problem can be circumvented by opening a strong 1NT with a wide variety of shapes, a move that sets a lower limit of 15 to the number of HCP held. Now responder’s 10 HCPs have become a game forcing holding, but we have solved one problem by introducing others. What if partner has a good hand, and slam makes by taking tricks in an unexpectedly long suit? Such an approach leads to an unending cycle of adjustments and re-adjustments while system remains basically flawed.

Here is a hand that gave me problems:  96  AK965  Q7  AKJ4 – a lovely 17 HCPs strong in controls. Having had difficulties with this type before, I pondered the wisdom of opening 1NT. I find when one expects disaster it is virtually certain to follow. I opened 1 and there seemed to be no way to stop short of a hopeless 4, for -200. Partner, void in clubs with 10xx, 12 so-called ‘support points’, invited game, and who was I to decline? Playing Precision I would have opened 1 and could have stopped in 3 which would be worth almost all the matchpoints, so we weren’t the only pair in trouble on this hand. The main difficulty in the 2/1 auction was that the responder couldn’t evaluate the overall fit, whereas in a Precision auction the opener with a strong hand can obtain a more accurate picture and be in a better position to decide the final contract.

The other side of the coin is the problem one encounters when ‘opening light’ in a 2/1 context geared towards ‘sound’ opening bids. Most ignore that requirement, rightly so on general principles, but wrong systemically. Everyone knows that opening light is advantageous, so why don’t they play a system that allows for it? When partner opened 1 on a topless suit, I felt my hand was worth a splinter raise on this holding:  Kxxxx KQxx 9 KQx. Wrong! 4 went down 2 – four missing aces killed the game and a 4-0 split in trumps set it another trick. Partner held a clear pass, but the score was an average! It looks as if we must use reality-check Drury in all seats.

A third area of difficulty is the third seat opening bid which can be very light by definition. Fine, but all responses must be redefined, a fact of life that most ignore. If partner has passed with a fair hand, partner must strive to compensate and open the bidding. How about this hand in third seat, vulnerable:  T32  963  AQ  AJ1076? Passing would have been a good idea, as this was a 7=7=7=5 deal, and the eventual 2 went down 200 for a near bottom. A pass-out was worth an above average score.

It could be argued that these bad results are due to unusual circumstances: misfit hands, voids, and bad splits all contributing to abnormal results. Yet, I would argue that good system is one that enables one to counter unusual circumstances through a meaningful exchange of information. As an analogy consider the operation of Heathrow Airport. Things will run smoothly enough in the normal run of things, but if it snows, difficulties arise. Snow in December is not entirely unexpected, so some provision should be available for coping with the eventuality. If not, the airport system can be judged to operate poorly. On the other hand, a volcanic eruption in Iceland is rare enough that one should be sympathetic if disruptions in flights occur. So with bidding systems, the best are those that incorporate some low cost provisions that guard against disasters due to rare conditions that are nonetheless bound to occur, such as a 4-4-4-1 shape with 16 HCP.

By bidding in an uninformative manner and settling on a contract that normally would be correct, a player is guilty of ‘sleep-walking’ the hand. A 2/1 system can be used in that manner, but perhaps it is better to use a system whose bids are loosely defined, allowing for greater uncertainty and a more flexible interpretation. For many club players, the fact is that a 2/1 bid is forcing to game is the only useful feature that they grasp. The subsequent subtleties serve only to confuse them in their pursuit of the ordinary.

An interesting feature of 2/1 bidding is that users depend on the opponents to provide help in arriving at the correct contract. Consider the auction 1 – Pass – ?? where one holds a hand like this  T62  72  QT4  AKJ53. The hand is worth a bid, but there is no convenient call available to show the powerful club suit. However, if the bidding goes 1  – 1  – ?? Suddenly one is able to bid clubs, because 12 HCP are no longer required for a 2/1 bid. There are many players who overcall with worthless possessions that present no chance of winning the auction. That may frighten some timid souls, but it may help those who otherwise would have had difficulty with their system. Here is a deal played by well-known US experts on BBO that illustrates how a 2/1 opening bid is so poorly defined that it requires an opponent to come to the rescue with a balancing bid. 



  K 9 4 2

  10 6

  10 9 8 5 2

   K 4


  A Q J 7 5

  A Q

  A K J 4

  Q 5



  J 8 7 4 3 2

  6 3

  J 7 6 3


  8 6 3

  K 9 5

  Q 7

  A 10 9 8 3



West North East South
1 Pass Pass 2
2 3 Pass Pass
Dbl Pass 3 All Pass


West didn’t like his 23 HCP as he didn’t have the right shape, I suppose. South had a hopeless 9-loser hand, but he felt compelled to ‘protect’, which to me appears to be a very bad decision. West continued to walk softly, but when the horrible 3 came back he took out the big stick. That could have resulted in a large penalty, but how could East (Bart Bramley, the least guilty of the players) know to pass? As it happens 4 makes on defence as bad as the bidding, so Bart was underbidding all the way. This is ugly!

Flying on Fumes

There are certain fundamental problems that over several decades now have provided authors with the material to make up books and columns which provide amusement but which, like Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, are ultimately unsatisfactory as they do not provide any solution to a basic problem. One such was treated in the Granovetters’ column in the Feb 2011 issue of the ACBL Bulletin. At Swiss Teams the vulnerable LHO opens 1, passed around to you. Do you balance with this hand:  1042  AJ85  A10753 (8 losers)? I say no, but Matt Granovetter claims that balancing with a double is ‘the most normal balancing double in the history of bridge.’ That is an oversell. It cost a lot, as given a second chance, the opponents reached 4, scoring 650. Opener held a 3-loser hand:  AKQJ10  AK986  K107  —. Really, it pathetic that the 2/1 system requires help of this sort to reach a cold game, but 1 rarely gets passed out. Players depend on it. For her part Pam argues Matt should have passed, realizing she takes light action whenever her hand merits it, that is, she doubles regardless of shape – the Italian style. It is obvious that light actions all around the table have become an integral part of the modern game, which sometimes help us, sometimes hinder us, in the pursuit of success. Pass is so rare, it has become informative, claims Pam. Interesting.

The Fear of Missing a Game

The other side of the coin is opening with a strong 2 because one fears missing a game if partner has a trump fit and an ace, but has not enough to respond to a simple one-of-a-major opening bid. Here is an example on which partner opened 2 because he had a 3-loser hand:  KQJ7  KJ6432  AK – give responder the Ax and 12 tricks aren’t out of the question. The most likely shape for responder is 3=2=4=4, giving a division of sides of 7=8=6=5. In fact, responder was void in hearts and the best fit was in clubs. By opening 2 and bidding hearts opposite a weak hand, one gets stuck in the inconvenient contract of 3, down 2, for a 40% score. The relatively high score for a nonsensical result is symptomatic of a flawed system.

It seems one must open at the one-level on stronger and stronger hand, and responder must bid on correspondingly weaker and weaker hands. Hence, instability is created. Opening 1 is the more flexible action, although the good spades reduce the chances of an opponent coming to the rescue. In practice, some pairs played in 5, making 600 via 2 high diamond ruffs. So there are great rewards available to those pairs who are prepared to exchange meaningful information, even to the point of inviting the opponents to come into the auction. Come on in, the water’s fine, say I.

The Fear of Being Robbed

Very often senseless interference gains an advantage due to the fear that players have that they may be missing something big when they aren’t. They over-react, and the interfering side ends up getting something for nothing. In a recent session I bid 3 over a vulnerable weak 2 with this:  86  75  KQJT4  AKJ6. The LHO raised to 3. My partner raised to 5 on this hand:  KJ94  84  A8764   Q4. The motivation for this action must have come largely from the fear they were stealing, but the evidence doesn’t support that conclusion. They were vulnerable.

My thought is that 4 , making 130 is sufficient over a preemptive action. The question should be, ‘how much has the interference improved my hand?’ Not enough to bid game directly. The values in the black suits are defensive. If the opponents had moved to 4  over 4 , the opportunity of doubling for a penalty of 500 would be offered, an offer that should not be refused even with a 10-card diamond fit. So 5  was a losing bid all around.

Of course, one might comment that this result had nothing to do with the 2/1 system, and had everything to do with the reaction to pressure. True enough, the attitude of the player is important aspect of hand evaluation. To some there is a soothing effect to defining a 2 over 1 bid as forcing to game – it relieves the stress of having to bid accurately. The choices are reduced to 3NT, 4 of a major, or 4NT with appropriate responses, but what a price one pays! Although it has been claimed that 2/1 makes slam bidding easier, I find that minor suit games and slams hardly comes into the picture anymore. Such slams are occurrences that are not well provided for in a system that disproportionately favors the major suits. Watching a 2/1 player bid and make 6  is like Dr Johnson’s observing a dog walking on its hind legs: one does not expect it to be done well, and is merely amazed that it is done at all.


kenrexfordMarch 8th, 2011 at 9:52 pm

I hear what you are saying. As a person who has played any number of base systems, I find many of the problems that you mention true problems.

That said, I got to thinking about your one comment that “Such an approach leads to an unending cycle of adjustments and re-adjustments while system remains basically flawed.”

To some degree, I both concur and yet completely disagree, if I can explain. I am not convinced that the natural approach (including 2/1 GF) is “basically flawed.” Whereas I believe that the “adjustments and re-adjustments” necessary to makie “2/1 GF” workable result in a system that is quite foreign to many people who play 2/1 GF, this does not mean that limited openings and a strong 1C is the only alternative to Max Hardy or Mike Lawrence. Another alternative is “adjustments and re-adjustments,” in a sense.

My own tweakings of 2/1 GF (which I also learned, strangely, AFTER having played Precision and Canape for years) have over the years been quite substantial, to the point where the end result sometimes seems as different from 2/1 GF as is Precision, almost. I reality, however, the “core” is closer to 2/1 than to Precision and works competitively well, from my experience playing all three (and canapes).

You noted, “When I joined the local crowd and took up 2/1, I first re-read the books and memorized the rules.” Well, 2/1 GF with that background is about as good as the idiot Precision players you also see at the “local crowd” home game. Precision with “adjustments and re-adjustments” works better, and you cannot really learn that easily. So also, 2/1GF properly played, or tweaked almost beyond recognition, is MUCH better than the basic version.

Bob MMarch 9th, 2011 at 4:03 am

Thanks for the comments. There are experts who play some form of 2/1, but their systems are far removed from that in Max Hardy’s books, which one might say are now out of date. The club player tries to keep up with the latest changes, but they are faced with constant remodelling, no doubt for the better, such as with the recent addition of Gazzilli. It is these players that I address, not experts whom I would not aspire to correct.

I am thinking now of Levin and Weinstein, especially, who can bid with accuracy it seems. and there may be good reasons not to be entirely accurate at times. Nonetheless what I observe on the Internet is many US experts playing a distorted form of bridge that degrades the information exchanges to the detriment of the game. It is only when one gets to view the finals of a top tournament that accuracy once more comes to the fore and the match becomes worthwhile to follow. I think that tells us that accuracy and discipline pay off.

In general I orefer watching the Chinese play on BBO as they seem to adhere more closely to form, such as it is. I feel they will soon come to dominate intrnationally as English speaking player continue the self-defeating pursuit of psychological gains, but I could be wrong.

LarryJuly 5th, 2011 at 7:46 pm

I have tried many times to add a comment to this post and have been unsuccessful. Something is blocking comments.

LarryJuly 8th, 2011 at 8:07 pm


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