Bob Mackinnon

Asking Bids

Slam Investigation

Sadly, some strongly held beliefs are wrongly held beliefs. With regard to bridge, many believe that for the ordinary player, and especially for beginners, the fewer conventions the better. The conclusion is that players should be taught to bid naturally, calling a spade a spade, leaving the fancy stuff to the experts. At the beginning teachers set down bidding rules based on HCP evaluation, so bidding sequences are designed to name suits while fitting within preset high-card limits, which then become the determining factors in the choice of bids. This is the wrong approach, as the players should be taught first how to play the cards competently. Why? Because it is the number of tricks taken that determines the success or failure of the contract one reaches, not the number of points held. Thinking should revolve around winners and losers, and how to get in an efficient manner the information needed to reach good contracts at the end of the process.

Obviously frustrations will arise when following a rigid set of bidding rules results in less than optimum results. Beginners gradually find that it pays to lie, that is, break the rules when they deem it appropriate. Good thinking under the circumstances, but a bad attitude to have foisted upon young minds. Better to allow freedom of information exchange through artificial asking bids. Even beginners can comprehend easily the use of an asking bid. Deception is not involved. Asking bids are fun, because they provide information easily, accurately, and without feelings of guilt or justifiable resentment.

If we want to keep beginners happy, we should provide them with the means to bid slams accurately. Let’s go back to fundamentals and ask ourselves what are the elements we find in a well-bid slam. One needn’t discover everything about partner’s hand, even if that were possible with the limited space available, but there are certain elements that take us beyond simple guesswork into the realm of probable success. In a suit slam sequence we expect to find 4 basic steps: 1) finding a fit, 2) establishing critical suit solidarity, 3) determining total high card controls, and 4) placing controls, with regard to both high cards and shortness. The order of their occurrence may vary, but this order is the easiest to manage. If RKCB is the only asking bid available, steps 2 to 4 are often combined, albeit inadequately and belatedly. Natural bidding covers only step 1, where transfers can serve as well, or better. Although suit length correlates to high card content, bidding naturally will not provide accurate control information, and, indeed, may be misleading when a topless suit is bid of necessity solely because of length considerations.

Let’s look at a sophisticated 2/1 auction that didn’t get the job done in the 2011 Grand National Teams Final. A Grand Slam in spades depends on a 3-2 split trump split or, baring that, luck in the diamond suit.

Robinson Boyd
AJ95 KQT8 1 1
AT 92 4 * 4NT (RKCB)
AQT2 K84 5 5NT
QJ3 AK84 6 Pass

* 4 was a balanced slam try

Here is a case of two balanced hands with a combined 33 HCP, just the situation for which beginners are taught to reach 6NT. It is obvious that the experts’ methods were not up to the task of reaching this fine contract which could withstand horrific splits. Their bidding simply didn’t provide the necessary information. It is particularly inefficient to have to use a self-preemptive jump to 4 as a slam try, but there is no natural bid that adequately describes the opener’s holding, so he must bid artificially, or lie. Having wasted their own bidding space, the pair resorted to the all-too-familiar RKCB asking bid. One of the advantages of RKCB is that the responses are non-specific with regard to the placement of controls, the uncertainty sometimes against a small slam making the defenders’ task more difficult. The disadvantage is that even after 1-over-1 start the bidders may jump about and reach the wrong contract, as they do here.

At the other table sat Rodwell and Meckstroth armed with one of the most sophisticated systems in the universe. Would they do better with these balanced hands? No.

Rodwell Meckstroth
AJ95 KQT8 1* 2 *
AT 92 3* 3
AQT2 K84 4* (RKCB) 5
QJ3 AK84 5* 5NT
6 Pass

Their auction is replete with artificial bids, yet the same bad contract was reached, which argues for keeping it simple. 1 showed 16+HCP, 2 showed a balanced hand with 14+HCP, 3 asked for a 4-card suit with transfer responses, 3 showed spades, and 4 was RKCB in spades. This would be considered a nightmare auction by some, but note that Meckwell were more efficient in their use of space than were Robinson-Boyd. In the end RKCB was again invoked, the wrong questions were asked, as the exact placement of responder’s kings was not established, nor was his shape. So we see generally that at some point a decision must be made on the basis of probability given the current state of partial information. If responder held 4=3=3=3 shape (more probable than 4=2=3=4), then 6 would have been quite high enough, and maybe even too high.

One aspect of Meckwell’s bidding was that they always had a well-defined bid available with which to continue the auction and explore for slam below game level. There was no fudging required. The transfer response of 3 ®3 was particularly useful in saving space. Might we do better without RKCB? Here enters my suggestion for using a cooperative 5NT (D.I.) to pin point controls. I use a similar structure to that exhibited by Meckwell, but shun RKCB, opting rather for a bid that asks responder for the total number of controls held (Step 3). The exact placement of those controls is left to further investigation if a slam is the target. In a Precision slam auction the opening 1 bidder is expected to hold at least 6 and often 7 controls. He is the partner who will do the asking. If responder holds 3+ controls, their placement may be known to the opener without the need to inform the defenders. This is a huge advantage over RKCB.

Bob 1 Bob 2
AJ95 KQT8 1* 2*
AT 92 2NT* 3
AQT2 K84 3 (ask) 4 (HHxx)
QJ3 AK84 4 (ask) 5 (5 controls)
5NT  (DI) 6
6 controls 5 controls 6 6
7 Pass

In my version 2 shows a balanced hand with 14+HCP, 2NT asks for 4-card suits up-the-line, 3 shows spades while denying diamonds and hearts, 3 asks the honor composition of the spade suit (Step 2, to establish suit solidarity.)  4 asks for total controls (Step 3).  It is discovered that responder holds 5 controls, which must consist of the K, the A, and 2 kings as yet unspecified. At this point bidding space has become highly restricted. 5NT asking for kings up-the-line wouldn’t really solve the problems related to shape. Asking bids tend to take responder out of the loop, which may be a disadvantage when responder has something to contribute not covered by the asking bid response structure. It is better if opener is able to get responder back into the loop.

The solution is rather nice. It is obvious that 6 is the minimum level to be reached, so opener may elicit partner’s cooperation with a bid of 5NT which says, in effect, ‘tell me more than I already know, as we may be able to get to 7.’  Responder bids 6 to show a concentration of values, then signs off in 6, thus denying the K. The minor suit kings have been identified. This gives opener the courage to bid the Grand Slam. Thus, an auction that begins artificially ends up as a judgement call by responder, but one based on a great deal of accumulated information. What about shape?

With 4=3=3=3 shape, responder does best to bid 6 over 5NT, or even 6NT when holding the Q. He is expressing an opinion. It is possible to devise a system in which shape can be revealed at an earlier stage through a revised 2NT asking bid. This might overburden most partnerships, and it might not help in the end. Let’s suppose that a 3 response shows 4 spades and 4 of a minor, an added complication that rules out 4=3=3=3. The auction might proceed as above, but over 5NT, the 6 bid doesn’t suggest a 4-card suit, as it is not clear that responder doesn’t have 4 low diamonds and AK3, not a good holding. This example shows that a certain degree of flexibility (uncertainty) can be a good thing when both partners are focused on a single problem. Slam bidding is best pursued after a good trump fit is established and the objective is clear in the minds of both partners. Two heads can be better than one. Information exchanged subsequently is pertinent to the specific problem at hand. Mature judgement can be exercised in which several considerations are taken into account involving undisclosed assets.

I suggest it is more fun to be able to bid 7 on the controlled Precision auction above than it is to stumble around in a mist and reach the Grand on the basis of a good dinner and a rush of adrenaline. Here is a possible faulty but successful sequence:

1 – 1;  2NT  – 6NT;  7 – Pass.

In a constructive auction there is little merit in the idea that one should call a spade a spade. Not wanting to stifle his partner with a jump raise to 4, opener chooses to ‘lie’ by showing a flat distribution with stoppers in the unbid suits. He hopes to show his spade support later. As the late Al Roth might have commented, if he can get through this round he should be OK. Responder bids 6NT on the basis of the total number of HCPs held, and opener follows through optimistically. Even if he passes 6NT, he has outbid the experts on this combination. The fact that such a badly defined auction could succeed where sensible auctions fail points to the need for a forcing rebid by opener at the 2-level that includes the possibility of a hand of the type dealt to opener in this example. I suggest that the meaning of a reverse to 2 could be expanded. (2 relays to 2, and opener rebids 2NT, say. With hearts and  diamonds opener rebids 3 or 3 over 2.)

A Modest Proposal to the ACBL

It is my strongly held belief that Precision is the easiest system to learn and play, and may even be the best system available at this time. Yes, I may be wrong, but let’s look at the evidence. The greatest American partnership of all time is Jeff Meckstroth and Eric Rodwell, who have played Precision over 4 decades. In Japan they would be considered Masters of the Way of Bridge, worthy of emulation, but Americans have difficulty in honoring living geniuses in their midst, whom they consider primarily as misfits. Am I too harsh? Well, why aren’t Meckwell in the ACBL Hall of Fame ahead of a multitude of players of lesser accomplishment? Is the Hall of Fame legitimate without them?

Rather than build upon Meckwell successes, the ACBL largely ignores their advanced methodology and continues to push an inferior system that is both harder to master and worse to employ. In fact, the ACBL impedes advancement. If one builds upon an inferior base, more repairs are needed to bolster weaknesses, which is the main reason why there has been an unending parade of odd, basically inadequate conventions needed as patches.

My proposal is that the ACBL commission Rodwell and Meckstroth to produce a simple version of Meckwell Precision that represents a basic framework on which to build more complex systems to follow… Meckwell II, and Meckwell III. The framework should include from the very first useful conventional elements such as transfers, asking bids, splinters, etc, whereas the details in the follow-up bids may be kept ‘light’. The idea is that a player who begins by learning Basic Meckwell can progress easily to Meckwell III by adding detailed agreements without changing his approach or violating basic principles. It is up to individuals how great a memory load they are prepared to shoulder.

Such a progression may seem to be easy enough to accomplish, but it is actually a task that only a master can assume. Too often lesser lights lose sight of the whole picture in their pursuit of minor details that add very little to overall efficiency. Eric Rodwell, in particular, has gone through a process of system evolution in his own partnership, so should be well prepared to pick out the essential elements without being distracted by pet agreements that come and go, but don’t add much to overall efficiency. He has reached the right age for this task. For the sake of bridge, let’s hope his experience and knowledge do not go wasted.


David Memphis MOJO SmithAugust 12th, 2011 at 3:41 pm

“why aren’t Meckwell in the ACBL Hall of Fame ahead of a multitude of players of lesser accomplishment? Is the Hall of Fame legitimate without them?”

I believe that one of the requirements for entry into the Bridge Hall of Fame is age 60.

Bob MAugust 13th, 2011 at 12:52 am

Thanks for the information. It does illuminate where ACBL prioroties lie. I knew it wasn’t only bridge playing ability. I can now assume that in 4 years our heroes will enter the hallowed hall.

LarryAugust 13th, 2011 at 3:06 pm


Playing our Transfer Precision-like System:

1C (16+) – 2NT (15+) – 3C (transfer Stayman) – 3H (4S, not 4333) – 3S (Beta) – 4H (5 controls) – ?

Not enough room to make trump ask and determine distribution.

Maybe this is better:

1C – 1H (4+S or bal) – 1S – 1NT – 2C – 2H – 2S – 3H – 3S (Honor ask) – 4D (2 honors) – 4H (CAB) – 5C (A only) – ? TOUGH HAND.

LarryAugust 13th, 2011 at 5:08 pm

I have played around with this hand and found that a better approach is NOT to respond 2NT and use Rigal’s Advanced Precision method for showing balanced 2-suiters after responding in NT. This sequence is NOT part of anything I currently play.

1C – 1NT (unlimited bal) – 2C (T-Stayman) – 3C (4C + 4? & 14+ hcp) – 3D (ask) – 3S (4S) – 3NT (Beta for S) – 4D (5 controls) – 4H (CAB) – 5C (A only) – 5NT (GSF) – 7S – – –

Bob MAugust 13th, 2011 at 11:29 pm

Thanks, Larry, for giving real thought to this difficult hand that shows the problems one often encounters with balanced hands, regardless of system orientation. Usually it’s the minor suit slams that get missed, so this hand is interesting because one has a good major suit fit that is immediately apparent.

PatOctober 31st, 2011 at 10:43 pm

Interesting bidding challenge indeed.

You might (just) have interest how the bidding woud fare in an in between strong club/natural system (natural basis with further relay structure available) :

1D (11+ hcp, 4+ unbalanced OR any 18-20 bal) 1NT (GF bal relay)

2NT (18-20 bal minimum or “unpure” max) 3D (r)

3H (5/6 ctrls) 3S (r)

4D (6 ctrls 4/5 D) 4H (r)

4S (4D,4S) 4NT (r)

5D (4243) 5H (r)

5S (only 2Q, with 3 would zoom) 5NT (r)

6H (M’s or m’s) 7S (2 to 4 jacks expected, 2 M’s jacks possible but remote probability, even so 7S odds on)

Just enough room, favorable example cos K’s location known and fit is spades.

PatOctober 31st, 2011 at 10:45 pm

Great blog by the way 🙂

Keith GeorgeDecember 26th, 2011 at 6:26 pm

One minor point first, having shown SHHxx HH=AQ,AK or KQ responder has at least
one control in Spades so there is no need to show it again, ie respond 5D(4 controls)
not including the one shown. This gives a little more space to explore…
Without knowing in any detail at all how Fredin bids in his strong club, I rather think the future lies with zz controls (A=3,K=2,Q=1). In the example the Captain (1C bidder) has all Qs except SQ which he can deduce his partner holds, from the TAB. What if DK and DQ were swapped?

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