Bob Mackinnon

Where Natural is Best

s we watch matches in the Bermuda Bowl competition, certain boards stand out: those boards that confirm the prejudices we had going in. That is natural, as it will take more than a couple of boards to overcome the experiences of decades. A case in point occurred in Round Robin 16 where USA1 gained 30 IMPs over Sweden on just 2 slam hands. The successful slam bidders were Martel-Stansby, using an American style based on ‘natural’ bids in a 5-card major, 2/1 game forcing structure.  The unsuccessful pair were Bertheau-Nystrom using a Big Club with relay responses. This prompted one BBO commentator to observe that here was evidence of the superiority of natural bids over bids that were used otherwise, that is, transfers, relays, asking bids, etc. We take the opposite view. If it were not for the slam hands, Sweden would have won. We’ll see where the evidence leads.

Bids should be defined with regard to their usefulness. The information contained in a bid doesn’t necessarily bear any relationship to the strain. If we think of the simple case of 4NT asking for aces, the response 5may reveal 2 aces are held without implying the A is one of them. Of course, I am being pedantic here, but once we open the flood gates, and allow Stayman, Jacoby transfers and RKCB, where can we stop the flow of artificial, but useful, bids and why should we limit ourselves in that regard? However, if some die-hards still see merit in natural bidding, I want to know why.

Whereas in relay system, generally, one player is the captain and has the primary responsibility for decision making, with a natural approach either partner can at any time make a decision based on what he sees before him. There may be features that suggest he upgrade or downgrade, so that even from the beginning he may steer the auction in one direction or the other, prejudging the outcome based on his normal expectations. He may not reveal these features, so they remain hidden to the opponents, as well as to partner. This is both an advantage and a disadvantage. Many a bad contract comes home because of the bad bidding that was used to reach it.  Slams are different only in degree, as generally, accuracy pays, so it is of interest to see why the BBO commentator thought natural bidding was proven superiority in this context. Let’s see if we can, however reluctantly, find grounds for agreement.

Dealer: North

Vul: None




















Fredin Martel Fallenius

1 Pass 2NT
Pass 3♣ Pass 3
Double Pass Pass Redouble*
Pass 3NT** Pass 4
Pass 4 Pass 4♠
Pass 5 Pass 7

All Pass **slam try *A

The auction follows the normal American expert style, which is not to say it is in any way ‘natural’. The opening bid is somewhat thin by traditional standards. 2NT promised a heart fit, so the trump fit was immediately established in a forcing auction. 3♣ announced shortage in that suit, not a minimum, on loser count at least, and 3 was a cue bid of convenience that moved things along. Later, on his sparse assortment, Martel bid a most unnatural 3NT as a non-serious slam try! Partner then got about looking for controls in an artificial asking sequence. Hardly classifies as natural, does it?

The bid that allowed for the successful play of the hand was the helpful double of 3 by the West player. East led a diamond, and Stansby immediately embarked on the winning sequence of plays. His plan was to ruff 4 clubs in dummy, in the hope that West couldn’t ruff ahead of dummy with the Q. At the other table without the benefit of an asinine call by West the declarer in 7 drew trumps and fell a trick short.

For me the lessons are that one should open light on distributional hands, and, more importantly, one should not provide gratuitous assistance to opponents who are on their way to slam. How often we have seen such actions backfire. It seems that in the current atmosphere of super-aggressive bidding, it is very difficult for some to shut up. The purpose must be to increase the level of uncertainty by making an insane but possibly credible call in a poor suit. As with the boy who called ‘wolf’ all-too-often, the opponents learn to adapt and are not so easily fooled.

Generally, the greatest source of error in the defence lies in the habit of competing with bad suits. Either the defender doesn’t lead the suit when he should, or he does, when he shouldn’t. If one feels one must compete it is better to bid early and at least take away some bidding space. A double takes away no bidding space and provides the opponents with additional calls. Martel opens 1because he wants to compete, and may have difficulty if he stays silent on the first round. Getting hearts into the auction at a later stage may be difficult and misleading on such a poor suit. An opening heart bid merely promises a 5-card suit, and he does have defensive values outside the suit.

Let’s now look at the hand that shows some advantage to a natural bidding style in that it allowed a player (Martel) to upgrade on the basis of undisclosed values. Again, the primary step we look for is the early establishment of a quality trump suit.

Dealer: East

Vul: Both





















Fredin Martel Fallenius

Pass 1
1 1 Pass 2NT
Pass 3 Pass 3
Pass 4 Pass 4
Pass 4NT Pass 5
Pass 6 All Pass

Here the Martel-Stansby auction can be interpreted simply as a natural sequence. Again Fredin is at pains to advertise a suit without much character. His intervention is going nowhere in particular and he knows it. Martel is able to bid his spade suit comfortably, and Stansby can show the power of his hand and the wastage in hearts with a reverse to 2NT. Aided rather than inconvenienced by the minimal interference, Martel eventually employs RCKB and can upgrade because of his hidden extras in spades. 6♠ is cold. The key is Stansby’s control bid of 4 showing his suitability for slam.

Let us now see how the Big-Club Relay system failed when South asked the questions and North had little say in the final decision.

Bertheau Nystrom
♠ K95 ♠ QJ8742 1♣ 1♠
K96 A2 1NT 2
AKJT8 3 2♠ 2NT
♣ K4 ♣ A763 3♣ 4♣
6 controls 4 controls 4♠ Pass

Bertheau opened a Big Club and 1♠ was an artificial response showing 8+ ‘zz’ points with Ace=3, King=2, and Queen = 1, so Nystrom had overstated, apparently.  1NT asked for shape information. 2 was a transfer to spades, accepted. 2NT denied a void, and 4♣ showed Nystrom held 6♠ and 4♣ . The shape was revealed but Bertheau was left with the question of trump suit quality. Bertheau was in the midst of a relay auction, so 4 might have had other uses; he had opened with an under strength Big Club with just 11 zz points.  It seems he was painted into a corner of a system of his own making and felt that 4♠ would not be passed by a partner who had shown promising values. Wrong! It might be said that Nystrom should have continued over 4♠ , despite the initial upgrade. He has just 6 losers and 4 controls and the ♠ J adds some stability to the trump situation. But it is dfficult to bid on once a uncommunicative partner opts for game.

Trump quality had not been established to a sufficient degree. Bidding on distribution alone leaves one at the mercy of probability when it comes to suit quality. Here is how I would have bid this one using Precision asking bids.

Bob1 Bob2
♠ K95 ♠ QJ8742 1♣ 1♠
K96 A2 2♠ 3♣
AKJT8 3 3♠ 4♣
♣ K4 ♣ A763 4 4
5♣ 5
6 losers 6 losers 5 6♠

1♣ is strong and 1♠ shows 5+spades with 8+HCP. 2♠ immediately sets the trump suit while asking about suit quality. 3♣ shows one top honor, there being no way the show the ♠ J. Nonetheless, opener knows there is no grand slam in the cards, so the subsequent auction must be geared towards finding out whether a small slam is viable. At this stage it is best for opener, with only 6 controls, to step aside and let responder take part in the decision making process. (3 would be artificial.) To bid 4♠ would be to deny slam potential, so 3♠ shows non-specific slam interest. One might term it a ‘non-serious’ slam try of sorts. The partners exchange control cue-bids, each exchange promoting the likelihood of 12 tricks being available, until responder has exhausted his possibilities and jumps to a conclusion. One cannot say the auction is natural, but it is cooperative, which enables an exchange of specific control information after an adequate trump suit has been established as the first priority. There lies the main advantage enjoyed by natural bidders.

We note that the opening bidder has not revealed the power of his secondary diamond suit. Had he done so, responder might have been tempted to downgrade. As the auction progresses responder can take an optimistic approach below game by revealing where his controls lie without overstating the overall strength of his holdings. If, knowing what he does, opener sees fit to proceed beyond game without going through RKCB, responder must have faith there exists at least one of many possible good reasons for bidding slam.


LarryOctober 30th, 2011 at 4:28 pm

Another interesting post, thanks Bob.

From the 40th World Team Championships in the Netherlands just concluded:

23rd board, 6th Round of the Semi-Finals played 10 times and 3 teams found the slam:

S: K872 QJ943

H: A9 K742

D: AK87 93

C: AK2 Q9

The opening bids were: 2NT (8), 2C (1), 1C (1). Many auctions used Stayman and over 3D responder bid 4D asking opener to bid game in the 4M they had.

The only slam investigation or bid were the 1C, 2C, and the 2NT responder who transferred instead of using Stayman.


I could not find your e-mail to send you my simple write-up of this slam hand (also sent to Cam French).

Bob MOctober 30th, 2011 at 7:45 pm

Thanks for noting this hand; I’ll have a closer look in the next week’s blogs. As you see, an opening bid with 8 controls is very powerful and merits careful slam investigation. This is yet another example of why an opening bid of 2NT is known as a slam killer.

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