The Great Two-over-One Debate
In the May ACBL Bulletin readers were given arguments for and against the concept of 2/1 forcing to game. Larry Cohen approved of 2/1, Fred Stewart didn’t, suggesting Standard American is better. Comparing the two is not like comparing apples and oranges, it is like comparing pizzas. Do you like pepperoni or salami? extra cheese or bacon? Nutritionally the two may be equally harmful. Cohen went so far as suggesting that all beginners be taught 2/1 methods, currently the current standard approach. Apart from the societal benefits of going with the crowd, is there any justification for doing so?
With regard to the education of the naive let’s consider high school home economics. Recently I saw on television the author of a cookbook making the claim that 70% of the North American diet consists of processed foods. Every sensible person agrees that this is an unhealthy trend as processed foods contain far too much salt, sugar, and fat, but what we know is wrong and what we do in practice are often in conflict. Now, in home economics classes, should the students be taught how to prepare a hot lunch consisting of a can of tomato soup, a ham and cheese sandwich made with sliced bread from the supermarket, finished off with a dessert of vanilla ice cream topped with chocolate sauce? I’ve enjoyed lunches like that, so wouldn’t it be mean-spirited to argue that teaching kids to partake of mainstream American fare is wrong? Not at all. Students should be taught to think clearly and to make informed decisions. Bad habits they can learn at home.
‘So,’ a critic may comment,’ you’re one of those dinosaurs from the dark ages who think women should stay at home every Sunday afternoon slaving over a hot stove while their husbands go off to play golf with the boys.’
‘Sounds great to me,’ I would concede, ‘but during my nearly 50 years of marriage I have never been given the option.’ But I digress.
To get down to basics, should beginners be shielded from conventions and led to believe that ‘natural is best’? Cohen goes rhapsodic on the topic, but we all know that the requirement to be natural is technically disadvantageous. Naturalness should not be an aim in itself. Consider the following combination in which to respond with a natural 2♣ bid is not only wrong, it is downright perverse.
A bright beginner is entitled to ask, ‘why must I bid 2♣ when I know I want to play in hearts? He or she may wonder, ‘isn’t it better to bid 2♦ where most of my points lie?’ Or, ‘why must I risk a Semi-Forcing 1NT when I want to be game?’ Is it the time for the instructor to backtrack and talk about ‘support points’? Rather it is a good opportunity for the teacher to introduce the idea that 2♣, like Stayman, is totally artificial and asks for more information from the opening bidder. It is not a radical new idea; for good reason the Drury convention, named after an esteemed member of the ACBL Board of Governors, has played its part in American bridge for over 50 years. Today his convention is needed even with an unpassed hand. Accepting the idea that 2♣ doesn’t say anything about clubs makes sense, rendering the slam much easier to bid. In fact, this combination was bid to 6♥ using a system within which 2♣ was defined as a totally artificial invitational bid without reference to either clubs or hearts. I think young players love conventions, especially the ones that are useful, crystal clear, and part of a pattern.
It’s been a while since I have seen a reference to a ‘biddable suit’. Most of the time long suits are biddable, but freely bidding a topless suit gives the wrong impression entirely. When responder freely introduces a suit, a minor suit especially, partner is entitled to expect values in that suit. The absence of honors could be advantageous in a competitive auction if the opposition is deceived, but in a constructive mode it may turn against the pair looking for slam. On the above sequence the responder will be reluctant to invite slam when he has a minimum for his 2-level response and knows his club suit has doubtful value, when, in fact, the lack of wasted values in clubs is a prime attribute.
The difference between 2/1 and Standard boils down simply to the use of 1NT Forcing. The wider the range, the less information the bid contains. In 2/1 the normal range is 6 to 12 HCP; within that range there is a wide assortment of hands allowed. If the bid is ‘semi-forcing’ as Cohen advocates, opener is allowed to pass with a flat minimum. In a contract of 1NT there is value in the uncertainty which works in favour of the declarer. This can be said of any contract: the more the uncertainty in the bidding the greater the chances of making it once arrived. Because a vulnerable game needs in theory only a 38% chance of making to justify bidding it in a team game, it behooves a partnership to blast away without delicacy to such games. Keep it simple, bid what you think you can make, and worry about it later.
Fred Stewart likes to think of bridge as exercise in logic, so he prizes accuracy and exploration. He states, ‘one problem with 2/1 is that responder can’t locate his side strength with a game invitational hand.’ Well, as Cohen suggests, delicacy in the game zone is not needed, so one should just go ahead and bid games hoping for a good fit or a bad defence. He mentions the success of Meckwell in this regard, but fails to mention they play Precision which allows for an opening bid on 10 HCP whereas 2/1 doesn’t.
After a 2-level response in Standard a partnership may decide to play in a suit contract at the 3-level. With 2/1, 3-level suit contracts have been removed from consideration, the purpose of 3-level suit bids being to exchange information in order to determine the chances in a slam contract. Paradoxically, bidding at the 3-level which reveals strengths and weaknesses may result in a reduction of one’s chances of making close games or slams. Consequently, players are reluctant to employ descriptive 3-level bids just on the off-chance that a slam may make. So, although the bidding space has been freed up for this use, players don’t like to use it. Thus, minor suit slams are very rarely pursued, 3NT being the contract of choice. In addition, bids between 4♣ and 5NT are seldom utilized in a natural sense. Cuebidding controls has become a neglected art. ‘Last Train’ is a control bid without a control! Precipitous ace asking bids have taken over the territory, and for good reason: if someone has to come clean eventually and cough up real information, it is better if only one partner does it, rather than both.
A Better Way
There is a significant difference between 2/1 and Standard on the one hand, and Precision on the other, in that many Precision opening bids are limited to at most 15 HCP. This is critical even when bidding slams. Here are 2 examples from recent games at my club involving Precision with a nebulous 1♦ opening bid where the length of the diamond suit may be a little as 2 cards. This is unnatural, nonetheless, the opening bid is the same 1♦ in all methods. What follows is quite different.
The opening bidder had substantial values, a maximum Precision 1♦ opening bid under the definition. It was more or less incumbent upon me to show a maximum by a splinter in support of my partner’s spades. Two trump honors with 6 controls are worth an equivalent of 20 HCP. John upgraded his hand with its singleton in diamonds opposite the advertised singleton in clubs, but what natural, descriptive bid could he make? None. His solution was to cue bid 4♦ presumably to show a control, but really it was more of a mark-time bid awaiting developments. With an unlimited hand responder was in charge of the auction at this point, a situation made possible by the original upper limit on my HCPs, so he didn’t need to share the decision-making responsibilities, so didn’t need to make a descriptive bid to put me in the picture. His aim was to extract information, not give it. So, a unilateral RKCB easily led to a good slam on 24 HCP.
Let’s consider these results from the point-of-view of all those who didn’t reach the slam. Their failure cost them a mere half-a-matchpoint. This is hardly something one worries about, but more than that, why risk a very bad score when one can stay with the crowd in comparative safety? This approach represents mediocrity for its own sake. Fine, but let’s not pretend that 2/1 is a good system for getting to slams. In the same vein, here is a grand slam from the next week’s action missed by all.
The bidding is simple if the opening bidder is allowed to make a descriptive splinter bid on his 6-loser collection. The number of HCP is non-factor. When a fit comes to light the holder of a 6-loser hand should take some encouraging action. In the 2/1 system where 1♦ is unlimited, a splinter to 4♣ seems rather to overstate the condition. In so doing my Precision partner showed courage, yes, but also judgement as the ♦J and the ♠ T can be seen to be assets more valuable than their HCP assignments indicate. The good trump fit, the potential for ruffs, the long suit that might be developed, the control in hearts all point towards an exceptionally good mesh. It is critical that opener was marked as having less than 16 HCP – he wasn’t claiming slam potential for his own hand. After the announcement of shortage in clubs, responder went through the motions of RKCB to determine ‘how high?’ Finding partner without the ♣K was a revelation that made it especially easy to bid the grand slam.
Bridge is a game of probabilities, not certainties. Slams are rare and competitive auctions are becoming more and more frequent. If one is to consider the practical advantages of a system it is necessary to include not only what the bids tell you, but also what they hide. Double dummy accuracy and full disclosure are not the only virtues. A system should be adaptable, logical, and easy to use. Sticking to a requirement of naturalness complicates matters immensely; it is much easy to be able to ask a direct question and receive a direct answer, than it is to fish around in murky waters.
One last point: 2/1 is not a single system, it is 3 different systems that vary with the seat position. It doesn’t apply after interference. A great number of unrelated artificial bids are needed to patch over the flaws. This is a recipe for confusion.