Bob Mackinnon

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.

W
 
K6
AQ642
Q10954
A
 
E
 
94
KJ92
AK2
10865
West
East
1
2
2
3
3
4
4
?

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.

1NT Forcing
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.

W
Bob
K1082
AK2
A10972
J
 
E
John
AQJ752
Q75
6
1084
West
East
1
1
4
4
4
4NT
5
6

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.

W
John
A1062
A6
QJ9652
J
 
E
Bob
KQ97
K73
AK
A984
West
East
1
1
4
4NT
5
5NT
6
7

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.

Conclusion
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.


17 Comments

Steve GaynorMay 17th, 2013 at 5:25 pm

Good article, Bob. I like the hands you present as examples.

For those interested in moving up in the bridge ranks and making a serious run in flight A and/or NABC+ events, the 2/1 GF system with all of its bells and whistles (forcing NT, etc.) is superior to standard.

For theose starting out and do not want to devote as much time to memorization of conventions, treatments, follow-ups, Standard may be best.

Either way you have to understand and be disciplined in the system and above all play good bridge.

I heartily believe teaching Standard is the way to go and once a player learns about the opportunities to advance their game THEY can decide to take their game to the next level.

Plus, if a partnership breaks up for whatever reason, the remaining player who learned standard can pick up another who learned the same system. Where they go with that afterward is up to them.

Also, on the first hand, how about a limit raise with 4 trumps, either via Bergen or a direct 3H? Then cue-bidding (e.g., 4C, 4D, 4S, 5D) will reveal what they need to know to bid the slam.

If you feel your 11 count is GF material start with Jacoby 2N. The club shortness is exactly what you want to hear and you are off to the races! I play standard and would NEVER bid 2C with this hand.

No system works all the time. Learn a system, discuss the follow-ups, come to agreement on treatments and style. That will give you and your partner favorable results most of the time. There will still be big frustrations, but that is part of the appeal of this marvelous game.

LakMay 18th, 2013 at 1:55 am

Precision is far, far easier to learn than Standard or 2/1, especially when you play Precision with mostly natural responses (as your example hands seem to indicate you do).

Maybe that’s why they have so many new bridge players in China 😉

Judy Kay-WolffMay 18th, 2013 at 5:48 am

I usually don’t enter into these discussions, but this subject intrigued me.

At one time, I was a firm believer that the best method was 2/1 forcing to game. However, I have made lots of adjustments in my system, veering from the straight and narrow.

For whatever it is worth …

Edgar Kaplan used to say the hardest fit to reach was a 5/3 in hearts after partner opened 1S, so he suggested that you could take liberties with five or more hearts and about 10 HCP. Therefore, 1S P 2H could be bid without a game going hand, making 2H forcing only one round. The three minimum rebids that can be passed are 2S, 2NT and 3H (all allowing for partner to sign off if their two level response was made with less than an opening bid). I have achieved some good results with this deviation.

Also, I have switched to 1NT over a major as INTENDED forcing only. If opener has a balanced 5/3/3/2 minimum opening, he or she may pass as responder cannot have a full opener. The only problem that arises is having a LR in partner’s suit. You may be forced to jump with only three trump which is not such a hardship, and I have found the gains are greater than the losses.

Also, over 1H openings a response of 1S promises five since we play Flannery. Thus, you can always raise with three spades, assured of at least an eight card fit.

I don’t claim to be a theorist (far from it), but I just wanted to share some of my departures from standard practices.

Hard and fast rules are hard to live by.

Gary MugfordMay 19th, 2013 at 6:12 pm

Lak (and Judy),

Hundred percent right on Precision since it’s so very much rules-based on limited range bidding. Competition makes life difficult, but then again, ain’t nobody happy with 13-card-holding opponents thinking their turn to bid means TO bid. In my most dedicated partnerships, I play Precision against Vul opponents and revert to 2/1 GF that’s gimmicked much like Judy’s suggestions otherwise. Unfortunately, I don’t play Flannery, but partner knows that four spades to the six is not a suit. (Well, he knows NOW!!!). He has to be willing to hear 2S when the choice on the rebid is a (semi) chunky three-card spade suit or four of a minor headed by jack-nine. We live with the occasionally missed eight or nine-card minor part-score.

But playing variable systems is certainly NOT the province of novices. Mind you, I still believe the teaching of the game should start with the teacher preparing deals and then giving each defender and declarer notes as to what information they have. Spend a month learning to PLAY the cards and you will see things like how cards win tricks. That length and position are important. That finesses win AND lose about the same amount … in the absence of information. But that with a clue or two, suddenly finessing at the right time ceases to be magic incarnate and only the province of the Bobby Wolff’s of the world.

THEN introduce bidding of whatever system the teacher prefers. Review the notes from the previously-played hands and help the students target arriving at the same information through their bidding.

I know my theory is backwards but it is really only just working backwards from the hoped for goal. And since it starts with just a tiny amount of information to handle, the pyramid will grow in time. Consider the gigantic forest of possibiliites each novice faces from our little 15-word bidding language when starting with bidding. (NoTrump is one word and STOP … is politeness)

Just my two cents.

Steve BloomMay 19th, 2013 at 6:53 pm

Nice article. My take:
(1) New players should play as few gadgets as possible. Bobby Goldman was fond of saying, in bridge, “you have to learn to walk before you can run”. Developing bidding judgment without relying on gizmos will make you a much better player.
(2) 2/1 can be played anyway, without a lot of gadgets, and it is fine, and simple.
(3) Problems show up on competitive hands and misfit auctions. I don’t mind responding 1NT with a shapely hand if fourth hand will pass, but I hate not showing my long suit on an auction like 1H – P – 1NT – 3S – P -4S. Likewise, I have picked up some great hands, and forced to game, and seen the hands go downhill as the auction progresses. Committing to game without a lot of input seems a bit silly to me. Why can’t I change my mind when I learn more about the hand?
(4) I always play a 2/1 structure with a new partner. It is simple. I do not use a 2/1 structure with my regular partner, but we have spent hours and hours discussing which sequences are forcing, etc.
(5) Precision, and light openings, have little impact on 2/1. If partner will open any 11 count, and most 10 counts, then you need a balanced 14 count to force to game. So what?
(6) All methods have their price. In a 2/1 system, the 1NT response is so wide-range, it is completely meaningless. Responder hopes to learn enough about opener’s hand to place the contract. Using ACOL type methods that allow for very light 2/1 bids takes a lot of the burden off the 1NT response. Both players can describe their shape, but the strengths are often shrouded in mystery.

Larry LowellMay 20th, 2013 at 2:29 am

My preferences in playing with a new partner are in order (1) Precision, (2) K-S, (3) SA, (4) 2/1.

Just last week a Precision partner and I playing for the first time won our direction with 61.76 % in a 15 table game. We played Simple Precision, no asking bids, 2 of a minor = 5+ cards and no 4-cd Major and 14-16 NT. We both felt right at home!

Jeff LehmanMay 20th, 2013 at 2:06 pm

When some of the local teachers of bridge to school children gathered together, we decided to teach 2/1 but without 1NT being a forcing (or even semi-forcing) bid. Are these the agreements to which we would subscribe with our partners? No. But it does have the not inconsiderable merit of being pretty easy to learn. For brand new players, we are happy to teach them such basics as the approximate value and fit for bidding makeable games. (And we do not even get into bidding, preferring mini-Bridge, until such time as they have begun to learn the art of taking tricks other than with top cards.) There’s plenty of time to later refine and change bidding methods; the question is what teachings will get them fastest to enjoy the game with at least some ability to identify the potential strain and level of a reasonable final contract.

Bob MacKinnonMay 21st, 2013 at 4:17 pm

Thanks for the sensible comments. I think 2/1 GF is a reasonable rule for beginners and the points requirements have to be adhered to in order for the novice to make his contract without sophisticated techniques. However, one should not pretend it is better for some other reason, such as improved accuracy. Simple is best and for success bridge bidding need not be as complicated as it is made out to be.

Robert E. HarrisMay 23rd, 2013 at 2:43 am

Another nice article from Bob.

Is there a nice and pretty simple strong club book around? I see a fair number of “Precision Club” books but none seem to be simple at a level for a beginner.

LarryMay 23rd, 2013 at 1:25 pm

Precision Simplified for 2/1 G F Players by Neil H. Timm available from Amazon, probably intermediate level.

Or, search http://www.bookfinder.com for C C Wei’s The Precision Bidding System in Bridge, or Simple Precision (used & less than $10).

Larry LowellMay 23rd, 2013 at 2:30 pm

Whoops, the correct title: The Simplified Precision System of Bridge Bidding, 1972, 1996.

Might be available at amazon according to http://www.bookfinder4U.com

LarryMay 24th, 2013 at 1:06 am

Amazon now has Precision 101 for the Kindle!

LarryMay 25th, 2013 at 4:13 pm

Bernie Chasen (RIP) in his pamphlet: The Logic of 2/1 vs Standard:

“The reason SA does not reach the proper contract often enough after a 2/1 response can be stated quite simply: on most hands the WRONG PERSON is making the crucial decision. Whether opener or responder he is the ‘wrong person’ because he doesn’t have enough information to make the decision. Playing 2/1 [G.F.], the right partner makes the crucial decision virtually all the time.”

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Art WildbloodApril 1st, 2016 at 10:45 pm

I am sure you meant FRANK Stewart, not FRED STEWART in the above blog article. They are both great players, but completely different animals~

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