Bob Mackinnon

It’s a Mad, Mad, Bridge World

Reading through the Bridge World is like watching CNN for an entire morning. Apart from the commercials, TV content is mostly bad news that only adds to the depression of its couch-bound clients. No announcement is made advising the viewer to get up, turn off the set, and go for a long walk with a friend in the fresh air. Instead the overly bright commercials feed a false hope of improvement through acquisition of name-brand drugs despite the obligatory warnings of their dire side effects. The same attitude is promoted in BW articles that try to sell you’re a better brand of aspirins for your life-long bidding headaches.  With regard to the Master Solvers’ Club some readers are hopeful that by studying the thought processes of experts they can improve their judgment without changing their convention cards. Acceptance of the systemic restrictions is a given. There is little attention given to fundamental change, the main thrust being on how to cope with a system we have been tinkering with for ages. Incremental self improvement is the aim. Fair enough.

The major difficulty is that there is little agreement among experts on how to cope with the common and reoccurring problems within a critically flawed system. One may admire Eric Kokish’s evasive approach, or Bobby Wolff’s direct acceptance of responsibility, but there is little reason to expect that they will agree on any given problem and form part of a consensus.  Besides which, there is often a feeling that the opinions from the podium are different from the actions at the table, understandable from those whose approach is often psychological. As with presidential elections, the votes depend more on personality than on merit. So, where does that leave you? Are you a Republican, a Democrat, or a Flipper-of-Coins, a Tosser-of-Darts?

One of the fundamental flaws to which we allude is the unlimited nature of opening bids. From this beginning many unsolvable problems arise. Decades ago Howard Schenken recognized this after playing against the formidable Blue Team. He refined the innovative ideas of the great American founding father, Harold S. Vanderbilt. For many years thereafter the world scene was dominated by the Nickell team in which there were 2 expert pairs playing a Big Club system. The obvious seems to have gone unnoticed as Americans at large fail to build upon what made the country great. 

Damage is created by the cramming of hands into a limited category to which they don’t belong (usually 1NT) in order to avoid a potential problem on the next round and to take advantage of a clearly defined structure laden with conventions. A second harmful side effect is bidding non-suits as a mark-time device – Al Roth’s solution to getting partner to bid again and provide concrete information. (Somehow I am reminded of the phrase, ‘The Bridge to Nowhere’ which featured in the 2008 presidential campaign.) First, let’s see what in the Dec 2013 Bridge World the reliable Eddie Kantar had to say about a deal that came up when he was playing with the legendary Yvonne. It demonstrates a typical attempt to overcome a self-generated problem by applying a conventional patch.


A slam was available in diamonds (and presumably in hearts), but 3NT went down when 5 club tricks were taken off the top. Kantar’s solution for this, if it ever happens again, is to make 2 a conventional forcing bid after the transfer. (Yvonne must have a terrific memory having survived Eddie’s version of RKCB.) To do so requires giving up Garbage Stayman, a trashy approach beloved by many fans. This is a recurring theme in the Master Solvers’ Club – so many bids are relegated to the preemptive bin that pressure is put to bear on a responder who wants to show he genuinely has a good hand that cries for elucidation. American bidding, like TV commentary, has so much spin it becomes difficult to judge the true situation. Conventions, if nothing else, curb a partner’s creative impulses, Roy Welland being the notable exception to this rule.

The true solution to Kantar’s problem is radical: play Big Club and open a strong 1. Responder will bid a game forcing 1, showing a 5-card suit, and declarer can continue easily with 2. Problem solved! If one must play BW Standard my suggestion is simple – with terrific diamonds open 1, which should guarantee you won’t miss your diamond fit. Critics may scoff at this simple-minded suggestion, noting that this, as they say of Congress, merely kicks the can down the road. They may well ask, ‘What do you plan to bid when responder bids 1, also unlimited?’ OK, I admit I would bid 1, a mini-reverse, reserving 1NT for a weaker range. Is this so bad with 15 of the 16 HCP concentrated in the two suits bid? I don’t call that balanced. Responder is free to sign off in 1NT if he has the semblance of a club stopper.

For most this is not acceptable. The spades suit, unlike the club suit, is sacrosanct, thus, bidding 1 without 4 spades is an anathema, even though responder can easily avoid a 3-card raise. I hope partner knows how much I abhor being allowed to play in 1. Passing is what I call ‘playing small bridge’, the baseball equivalent being a first inning bunt.

Support with Support (Majors Only)
Recently we have delved into a response structure after a Jacoby 2NT major suit raise. We found that a simple, accurate scheme based on control asking bids could be devised if the response is limited to a flat hand with 4 trumps, 4+ controls including at least one ace, and 12 HCP. If responder goes outside these limits, opener may have problems of evaluation in the slam zone. So what do we make of a Jacoby 2NT raise on this collection: K K642 AQ854 K85? This is a 5+-loser hand with 15 HCP and 5 controls, so the chances of making slam are excellent, even opposite a normal 7-loser opening bid with 2 aces. The K might be doubly useful, as a singleton and as a filler.

Director Danny Kleinman recognizes that the standard follow-ups after a 2NT raise puts responder in charge (an attractive feature for egoists), but won’t provide him with the information about controls that is needed to evaluate accurately the slam potential.  The flaw is a fundamental one of hand evaluation in a system based on high card points.

Ten panelists voted for 2, while 9 voted for 2NT and 4 voted for something else. One of the big arguments for a 2/1 game forcing system is that it gives more space in which to explore slam, but here paradoxically a majority of experts are reluctant to bid 2 because subsequently they won’t be able to extract the right kind of information (namely, controls). It shows how bad things have become when you consider a simple 2/1 response as being fraught with difficulty, even though it is pretty obvious from the start the only question is ‘4 or 6?’ One panelist didn’t want to bid 2 for fear the opponents would start bidding spades. It is bad policy to act out of a fear that far outweighs the reality, be it with bridge or in foreign affairs, as this invites a self-destructive over-reaction. A silly spade overcall might actually help by giving one a couple more bids to play with.

Opener Jumps to 3 – What Does it Mean?
One of my fondest memories of a feisty student of mine was the time she invented the forcing 3 jump rebid on AJ doubleton after the start 1 – 1. Loud were the protests at the pub after the game, but we were the only pair to get beyond 3NT and reach the diamond slam. Many insisted that she needed a 4-card club suit for that move, but they had no suggestion for an alternative other than 2NT, as 3 was nonforcing and she wasn’t dealt a 4-card major that would justify a forcing reverse. Unfortunately her game subsequently deteriorated as she adopted standard practices and became confused.

Problem E involves responder’s action after the same start when holding Q543 76542 Q KQ2. Typically Eric Kokish stalls with 3, whereas Bobby Wolff shows a willingness to sacrifice himself for the common good by bidding 3NT, following the rule he taught a former partner many years ago. One difficulty is that many panelists think opener has clubs worth raising, 3 of them even raising to 4 immediately. Moving past 3NT is mad, unless one is going for slam. A large majority voted for 3, because the Q may fill in the suit, even if it doesn’t provide any ruffs. They categorize this as a false preference, implying clubs are a viable alternative. What else can opener do with 3=1=7=2? (Don’t think, ‘rebid 1’, and don’t consider opening a space consuming 2.)

The main virtue of 3/3 is that it saves space and gives the opener some room to describe the origins of his jump. Does that duck help? Opener should be informed and not be required to invent a bid at the 3-level. With 9 HCP this is actually a pretty good hand under the circumstances and a 3NT response tells of the general nature of the hand without promising the double stoppers that may be needed. If opener is going to jump in this manner he (or she) has assumed the captaincy and must be prepared to take the consequences of a forced bid within the confines of the bidding space below 3NT. How much better off you’d be after a Big Club start.

The Tarnished Virtue of  Natural Bidding
Novices are taught the virtues of natural bidding, but they soon learn that at the bridge table, as at a White House news conference, virtue is often a matter of convenience that needs careful interpretation. Opening 1 doesn’t mean diamonds are longer and/or better than clubs. Many experts feel opening 1 is correct on this hand:  5 KT7 K765 AKQJ9. Wow! There is method in their distortion. The problem with opening in the best suit (that also happens to save space) is that one faces a rebid problem after partner, as expected, responds an unlimited 1. Otherwise, after opening 1 does one have the resources promised for a reverse into 2, a rare bid that best describes the distribution? The panel is almost evenly divided between rebids of 2 (Wolff) and 2 (Kokish). Too frequently a rebid of 2 promises garbage, so this time I am stuck with Kokish’s ‘nauseating’ choice.  He is worried about his next bid. (Canadians are worriers.) Indeed, he suggests avoiding the problem by opening 1NT!  (Didn’t I tell you!) Now that would really worry ME.

Sometimes it is better to imply nothing about clubs. The Precision bidder has opened this hand with an artificial 1 showing 16+HCP and awaits responder’s description with equanimity. Maybe the response will be 1, which says nothing about diamonds!

Caught between Too Much and Too Little
We have been told repeatedly of the shining virtues of the 2/1 approach, but somehow the advantages fade on closer inspection. Here is a problem where half the experts don’t know whether or not they are in a slam auction. The opening bid is 1 on this collection: A6432 AT KQJ83 9, 14 HCP, 5 controls and 5 losers. Partner gives us 2, so what do we do next? Things are looking up, but we have to stay calm and bid 2, just as we would with a garbage hand. Maybe partner can describe his holding and let us take charge, always the hope of the mastermind. Darn! He bids a game forcing but nebulous 2NT. What does that mean? It means he has turned the tables, assumed the NT high ground, and wants us to describe our hand so he can make the decision! Drat!

Here is the full auction to the point of decision: 1 – 2; 2-2NT*; 3 – 3; 3NT – 4; 4 – 4; ??   Ten bids and still there is confusion as to what is going on. Some are willing to stop in 4 while others jump to 6. Kokish makes the most perverse bid, 5, with the admission he loves this kind of bidding; presumably he wants it to last a few more rounds (maybe stopping in 5NT would bring real joy to his heart?) Intellectually he is correct, as usual, but unfortunately he can’t be his own partner. The idea is that we start the bidding with a general description, and that each round of bidding narrows the possibilities by adding information. After 5 rounds one partner or the other should have a pretty good idea of what he faces. Also, the more bidding, the greater the requirement for detail, so the more likely it is that partner is looking for a slam. Rejecting the sign-off in 3NT is evidence this is the case here. Not everyone agrees, as ten fed-up panelists passed.

Today, as Kleinman noted, strong jumps are taboo. A jump bid is descriptive, and allows partner to take charge. Most prefer instead to dilly-dally and coyly maintain their status as a potential decision-maker during an indistinct auction. If I held the given hand while playing old-fashioned Precision, I would open 1 and rebid 3 over 2, showing 5-5 with 14-15 HCP. This consumes space and gives up the captaincy, but at least I’d feel we’re getting somewhere fast. 3NT looms large, but an informed partner knows best.

So, if we read it the right way, the Master Solvers’ Club is a good advertisement for Big Club methods, because it bares the problems that standard methods will never overcome. It is a retelling of America’s worst recurring nightmares reminiscent of Edgar Allan Poe’s horrific tales of endless confinement. That is why, like CNN reports on preventable disasters, it provides entertainment, year after year, without advancing the idea that something real can be done about them.


JRGJanuary 14th, 2014 at 4:06 pm

Edwin holds an extra AJ6 of spades in the diagram.
There’s a lot of food for thought in your post. Within a few months of learning to play bridge, I read Schenken’s book and started playing a big club system with a partner. I later got involved in playing the Neapolitan and Roman club systems (followed by Blue Team Club!).
The big mistake of my early bridge education is probably obvious — not enough focus on bridge fundamentals. However, I’ve always liked the basic concepts of big club systems — those limited opening bids are great.
I’ve been playing a form of Precision Club with a young Chinese woman who is here in Canada studying at university. What I find missing are good agreements on dealing with interference after the 1C opening. I purposely persauded a couple of friends (one expert, his partner near-expert) to play against us on BBO. They are extremely aggressive against a strong 1C opener and I had hoped it would force my partner to re-think some of the agreements she had been taught…
As I said, food for thought!

bob mJanuary 14th, 2014 at 5:55 pm

It has been always claimed that Precision is susceptable to preemption, however, some Precisionists say they welcome help from the opponents. Silly overcalls shouldn’t be a problem if one is forewarned.

In a team game methods have to be geared towards getting to game, 3NT very often being the right countermove. So most bids in competition are geared to that end. At matchpoints the aim is to win the partscore battles, so one needs to have an array of limited bids available. Personally I like having some nonforcing bids in the majors available at Teams as well.

It is worthwhile to study the methods of such pairs as Meckwell and Sontag-Berkowitz.

LakJanuary 14th, 2014 at 6:33 pm

Bridge World bidding problems are problematic in 2/1 only because it is the system they are being devised for. If Precision were the defacto Bridge World bidding system, the problems would all consist of hands that cause headaches to Precision bidders.

The problems might all consist of hands where after 1C is opened, the opponents jack up the auction. For example, on your example hand, the bidding might go:

1C – X (hearts+clubs, at least 4-4) – ?? – 4C (5+ clubs)

Responder has to do something to indicate gf. Would 1H be a natural gf or a strong takeout? Is 1S a negative free bid or is it gf? Assume the partnership plays XX as the strong gf bid. The opponents raise to the law and now, the precision opener gets to place the contract knowing essentially nothing. 4D/5D is not obvious since RHO could have lots of small diamonds and spades is where you need to be if partner did not have a strong spade bid available. 4H becomes tough to find. 4Cx might be par and it is hard to unravel.

There is no free lunch.

SlarJanuary 14th, 2014 at 11:46 pm

I recommend breaking these posts up. This is way too much to absorb at once.

bob mJanuary 15th, 2014 at 5:54 am

It’s true that judious preemption works against any system. And it is better for responder if the opening bid is limited, say, 1NT 15-17 HCP. In the case of Precision, responder should first assume partner has opened with a flat NT hand, 17-19 HCP and act accordingly with an adjusted Lebensohl.

If BW Standard were Precision based, the problems would indeed be different, and many would be based on deals where there was interference over 1 Club. However, many problems faced at the table involve dealing with interference regardless of what system one is playing. This is where it’s at.

The hands on which one opens a Big Club are not numerous. Most often one opens a nebulous, limited 1 Diamond.

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