Bob Mackinnon

Too Many Bids, Mozart

Famously the Austrian Emperor Joseph II commented to Wolfgang Mozart that although he admired his lively opera, The Abduction from the Seraglio, he felt the work contained too many notes. Many bridge players feel similarly that some auctions contain too many bids. Indeed there is a feeling among players that the fewer the number of bids the better. They are willing to jump to conclusions in the interest of withholding information.

Bidding systems are geared towards reaching the most probably profitable conclusion, so players will do the same without a strong interest in the exceptions. Once a reasonable goal is in sight a player may go for it without further ado in the hope that normal conditions apply. Otherwise a player may choose not the most descriptive (honest) bid, rather a bid that has the best chance of steering his partner in the direction of a high-scoring contract. In practice attempts at uncovering exceptional circumstances often prove fruitless and may give rise to enlightened defences. Of course, in a bidding contest uncovering the exception circumstances is the key to winning, and there is no cost involved as the defence is assumed to be perfect regardless.

Mozart replied to Joseph II’s criticism by claiming that the work contained only as many notes as were necessary. If one likes to bid for the beauty of it, as I do, then one tends to lengthen the journey and enjoy the scenery along the way. It is not as costly as some may fear. Here is a recent example.



(1) 16+HCP
(2) 11-13 HCP
(3) Stayman
(4) Spades
(5) Top honours?
(6) 2 of top 3
(7) heart controls?
(8) No A, K, or Q

If we consider the bidding as a process, we can see than opener can set the final contract reasonably at any point after the first response that shows a flat hand with 11-13 HCP. Experience tells us that slam is usually not available on 2 flat hands and a total of at most 31 HCP. It is probable that responder holds more hearts than spades. Rather than ‘give away information’ opener may choose to bid 3NT. With this many points there may be just as many tricks available in NT as in a major suit game. Unlucky here, as 3NT scores a bottom.

Conventional wisdom suggest one should choose to play in a 4-4 major fit rather than in 3NT, so opener goes through the motions and arrives at the common contract. South had no difficulty leading a heart simplifying the play and I quickly claimed 11 tricks. The question then arose as to whether I would have made 12 tricks on a non-heart lead? It was possible (the Q falling doubleton) but was it likely that I would have made 12 tricks if I had not asked in hearts? The question did not arise at other tables as North was on lead against 4. Some declarers held themselves to 10 tricks, so the immediate analysis at the table was a waste of time, as it often is.

Nonetheless there is a trade-off between the cost of information and potential for profit. Once the 4-4 fit was uncovered, opener could simply jump to game opposite the limited response, however, 7 controls are well above average for an 18-point hand. Could this deal produce a magic fit? What were there chances of a pay-off? Yes.













7 controls


4 controls

If the bid of 4 had asked for the total number of controls held by responder, the reply in this case would tell the opening bidder that one control was missing, either the K or the K. Slam is biddable under the normal circumstances of longer clubs opposite than diamonds and South will have to make a ’blind’ lead. The cost of obtaining the information is reduced because the information conveyed is easier to interpret by the opener who holds 7 controls than by the opening leader who may hold no controls. This bias of benefit is one reason why Blackwood is effective.

However, when playing matchpoints in a mixed field one must always ask the question as to whether the plurality of pairs will reach slam on hands containing less than the usually required 33 HCP. Standard bidders have a problem after the start 1 – 1. Opener has a hand too good for 1NT and not good enough for 2NT, so he starts with 1. Responder doesn’t promise much, but he could have a good hand. Should opener choose to describe his hand by bidding 2NT, which will keep 3NT in the picture? Maybe the hearts aren’t quite good enough to justify suppressing the spade fit. Should opener jump raise to 3? That will give responder a problem as he can hardly have much in the minors and his trumps may be poor. He could even pass. Why not take the pressure off partner and just jump to 4?

In fact opener doesn’t want to make a limited descriptive jump bid, eating up space, and handing over the captaincy to the weaker hand with few controls. What he really wants to do is make a non-jump forcing bid and have responder do the describing. The bid that does that is the reverse to 2. In this way the opening bidder maintains control of the auction and may return to spades later in the auction. A reverse is supposedly a shape showing bid, a genuine two-suiter, but it promises only that the second-bid suit is shorter than the first-bid suit. It may be only 3 cards in length (or 2 in the case of a diamond reverse.) Maybe you didn’t realize that. There is nothing a tame partner can do to ruin this plan and even 3NT is not ruled out. The opponents may be deceived into thinking opener holds better hearts, and that may actually help on the opening lead, but it is not the only occasion where a 2/1 bidder has to ‘lie’ to fit a hand to an inappropriate slot.

What is the Truth?

In a recent court case in Canada a male celebrity was acquitted of sexual assault charges on the grounds that the accusers had lied about certain details following the incident, in particular, a love-tweet sent to the accused the morning after the night before. One accuser later explained she had lied about sending the embarrassingly unambiguous message in order to make her truthful statements more believable. That makes sense to me, but the judge ruled on the narrow basis that one should always tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

By modern standards the judge was a bit of a stickler. We know that witnesses at the scene of a crime may give conflicting versions of what they saw. Should we assume that some of them are lying? No, it is possible they may be giving an accurate account of what they remember. One witness may state sincerely that he saw spirits hovering over the dead bodies, but the legal authorities are not likely to call him as a witness, are they? That’s not the version they want to hear in a criminal court. On paid-program TV? Absolutely OK. In human terms truth is highly subjective. The measure of truth is not how intensely someone believes it.

After a bridge game players often receive a print out of all the hands along with a computer analysis that tells that are the optimum results available on each hand, given best play by both sides. Some may consider this the Platonic ideal. If you haven’t achieved the double dummy result you (or, more likely, your partner) have done something wrong. Not at all. The hand that appears on the analysis sheet is just one of many possibilities given the bidding and play at any point in the action. Players must choose to make decisions on the basis of which manifestation is most probable given the evidence to date. There are no guarantees that what is most probable on the evidence is the hand printed on the paper.

Hands are rare for which the evidence from the bidding is overwhelming and definitive. Recently on the first deal in a team game my partner opened 1NT (14-16 HCP) and I held the following: Kx Kx AKQJxxxx x. I asked for aces and found partner with 3, so was able to bid 7NT with some confidence without knowing the full details of his distribution. When partner was able to claim on the opening lead, I jokingly suggested we reshuffle the hands as this board was obviously of no interest, but I was wrong. Partner held just 14 HCP, an unusual mix of 3 aces and 2 jacks along with Tx. At the other table where their NT range was 15-17 HCP, the opening bid was 1, ‘natural’, and the first response was 1, which saved space. The lack of evidence for a fit put a damper on the auction, which in the confusion ended with a desperate jump to 6NT. I felt sorry for them, at least to the degree that one might fell sorry for opponents whom you are doing everything in your power to crush.

The System is Rigged, Folks!

As it is impossible to construct a completely accurate description of the hands given the crudity of the instruments available, the objective of the bidder is to determine the feasibility of achieving certain favourable goals, the most common of which are 3NT or 4 of a major. Bidding systems are geared to uncovering major suit fits and the number of HCPs available. Other details are largely ignored. So we commonly encounter an auction that proceeds as follows: 1NT – 2; 2 – 2NT; 3NT – Pass. The players know they have no 4-4 major fit and enough HCP between to expect to make 9 tricks most of the time. Of course, 9 tricks are not assured and the defenders may run off 5 quick tricks on the opening lead, but usually they don’t. That state of affairs is acceptable. It is better than acceptable if all pairs are using the same bidding system with the same definitions and restrictions, as the occasional cost of being wrong will be reduced. In this way, the search for the truth gets replaced by a quick tour through a land of hypothetical fantasy. The number of tricks one can take gets replaced by the number of HCP at one’s disposal. Because the bids are controllable where the facts are not, the flexible bidding structure is given more consideration than the solid reality that gives rise to the bids. Making 7NT on 30 HCP may be labelled lucky instead of obvious.

Bidders are divided roughly into 2 groups: those who struggle to tell the truth at all times and those who count on others to tell the truth so they don’t have to. Much of expert advice is aimed at informing the non-expert when to adjust his bid selection to overcome the restrictions set by the system designer, for example, when to avoid opening 1NT with a flat hand and 15-17 HCP even if that is what is stated on the front of the convention card. Based on an overall evaluation of the hand he holds, the expert seeks out the bid that comes closest to matching his perception of the quality of the hand and its potential for taking tricks in various contracts. Our opponents in the aforementioned team game would have done much better if the opening bidder had upgraded to 1NT on the basis of holding 6 controls with a mediocre club suit within a 4=4=2=3 shape. The bid of 1 was a misrepresentation of convenience in a 5-card major system, a ‘lie’ to make opening bids of 1 or 1 more credible. I see the bidder as a naïve victim of his system. To label 1 as being ‘natural’ is illusory, because playing the hand with clubs as trumps is one of the conclusions the bidder most strongly hopes to avoid.

It used to be said that bridge was like war, but today it mostly resembles politics.


JRGJune 11th, 2016 at 2:39 pm

Enjoyable article. Thank you for being willing to take the time and share your thoughts.

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