Breakin’ the Rules: Responding Light by Joshua Donn

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Unlike some of the prior topics covered in this series, the idea of responding light to opening bids is not particularly controversial. Foto: Joshua Donn & Justin Lall

Joshua Donn  & Justin Lall
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Breakin’ the Rules:  Joshua Donn discusses various situations where an expert might decide to deviate from the  “normal” action and break the rules, for BridgeWinners

“Advanced players know the rules. Experts know when to break the rules.” – Anonymous

Unlike some of the prior topics covered in this series, the idea of responding light to opening bids is not particularly controversial. The convention cards of experts all over the world are sprinkled with statements ranging from “We may respond with less than normal responding strength.” all the way to “We don’t pass one-level opening suit bids.”

This raises the question of when it is appropriate to respond to an opening bid with less than the traditional 6 points. To answer that question, we must first define what you are trying to accomplish when you respond light. There are three main goals to keep in mind. In approximate order of importance, these are: to prevent the opponents from finding their best contract, to reach game in case a fit is located, and to improve the contract to a better partscore. We will examine various factors to determine whether a light response is justified to accomplish one or more of our three goals.

Vulnerability and Form of Scoring

The issues of vulnerability and form of scoring are too intertwined to consider separately. I will consider IMPs and matchpoints individually, and look at vulnerability as it pertains to that form of scoring.

At IMPs, the name of the game is… well, game. Bidding and making games is of utmost importance, especially when vulnerable. Therefore, the main goals when responding light at IMPs are to bid your vulnerable games and to try to keep the opponents out of theirs. That means the risk of responding light when vulnerable can be worth it, especially with a 5-card or longer major where game can be made if partner is strong with a fit. That becomes even more true when the opponents are vulnerable, and your response may keep them out of the auction when they have a game of their own. A typical hand for a light response is Kxxxx x xxx xxxx after partner opens a suit below spades. If partner has a strong hand with four spades then there is a great opportunity to make game.

Matchpoint scoring presents a different set of priorities. “Stealing” from the opponents can show a real profit, but the risk of responding light when vulnerable increases dramatically when compared to IMPs. Frequently, a light vulnerable response leads to -200 or -300 undoubled on a partscore deal. This is bearable at IMPs, but awful at matchpoints. When not vulnerable, more liberties may be taken, because -100 or even -150 can be a strong result if the hand belongs to the opponents for a greater score. If I hold xx xxxx QJxxxxx at matchpoints and I’m not vulnerable, then I would take my chances responding 1to a minor-suit opening bid. That may keep my LHO out of the auction where a pass would have let him double or balance with 1NT, and my mild fit for either minor reduces my side’s defensive potential.

Shape

The shape of your hand plays a major role in your decision-making process about responding. However, it can be difficult to quantify because the upsides and downsides of responding increase as the hand gets more shapely. For example, if partner opens 1 and you have a bad 0544, responding 1NT can improve the contract in many ways. If partner rebids a minor suit then you are pleased, and if he rebids hearts then you have hit the jackpot. However, the downside is that partner might rebid 2, 3, or even 4, meaning you have made a bad situation even worse.

Now consider the hand with a couple of hearts moved to spades, so 2344 this time. Again partner opens 1 and you must decide whether or not to respond 1NT. On one hand, there is much less need to improve the contract. If partner were to rebid any lower suit then you would not know whether you belong in that suit or spades, with the additional complication that if you go back to spades partner may take a third bid. But against that, any suit you end in should be fine. While you may get too high, you are unlikely to reach a ridiculous contract. These considerations are similar to some mentioned in the first section, with my belief being that the more unbalanced hands are better for responding at IMPs due to the high upside of game, and the more balanced hands make for better light responses at matchpoints due to the likelihood of avoiding disaster.

Position

Despite being a relatively simple issue, many players overlook the importance of the position of the opening bidder when they decide to respond light. The basic premise is that the more opportunities to bid that the opponents have passed up, the less likely they are to have a contract worth bidding. That means the upside of attempting to keep the opponents out of the auction decreases as the position of the opening bidder shifts.

When partner opens in 1st seat and the next player passes, only one opponent has had an opportunity to enter the auction, and even that player has not denied values that would justify an opening bid. If your hand is bad then it is likely the opponents have a making contract. Thus, it can be worthwhile to respond and keep them from finding it. By contrast, when partner opens in 4th seat and you have the opportunity to respond, there is much less concern about the opponents making a contract. RHO declined to either open the bidding or overcall, and LHO couldn’t even muster up a 3rd-seat opening bid. Keeping the opponents out of the auction is almost a non-issue, so responding light just to steal becomes a pointless strategy.

In my usual predictable fashion, I will now offer up three quiz hands. Consider what you would do and then jump to the answers to see if you match.

1.

IMPs

2.

MPs

3.

IMPs

1: Pass. Being short in both majors reduces most of the good things that responding can get you. If partner rebids any amount of hearts or spades or notrump, then you will be sorry you responded. It’s best to get out as soon as possible.

2: Bid 1. This is a close decision, and I wouldn’t fault a pass very much. In favor of bidding is that the vulnerability is appealing and our king may help partner in any contract. The opponents may even belong in spades and this is our chance to keep them out of that suit. Against that, a lot can go wrong if we respond 1. A three-card raise might be bad, a heart rebid means we are higher in the same suit, and a club rebid forces us to take another dangerous call. When all is said and done, passing here makes you easy to play against, and being easy to play against is not a strong quality for a bridge player.

3: Bid 1. In some ways, this hand is the opposite of the first hand. Length in both majors means that you have two chances to catch lightning in a bottle by bidding, and leaving partner in an anything-0 club fit is not my idea of a good time. Another point in favor of responding is that our minimum high-card value means the opponents may make something, but they may have the wrong shape to enter the auction with a takeout double because of our lopsided shape. Even with no points at all, I have a hard time imagining that it could be a good idea to pass the opening bid with this hand.

I hope you have benefited from my views on responding light. While most players would agree that it is a good idea to respond light on certain hands, there is not necessarily widespread agreement on which hands those are. Please feel free to share your ideas in the comments section.

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