Source: www.vba.asn.au

Stayman and Blackwood are the world’s most enduring bidding conventions. Whilst Stayman has been played relatively unchanged for many decades, a cottage industry has sprung up inventing variations and alternatives to Blackwood. Easley Blackwood (1903 – 1992) might be aghast – or proud.

Original Blackwood was simple: one step for each extra ace you hold. The only “complexity” was that 5 showed 0 or 4 aces – mathematicians will read that as “0 modulo 4”. Most people could handle the equation.

In this series of articles, we examine the merits – or otherwise – of these variations. And one thing is for sure: most people can not handle some of these equations. Blackwood is the slam bidding tool of players starting out. “I think there’s a slam

– I’ll bid 4NT asking for aces”. It works some of the time. But there are problems, including:

– We might be missing only one ace, but the ace and king can be cashed against us in that suit

– The response to 4NT might takes us too high

– We might have a void, so we can afford to be missing the ace of that suit – We might lose a trick to the king, or queen, of trumps

– Partner of the Blackwooder is removed from the decision-making process

Here is a list of variations and alternatives to the simple Blackwood convention:

1. Keycard Blackwood

2. Roman Keycard Blackwood (RKCB)

3. RKCB 1430

4. Gerber

5. Exclusion Blackwood

6. Minorwood

7. Redwood

8. TURBO

9. Kickback

10.Blackwood according to Bob Gallus

But should 4NT always be Blackwood? Take the following quiz, and check your answers with your partner’s. If they differ a lot, then I see slam disasters in your future.

The question in each case is: “What is 4NT?”

1.

2* 2NT
3 4NT *

* spades and a minor

2.

(2)* Pass (2)** 4NT *

* multi: weak two in a major or 20-22 ** pass or correct

3.

2NT 3*
3 4NT

* transfer

4.

1 2
2 3
3 4NT

5.

1NT 2*
2 3
3NT 4
4NT

* transfer

6.

(3) D’ble (Pass) 4
(Pass) 4NT

7.

1 1
1NT* 2
2NT** 4NT

* 15-18 ** 15-16, not four hearts, not three spades

8.

(1) 2 (3) 3NT
(4) 4NT

The quiz operates at two levels. If you and your partner agreed on all or most of the questions, then your partnership is well tuned, and your Disastrous Misunderstanding index will be low.

Then there is the question of what 4NT should mean in these auctions. For example, if your partnership agreed “Blackwood” on all 8 auctions, then you will suffer no misunderstandings, but your results might not be much good – because on some of these auctions, a Blackwood interpretation makes no sense.

There’s no known formula that I know of that can definitively decide “Should it be Blackwood?” on all 4NT bids. There are too many scenarios. But let me recommend a few rules of thumb that might help:

1) If responder can’t name trumps, it’s not Blackwood.

2) If the previous bid is a natural notrump bid, 4NT is quantitative, not Blackwood.

3) If the previous bid has revealed (extra) length in a suit, then it’s Blackwood, expecting that suit to be trumps.

The three rules overlap. Checking that you are not off two aces works best when you are heading to six of a suit. Conversely, if you are thinking of 6NT, the ace-check is a popgun. Sure, it’s a necessary condition for 6NT that you are not missing two aces, but it’s nowhere near a sufficient condition.

Armed with these rules, let’s consider the 8 auctions.

1.

2* 2NT
3 4NT *

* spades and a minor

My answer: Blackwood with clubs as trumps. Reasoning: Rule 3). Responder has gone to the trouble of discovering opener’s minor. It’s the last shown suit. If responder wanted to use key-card Blackwood with spades as trumps, he must bid 4NT over 2.

2.

(2)* Pass (2)** 4NT *

* multi: weak two in a major or 20-22 ** pass or correct

My answer: Minor suit takeout. Reasoning: Rule 1). A minor two-suiter can be bid no other way. If you instead overcall in a minor, you risk playing there when you belong in the other minor. You might argue: suppose I hold: aaxx

I just want to know about those two aces!

My response is that such hands are extremely rare. Certainly rare compared to any old decent hand that’s long in both minors.

And you are not completely dead if you don’t have Blackwood here. For example, you can double and see how the auction develops. Even if partner simply volunteers a minor, you can perhaps then bid 4NT (ostensibly setting partner’s minor) and play 5, 6 or 7 depending on the response.

3.

2NT 3*
3 4NT

* transfer

My answer: As per your partnership notes. Reasoning: None of the rules fit. You just have to agree with your partner what 4NT means after a transfer. Whilst you are at it, agree what 4NT means after a response to Stayman (both 2 and 2-major!).

4.

1 2
2 3
3 4NT

My answer: Blackwood, with hearts as trumps. Reasoning: Rule 3). 3 ostensibly revealed 5 hearts (that’s not certain actually: how would you bid AJXXX AKJX XX XX?). But a rule’s a rule, and you have to run with it.

5.

1NT 2*
2 3
3NT 4
4NT

* transfer

My answer: Yuck, but technically Blackwood with clubs as trumps. Reasoning: Rule 3). Responder is looking for big things and showing at least 5-5 in the black suits. Extra length has now been revealed in clubs.

But it’s also a “yuck” answer because opener could have a terrible hand, stuffed in the red suits, with two weak spades and three weak clubs. He wants to play 4NT rather than 4 or 5, but the rules won’t let him. The counter argument to this particular application of Blackwood is that with a good hand with clubs, opener could cue-bid in a red suit.

6.

(3) D’ble (Pass) 4
(Pass) 4NT

My answer: Blackwood with clubs as trumps. Reasoning: Rule 3). Doubler might bid to a contract other than in clubs after your response: let him play that contract.

7.

1 1
1NT* 2
2NT** 4NT

* 15-18 ** 15-16, not four hearts, not three spades

My answer: Quantitative invitation to slam. Reasoning: Rule 2). This is the most important auction of the eight.

Once every year or so, opponents conduct the following auction against me, including body language. They bid a few suits, then someone bids notrumps – 1NT, 2NT or 3NT. Partner then bids 4NT.

Responder stares at this bid for a moment, shrugs his shoulders and shows the number of aces. His partner then also shrugs his shoulders and bids 6NT.

Sometimes 6NT makes, sometimes it goes down. But what has actually happened is always the same. The 4NT’er has a hand that is on the margin of slam-going: the point count has revealed that his side has around 31-33 points. The other player doesn’t know what 4NT means, so he makes a safety bid of responding with the number of aces.

Now the 4NT’er still has no idea about slam, but he’s discovered he’s not off two aces, and he has nowhere else to go anyway, so he just bids 6NT. So please add Rule 2) to your partnership agreements.

You might ask: “what’s the point of asking for min-or-max when opener has shown a tight 2-point range in this auction? The answer is that a two point range can contain a huge actual range of playing strengths. I would accept the invitation in the auction above with: aaxx

but reject with: aaxx

Put those hands together with responder’s aaxx

to see why. The 16 point hand is far far weaker than the 15 point hand.

8.

(1) 2 (3) 3NT
(4) 4NT

My answer: To play 4NT. Reasoning: Rule “common sense” applies. The 2 bidder cannot possibly be Blackwooding on this auction. He has extra playing strength, and wants to make 4NT: aaxx

… to be continued