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Do you Pass often Enough?

2NT is bad news

No bridge player is happy to be playing 2NT. If you take nine tricks, you will wish you were in game. If you take seven tricks, you will wish you were only in 1NT. Even if you take exactly eight tricks, youstill wish you were only in 1NT, because you had the extra stress of being in a delicate contract while other declarers were relaxing in a secure 1NT looking for overtricks for the fun of it.

If you read a typical Standard American bidding textbook such as Bill Root’s Commonsense Bidding, you will be told that, when responder has a balanced hand and his partner opens a 15-17 1NT, he should

  • Pass with 0-7 points

  • Raise to 2NT with 8-9 points

  • Raise to 3NT with 10+ points

Well, OK. That is indeed standard practice. So far so good. But there is a fly in the ointment. No, two flies. Wait, three. (NOBODY expects the Spanish Inquisition!).

The first problem is that the High-Card Point was not given to us engraved on a stone tablet by Moses. Hand evaluation is fuzzier than that. Points, in and of themselves, do not take tricks. When the books say «bid 3NT when you have 25 or more HCP», they mean that with 24 HCP you will make game maybe 1/3 of the time, and with 27 maybe 2/3 of the time. Whatever point-count cutoff you pick, when you are faced with a close decision, you are going to guess wrong almost half the time.

The second thing is, does «8-9 points» mean 8-9 HCP or does distribution count too? A 5-3-3-2 hand is certainly very likely to be worth an extra trick than a 4-3-3-3 hand with the same high cards. Does that mean a 5-3-3-2 with 9HCP should just bid 3NT? Probably so. Does that mean a 5-3-3-2 with 7HCP should invite with 2NT? That’s harder to say.

Thirdly, there is another, larger problem with 2NT: the more bids there are in your auction, the more information you give away. The question is, is that information going to be more useful to you for choosing the right contract, or to your opponents when defending?

How much information are you giving away?

Let’s compare three different auctions to 3NT:

Auction A Auction B Auction C
1NT 3NT 1NT 2NT 1NT 2
    3NT   2 2NT

In the first auction, opener could have any 1NT opening — 2 to 5 cards of all four suits, 15 to 17 points. After the opening lead, everyone can see responder’s hand of course, but before the opening lead, all they know is that responder has a strong hand and probably no 4-card major. Opening leader has only a very rough idea what his partner’s strength and distribution might be.

In the second auction, opener has said he doesn’t have 15, but has a good 16 or 17. Responder is similarly in a narrow range. The defender on opening lead can bet money that his side’s total assets are either 14 or 15 HCP, and has a fair idea how much he can hope for from his partner. After the opening lead, both defenders know their partners’ strengths within one point. Third hand may well be able to name what face cards his partner has, by thinking about what card his partner chose for a lead and studying the dummy.

The third auction is even worse. Everything I said about Auction B still applies. In addition, the defense knows that declarer has either 2 or 3 hearts, and exactly 4 (rarely 5) spades. If the opening lead is a minor, either opener’s spot card or third hand’s signal may give the defense a count on that suit too. The defense is going to be so devastatingly accurate that you will feel as if they can see through the backs of your cards. Against this kind of bidding, they really can. Go ahead and write down an estimate of 25% on your private score for this board before the first card is played.

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