Going to a Better Place


    Source: bridge bloggingFor by Bob Mackinnon on December 22nd, 2015

    Bob Mackinnon
    Bob Mackinnon

    Nothing personal, but sometimes it just doesn’t feel right to let partner play in 1NT. Most responders with a flat hand and less than 8 HCP will pass, and the more players who stay passive the more sense it makes to close one’s eyes and think of +120. But when partner opens 1NT and you have a bad hand without an entry, the standard approach is to wake up and try to get to a better place. Alas, the path to bottoms is paved with such good intentions. Maybe there isn’t a better place.

    The 1NT opening bid has a preemptive effect that works in its favour. A small minus score in 1NT may represent a good result. On the other hand experts have often pointed out that game in a 4-4 major fit plays better than 3NT. Even more so in a partial, where in addition the minor suits come into their own whenever they give the best chance of getting a plus score. Alas, normal Stayman is not geared for that eventuality.

    Here is an unconvincing example of an optimistic undertaking from ‘No Trump Bidding – the Scanian Way’: T953 J83 KJ943 5. It is recommended that responder employ Stayman and pass opener’s reply. Of course, 1NT might play better than 2 on a 4-3 fit, as with the following mix where hearts don’t matter.


    One would be more optimistic of elevation if the diamonds were poorer (QJ943), as dummy might be dead during NT play with no entry available for taking an essential finesse in a major. So, another case of less is more (when nonvulnerable). Here is an example of what is sometimes deridingly referred to as Garbage Stayman, as reported by Bart Bramley in his Vanderbilt report in the December, 2015 issue of the Bridge World. The 5-card boss suit seemed to provide some degree of safety.aaxx

    This time responder had to make 2 bids in his attempt to reach a better place to play. With such weakness it is necessary to make responder’s second bid nonforcing. This made the weaker hand declarer, and after a diamond lead through the broken diamond suit in dummy, Duboin went down 1. Interestingly, by a different path at the other table South (Greco) also became the declarer in 2, making on a clever deduction that his RHO held K doubleton. That gained 4 IMPs. Neither pair was able to reach the optimum contract of 2 making 3 played by the opening bidder, preferring to mess about in hearts. Even 1NT makes 8 tricks.

    One No Trump and a Weak 4441

    The classical takeout situation is where responder has a singleton club and can in good conscience pass the opener’s reply to Stayman. If one holds a 4441 shape, the a priori odds are that there is at least one 8-card fit with partner 80% of the time. The Law of Total Tricks indicates that if one partner holds a balanced hand with 15-17 HCP and the other partner holds 3 to 7 HCP, ideally they should be able to compete gainfully for a part score at the 2-level. If one really believes that, the question one must ask oneself is: how good is my bidding system at getting me to the right spot? It may not be in diamonds, and there’s the rub.

    Normally Stayman is limited to 3 replies, 2, 2 and 2, thus removing clubs from consideration at the 2-level. If responder uses Stayman how often will he immediately hit a playable fit? To get an approximate answer using paper and pen, we limit the shape of the 1NT opening bid to 4333, 4432, or 5332 (5-card minor only). Here are the approximate fractions we obtain for direct hits (4-4 or better).

    Reply 4=4=4=1 4=4=1=4 4=1=4=4 1=4=4=4













    If the reply is 2 of your major, the job is done, but if it is 2 there is more information required. The ambiguous situation could be improved if a 4th reply (2NT) showed a maximum with 5 rebiddable clubs, no 4-card major, allowing for the hand to be played there. Call this Explicit Stayman. It rules out playing in a major 4-3 fit at the 2-level.>

    Weak 4=4=4=1

    Half the time responder will find a 4-4 major suit fit. That is a gambler’s position, but after a 2 reply it is probable that the clubs are well held by the opening bidder. This is because opener is more likely to have longer clubs opposite a singleton than long diamonds opposite 4 cards. When the reply is 2, opener will hold 4 or 5 clubs without 4 diamonds more than twice as often as 4 diamonds without 4 clubs. Therefore, if the Stayman reply is 2, responder most likely has taken a backward step and worsened the contract, so he should relay to 2 in a search for a major 4-3 fit at the 2-level. Thus, responder’s escape from 2 to 2 must be nonforcing, but correctible to 2 if opener holds better spades. Here are the total tricks expected

    Division of Sides Total Tricks Percentage A Priori
    7766 14 17% 10%
    7775 15 8% 5%
    8765 16 32% 24%
    8774 17 11% 7%
    8864 17 8% 5%
    9764 18 5% 7%
    9773 19 2% 3%

    The number of total tricks is somewhat lower than the a priori odds indicate. There are 14-16 total tricks 57% of the time as opposed to the expected percentage of 39%. This argues for caution. The 8765 division of sides is still the most frequent with a total trick sum of 16, but that is achieved when the singleton club sits opposite a 4-card club suit in the opener’s hand. The deadly 7766 division of sides occurs when opener holds 5 clubs.

    Weak 4=4=1=4

    Often on BBO we see commentators grow impatient when an opening 1NT ends the auction. Next! says Joey Silver, but Life is what you make it. With a singleton diamond responder will find an 8-card fit in at least one of the majors about half the time. The probabilities of the division of sides with diamond shortage give much the same picture as for club shortage, with a 25% chance there is no 8-card fit. A 2 response makes it clear that responder has made an unlucky move from 1NT and needs must scramble.

    Here is a recent example from the Gordon vs Becker match late in the 2015 Reisinger (BAM scoring) where a declarer took it upon himself to do the correcting. This move would be more obvious if declarer had a broken suit, however, keeping the strong hand hidden had a detrimental effect on the defence as 2 went down just 1.


    At the other table after a similar start Sontag-Berkowitz stopped in 2, down 2. If the normally wary David Berkowitz took it upon himself to freely enter the auction with 3 jacks, it must be OK. The division of sides was a moderate 7775. Deep Finesse tells us that EW can score 9 tricks in a diamond contract, but I didn’t find a pair who managed it. Six tricks in hearts and 9 in diamonds add up to 15 total tricks – right on!

    Weak 4=1=4=4

    It is trickier when responder holds 4 cards in just one major. Shortage in hearts is the worst situation. There is a 1 in 3 chance of having a 4-4 spade fit, but only a 1 in 5 chance of getting a 2 response. There is a 2 out of 3 chance of at least one 8-card fit, but one may have to go to the 3-level in a minor to find it. There will be at least 17 total trumps 5 times out of 9 partly justifying such a move. Here are the percentages.

    Division of Sides Total Tricks Percentage A Priori
    7775 15 9% 5%
    8765 16 36% 24%
    8774 17 19% 7%
    8864 17 12% 5%
    8873 18 9% 2%
    9764 18 11% 7%
    9773 19 4% 3%

    When opener bids 2/2 (just below half the time), he will be hiding a 4-card spade suit a quarter of that time, and responder must take further action and bid 2 with the agreement that it is nonforcing. The usual American practice is to use this Stayman sequence to show an invitational hand with 5 spades too good to transfer to 2 initially. Without that assurance, opener will be hesitant to let 2 be played in a 4-3 fit from the wrong side. Many are reluctant to give up the captaincy when holding at least 40% of the HCPs. With inherited riches comes the privilege of expressing opinions however wrong they may seem to be to the dispassionate observer. There are hands on which opener may refuse the suggestion to play in spades and bid 2NT to play and he may be correct in that some of the time. However, if opener had replied to Explicit Stayman with 2NT showing a good hand with 5 clubs and no 4-card major, responder would have been informed immediately of the good 9-card club fit.

    Weak 1=4=4=4

    The expected division of sides is the same as for the previous case, but there is the advantage that if opener bids the short suit, denying 4 hearts, responder knows there is a good chance of at least one 8-card fit in a minor, perhaps even a 9-card fit. There is a better than 50% chance that the total trick count is at least 17, backing a move to the 3-level. That’s good. It is best to think of Stayman as a move to play in a minor suit contract with the added bonus of hitting a heart fit one-third of the time.

    If the reply is 2 responder knows he has a fit in a minor, but can’t be sure that clubs aren’t a better trump suit than diamonds, however, the opponents have at least a 9-card fit in spades. The number of total tricks is at least 18. That’s even better. This is a time to take action before the opponents catch on – bid 2NT as a takeout to the opener’s better minor. After a 2 reply (which occurs one-third of the time) responder may take out to a minor by bidding 2NT/2. After that move one will get to an 8-card fit at the 3-level about 3 out of 4 times, that is, unless opener has an unlucky 4=3=3=3. We call this 2NT a Transcendental Elevation.

    To guard against a disaster, as far as that is possible, responder needs convertible values in the minors as opener will not have a 5-card minor along with 4 spades. With balanced power, NT may play better. Here is a computer generated example that provides encouragement for an active approach when holding a stiff without the stuff.


    Even though responder hasn’t the values needed to invite game, if opener can assume that responder lives by his own rules, the hand is worth a raise to 3NT – maximum controls, the majors well held, and partner promising at least one good minor suit, probably diamonds. In this way happy heretics may reach a far, far better place to go than perhaps they deserve or expect.