How light should an opening bid be? by Gordon Bower Part I

Gordon Bower
Gordon Bower

Part I: First and second seat openings

The traditional view

When people talk about opening light, they usually are talking about opening in third seat, after partner and right-hand opponent have already passed. There are still many people who adhere to the old Goren rule: «open all hands with 14 or more points, and those with 13 points and a good rebid.» (Traditional Goren adds points for short suits as opener, so his minimum strength was 12-13 HCP for 4432 and 5332 distribution, 11-12 HCP with 5422 or 5431 shape, and 10-11HCP with 5-5 or 6-4 hands.) The modern equivalent of Goren’s guideline is the «rule of twenty:»

[box type=»info»]The rule of twenty:
Add your HCP and the number of cards you hold in your two longest suits. If the total is 20 or more, open the bidding; if not, pass.[/box]

In fact many people play sounder opening bids than the Rule of Twenty recommends. Max Hardy’s Two Over One Game Force says this: «All hands with 13 HCP should be opened. Hands with 12 HCP are opening bids when they have two defensive tricks and no rebid problem. Hands with 11 HCP are opening bids if the high cards are primary and placed in the long suits (it would be criminal to pass with AKxxx-Axxx). . . . the guide to whether or not to open with marginal high card holdings is the shape of the hand and placement of the high cards. Do not open with a bad balanced 12 count in first or second seat, but a distributional 10 count with combinations of primary cards in long suits should be opened.» This is «rule of 20.5 or 21» — only the most exceptional rule-of-20 hands are opening bids. The Roth-Stone system, a predecessor of modern 2/1, was even stricter.

Traditional Precision allows openings on 11 HCP and a good 5-card suit, or 13HCP with a flat hand. This is essentially rule of 20 with a few rare exceptions.

Some modern systems (rarely seen in North America, and uncommon in most of the rest of the world) take a wildly different approach, opening many or even all hands in the 8-12 HCP range in first seat, but using a completely different, usually highly artficial, set of responses. [I need to add some links here to examples] However this article is aimed only at natural 5-card major systems like Standard American and 2/1.

What are the rest of your agreements?

Exactly which hands you should open in first and second seat depends in part on what treatments you use in the rest of your system. Before you read on, ask yourself which of these popular methods do you and your regular partner use:

  • 1NT Forcing response to 1 or1 opening
  • 2/1 Game Forcing responses
  • Drury (Regular, Reverse, Two-Way, etc.)
  • Fourth Suit Forcing
  • Delayed Stayman or New Minor Forcing

It may not be obvious to you at first — but you have to consider your whole system when deciding which hands to open. If you start by rigidly adhering to a guide like the Rule of 20 and then try to decide what response and rebid methods to play, you’re going to give yourself some unnecessary headaches. This isn’t an area that the textbooks talk about much, and it’s one that I see cause disasters every day in tournaments even for experienced partnerships.

The Key Question

Any time you’re in a borderline situation and can’t decide whether to open the bidding or not in first or second seat, there is a question you should ask yourself. First, imagine you decide to open; think of what your partner’s most likely responses are, and decide how happy you will be about finding a rebid in that auction. Then, imagine you decide to pass; think of what your partner is most likely to open, and decide how you’d respond to him. Which half of that exercise was easier for you?

If you aren’t sure whether to open the bidding or not, ask yourself—
Which will be easier — opening and having to find a rebid, or passing and having to find a response to my partner’s opening bid?

If you have a hand that’s easy to bid either way, go ahead and open; no reason not to take up some bidding space and make your opponents’ lives a little tougher.

If you have a hand that can open and then rebid easily, but can’t think of any response that will do justice to your hand if partner opens, then open yourself and prevent partner from posing an impossible problem to you.

If you won’t have a good rebid if you open, but you do know how to describe your hand as responder, pass — don’t create trouble for yourself by opening, let partner make your life easy for you.

Hopefully, you wont run across many hands that you can’t describe adequately whether you are opener or responder. If you do, you have just identified a flaw in your current bidding system. No bidding system is perfect; but if you find this happens to you frequently — it’s time to look for ways to improve your methods, not just bemoan your bad luck.


Now let’s look at some typical hands you might be faced with as the dealer, and decide whether or not they should be opened, by asking ourselves that key question. Be warned — some of the answers may surprise you! It’s not as simple as just saying «2/1 players need sounder opening bids than Standard players do.» Think back to the list of conventions I mentioned above:

  • 1NT Forcing means that a 1 or 1 opener always has to find a second bid — passing with a weak hand and 5332 shape isn’t allowed anymore.
  • 2/1 Game Forcing is based on the principle that to make a 2/1 response, you’re certain the partnership’s assets will produce a game. That means the weaker opener is allowed to be, the stronger responder will have to be to bid a 2/1, and the more often responder will have to resort to using 1NT Forcing.
  • Drury makes it easier to show an 11-point hand with 3-card trump support after passing, but makes it harder to show a club suit (or a diamond suit, if you play 2-way Drury).
  • Fourth Suit Forcing and New Minor Forcing give responder more flexibility and make it easier to handle wider-ranging opening bids. Some people use opener’s 3rd bid in a NMF auction to distinguish between minimum and maximum hands for the 1m-1M-1NT sequence.

Two-suited hands

These are probably the most clear-cut cases of how your shape influences whether to be agressive or conservative in first or second seat. Look at these six hands, and see how much difference it makes which of your suits is longer:

  1. JT9xx KQxx Axx x
  2. xx Kxxxx KQxx Kx
  3. KJxx Qxx x AJxxx
  4. KQxx Kxxxx Kxx x
  5. x Axxx KJxxx Kxx
  6. Jxx x QJxx AQJxx

With the first three hands, it’s easy for you to open in your longest suit and rebid in your second suit. Hand 1 might not be too bad if you pass; partner will probably open a minor and rebid 1NT, and you just have to decide if this is a weak or an invitational hand, and figure out if you can distinguish 5-4 and 5-5 hands after 1-1-1NT. You won’t find many books telling you to open hand 2, but I don’t know why not: if you pass and partner opens a spade — or if the opponents bid spades — you have no hope of describing this hand to your partner. (This opening is safer in SA than 2/1, because a 2 response is less likely to get you too high; but the risks of passing are so great I’d open Hand 2 playing either system.) Hand 3 has an easy 1 rebid if you open, and if you play FSF you’ll still be able to find a 5-3 heart fit. If you pass, you’ll have to pass again after it goes 1-1-1NT, or overbid and lose your 4-4 spade fit with 1-2. If you pass and partner has hearts, people who don’t play Drury will be miserable.

Hands 4-6 are just the opposite of the first three. If you open Hand 4 with 1 and your partner says anything other than 1, I can promise you won’t like how the rest of the auction unfolds. With Hand 5 you have no rebid if it starts 1-1, but over partner’s 1 opening you have an easy 2 and will be happy with whatever your partner rebids. IF your partner starts with 1 and RHO overcalls 1 you can make a negative double and then introduce the diamonds if partner fails to show enthusiasm for the hearts.

Hand 6 is the worst of both worlds. If you open 1 , you’re going to be stuck raising 1 on Jxx, rebidding your 5-card club suit, or contemplating a ugly 1NT over 1. If partner opens 1, Standard players are happy with 2 but Drury people are up a creek; if partner opens 1, it’s the other way round. At least if you pass, the opponents might bid and raise a major and let you come back in with 2NT.

With non-touching suits, it’s not so clear what to do, because partner might bid either of your two short suits. Go with your gut instincts, but here are my personal preferences:

  • 4 hearts and 5 clubs: Pass. 1-1 is a problem.
  • 5 hearts and 4 clubs: Open; partner is more likely to respond 1 than 2. If you pass and partner opens 1 it’s bad, if he opens 1 you might still find hearts via FSF/NMF.
  • 4 spades and 5 diamonds, or 5 spades and 4 diamonds: tossup. (Can you see a reflection in your partner’s eyeglasses to tell you how many hearts he has?)
  • 5 spades and 5 diamonds: I tend to pass, since I have the master suit and will probably have a chance to bid it however the auction develops. You’ll find plenty of experts who disagree, and are eager to open these hands to preempt.
  • 5 hearts and 5 clubs: I tend to bid, to get the hearts into the auction before the opponents mention the spades, and again, I am more likely to hear 1 than 2 from partner.

In summary, with two-suiters, rather than «rule of 20 always», think «rule of 20 if my second suit is easy to show, wait for full opening high-card values if not.»

Balanced hands

This section of the article will strike some of you as heretical. But bear with me. Especially if you can open 1 and not 1 , you should be happy to open many 4333 and 4432 hands in first seat with only a bad 12 or even 11 HCP! Why? The same reason as before … look ahead to the second round of the bidding.

With a weak balanced hand, you always have an easy rebid: if partner responds in a major and you have 4-card support, raise him to two; if not, rebid 1NT. If you pass as dealer with these hands, here is a sampling of what might happen on the second round:

If partner opens a major and you have 4-card support for it, everything is fine: you will give him a limit raise. Similarly, if partner opens 1 and you have 4 spades and 2 hearts, you have an easy 1 response. Hands like these don’t give you response problems when your partner opens and they aren’t too bad if the opponents open and you or your partner makes a takeout double. With these four hand patterns (4432, 4423, 4234, 4243) you are not under pressure to open the bidding in first seat with a subminimum hand.

With other distributions it’s not so pretty. If partner opens 1 and you have 2443, 2434, or 2344 and 11-12 points, your textbook bid is a jump to 2NT. If partner opened light you now have only one way to escape in a partscore — passing 2NT. If partner is strong, he has limited bidding room to decide which suit is your best fit and consider slam exploration. Wouldn’t you be so much better off if you’d opened 1 of a minor, partner had responded 1, and you had rebid 1NT?

What if you have 3-card support for your partner’s major after you pass and he opens? You need one more trump to give a limit raise. If you bid 2 of a new suit, partner might pass, since you’re a passed hand. Even if you play 1NT Forcing, that probably doesn’t apply either now that you are a passed hand. You really have three choices:

  • You can adopt Drury. Now you can respond an artificial 2 when you have a 3-card limit raise for partner’s 3rd-set opening. The down side is that you have traded one problem for another: now it is hands with a club suit that are hard to bid. People use various workarounds: opening the club hands light (but should they rebid 1NT or 2 after partner’s 1M response?); using the jump shift to 3 by a passed hand (but do you really want to be that high with your Jx AQx xx KJxxx after partner opens 1?); or sticking a bunch of semibalanced and unbalanced hands into your 1NT and 2NT responses.
  • You can agree that 1NT and/or 2m by a passed hand is still absolutely forcing on opener. This is playable, with the same plusses and minuses as 1NT Forcing by an unpassed hand. The down side: it limits your ability to open light in 3rd seat, which we’ll come to in Part II of this series. Especially newer players might like the simplicity of this approach. Almost no experts currently use it, though.
  • Yes, you guessed it … open all your weak balanced hands including a 3-card major with 11 or 12 points, instead of waiting for partner to open them! The catch here is that you need to have a mechanism to uncover the 5-3 fit after 1m-1M-1NT. That means playing some form of Delayed Stayman or New Minor Forcing. Ideally a form that allows opener to show both whether he is minimum or maximum for his 1NT bid and whether he has 3-card support for responder’s suit.

Not surprisingly, the last is my personal recommendation. In a later article, I will describe my preferred form of Delayed Stayman which I use to handle my 11-14 1NT rebid. If you play this way, you’ll open many flat hands that don’t meet the rule of 20, and even some that don’t meet the rule of 19.

One-suited hands

One-suited hands (6331, 6322, and more extreme shapes) have the best of both worlds. If you open 1 of your suit, you are guaranteed to have an easy rebid: 2 of your suit, to show minimum values and six cards! The choice with these hands is not whether to open, but what to open. Hands with 11 HCP and a 6-card suit meet the textbook requirements for a 1-bid and for a weak two-bid.

Playing classic Standard American, my advice is to open with a weak two if you have only one side suit stopped, but open at the 1-level with two side suits stopped (and a correspondingly weaker long suit.) In fact with one of my regular partners, I play Ogust over weak twos, modified so that instead of a vague «good or bad hand, good or bad suit quality,» I show specifically «side stopper or not, 2 of top 3 trump honours or not.»

If you play 2/1 you have to be a bit more careful: do you really want to open 1M on your 10- or 11-count and hear your partner force to game by bidding two of your singleton? For 2/1 players, I recommend the same rule for your weak twos, but to pass the questionable hands with scattered values and a weak 6-card suit. You’ll show these hands the same way you would if they had a good 5-card suit.

Of course, with a 6331 or 6322 hand with 3 cards in the other major, the problems described in the balanced hands section above still apply.

People who play Standard American might well choose to open 1 of a suit — especially 1 , which is likely to be shut out by the opponents bidding spades — with 5332 shape and only 11 points, planning to escape by passing a nonforcing 1NT response or by rebidding 1NT over 1 themselves. If you play 1NT Forcing (and especially if you play 2/1GF), this becomes too dangerous, and you’ll have to plan on showing these as a responder on the second round. Provided you have good FSF/NMF agreements and they still apply to a passed hand, this isn’t anything to worry about. Playing 2/1 without having FSF(1 round) or NMF still apply to a passed hand is dangerous, because a lot of 24HCP games on 5-3 major fits get lost if you can’t describe these 11-point 5332s.