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One of the oldest debates in bridge has to do with opening bids on balanced hands. When I learned the game, Goren's 5-card major rules for choosing an opening had been adopted by virtually all players. Goren wrote that when holding 4-3-3-3 or 4-4-3-2 shape:

1. If possible, open your longest minor.

2. With equal length, open 1 if 3-3 and 1 if 4-4.

The rationale for this agreement was that if the auction became competitive, a 1 opening on 4-4 leaves opener better prepared for competition. For example, an auction might proceed:

W
N
E
S
1
1
X
2
?

Opener would be well-placed to compete with 3 if he had opened 1

As I read more, I learned there was a second style that preferred a 1 opening on both 3-3 and 4-4 patterns. Their argument was that 1 provided more opportunity to find all big minor-suit fits. Their example hands looked like this:

North
xx
AQx
Axxx
Axxx
South
xxx
Kxx
x
Kxxxxx
W
N
E
S
1
P
1NT
P
P
P

After the 1 opening, the strength requirements for a 2 response constrains responder's bidding options. Responder really has no choice but to respond 1NT on the example hand. As a result, a fine 10-card club fit and an excellent 5 game is missed. However, after a 1 opening, the club fit is immediately found. If responder's 6-card suit had been diamonds instead of clubs, responder could bid 1 and again the big minor fit would be found.

Of course these writers didn't discuss awkward competitive sequences so it was hard to compare the two arguments. But both seemed to have merit. So who was right? I am now confident that opening 1 on 4-4 is correct, and the rest of this article explains why.

Responding to 1

Accurate bidding is largely a function of bidding space. Let's look at two sequences:

North
AQ10x
Kx
KQ10x
109x
South
9xx
AQx
Jx
QJxxx
W
N
E
S
1
P
1NT
P
?

What should North bid? North has a spot-rich 14 HCP, but all he can do is pass. For all he knows, responder has 6. Unfortunately, today, responder has 10 HCP and 3NT has excellent play. 

Perhaps you think that the blame falls with responder. Maybe responder should have bid an invitational 2NT instead of a pusillanimous 1NT? Unfortunately, the hands might have been different. For example:

North
xx
Kxxx
AKQx
xxx
South
9xx
AQx
Jx
QJxxx
W
N
E
S
1
P
2NT
P
P
P

Now 2NT has no play. Why is it on two ordinary layouts the partnership is so likely to go wrong? The flaw lies in a lack of bidding options.

The partnership has only two bids--1NT and 2NT--to describe almost all hands ranging from 6-12 that can neither bid 1M nor raise diamonds. Further, the 2NT call is dangerously high. As a result, those two calls must cover a lot of ground and the opener may be left guessing facing a wide-ranging 1NT response, or the partnership may simply be too high opposite a 2NT call.

 

Responding to 1

Now let's look at a similar auction beginning with 1.

North
AQ10x
Kx
109x
KQ10x
South
KJx
Axx
Jxxx
Jxx
W
N
E
S
1
P
1NT
P
2NT
P
3NT
P
P
P

Responder bids a constructive, narrow-ranged 1NT showing 9-11 HCP. Opener can see his hand has game-invitational values and raises to 2NT. Responder continues on to a cold 3NT. Simple.

Why was this auction so much easier? The narrow-ranged 1NT makes opener's judgment decision easy. He is clearly worth a game invitation opposite 9-11. Furthermore, since the upper limit for 1NT was relatively high, responder did not have to raise the auction to a dangerous 2NT to show his values. The 9-11 is perfect (in the context of a strong NT opening style) -- it allows opener to invite when near the top and it keeps the auction low when opener is near the bottom.

Very nice. But doesn't that 9-11 range leave responder poorly placed with 6-8 balanced? Not really. After a 1 opening, responder has two cheap bids for hands with no major and no fit for clubs: 1 and 1NT. Responder can simply respond 1 on the weaker 6-8 point hand, planning to pass opener's rebid or convert to 1NT.

That 1 response does not sound like much, but it brings the crucial extra bidding option we needed, allowing us to use 1NT as a proper constructive tool. But will we find a good contract after that 1 response on the 6-8 point balanced hands? Our forced 1 response often leaves us better placed on these hands too. 

South
AKx
xxx
xxx
xxxx
W
N
E
S
1
P
?
Do you really want to respond 1NT thereby wrong-siding the contract? Wouldn't it be nice to bid 1 allowing you to pass partner's 1M rebid or convert to 2? And if partner rebids 1NT instead, won't you feel happier having him declare with the lead coming into his tenaces? Whenever responder's hand is extremely weak, the advantage in allowing opener to declare is maximized.

More Advantages

Using the 1 response to 1 for our 6-8 HCP balanced hands (as well as those with long diamonds) over 1 has other benefits. We can now reserve the sequence 1 - 2NT to show 12-15 HCP. 

North
x
KQJx
xx
AKxxxx
South
Axx
Axx
Axxx
Qxx
W
N
E
S
1
P
2NT
P
3
P
4
P
4
P
4
P
4
P
6
P
P
P

The conveniently low 2NT response provides room for opener to show his second suit below 3NT. Responder, who happens to hold the magic hand, can cooperate with 4. After that a simple Blackwood auction gets the partnership to a cold 6 slam. Nice auction, but what is remarkable about it? Nothing. Except that for many players, this auction is impossible. Since for them 1 - 2NT is only invitational, they would bid:

North
x
KQJx
xx
AKxxxx
W
N
E
S
1
P
3NT
P
?

Opener must guess. Should he bid 4 hoping for a perfect hand? Or should he pass since he may be in his last making game?

North
x
KQJx
xx
AKxxxx
South
KQJ
Axx
QJxx
Qxx
W
N
E
S
1
P
3NT
P
?

That humble 1 response to 1 can pay a lot of dividends in constructive auctions if used properly.  It allows us to bid constructively with limited bids at a lower level, thereby facilitating both game and slam bidding and keeping us low when partscore is our limit. 

 

Ranges for 1 - 1NT

1NT = 9-11. 9-11 is an uncommon range for the 1NT response to 1 among 2/1 players in the USA. I learned it from one of Al Roth's articles and immediately felt like an idiot not to have realized the value of this simple proposal years earlier.

1NT = 10-12. Esteemed Bridge Winners member and writer Ulf Nilsson wrote a Bridge World article recently proposing a slightly heavier 10 to bad 12 range for the 1NT response to 1. That range is a reasonable alternative, and for modern bidders who opens many balanced 11s and treats most 14s as a strong NT, it is a better range.

1NT = 8-10. For those who use a limited 1NT response, to 1 this is by far the most common agreement.  Unfortunately, this range does not help with our most important low-level decisions--whether to bid game. A balanced 14 HCP must pass an 8-10 1NT, since it is too unlikely that game makes and 2NT increases the risk of going down with little chance for payoff. Thus the range does not help us find games with 10-11 opposite 14, nor does it help us stay low with 12 opposite responder's 10-11. 8-10 is simply the wrong limited range if our style is to open most 12-counts. Dinosaurs playing 16-18 notrumps who pass most 12-counts may find this range effective.

1NT = 6-10. This is by far the worst option. Now we have completely declined the constructive bidding advantages our low-level 1 opening offered us.

 

The Constructive Bidding Problem after a 1 opening

In turn, we can now clearly see what is wrong with our constructive bidding after a 1 opening. The 1 opening has one fewer low-level waiting call which makes an enormous difference. The 1-1NT sequences is necessarily wide-ranging because it must function as a catchall to show so many hands that have no 4-card major, can not raise diamonds, and are not strong enough for 2 or 2NT.

As a result, 1NT is the response on some hands that are wildly inappropriate for NT, simply because there is no other way to keep the auction open. For example:

South
x
xxx
xxx
AQxxxx
W
N
E
S
1
P
?
Happy about bidding 1NT? Think you described your hand well? Did you right-side the contract? But what else could you do?

Even when responder's shape is right for notrump, 1NT must be bid on some very weak hands (5-6 HCP) and some quite heavy ones (9-10 HCP). Whenever opener is in the 14-15 HCP range, he will have an awkward choice whether to bid on in search of a perfect maximum or pass playing for a dull minimum.

And since the 1NT response can not be reserved for constructive hands (9-11 HCP), the partnership is forced to choose some other higher and more dangerous bid to show balanced game invitational values (or go without).

How does this tie back to where we began, the question of what to open when 4-4 in the minors?

First, we need different responding structures after a 1 and 1 opening bid. If we lazily use the same structure, we are refusing the gift that the 1 - 1 sequence provides us.

Second, if we accept the gift, then our constructive bidding will be better after a 1 than a 1 opening. It stands to reason, we'd like to exploit that advantage as often as possible. In turn that means we should open 1 as often as possible. so why not open 1 with 4-4 in the minors? We gain the advantage of finding all our big minor fits and we can exploit the constructive bidding strength of the 1 opening?

But what about those awkward rebids in competition? Won't we be hamstrung, missing diamond fits if we open 1 on 4-4 in the minors and the opponents compete? Actually, the cost is surprisingly small.

North
xx
xxx
AQxx
AKxx
W
N
E
S
1
1
X
P
?

Rebid 2. Partner should have 4 hearts and a second place to play. If that is diamonds, you are home. If not he will either have 4 clubs or the values to rebid 2NT.

North
xx
xxx
AQxx
AKxx
W
N
E
S
1
1
X
2
?

Pass. Partner is still there. He can balance with another double if he chooses.

For the 1 opening to cost, the following events must all occur:

  • the opponents must compete
  • partner must hold a hand in the 7-11 HCP range best described with a double
  • the opponents must raise
  • partner must hold fewer than 4 clubs
  • The hands must declare better than they defend

In short, it is a big parlay before your 1 opening with 4-4 in the minors costs you, and even then the cost is small: at most a 7-IMP partscore swing.    So in my mind, the question truly is settled. The 1 opening offers better chances to find the right contract. When balanced and not right for a 1NT opening, open 1 as often as you reasonably can.

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