I have two objectives in writing this article about 2/1 responses by an unpassed hand to partner’s major suit opening bid. They are:
(1) To show that playing the 2/1 response to a major as game-forcing has drawbacks which make it less effective for matchpoint scoring.
(2) To suggest a system of bidding agreements for a good way to play 2/1 responses as not forcing to game.
Playing 2/1 responses to a major suit opening bid by an unpassed hand as a game-force (abbreviated G/F hereafter) is now so far integrated into bridge culture that it is the favorite system at all levels of play, from club players to international players. The main reason for its popularity is simple; its suitability for IMP scoring. IMPs uses the difference in total points scored on a deal and converts it to a sliding scale of values. At the sectional tournament level and higher, IMPs is the favorite form of scoring for team competitions.
IMPs gives much more weight to hands involving games and slams. The method for 2/1 responses of G/F, when compared to the “Standard American” not G/F, is clearly superior for bidding slams, because it enables the partnership to find a fit at a low level in a game-forcing situation. Having the high general strength requirement of G/F for going to the 2-level enables a better exchange of information for your stronger hands. You do not have to cater to the possibility of partner passing, so you do not have to make a jump rebid and eat up valuable bidding space. Many adherents of the G/F 2/1 think it is also better than Standard American for game bidding, but this is a debatable point.
The ACBL has recognized the popularity of team events, especially the knockout format, by awarding a large number of masterpoints for doing well at this type of competition. Consequently, the best bridge players in America spend nearly all their bridge time playing IMPs, so many of their partnerships use 2/1 G/F responses. It is natural for the other bridge players to emulate bidding methods of the superstars. However, lesser players usually play a lot of matchpoint events, and do not appreciate that what is sauce for the goose may not be sauce for the gander. The result is they use the 2/1 bidding system at matchpoints, where that system is not as effective.
I do not think G/F 2/1 responses is the optimal bidding system for matchpoints because it drastically downgrades the importance of part-score bidding, which occurs on more than half of the deals. Playing a 1NT response as forcing is an integral part of G/F 2/1, so the ability to play in 1NT is severely diminished. An excellent matchpoint score for the contract of 1NT is worth the same as for 7NT. Of course, chances for playing in 1NT are far more frequent. Furthermore, you will usually get the opportunity in 1NT to get a good score by playing the hand well, especially through using deception, as opposed to simply getting to the right contract.
When you cram too many hand types into using the 1NT response, you lose precision in reaching the best low-level contracts, and sometimes game-level contracts as well. Hands of invitational strength are initially grouped into the same 1NT response with hands that require substantial extra values from partner to make game.
Here is a recent deal that shows how game bidding can suffer from the inability to make a 2/1 response.
The normal response on this hand looks to be 2♣ – but we were playing a 2/1 response as G/F. My partner felt forced to bid 1NT, clearly a distortion caused by the system. We ended up playing the hand in 3♣ when 3NT made. How can you expect a good result on a hand like this from a system that won’t allow you to show a very strong 7-card suit at your first bid? A response of 1NT followed by a rebid of 3♣ is not going to enable partner to picture this giant. Also, after the 1NT response, notrump contracts are wrong-sided. Game bidding is clearly affected when you do not let an invitational hand be adequately described immediately.
To be fair to those who play 2/1 responses as G/F, a number of them have ways to better handle a hand like this one. A popular method is to play that an exception to the game-force is that when responder makes a simple rebid of his suit, opener is allowed to pass. (This method is favored by my friend and bridge mentor Fred Hamilton.) Another method is to play the jump-shift by responder as showing this sort of hand. Since part of my purpose in writing this article is to stimulate discussion, I will leave it up to those people who play 2/1 G/F to explain how they handle the highly invitational hand with a good 6+ suit, since bidding 1NT followed by their suit at the 3-level as the only way to show this hand seems an inferior method to me.
The way 2/1 not G/F is played varies quite a bit. Possible methods include responder not promising a rebid, promising a rebid unless opener rebids his suit, and promising to bid again over all rebids in a suit by opener. There are some fine-tuning variances within these methods. Your choice is related to how the response of 1 NT to a major is handled, and vice-versa.
I would like to list the partnership agreements that I prefer, then look at each in detail.
(1) A 2/1 response in a minor suit promises a rebid over all suit rebids by opener. This method was first proposed for all the 2/1 responses in 1953 by Alvin Roth in his book “The Roth-Stone System.” (I was unaware of this noble lineage when I first started using the “Responder-Must-Rebid” agreement.)
(2) A 2/1 response of 2♥ after partner opens 1♠ has a lower minimum strength requirement than 2♣ or 2♦. Responder is not obligated to bid again if all opener can do is rebid 2♠ or 2NT. Opener’s rebid of 3♣ or 3♦ shows extra values and creates a game-force.
(3) The 1NT response to a major is semi-forcing, which means opener may pass 1NT with a minimum opening bid. Opener is required to rebid over 1NT with extras even when balanced. This is important when the opening bid is 1♠ because the partnership may have a fit in the unbid major. I also like to play the semi-forcing method with an opening bid of 1♥, so responder may reply 1NT on ordinary balanced 11 HCP hands without fear of missing a good game in 3NT.
(1) The 2/1 response to a major of 2♣ or 2♦
I favor the “Responder-Must-Rebid” agreement for minor-suit 2/1 responses, a strongly invitational treatment that uses a fairly high requirement for going to the 2-level. This treatment is in a strength category between playing a 2/1 response as G/F and playing 2/1 responses where responder is allowed to pass a minimum rebid by opener.
A substantial number of players who use a 2/1 not G/F system like to play all their 2/1 responses as allowing responder to pass when opener makes a simple rebid of his suit. I do not think allowing opener to be dropped when rebidding his suit permits him to describe his hand adequately. It is wrong to insist that opener should always be showing a minimum hand when rebidding his suit at the 2-level. Here are some balanced and semi-balanced hands where opener has substantial extra values, but would have to grossly distort his hand if he could be passed on a simple rebid of his suit. What do you rebid on these hands after opening 1♠ and hearing 2♦ from partner, if you are not allowed to rebid your suit without being dropped?
♠AQxxxx ♥AKQ ♦xx ♣xx ♠AKxxx ♥xxx ♦Ax ♣KJx
On the first hand, it is probably best to rebid in your 3-card major. On the second hand, the situation is so ugly that I am reluctant to even make a suggestion.
The same discussion applies to opening 1♥ and rebidding 2♥. Look at the two hands below, where you open 1♥ and partner bids 2♣. Does any rebid besides 2♥ make good sense? Would you not be overjoyed here to be playing a system where pard has promised a rebid over 2♥?
♠AKx ♥KTxxxx ♦xx ♣Ax ♠xxx ♥AKQJx ♦xxx ♣AJ
When responder has promised to bid again after opener’s simple rebid of his major, opener is able to more accurately describe his hand. He can rebid his opened suit as a waiting bid instead of playing that rebidding it denies holding more than a minimum opening bid.
As can be seen inferred from these hands, opener’s main problem is that he does not have a 3-card minor that he can bid at the 2-level, so he is forced to either rebid his suit (praying that responder bids again) or make a risky bid that grossly distorts his hand, such as bidding a 3-card major or bidding notrump without a stopper in an unbid suit. This is why I suggest that responder should promise a rebid even if opener has made the minimum-sounding action (but possibly having extra values) of rebidding his opened major.
Another virtue of the “Responder-Must-Rebid” 2/1 response is the partnership is assured enough combined strength to play that opener’s raise of responder is a 1-round force. This enables opener to support responder’s suit on a good hand without fear of being dropped, so he does not need to make a contrived bid in another suit that does not immediately convey the desirable message of support. I suggest that you have an agreement that opener is not allowed to raise responder on a minimum hand with 3-card support unless he holds one of the top three honors in responder’s suit, so the partnership’s combined strength and fit will be sufficient for handling a forcing bid at the 3-level.
How much strength does partner need to make a 2/1 response in a minor suit after your 1♥ or 1♠ opening bid in order to be able to safely promise to bid again if opener makes a simple rebid of his suit? This depends somewhat on your requirements for opening the bidding (mine are neither solid nor light). I would say 10 HCP with a good 6-card suit or 11 HCP with a 5-card suit is usually enough for a 2-level response, but not all hands with these characteristics are suitable for this action. Particularly, responder should follow the good bridge admonition to lean toward underbidding when holding a singleton or void in partner’s opened suit.
My opinion is that playing a minor suit 2/1 response to a major as not game-forcing is a better bidding system for matchpoint scoring than playing the 2/1 as a game-force. Playing the “Responder-Must-Rebid” method for the responses of 2♣ and 2♦ provides natural bidding auctions, while allowing a more expressive picture given by opener for those hands that are close to G/F strength.
(2) The 2♥ response to 1♠ does not promise a rebid if opener bids 2♠.
The importance of reaching both part-score and game contracts in a major must be stressed in your bidding system. The 2/1 game-forcing method is inferior for reaching the right heart contract when responder does not have a game-going hand, because responder has too wide a range of strength. For example, in that system, responder replies 1NT with both ♠xx ♥AJTxx ♦Jxxx ♣xx and ♠xx ♥AKJxx ♦KTxx ♣xx. This is too much variance for accurate subsequent bidding.
I think exploration for a heart fit by bidding hearts immediately needs to be done with some hands that would be too light to make a 2/1 response if the suit had been a minor. In particular, you ought to be able to bid 2♥ on certain hands that may need to pass a 2♠ rebid by opener. Giving more leeway for a 2-level bid when responder has a 5+ heart suit better handles a number of hands where 1NT would be an unsuitable contract. Let’s look at some examples after partner opens 1♠:
♠x ♥KTxxxx ♦Axx ♣QJx: If you respond 2♥ and partner rebids 2♠, you are stuck. You do not want to pass a 2♠ rebid holding a singleton, because opener does not show extra strength in the spade suit on this auction. Yet bidding 3♥ is fraught with danger because of your gappy suit texture, and your hand does not look suitable for 2NT. So the sensible bid with a misfit like this one is to slow the auction down by responding 1NT.
♠Tx ♥KTxxxx ♦Ax ♣QJx: I think the improvement in your spade holding to Tx means it is fine to bid 2♥, assuming that your partnership has the understanding that you may have as little as 10 HCP for this bid when holding a 6-card heart suit. If need be, partner can conveniently bid a 3-card fragment in either minor at the 3-level if he has the strength to force to game. If he has a minimum, he can rebid 2♠, which you will pass, and probably not be too high. Note the difference for opener between this auction after a 2♥ response and the auction after a minor suit response. After responder’s 2♣ or 2♦, opener with a balanced hand but a suit unstopped is sometimes caught with no 3-card minor suit fragment to bid, yet holds considerable extra values. Opener after a 2♥ response has an acceptable way to establish a game force because he will always possess at least a 3-card minor to bid, so will not have more than 15 HCP if he rebids 2♠.
♠Tx ♥KT9xx ♦Axx ♣QJx: I prefer a response of 1NT. Holding only a 5-card suit, 10 HCP looks a bit skimpy for a 2/1 response.
♠x ♥KQxxx ♦Axx ♣QTxx: Holding 11 HCP and a decent 5-card suit is enough for a 2/1 response if you have a rebid available or can pass opener’s 2♠ rebid, but a 2♥ bid on this collection is risky bridge. You have no safety net when partner lacks a heart fit. You can comfortably bid 1NT here on 11 HCP because partner will bid again anytime your combined assets reach 25 HCP.
(3) The 1NT response to a major is semi-forcing:
“The best place to play an indifferent hand is 1NT.” Thus said Charles Goren, our foremost authority on the game of bridge in the middle of the 20th Century. The biggest drawback to the 2/1 response to a major being played as a game-force is the inability to play in 1NT. Hands in the point-count range appropriate for this contract arise frequently. Hands in the 6 to 12 HCP range represent approximately 3 out of every 5 bridge hands that you are dealt.
Hands that are best suited for playing in 1NT that do not play in 1 NT will often be played in a 2-level major suit fit. If both contracts make, as often occurs, the usual result is no swing, or 1 IMP. It is reasonable for an IMP player to feel that not too much is given up by the inability to play in 1NT. On the other hand, a matchpoint player that gets a higher score in 1NT vs. a suit contract has every reason to be pleased.
For a matchpoint player using 2/1 responses as not G/F, the main question is whether to play a 1NT response as semi-forcing or non-forcing. (The forcing 1NT response is usually coupled with playing 2/1 responses as G/F). In the semi-forcing system, opener can pass a response of 1NT on a balanced minimum hand, but is required to bid again when holding 14+ HCP. Playing a 1NT response to 1♠ as non-forcing will cause a partnership to miss some contracts where a heart contract provides the optimum result. Playing the 1NT response as semi-forcing will cause the partnership to miss some contracts where 1NT provides the optimum result.
Using the 2♥ response fairly light as I suggest, it seems unlikely that you would miss a heart game. However, using the non-forcing 1NT response, there is a clear danger of missing a heart partial that will score higher than a contract of 1NT. If opener has a hand of 14 to 16 HCP, using the semi-forcing method will allow you to reach those part-score heart contracts.
Using the semi-forcing 1NT, you will also be able to play some good contracts in 1NT that are played in a higher level with other methods. The reason is a responder with a lackluster balanced 11 HCP can bid 1NT knowing opener will remove the contract if he has enough strength to offer a decent play for 3NT. Much of the field will be limiting the 1 NT response to a maximum of 10 HCP. Even though using a non-forcing 1NT allows more of the weak responder hands to be played there than does the semi-forcing method, many of these weak hands will receive competition from the opponents, so you will not be playing them in 1NT anyway.
Let’s discuss my preferred choice of the semi-forcing 1 NT response in more detail. The usual semi-forcing method for both major suit opening bids is to require opener, even though lacking a side suit, to bid again when holding 14+ HCP. My suggestion is to have the balanced hand 1♠ opener also rebid over 1NT on 13 HCP when he has a decent 3-card fragment in hearts, to avoid missing a 5-3 (or possibly 6-3) heart contract. For example, opener holding ♠AQT9x ♥KQx ♦xx ♣Qxx should prefer bidding 2♣ to passing 1N. The good spade spots will be useful if a 5-2 spade fit is your home. Although partner will be expecting you to have at least 14 HCP, he will probably not be too unhappy with your hand even if you do not have a heart fit.
With this 1NT semi-forcing method after a 1♠ opening bid by partner, coupled with being able to respond with 2♥ somewhat lighter than responding with 2 of a minor, you will hardly ever be playing in 1NT rather than an attractive game contract in hearts. You will also reach some good heart part-scores that other pairs play elsewhere.
My main theme has been focused on matchpoint scoring, but most players do play IMPs some of the time, and are reluctant to play one system for matchpoints and another for IMPs. If you wish to try out my suggested system for matchpoints and do not want to play a different system for IMPs, I believe you will find my suggested methods much more effective for IMP scoring than the standard 2/1 non-game-forcing methods.
There are other reasonable ways to play 2/1 not G/F besides the ones I have suggested. The system you use for a 1♠ opening bid does not have to be identical to the system you use for a 1♥ opening bid, as there are some differences in character between the two major suit opening bids. For example, it is possible to play that after a 1♥ opening bid, a response of 1NT is 6-10 HCP and non-forcing. This treatment could be coupled with a 2NT response for balanced hands within the 11-12 HCP range and using a jump-shift to 2♠ as the forcing raise for your 1♥ opening bid. (The 1NT response to a 1♠ opening bid I feel must be played as at least semi-forcing to investigate the possibility of a heart fit.) I am sure you readers have some other interesting ideas to share. Feel free to provide feedback on these subjects.
(A) Playing 2/1 responses forcing to game is advantageous at IMP scoring, compared to the Standard American system. However, there are viable alternatives at matchpoint scoring that are probably better.
(B) We bridge players need to have a discussion of the best matchpoint methods for playing the 2/1 response is not a game force, so I hope my article will stimulate one.
(C) I have advocated a three-point system for matchpoints: Responder-Must-Rebid 2/1 responses for the minor suits, a lighter requirement than this for bidding 2♥, and using the semi-forcing 1NT response to major suit opening bids. Consider giving it a try.
Plus... it's free!