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5NT Pick-a-Slam
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My last article discussed the importance of choosing the right slam. In several of the examples, I used the 5NT pick-a-slam convention to arrive at the correct strain. Although I did not want to discuss specific conventions in the Gambling Series, the 5NT pick-a-slam convention is so important I decided to make a digression. 5NT pick-a-slam addresses many bidding situations where a player knows enough about the combined values to believe slam is good, but doesn't know enough about partner's distributionto choose the strain. 5NT announces, "I want to play in slam; however, I am not certain which strain is best. Please give me your opinion."

South
AK10x
xx
KJ10x
AQx
W
N
E
S
1NT
P
2
P
2
P
5NT

In this example, responder has 4 spades and 17HCP. He hasn't found a fit via Stayman, but he has the values to play in some slam. He knowsrelatively little about opener's shape. Opener might still have four cards in either spades or diamonds, which would likely make for a safer contract than 6NT given the excellent chance of scoring a useful heart ruff. 5NT allows the partnership to find either 4-4 fit or to play 6NT if there is none.


When Does 5NT Pick-a-Slam Apply?

A bid of 5NT has multiple possible meanings, depending on context. It is the king ask after RKC. It is the grand-slam force(asking partner to bid a grand slam holding 2 of the top 3 trump honors) after a suit has been raised. It is pick-a-slam in many other auctions. How can you tell?

Pick-a-slam should be the default meaning for 5NT. Pick-a-slam should be your interpretation unless another meaning supersedes that. The rule is:

5NT is NOT pick-a-slam when

  • 5NT is the king-ask (after RKC)
  • 5NT is the grand-slam force

In all other cases, 5NT asks partner to pick a slam.

I have not included 5NT as a quantitative invitation to 7NT in the above rule (i.e., 1NT -- 5NT). I recommend you abandon the treatment. The hand for a quantitative invite to 7NT hardlyoccurs and when it does, there is almost always a better way to bid the hand (and some pairs have specialized gadgets that makes this bid meaningless). 12 tricks occur far more often than 13. Pick-a-slam problemsare fairly common and often there is no other way to show those hands.

Applying thepick-a-slam rule strictly leads to a few questionable auctions:

W
N
E
S
1NT
P
5NT
According to our rule, 5NT is pick-a-slam, which you would probably never use since in the real world you'd alwaysexplore at a lower levelbefore asking partner to pick a slam. However, since I would not use this sequence for another purpose, defaulting to the pick-a-slam interpretation doesn't hurt and it keeps agreements simple.

The second bullet leaves open an important question: When is 5NT the grand-slam force?Kit Woolsey's rule is this:5NT is the grand-slam force only in auctions where 5NT is a double jump and 4NT would be RKC.

By Kit's rule:
W
N
E
S
1
P
3
P
5NT
Since 4NT would be RKC and 5NT would be a double jump, 5NT is the GSF.
W
N
E
S
1
4
4
P
5NT
4NT by opener would be RKC but 5NT is only a single jump. Therefore by Kit's rule, 5NT is notGSF.Hence we default back to the pick-a-slam interpretation.
Perhaps Kit's GSF rule is not perfect, and you may prefer your own more sophisticated rule. That is fine. However notice the two fabulous virtues of Kit's rule:it is simple and unambiguous. If you want to avoid costly bidding misunderstandings, such rules are extremely useful.
Now let's look at some example auctions to see these principles in action. We will examine when 5NT is pick-a-slam, and what strain choice(s) the 5NT bidder offers.
The Auction Has Bypassed 4NT

W
N
E
S
1
P
3
P
4
P
5
P
5NT
P
?
Cuebidding has taken us past 4NT, and we seem to have a solid 9-card spade fit. What choice is opener offering? Opener's 5NT suggests he wants to offer hearts as an alternate strain. Perhapshe is 5-5 in the majors and he thinks hearts might be safer.

W
N
E
S
1
5
5NT
P
?
Responder holds a big hand with both red suits.

W
N
E
S
1
5
5
P
5NT
P
?
With solid spades opener would bid 6. With 3 good hearts, opener would bid 6.5NT suggests extra spade length, at best moderate heart support and offers two strains. He might be offering spades and diamonds. He might be offering spades and hearts. We can't be sure yet.

W
N
E
S
1
5
5
P
6
P
?
This sequence shows at least 5-5 in spades/diamonds. Since 5NT is analternative way to show spades and diamonds, this sequence guarantees 5+ diamonds.

In these examples the focus was on picking a small slam, not inviting a grand slam. 12-trick hands are many times more common than 13-trick ones, and getting the choice-of-slam decision right is worth just as much as getting to a grand. We happily sacrifice a few grand slams to win many more IMPs with correct small-slam choices.

The Auction Has Not Bypassed 4NT

W
N
E
S
1
P
2
P
2
P
3
P
5NT
P
?
When opener bid 5NT, 4NT would have beenRKC in spades, and the 5NT call was a double jump. Therefore by Kit's rule, 5NT is the GSF and is not offering a choice of slams.

W
N
E
S
1
P
2
P
2
P
3
P
4
P
4
P
5NT
P
?
4NT would have beenRKC,but 5NT was not a double jump. Therefore by Kit's rules, 5NT is not GSFand so offers a choice of slams.Presumably opener wants to offer a choice between spades and diamonds.

W
N
E
S
1
P
1
P
3
P
3
P
3NT
P
4NT
P
5NT
P
?
Responder's 4NT was a quantitative slam try, hence Opener's 5NT was pick-a-slam asking responder to choose between 6 and 6NT. Opener is worried about the hearts. He has a single heart stopper and thinks 6 could be safer. However his clubs are not solid or his hand is relatively flat.How do I know? He didn't use this auction:
W
N
E
S
1
P
1
P
3
P
3
P
3NT
P
4NT
P
6
P
?
By emphasizing clubs opener shows a preference for clubs over NT. He is very distributional, and he thinks clubs will almost always be the safer strain.

W
N
E
S
1
4
4NT
P
5NT
P
?
Opener wants to play 6 in a red suit, but he isn't sure which one.

W
N
E
S
1
4
4NT
P
5
P
?
Since 5NT asks for a choice of red suits, what does 5 mean? It also offers a choice, but shows an even stronger hand, inviting 7.

Notice how having a firm rule about 5NT helps clarify the possible meanings of 5. Most partnerships have not discussed this rare sequence. But if your rules tell you that 5NT is pick-a-slam for six, then 5 must be something else and a grand slam try is reasonable.

Using Pick-a-Slam

A player will want to use 5NT pick-a-slam for at least three different hand types:

1. The partnership has slam values, but there is no established fit.

South
Ax
Kxx
KJx
AK10xx
W
N
E
S
1
P
2
P
2NT
P
?
Larry Cohen gave this example. Since there is no fit, 4NT would be a quantitative raise and not RKC. Therefore 5NT must be pick-a-slam. On the actual hand, responder has the values to insist on slam, but clubs, diamonds, or notrump areall possible strains. Responder bids a flexible 5NT indicating he is not sure which strain to play. This implies that his clubs are notrebiddablesince he did not bid 3 or 4. It also implies that he has fewer than 4 diamonds,since he did not bid 3 or 4.

2. Aknown fit exists butanother strain might play better.

W
N
E
S
1NT
P
2
P
2
P
4
P
4
P
5
P
5
P
5NT
P
?
Responder has 6+ hearts, no shortness, and slam-invitational values. Opener showed a good hand for slam bycuebidding4. Responder now wants to offer a choice between 6 and 6NT.

3. To distinguish a strong from a mild strain preference for a second suit.

W
N
E
S
1
P
1
P
3
P
4
P
4
P
5
P
5
P
6
P
?
Spades are the first fit found. But as we have seen, we don't want to automatically assume spades is our best fit.Responder's sequence strongly suggests diamonds is a better trump suit than spades.

W
N
E
S
1
P
1
P
3
P
4
P
4
P
5
P
5
P
5NT
P
?
A similar sequence. However, since responder chose not to bid 6 and uses 5NT instead, he shows only moderate diamonds, perhaps as few as three. Responder wants opener to bid 6 if his diamonds are excellent. Otherwise opener can bid 6.

Using 5NT Pick-a-Slam in Competition

5NT pick-a-slam is particularly useful in competition, where it can save your bacon after the enemy has jammed your auction.

North
AKxxxx
xx
Jxx
Qx
South
10x
A
AKxxxx
AKxx
W
N
E
S
1
4
4
P
5NT
P
6
P
P
P
In this hand, taken from David Bird and Barbara Seagram's book, "25 More Bridge Conventions,"after the 4 preempt, the partnership has little bidding room in which to clarify shape. South has plenty of high cards and is willing to drive to a slam. His 5NT leaves room for North to show secondary diamond support in addition tolong spades.

North
Ax
AQJ10x
K10xxxx
W
N
E
S
1
5
5NT
After 5, any chance of bidding scientifically to a grand slam is out the window. Responder wants to offer both unbid suits as strains, and his Axmeans he is happy to play in that suit if opener's spades arerebiddable.

Responding to 5NT Pick-a-Slam

Your bidding priority when responding to 5NT is to clarify your shape. Typically you will show extra shape that your earlier auction has so far concealed:

  • A suit of your own that is longer/stronger than you have already shown
  • Stronger than expected support for a suit partner has bid
  • Aside suityou have not previously shown in the auction
  • Exceptionally notrump-oriented values

South
Jxx
KQ10x
AQ10
AQJ
W
N
E
S
1
P
1
P
2NT
P
3
P
4
P
5NT
P
6NT
P
P
P
With a flat hand and every side suit well-controlled, 6NT looks like the superior contract.

South
KJx
10x
AQJxx
KQx
W
N
E
S
1NT
P
2
P
2
P
4
P
4
P
5NT
P
6
P
6
P
6NT
P
P
P
You won't always know immediately which strains partner was offering.The 4 auto-splinter showed 6+ hearts, a singleton club, and slam interest. It denied a biddable second suit. When partner followed with5NT, he could have been leaving room to find a 5-3 diamond fit, holding a 3-card diamond fragment. However, when he corrected 6 back to 6, he told a different story. He must be offering a choice between 6 and 6NT, perhaps based on a singleton club honor and a questionable long suit. From your point of view, 6NT looks better. if hearts break poorly, you might make 6NTbased on long diamonds and top tricks.

Conclusion

5NT pick-a-slam is one of the best conventions in bridge. It does not come up often, but when it does, it offers huge payouts through better slam decisions. The rules for using it are simple:

  • When 5NT is not the king ask (after Blackwood) or the grand-slam force, it asks partner to pick a slam.
  • Use pick-a-slam any time you are certain the partnership has the values for slam, but you can't tell for certain which strain to play.
  • When your partner asks you to pick a slam, show the cheapest distributional features your auction has not yet revealed.
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