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Advantages of strong club systems
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This is a long article trying to explain (from our point of view) the advantages of using a strong club system. The principal author is José María ASSALIT, with contributions of Lluís MALLA and Jordi SABATE (all three from Barcelona, Spain). Apologies for our (poor) English. We will appreciate your comments.

 

1.- Choosing a bidding system

Whether you are a new bridge partnership with competitive aspirations, or an experienced one trying to bring a new twist to your game, your choice of bidding systems must be done carefully, as the wrong choice could lead to inefficient bidding and play for a long time.

In Spain the large majority of experts use Natural Systems, someones choosing for a Better Minor version and others for 4-card . They usually use strong 1NT opening and 2NT, 2 –undetermined forcing– and 2 -forcing game- for strong hands (although 2 Multi is a possibility). This is due to various interrelated circumstances. First, the widespread use of the Natural System allows any player to play with another after only a short conversation. And, at the same time, the majority of bridge publications and teachers focus on this system with the aim of reaching the largest number of potential readers and students.

In our opinion, the superiority of the Natural System, aside from reasons stated above, is not so clear as the majority of its users claim. We must remind that among some the highest ranking players in the world (at least over the last decades) there were partnerships using systems based on a strong 1 opening. It's true that some expert Natural bridge players recognize the superiority of the strong club systems, but they limit it to IMPS championships, mainly for better description of strong hands to achieve slams. But we want to remind that partnerships using Precision systems had won World and European PAIRS Championships, too.

We must not stop referring to the Natural players who maintain that their systems leaves more freedom for criteria and judgment than other systems, which they classify, erroneously in our opinion, as artificial. Against this opinion, it should be argued that criteria and judgment should not be at odds with decision-making based on more information.

From a another side of the question, we can use something we read in the French magazine “Le Bridgeur”: On a conversation between former French and Italian champions, Jaïs and Belladona; the latter, who had been using Italian systems based on strong Clubs for many years, praised the luck of the first for not using the support of sophisticated bidding systems to achieve greater results.

In any case, all elite players have an excellent level of play, so often the deciding factor is the bidding systems, and within in each of these their level of development. As some experts say: “The system thinks for you”. A bidding system should normally lead you effortlessly to the moment when you must make a critical decision with the best information. 

2.- Criteria for choosing a bidding system

As we believe in the above-mentioned premise, mainly that "best decisions are normally based on best information", it seems obvious that the system providing more information about a partner's hand is better than any other. However, it is not so simple: if you exchange a lot of information, your opponents also learn about your hands, and this can affect your results. For this reason, the optimal system must allow all players to easily achieve contracts everyone bids on, and, if possible, reach an unusual optimal contract with a sophisticated bidding sequence.

Another aspect that should be included in a good system is to allow a fair amount of aggressiveness in the opening. Not all experts would agree with us, but from observing their style of play it is possible to see that openings over the last twenty years have evolved to more aggressive. Weak 1-level openings can be made in a natural system, of course, but you can mislead your partner if you open with 10 HCP. In a Precision system, however, that's included in your agreements.

Many years ago, talking about pairs tournaments, H.W. Kelsey called for “controlled aggression” and thought that “winners play more times than their opponents” or “Aggressiveness in the opening is the cornerstone of the game and the basis for success in pairs tournements”. He showed, as an example, a 8-honor hand that has to be openend, in his opinion, at the 1-level.

It's already known that the partnership that opens the bidding has more possibilitiess to play the hand. For the stated author, the main reasons to overcall are: compete for partial contracts, prepare a sacrifice, or ask for a good lead, while also obstructing your opponents' bidding. He recommended to overcall with very weak hands (starting from 7HCP), even assuming the risk of being punished. Our conclusion for the opening bids are the same: open as many hands as you can (with lesser risk than overcalls, because the opponents have less information when you open than when you overcall).

S.J. Simon supported the principle of Lesser Risk: “There is less risk in opening the bidding light than in passing and over bidding later” (quoted by F. Mackinnon in Bridge, Probability & information. Master Pont Press, Toronto, Canada, 2010).

3.- Precision Club (hereinafter PC)

What defines a bidding system and differentiates it from other systems are its opening bids. PC is from a family of systems called “Strong Club”: the only two strong opening bids are 2NT (similar to Natural) and 1 with 16/17HCP or more, with any distribution.

The PC opening bid are:

   a) Strong:

        1.     (16 HCP or more) with any hand, except with:

        2ST.     (19-20 or 20-21 HCP) and balanced hand.

   b) Conventional: with a minimum of 11 HCP and maximum of 15 HCP.

        1 and 1.     5-card suit (11-15), or (9-15) in 3th seat.

        1NT.     Balanced (13-15 o 14-16).

        2.      6-card , or 5-card  and a 4-card major, (11-15).

        2.     Three-suiter with void or singleton in (11-15).

        1.     At least 2-card , with no other opening (11-15).

 c) Weak openings:

     2 and 2.    Weak two-bids

 

4.- Modifies Precision Club played by two authors of this article (called PCASSALLA), based in many ideas from Meckwell system

Based on the same structure of opening bids than PC, we have made some modifications that we believe strengthen the advantages of Precision Club, resulting in:

   a) Strong opening bids:

        1.     (16 HCP or more) with any distribution, except:

        2ST.     (19-20 HCP) and balanced hand without 4-card major.

   b) Conventional opening bids: Minimum of 10 HCP and maximum 15 HCP.

        1 and 1.     5-card suit (10-15 HCP; in 3th seat 9-15 HCP).

        1ST.     Balanced (10/11-14 HCP) without 4-card major (*).

        2.     6-card suit ,or 5-card and 4-card major (10-15 HCP) (**).

        2.     4-card and 4/5-card (10-15 HCP) (*).

        1.     At least 2-card , with no other opening, for example:

                   - Unbalanced, including (41)44 – 10-15 HCP (*).

                   - BALANCED 15 HCP (14 HCP good hand).

 

(*) With 10 HCP, 5-card is needed.

(**) Expert PC players only open 2 with 6-card suit. Although it is true that this eases constructive bidding, we think that with a 5-4 hand the probability to fit at least one of the suits is very high (74% approx.), which provides more than enough distributional security. It should be added that the obstructive effect of opening with 2 is huge. Also it does not prevent to reach excellent slam contracts:

 

West
AK97
2
975
AK832
East
Q654
A1076
AK
Q95
W
N
E
S
 
2
P
2
P
2
P
3
P
3
P
3
P
4
P
4
P
4N
P
7
?

2 = 10-15, 5 in      2 = Relay

2 = 4 in                3 = Relay

3 = 14-15                3 = Relay

4 = Short in         4 = 6-keycard Blackwood

4NT = 1-4 keycards

 

5.- Comparison between Precision Club (especially PC-ASSALLA) and other systems named naturals.

For this comparison we must use the following premises and considerations:

 

a) The frequency in which different PC-ASSALLA openings are dealt:

     - Strong openings (16 or more HCP): 9,76%

     - Conventional openings (10-15 HCP) 1, 1, 1, 1NT, 2 and 2: 40,3%

From this we can deduce that with PC-ASSALLA a total of 50% of hands are opened (except weak 2 and barrage openings that are now common with both systems).

In the Natural system (except weak 2 and barrage openings) an opening hand is a hand with at least 12 HCP, so 35% of hands are opened.

If we also take in to account hands with 11HCP (8.94%) that are opened by aggressive pairs or for having a two-suiter starting from 5・5 or having Ace, Ace and King, we add an additional 2%. In other words, in the Natural systems they open on approx. 37% of hands (except weak 2 and barrage openings).

 

b) In Natural system, if an opening is possible (always excluding weak 2 and remaining barrages), 95% of the time it will be opened 1, 1, 1, 1 and 1NT; and 4.8% with 2, 2 and 2NT. To sum up, there are five opening calls for 95% of the hands and three calls covering the remaining 4.8%.

Contrarily, in PC-ASSALLA system, if we have 10/11-15 HCP (80.4% of the non-weak openings) we can open 1, 1, 1, 1ST, 2 and 2 and if we have 16 or more (the remaining 19.6%), 1 and 2NT. From this we can see there are six calls to explain 80.4% of hands that could be opened (80.4% for 6 opennings, leaving 13.4% for each one).

Another comment: if we leave out the 2NT opening (similar in both systems), it would appear quite illogical to use two calls (2 and 2) to cover so few hands. Contrarily, in PC-ASSALLA system there is only one strong call (1) that represents 18.4% of the total hands opened (close to the above-mentioned 13.4%). An additional advantage is starting from the lowest possible bidding point, allowing for the maximum amount of room to develop, which makes it easier to make small and large slams with strong hands.

 

c) In addition to the already mentioned consequences, others emerge from the four normal Natural openings 1, 1, 1, 1 (excluding 1NT that is discussed below): these openings represent a large point range; with balanced hands of 12 to 14 and 18/19 to 19/20 HCP and unbalanced hands of 11/12 to 20 HCP, or even higher (as Natural players prefer to open two-suiters at 1-level). Due to this, there is less precision in the bid of the Natural player's opening than that of a PC-ASSALLA player, because the range of this one's is lower (10/11 to 15).

(It is true that Natural players use sophisticated bidding sequences to make up for structural deficiencies, but the Precision players can also use these sequences and with even more precision as the HCP tenace is clearly less than, for example, the Gazzilli, 2 over 1 Forcing Game, Drury, etc.)

 

West
AQJ765
AQ86
108
4
East
K4
K972
5
A76532
W
N
E
S
 
1
P
1N
P
2
P
2
P
2
P
2
P
3
P
3
P
3
P
3N
P
5
P
6
P
?

1 = 10-15, 5 in                                               1NT = Semi-forcing

2 = Gazzilli (10-15 with clubs) OR (13-15 any)     2 = Relay

2 = 13-15, 6 in and 4 in other suit                   2 = Relay

3 = 6 in , 4 in                                              3 = Fix trump . Shortness?

3 = Short in                                                    3NT = 6-keycard Blackwood

5 = 2 keycards + Q + Q

d) With PC-ASSALLA the opener's partner of 10/11-15 hand knows right away their opponent’s range of points.

 

e) PC-ASSALLA incorporates the weak 1NT (10/11-13/14 HCP), formerly used by British players playing Natural systems. This bid has the advantages of being a descriptive call in distribution and strength, while at the same time being obstructive for opponents. The sited author, H.W. Kelsey, said, “Aggression begins with the opening and the most aggressive opening at level 1 is 1NT”.

The Natural system 1NT (15-18), or its variants of only three points, is opened with approximately 4.8% of hands dealt. However, in PC-ASSALLA, with 10/11-13/14 HCP, approximately 12.6% of hands are opened. In other words, a PC-ASSALLA 1NT opening is used more than twice as many times as with the Natural.

The weak 1NT is not without its inconveniences (being penalized, for instance), but this does not happen often if you have a good defense (eg. Swedish defense/Meckwell, etc.). For us, is even more relevant the loss of a fit 4-4 in a major if the responder has a weak hand. This weakness is reduced in PC-ASSALLA as 1NT denies both 4-card majors (2 or 2 openings available in that case) and Stayman is used with any force and 4-4 in majors (or modified Heeman: 1NT – 2 – 2 – 2 in a major).

Another benefit we should not forget about the 1NT opening is playing a major contract with a 5-card suit and a a weak hand: we can do this more often by opening weak 1NT.

 

f) The 1 opening (16 or more HCP) in PC-ASSALLA allows to start the bidding on strong hands, that do not come up enough, from a lower bidding level, providing more precise bidding sequences if needed. However, the opponents interference over 1 can make more difficult our bidding development. We will study this question in a special section.

 

g) In PC-ASSALLA you can bid with 7-9/10 HCP as a passed hand, without misleading partner.

 

h) Finally, as the PC-ASSALLA system uses very natural openings it is possible to incorporate advances developed for the Natural system (Gazzilli, etc.).

6.- The 2 opening in PC-ASSALLA

Our 2 opening (10/11-15 HCP, with 4-card in and 4/5-card in ) is a modification of Flannery with its advantages (among others, 1 over 1 is normally with a 5-card suit) and a higher frequency of appearance. Also, as we have said before, it excludes a 4-4 major hand in a 1NT opening, mitigating the weak 1NT disadvantage of losing a 4-4 major fit.

There is sufficient distributional security in a 2 opening with 4-4 in the majors, as the chances are high to fit at least one of them (approx. 60%).

Although we start the opening at level 2, we need to develop them to make good slams:

West
AK97
A10762
K97
8
East
Q654
KQ3
A52
A95
W
N
E
S
 
2
P
3
P
3
P
3
P
4
P
5
P
5
P
5
P
6
P
7
?

2 = 10-15, 4 in , 4/5 in               3 = Game forcing in a major. Relay

3 = 4 in , 5 in                             3 = Relay

4 = 14-15, short in                        5 = 6-Keycard Blackwood

5 = 0-3 keycards                              5 = Stop if 0 keycards

6 = 3 keycards + K but no K

7.- 1 opening in PC and opponent’s overcalls

We must begin our analysis with basis that an opponent’s interference over a 1 opening greatly obstruct the development of the system's designed sequences, however before we must make the following clarifications:

 

• Favorable signs for Precision bidders:

  a) If overcaller has 15 HCP or more: the opener normally will not have game because the opponent’s honor cards are badly positioned, and consequently both sides will fight for the best partial.

  b) If the opener has 16 HCP and opens 1 there is a high probability that his partner will have at least 8 HCP ((40-16=24; 24/3=8) and, as a consequence, game on their side.

  c) With the assumption that the opener's line has 24 HCP or more, opponents will have 16 HCP or less. For this reason, they will not have the security to overcall, valued by the Law of Total Tricks (except in special cases).

  d) In other words, from a technical point of view, we can conclude that the probability of opponents, who have balanced or slightly unbalanced hands, overcall with positive results is less than 50% (in our opinion). It must be noted that a player who overcalls over the opener's strong 1 does not know:

      - If the opener's partner is strong enough to force game.

      - If the opponents are strong enough to force game (including hands where responder has 0-7 HCP).

      - If the opponents are strong enough to force game and his overcall will produce a 9-card fit that avoid a large penalty.

      - If the risk of overcalling (obviously, greater if vulnerable) is worth it, because opponents can reach the right contract anyway (or, at least, the same contract as the rest of pairs), even with their more sophisticate method is now unavailable.

  e) The probability of an obstructive interference lowers considerably if we open 1 in fourth position (both opponents are passed hands), because the opponent hasn't a 6-card suit (or even a 5-card suit in a two-suiter), especially when the modern tendency is to open a weak two-bid or a similarly aggressive tactic.

 

• Unfavorable signs for Natural bidders:

  a) The overcall at 2-level with a 6-card suit or a two-suit hands is more interesting because it raises the bidding level, with less risk (depending on vulnerability), at the expense of the Precision players. (For this reason, the Precision opener should use Namyats with a 7-card suit and a strong hand, because with those hands the probability of being overcalled is higher).

  b) Opponents often overcall more over Precision 1, even assuming that they will occasionally obtain an unfavorable score for their interests, because they think that they will get a bad result anyway if they let the Precision pair bid without interference.

  c) Opponents overcall also because they think that it will occasionally cause an error in the Precision pair, that will prevent them to reach the best contract. After all, they may decide if it is worth try a penalty double. (Therefore, it's important for the Precision players to know whether the opener's responder, or even the opener, has shortage in the suit overcalled or not).

  d) Opponents also can overcall more times (more than a strong openning in Natural systems, because more 1-level bids are available) for lead purposes.

 

Taking all into account, we must admit that overcalling over our strong 1 opening give us some problems, while providing some relevant success to our opponents. That's the reason why it's important for us to work on our development after an overcall.

8.- A comparative evaluation between PC-ASSALLA and a NATURAL system

 For this comparison we have chosen the Natural system based on the so called “better minor”: 1 (3+ cards) and 1 (3+ cards), opening 1 with 3-3 and 1 with 4-4 in the minors. Weak 2-bid and barrage openings are not taken into account as they are used in both systems.

The probabilities of an overcall (HCP and distribution for each vulnerability) have been calculated by a computer program carried out by the authors of this article. Our first conclusion:

 

  a) Against Precision systems, we consider that opponents will overcall, over our 1 opening, with a probability of, roughly, 25%. In other words, for every 100 played hands, we will open 1 in 9.5 hands and, for these ones, the opponents will overcall in, aprox., 2.3 hands.

   b) Against Natural Better Minor systems, we consider that opponents will overcall, over our 1 opening, with a probability of 30%. In other words, for every 100 played hands, we will open 1 in 4 hands and, for these ones, the opponents will overcall in, aprox., 1.3 hands.

 

We also estimate that:

 

  a) Approximately, 2 out of 3 times that opponents overcall over our Precision 1 opening, we maybe get a bad result. Assuming our previous calculations, these mean 1.5 hands (2/3 of 2.3).

  b) Approximately, 1 out of 3 times that opponents overcall over our Natural 1 opening, we maybe get a bad result. Assuming our previous calculations, these mean 0.4 hands (1/3 of 1.3).

 

So, as a conclusion, we think that:

 

• For every 100 played hands, in 50.5 hands the system used is irrelevant, as our pair don't start the bidding, or we open 2NT, weak 2 or barrage, which are similar openings in both systems.

• The partnership that plays PC-ASSALLA(or similar) will be in similar or better position in 48 hands (due to the system) and only in a worse position in 1 hand (aprox, 1.5 - 0.4 hands, as calculations in previous calculation), due to opponents overcall.

 

9.- The PC-ASSALLA has more natural openings than the Natural system

Finally, we also want to remind that:

 

a) In a Better Minor Natural system, there are 3 or 4 opening bids (excluding NT) that don't promise a 4-card suit: 1, 1, 2 and, maybe, 2.

b) In a 4-card Natural system, there are 2 or 3: 1, 2 and, maybe, 2.

c) In PC-ASSALLA, there are only 2: 1 and 1.

 

Usually, knowing a 4+ card suit in opener's hand is important when both sides figth for a partial contract: in PC-ASSALLA that happens often (although everbody always reminds us our two exceptions).

 

 Barcelona, october 2014.

José María ASSALIT, Lluís MALLA, Jordi SABATE.

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