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Lebensohl, an optimized approach
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Lebensohl is one of the most useful conventions ever invented. Not only does it deal with nasty interference after 1NT, it also helps solving impossible bidding problems after the opponents open a Weak Two. Although these are the two main sequences, there are some others.

However, what this article is about, is that Lebensohl in the way that it is taught is counterintuitive, and that simplification can even be an improvement.

Let's first see what problems Lebensohl is solving:

In the basic situation, partner opens 1NT (15 - 17) and RHO overcalls 2:

1NT (2) ? 

South
74
873
52
KQ10742
South
74
AJ3
52
KQ10742

One of the two hands can bid 3, because the bid is either forcing or non-forcing. But what about invitational hands? Since many players start to play a 3.5 point range (don't you like upgrading those nice 14-counts?), there are a lot of common hand types that just have game interest, for example hands with 5 after a overcall, looking for a third with partner, or hands with a long minor which are looking for a filler in partner's hand.

If your system forces you to either bid game or ask partner to pass, it will pay for the opponents to interfere as often as possible.

The second main Lebensohl situation, similar problems arise:

(2) Dbl (Pass) ?

South
632
532
52
KQ1042
South
Q32
K32
52
KQ1042

Again, one of the two hands can bid 3, either weak or invitational.

Lebensohl has a solution: 2NT forces 3, then each bid can be reached in two ways. In the standard way, the long route through 2NT shows the weak hand, whereas bidding directly shows values.

Two bids that always show values are the cuebid and 3NT (obviously). You can distinguish between 4 cards in the other major or not, and having a stopper or not. First, the standard way is to play "slow shows", which means:

* The cuebid shows 4 cards in the other major

* 3NT denies 4 cards in the other major

* Bidding directly denies a stopper

* Going through 2NT shows a stopper

Although this might sound learnable, I hardly know any bridge players who haven't seen something like the following:

North
Q73
Q7
A853
Q1053
South
AK108
832
KQ62
A2
W
N
E
S
1NT
2
3NT
P
P
P

There are several problems with this auction. 3NT in fact does deny a stopper and 4, but the bid LOOKED so natural that opener forgot. 3NT wasn't a lot of fun, but what's more, 4 is a good contract. How can you reach that, even if opener KNOWS that partner doesn't have a stopper?

The convention also takes a lot of other memory load. Is a jump to 3 forcing or invitational, or was it the other way around? If you are going to play a convention, it is preferable that it is as simple as possible.

The following pages present a simple yet effective way to fix the convention.

In the following, I will deduce a set of logical rules to define an easy-to-remember and effective way to play Lebensohl. It will help reduce misunderstandings and at the same time improve your results with the convention.

Note that many transfer concepts might well be even more effective, but since the goal is to keep it simple, transfer concepts are out. Besides, if you have ever disagreed with partner if a situation was Lebensohl or not, natural bidding has the advantage that you will at least play in the right strain if you have a misunderstanding.

Again, let's look at the auction 1NT by partner, 2 by RHO.

South
KQ1074
74
732
632

This is one you automatically get right. If 2 wouldn't be weak, there is no way to bid this, so it is:

RULE 1: A new suit on the two-level is weak.

South
K1074
73
K742
Q32

Now this hand is more tricky. You don't want to force to game just yet, as there are just too many uncertainties. As this hand type is much more common than a penalty double, double should be take out. Playing this double as take out also means you can get them in two ways:

* If you play double as penalty, then double by opener should also be penalty. However, hands with which opener can double for penalty are almost non-existent: Partner can have nothing, and especially at teams doubling 2 with 4 - 5 tricks is very risky. Moreover, partner cannot run effectively, because when you have length in the opponent's suit, you are likely to be short in the suit partner is going to bid next.

* If you play double as T/O, you can catch opponents not only if opener reopens and responder passes, but also if responder doubles and opener converts to penalty. In this case, opener CAN pass as he knows that partner is not broke. Moreover, if opener reopens with a T/O double and it wasn't our hand, partner CAN normally find a playable spot as he knows opener has at least three-card support for the other suits.

RULE 2: Double of a natural two-level overcall is take out.

If double is T/O, then the question rises: What is double followed by a new suit? Normally such a bid is always forcing, but it is useful to play equal-level conversion here, i.e. a correction from the cheapest suit ( or ) the middle suit ( or ) just shows that you are not happy with partner's choice:

South
A3
KQ1073
K742
42
W
N
E
S
1NT
2
X
P
3
P
3

South
52
KJ104
KJ432
32
W
N
E
S
1NT
2
X
P
3
P
3

But notice that if this is the way to show a forcing hand with , then bidding 3 is not needed as forcing. Which leads us to the next simple rule:

RULE 3: A new suit at the three-level is ALWAYS invitational.

Can life really be that simple? Yes! It doesn't matter if the bid is a jump or not:

1NT (2) 3 is invitational, and 1NT (2) 3 is also invitational. It is true that this way you cannot cheaply show a forcing hand with a minor, but in case of slam interest you can bid 4 / 4, and without slam interest you are trying to reach 3NT first anyway.

What is the reason for this agreement? Invitational hands are now shown with either Double or bidding a suit directly. These are exactly the hand types that need quick showing, as opponents are often threatening to raise to the 3-level. If you fail to show an invitational hand directly, something like this may happen:

West
52
KQ832
QJ32
54
East
Q43
A104
K76
AK76
W
N
E
S
1NT
2
X
3
P
P
?

Should opener act on the average-looking 4333 hand? Should responder force to the four-level? If responder can bid an invitational 3 directly, opener doesn't have a problem with a fit.

One important suit auction is still missing: Bidding 2NT followed by a suit.

If responder bids 2NT and advancer passes, opener should bid 3. This can be passed by responder, or he might bid a new suit. Since one option is to pass 3, 2NT includes a weak hand with . For memory reasons, the same should be true for other suits below opponent's suit:

RULE 4: 2NT followed by a suit below opponent's suit is weak.

Note that some reverse the meanings of the direct and long route. This doesn't work very well, as responder exactly needs the most help from partner with invitational hands. With many hands that bid 2NT first, the goal is to just not allow the opponents to play their cosy two-level contract.

On the next page, sequences without a suit bid are discussed.

Since we now already know what to do with a suit, let's see what the other bids should mean.

To reduce memory load (as seen on the first page), one important rule should be:

RULE 5: Bidding 3NT shows a stopper in the opponent's suit, bidding the opponent's suit asks for a stopper.

This is so obvious, it's almost incredible that the original convention does not include it. However, what to do about "fast denies, slow shows" then? Well, we still want to ask about a 4-card major, don't we? It's very easy:

RULE 6: Bidding 2NT shows four cards in the other major if strong.

We now have four auctions available to us:

1NT (2) 3NT shows a stopper and denies 4.

1NT (2) 3 asks for a stopper and denies 4.

1NT (2) 2NT (Pass) ; 3 (Pass) 3NT shows a stopper and shows 4.

1NT (2) 2NT (Pass) ; 3 (Pass) 3 asks for a stopper and shows 4.

You have also prepared for the inevitable raise by the opponents:

West
KQ42
93
K532
AK7
East
J1086
K64
A9
Q1082
W
N
E
S
1NT
2
2NT
3
P
P
3NT
P
4
P
P
P

Since East has bid 2NT and then showed strength, opener knows about the 4 cards in . Without a stopper, East would have doubled:

West
K83
83
AK98
AQ65
East
AQ97
52
Q1072
K72
W
N
E
S
1NT
2
2NT
3
P
P
X
P
4
P
P
P

On the next page, some special auctions are discussed.

 

On this page, some special auctions are discussed.

1. 2NT followed by a suit higher than opponent's suit

One remaining auction that wasn't discussed so far was bidding 2NT followed by a suit above opponent's suit:

W
N
E
S
1NT
2
2NT
P
3
P
3
?

As this is an extra option which is not available for many suits (normally only for ), this shows a forcing hand that didn't want to double initially. The main reason might be that it is a very unbalanced hand, possibly with shortness in .

Of course after a weak two opening bid and a double by partner, this is the only way to show a forcing hand with .

2. Jump shifts to the 4-level

What should 1NT (2) 4 mean?

Similar to the situation where RHO opens 2, this shows a forcing hand with 5+ 5+ (Leaping Michaels).

However watch out for this situation:

(2) X (Pass) 4

It isn't useful to treat this as a two-suiter with and , since if you would have 5, you would assume a fit opposite the T/O double. Instead, this should be a slam-interested hand with .

3. Opponent's suit is

Now this is a tricky situation, as there are now TWO unbid majors. As double is T/O, most major-oriented hands will simply double first. What shall then become of 2NT and the cuebid?

1NT (2) 3 shows both majors, at least invitational values (again 4 would show and a major)

1NT (2) 2NT (Pass) ; 3 (Pass) 3 is Stayman, asking for a 4-card major with a stopper (without a stopper, double 2)

1NT (2) 3NT is to play (universal rule of bidding 3NT), so...

1NT (2) 2NT (Pass) ; 3 (Pass) 3NT shows a slam interested hand in with a stopper.  Without a stopper, raise 3 to 4.

An interesting usage of bidding 2NT then 3/ is available here too:

South
KQ92
AJ952
32
54
W
N
E
S
1NT
2
2NT
P
3
P
?

The solution is elegant: 2NT followed by 3/ shows 5 cards and 4 in the other major. Smolen fans can even reverse the meanings if they remember.

Summary of the harmonized Lebensohl convention

1NT (2) ?

Dbl: T/O with Equal Level Conversion

2: Non-forcing

2NT: Weak minor 1-suiter or GF with 4

3: Invitational

3: Asking for a stopper, no 4

3: Invitational

3NT: To play

4: Leaping Michaels

 

(2) Dbl (Pass) ?

2: To play

2NT: Weak wanting to play 3/ or GF with 4

3: 8 - 11, better minor

3: Asking for stopper, no 4

3: 8 - 11, 4+

3NT: To play

4: Natural with slam interest

 

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