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Passing Forcing Bids

“Advanced players know the rules. Experts know when to break the rules.” - Anonymous

It’s time for the most controversial Breakin’ the Rules topic – passing forcing bids. Having not said anything yet, there are already people who will say they never want to pass a forcing bid. They will say, even if it is right on this hand, my partner will never trust me again. Well, are these people correct?

To me, it is not black and white, it depends on the partnership. It is also true that every bridge player will get his or her best results by playing in the way that makes them most comfortable. However, the best scores possible for a partnership in the long run are achieved only if each action taken is the one most likely to work on the given hand. So, if that action is to pass a forcing bid, then I don’t believe it should be viewed differently than any other action.

To players who have never been comfortable with the thought of passing a forcing bid, I recommend that you approach the subject with an open mind and look at it logically. If both partners are taking the action they feel is most likely to work, there should be nothing to fear and no trust lost.

Why would a player want to pass a forcing bid? After all, if partner’s bid is defined as forcing, then partner believes his hand warrants a shot at a more ambitious contract opposite the values we have shown. Or, partner was forced to gamble that we would have a certain amount of values. So if we decide to pass a forcing bid, it is because our hand does not contain the values we previously showed, or because we hold far less than the values partner expects. Let’s consider some of the possible situations.

The Auction Has Made Our Hand Worse

Our hand could have deteriorated through the bidding,. As a result, we may want to pass partner’s forcing bid.  Let’s consider a case where the bidding has greatly reduced the value of our hand.  Suppose we hold:

We balance with a natural 2NT overcall and partner transfers to hearts. Over our 3 bid, partner bids a forcing 4. Let’s examine the situation. We held a minimum to begin with, and it’s clear that partner’s choices have not helped our hand. He has bid both of our shortest suits, and also taken us past 3NT with our slow spade values. Furthermore, partner is limited by his pass over 2 despite his known shape.  We could play game at the 4-level, but only in hearts or notrump with our poor heart holding opposite partner’s suit. This looks like an ideal time to pass partner’s forcing bid. We think we are already too high, and it doesn’t look like there is any better place to play. There is also a serious risk that RHO will double our final contract if we take another call, so this may be our last chance to get out cheaply. While partner may have a hand that makes game good, there are a lot more hands for partner where we are in trouble, so we should get out while we have the opportunity. If we go down several, then we should be thrilled we escaped before the doubling started.

We Don’t Have What We Showed

Here is a hand with two chances to pass a forcing bid. In an earlier column, I recommended responding 1 to 1 holding xxxxx xxxxx xxx --. While we are showing values we don’t have, the odds of improving the contract are in our favor. Let’s say that after our 1 response, partner reverses to 2. That is not what we were hoping for. Partner is forcing us, but he can no longer have a four-card fit for either of our majors. Passing 2 before things get worse is a reasonable thing to do. We may even go plus by getting out at such a low level.

Let’s suppose we decide to bid 2 instead, artificially showing any minimum response in our system, in the hopes of finding a 5-3 spade fit. Now we get too much of a good thing as partner bids 3. That shows a game-forcing hand with 3 spades, partner’s typical shape being 3145. As opposed to the last round where I felt passing partner’s forcing bid was a reasonable thing to do, on this round I feel it is clearly the right thing to do. We have a ton of red-suit losers, and even if we can ruff hearts in dummy we will be left with trump losers, given our poor spades. I would like to take this chance to look at some hands partner might have since he is so well defined, and analyze the play in spades.

I will first give partner a nice-looking example hand with mostly working values, AKQ x AKxx KJxxx. I’ll be even nicer and say the opponents will lead a diamond rather than a trump. If you attempt to ruff clubs in your hand using your top tricks in dummy as entries, you will only be able to come to three club ruffs for a likely 8 total tricks. If you instead choose to give up a heart at trick 2 and play more of a crossruff line, the opponents will have an obvious trump return. You still may come to 9 tricks if the clubs break 4-4, else you will have 8 or less.

Now I’ll give partner a less suitable hand of KQJ K KQxx AQJxx. After a red suit lead and two rounds of trumps you are in huge trouble. You may find yourself taking just 7 or 8 tricks even with spades breaking. If the suits break badly, or the opponents lead a trump at trick 1, things only get worse. These example hands should be telling. When accepting partner’s force has such bad odds of landing in a making contract, then passing partner’s forcing bid is the correct action. Partner should not lose trust in us if we are taking our best action.

We Have Nothing Partner Wants

There are cases where partner has made an artificial cuebid of the opponent’s opening bid, or overcalled an unusual 2NT, and our hand fits so badly that we want to pass. These are risky situations because, unlike the earlier situations, partner is unlimited. However, if the odds are clear then we should follow them.

Let’s say LHO opens 1 and partner bids 2 showing at least 5-5 in the major suits. Our hand is x x QJ98xx JTxxx. This is a dreadful situation, and I argue that passing is the best we can do. Obviously, partner thinks 2 is totally forcing, but we not only have no tricks for him, we actually have negative tricks due to our extreme shortness in the majors. You might say to yourself, what if partner has a giant hand with both majors? What if he has AKQxxx AKQxxx x? I see two problems with that line of thought. One, he is very unlikely to hold such an extreme hand, even when we are this weak. The other problem is even if he has that hand, when we bid a major we will probably go minus, as partner will force to slam. All he needs is a doubleton in either major to make slam a worthwhile risk, so it will be impossible to stop him.   To make slam, he needs his trump suit 3-3 and the other suit no worse than 4-2, or both suits 3-3 on a trump lead or switch. This is a situation where, even if we might make something we bid, we will almost never be able to stop in that contract, so it’s better to pass and hope we can go plus right here.



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1: Bid 2 (or whatever your system bid is, but don’t pass!) This problem is to make sure you are awake. You know nothing at all about the hand yet. Pass is much too unilateral this early in the auction. Partner might even have a spade suit which you can support.

2: Bid 2. There is no reason to get carried away. We are light by one point, but we upgraded because we hoped our 6-card suit would be useful, and nothing has happened to dissipate our hope. We also have no problem with most of partner’s likely actions over 2. If partner bids 3NT we will be happy, if partner bids 2NT we can get out in 3, and if partner passes 2 we have probably even improved the trump suit over clubs.

3: Bid 3. 2NT could be our best contract, but I see a number of factors that point toward bidding. Mainly partner could be strong enough for us to bid and make game, and our hand is not useless if partner has extra values. RHO did not double 2NT, so hopefully we can escape undoubled if our fit is bad. And on a good day LHO will bid 3 or 3 over our 3 bid, not knowing we hold such a misfit, and we may collect a nice penalty. If we pass then LHO will be warier of bidding, as we imply major suit length.

I would like to end with a suggestion. Have a discussion with your partner about passing forcing bids. If it is something you are thinking of doing on certain hands, then see how partner feels about it. Hopefully you can agree ahead of time on a partnership philosophy that works for both players. As much as I think that it can be the best bridge action to pass a forcing bid, I also think it is not worth upsetting partner if he or she is strongly against that strategy. Just keep trying to convince your partner, and hopefully he or she will come around!

Josh Donn Josh Donn is a former junior internationalist for the United States. He has a junior world and open national championship to his credit as well as several other top-ten finishes on each stage. His main interests lie in bidding theory and issues of bidding judgment. Outside of bridge, Josh is a Casino Accounting Manager. He has worked at some of the largest casinos in the world and is an expert in casino operations, regulations, and software. He grew up in Syracuse, NY and currently resides in Las Vegas, NV.

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