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The Balanced Club
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Andrew Gumperz recently wrote a very enlightening article on whether to open 1 or 1 with a balanced hand and 4-4 in the minors.

Several commentators remarked upon an alternative style where you open 1 on all balanced hands in range (without a five-card major). I’m sure there are sources out there, but I’ve yet to see a fairly straight-forward discussion of the overall gains and losses of this method, with more than a cursory look at competitive inferences and decisions.

Here are the areas I’d like to cover:

  • The balanced (or clubs) 1 opening.
  • Competitive decisions after a 1 opening.
  • The unbalanced 1 opening.

In this first article, I will focus on just the opening, but really these points are intertwined and interdependent. For simplicity, we work in a traditional five-card major strong no trump setting. There are some notable differences in a weak no trump framework, but that’s to be expected.

You open 1 on the following hand-types:

  • 12-14 balanced: 4-3-3-3, 4-4-3-2, 5-3-3-2.
  • A genuine club suit.
  • 18-19 balanced.

How you choose to treat “semi-(un)-balanced” hands (that is 4-4-4-1, 5-4-2-2, 6-3-2-2) is up to your own style and (un)willingness to distort.

So why would you choose to open 1 say, with – at an extreme – five diamonds and two clubs? When we distort shape, the following possible advantages should be kept in mind:

  • Constructive bidding.
  • Competitive bidding.
  • Negative inferences and impact.

I'm only going to cover the first today. The simplest reason is:  bidding space. You have maximum room over 1, and moreover can leverage that with a simple transfer scheme over 1. Here are the key responses to 1:

  • 1 = 4+
  • 1 = 4+
  • 1 = no trump transfer, includes hands with (various possible follow ups)

Bridge is a Major-oriented game, and it makes sense to focus our attention on the major suit fit as quickly as possible. After a major-suit transfer, opener rebids one-of-the-major with three cards and a minimum; two-of-the-major with four and a minimum, or else rebids naturally.

The big constructive advantage is that when a fit is found, partner knows the level of fit immediately. This can make second round decisions easier: in particular whether or not to pursue game.

An example:

The standard auction:

South
K8532
K52
A4
J97
W
N
E
S
1
P
1
P
2
P
?

If you are in a nine-card fit, you are worth an invite.

The transfer auction:

South
K8532
K52
A4
J97
W
N
E
S
1
P
1
P
1
P
2
P
P
P

You know you're only in an 8-card fit. If the opponents later balance, you will be happy to hurt them in exchange for their bravery.

This is one of the subtle gains of playing transfers over the balanced club. Later doubles are not take-out, since you will have found the known level of fit while the opponents are blind. Your 2 bid here is 100% forcing to pass (providing the opponents don't bid). Your partner will not compete to 3 (if he does so, presumably he had a spade in with his clubs), but can double to show defensive trump length.

I hope you are wondering however: what do transfers have to do with the inherent nature of the balanced club? For instance, you could (and some do) play transfers over a standard 3+ 1 or a standard short 2+ (2 only when 4=4=3=2, etc.) 1. The answer is simple. Not much; indeed I would prefer to play transfers in those scenarios also. Because transfers are a good method.

But when you open 1 on all balanced hands (within range), suddenly this frequency of playing good methods increases. Just like opening a strong (or weak) NT; we love doing it, even on possibly distorted hands, since our follow up methods and judgment is good.

One basic rule I like to follow in systemic choices is: Use good methods on the frequent hand-types. In our example with the balanced club, you lose a bit of distinction about minor suit length in your weak notrump holdings, but you gain great clarity at finding whether 2M, 3NT or 4M is the right (approximate) contract.

Here is a loss of the transfer scheme, which is directly related to Gump's article. You do not have a cheap (ostensibly natural) 1 response to 1. Therefore when responder has a weakish balanced hand (without a four-card major), the auction 1 - 1 pre-empts opener. Opener can have, for instance four-of-a-major and 5+ in an intermediate-strength hand unsuitable for either rebidding 2 (underbid) or reversing into two-of-the-major. To be honest, this is a fairly rare scenario, but it does happen. (I can remember precisely one deal where our side missed 3NT due to this. Opener had 4=3=1=5 and 16HCP, and responder had 3=3=5=2 balanced with 8, maybe it was 9 HCP).

It is possible to not play transfers over a balanced club, but I am going to stick my neck out on this one, and advise against it. It would be skin to getting rid of a blister on your finger by chopping the arm off.

As a remark, you have not lost the suit either: responder can indicate diamonds by using the 1 no trump transfer, and bidding again.

While I'm discussing alternatives, one of the strengths (at the same time a weakness) of this method is a certain flexibility in follow-up. There's no "standard". Another (popular) style is to accept the transfer on 2-3 cards and use the 1NT rebid to show 18-19 (in reality these ranges would be tweaked slightly – please do not quibble about my HCP choices just yet).

This sacrifices knowledge of major suit fit to gain additional room when opener has the stronger-NT range, with obvious later-round gains. And for the quibblers, immediately this “cheap rebid” style allows you to have tight-ranged aggressive no trump strength openings: 1-then-accept = 11-13; 1NT = 14-16; 1-then-1NT = 17-19. 

 

For completeness, since I am writing about the balanced club from my experience, I should offer a fuller set of first round bids by responder. They are as follows:

  • 1NT = 11-12 balanced
  • 2 = 5+ forcing 1 round
  • 2// = natural six-card invites (or whatever jump-shift strength you prefer)
  • 2NT = 13-15 (or 19+) balanced GF
  • 3NT = 16-18 balanced

I currently play 3-level bids as mixed, but they almost never come up in practice. For one, intervenor has almost surely competed. Note that an opening hand (12-14 balanced, most likely) facing 11-12 balanced will end up either in 1NT or 3NT if you choose to play this system.

Although I’m sure fine judgment has its own rewards, in a (sub-)standard invitational sequence of 1m – 2NT(11-12), opener often just bids 3NT and tries to make the best of it. Have you seen what your partners accept this type of invite on, knowing that 2NT may or may not make anyhow? Sometimes you make 9 tricks, but too often you take 7, or alas, even the dreaded 8 (but you were in 3NT).

Tom Allan posted a recent poll about Pass-or-Bash with balanced hands at MPs. My preferred answer is to play 1NT or 3NT and be right (most of the time), bypassing any need to play 2NT.

I've yet to touch upon anything to do with competition.

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