The race to 1NT, part II
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My last article began to examine the race to 1NT, focusing on how vulnerability affects how frequently we'd like to declare 1NT in partscore situations. This week, we'll look further at NT openings, looking at both seat position and NT range.

Suppose you pick up the following hand:

South
AQxxxx
x
Kx
Axxx
W
N
E
S
P
P
1NT
?

Your opponent has opened a 10-12 NT. If you had to make a wild guess, how many spades do you think you can make?

NT Openings in 3rd Position

My wild guess is 4. I have 13 HCP and RHO has approx 11. That leaves 16 HCP between LHO, who is a passed hand, and partner. Partner is guaranteed to have some values, with an average of 8HCP. Furthermore, the enemy sequence has told us two important things:

1. The suits are dividing fairlyevenly in the enemy hands--RHO has no singleton or void.

2. We can place 10-12 HCP in RHO's hand. Combined with information from the opening lead, we will have excellent chances to guess the location of the enemy's honors accurately.

If you need a swing, this is an excellent time to overbid, as a jump to 4 is a gamble that is likely to pay off.

This hand demonstrates a weak point of a highly descriptive call when your opponents are likely to make game. A 10-12 1NT opening is not a high enough barrier to preclude your opponents from bidding game. The information communicated in the example allowed the opponent to infer his partner held values, making an otherwise speculative 4 call much safer. Finally, the information imparted by RHO's bid willhelp declarer in theplay. Ironically, the 10-12 NT, which wassupposed to make game bidding more difficult, has done the opposite!

Does this mean the 10-12 range is ineffective? No, it can bedevastating, but it will work much better when partner is an unpassed hand. Consider this scenario:

South
AQxxxx
x
Kx
Axxx
W
N
E
S
1NT
?

How many spades do you expect to make? You are still a favorite to make 4. 13 for you + 11 for opener is still 24 HCP, so partner still rates to hold about 8 HCP.In addition, the opponents' distributionsare friendly, as they were in the previous example. There is one important difference. In the first example, we could take it to the bank that partner would hold 6-10HCP. This time we cannot.

Your LHO is anunpassed hand, sopartner might be broke. If you gamble on a 4 bid, you could run into a double and pay a heavy price, when LHO has some points. 2 looks wiser. Will that really hurt our bidding? We will still get to game if partner can raise. But there are plenty of hands, where partner holds a doubleton spade with working values, that will make game. On many of those, partner will pass 2. Thus, a 1st-seat 10-12 1NT opening will cause you to miss a spade game more often than a 3rd-seat opening will.

And there is more. Since partner is anunpassed hand, he could have all the outstanding HCP. If so, evenslam is not out of the question. Slam will be extremely difficult to bid, especially if your fit is in clubs. A first seat 1NT might cause us to miss either a slam or a game.

Why was the 1st-seat light 1NT opening so much more effective? The 1st-seat 1NT took away bidding room when the range of possible contracts for the enemy was wide. The 3rd-seat 1NT also took away bidding space, but since the range of possible contracts was small, it was less of a bother.

South
AQxxxx
x
Kx
Axxx
W
N
E
S
P
P
1NT
?

How many spades do we rate to make now? Even if we assume only 15 HCP for RHO, that leaves only 12 HCP for LHO and partner, meaning partner rates to have 6 HCP. What's worse, the enemy could have as many as 27 combined HCP,meaning partner might hold a Yarborough.In this situation, overcalling 4 would be foolhardy, so we must bid only 2. The stronger NT opening call creates more uncertainty for us because it is now conceivable partner has a Yarborough. This forces the overcaller to bid more conservatively, which in turn means the 2-level overcall is wider ranging. Opponents will have a harder time judging their correct level when interfering in this situation.

So ironically, a strong NT, a call designed to support constructive bidding, also has a stronger preemptive value in 3rd chair than does a very weak NT! There is a second reason why a very light NT opening range has limited value in 3rd chair: an opening 1 of a minor may bemoreobstructive than a weak NT!

Consider this scenario:

South
Kx
Axxx
Q10xx
xxx
W
N
E
S
P
P
1
1
2
?

How many values do you expect overcaller to hold? If opener and responder hold full values for their opening bid and 2/1 response, surely partner is minimum. If we hold 9 HCP, andthe enemy 23 HCP, then partner is left with only 8 HCP. On the other hand, if the opening and responses are light, partner might have a 13-count, and we could be in the game zone.

1 was not preemptive. However, it still made the auction difficult for the enemy. Why? Obfuscation. The East-West sequence makes the location of high-card values less apparent because the opponents cannot tell whether the 1 and 2 call contain full or partial values. Contrast this with the 3rd seat 10-12 NT opening, where the opening call was tightly limited. Consequently, East-West face added uncertainty after the 1 opening than over the weak 1NT opening.

What can we conclude about 3rd seat NT openings? In 3rd chair, a sounder NT opening strategy is more effective.

NT Openings in 1st and 2nd position

Let's look at three types of auctions:

Our side has the values: If our side has the values, the NT opening range we choose has virtually no effect in the long run. Both strong and weak NT systems have effective constructive bidding structures after both 1NT and 1m openings.Perhapsstrong NTs have a slight advantage because they right-side NTcontracts more often, but that effect is slight. If our goal is to understand which structure is "better" we must instead look at situations where our side has fewer values;when we have game-plus values, the two systems are nearly a wash.

The values are evenly split:As we saw in the last article, when the deal is a part-score battle, vulnerability strongly impacts how advantageous it is to win the contract. When we are vulnerable, the premium for making our contract is high. Vulnerable, we'd prefer to only bid to part-score contracts we can make. When we are NV, we prefer to play the contract both when we make and when we go down, as long as the opponents can also make a contract. When NV, the only time we don't want to play is when both contracts will fail.

Their side has the values:When the opponents have game or near-game values, a1NT opening is difficult to contend with. It preempts the auction, and, when combined with uncertainty regarding which hand has the unseen values, bidding decisions become difficult for the enemy. Against that, we must weigh the risk of accepting a penalty in a doubled contract. Once again, vulnerability comes into play. When we are NV, it is difficult for the enemy to extract a large enough penalty to compensate for their missed games and to deter us from our 1NT openings. When we are vulnerablewe must becareful, since -800 or -1100 is an ugly prospect, even when the enemy has a game.

NT Opening Ranges

How does the opening NT range impact which of these three scenarios (our game, part-score battle, or their game) is most likely to occur? Let's look at three opening NT ranges:

15 - 17. Assume opener holds 16 HCP. That leaves 24 for the three unseen hands, so you can expect partner to hold8 HCP. 16 + 8 HCPputs the partnership in the game zone. A strong NT opener can expect to end in game frequently, perhaps as much as 50% of the time. The rest of the time will normally be a part-score battle, with a few slams, and there is only asmall chance the enemy can make game.

12 - 14. Assume opener holds13 HCP. That leaves 27 for the three unseen hands, so you can expect your partner to hold around 9 HCP. 13 + 9 leaves us near the top ofthe part-score battle zone. A weak NT opener can expect a part-score battle, where his side holds an advantage. Game for him will occur less often, maybe 25% of the time. Opponents could have game values, but that will happen significantly less often than we can bid game.

10 - 12. Assume opener holds 11 HCP. That leaves 29 HCP for the rest of the table, meaning partner rates to hold 9 2/3 HCP. Our side rates to hold only 20-21 HCP. The hand is a favorite to be a part-score battle, and opposing games are just as likely as our own.

The weaker the NT opening, the more likely the hand is either a part-score battle or an opposing game. Further, the weaker the NT opening, the more often it will be dealt. Thus when we are NV and in 1st or second seat, weak NT openings offer frequent chances to pick up swings.

NT Openings in 4th Position

4th chair represents a special bidding situation for two reasons:

1. If you expect to earn a minus score by bidding, you have the option to pass instead. Consequently, the only reason to open is the expectation of a positive score by bidding.

2. The opponents do not have a game. Therefore, preemption is not a bidding priority.

3. The fact that three other players have passed in front of you marks your partner with some values. Regardless of your opening 1NT range, the opponents are limited to a combined 22 HCP.Opposite a 15-17 NT, responder is guaranteed to hold at least a couple of points, and opposite a weaker NT, partner is guaranteed to hold more. You can open 1NT holding 12-14 HCP with more confidence, since it is impossible that partner is broke, and almost impossible for the enemy to double.

What does this tell us about a 1NT opening strategy in 4th chair?

1. We don't have to worry about preempting the enemy out of games -- they won't have any.

2. We never want to bring back a minus score of any kind if we can avoid it. If we go -50 in 2, beating the 2 they could have made, we still lost, because we could have passed the hand out instead.

In effect, 4th chair is like being vulnerable: we only want to bid when our side has the highest-ranking making contract. In fourth chair, our 1NT opening range should be constructive regardless of vulnerability. Constructive does not necessarily have to be 15-17, but the weakest I would go is a 13-15 range.

Conclusion

Can we boil this discussion down tosome simple thoughts about opening NT ranges?

No NT range is optimal all the time. The best bidding structure will adjust the opening NT range based on vulnerability and seat position.

WeakNTs of any kind are most effective in 1st or 2nd seat position. In 3rd position, weak NTs may provide too much information to enemy bidders. In 4th chair, there is no point opening unless you intend to collect a plus score, and stronger NT ranges are more effective for that.

My own preference is to use a weak NT (11-13 HCP) when NV and in 1st or second position, and to use a 14-16 NT otherwise. This structure puts maximum pressure on the enemy at times when that pressure is most likely to win swings, and provides more safety in other situations.