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Upgrading Into / Out of 1NT

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

Most players have no qualms about upgrading their hand when appropriate, and that especially applies to opening a 15-17 NT. Whether it’s because they are aware of the many advantages to opening 1NT, or because they love declaring, upgrading has proven to be a popular strategy. Naturally, hand evaluation is paramount, but what other factors and information should weigh into these decisions? I intend to discuss a number of these factors. What shapes are best for upgrading? What positions at the table are best? How should upgrading into your 1NT range be viewed differently than upgrading out of your 1NT range? Those are all important questions, but as already mentioned, hand evaluation is the most important. So let’s look at that one first.

Hand evaluation

I believe the most common reason to upgrade is holding a good 5-card suit. There should be an emphasis on the word “good” in that description, as I often see it overlooked. Let’s take an average 14-point hand with a different amount of strength in every suit, and see what happens as we head the 5-card suit by the different holdings. First consider AQJ Ax Qxx Jxxxx. It’s quite clear to me that this hand is not worth an upgrade into 1NT. For the clubs to realize their potential, partner will have to make a significant contribution to the suit, on the order of KQx or better. If we rearrange the honors to make AQJ Ax Jxx Qxxxx then the hand has improved, but not enough to change the prior objection. If partner’s clubs are not either long or strong, then our length isn’t much help at all. Now let’s make it AQJ Jx Qxx Axxxx. Still an improvement, and now it’s getting close, but I still feel the suit needs too much help to warrant upgrading the hand into 1NT. But if we make one last switch to Jxx Ax Qxx AQJxx then the tables have turned. I would consider it a major error not to upgrade this hand, as the clubs may need no help at all for the entire suit to run.

The other major factor affecting a decision to upgrade is spot cards, in particular 10s and 9s. The mere existence of spot cards is not all that matters. To achieve their full value they should be combined with other honors, especially in long suits. Try adding the 109 to the example hand above with the suit headed by the ace, AQJ Jx Qxx A109xx. That changes the hand dramatically. If partner has as little as Jxx then the suit is likely to produce four tricks, and if the opponents lead the suit away from their honors then they are going to lose a tempo regardless of what partner holds. I would definitely consider that hand worth an upgrade. Even changing the clubs in the second example to Q109xx improves the hand enough that I think opening 1NT is worthwhile.

Preemption

A main benefit of opening 1NT is preemption, as the opponents are unable to overcall on the 1 level. Most even design their notrump interference system to focus on interfering in your auction rather than bidding game, and thus they are liable to miss a game if they have one. That means the usual issues regarding when it’s desirable to preempt all apply. Being non-vulnerable, being in first or third seat, and holding shortness in one or both majors all point toward opening 1NT and trying to keep the opponents from finding their best contract. Suppose I’m in first seat and hold Jx xx KJxx AKQxx with neither side vulnerable. I know of a number of players who don’t like opening hands like this 1NT because they are worried about how the hand will play if partner transfers to a major. That doesn’t bother me at all: no more than it does to preference back to partner’s opened major suit with a doubleton. I love opening this hand 1NT. I have plenty of trick-taking potential with my club suit. And if the hand belongs to the opponents in the majors, let them start trying to find it a level higher.

Upgrading out of 1NT

Most bridge players are aware that opening 1NT has advantages in preemption, simplifying the auction, and not describing your shape to the opponents. Does that mean we shouldn’t be upgrading 17-point hands out of 1NT and opening them in a suit instead? Not at all, in my view. When you hold 17, preemption becomes a much smaller issue than when you hold 14. The opponents are unlikely to have a game, and less likely to hold any hand worth a bid at all. Also, when you hold the better hand, and especially one worth considering an upgrade, slam in a minor suit is often a major consideration. If you open 1NT and partner holds xxx Ax Axx Axxxx then he is unlikely to consider any call but 3NT. But, an easy slam will be missed when you opened 1NT with: Ax KQx Kxx KQxxx . Had you opened 1 then you would be well on your way to 6.

Everyone, try these hands.

1.
South
K109
Q98
10xx
AKQ10
W
N
E
S
P
?
2.
South
Jxx
KQ
AJxxx
QJx
W
N
E
S
?
3.
South
KQxxx
QJ
Axx
KQ10
W
N
E
S
?

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1: Open 1NT. I don’t usually agree with an upgrade holding 4333 distribution, but this hand contains so many great spot cards that they simply can’t be ignored. Part of the issue with spot cards is they may never realize their value, and early in the auction there is no way to tell. For example JT9 is no better than Jxx if partner holds KQx, but far better if partner holds Qxxx. What’s great about a hand like this with spot cards all over the place is that some of them are likely to add tricks to your total.

2: Open 1. The suit is not too bad to consider an upgrade, but the hand is. Jxx and KQ are both holdings worth less than their point count, and the entire hand is far more valuable on defense than offense. None of your suits have much potential unless partner gives you plenty of help.

3: Open 1. As a 17 count with this shape goes, neither the spade suit nor the hand are exceptional. However, holding a 5-card major encourages me to open 1, because you might uncover a major suit fit. If you open 1NT and partner holds Jxx Kxxx x Jxxxx then you will go down on a diamond lead when you would have done far better in spades. That’s true regardless of the strength of your hand, but a 17 count doesn’t present serious rebid problems after opening a suit since you can always rebid 2NT to get across the general strength and nature of your hand.

That ends this week’s topic. I look forward to the reader comments, as I bet there are plenty of Bridge Winners members who need little convincing to open 1NT. Let’s see what you have to say.


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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