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I find that as a player gets comfortable with the basics of bridge and no longer considers themselves a beginner, they try to imitate what the great players are doing. While this is a laudable goal and reasonable way to improve, this imitation must be done carefully or it will not be productive.

Card play and defense are harder to imitate than bidding, so the most common thing for intermediate and advanced players to do is to clutter their convention card with what they think are the latest and greatest hodgepodge of conventions, with little regard to which ones work best together and too little time spent learning how to follow up after the initial conventional call.

This is the wrong approach. It takes a look at one piece and forgets the big picture. And its not how experts bid.

Think of bidding like a meal. An Omelet for example. A basic Omelet is really a properly mixed and fried egg. It's easy to screw it up. You can leave entire parts uncooked and runny. You can overcook it such that it tastes like rubber. You can forget to oil the pan and have it stuck to the bottom.

And all that before we even get to the cheese, ham, onions, bacon and spinach. If you're going to add those to the omelet, you'll have to treat them right as well. Every single extra thing you put in has to be done with taste and care or you could screw up your whole meal. And you might not just want to put every topping in your pantry into your omelet, either. Even if you really love popcorn, maybe it doesn't belong in the mix.

So lets start with the basics. Not conventions, but rules to follow. Sometimes these are called meta-conventions. These cover any situation you haven't discussed. You can tailor the rules to fit your partnership. These rules are what you go back to if you are not sure if a bid is natural or artificial; forcing or not.

I'm going to recommend a bunch of rules that aren't very hard to remember and will make bidding easier. If you think a rule is wrong, then change it to suit you. That's one of things that makes bridge, music and breakfast interesting... CHOICES!

1: A new suit by an unpassed and unlimited hand is forcing.

Note, some players make an exception for a change of suit above the 1-level after partner overcalls. For example:

(1) - 1 - (Pass) - 2*

I like 2 as forcing here, but I'm in the minority. Choices. Sometimes compromise. This is a good auction to talk about, but if you had adopted rule 1 above and not noted any exceptions, then this auction would be forcing. You wouldn't have to think about it. Note that forcing doesn't mean game forcing or even promising a good hand. Say you held:

x KQJTxxx xxx Qx.

You should bid 2 over 1, even though it is forcing. You'll bid 3 later, which won't be forcing (it's not a new suit) and 3 rates to be much better than 1.

 

2: Undiscussed doubles below 3NT are not penalty.

This means that except for specific exceptions, the normal response to a double is to NOT PASS.

Make exceptions if you want to and can remember them. Here are some that make sense:

  • One of us has bid NT naturally
  • All four suits have already been bid naturally
  • We redoubled at the 1-level
  • We previously converted a takeout double for penalty

You don't even have to make exceptions. If you have a rule you can fall back on, you're fine. It is more important to be on the same page as partner than it is to try to squeeze every possible point out of every hand.

 

3a: If you have no idea what a bid means, it is natural (and NF unless rule 1 applies)

OR

3b: If you have no idea what a bid means, don't pass... all strange bids are forcing.

These two rules contradict each other, so you can only adopt one of them... here is an example:

(1) - 1 - (Pass) - 1NT;

(Pass) - 2 *

If you are 3a, then this is natural and non-forcing - your hand is limited by the 1 call... partner implied diamond length or strength with 1NT, so it is pretty much a raise.

Expect AQxxx xx KJxxx x or the like.

If you are 3b, then you dare not pass. Partner probably has a flexible, very strong hand that needs more information from you, such as:

KQTxxx AK Qx AJx

Your partnership needs a rule. If you are a 3a pair and you hold the second example hand, you need to choose between 3NT and 4 yourself. If you are a 3b pair and hold the first hand, you just have to pass and hope for the best.

BUT KNOW AND OBEY YOUR RULE.

4: 4NT is natural in these cases:

  • the 4NT bidder's last call was 3NT
  • it is bid directly over 3NT
  • it is bid directly over 4th suit forcing
  • it is bid directly over an opening 4 or 4 call by the opponents

Otherwise 4NT is RKC if a suit has been agreed.

Blackwood if no suit was agreed and you are in a constructive auction.

You can change, add or redact, but knowing when 4NT is natural and when it isn't is very helpful.

Do you know what 4NT means if the enemy opens with 4? Would your answer be different over 4? You could play it as natural or distributional takeout.

If you adopted the rules above, you'd know - it's not natural (doesn't meet any natural condition) and not blackwood (doesn't meet any blackwood condition.)

You can make as many rules as you want. I sometimes use a rule about 2NT in a competitive auction being artificial. I have rules about what kind of hands can jump shift or reverse on short suits (my favorite rule is "none")

Energy is much better spent figuring ironing out what bids are natural and what bids are forcing before trying to jam a bunch of fancy conventions onto your card. Melted cheddar cheese won't save a rubbery omelet.

 

Once you are comfortable with your basic bidding structure and rules, then you can consider what tools to add.

You've mastered the basic omelet, but you can't just add chocolate and hummus or you're going to end up with a very confused omelet. Even if you really, really like chocolate... it just doesn't go well with the hummus.  Or the egg.  Or breakfast, really, unless it is served in hot milk... hold on, I need to go make some hot chocolate.

You want conventions that sing together. That make sense when you play them with the rest of your structure.

For example, say you ran into an expert pair that opens 1 with as few as 8 HCP and sometimes also on a 4-card suit with a longer minor. They really nail you on a hand, too. They bid 1 - (Pass) - 4 and you, holding KQxxxx xxx AQx x innocently bid 4 and got doubled there. It turns out the one who bid 4 held a 5-4-1-3 10 count and they beat you 1100 (opener held only four hearts.)

You think... wow, that's a great method, we should play it!

NO. You just put hummus in your omelet. They have a whole structure with their method... 1 is strong and artificial, their 2-bids cover some strange hand types you can't handle and they have discussed a hundred followups for troublesome responding hands. They aren't having omelets, they're having Falafel and hummus is an appropriate dip for a Falafel.

So what DOES work together?

There are a few conventions that standard and 2/1 players just can't live without. They work together and it really pays to learn these methods WELL.

  • New minor forcing
  • 4th suit forcing
  • Stayman / Jacoby
  • Artificial raises of any opening bid
  • Artificial raise of an overcall

[warning, I'm about to embark on a somewhat hard to follow discussion of alternative raise treatments... if you aren't the type to see a shiny new convention and add it to your card, you can just pretend this article ends here and wait for me to write a follow-up]

Take that last one, Artificial raise of an overcall. Here we are in the danger zone of convention confusion. The auction starts: (1) - 2 - (Pass) - ??

You have a lot of choices here - and what you choose might depend on how you decided to play rule 1 a few pages pack - whether a new suit by an unpassed hand is forcing. If you are a new suit forcing old fashion kind of player, then you'd use

2 - ART heart raise - limit raise or better

2NT - INV natural

3/3 NAT, forcing

3 - Natural, less than the values for 2

Maybe you've seen some vu-graph lately and noticed that a lot of great pairs are using 2NT here to show the heart raise. You think their scheme goes like this:

2 - Forcing, no fit

2NT - LR in hearts

3/3 - natural, NF.

Maybe it goes like this:

2 - clubs or INV in NT (partner responds 2NT with a min)

2NT - heart raise

3 - diamonds

3 - mixed raise (something like xxxx Qxxx AJxx x... not quite a limit raise but too got for 3)

or maybe it goes like this

2 - a nf hand with clubs or diamonds

2NT - hearts, limit +

3/3 natural, GF

The experts adopted the convention that fits their style of overcalls and their general principles (maybe they play almost everything as a transfer all the time...)

They are in fact not eating breakfast, they are having dessert. If you stick their method on your card, congratulations, you have just added chocolate to your omelet.

You are better off sticking with the principles you already had and keeping things simple. Besides, if you added that 2NT as artificial, would you then know if it applied if it were a jump? There are always followups to discuss when adding a convention. And there is A LOT more discussion required of even seemingly simple conventions before you can get the most miles out of them.

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