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Mini NT in a non-strong club context; A suggested approach for higher intermediates
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I have little doubt that a mini-NT opening of 10-12 HCP is advantageous when it arises in all but the highest levels of competition. The pre-emptive and descriptive value of this bid place the opening side in an advantageous position regarding opener's hand from the start and the opposition must start exchanging information at the two level should they wish to compete. Meanwhile, responder knows right away whether she is in scramble or damage control mode, competition mode or constructive mode. The opposition is guessing from the start and sometimes (often?) they guess wrong. Responder will usually know when to x and when to PASS.

This article will cover:

What are our basic ranges? (page 2)

What hands are balanced? (page 2)

Our basic NT engine. (page 3)

Dealing with penalty doubles. (page 4)

Dealing with interference, lebensohl. (page 5)

Two way checkback/new minor forcing. (page 5)

Do we need variable ranges? (page 6)

Alerts, Announcements, Explanations. (page 7)

The Five Card Major Rebid Problem (page 7)

We have decided to chop up our balanced hands into a series of seven ranges showing at the lower end three point ranges (10-11-12 or 13-14-15 etc.) and in the higher levels two point ranges (19-20, 21-22 etc.). The ranges we use whether vulnerable or non-vulnerable in all seats are:

10, 11 or 12 HCP: Open 1NT (even with a 5 card Major).  We can PASS these hands in 4th seat if we want.  If the auction goes PPP to us and we hold 10-12 balanced, something is seriously fishy. Partner has 10-12 HCPs also (else someone would have opened) and chose not to act. Why?  Most likely someone miscounted their hand and let's hope it wasn't partner. For sake of memory drain, we do not alter the range of 1NT in 4th seat even if it might be theoretically profitable to do so.

13, 14 or 15 HCP: Open 1, (1 or 1 with a 5 card Major) rebid 1NT. We open 1 (or 1 of a Major) with our weaker of the remaining balanced hands on the theory that with our stronger hands we prefer to start lower. The decision is, to a large extent, arbitrary but this is the choice we have made. The other sorts of hands that would open 1 are unbalanced hands with primary s (5431s, 5440s, 6+s, etc.). If we are considering treating a semi-balanced hand (6322 or 5422) as balanced for purposes of planning our auction, we can be swayed in close cases by the fact that our NT rebid shows the indicated range. For example, with 2=2=6=3 and 13 HCPs, we would open 1 and rebid 1NT usually. But with 2=2=3=6 (that is with 6s) we would tend to open 1 and rebid 2s.

16, 17 or 18 HCP: Open 1, rebid 1NT. As noted above choosing to open 1 with our stronger hands is arbitrary but at least somewhat theoretical grounded in the principle of keeping the auction lower with stronger. The other sorts of hands that would open 1 are unbalanced hands with primary s (5431s, 5440s, 6+s, etc.). If we are considering treating a semi-balanced hand (6322 or 5422) as balanced for purposes of planning our auction, we can be swayed in close cases by the fact that our NT rebid shows the indicated range. For example, with 2=2=3=6 and 17 HCPs, we would open 1 and rebid 1NT usually. But with 2=2=6=3 (that is with 6s) we would tend to open 1 and rebid 3s.

19 or 20 HCP: Open 1, rebid 2NT. In keeping with our convention of using the 1 opening to show lower ranges.

21 or 22 HCP: Open 1, rebid 2NT.  Note that Responder needs to respond to an opening bid of 1 with almost all 4 counts and some 3 counts.

23 or 24 HCP: Open 2NT. This is stronger than most are used to but we have the room so we use it. Sometimes we stay lower than the room with 18-22 HCP hands which is an added benefit.

25+ HCP: Open 2, rebid 2NT. This makes the 2 opening game forcing for balanced hands.

We can elect to treat certain hands as balanced even though they are not. For example, 5422s, 6322s, 5431s with an A or K stiff.

In responding to our mini-NT opening, we use our the response structure that we learned or developed for strong NTs even though theoretical improvements might exist or be developed.  This includes:

2Puppet and Garbage Stayman. Opener bids 2 with any hand lacking a 5 card major and if Responder next PASSes with short s and 3 other suits, bids 2 (this is PASS or correct (garbage)), or 2 (this is invitational only with 4s), 2NT (this is INV and may or may not have a 4 card major), 3C (this is game forcing and asking for a 4 card major), or 3H or 3S (this is game forcing Smolen showing 4 cards in suit bid and 5 in other major).

2, 2 = transfers. We preserve the transfer principles in order to continue to use the nuanced auctions showing sign off, invitational or game forcing hands with 5 or 6+ cards in the indicated major suit. 

2 = either minor suit, either sign-off (unlikely) or perhaps a slam invitation

2NT, 3, 3 = invitational (after adjusting for lowered range of 1NT, of course)

3, 3 = as now, either 5-5 in the majors invitational or forcing or splinters

There may be theoretical improvements that can be made here, but mainly we wanted a system that would work reasonably well and was essentially "plug and play" (just do this and this and everything else is the same).

RUNOUTS:

One thing that is definitely not the same with the mini-NT is the risk and frequency of being doubled for penalties. Therefore we have developed the following plans for dealing with that risk. After 1NT (x):

We aren't necessarily interested in re-penalizing a penalty x of 1NT so xx is presumed to be a transfer to s but if Responder bids 2s after the transfer is obeyed, she is showing s and a major (suit bid + higher, DONT).

Similarly 2 is presumptively a transfer to s but if Responder then bid 2s that shows both majors.

The main idea with our runouts is to get into a suit as cheaply as possible, so we usually don't bother trying to showing s and s and just get out into s. Responder's transfers are almost always 5 card suit but with a really bad hand she may be offering the choice among two 4 card suits.

If the auction starts 1NT (x) P P, opener generally escapes to a 5 card suit if he has one, or just sits and takes the punishment at the 1 level if he doesn't.

We don't vary our systems if the comes from the balancing opponent (1NT (P) P (x)) and here opener self escapes into a 5 carder by bidding it (no transfer) but Responder still transfers if the auction comes back around at 1NTx'd.

There is not necessarily a lot of logic in this plan and our main goal was to put together something that would be remembered rather than aiming at theoretical perfection and having a lot of shifting meanings by seats.

INTERFERENCE

As our main goal with the mini-NT is preemption not constructive bidding, we are generally relieved when the opponents compete. Responder often (or almost always) knows what to do and PASS or are the most common options. Either the opponents have made a mistake and we make them pay. Or they are starting their exchange of information one level higher than the rest of the field and may make a subsequent mistake.

Nevertheless, there are times when the opponents compete and Responder wants to compete further or even find the best game.

To help with this, we use the lebensohl convention. Over 1NT (2y) . . . Responder's 2NT puppets Opener to bid 3C and then Responder bids her suit at the 3 level as a sign-off. Reponder's direct bids at the 3 level show the suit bid and invitational values. If you are currently using the lebensohl convention with more detailed and nuanced sequences, those will work over the mini-no trump, adjusting of course for the lower range of the opening bid.

One rule that again may not be the most theoretically sound but has the virtue of being easy to remember is that after a mini no trump opening bid, all Responder's x's are penalty. Responder knows where we are at and must wield the axe to extract maximum value from the system.

 

TWO WAY CHECKBACK

In auctions that start 1 - 1 - 1NT or 1 - 1 - 1NT responder often wants to probe for a 5-3 fit in s or 4-4 fit in s (opener should bypass s to show the range in preference to showing shape) and also to sometimes invite game and sometimes force game. We use two way checkback or two way new minor forcing to give Responder the needed tool.

After 1 - 1 - 1NT2 (Alertable) is an invitational strength probe for more information about opener's major suit holdings. Opener shows an unbid 4 card major (1st priority) or 3 card support for Responder's major (second priority) if she has it. Opener bids 2NT lacking either. 2 (Alertable) asks the same question with the same response structure but is game forcing.

VARIABLE RANGES

Many strong players use variable range NT structures such as 1NT = 10-12 1, 2 and 3 only if non-vulnerable and 14-16 otherwise. For now, we do not adopt the variable range principal. There is nothing wrong with it and it is almost certainly theoretically superior. However, we are attempting to design a system that can be remembered while being mastered. We play primarily MatchPoints (although our most important competitions are IMP scored) and we don't believe that the slight gains from avoiding risk of a Vulnerable 10-12 NT opening are worth the extra memory load of forgetting what agreement applies in a variable NT system.

As noted earlier, we likely do not always open 10-12 NT in fourth seat because the most likely explanation for this situation arising is that some has overlooked an Ace. We hope it is not partner.

ANNOUNCEMENTS, EXPLANATIONS, ALERTS

We announce our NT range as 10-12.

If partner opens a minor, we announce "could be short." If asked, how short? we respond "As few as two." Sometimes opponents ask if the 1 of a minor opener can have a five card major. We respond, "Only if the minor is longer." Note that we commonly open 5332 hands in the "wrong" minor if necessary to show the right range.

When partner opens 1 and rebids 1NT we Alert the 1NT rebid and if asked state "16 to 18." No alert is required for the 1 opening if followed by a 1NT.

THE MEDIUM STRENGTH MAJOR PROBLEM

Like many players that insist on opening 1 of a Major every time a five card major is held, we have rebid problems with a medium strength (16-18) hand with a five card Major. We can solve this to some extent by downgrading and upgrading hands but eventually we will have to work out a more nuanced solution to the 16-18 5332 with a five card Major. 

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