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Aggressive Game Bidding

A reader writes:

We recently lost a match when I stretched to bid a small slam (a lucky make) only to see partner stretch further to a grand slam (where our luck ran out). How can we avoid such disasters in future?

This sad tale has happened to all of us. My own favorite story happened in a Swiss match during my youth. My partner opened light in third chair. We found a big fit and then both stretched until we bid a slam holding a passed hand facing an 11-HCP opener. The contract could have been made but, of course, it wasn't. When we compared scores we announced -100. Our teammate gave us a quizzical look and we immediately launched into our excuses.

 

"The slam could have been made..."

 

"The auction was not bad, it was a reasonable contract..."

 

"If only I had drawn the right inference..."

 

You can imagine the rest. Our teammate listened quietly. Then she showed us the result at her table: Passed out.

 

 When vulnerable, I know I should bid game more aggressively but I am not sure how. Should I invite with weaker hands? Should I accept partner's invitations on weaker hands? What if partner took a light action too?


To avoid both players stretching on the same hand, we need a policy that allows only one player to stretch per hand. Further, there is a second issue we should consider. Invitations raise the level and this increases our risk. When we get to game we don't mind, since the game bonus makes up for it. However when we stop in 2NT we have increased our risk without a bonus. So paradoxically, when Vul, we'd like to bid to game more often but without playing many higher partials when we stop short of game.

 

Here are two strategies that provide control over aggression and avoid frequent 2NT contracts. They are named after famous players who have (or are reputed to have) employed these styles.

 

Hamman

When Vulnerable:

  • Responder invites normally
  • Opener accept all game tries (well, almost all)

 

Only one player (opener) bids more aggressively, and the partnership does not play any more 2NT contracts because opener pushes on to 3NT over 2NT so often.

 

Playing Hamman-style, opener can open lighter since he need not fear light actions from partner. Consequently, opener is allowed to open 1NT on 14 to help his side bid 14 opposite 10-11 HCP games.

 

Opener will accept an invitation any time his hand is full strength and pass only when his opening is light. For example, playing a strong NT, opener would accept a 2NT invitation on 15-17 HCP. 

 

 

Meckwell

America's top pair today is Eric Rodwell and Jeff Meckstroth, known by the contraction Meckwell. They are famous for aggressive game bidding and their success has led to changes in how American experts think about game auctions. Over the last 20 years, Jeff and Eric have popularized a different style of aggressive game bidding. In the Meckwell style:

  • Opener opens normally
  • Responder jumps to game with invitational values (unless the invitation is truly marginal, when he passes).


In the Meckwell style, the invitational raise is rarely used at all. Like the Hamman style after a 1NT opening, this style gets to game on 15 opposite 8-9. However, it puts aggression in the hands of the responder, so opener should in general keep his openings up to strength.


The style has two important benefits that give it an advantage over Hamman-style. First, by leaping to game you make life tougher for the defenders by concealing when responder holds invitational values. After a 2NT invitation, the defenders will know the contract is a close one. This knowledge will often help their defense. For example:

 

West
109x
Q10xx
KJxx
Qx

 

What should you lead from this hand against 3NT?

 

W
N
E
S
1NT
P
2NT
P
3NT
?

 

It is normally right to defend passively on this auction because the contract will be close and you can't afford to hand the declarer his 9th trick on the opening lead. The 10 is your safest lead.

 

W
N
E
S
1NT
P
3NT
P
P
P


After a jump to game the situation is different. It is normally right to defend aggressively since the opponents may run 9 tricks if you do not cash five first. Hence against this auction, lead a low heart or diamond. This strategy gives Meckwell an advantage when they have bid a marginal 3NT that others would bid more slowly.

 

Second, jumping to game makes it more difficult to double marginal games. Can you see why? Suppose you are dealt:

 

West
xxx
AQ109
xxx
xxx
W
N
E
S
1NT
P
2
P
2
P
3
P
4
?

 

You can double with a good expectation of a set knowing partner holds about 8-9 HCP. But against Jeff and Eric, the auction goes:


W
N
E
S
1NT
P
2
P
2
P
4
P
P
?

 

Now it is unsafe to double. Dummy may hold all the rest of the points. The opponents may redouble and make an overtrick!

 

The modern preference is for the Meckwell style because it puts the defenders at an increased disadvantage on hands where errors are most likely to cause a game swing. Not only can defenders find the wrong lead, but often they misdefend later because they have a harder time placing opener's cards.

 

 

Conclusion

Winning bridge requires intelligent aggression. "Aggression" in this context is the willingness to bid to a contract that will often fail. "Intelligent" means bidding aggressively to final contracts that reward you with a worthwhile bonus when successful. So remember:

 

3 down three is bad bridge, but 3NT down three is just "unlucky." :-)

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