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The Race to 1NT
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This is the first of two articles on the race to 1NT.

Low-level partscorebattles often amount to a race to a 1NT contract. More often than not, the side that bids1NT first has the advantage. This effect is easiest to see when you open 1NT. Assuming neither side has a game, what are the odds that the 1NT-opening sidewill reach a final contract that scores well (with best play)? I don't have an exact figure, but I estimateperhaps two times out of three. Winning the race to 1NTcan be a significant advantage.

Let's look at why. Assume that your opponent has opened 1NT, and that neither side can make a game. How often will you, as the defender, reach the best contract? Even expert players must accept they won't always reach their best spot. Sometimes, you won't be dealt the right combination of shape and values to enter the auction. You will defend 1NT, which will often make, despite the fact thatyou could have made your own partial. Other times you will enter the auction, but your methods won't allow you to find your best fit.

An example illustrates this problem:

West
Q10xxx
AKxx
Kxxx
North
J9xx
xxxx
x
Qxxx
East
x
Qx
AQxxx
xxxxx
South
AKx
Jxx
Jxx
AKJx
W
N
E
S
1NT
2
P
2
P
P
P
D
2 East
NS: 0 EW: 0

West has an awkward hand to bid. Most defenses against notrump have no way to show a 3-suiter over an opposing NT opener. In this situation, West is forced to compromise by bidding 2, a conventional bid showing both majors, suppressing the third suit, diamonds. Unfortunately, this makes it impossible for E-W to find their 9-card diamond fit. As a result, E-W land in a terrible 4-2 heart fit, with the only upside being that partner must play it!

Perhaps your defenses against notrump would allow you to show this hand. Perhaps you object to West's decision to show the majors. No matter. Regardless of your overcall structure and how well you judge, your defensive methods will occasionally drive your partnership into a sub-par contract; if not on this pattern, then on some other. This doesn't make you a bad bidder. It simply means the 1NT opening did its job: it took away enough bidding room to deprive your side from bidding accurately to a successful low-level contract.

Can 1NT lose the part-score battle?

Sure it can. After partner opens 1NT it is normally impossible to play in two of a minor. Even finding three of a minor can be challenging. You may wind up in a 5-2 major fit instead of a minor-suit or NT contract. Worst of all, if responder is too weak to respond to 1NT, you may miss a superior 4-4 major fit. So the 1NT opening can cut both ways. Take this hand, for example:

West
10xxx
Kxx
Qxx
Axx
North
AQx
xx
AKxx
QJxx
East
KJx
QJ10x
xx
109xx
South
xxx
Axxx
xxxx
Kx
W
N
E
S
1NT
P
P
P
D
1NT North
NS: 0 EW: 0

Despite holding a combined 24 HCP, 1NT will likely fail, while 2 is cold. At the same time, the opponents have nobiddable contract. If we could reach a 2 partial, we'd end up with a positive score, compared to going down in 1NT.

Ideally, we'd like to avoid these scenarios. In practice, the best we can do is to try to make them happen when the damage is limited. For example, if our opponents can make 2, and we can make 2, then 1NT undoubledgoing down 1 for a score of -50 may not be the best we can do, but it is better than -110. This illustrates two principles that govern when we should play the wrong partial:

  • We'd like to do it when opponents have a making contract
  • We'd like to do it when we are not vulnerable, so that our minus score is smaller

The Battle Ground

We can define a NTpartscorebattle as any hand wherewe can score between 5 and 8 tricks in a NT contract.(If we can score 9 tricks, we are making 3NT, and if we can score only 4 tricks, the opponents are making 3NT.)

These auctions have an interesting symmetry. When our result will be between 5 and 8 tricks in NT, then the opponents also can take between 5 and 8 tricks in NT. Hence these auctions are by definition competitive or at least potentially competitive (we must always worry opponents might enter). Further, when hands are relatively balanced, offensive and defensive tricks tend to converge. That is, if we can score 8 tricks declaring 1NT, we can typically also score 8 tricks defending 1NT.

When we have, say, 7 tricks in a NT partial, we sometimes find ourselves with options. We couldengineer the auction such that we play 1NT (by opening 1NT) or we could bid slowly, potentially giving the opponents a chance to bid notrump instead. Which bidding approach is best?

When it is in our interest, such as on hand 1, we'd like to open 1NT.Even if we cannot make our own contract, the preemptive effect of opening 1NT is a net plus when the cost of going down is cheap. However, as my two examples showed, 1NT openings sometimes can hurt us. Holding hand 2, we'd prefer to get to our best spot rather than to obstruct the enemy.
We can't know for sure which hands will and won't reward aggression. However, even at this low level, vulnerability affects the magnitude of wins and losses. We can take this into account by tuning our NT bidding to open 1NT frequently when the IMP scoring table rewards it, and cautiously when the IMP scoring table punishes negative scores. Let's take a look at this in more detail.

The Scoring Table

Assume that either you or your opponent will declare 1NT, and that we will compute the IMP score comparing your NS result when declaring, against another table where the EW pair has declared the contract. Finally, let's assume you will take the same number of tricks regardless of whether you declare or defend. (This last assumption, although slightly unrealistic, approximates the advantage that declarer has over the defenders when the contract is 1NT.)

Given these assumptions, let's take a look at how we will score in each vulnerability condition, assuming that we will take between 5 and 8 tricks (on offense or defense). In the tables below, the first rows show our tricks. The second and third rows show our raw scores depending upon whether we are declaring or defending.The last rows show the IMP gain or loss for declaring, assuming that the other table defends 1NT.

NV vs NV

NS Tricks 8 7 6 5

NS declare +120 +90 -50 -100

NS defend +100 +50 -90 -120

IMPs +1 +1 +1 +1

WhenNVon NVwe'dalways rather declare1NT.No matter how many tricks we can take, we will score better by declaring over defending 1NT. At these colors, we'd like to open 1NT as often as possible. Our disasters will be cheap, and we need to take maximum advantage of the freedom to disrupt, as you can see from the scoring table above. Whatever range you play, this is the time to stretch to open 1NT light, or offshape. Even if you play the wrong partial, the upside from stealing the contract is large.

Vul vs Vul

NS Tricks 8 7 6 5

NS declare +120 +90 -100 -200

NS defend +200 +100 -90 -120

IMPs -2 0 0 -2

In every case, when we are both vulnerable, we'd rather defend NT. In other words, we'd rather lose the race to 1NT! Note that when we can make 6 or 7 tricks, we break even at IMPs. However, in either situation we'd prefer to defend, because of the threat of a double. Down 1 doubled is -200, which is a loss of 4 IMPs when compared to defending and risking -90 when the contract makes. This is a time to open 1NT carefully. Don't open 1NT light; don't open 1NT whenthere is a good chance your best partial is in a suit. Since you don't particularly care if they bid their way into 1NT, your mantra should be, "Bid slowly and find our best fit."

Vul vs NV

NS Tricks 8 7 6 5

NS declare +120 +90 -100 -200

NS defend +100 +50 -90 -120

IMPs +1 + 1 0 -2

When Vul against NV,we would ratherdeclareif we can make, anddefendif we can not. There is nothingearth shattering here. When we are vulnerable, our undertricks are expensive. It is cheaper to sell out to an opposing partscore than it is to overbid. Since they are NV, their undertricks are cheap. That means we need to bid our contracts, rather than simply accepting a small plus score on defense when we can make. When vulnerableagainst not, we don't want to be stolen from, but we also need to be wary of overbidding. Our focus is on our offensive potential. When our offense is good, we bid. When offense is mediocre and we might not make, we prefer to defend.

NV vs Vul

NS Tricks 8 7 6 5

NS declare +120 +90 -50 -100

NS defend +200 +100 -90 -120

IMPs -2 0 +1 +1

When NV versusVul,we'd rather defend if we canmakeand declare if we cannot!Something of a head-scratcher, isn't it! When we can make 8 tricks playing 1NT, we will defeat the opponents 2 tricks if they play 1NT instead. Our score is better if we defend 1NT. On the other hand, if we only make 5 tricks in 1NT, we do better to play 1NT (as long as it isn't doubled).

What does this suggest? When our hand is relatively weak, we can open 1NT with impunity at these colors. When our defense is weakish andwe can't defeat their contract, we should be a nuisance. However, when our hand has good defensive strength, we should bid slowly. If they want to stick their neck out, we will be delighted to chop it off.

When Vul against NV, we pay attention to offense, bidding only when our offense was strong. When NV on Vul, we payattention to defense, bidding a lot when defense is low and cautiously when it is strong.

Conclusion

Whenweare vulnerable, we worry about going down (or worse, going down doubled). Even if our opponents only catch us for -2 doubled occasionally, those losses are so costly that they will offset any gains we make when we steal low-level NT partials. As a result, whenvulnerable, we'd prefer an opening NT range that does not land us in hopeless contracts very often.

Whentheyare vulnerable (and we are not), we'd prefer to defend when our hand is defensively-oriented. We'd like to reap the benefit of the occasional +500. However, when our hand is offensive, we want to aggressively pursue the contract. We don't care if we overbid. They can't hurt us much, and our overbids will frequently be IMP-winning sacrifices, even in a part-score.

When both of us are NV, we want to open 1NT as often as possible. We have to go down 3, or to be doubled, down 2, before we get a poor result. Even then, the damage is limited (-5 IMPs for going -300 instead of -110). This is the situation where an aggressive opening 1NT strategy has most to gain. We should open 1NT light andoffshapeand, if possible, should play a NT range where 1NT can be used as a preemptive weapon.

Finally, when both of us areVul, our caution is magnified. We bid slowly, and if they want to play in NT, they can be our guest.

The race to 1NT is a balancing act that requires a bidding strategy that maximize gains and minimize losses.

In my next article I will show how seat position impacts NT openings and will discuss NT opening tactics to exploit the scoring table.

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