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Semiforcing 1NT

Playing a 1NT response to 1M as forcing isn’t necessary playing 2/1. In fact, it has a lot of downsides:

  • We can’t play 1NT, which is one of my favorite contracts and often our best spot.
  • Opener has to rebid a three-card suit too often.
  • We can get too high when opener has a balanced minimum and responder has a maximum.

Most experts nowadays play responder's 1NT bid as “semiforcing.” This basically means that, like a “forcing” 1NT, responder could have an invitational hand. But he cannot have more than an invite, which means that with a balanced minimum, opener can pass 1NT.

The best hand responder can have when he bids 1NT is the three-card limit raise. The biggest objection I hear to playing 1NT as semiforcing is that if responder happens to have that hand and opener passes 1NT, we have missed our major-suit fit. That’s absolutely true, and occasionally that will burn you, especially at matchpoints, where your +90 or +120 won’t score well compared to others’ +140s. But opener's hand is always poor enough that he would not be accepting the game try — that is one of the criteria for passing 1NT. So we’re not worried about missing a game in our major, just a partscore. And responder was going to have to jump to 3M to show limit-raise values. When opener has a hand poor enough to pass 1NT, often 3M is in jeopardy. It’s pretty rare that 3M will make but 1NT will go down, but it is not uncommon at all for 1NT to make and 3M to go down. For all the times your +90 loses matchpoints to the -140s, there are at least an equal number of times that it wins matchpoints to the -50s in 3M.

What Hands Pass 1NT?

The first rule here is that opener cannot pass 1NT if he would have accepted a three-card limit raise (responder's best possible hand). To pass 1NT, opener will typically have a minimum (12 or 13 HCP) 5332 hand. Hands with a second suit (5-4) are usually best handled by showing your second suit.

There are only two types of hands with which opener will ever rebid a three-card suit. The first is a 5332 hand good enough that it would accept an invite. For example KQTxx KQx xx Axx. I would probably have opened this hand 1NT to begin with, but if I opened 1 I would never pass 1NT, since I would accept an invitation from partner. So I must bid 2. This situation is rare, since most 5332 hands good enough to accept an invite should be upgraded to a 1NT opening.

The second type of hand that has to rebid a three-card suit is a 5431 hand with five hearts and four spades that is not strong enough for a Reverse. For example AJxx AJxxx x KQx. Passing 1NT can't be right, especially since you are strong enough to accept an invite. So you have to rebid 2.

Responder’s Continuations

Not much changes for responder playing a semiforcing 1NT. Weak hands either take a preference to partner’s first suit or bid their own suit naturally. Invitational hands bid 2NT, bid 3M, raise partner’s second suit, or jump in a new suit at the three-level (eg 1-1NT; 2-3). The big difference is that you know that when he bids a second suit it is almost always 4+ cards, which allows responder to pass or raise opener's second suit much more liberally.

Examples

South
AKJxx
xx
QJx
Qxx
W
N
E
S
1
P
1NT
P
?
Pass. You have a balanced minimum. 1NT will be at least a reasonable contract. You would not accept any invitational bids partner might make. Don’t worry about the two small hearts.

South
Jx
KQxxx
Qx
Axxx
W
N
E
S
1
P
1NT
P
?

2. A relatively balanced minimum, but with 5-4 shape it’s usually best to bid your second suit rather than pass 1NT. If partner has heart support, the hand will probably play much better in hearts.

South
AQJxx
Ax
KJx
Kxx
W
N
E
S
1
P
1NT
P
?

2NT. Nothing changes here; raising to 2NT shows a balanced 18-19.

South
QJxxx
AQ
xxxx
KJ
W
N
E
S
1
P
1NT
P
?

Pass. With such a weak second suit and so much strength in your doubletons, make an exception here and pass 1NT.

South
xx
Qxx
Kxxx
Qxxx
W
N
E
S
1
P
1NT
P
2
P
?

Pass. Playing 1NT Forcing, you would bid 2, since opener's 2 rebid is so often a three-card suit. Playing 1NT Semiforcing, opener almost always has four clubs, and with a two-card discrepancy in length you can choose his second suit.

South
Ax
KJx
QJxx
xxxx
W
N
E
S
1
P
1NT
P
2
P
?

4. You were planning on showing a three-card limit raise, but when partner showed a diamond suit the double fit makes your hand worth insisting upon game. The fact that opener almost always has four diamonds playing 1NT Semiforcing makes this easier, as you know it’s a real suit.

South
QJx
Kxxx
KQxx
xx
W
N
E
S
1
P
1NT
P
P
P

Don’t be worried or upset about missing your spade fit. 1NT should play just fine. Partner wasn’t accepting your invite, and 3 might have gone down; be glad to be at the one-level.

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