By Larry Matheny
There is little doubt that in today’s bridge arena, an aggressive bidding style will often be rewarded. However, there is a huge difference between being aggressive and simply making bad bids. Included in the bad bid category are: 1) Bidding without a goal, 2) Overbidding, and 3) Bad overcalls. A frequent result from any of these choices is either a large minus score or a gift to the opponents when you give them a blueprint on how to play the hand. In this lesson I’m going to review some of the bad habits many players have developed.
So many players bid without first deciding what they are trying to accomplish. If the opponents have opened the bidding, your call should be made with some purpose. Are you trying to buy the contract, obtain a lead, suggest a sacrifice, or perhaps trying to impede the opponents? Don’t just bid because you have a certain number of points or length in a particular suit, think about your objective.
Here is a hand where a bid is unlikely to help your side:
6 KQ963 54 AQ1076
OPP PARD OPP YOU
1 P 2 ?
It seems tempting to double to show both suits but let’s examine the bidding up to now. Your left hand opponent has opened the bidding, your partner has passed, and your right hand opponent has made a 2/1 call. That doesn’t leave much for your partner, does it? In fact, you may be lucky not to go for a huge number or, at best, tell your opponents how to play the hand. They will play you for most of the missing high cards and will also be aware you are probably short in their suits and will finesse accordingly.
Here is a recent example: 65 A3 KJ876 QJ83 (sitting North)
NORTH EAST SOUTH WEST (nonvul vs vul)
P 1 P 1
It’s possible but unlikely N/S will buy the contract. What North will do is give away information with little chance to gain. At the table his partner took this as a serious interest in sacrificing and jumped to 5. He went down only three tricks doubled however, the opponents were going to stop in a partial so it was a zero.
Too many players think that opening the bidding gives them license to continue to bid. If you hold a minimum opener, unless your partner forces you to bid, you should pass. If you continue to bid, you show extras in either points or distribution. Here are some examples:
YOU OPP PARD OPP Hand A: Q8 K2 KJ983 KJ43
1 P 1 1 Hand B: A3 2 AQ983 KQ943
? Hand C: QJ2 64 K65432 AQ2
Holding hand A, you should pass. Since it’s appropriate to discount queens and jacks in the opponents’ suits, your aceless thirteen-point hand was just reduced to eleven by the overcall. I have seen players bid 2 with hands like this and then be surprised when they get too high because partner expects more.
With hand B, you can confidently rebid 2. This is a sound opener with extras.
Holding hand C, you should pass. Yes, you have six diamonds but the suit is very weak. Also, your spade holding is better suited for defense. It is important to understand that your hand can improve or lose value during an auction.
Here’s another case: K83 Q83 Q876 J53
PARD OPP YOU
1NT* P ?
Pass and hope your partner can make it. Yes, SOME eight-point hands are worth a raise to 2NT but this isn’t one of them. Don’t just count points; use judgment.
Another frequent case of overbidding occurs when a player is dealt a very good hand and his or her partner opens the bidding. Just because you hold 19 high card points doesn’t mean you should force to slam but the usual response is 4NT. Think about the 12-point hands everyone is opening these days. If you need 33+ points for slam, the math doesn’t work.
Here is an example: AK98 K3 AQJ Q752
Does partner hold: Hand A J654 QJ5 K65 AJ3
or: Hand B Q1054 A65 K6 AJ109
Holding hand A game is high enough while hand B gives you a chance for all thirteen tricks. So what do you do? Well, there are several approaches but one solution is to make a game try. With hand A partner will rebid 3 to show a minimum, but with hand B he will cooperate by either jumping to game or cue bidding. So instead of making the decision yourself, allow partner to help.
A common situation where overbidding should never take place is when a player holds a great hand and their partner opens 1NT. With a balanced hand this is an easy problem; you just add points! Here is a recent disaster:
NORTH K73 QJ32 AK2 Q108
SOUTH A102 K87 J1095 AK3
Do the math. South should add his 15 points to his partner’s 15-17 and conclude that even if North has a maximum, it only adds to 32. Just bid 3NT.
People are often surprised when I tell them that the largest penalties usually come from doubling the opponents at a low level. Too many people just count their points and feel obligated to bid. And, I am confident many players are colorblind because they don’t seem to notice the color red. An overcall at the one-level may be made on a weaker hand but still you should have a purpose. If you have a good suit but weak hand, your goal may be to solicit a lead from your partner. If you have a good hand, you might entertain the goal of buying the contract. However, when you overcall at the two-level or higher, you need a good hand and a good suit. This is particularly true when you are vulnerable.
Let’s face it; the average bridge player loves to bid. Unfortunately, this tendency is seldom tempered when confronted with adverse vulnerability or poor suit quality. The more experienced players who have been burned by opponents eager to double are more cautious.
Take a look at this hand in the South position with none vulnerable at teams:
QJ10 K5 AJ1092 987
IMPs – none vulnerable WEST NORTH EAST SOUTH
P P 1 ?
Some would not hesitate to overcall with this hand but in a recent bidding quiz all but one of seventeen experts chose to pass. In fact, they were adamant. Here of some of their comments:
“It would not occur to me to bid.”
“Bidding 2 is dangerous.”
“I try not to overcall at the two level with a five-card suit.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me!”
“Pass and more pass.”
“There is no compelling reason to bid immediately.”
Let’s look at some recent horror stories.
North led the nine of spades and West was lucky to get four tricks for –800 and a very bad score. These kinds of bids are made all of the time because too few players holding the North hand will double. By the way, this is also an argument against using “Stolen Bids”.
Here’s another one:
Using negative doubles, it was imperative for South to reopen in case North had a heart stack. North led the king and even when a very good dummy hit, declarer was only able to come to six tricks and North-South received a top score of +500. As West left the table he was heard to say: “But, I had a six-card suit”. He could count but he was one of those afflicted with color blindness.
There are several conventions available to show two-suited hands. However, just because you have a two-suited hand doesn’t mean you have to tell everyone about it. Most people don’t stop to think about the price they sometimes pay to employ these seemingly harmless toys. If you are going to tell the opponents you have 10+ cards in two suits, you can count on them using that information so make sure your side has an opportunity to profit before you speak. Here’s a good example of how NOT to use one of these conventions:
PAIRS BOTH VUL: Q 82 Q10532 K9863
NORTH EAST SOUTH WEST
1 P 1 2NT
Yes, West is 5-5 in the minors and he has the Unusual 2NT for the lower unbid suits marked on his convention card, but what does he possibly expect to gain? His suits are weak and he is vulnerable. If the opponents have a fit, they will take the information he has given them and play the hand accordingly. If there is no fit, he is going for a very large number. The chance of him finding a profitable sacrifice (that was his goal, wasn’t it?) is very small. His bid had little chance of succeeding.
So we have a conundrum: If you shouldn’t make weak overcalls, how can you still be aggressive and not be pushed around by the opponents? The secret to being able to compete without making dangerous bids is: You and your partner must rely on the principal of balancing when it is appropriate. The balancing bid is one of the most important (and neglected) members of our bidding repertoire.
It may surprise you to hear it is sometimes safer to bid at the three-level than at the two-level. Take a look at two common balancing situations:
A3 873 K93 QJ1087 3 A1086 K1098 Q1087
RHO YOU LHO PARD RHO YOU LHO PARD
1 P 2 P 1 P 2 P
P 3 P DBL
I hope by now you would not consider making a direct overcall with the first hand. However, now that the opponents have discovered a fit and stopped at the two-level, it is essential that you balance. The reopening double with the second hand should be automatic to you. With each hand, your goal is simply to push the opponents to the next level. This is how you enter the auction with substandard hands without making bad overcalls. Yes, on a bad day a balancing bid will be punished, but letting the opponents play at the two-level with a fit is bad bridge.
We don’t have the time today to review the concept of balancing, but you must employ this valuable tool if you want to be successful at bridge.