Default Agreements: Was that a cuebid? (Part 1)

This hand was the subject of an interesting discussion on the Internet newsgroup

  Void   842   K75   KQJ9865

Playing a two-over-one forcing-to-game system, partner opens 1S and you bid a forcing 1NT. Partner now rebids 3S and it's your call.

Newsgroup readers who responded to the problem chose Pass, 4C, 5C, 3NT and even a raise to 4S. Many of the 4C bidders thought their choice was "obvious". As others pointed out, however, if you and partner haven't discussed this particular auction before, are you sure he'll know you're showing a club suit? He might well interpret your 4C as a cuebid for a spade slam, thinking you were describing a 3-card limit-raise -- a hand like   J65   84   KQ75   A1095 .

What should 4C mean in this auction? There are merits for both treatments -- natural or a cuebid -- but neither meaning has value unless you and partner interpret it the same way.

Best, of course, would be to have a specific agreement about this auction before it happens. (You may well have one after the hand, especially if you have a disaster.) In practice, though, it's impossible to discuss every sequence that might come up at the table. No matter how long you play with your partner, you'll always encounter unique situations that aren't covered by your current agreements or conventions.

A practical way to handle this kind of problem is to have what might be called "default" agreements -- simple rules that are broadly phrased to cover all undiscussed sequences. To handle the situation above, your partnership could have one of two defaults:

Default #1: An ambiguous new-suit bid at the 4-level or higher is a cuebid; OR
Default #2: If an ambiguous new-suit bid could be natural, it is.

Using Default #1

If you and your partner make #1 your default agreement, you can't use a 4C bid to suggest a new trump suit. To show long, strong clubs, you'd have to jump to 5C. Partner should have no trouble interpreting this as a long suit, especially since he knows your default agreement prevented you from bidding a natural 4C.

You could also choose to make Default #1 more specific by stipulating that it applies only if partner has shown extra length in his suit. This would clarify the meaning of auctions like these:

      You    Partner  
-- 1S 2H 3C 3H 4D
(2) 1H 1S 4H 5C
You LHO Partner RHO (3) 1H 2D Dbl* 4D *(negative double) 4H Pass 4S

In all three auctions, you can safely interpret partner's last bid as a cuebid showing support for your hearts. However, if you use the "extra-length" requirement, your default agreement would not apply to this sequence:

     You    Partner    
      1S      2H   
      3D      4C    

Here, partner's 4C should be natural (and forcing), since you haven't promised extra length in either of your suits.

Keep in mind that the key word in these agreements is "ambiguous". The default rules are in effect only for situations you haven't previously discussed and for which an alternate meaning isn't obvious. For example, if you use Default #1, it would not apply in these auctions:

     LHO   You   RHO   Partner  
     3D    3S    Pass   4H   
You Partner 3S 4H

In either case, there should be nothing ambiguous about partner's 4H bid. In the first auction, it's his first chance to show a long suit and you haven't promised significant extra length in spades, so 4H must be natural. You also have the inference that if partner wanted to show strong spade support, he could have cuebid 4D or jumped to 5S.

In the second auction, there's already a "standard" interpretation that partner's 4H bid is to play (unless you've previously agreed on another meaning). In addition, common sense tells you there would be little reason for partner to intend 4H as a slam try, since this would mean he lacked controls in clubs and diamonds.

Using Default #2

If you and partner decide to use Default #2 ("If it could be natural, it is"), you'd be comfortable with a 4C bid with the hand above. That leads to a second question: Is it forcing? To cover this, you could agree to one of these general defaults:

Default 2-A: An ambiguous new-suit bid is always natural and forcing.
Default 2-B: An ambiguous new-suit bid is natural but non-forcing if the bidder has previously limited his hand.

With A as your default, your 4C rebid would be forcing. If you instead use B, opener would be allowed to pass 4C because your 1NT response had already limited your strength. Default B would also apply anytime you were a passed hand.

Your partnership can decide how to word your agreements and what restrictions to put on them. Be careful, however, about making these "catchall" rules too specific. They offer the biggest benefits if they're simple and easy to remember -- and if they're general enough that you can apply them to a wide range of bidding problems.

More troubles with cuebids

You hold:   AQ4   KQ962   KJ109   5

Playing a 2/1 forcing-to-game system, you open 1H and partner responds 2D. You bid 4C -- a splinter showing diamond support and a singleton club -- and partner bids 4H.

Is 4H a cuebid for a diamond slam, or is it natural? In the next article in this series, we'll discuss default agreements you can use for problems like this one.

Default Agreements: Was that a cuebid? (Part 2)

Playing a two-over-one forcing-to-game system, you open 1H with:

  AQ4   KQ962   KJ109   5

Partner responds 2D and you rebid 4C -- a splinter showing diamond support and a singleton club. Partner now bids 4H.

How do you interpret partner's 4H? If you believe your auction has absolutely set diamonds as trumps, then you can probably assume 4H is a cuebid for a diamond slam. Partner might have a hand like   832   A   AQ8752   Q65 where he needs only to hear a spade cuebid from you to be able to use Blackwood.

Or is 4H a natural call? If partner is trying to show a minimum with 3-card heart support --   KJ   854   AQ762   K75 -- you'd better pass before you get too high.

Dilemmas like this one come up often, even in the most practiced partnerships. It's impossible to discuss every sequence that might come up at the table, but if you have a few "default" agreements in place, you can improve the chances that you and partner will interpret an unusual auction in the same way.

A default agreement is a simple, broadly phrased guideline that applies to sequences that aren't covered by your other agreements or conventions. To handle situations like the one above, your partnership could have one of two defaults:

Default #1: A game bid in a major suit previously bid by either partner is an offer to play there; OR
Default #2: A forcing-to-game raise always sets trumps; all subsequent bids in other suits are cuebids.

Worded more simply, Default #1 is a variation of the broader default "If it could be natural, it is"; Default #2 is "If it could be a cuebid, it is." Which is better? In practice, #1 will probably help you handle more common problems, especially those that arise in crowded auctions. Default #2 will give you more accuracy in some slam auctions, but it requires you to further define exactly what qualifies as a forcing raise.

Default #1 also conforms to the old bridge tenet of "game before slam" (which can function as a default agreement all by itself). This popular advice suggests that when making choices about how to structure your system or interpret a bid, finding the best game should take priority over searching for slam. This means that when in doubt, you should treat an ambiguous bid as a natural suggestion of a trump suit or as a try for game, rather than as an advance cuebid for a possible slam.

Whichever default you choose, remember that its purpose is not to provide the "perfect" solution to every problem; it's only designed to help you avoid major misunderstandings. If you use Default #1 and partner happens to hold the first hand above -- one with which he really wants to cuebid 4H -- he can't. Instead, he'll have to "stall" with 4D, which is forcing, and hope you'll cuebid a spade control.

Using your default

Let's see how these agreements can help you sort out what's going on in other auctions. Would you interpret the last bid in each sequence below as natural or as a cuebid?

     You    Partner        
(1)   --      1S   
      1NT     3C   
      4C      4S   
(2) 1D 1H 2NT 3D 3S 4H
(3) 1D 1S 2H 3D 3S 4H
(4) -- 1D [2H overcall] DBL* 3H * (negative double) 4D 4S
(5) 1S 2D 2S 3H 3S 4H

Without a previous discussion or a default agreement, these auctions would cause problems for many partnerships. If you rely on Default #1, though, you can safely assume partner's last bid was a natural suggestion of a final contract.

In (1), opener is showing extra spade length. He may be 6-4, or he may have improvised a jump-shift with a hand like
  AQ10962   A   K83   AQ8 . If you instead use Default #2, partner's 4S would be a cuebid only if you agreed that 4C had set trumps. Most players treat 4C as a good raise, and it's a game-forcing auction, but you should discuss whether or not your default would apply here.

In (2), partner is showing a mild slam try with six hearts and a diamond fit (   4   AQ10762   K1052   83). His round-about auction shows a stronger, better-fitting hand than if he had jumped directly to 4H over 2NT.

In (3), you've both shown good values, but the auction has turned into a scramble to find the right strain. Even with all the strong bidding up to this point, partner's 4H should be considered passable. Since you've shown a 3-4-5-1 pattern (identifying the club weakness for notrump), partner is suggesting the 4-3 heart fit may be the right spot. He may hold
  J652   AQ8   Q1073   53.

You can apply the same reasoning to (4), the only difference being that spades were "bid" with a negative double. Partner's 3H cuebid was most likely a search for 3NT, but he's now willing to try the 10-trick game in a 4-3 fit.

Auction (5) came from the 1995 European championships, where opener, a French expert, thought his partner's 4H was a cuebid in support of spades. Holding a 6-2-1-4 hand, he followed with a 5C cuebid, which got his side dangerously high -- partner was 5-6 in the red suits and meant 4H as natural and non-forcing. A default agreement would have helped the pair stop in game on this misfit.

When is your default "off"?

It's important to remember that these agreements apply only to ambiguous situations. If you've previously agreed on another meaning for a sequence, or if there's already a standard or "obvious" treatment for it, those prevail. For example, Default #1 would not apply in these auctions:

     You     Partner 
(6)   1D      1H   
      1S      3NT  
      4D      4H  
(7) -- 1S 1NT 3H 4H 4S

In (6), if partner really had extra heart length, he had plenty of room to show it earlier. Since your 4D suggested slam-try values, partner is cooperating by cuebidding the heart ace.

In (7), you've already found a good major-suit fit and you're in game, so there's no reason for partner to be trying to talk you into a different one. He's cuebidding for a heart slam and is probably hoping to hear about a minor-suit control from you.

Default Agreements: Was that a cuebid? (Part 3)

Would this hand have caused a problem for you and your partner?

You hold   J10765   A8   KQ   9865 and this auction develops:

    LHO    Partner   RHO    You  
     1D     Pass     Pass   1S   
     DBL     2D      Pass    ?    

What is partner's 2D? If this auction had come up at my table, I would have assumed (without, I confess, giving much thought to other alternatives) that 2D was a cuebid showing spade support and inviting game if I had a little extra for my balancing bid. I would have expected partner to hold   Q843   K4   652   AJ104 .

However, after this problem was posted on the Internet newsgroup, I was reminded of how dangerous it is to automatically assume anything in an unfamiliar auction, even one where you think partner's message is "obvious".

Several experienced players who posted solutions to this problem were adamant that 2D showed diamonds. Their argument was that partner could have redoubled or raised spades if he had the good supporting hand. They guessed that partner had   32   K94   AJ10975   43.

If your partnership has had this auction before, you probably have an agreement about the meaning of the cuebid. But if it's one of the hundreds (even thousands) of bidding sequences you've never encountered, would you have been on the same wavelength? With which of the two hands above would you or partner have bid 2D?

Problems like this one demonstrate the value of default agreements -- simple, catchall "rules" that can be applied to situations you haven't discussed. To cover this sequence (and others like it), you and partner could agree to one of these defaults:

In auctions where our first action is an overcall, if an opponent makes a non-penalty double:
Default # 1: Redouble shows a constructive (or better) raise of partner's suit. A minimum bid of the opponent's suit is natural. OR
Default #2: A cuebid of the opponent's suit shows a constructive (or better) raise. It's artificial and forcing.

Fine-tuning your agreement

Without further partnership discussion, either one of these agreements may help you avoid a disaster in an ambiguous auction. You'll defeat the purpose of the default if you make the wording much more specific, but you can improve your communication by discussing how you'll evaluate your hands and handle rebids.

You should specify that Default #1 applies only if the opponent has promised 4 cards or fewer in his suit (if the opening bid is a minor or a 4-card major). If the opponent opens a 5-card major, it's less likely you'd want to make a natural bid in his suit, so the major-suit cuebid should be artificial and forcing.

You may also want to clarify how strong your hand should be for a "constructive" raise. Ten or more support points is a guideline you might use for responding to a direct overcall, about 12 support points for a balancing overcall.

With Default #2, the cuebid by a passed hand will always show trump support and at least a mild game invitation. This will usually be the case if the cuebidder is an unpassed hand, too. However, many pairs agree that an unpassed hand can also use a cuebid to start the description of a non-supporting hand with forcing-to-game strength. The cuebidder clarifies his intentions at his next turn -- his bid of a new suit or notrump shows the strong hand without trump support. If you play new suits are non-forcing after an overcall, you may want to adopt this meaning. You can also incorporate this agreement into Default #1 by agreeing that a redouble can be used to show other strong hands.

With #2, you'll also want to discuss the meaning of a redouble. It can be used as a lead director (showing a top honor in partner's suit) or as a show of general high-card strength, with or without support.

Using your default

Either one of these defaults would clear up possible misunderstandings in auctions like these:

      RHO     You     LHO   Partner    
(1)    1C     1H      DBL*    2C          * (negative) 

(2)   --      --      1C      1D 
      Pass    1S      DBL     2C   
(3) -- -- 1D Pass Pass 1S DBL 2S
(4) -- -- 1C 1D Pass 1S DBL RDBL
(5) -- -- 1C 1H Pass Pass DBL 2C

In the first two auctions, partner's 2C is natural if you use Default #1; it's a cuebid for your suit if you use #2. With either agreement, partner should have minimum values for his 2S raise in auction (3), since he would have redoubled (Default #1) or cuebid (#2) if he had a good high-card raise.

In (4), your agreement should help you pinpoint the type of hand partner has for his redouble. With Default #1, it's a supporting hand that's somewhat stronger than a minimum overcall --   Q107   AJ   AKJ102   632 . If you use Default #2, partner could have cuebid 2C to make a "2 1/2" spade raise, so his redouble usually shows extra values without 3-card support --   K3   AJ9   AKJ102   632.

If you're still wondering how one of your defaults could apply to (5), you already understand one of the cardinal rules of using these agreements: Bridge logic and common sense always override your default. Whether you've agreed to Default #1 or #2, partner's 2C must be natural. Nothing has happened to make him re-evaluate his hand upwards, and there's no suit he can be cuebidding for (he could have redoubled or rebid his hearts if he wanted to show a long, strong suit). He might hold   3   KQJ84   52   AQ1087 .

You can decide for yourself which default is more valuable or most in tune with your bidding style. There's no guarantee that either will be optimal for a particular hand or auction, but any agreement is better than none. As your partnership develops, you can refine your understandings so that more are covered by specific agreements and fewer are handled by the defaults.

Default Agreements: Was that a cuebid? (Part 4)

Would you be certain about the meaning of partner's bid in each of these auctions, or would they be potential disasters-in-progress at your table?

     RHO    You   LHO   Partner
(1)   1D    Pass   1H     2D    
(2) 1D Pass 1H 2H
(3) -- -- 1C Pass 1H 1S Pass 2C

Previously, we discussed agreements you could use to sort out the meaning of an ambiguous cuebid in an auction where the opponent has bid only one suit. Another source of frequent misunderstandings is a cuebid made after the opponents have bid two suits. In the above sequences, partner had a choice of two cuebids. Do both suits convey the same message, or should each have a unique meaning?

As with most areas of bridge bidding, expert opinion varies on exactly what each cuebid should show. One thing is certain, though: if you have no agreement at all, auctions like these can cause panic attacks -- and disasters, when one partner thinks the "standard" meaning is artificial, and the other thinks it's natural.

Whether you're a new or an established partnership, you can avoid these guessing games by having a few general "default" rules -- simple guidelines that can apply to many possible auctions. To handle situations like those above, your partnership could agree to one of three defaults:

In auctions where the opponents have bid two suits:
Default #1: A bid of either of the opponents' suits is an artificial cuebid; OR
Default #2: A bid of either of the opponents' suits is natural; OR
Default #3: A bid of an opponent's suit is natural if it's over the opponent who originally bid the suit.
It's artificial if it's under the original bidder.

In practice, partnerships who haven't discussed these cuebids tend to use Default #1. The partner of the cuebidder usually follows the old rule of "when in doubt, keep the bidding open", even when he suspects the cuebid is natural. Without an agreement, it's probably safest to assume partner meant his bid as Michaels (showing the unbid suits) in auctions (1) and (2), and as an invitational spade raise in (3).

Many top players endorse Default #2. Their argument is that in auctions (1) and (2), partner could have doubled or bid an unusual 2NT to show the unbid suits. In (3), he could raise spades to the appropriate level to show a fitting hand. The only real problem comes if you play weak jump raises of overcalls, since this gives partner no way to make an invitational spade raise in (3).

Though it's a bit more complicated, Default #3 is probably the most flexible and widely used. Another way to think of it is that when two cuebids are available, if you bid your RHO's suit -- the one where the outstanding trumps will be "onside" -- it's natural. If you bid your LHO's suit, it's artificial and forcing.

Here's how you would use Default #3 in the above auctions:

In auction (1), partner has cuebid his LHO's suit, so it's an artificial takeout for the unbid suits. Since you have other ways to show two suits, you may want to discuss the meanings of different actions. A takeout double here tends to promise less distribution (4-4 or 5-4 in your suits) and/or more defensive strength. The Michaels cuebid suggests a 5-5 with weak to intermediate strength, and the unusual 2NT can be reserved for the most distributional hands (6-5). If you play a weak, "sandwich" 1NT, it can be a very light takeout.

In (2), partner's 2H is natural because he bid the suit that lies over the announced length. This treatment, which can be very valuable, was developed by players who got tired of being muzzled when they heard this auction and held
  A5   AKJ1086   43   J102.

In (3), partner has clubs --   5   K65   873   KJ10874 . If he had wanted to invite in spades, he would have chosen the artificial cuebid of 2H, the suit bid on his left.

Try Default #3 with these problems:

    RHO    You   LHO   Partner   
    --     --    1C     Pass  
    Pass   DBL   1S      2C   

Applying your default is trickier here because both suits were bid on the cuebidder's right. If partner wanted to show invitational values, his safest course would be to avoid a cuebid and just bid notrump or jump in a red suit. Alternatively, you could agree that in this situation, the cuebid of opener's first suit is artificial. Since opener's bidding tends to show 5-4 in his suits, it's unlikely you'd want to play in his "real" club suit.

    RHO   You    LHO   Partner     
    --    --     1C     1H   
    1S    Pass   3S     4C    

Whichever default you use, bridge judgment should tell you 4C is clubs, probably lots of them. As impossible as this auction may seem, my partner actually trotted it out on me several years ago, before we had discussed defaults for cuebids. It caused me a few anxious moments -- after all, could it really be safe to pass a "cuebid" at the four-level? I finally realized that a hand that started with a simple 1H overcall couldn't possibly be strong enough to force now. I passed with my weak 5-1-5-2 hand; partner held   Void   AKJ53   2   A1098754 .

     RHO   You   LHO   Partner    
     1D    DBL    1H     2H

Not too many years ago, you would have been laughed away from the table if you had suggested that 2H here should show hearts. The standard way to show a "stack" was to make a penalty double, which often led to awkward problems later in the bidding. Today, however, there's a good case for treating partner's bid as natural (just as Default #3 suggests). There's a chance your LHO psyched 1H, or he may follow the modern, "ignore-the-double" style of responding a weak 4-card major. To counter, you can adopt an "ignore-the-response" style and bid naturally.

Partner's 2H isn't forcing. It merely shows a decent 5-card suit and the values for a freebid (about 7-9 playing points). He might hold   982   KJ975   654   K5 . If partner instead doubled, it would suggest a good 4-card heart suit with perhaps more defense --   Q5   AJ103   10953   K92 .

© 1997, Karen Walker