The 12 Habits of Highly Effective Bidders  (July 2007)

6. They make the bids partner wants to hear. (Part 7)

Overheard at a tournament, in the aftermath of a slam off two cashing aces:

North:  "Why didn't you ask for aces?"

South:  "That's for children. I haven't used Blackwood since the Reagan Administration."

The Blackwood 4NT remains a staple of every bidding system, but over the years, its popularity has waned. Modern players have defined more and more situations where 4NT is quantitative or natural or asking for a cuebid, but not ace-asking. The "expert" trend is to rely more on cuebidding sequences and Blackwood substitutes (Minorwood, Redwood, Kickback).

Like South in the conversation above, some players now look for excuses to avoid Blackwood. Their partners, however, would probably prefer they do the opposite. For all its alleged faults, Blackwood is still the most accurate, straightforward way to check on controls with many types of hands. Whether you play the standard or keycard version, partner will almost always find it easier to respond to Blackwood than to a cuebid or other slam inquiry.

Valuable uses of Blackwood are easily missed or delayed if you aren't looking for the opportunity. Here are some situations where hauling out "Old Black" is your best -- and most partner-friendly -- move toward slam.

You open 1S and partner responds 2NT (Jacoby forcing raise). You hold   KQ1084  KQJ76  AJ .

    The "book" rebid is 3D (to show a singleton) or 4H (5-card suit), but at best, those follow-ups add another round to the auction and give the opponents extra information. At worst, partner cuebids 5D over your 4H, and you have no way to determine if he has zero, one or two major-suit aces. Your final contract depends on how many aces partner holds, not on his opinion of your diamond or heart length, so abandon your convention and go directly to Blackwood.

Partner opens 1C, you respond 1D and partner raises to 2D.  You hold  AKQ5  QJ10863  KJ .

    There's a lot of room between 2D and 4NT, and some would choose to fill it with 2H or 3S (splinter). Problems can arise, though, if partner rebids notrump. If you bid 4NT over his 2NT or 3NT rebid, will he take it as Keycard for diamonds or as a quantitative raise? You're going to Blackwood eventually, so do it now, while your intentions are clear.

Partner opens 1C, you respond 1S and partner raises to 3S. You hold  AJ974  AK73  Q105 .

    A 4H bid here will start the Tortured Cuebid Auction (TCA), where partner cues 5C, you cue 5D or 5H, and he retreats to 5S. After all that, you still don't know if he has the trump king or queen or diamond ace -- cards that could have been located easily with Keycard Blackwood.

You open 1S and partner bids 3S (limit raise). You cuebid 4C and partner cuebids 4D. You hold  AKJ76  KQJ82  Q7  A .

    Some pairs have the agreement that once they start cuebidding, 4NT is never Blackwood, but that's not a universal guideline. If you like the idea of limiting your involvement in TCA's, treat 4NT as Blackwood after the first round of cuebidding. With this hand, you couldn't bid 4NT over 3S because you didn't have a diamond control. Now that you've found it, the TCA can be mercifully ended by Keycard Blackwood, which will tell you about the heart ace and trump queen.

You open 1S and partner responds 2H.  You hold  AK10542  Q986  AK .

    The "practice splinter" of 4D may seem harmless enough, but you'll want to take it back if partner cuebids 5D. Showing diamond shortness may also talk the opponents into leading a club, which could jeopardize your contract if the majors don't break evenly (partner may need all your entries to set up and run the spades). An immediate 4NT (keycard for hearts) will give you all the information you need to bid a small or grand slam.

Partner opens 1H and you hold  KQ4  AKQJ9754  Q .

    If you normally play Keycard Blackwood, it's important to specify that a 4NT response to an opening one-bid is standard, "aces-only" Blackwood. This is an exception to any agreements you have about 4NT being keycard for the last-bid suit. If you want to ask about the trump king, you must set the suit first with a forcing raise, then use Keycard Blackwood.

  2007 Karen Walker