The 12 Habits of Highly Effective Bidders   (August 2009)

    8.  They consider partner’s potential problems. (Part 11)

Playing with a new partner, you have this auction:

  Partner    You     
     1C          1H

What’s your call holding   ♠5  QJ9853  K654  ♣62 ?

Partner’s general message is that he has enough strength to play 3NT opposite a minimum response. However, there are two types of hands that might qualify:

   (A)  A balanced opener with so much strength (a “monster” 19 points) that partner couldn’t bear to hear you pass a 2NT rebid:  ♠K108  K6  A103  ♣AKQ98

   (B)  An unbalanced hand that could have fewer high-card points, but lots of tricks from a long, solid (or almost-solid) club suit:  ♠QJ8  A10   ♣AKQ9854

Your decision depends on which hand you think opener holds. If it’s (A), you’ll want to bid 4H. If it’s (B), where there’s no guarantee of a heart fit, you’ll pass. Guess wrong, and you may turn a plus score into a minus.

Without a prior discussion, you should assume (B) because it’s the problem hand that can’t be accurately described with any other rebid. It’s the wrong pattern and high-card strength for a jump to 2NT and it has too much playing strength – and notrump potential -- for 3C. This is why (B) is the most widely accepted definition for this 3NT rebid.

If responder is to have any say about the final contract, this auction can’t be played as “either/or”. The recommended agreement is to use a 3NT rebid for only the (B) hand type and a 2NT rebid to show the balanced hand (A).

If it’s such a powerful 19 that you want to play 3NT even opposite a response of 5-6 points – usually because you have a strong 5-card suit -- then call your hand 20 and open 2NT. This changes your range for a 2NT opener to 19+ to 21 (or a “bad” 22, as some prefer).

This agreement gives opener clear ways to show both types of hands. It can also help you stay out of poor games when you have a dead-minimum response. When opener rebids 2NT, you’ll know he doesn’t have the sterling 19 points and you can safely pass with a borderline hand.

Similar principles apply in the auction 1H by partner – 1S by you – 3NT by partner. This 3NT rebid shows long, solid hearts and (usually) relatively balanced distribution. Expect opener to hold a hand such as
   ♠76   AKQJ97    Q107    ♣AQ

Problems over preempts

Suppose your LHO opens 3D and partner overcalls 3NT. What’s your call holding
    ♠K97654   AK104  3   ♣73 ?

The classic 3NT overcall is a balanced powerhouse (20+ points), and if that’s what partner has this time, you have visions of slam. However, partner will often stretch to make this bid with considerably less, especially when he has a long suit to provide tricks.

The “stretches” are the problem hands, and there’s no standard way for you to determine if partner has one or even which type it is. Unless you have a gadget to collect more information (see below), all you can do is be aware of the possibilities and make your best guess.

You’ll also want to consider the risks of searching for the highest-scoring contract. Here, setting your sights on a slam or even a major-suit game could jeopardize your plus score if partner holds the unbalanced, long-suit stretch – a hand such as  ♠Q   Q7  K102  ♣AKQ9865.

When your auction has been jammed by a  preempt, your goal should be to find a reasonable contract, not necessarily the perfect one. You expect partner to make 3NT, and with no knowledge of his exact strength – plus the very real possibility that he has no fit for either of your majors – you should consider passing as the practical choice here.

A handy convention

You can solve some of these problems by adding an asking bid to your system. After partner overcalls 3NT, 4C by you shows slam potential and asks him to clarify his hand type. He replies with a cuebid (4D) to show the biggest hand (20+, any distribution), 4NT to show the balanced stretch (around 16 to 19 HCP) or a suit bid to show the unbalanced stretch with a long suit. 

   ©  2009   Karen Walker