Standard Conventions


Standard Conventions

As we have to bid with our partners we are forced to have some agreements with him.  It is not all that important what the agreements are, provided (a) they are generally sensible and deal with the most commonly occurring situations and (b) both of you have the same ideas about what the bids mean. Some people play all kinds of interesting conventions (cf. me!) but here the aim is to convey the most commonly used conventions and why they are so widely used. For those looking to play good duplicate bridge these conventions and ideas are really a must. For those who don’t mind doing badly at the card table, please feel free to pay not the slightest bit of attention. (But really, why do you bother playing at all, if it isn’t to win?)

As ever we’ll be looking for those game contracts and also for the slams – 6 and 7 level contracts. I’ve made the points that I think are important for people new to these conventions in the main text. There are more advance comments and ideas in the footnote, these are aimed at people who already know these conventions well and are looking to get that little bit extra out of there bidding methods.

But first a few points about the basic system: I’ll assume that we’re playing “Standard English” or close variants on that theme. This is not necessarily an endorsement of this basic system over any other – those who know me will know I play a 5 card major system – but as it’s the standard in this country we may as well go with what the majority go with. So let’s get stuck in: we’ll start with the bid that can be made on ~10% of all hands dealt – the 1NT auction.

2. 1NT - Oh Really Partner

Our definition is:

  • ·        (12-14 pts; no void, singleton, six card suit or five card major)

We bid this whenever we can, and some of us bend the rules to bid it, even when we shouldn’t [Ahhh – the off centre 1NT, many a granny bridge player has got upset at this one. So when is it right, or rather OK, to bid 1NT without the strict definition? Well if you have a 5332 distribution, 5 cards in the major but the suit is poor – Queen high say – then you might like to pretend you have a 1NT opening. It’s not like you actually want to rebid a weak five-card suit anyway. Or perhaps you have a precise 2-4-5-2 distribution and 12 points. If you open a diamond and partner doesn’t bid hearts then you’ll have to re-bid the diamonds when no-trumps looks like a much better bet. If your playing Stayman and transfers, it not like your going to miss a 4-4 heart fit, is it? ]. If your playing ‘standard English’ methods (ie four card majors) you MUST play the 12-14 point range if you play 5 card majors then you have leeway and can choose a different point range. Anyway, partner has told us what his hand is and as I keep stressing it’s really up to us the take control of the auction. But what do we want to find out as regards his hand? Well if we have on going values, 11+ points, then it’s be whether 3NT or 4 Major is the best final contract.

2.1. Stayman

Again? Well I’m adding it for completeness now…

The most used convention there is, it asks – Do you have a 4 card major? (Opener can’t have a 5-card major, it’s not allowed in a 1NT opening bid.)

So if the auction goes:

 1NT – Pass – 2 ♣ (!) – pass

2♣ is Stayman (only true if oppo don’t bid) and opener bids his major (hearts if he holds both) or 2 if he holds no 4 card major. 

Every time the partnership has a 4-4 fit it can be located using Stayman and that is a big plus! It’s also a flexible bid, as you can always go back to 2NT if partner gives an unfavourable answer. The only cost is you can no longer make a weak bid in clubs, which is never a very common bid anyway. This is why EVERYONE always plays Stayman – Big benefits, small cost.

Well, now we’ve started looking at ways of both heading towards major games while keeping options open, are there any other ways in which we can improve the basic natural system? Stayman has shown us how to find 4-4 fits, but what of 5-3 major fits?

2.2. Transfers

Imagine you hold a decent hand with 5 spades and 12 pts.  Something like:

♠ - K Q T 5 3    – Q 7 4      – A 6       ♣ – J 8 6

When partner opens 1NT you’d like to invite to a game contract, but don’t know whether this should be in spades or NT. With as little as 3 half decent spades (J X X), and 14 pts, 4 spades would be right. However, can you trust partner not to come up with a low doubleton in spades? Playing transfers, this hand is easy: transfer to spades and then bid 2NT. Partner knows exactly what is going on and can bid accordingly:

1NT2 (transfer)
2♠ 2NT

At the (?) point, opener can bid:

  • Pass (12-13pts, poor spades)
  • Spades (12pts 3 or 4 spades, 13pts 3 spades)
  • 3 NT (14pts poor spades)
  • 4 Spades (13pts, 4 spades, 14pts 3 or 4 spades)

The power of transfers really shows when you consider the possibilities of describing your major holdings to partner:

  • Weak hand: transfer and pass
  • Invitational hand: transfer & bid: 2NT (~balanced, 5 card major 11-12pts)
    • 3 <new suit> at least 5/4 in the two suits
    • 3 <same suit> 6-card suit
  • Game Forcing:  Transfer and bid: 3NT (~balanced, 5 card major 13-18pts)
    • 4 <new suit> at least 5/4 in the two suits
    • Game in transferred suit (min 6 cards)

After these bids, opener is in a position to pick the best contract.

This also frees up direct 3 level bids for unconditional forces:

North - 1NT South - 3

South’s bid is game forcing / slam invitational.

Super accepts

If your partner transfers and you happen to hold four cards in the suit that your partner has five cards in and more than a minimum hand then you can super accept. Let’s say you hold:

♠ 8 4
A Q 9 5
  A J 3 2
♣  K 4

And the bidding goes:

North South
1NT 2 (transfer)

We still, of course, have the 2♠ bid to use, and this can have a variety of meanings [Possibilities include (i) transfer to Clubs only (‘jacoby’ - 2NT transfer to diamonds). (ii) Transfer to clubs, correctable to diamonds (always weak). (iii) showing exactly 11 points (‘Texas’ 2NT shows exactly 12 points). (iv) ‘Baron’ type bid – a slam try looking for a 4 card fit, (v) Minor suit Stayman (game force with at least 4-4 in the minors) (vi) Slam try that includes a singleton in the next suit bid by responder, (vii) Er… shall I make something else up? None of these help very often, Plum for one and AGREE it with partner. I use option (i), which is standard in America.], I suggest you don’t use the bid until you have a good understanding with your partner.

Transfers give us a lot of bids to describe our hand’s strength and distribution with major holdings and all that it costs us is the weak 2 Diamond option – not a great cost in comparison with the gains we make in finding our major games. In nearly every country, transfers are almost standard, because of their huge benefits. I really don’t understand why everyone doesn’t play them.

2.3. Other points about 1NT opening

Firstly if opposition intervene then all conventions are off. So in the auction:

North East South
1NT X ?

2♣ is not Stayman, 2 is not a transfer to hearts. All bids are natural.

Secondly, apart from the conventions listed, there aren’t any other conventions. Note that this means that the auction:

North East South
1NT Pass 4NT

4NT is a natural invitation to 6NT. It is not Blackwood or anything else.

If you think 4♣ by south in this auction would be asking for aces then you will be called a gibblet [for why, just ask around fr people's opinion on the Gerber convention. - Ed.]

3. 2NT – Wow

Recap: a 2NT opener shows 20-22 points and a balanced (or semi-balanced) hand.

And that poor hand you picked up starts to look a whole lot better. You should bid game with around 4 points, of course, but which one? Well, the conventions are very similar to those used over 1NT and the reasoning is basically the same.

3.1. 5-Card Stayman

This works in a similar way to regular Stayman but is applicable to 2NT openings as you are allowed to open 2NT with a 5-card major. Bid 5-card Stayman whenever you have some interest in playing in a major game rather than a NT game. Bidding 5-card Stayman on a 3-3 major holding is fine. So if the bidding goes:

North South
2NT 3♣ (Stayman)
3 3NT

With a 5-card major, north should bid it. With a four card major, but no 5-card major north should bid 3 diamonds. With neither a 5-card or 4-card major partner should bid 3NT, to show no interest in playing in a major. After a 3 diamond response the person bidding Stayman should bid his (lower) 4 card major, if he has one, and 3NT otherwise.

So the above in the above auction the dialog has been something like this:

  1. North: I’ve got a bid balanced-ish hand
  2. South: tell me about your major holdings
  3. North: I have a 4 card major, but no 5 card major
  4. South: In that case we’ll play in 3NT, as I was only interested if you had a 5-card suit.

It really is simple, and allows you to find 4-4 and 5-3 fits in the majors.

Again, the only thing that you’ve lost is the option to bid a natural club suit, and you weren’t planning to bid that anyway.

OK, so this isn’t the only way to play 5-card stayman, there are other (more popular) forms that involve bidding suits that partner doesn’t hold. The version above in included because:

(a) It’s more intuitive and

(b) I play it this way.

3.2. Transfers

These work in the same way as over 1NT. So 3 shows 5+ hearts and 3 shows 5+ spades. You can then bid 3NT asking partner to either pass or bid 4 major. You can bid 4 major as a slam try in that suit, or you can bid a new suit to show your distributional hand. All these actions are game forcing. Notice that while

North South
2NT 4

4 is a sign off bid - you want your partner to pass - if the auction proceeds:

North South
2NT 3
3 4

You are asking your partner to bid 6 if he has a maximum hand with support and to pass if he has a minimum hand without support. So for example if you held:

a: b:
♠ 6 2
A Q 9 6 4 2
  9 6 2
♣ 7 2
♠ K 7
A Q 9 6 4 3
J 5 4 
♣ T 7

Hand a) is consistent with the first auction and hand b) is consistent with the second. Remember Partner has 20-22 points and at least two cards in ever suit – you have a combined 30-32 points so if your partner has three hearts and the 22 point hand then slam will be odds on. (obviously he always turns up with only 20 Points and two hearts but that’s life.)

3.3. Other points about 2NT openings

Keep in mind that your partner could be rather unbalance: 5-4-2-2 distributions are routinely opened 2NT. This means that you have to go looking for a suit fit, even when your hand looks quite balanced. For example, holding:

♠ Q 6 4
K 9 5
T 9 7 6 2
♣ 8 2

You should bid 5-card Stayman. You never know, partner could have a 5 card major, and if he does, 3NT could easily come unstuck on a club lead. At any rate, if he doesn’t you can happily bid 3NT and you haven’t lost anything.

4. Oh Good, A Weak Two!

If you currently play strong two bids then I obviously didn’t teach you how to play bridge. Here I give the arguments for playing weak bids over strong bids, and describe how the weak system works in practice. Even if you decide to play strong bids in the long run, it’s just as well to have an idea about the arguments for and against different systems.

A strong 2 bid (2 , or ♠) shows 8 playing tricks assuming that the suit becomes trumps and there are no nasty surprises (like a 5-0 trump break). When this bid comes up it’s very useful, apart from anything else, it’s instantly descriptive and also robust against a meddling opposition. The problem is that these bids don’t come up very often. Three bids are taken up to show hands that are dealt maybe once in 100 deals – the frequency of these holdings just doesn’t justify three bids (in addition to which, people who play strong twos often don’t seem to know what all their continuations are – probably because the bids come up so infrequently.) So some bright folks come up with the idea of pushing all the strong 2 openings into one bid, freeing up other two bids for more frequently occurring situations.

4.1. Concept of a weak two

It is a pre-emptive bid, showing a hand that is not good enough to open the bidding, but which does not have enough distribution to justify a 3 level call.  Typically a weak two will show:

a 6-card suit, 5-9 pts.

With 10pts and a six card suit it would be better to open at the one level, with fewer than 5pts, the hand isn’t usually worth an opening. [And so we come to pressure bidding. Just how heavily you pre-empt is a matter for partnership agreement and a watchful eye on vulnerability and seat number. If the bidding goes Pass – Pass – ?? then you have the freedom to make a bid that is lighter (less that 5 points) or stronger (more than 9 points). You might also like to bid it on a 5-card suit (or go straight to the three level with a 6 card suit). You might wonder how your partner is supposed to respond to such a bid, and the answer is with extreme difficulty. But then again he’s already passed, so what kind of bid is he going to make? He’ll almost certainly pass whatever you do, so you might as well be as obstructive as possible. The reverse is true in seat 2. (ie Pass – ??). Now pard. hasn’t bid, but RHO has passed so he’s weak. This is the situation when you’re most likely to be pre-empting partner; therefore you should have your bid exactly. As dealer it’s a gamble, but generally you have some leeway, especially if your not vulnerable. Remember – if your red against green oppo will only have to bring a doubled contract two off to beat the game score, so watch out! In fourth seat you shouldn't be making a weak two: often it's better to get a 0 score than bid when your partner has passed.] . Unless your partner forces you to bid, after making a weak two bid (or any pre-empt for that matter) you should pass throughout.

The main reason for making this bid is that it is disruptive for the opposition. The reason for using then rather than strong twos, is that they occur more frequently.  Playing weak twos allows you to bid almost whenever if you hold a six card suit.

4.2. Development of weak two bids

Partner has opened 2 Spades (say) what do you bid? Well there are four situations that are worth thinking about (a), you have a weak hand with spade support (3+ cards) (b) you have a weak hand without spade support, (c) you have a strong hand with spade support (3+ cards, sometimes 2 cards) (d) you have a strong hand without spade support.

To illustrate these hand types:

a: b: c: d:
♠ K J 2
Q 9 8 6 2 
♣ T 7 6 2
♠ K 7
A 3
Q J T 5 4 
♣ T 7 5 4
♠ K J 2
K 2
A K 6 2 
♣ K T 9 5
♠ A 7
A Q 6 3
K 5 4 2 
♣ Q J 7

Auction (Love all):

North East South
2♠ Pass ?

With (a) you usually raise to 3 spades – both you and your partner are weak, with a massive spade fit. Yes you have only 6 points and your partner less than ten. All that means this that opposition have a game contract on (bet it’s in Hearts!). OK so you probably aren’t going to make 3♠, but then if your opponents let you play in 3♠ then they’ll be missing out on game. On the other hand they might end up in the wrong game as you’ll already have bid up to 3♠ - do they want to play in 3NT, or 4 or even 5 minor?

With (b) you should pass. Your opponents have the majority of the points, you don’t have much of a fit. Time to give up. In general if you don’t have a fit you should pass with up to 15 points.

With (c) bid 4♠. You have a 9 card fit and a big hand. Even if partner does turn up the spade ace and not a lot else, you’ll still have a decent chance to make game.   

With (d) bid 2NT Ougust enquiry. What?

2NT as forcing enquiry

If you want to find out how strong your partner's hand is, then you can bid 2NT. This is the only forcing bid over your partners weak two. It asks him to define his hand some more. The responses are a follows:

  • 3♣ - Bad hand, Bad suit
  • 3 - Bad hand, good suit
  • 3 - Good hand, bad suit
  • 3♠  - Good hand, good suit

In this context, a good hand is 8 or 9 points and a good suit is one that’s headed by two of the top three cards (either A,K; A,Q or K,Q)

If your holding a hand that isn’t sure about game, or even what strain to play in then biding 2NT give you the opportunity to find out just how poor your partners hand and suit is. Once you know, you’ll be able to bid the right contract.

So what about the strong hands that you are occasionally dealt? How are they shown if not by the strong two bid? There are two (fairly similar) systems in use, “Benjemised acol”, popular in UK duplicate clubs, and weak twos in three suits, a standard American approach. I’ll outline both:

4.3. Benji. Acol

The Acol Strong 2s are all opened 2 Clubs. 

Partner makes a response: 2 in negative, all other bids are natural and game forcing. 

Opener then makes a simple bid to show 8 playing tricks, and a jump bid to show 9 playing tricks. E.g.

North South
2♣ 2
2♠ 4

So south does not have 1½ quick tricks and north has 8 tricks if spades are trumps.

Notice that this bid is not forcing, though you should usually make a bid. So if you held:

♠ 6 4 3
K 9 5
Q 9 7 6 2
♣ 8 2

You would definitely be worth a game force, and the obvious bid would be 4♠. With two queens you would have a tough decision, but probably still want to go to game. [Don’t bid 2♣ openings with 8 playing tricks in either basic bidding method system if you can’t rationally expect to make game opposite a non-responding hand. So if you hold A, K, Q to seven hearts and the ace of Clubs you have 8 playing tricks. Opening 2♣ would be an appalling bid however, as if game is on you require partner to hold (at least) a six count. What’s the point of opening 2♣ on such a hand? You might as well just pop in 4 or do the sensible thing and bid 1.].

The traditional ACOL 2 Club bid (23+pts/any game force) becomes 2 Diamonds and the negative response becomes 2 Hearts. This frees up 2 Hearts and 2 Spades for weak 2 bids.

4.4. Weak twos in three suits

Basically ALL strong two bids are opened 2♣, so 2, 2 and 2♠ are all weak bids. Development of the strong bids follows as before: 2 response is negative, openers rebid is showing 8 tricks (simple bid), 9 tricks (jump bid), 23-24pts 2NT, 25+pts 3NT.

There are various arguments for and against the use of one or other of these bidding methods. Benji Acol has the advantage of making distinctions between game forcing hands and those that are nearly game forcing. This might make auctions that follow a strong bid more straight forward. In response to this those who play weak two bids in three suits will retort with “when was the last time that you actually had a GF, and how often do you bid 2♣ and 2 in your system?” The retort from the Benji players is then “When was the the last time you had a nice 2♣ auction, and just how pre-emptive is 2 really?” Take your pick, but the Durham University Club standard to play weak twos in three suits. This is because we love pre-empting at every opportunity as we have an aversion to sensible auctions…

4.5. Weak jump overcalls

Whatever your thoughts on weak vs. strong two opening bids, playing strong jump overcalls is just not a good idea. If opposition have opened the bidding the chances of you actually holding a strong two hand are so remote that it just isn’t worth playing them. Therefore playing weak jump overcalls is the only option. The basic idea is the same as the weak two openings except that sometimes the weak jump will bring you to the 3 level. So over a 1 bid; 2♠, 3♣ or 3 are all weak bids showing a 6-card suit and less than 10pts. If you have a strong hand with a good single suit, double and then bid your suit (this bid will show 16+pts).

5. Bing, Bame, Slam

So you might have a slam on. Well how do you know? What is it that will make a slam a good bet, and what are the things that will make slam a bad bet. Well there are two factors and they are – don’t laugh – winning 12 tricks and not loosing 2 tricks. Now this might seam an odd statement as it is both obvious (you realized that a small slam was making all but one trick, right?) and at any rate, both factors amount to the same thing. Well yes and no… you see there are many slams hands that can make 12 tricks off the top, providing the opposition don’t win two first. So what do we have to know? Well the first good question is how many aces you have between you, as bidding a slam without two these is generally a bad idea. Actually the first thing you’ll want to know is if your remotely strong enough to go to slam, and what suit you want to play in, but lets pretend this is not an issue.

Let’s say the auction is:

North South
1♠ 3♠

And you hold:

♠ A Q J 7 4 2
K 9
K Q 2
♣ A 2

Now if your partner has both the red suit aces and the king of spades (11 points, not at all unreasonable) then 12 tricks will be a lay down. On the other hand, if partner doesn’t hold either of the red suit aces then you will be loosing two tricks and bidding the slam would be ambitious. (He could hold ♠K; Q; ♣K,Q for his 3♠ bid.) So how do we find out?

5.1 Blackwood

In the above auction 4NT is Blackwood. It aces partner ‘How many aces do you have?’  He replies:

  • 5♣ - 0 (or all)
  • 5 - 1
  • 5 - 2
  • 5♠ - 3

So if the bidding above procedes with the above hand:

North South
1♠ 3♠
4NT 5

Then you're in real business – 6 spades will probably be right. On the other hand if his bid is 5 Clubs in response to 4NT, then it’s time to settle for 5 Spades.

Blackwood is bid when you have already agreed a suit. If you haven’t agreed a suit then it is assumed that the last suit bid is the trump suit. Use Blackwood whenever you need to find out about aces. Notice that if you have agreed to play in no-trumps then you cannot use Blackwood. So the bidding sequence:

North South

Is NOT Blackwood. It does not ask for aces. Let me point out why: if your partner gives you a response that you don’t want to hear, what are you going to sign of in? 5NT surly asks about kings! The fact is that you don’t really need an ace-asking bid over 1NT [Gerber 4♣ asks for Aces… but what kind of moron would play Gerber? Gibblets, that’s who! So when you’ve found out how many aces partner has is 6NT the right play to play? Has partner 12 or 14 points. Don’t tell me you don’t care about the difference between 12 or 14 – you’d have just bid 6NT if you didn’t (33 points = at least 3 aces!). So you know how many aces you have, and you’re still none the wiser as to whether slam is there or not. Brilliant – no quick losers and no way of knowing about the slow ones.  Now take the abuse from follow players that you so richly deserve!]. Much more useful is a simple quantitative invitation to 6NT. So if partner is maximum for his bid (14 points) he’ll bid 6NT, while if he’s minimum, he’ll pass.

So for his 4NT bid (above) south might have something like:

♠ A Q 4
K 9
A 7 6 3
♣ K Q J 5

You need ~33pts combined to make 6NT, you’ll have it if partner has a maximum, but not with a minimum.

Continuing after Blackwood

After the call for aces has been made you can use 5NT to look for kings with a view to making a grand slam.  5NT works in exactly the same way as 4NT:

  • 6♣ - 0 (or all)
  • 6 - 1
  • 6 - 2
  • 6♠ - 3

This only really comes up when your looking for a Grand slam (ie virtually never).

Blackwood is played as standard thought out the world as it is fairly useful, and uses 4NT – a bid which has no natural interpretation. 

5.2 RKCB

Roman Key Card Blackwood, lest you want to know what it stands for. This works in the same way as the regular form of Blackwood, except you count the king of trumps as an ace. So if you have agreed hearts and trumps then the five key cards are the four ‘aces’ and the king of hearts. The responses to the 4NT blackwood call are:

  • 5♣ - 3 or 0
  • 5 - 4 or 1
  • 5 - 2 with the trump queen
  • 5♠ - 2 without the trump queen

The advantages of this system are obvious: you find out about the strength of you trump suit immediately. If your wondering what you do if you have all five key cards, well you probably ought to get a different partner: what sort of person asks for aces when he has none?

If you want to find out about kings the bidding goes as follows: The trump suit is always a sign off. Step one asks for the queen of trumps, if you don’t already know about her, with responses:

  • Step 1: Sorry, I don’t have her
  • Step 2: I have her, but no kings
  • Step 3: I have her with one king
  • Step 4: I have her with two kings
  • Step 5: I have her with all three kings

So in the auction:

North South
1♠ 3♠
4NT 5♣
5 5♠

South would hold,  three or no cards and the queen of spades but no outside king. Clearly his values are in queens and jacks.

After the initial key cards response step two asks for kings, disregarding the queen of trumps, with responses:

  • Step 1: 0 kings
  • Step 2: 1 king
  • Step 3: 2 kings
  • Step 4: 3 kings

So if the bidding went

North South
1♠ 3♠
4NT 5
5NT 6♠

5NT asks for the kings, disregarding the trump queen – remember 5♠ would simple be a sign off – and 6♠ would be all three kings.

NB: some people play KCKB with the 5♣ and 5 meanings switched i.e. 5♣ means 1 or 4, and 5 means 3 or 0.