Deal Of The Week: November 10, 2021

Misunderstood Bidding Concepts

Part 1 of infinity: Short Club

It really is amazing how bridge players mis-adapt things that experts do without finding out or understanding why. There is a place on the ACBL Convention Card for overcalls of 1NT, and at the bottom of that box, it asks what conventions you play after partner overcalls 1NT. Many good players write 'ASG,' which stands for 'All Systems Go' but has exceptions (they probably have some special meaning for 1 - 1NT - Pass - 2, for example: they aren't transferring into opener's suit to play!). Imagine my amusement when I began playing in the 1980s and saw 'ASG' misinterpreted as 'As Goren,' who was the prolific writer that many players still followed!

In the 1990s we began seeing bid-boxes at clubs, and everyone got used to picking up all the cards from 1 through to whichever bid you planned to make. This was especially satisfying when you opened 3 and plunked a pile of 14 cards down onto the table. But then the aspiring superstars again misinterpreted their heroes, instead plucking only the single card they wanted, leading to missorted boxes everywhere. When asked, the 'pluckers' claimed that they watched the experts at a major tournament and they all did it this way. The reason they did it this way was because they were playing in events with screens, and the bid-box cards go onto a tray passed under the screen to the two players on the other side, to mask tempo breaks and gestures. It's difficult to fit the tray under the screen with large piles of cards on it, so the experts, when playing with screens, use this alternate method. Insisting on plucking when screens are not in use just messes up the bid box for other players and reduces the life of the cards themselves as players jam them into their spots. It gains nothing except that pluckers think they look like an expert, when in fact they simply show ignorance.

And so we come to the Short Club, one of the most misunderstood concepts of bridge. One of my maxims is that just because the rules, or your bidding system, says you can do something, does not mean that you must do it. Opening 1 with less than four clubs is something you do as a last resort, when everything else is clearly worse. It's been around for almost as long as contract bridge, and better and better bidding systems have made it more common than it originally was. The reason that general understanding of the Short Club's intricacies never trickles down from the expert level is that the disasters that stem from it are often hidden away by our concentration on notrump and the major suits.

Beginnings: When the first bidding systems for the new game of contract bridge appeared in the 1920s and 1930s, players were told to open their longest suits when they had the values to open the bidding. Whichever suit you opened, you were going to have at least four if it was your longest. But sometimes this would lead to a very weak four-card suit being the opening bid, on a hand like:
          9 7 5 4    A Q 7    Q J T    K Q 2 
Experts of the day saw disasters happen based on weak four-card major suit openings and invented the concept of a biddable suit, which was usually defined as JTxx or better if four, or any suit with five or more.

As you see from the hand above, it is possible for a hand to have no biddable suits and still be strong enough to require an opening bid. Some experts chose to play a weaker 1NT opener to cater for these hands, but the prevailing idea in North America was for a 1NT opener to require more than a minimum, so these problem hands needed to be opened 1, and very rarely 1:
          9 7 5 4    9 8 7 2    A Q J     A K
No self-respecting expert in the 1930s would consider opening that hand 1 with a two-card suit; they would sooner open 1 or 1 or even a shaded 1NT.

This concept of a biddable suit was confusing to many players, because the standards changed during the auction itself: 8 7 6 5 was not a biddable suit if you were opening the bidding, but it was if you were responding to partner's opening call. The 1960s and 1970s popularized the concept of Five Card Majors, requiring five cards in a major suit to open that suit, and relegating 'biddable suits' to the historical texts. Very few players still play four-card majors. But with the requirements increased to five-card majors, there were even more unbiddable hands requiring a short minor suit opening:
          K Q 5 4    J T 7 3    K 4    K Q 2 
Here you have two suits that were biddable in four-card majors but need to open 1, since opening a biddable four-card major is anti-system and passing a 14-count is far worse.

The number of hands where you must open but have to choose a short club (or sometimes a diamond) suit keeps rising as we keep increasing the requirements for a 1 or 1 opening bid. Plus, we have all sorts of scientists playing 1 systems where they can bid it on a void! Why can't we open a short club when we feel like it?

Because your partner will be confused, that's why. Not every time. Most of the time you will rebid clubs when you have a real suit, or settle in notrump knowing the suit is stopped. But sometimes there will be guessing to do, and some of those times you are going to guess wrong. My advice is to have simple rules:

Note the way we go downwards from the higher bids. I suspect some novice players go up the line instead and say "I can open 1 with three, so why look further?" Better to look for the normal call before the exception!

Exceptions (for some): The above rules are what most experts play in a standard system. Some non-experts have developed a new (but in my opinion, not improved) version which guarantees four diamonds by opening this distribution:
          K Q 5 4    J T 7 3    K Q 4    K 2 
...four in both majors, three diamonds and two clubs, with a 1 call. The advantage is that all 1 openers can promise four cards in the suit. The disadvantage: you have to open 1 on the occasional two-card suit, and worse, on hands with 3-3 in the minors when diamonds are much better, such as
          K 5 4    K T 7 3    A K 4    8 4 2 
Opening that hand 1 is going to lead to a lot of lost matchpoints when partner chooses to lead clubs instead of diamonds, the suit the rest of the room opened. The fact is, promising only three is seldom much of an issue. But if two is a possibility, you are driving on ice and may end up in the ditch without warning.

Alerting: In club and tournament bridge if you or your partner occasionally step outside the boundaries above and promise fewer than three cards in a minor suit opener, you will have to announce your minor suit openers and let the opponents know what the minimum length is. In live bridge, you say "two or more" when partner makes the call (before the next player bids). In online bridge, you type "two or more" into the "explain" box first, then make the bid, and the announcement will show on your opponents' screens, but not partner's. If you can open 1 with less than three by agreement, that is alertable. If a clearly-outside-the-boundaries short club (or diamond) has happened before in your partnership, and you have not made an agreement to never try that again, you have an implicit agreement that it might be shorter than expected, and the opponents have a right to know about it. In fact, one way to get partner to follow the rules above if they are a problem is to alert all minor suit openers and tell the opponents that there is a chance he may be swimming against the current... Once partner behaves for a few games you can let him off the hook.

"Temporizing!" Directing online, I watched a player open 1 with this hand:
          K 9 4 3    8 7 3 2    A K 6 3    Q alert, explained to me later as 'temporizing!' This is a word favoured by Mr Goren to describe that situation where you make a forcing bid as part of a sequence that shows something impossible to show in a single bid. If still alive today, even 120-year old Charlie would be aghast to see people using 'temporizing' to describe a 1 opener with a singleton club! The opening bidder was probably intending to support whatever suit partner responded in, but partner had A K J T 9 and didn't stop bidding until 4, which was not a great score even when it made, with most pairs playing the 3NT contract that would have been easily bid after a 1 opener. A phrase that works well with these revolutionaries, on the rare occasion that they become dummy and have to show the world the hand that prompted their crazy bidding, is "where's the hand you held during the auction?"

The Big Idea: Remove from your mind that it is acceptable to open a short minor suit; it is not. A short minor suit opening is an uncommon exception to the idea that we open our longest suit whenever we can, without breaking the rules laid out by our bidding system. It is more likely that a 1 opener will have seven clubs than three! It's really quite rare to worry later in the auction about partner having only three cards in the opened minor; once rebid, it is a non-issue and usually shows at least a decent five, and if not rebid, you keep it in your mind that it just might be three small, but is much more likely to be three to an honour.

Drill! Here are 8 deals where South (always the dealer, with random vulnerability) has a 12-18 point hand with no five-card major and no four-card minor, North has 11-20 points, and the pair have a 7-card or more fit in at least one minor suit. This will give us lots of practice with short clubs (and diamonds)! This comes from a site called Wheeler Dealer by expert Richard Pavlicek, where you can specify types of deals for practice. We'll probably feature this in a future column. Click the Next button after deciding what you would do next with the North and the South hand and see if we agree!

Let's try some hands where the responding hand is weaker. Everything is the same here except the responder has 5-11 instead of 11-18 highcard points. Will the short minor suit openers hurt us?

Well, that is sixteen random hands with a lot of short minor suit openings, and no problems. If you find a partner that prefers four diamonds and opens two-card club suits you might encounter some difficulties. And if you play with one of these wildcards who open 1 on almost anything, you will almost certainly encounter problems. Stick to the rules above and you'll be fine. We gain a lot by playing five-card majors and the difficulties with short minor suits are minimal as long as you handle them properly!

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