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Beginner and above

This page last revised 15th Mar 2018

Opening Strong Hands


At some point shortly after the Bronze age most bridge players played an opening two of any suit as natural and game-forcing.

It did not take long before this was seen as wasteful of bidding space.


As we moved towards the stainless steel age it was realised that one bid was sufficient to show this hand-type.  The 2 opening bid was accordingly harnessed to show the game-forcing hand in any one of the four suits.

This released the other three opening suit bids at the two level to be played as strong and natural, but forcing for only one round. These bids promised a rebid by opener, but they were not forcing beyond that point.

Acol players, along with the rest of the world, played natural strong two-bids in three suits along with a strong and artificial game-forcing bid of 2  (Traditional Acol).


Now that we have entered the silicon age such methods are almost unknown.  The bids work perfectly well - but they are just too wasteful of bidding space when there are so many other things you want to do with them.


On another page (how many strong bids?) I analyse just how many strong bids are necessary to cover all the possible strong hand types.  Suffice it to say, for the moment, that two will be more than enough for most of us.


It is, though, a mistake to limit a discussion on how to bid strong hands to a discussion of opening bids at the two-level.


The present page addresses the matter from a different perspective.


Balanced hands


I am not overly concerned with these at this moment.  Provided that you have at least two strong bids available (2NT will usually be one of them) then you should have some well-rehearsed methods to deal with the various point-ranges.

Various options are discussed under ‘opening balanced hands’.


Other hand shapes may well play best on occasion in a no trump contract, but in such cases the bidding will follow a different route.


4-4-4-1


This page also ignores the 4-4-4-1 shape.

If you happen to have a dedicated opening bid or a dedicated opening sequence to show a strong hand with this shape then clearly you will use it.  Otherwise you will just have to do the best you can with what you’ve got.  Fear not - you will be in the best of company, and it is a hand-type which will not appear with great frequency.

Further thoughts on the matter will be found on the page ‘strong three-suited’.


Unbalanced hands


Any other hand will contain  either a six-card suit or will have at least 5-4 shape (or both).


The main thrust of this page is to investigate just how much you can achieve with a one-level opening, but first I must consider those hands which require something different.


Let me start with the assumption that you don’t want to miss a game on any hand on which partner might pass facing an opening bid at the one-level.


You can of course avoid this situation by opening at game-level.


High-level openings


Weak twos and preemptive openings at the three-level do not come under the remit of the present page, but occasionally a hand with considerable playing strength will justify an opening bid at game-level.

Frequently such a hand will not qualify for a forcing opening bid, although the fact that it does will not inevitable rule out the possibility of the higher level opening.


Usually the hand will feature a long suit - frequently eight-card - and will contain very little by way of defence.

Such a bid is likely to be made at favourable vulnerability and will frequently be made on a deal on which there is every possibility that the opponents will have a game contract their way in some other suit.


This bid will usually preclude your partnership from finding a slam.  My guideline is that if you require anything in excess of two top tricks (aces or king/queens) from partner for a slam then this may well be the right bid - otherwise start at the one- or two-level.


This stratagem may work well when your hand is single-suited (at least a six-card suit), but you will most certainly be on a guess with 5-4 shape.


It follows that you will need to include at least one forcing opening bid in your armoury.


A strong bid


In the first place, this bid must cover all of those unbalanced hands which have ‘game in their own hand’.

I interpret this as hands which are about half a trick short of game.


Many club partnerships play this as


any hand of twenty three or more points


but if this is your only forcing opening bid you should also include


strong hands with a slightly lower point-count which are worth about 9½ playing tricks.

Context  -  The opening bid.


Note that on the 6-4 and 5-5 shapes in particular you will sometimes follow the routes above on slightly fewer points, or introduce a game-forcing bid at some point in the auction, because of the greater playing potential afforded by the long suits.


Sixteen to eighteen points - partner responds at the two-level


This time your rebid in a new suit is forcing for one round (not quite universal but recommended).


However, the significant difference from the above is that you will be looking for a game contract on any hand of fifteen or more points.

The methodology will be exactly as above, showing your shape and strength with a further bid.

K Q

K Q T 5 3

A J T 7

K 6

If partner can do no better than 2 you will show your hand with 2NT suggesting seventeen or eighteen points and 5-4-2-2 shape.

You

LHO

Pard

RHO

1

-

1

-

2

-







K Q J

A Q T 7

6

K Q T 5 3

If partner can do no better than 3 you will show your hand with 3 suggesting seventeen or eighteen points and 5-4-3-1 shape.

You

LHO

Pard

RHO

1

-

1NT

-

2

-







K 4

K Q T 5 3

A J T 7

K 6

If partner can do no better than 2 probably based on just six or even seven points (and nine points at best) then you will probably pass, although 2NT is possible.

If partner shows a little extra with one of 2NT, 3, or 2 then you will find your way to game in one of hearts, spades or no trumps.

You

LHO

Pard

RHO

1

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1

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2

-







K Q J

A Q T 7

6

K Q T 5 3

Partner must bid again following your strong reverse.

If he can do no better than 3 then bid 3 suggesting seventeen or eighteen points and 5-4-3-1 shape.

You

LHO

Pard

RHO

1

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1

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2

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K Q

A Q T 7

T

K Q J 8 5 3

Partner must bid again following your strong reverse.

If he can do no better than 3 then bid 4 showing your 6-4 shape and seventeen or eighteen points.

You

LHO

Pard

RHO

1

-

1

-

2

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K Q

A Q T 8 7

T

K Q J 5 3

If partner merely shows preference to 2 rebid 3 showing your 5-5 shape and additional strength.

You

LHO

Pard

RHO

1

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1

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2

-







K Q

K Q T 5 3

A J T 7

6 5

If partner can do no better than mere preference to 2 you will show your shape and strength with a bid in no trumps.

If you play such a sequence (two-level response plus a rebid in no trumps) as game-forcing then you might prefer to bid 3NT (fifteen or sixteen) rather than 2NT (seventeen plus).

You

LHO

Pard

RHO

1

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2

-

2

-








Nineteen to twenty two points


Provided that partner has sufficient for a first response you will not stop short of game.

As you cannot take the slight risk of partner passing at his second opportunity you must force with your rebid with either a strong reverse or a game-forcing jump in your second suit.


Following that you can show your shape as above.

K Q

K Q T 5 3

A J T 7

A 5

Bid 3 (game-forcing), showing your 5-4 shape and nineteen points.

In most sequences you will bid 3NT next showing your 5-4-2-2 shape.

You

LHO

Pard

RHO

1

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1

-

?









Twenty to twenty two points


The only difference from the above is that there will be some 5-4-2-2 hands in this range which you will happily open with 2NT, or some equivalent sequence.

You might even extend this to a 4-4-4-1 hand with a singleton ace, or some equivalent holding.


Six-card suit (or longer) and no subsidiary four-card suit


The first thing to point out is that a hand with a decent six-card suit is likely to be worth an extra playing trick.


You will therefore sometimes be able to open with a game-forcing bid (if you have one in your armoury) on rather less than the usual twenty three points, or make a game-forcing rebid on rather less than nineteen points.


The following discussion to hands which contain a six-card suit, no subsidiary four-card suit, and unsuitable for one of the forcing openings discussed at the head of the page.


On such hands you will open one of the suit and rebid in that suit:-


with less than sixteen points or seven playing tricks you will rebid a simple two of your suit;

with seventeen or eighteen points, or seven or seven and a half playing tricks, you will rebid a non-forcing three of the suit;

and with nineteen or more points, or some equivalent playing strength, you will rebid at game level.

K Q J

A Q T 7

6

K Q T 5 3

Bid 2 - forcing.

You

LHO

Pard

RHO

1

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1

-

?

-







A K Q T 5 4 3

8 2

A 6

A Q

Only nineteen points, but nine and a half playing tricks in a strong hand, and it won’t need much from partner to make a slam.

Open with a game-forcing bid such as 2.

You

LHO

Pard

RHO

?













Clearly many of the sequences which follow will be irrelevant if a major suit fit - indeed any fit - comes to light early in the auction.

For this reason the following discussion centres on sequences in which partner’s first response was either 1NT or a new suit at the lowest level.


5-4 shape or better - (e.g. 6-4, 5-5, 5-4-2-2, 5-4-3-1)


The potential of an unbalanced hand is not usually best judged in terms of high-card points only, but they do provide a structure for the following discussion.


Sixteen to eighteen points - partner responds at the one-level


Note that you will never be stuck for a rebid in your second suit in the present context.


You are strong enough for a strong reverse if necessary, forcing for one round and providing the opportunity to show your hand further.

A Q 3

Q

A K 4 2

A K 6 5 3

There are those who would open 2NT on this hand - fair enough - but it is far from ideal, and there are others who would show it as single-suited in clubs, but without eight playing tricks or a six-card suit this is a serious overstatement.  Better is to open 1 - game is almost impossible facing nothing from partner.  Even if partner were to rustle up 1 on five or six points and a four-or five-card suit it would still be a struggle.

You

LHO

Pard

RHO

?

















If your second suit does not involve a reverse bid then the fact that you might have to make a non-forcing response should not concern you.

Your non-reverse rebid in a new suit at the lowest level, typically on hand of up to eighteen points, will not be completely forcing.


However, if partner passes at his second opportunity he should have a miserable seven points at best.  This is an important principle.


He should also have a clear preference - typically at least two more cards in your second suit than in your first suit.

You will have no further say in the auction, but you will probably have alighted in the best spot.


If partner’s rebid suggests additional values in his hand - perhaps a rebid of 2NT promising ten to twelve points, a jump in either your or his first suit again suggesting at least ten points, or perhaps a rebid of his first suit suggesting eight or nine points and a six-card suit, you will almost certainly force to game.

And if partner does anything else on his rebid, which more or less comes down to either a rebid of 1NT or a preference (which might be false) to your first suit, then any further bid by you will suggest additional values - typically seventeen or eighteen facing partner’s initial response at the one-level.


Such a third bid will also define your hand-shape with considerable accuracy.


2NT would suggest 5-4-2-2 shape;

a rebid of your first suit would suggest 6-4 shape;

a rebid of your second suit would suggest 5-5 shape;

and a bid in a third suit would show at least a three-card holding.


Partner might yet sign off at the three-level but more often than not he will now know more than enough to select the best game contract.

6

K Q J

K Q T 5 3

A Q T 7

You had (still have) high hopes for this hand, but there is no need to force.

Bid 2.

Partner will only pass with something like five or six points, three clubs and one diamond.

Game would be a distant prospect.

You

LHO

Pard

RHO

1

-

1

-

?









Your choices are system choices, and they are as follows:-


play just the one game-forcing strong two as above - you might on occasion be guessing in the slam zone, but you shouldn’t miss out on any game contracts;


incorporate single-suited hands of eight and a half to nine playing tricks (eight to nine if you prefer) into your one strong bid.


It will be easy to distinguish between the game-forcing hands and the one-round force hands if the ensuing auction remains uncontested.  In the face of vigorous opposition bidding you might lose the distinction on occasion, but again you should not miss out on any game contracts;


play a second strong two or multi to incorporate such hands.  Benji Acol is an example of this approach but the game-forcing bid will hardly ever see the light of day.  Alternatively redistribute the various strong possibilities between the two bids - you might then choose to include some further hand-type(s) such as the strong three-suited hand.


For various possibilities relating to your choice of opening two-bids see ‘combining the bids’, but note that there is no urgent need to include more than one strong bid except to show the single-suited hand just below game-forcing strength.  5-4 hands can be dealt with perfectly well with simpler methods.


For myself, I shall be happy to play oneunlimited one-round force’ to cover both ‘game-force opening hands’, and ‘close to game-forcing single-suited hands’ at anything up to an intermediate level and beyond.

5

A K Q T 8 5 3 2

9 5 3

Q 8

Eight playing tricks in a hand unsuitable for a two-level opening.

Perhaps you should have opened 4, but you can hardly do less than bid the game now.

You

LHO

Pard

RHO

1

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2

-

?








K Q

K Q J T 5 3

A T 7

A 5

I bid 4.  Alternatively, bid 3 - a made-up game-force - if you think the hand has greater potential.  You may not have described your hand very accurately, but at least you will have forced to game.  Problems will only arise if partner subsequently corrects your bid of 4 to 5, or bids a slam based on your supposed diamond length.

You

LHO

Pard

RHO

1

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1

-

?









By ‘strong’ I shall in the present context mean a hand of sixteen or more points.  This is a little arbitrary, but it will at least ensure that your artificial opening bid at the two-level is legal.  The important thing is that the hand should satisfy ‘the rule for strong openings’.


It is tempting, and reasonable, to adopt the 9½ playing trick requirement for a hand based on a major suit and 10½ playing tricks for a hand based on a minor suit.  There is, though, a serious danger of missing out on the hand which will make 3NT based on a running minor suit. I shall stick with the simple 9½ playing trick requirement - this is a matter for partnership agreement.


With just the hand-types outlined above you will have introduced a ‘game-forcing opening bid’.  (The sequence 2, 2, 2NT may be played as non-forcing, but I shall not allow this to distort the terminology.)


If this is your only strong bid it will only feature occasionally, but it is at least well defined.


Single-suited hands


With a single-suited hand and no secondary four-card suit there is a particular difficulty.

Following your opening one of a suit your only honest game-forcing rebid will be a jump to game, and this bid will have to cover quite a wide range of playing strengths.


My suggestion is that you should incorporate a forcing opening sequence which shows such a single-suited hand (no secondary four-card suit) of 8½ or 9 playing tricks somewhere into your system (eight to nine if you prefer).


There are two possibilities:-


either


introduce a second strong and forcing opening bid to cover such hands (and possibly a few more as well) -

you will then have either something like a Benji-style system featuring two strong bids, or ‘one strong and a multi’.


Benji is not a favourite of mine.  The game-forcing bid just does not occur with sufficient frequency, the Benji bid includes a number of hands which can be shown more informatively by starting with a bid at the one-level, and there is only limited space left in which to incorporate a variety of obstructive weak opening two-bids.

One strong and a multi’ is a popular tournament system.  It is recommended as you look to progress beyond an intermediate standard.


or


incorporate this hand-type (8½ or 9 playing tricks in a single-suited hand with no secondary four-card suit) into your one strong bid making it an ‘unlimited one-round force’.


This will give you  a version of ‘three weak and one strong’ - my recommended method up to at least an intermediate level.


If you incorporate such hands into a strong bid then your opening one of a suit followed by a jump to game in that suit will be limited to about eight playing tricks.  Partner will know not to get excited unless he can see more than two tricks in his hand.


Just how many of these hands could have been shown by starting with one of a suit?


Any other hand of genuine opening strength will have to open one of a suit.


In principle this includes hands which are about a trick short of game - say 9 playing tricks or up to twenty two points.


Note that the possibility that such a hand might be making game facing a pass from partner is all but non-existent:-


first of all, such a hand is near-impossible;


it must not be suitable for an opening bid in 2NT (or a strong 2NT sequence) - and it must not be worth a game in its own hand facing nothing from partner;


even twenty two points facing five will not play easily to make a game - think of entries, leading away from the strong hand etc.;


and, in the modern style, responder should be encouraged to respond with less than the traditional six points just to cover such possibilities.  Certainly a new suit at the one-level can be made on five, and sometimes even four, points provided that such a bid is genuinely available.


5-4 shape or better


Remember that with 5-4 shape or better you can always force to game on your rebid with a jump in your second suit.


The following very contrived example shows a possibility, but what else would you want to open on it?