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Beginner and above

This page last revised 6th Jul 2019

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, natural, and forcing, usually for 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.


What is wrong with opening at the one-level?


Most hands of opening strength or better will be opened with one of a suit or some number of no trumps.


The principle danger in opening one of a suit with a stronger opening hand is that partner might pass when your combined holding is sufficient for game.

It follows that if your hand is good enough to make a game contract facing a hand which partner might pass if you open with one of a suit, then you must either show your strength in some way, or force partner to make some sort of response so that you can show your strength subsequently.  With anything less than this an opening bid at the one-level will prove perfectly adequate.


Balanced hands


As a general rule, two balanced hands should bid to a game contract with a combined total of twenty five or more points, and stop in a lower contract with less than this.


That is why, if you play an opening 2NT on twenty to twenty two points, partner will find some kind of response to your one of a suit with any hand of six or more points (you might hold nineteen).  If you prefer to find a response to one of a suit with five or more points then you can play your 2NT opening bid on some range starting at twenty-one (partner will respond to your possible twenty point one of a suit).

But you will still need a way to show balanced hands of twenty three or more points.


Unbalanced hands


Unbalanced hands with a high combined point-count will also have the potential to make a game facing a hand which might pass one of a suit, only this time the ploy of opening 2NT is no longer available.


But there will be other unbalanced hands with fewer points which will also have the potential to make a game based on the number of potential tricks rather than number of points - never forget that the game is primarily about tricks, not points.  These potential tricks will manifest themselves in the form of low (or intermediate) cards in (a) long suit(s).


I like to assess the potential of such hands in terms of playing tricks.


Single-suited in a major


Hands of 9½ or 10 playing tricks stand every chance of making a game even when partner has absolutely nothing of value.

Hands worth 9 playing tricks require only 1 trick from partner to make a game.  This will not always be enough to extract a response to a one of a suit opening.

Hands worth 8½ or 8 playing tricks will frequently make a game, but require at least 1½ tricks from partner and this will be sufficient to guarantee a response to a non-forcing opening.


(Note that the imperative (so often heard in many a club) to open with a strong bid whenever the hand is worth 8 or more playing tricks is a hand-me-down from an earlier age.  It may well be part of your agreed system if you have strong bids to spare, but it is not essential as part of a method designed to avoid missing possible game contracts.)


Single-suited in a minor


It will only occasionally be correct to open with a forcing bid on a hand which is single-suited in a minor.  The waters are muddied by the existence of two possible game contracts (the minor suit or no trumps).  In particular the possible no trump contract will usually require bidding space in which to locate the existence of side-suit stops.

Clearly, with a high point count (twenty two say) you will need to do something reasonably dramatic, and with 10½ or 11 playing tricks you will have to ensure that the action doesn’t die a death at an early age, but with anything less it will usually be correct to open one of the minor - even if partner doesn’t come up with a response it will be extremely rare that one or other of your opponents doesn’t come to your rescue.


5-4 shape or better


Again you will need to show your strength when holding something like twenty two or more points, but usually it will be best to open one of your five-card suit on anything up to twenty one points with this shape as you leave space in which to search for the best fit.


Too strong for the one-level?


The analysis above identified a number of hand-types which had too much playing potential to risk starting with a non-forcing opening bid at the one-level.


Some of these hands can be dealt with adequately using simple natural methods if you so choose.


Balanced hands of twenty-three or more points could be opened with higher-level natural opening bids in no trumps each on an agreed point-range.

Such a method would work better than you might expect, especially when partner’s hand is also balanced, but at best it would use up an awful lot of bids for something which doesn’t happen very often.  Much better to incorporate all such hands into one forcing opening bid.


Hands which are single-suited in a major could perfectly well be opened at the four-level.

Again, this would work perfectly well most of the time, but you would have considerable difficulty in distinguishing between strong hands and more preemptive holdings based on a long suit.  The danger is that you might miss a slam - certainly you would on occasion regret the loss of bidding space in which to search for a slam.


Showing the strength and the hand-type to set the scene for a slam-try is the second reason for incorporating at least one forcing opening bid into your system.


The potential to miss a slam is even greater if you use this approach for hands which are single-suited in a minor, although an agreement in which an opening four of a minor suggests a slam interest but an opening five of a minor is strictly preemptive has some mileage.


A forcing opening bid


Whether or not you choose to follow any of the non-standard possibilities in the previous paragraph you will still find yourself left with a number of hand-types which require some other forcing bid.


If I include the hand-types above these will be:-


balanced hands of twenty three or more points (or whatever comes after a 2NT opener);

unbalanced hands with a high point count - say twenty two or more points;

strong hands single-suited in a major worth 9½ or more playing tricks;

strong hands single-suited in a minor worth 10½ or more playing tricks.


All of these hand types can be covered with a single-game forcing bid such as the traditional Acol 2.


Such bids are considered further on the page game-forcing openings.


You can also include the strong hand single-suited in a major and worth precisely 9 playing tricks and the strong hand single-suited in a minor and worth 10 playing tricks in the above.

Alternatively, and with just a little jiggling, you can try to distinguish between these holdings and those above in a single strong bid which is almost game-forcing.


Playing just this one artificial and forcing strong opening bid releases the other three opening suit-bids at the two-level for other purposes.


If the choice is ‘natural weak twos’ then you will be playing ‘three weak and one strong’.

This is my preferred system for both beginner and intermediate play.


If you choose to play any further strong bids then certainly you can include single-suited hands worth nine playing tricks in a major or ten playing tricks in a minor along with some other hand-types of your choice, with a view to adding greater definition to your strong holdings and possibly helping as you investigate a possible slam, but such bids are not essential in ensuring that you do not miss a possible game contract.


There is a multitude of possible bids, and also numerous ways in which these bids can be combined.

Follow one of ‘available bids’,  ‘standard systems’ or  ‘combining the bids’.


You opened one of a suit


And what about those strong hands which I encouraged you to open with one of a suit but which might in times past have been opened with some sort of strong forcing bid?


These will be the hands which do not quite qualify for any one of your strong bids but which have the potential for game with the merest hint of help from partner.


They are likely to include single-suited hands of 8 or maybe 8½ playing tricks, and hands with something like 5-4-3-1 shape of up to about twenty one points.


You may fear the possibility that the bidding might fall short, but there should be no reason for such apprehension.

Provided that you have a repertoire of forcing rebids you will always be able to force the subsequent auction to the required level.


These bids will probably include:-


a reverse rebid when the shape is suitable, forcing for at least one round;

a jump rebid in a new suit forcing to game;

a rebid in a new suit following partner’s first response in a new suit at the two-level forcing for one round.


Even a non-reverse rebid in a new suit following partner’s first response at the one-level should be played as ‘all but forcing’ thus covering those unbalanced hands on which you hold about seventeen or eighteen points.


And if a further forcing bid is required below game-level you can be certain that there will be either a bid in a fourth suit or a new suit at the three-level available to keep things going.


4-4-4-1


I have ignored 4-4-4-1 shape for the purposes of this page.


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 does not appear with great frequency.


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

Context  -  The opening bid.