M J Bridge

Theory and Conventions




Hands which are 5-4 in the majors present a specific difficulty.

The problem is to create both forcing and non-forcing sequences to the three-level whilst leaving partner the option to choose either major, or to sign off in 3NT when holding the wrong 3-2 shape in the majors.

The most common solution at an advanced level is to adopt the ‘Smolen’ convention.

This convention has been around for a long time.

It concentrates on locating the best denomination and creating game-forcing sequences on hands which are either 5-4 or 4-5 in the majors.

Quite simply you will start with a Stayman enquiry, and if a fit is not immediately forthcoming you will rebid three of your four-card suit. This bid is game-forcing and promises at least five cards in the other major.

A Q 8 6

K Q 8 7 3

T 2

K 5

Partner opened 1NT.

You have 4-5 in the majors together with game-going values.

Using improvers’ methods you would transfer into hearts then bid spades (natural and forcing).  Playing Smolen start with a Stayman 2 enquiry intending to follow a 2 response with 3 (game-forcing and promising five hearts).

Partner opened 1NT.

You are 5-4 in the majors with invitational values.

Bid 2, intending to follow a 2 response with 2 promising five spades and another unspecified four-card suit in a hand with invitational values.

A Q T 8 6

K Q 8 3

T 2

9 5

Intermediate and above

Opener’s first bid

Invitational 5-4 hands

The problem in adopting Smolen is that you have used the ‘improvers’ methods’ sequences for showing unbalanced hands with invitational values and a five-card major.

These will have to be replaced and this will most probably entail allocating two spare artificial sequences.

A typical choice would be:-

1NT, 2, 2, 2 promises five hearts and another four-card suit in an invitational hand;

1NT, 2, 2x, 2 promises five spades and another four-card suit in an invitational hand.

This method works well, but it is not intuitive and it adds to the memory load.

It also removes one of the garbage Stayman sequences which was available in ‘improvers’ methods’.

That is easily replaced, but it adds yet one more element of complication.


Smolen is a form of transfer sequence.

When transfer bids were originally introduced in America the sole purpose was to place the declarer play on a weak take-out in the stronger hand.  In many writings on the subject this remains the only aim of the concept.  Most American writings about Smolen follow this mindset, with no mention of other considerations.  Frequently further transfers are included in extended sequences towards this same end.

The concept of placing the stronger hand as declarer is of course important, particularly when considering the weak take-out.

It is also important in the land of the strong no trump even up to game-level when sixteen points may well find themselves facing nine (or thereabouts).  But in our world of the weak no trump there is no sense in the concept once the contract reaches game-level or higher.  Indeed, responder is quite likely to hold the stronger hand.

The justification for transfer methods in such an environment must rest on other arguments, and those arguments will revolve around the additional bidding sequences which can be created to show different hand-types.

Smolen creates such routes in a perfectly adequate manner, although some of them are non-intuitive to say the least - the two sequences above to show invitational hands are just an example.

I have little choice but to commend the convention to you, as it is widely used at a high level.

But, if playing a weak no trump, don’t be afraid to consider alternative methods which put the emphasis on the variety of routes rather than on placing the stronger hand as declarer.

One such little known possibility is ‘Quest transfers’.

An alternative modification would also appear to have all the advantages of Smolen whilst creating additional bidding space.

Opener’s rebid

Context  -  Partner opened 1NT - RHO passed - extending your methods - available methods.