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Countering Notrump Interference

Countering Notrump Interference

by Phillip Martin, Scarsdale, New York

Bridge players love to invent new gadgets. If you doubt this, just sit down at any table and ask your partner to open one notrump. Chances are RHO will trot out some convention you've never heard of. Now you will have to do some inventing of your own, and hope that your partner is on the same wavelength.

Defenses to one-notrump openings are cropping up so quickly that it is hard to devise countermeasures to all of them. Fortunately, it is also unnecessary. The method I am going to propose will work against any defense, even one you have never seen before.

Before we get down to details, let's define our objectives. First, we're not going to worry about hands with long suits. There are a number of adequate methods for these hands, and I imagine you are quite happy with whatever you are playing. The hands that concern us are the balanced and semi-balanced hands, especially those of less than game-going strength.

Second, we are not going to worry about game invitations. Deciding whether or not to compete is hard enough. If you do have a game invitation, you will simply have to upgrade your hand to a game force or downgrade it to a signoff.

Finally, we are not going to worry about small swings. Our goal is to go plus: plus 50, plus 100, or plus 110 are all the same. In other words, we want to bid when both sides can make something, to defend when neither side can make anything. In the remaining scenario -- when one side can make something and the other can't -- we don't much care what we do. Obviously, this attitude caters primarily to IMPs, but it is not bad at matchpoints either. Often, the results on a competitive deal are so varied that there is not a lot of difference between small plusses.

How do we accomplish this goal? By relying on the Law of Total Tricks. If the opponents have eight or more trumps, we bid; if they have fewer, we defend.

Direct Natural Overcalls

First, let's discuss natural overcalls. (I know you're not apt to encounter one, but we need to lay the groundwork.) If an opponent overcalls naturally in direct seat, responder's double is negative. It shows exactly two cards in the opponent's suit, three or more cards in every other suit, and a modicum of high cards (enough to total 22 HCP opposite opener's minimum). This hand is a prototypical negative double after a 15-17 notrump and a two-heart overcall,

  J 10 x x   x x   K J x x   K x x.

If opener has four cards in the overcaller's suit, he passes the double (hence the prohibition against responder's holding a singleton). Otherwise, he bids a suit of his own or two notrump to scramble. (Two notrump, from either side, is always for takeout in these auctions.) Opener cannot jump in a suit, nor can he drive to game. Responder is presumed to have no game interest until he says otherwise.

Should the opponents be so impertinent as to continue bidding, a subsequent double by either player is for penalties. Opener will double a new suit with three or more trumps, counting on responder to hold three. With a doubleton, opener will pass (forcing), allowing responder to double with four trumps or to bid on with three. Occasionally, responder will have a doubleton in an unbid suit. For example, he might double two hearts with 2=2=4=5 or 2=2=5=4. If opener bids two spades (or if he doubles advancer's two spades), responder will pull to three clubs or to two notrump respectively. Responder might also double two hearts with 4=2=5=2, intending to pull three clubs to three diamonds. In this case, he need not pull a double of three clubs, since we are willing to defend against an eight-card fit at the three level.

What does responder do when he has three or more cards in the overcaller's suit? With a game force, he ignores the overcall and drives to game. With a weaker hand, he passes. Opener is expected to double in balancing seat with two trumps, in which case responder will pull with three trumps; responder will pass a reopening double with four trumps and sufficient high cards. After a two-heart overcall, this hand,

  J 10 x x   K x x   K J x x   x x,

is ideal for the suggested approach. When opener has three hearts, your surest plus is on defense; when he has two, your surest plus is on offense. If you can be confident that partner will reopen with a doubleton heart, passing the overcall rates to get your side to the right spot.

Some players are aghast at the notion of requiring opener to reopen with a doubleton trump (especially if playing 12 to 14 notrumps). I can't deny that the approach has its downside. But the upside--letting responder pass fearlessly with hands such as the one just shown--is tremendous. Yes, one day you'll catch partner with heart length and no high cards to suffer a 12-imp loss. But you'll have picked up so many 4- and 5-imp swings in the meantime that you'll shrug it off.

Balancing Natural Overcalls

Suppose partner opens one notrump (15-17); you pass with,

  J x   K x x   K J x x   10 x x x,

and LHO balances with two hearts, which is passed around to you. Once again, if partner has two hearts, you would like to compete; if he has three, your surest plus is on defense. How do we solve this problem? By acting the same way as over a direct overcall: Double from either side shows two trumps. With the hand shown, if partner doubles two hearts you will bid two notrump (for takeout). If partner passes, you will also pass, quietly taking your plus score.

Try another one. You hold,

  J x   K x x x   K J x x   10 x x.

Partner opens one notrump--pass--pass--two hearts--double by partner. You are about to pass, but RHO spoils your fun by bidding two spades. Now what? If partner has four spades, the opponents are still in trouble. But if they have stumbled into an eight-card fit you will probably do better to bid on. The solution? Double for takeout. A negative double by responder creates a competitive force, so all subsequent doubles are for penalties. But opener's double does not have this effect. Until responder has shown values, a double by either player is for takeout.

Let's back up and have RHO pass the double of two hearts. You pass, LHO redoubles, and RHO runs to two spades. Since you have shown values by your penalty pass, your double would now be for penalties. With your actual hand, you pass (forcing). Partner knows you would have doubled with three spades (since he has shown three himself), so he can infer your doubleton spade and act accordingly.

Artificial Overcalls

It seems normal to play doubles of artificial overcalls for penalties, but, in practice, that can create some awkward problems. For example, suppose you hold,

  J 10 x x   K x x   K J x x   x x.

Partner opens one notrump; RHO bids two diamonds, showing hearts or the black suits. You double, showing diamonds. Advancer bids two hearts, which is passed around to you. Now what? If partner has two hearts, you want to bid. Defending risks a double part-score swing. If partner has three hearts, you want to defend. Bidding may turn a plus into a minus. There is no right answer; you have to guess.

To avoid this problem, we treat artificial overcalls as though they were natural. Until responder has shown values, a double by either partner is for takeout of the bid suit, regardless of which suit or suits the bid actually shows.

With the hand shown you would pass two diamonds. If advancer bids two hearts, partner must double with a doubleton. Should he double, you will bid two spades. When opener passes and RHO passes, you will pass, knowing that the opponents are in at most a seven-card fit.

Suppose partner doubles two hearts and RHO bids two spades, showing the black suits. You would like to double for penalties, but you can't. A double would be for takeout, since you have not yet shown values. You will have to settle for 50 or 100 a trick, which should at least beat par. But if LHO corrects spades to clubs, you can double. It is still defined as negative, but partner needs only three trumps to sit at the three-level.

The negative double works better because it carries information about all four suits. You can determine how many trumps you have whichever suit the opponents land in. Of course, this accuracy comes at a cost. Sometimes advancer can pass your double and uncover a fit he would otherwise have missed. But that requires a parlay. On balance, the negative double gains more than it gives up.

Another example:

  J 10 x x   x x   K x x   K J x x.

Partner opens one notrump, and RHO bids two clubs (Astro), showing hearts and a minor. Some people play two hearts here as takeout of hearts, but that robs you of your chance to defend. Surely it is better to pass, intending to double two hearts when they get there. If partner has four hearts, he can now pass for penalties.

What if the opponents don't cooperate by bidding two hearts? What if advancer bids two diamonds (artificial, denying heart support) and RHO passes? We are still well placed, because we know how many diamonds partner has. If he has two, then he has doubled two diamonds and we can bid two spades. If has three or more, then he has passed two diamonds. We can pass also, confident that we have achieved a plus score.

When responder holds a game force, passing the overcall is no longer an option. He may have no choice but to make an offshape negative double. If necessary, he can later "cue-bid" by bidding the doubled suit.

RHO overcalls partner's one notrump opening with two clubs (Crash), showing majors or minors. With,

  J 10 x x   K x x   A x   K J x x,

you should double. You hope that advancer cannot pass, in which case the opponents are in trouble. Even if partner doubles two diamonds (showing three, since he thinks you have three), you have enough extra high cards that you are happy to defend.

If advancer can pass, partner, who assumes you have a doubleton club, will probably let them off the hook. Such is life. If partner bids two spades, you will raise to four. If he bids two hearts, you can "cue-bid" three clubs to look for a spade fit. One of the advantages of defenses that name no specific suit is that they take away your cue-bid. The faux negative double gets it back.

Reprinted by permission of The Bridge World.

© 1996 by Bridge World Magazine Inc.

Afterthoughts

I left open the question of how to play a bid at the two-level in a suit your opponent has shown. My own preference is to play it as natural and non-forcing. Not everyone will have bid over the one notrump opening, so you may have an edge in simply playing the normal contract with knowledge of how the suit is breaking. This is especially true when RHO's second suit is unknown. After one notrump-two clubs (Astro), I would hate not to be able to bid two hearts (natural) with

  x x   A Q 9 8 x   x   J x x x x,

possibly preventing the opponents from finding their diamond fit.

Another issue I did not address is how to handle a 4-4-4-1 pattern. This is sometimes easier over an artifical bid than a natural one. After one trump-two clubs (Astro), for example, you can pass with a singleton heart, hoping to balance with two spades. Partner should assume you have only four spades from your failure to bid the first time, and he will suspect a singleton heart from your failure to double now. This pattern is more problematic after one notrump-two hearts (natural). All you can do is choose between a misbid (bidding a suit or doubling) and an overbid (three hearts).

Finally, I should say something about an agreement that has gained some populartity: playing "system on" over any artificial two club bid, using double as Stayman. I see no objection to playing "system on" when you bid, but why give up the negative double? As Jeff Reubens pointed out elsewhere, whenever you adopt the strategy of ignoring an opponent's bid in an attempt to "get back to even," you are conceding an edge. If they've made a mistake, you need to be able to punish them at least some of the time to compensate for the losses you will suffer at other times.