Notrump Opening Bids and Responses

YMCA Bridge Lecture for BB1 Ch2 (March 2, 2017)

Our chapter for today — Audrey Grant’s Bridge Basics 1 series, Ch. 2 — tells how to open and respond in notrump. We will limit our study to notrump opening bids, ignoring the responses. The advice in this chapter on beginner responses will be superseded in BB3 by conventions for Stayman (Ch. 1) and Jacoby Transfers (Ch. 2). You may download this lesson in one of the two following formats:

  1. Paragraph: ag-bb1-ch2-para
  2. Outline: ag-bb1-ch2-note

Review of Hand Valuation (see BB1, Ch. 1)

Our first steps in a NT opening are to determine that we have the appropriate points and distribution. If we do, a NT bid describes our hand very accurately. NT bids tell our partner something about our distribution, mainly that partner need not inquire about our shortage. Our bid also limits our HCP to a narrow range.

We value NT hands by their HCP. With 25+ combined points, the partnership should make 3NT game. The high-card points for honor cards are A=4, K=3, Q=2, J=1. These points can be adjusted by reducing the total such that no A=-1 and each unguarded honor = -1 (eg, K, Qx, Jxx, Txxx).

The accuracy of HCP valuations depends on the number of suits that we want to describe. The number of suits ranges from one to four, of course. The trick-taking potential of a NT hand with four good suits can be determined accurately by its HCP. The trick-taking potential of a slam hand with one suit, such as AKQJT98765432 cannot be determined accurately by its HCP (10) or even its length points (9). One suited hands do best with Losing Trick Count (the example hand has no losers when spades are trumps).

NT Openings and Theory

—Balance

A NT opening/overcall tends to promise one of three specific balanced distributions of 5-3-3-2, 4-3-3-3, or 4-4-3-2. Note that these three hands have at most one doubleton, no singletons, and no voids. Hands with shortages tend to be dangerous in NT but very valuable in trump suits. Some experts will open 5M-4-2-2 hands in NT, whenever these hands have 15-17 HCP paired with a weak 5cM.

—Basic NT Theory

Since there are no trumps for Declarer to stop the opposition from running their longest suit, a NT contract is a race between Declarer and Defenders in developing and winning tricks. There are only two types of winning tricks in NT: high cards and long suits.

Louis Watson called each stopper (highest card in a suit) a Time Unit. A player should bid NT only when holding sufficient time units (winners in all 4 suits) to develop their long-suit tricks. Otherwise, the Opposition will set the contract by cashing their winners.

—1NT Opening

The point count to bid or overcall 1NT is 15-17 HCP including at most one length point. Opener should have guarded HCPs in 3+ suits (eg, each of Opener’s suits contains honor cards and protective spot guards, like A, Kx, Qxx, or Jxxx). If NT is an overcall, the Overcaller must have stoppers in all bid suits. A NT bid is never forcing on the other partner, meaning a NT opener or overcaller must be prepared for a pass from partner.

—Other NT Openings

The table below gives seven point ranges for NT openings. Only three of these are opened initially with 1NT, 2NT, or 3NT. The other four must be bid in two steps, first by opening in a suit and then by rebidding NT. You can find several examples of such hands in the BB series.

HCP NT Hand Examples
13-14 Open 1m or 1M, rebid 1NT Hand 4, BB1, p.39
15-17 Open 1NT Hands 1-3, BB1, p.39
18-19 Open 1m, jump to 2NT Hand 5, BB1, p.39
20-21 Open 2NT Hands 2-3, BB3, p.117
22-23 Open 2, rebid 2NT Hand b, BB3, p.123
24-25 Open 2, rebid 3NT Hand d, BB3, p.123
26-27 Open 3NT Hand d, BB3, p.125

Optimal Game Contracts

—4M, 3NT, 5m

If Responder has the points and possible fit for a game, then Responder will seek in order of preference a contract of 4M, 3NT, or 5m. A contract of 3NT will require the team to take 9 total tricks. The team will need 25+ PVP, the same as with 4M. Playing NT is usually more difficult to do than taking 10 tricks in a major suit but easier that taking 11 tricks in a minor suit. The team will need 29+ PVP for a 5m contract.

After a NT opening, Responder will seek a GF in a major. Finding none, the team will seek four-suit controls in a NT contract. As a last resort, the team will seek a GF in a minor, often at a declared level less than 5m.

—Minor Responses

If Responder transfers to a minor (eg, bids 2 or 3), this does not mean Responder wants to declare in the minor. A minor-suit response tells Opener that Responder is unlikely to have a major-suit fit or four-suit controls. Responder is reporting their lowest control suit (ie, a strong suit with guarded honors). If this minor suit is sufficient for the partnership to have four-suit controls and nine tricks, then Opener responds in NT, otherwise Opener bids their own lowest control suit. This inquiry continues until the partnership finds a fit in NT or a minor.

—All Responses

Learning the responses in BB1, Ch. 2, would be temporary to your success as a bridge player. In BB3, Ch. 1, we will study the Stayman Convention. In BB3, Ch. 2, we will study Jacoby Transfers. For the most part, we will ignore BB1 Ch2. When we open/overcall with 1NT, our Responder will choose between pass, a raise in NT, or a convention to show a 4cM, 5cM, or 6cm. A Responder bidding to BB3 guidelines has only 4 choices:

  • Bust: Pass if holding < 8 HCP and no 5cM.
  • Balanced Hand: Invite or jump in NT if holding 8+ HCP and no 4cM. Invite with 2NT holding 8-9 HCP, or jump to 3NT holding 10-15 HCP.
  • Stayman Convention: Use the Stayman Convention if holding at least one 4cM and at least 8-9 HCP. Responder bids the cheapest . Opener rebids positively (ie, a 4cM) or negatively (ie, the cheapest suit).
  • Jacoby Transfers: Use the Jacoby Transfer if holding 0+ points and a 5c+ suit. The Responder to a NT opening makes an artificial bid to ensure that Opener is the Declarer. Responder guarantees 5c+. The Opener announces, “Transfer.” If the team wins the contract, the opening lead will go through the weak hand up to the strong hand. The strong hand might have a tenace in the lead suit.

Bidding Ladder

—Opening of 1NT

Opener has 15-17 HCP. Responder evaluates their hand as a Min = 0-7 HCP partscore; Med = 8-9 HCP invite to game; Med+ = 10-14 HCP get to game; or Max = 15+ HCP explore for slam.

—Responder’s 1st Bid after 1NT

  • Pass: Min. Responder passes with a balanced hand, or with an unbalanced hand does something else (eg, Garbage Stayman, Jacoby Transfer).
  • 2: Min. Garbage Stayman, asking Opener to bid a 4cM (positive) or 2 (negative). Responder will not bid again. Responder promises 0+ HCP and very short or void clubs.
  • 2: Med. Stayman, asking Opener to bid a 4cM (positive) or 2 (negative). Responder promises at least one 4cM and ≥8 HCP.
  • 2: Min. Jacoby, asking Opener to transfer to . Opener super accepts (jumps) with a max hand and 4c support; this is invitational to game or slam but is not forcing. Responder promises 5c.
  • 2: Min. Jacoby, asking Opener to transfer to . Opener super accepts (jumps) with a max hand and 4c support; this is invitational to game or slam but is not forcing. Responder promises 5c.
  • 2: Med. Jacoby, invitational to 3NT. Responder is generally weak, as otherwise would bid 2NT, but still this transfer forces the minimum contract up one level to 3. Guarantees a strong 6c+ suit. Opener bids 3NT with stoppers, support, and transportation, more likely transfers to 3.
  • 2NT: Med. Invitational to 3NT. Responder promises a NT hand.
  • 3: Med. Jacoby, invitational to 3NT. Responder is generally weak, as otherwise would bid 2NT, but still this transfer forces the minimum contract up one level to 3. Guarantees a strong 6c+ suit. Opener bids 3NT with stoppers, support, and transportation, more likely transfers to 3.
  • 4: Max. A Texas Transfer. Invitational to slam. If Opener is a max, they will explore, otherwise signoff with 4. Responder promises a good 6c+ major.
  • 4: Max. A Texas Transfer. Invitational to slam. If Opener is a max, they will explore, otherwise signoff with 4. Responder promises a good 6c+ major.
  • Game+: Responder bids 3NT signoff for game (10-15 HCP); 4 for Gerber (18+ HCP); xM-4NT Blackwood (rare); xNT-4NT Quantitative invitational to 6NT (16-17 HCP); 5NT Pick-a-Slam (17+ HCP); 6NT signoff for slam (18-19 HCP); 7NT signoff for slam (20+ HCP).

—Opener’s 2nd Bid

  • Responder Set the Contract: Opener may not have a 2nd bid.
  • Invitational Response: If Responder invited with 2NT or 4NT, Opener passes with a minimum 15 HCP hand.
  • Forcing Response: Opener must bid after Responder initiates Stayman or Jacoby.

—Opening of 2NT

Opener has 20-21 HCP. Responder evaluates their hand as a Min = 0-4 HCP; Med = 5-11 HCP; Max = 12+ HCP.

—Responder’s 1st Bid after 2NT

  • 3: Med. Stayman, asking Opener to bid a 4cM (positive) or 3 (negative). Responder promises at least one 4cM.
  • 3: Min. Jacoby, asking Opener to transfer to . Responder promises 5c.
  • 3: Min. Jacoby, asking Opener to transfer to . Responder promises 5c.
  • Game+: Responder bids 3NT signoff for game (5-11 HCP); 4 for Gerber (13+ HCP); xM-4NT Blackwood; xNT-4NT invitational to 6NT (12-13 HCP); 5NT Pick-a-Slam; 6NT signoff for slam (13-15 HCP); 7NT signoff for slam (16+ HCP).

—Opening of 3NT

Opener has 25-27 HCP. Responder evaluates their hand as a Min = 0 HCP; Med = 4-8 HCP; Max = 9+ HCP.

—Responder’s 1st Bid after 3NT

  • 4: Med. Stayman, asking Opener to bid a 4cM (positive) or 2 (negative). Responder promises at least one 4cM.
  • 4: Min. Jacoby, asking Opener to transfer to . Responder promises 6c.
  • 4: Min. Jacoby, asking Opener to transfer to . Responder promises 6c.
  • Game+: Responder bids 4 for Gerber (9+ HCP); xM-4NT Blackwood; xNT-4NT invitational to 6NT (9-10 HCP); 5NT Pick-a-Slam; 6NT signoff for slam (9-11 HCP); 7NT signoff for slam (12-13 HCP).

Declarer’s Plan in ABCs (from BB1 Ch. 1 – Ch. 4 and BB2 Ch. 1)

As Declarer, you must huddle with yourself immediately after LHO makes the opening lead. Do not play any card, even a singleton in Dummy. Take your time in planning your play. Frequently the success of your contract will be determined by the Opponent’s lead and your play on that lead. Your choices include winning in Dummy, winning in hand, and ducking, none of which is obviously the best play until you huddle.

  1. Assess the Situation: Determine both the minimum number of tricks you must win, and the maximum number of tricks you can lose. If you can make the minimum number of QT that you must win, then run these tricks immediately. If you can see that Opponents can win more than the maximum number of tricks that you can lose, then you need a checklist for making your losers disappear.
  2. Browse the Checklist: As we progress through Bridge Basics, your checklist will increase. You will learn many ways to promote high cards, develop low cards, ruff in Dummy, finesse, discard a loser on a loser, and other techniques.
  • Promotion: With any honor sequence held between Dummy’s and Declarer’s hands, play the top of the sequence to drive out Opponents’ ranking card. If necessary, repeat until the sequence can be run. For example, holding the QJT9 between the two hands, play the QJ to drive out AK, making the T9 good.
  • Length: Declarer can develop their low-card tricks by voiding the Opponents’ suit. Declarer and Dummy combined must hold at least a 7c suit for any hope of voiding Opponent. The table on p.52 shows the mostly likely distribution of Opponents’ holdings for any number of Declarer’s holdings. Opponents’ odd holdings tend to break evenly, while their even holdings tend to break unevenly. For example, Opponents’ 3c holding breaks 2-1, 4c breaks 3-1, 5c breaks 3-2, 6c breaks 4-2, and 7c breaks 4-3.
  • Finesse: Declarer can lead towards a non-ranking card. If the ranking card is in the 2nd hand, then that Opponent must either play high or let the non-ranking card win. Sometimes the finesse is taken towards a tenace, so that if 2nd hand rises, Declarer can play high on the first trick; this promotes the lower honor. If 2nd hand plays low, Declarer can play low too on the first trick and then win with the higher honor. Since the 2nd hand will cover an honor with an honor, Declarer should not lead an honor that Declarer does not want covered. For example, holding AQxx in Dummy and JT98 in hand, Declarer leads the J wanting 2nd hand to cover it with the K. If 2nd hand covers with the K, Dummy wins with the A. If 2nd hand does not cover, Dummy plays a low spot and repeats the finesse by leading the T.
  • Ruffing in Dummy: Declarer can’t win extra tricks by ruffing in hand as Declarer’s long trumps are already winners. But if Declarer can ruff in Dummy before pulling trumps, then Dummy’s ruff can create an extra trick. Declarer does best when they have a side suit (a non-trump suit) that is longer in hand than in Dummy. Unfortunately, this is rare, as Declarer is usually the long hand in trumps and the short hand in the side suits.
  1. Consider the Order: Assuming Declarer has adequate trumps and tricks, a Declarer’s order might be to win the lead, draw (capture) the Opponents’ trumps leaving Declarer’s team in control of trumps, and run the QT. However, there are situations when winning the lead is neither easy nor obvious as to which hand should win. Drawing trumps does not work well in all cases, such as when Dummy has a void in Opponents’ suit. If Declarer were to draw the Opponents’ trumps, Declarer would also be drawing Dummy’s trumps. As soon as the Opponents got in the lead, they would play their suit, knowing that Dummy was out of ruffing power. Declarer would do better by drawing fewer rounds of trumps, leaving some trumps in Dummy to guard against Opponents’ dangerous suit. The following is the play order suggested by BB2, Ch. 1:
  • Run the Contract: If Declarer can make the contract, then run it before the Defenders can think of a better defense.
  • Draw Trumps: The Guideline to drawing trumps is that Declarer should do so unless Declarer has a better use for the trumps. Better uses would include options such as ruffing in Dummy or crossruffing in both hands.
  • Retain Trumps in Dummy: The reason that a 9c trump fit is so wonderful is that Dummy will have trumps even after pulling Defenders’ trumps. If Dummy has few trumps, then Declarer may not be able to pull trumps until Declarer has completed some safety plays, such as ruffing in Dummy or using Dummy’s trumps as guards to a void suit.
  • Develop Winners Early: Bridge is always a race. If Declarer needs extra tricks, Declarer should develop these tricks early while still having control cards in most suits. If Declarer waits until the Opponents establish at least one of their suits, then Opponents will run their established suit whenever they have put them in the lead.
  • Retain Transportation between the Hands: The Declarer must be “in” a certain hand to lead from it. If both Declarer and Dummy have many high cards, then both hands have the entries needed to make a desired lead. However, sometimes one hand is weak, without many entries, in which case Declarer must plan to do as much as possible in the weak hand whenever using one of its entries. For example, Declarer may need to win with one of Dummy’s entries before Declarer can lead a finesse towards their own hand. If Declarer has a choice of finesses to take, the best would be a finesse that if it lost, it would lose to the least dangerous Defender.
  • Play the Short Side First: This Guideline applies to both the Declarer and the Defenders. When developing tricks in unevenly held suits, begin with the high cards in the short side. For Declarer with a 5c Dummy, this means playing Declarer’s high cards before moving to Dummy to run the remainder of the suit. For Defenders, this means leading a low card to the short Defender, letting that Defender play their high cards, then leading a low card back to the long Defender for that Defender to run the suit and set the Declarer. The easiest way to remember this is to always play high from a doubleton, leaving the low card as a lead back to partner.

Test of Comprehension

  1. NT vs Suits: For a test on recognizing NT hands, go to Quiz 1 (p. 58).
  2. NT Responses: For a test on responding to a NT opening, go to Quiz 2, a, b, c, e, f (p. 60).
  3. Declarer vs Defenders: For a test on play and defense, go to Quiz 3 (p. 62).

Hands to Play, from BB1 = “An Introduction” (206p)

Note that we have not studied bidding yet, so please accept the bidding recommended in the hints. If you finish the four hands early, please use the remaining time for MiniBridge hands (see Hint E).

Deck Hands Declarer Dealer Bid Lead Hints
BB1 P. 64 #5 N N 1NT A A
BB1 P. 66 #6 W E 4 J B
BB1 P. 68 #7 E S 2 Q C
BB1 P. 70 #8 S W 3NT Q D

Hints

A: N=15 PVP. S=7 PVP. North (N) opens 1NT to show points and a 4-4-3-2 distribution. South (S) has neither 8 points for a positive response nor a 5cM for Jacoby Transfers, so passes. East leads the top of a 4c honor sequence from a suit not bid by Opponents, asking West to unblock. Declarer has 7 QT, needing nothing more than the lead to run all 7+ tricks. Defenders take the first 4 tricks, plus 2 more eventually. Claim.

B: E=16 PVP. W=11 PVP. East (E) opens 1NT to show points and a 4-3-3-3 distribution. West ( W ) with points and a 6cM goes to game (“He who knows, goes.”). The lead is unfortunate for Defenders. Declarer has 10 QT, needing nothing more than the lead to run all 10+ tricks. Declarer wins the lead, draws trumps, and runs the QT. Claim.

C: E=5 PVP. W=17 PVP.  West ( W ) opens 1NT to show points and a 5-3-3-2 distribution. East transfers in Spades, then passes. Defenders should win 2 trumps and 3 clubs with best defense. W drives out the two high trumps. Claim.

D: N=10 PVP. S=17 PVP. South (S) opens 1NT to show points and a 4-3-3-3 distribution. N has sufficient points for game, a balanced hand, and no 4cM. N places the contract at 3NT. Declarer has 8 QT, needing one more. Defender’s opening lead is in a suit that Declarer has 2 stoppers. Declarer wins the lead and plays the suit which is likely to break 3-2 for Defenders. When it does, the contract is safe. Claim.

MiniBridge: As time permits, shuffle and deal a regular bridge hand. Starting with the Dealer, let each player announce their HCP. The team with more than 20 HCP will be Declarers. The Declarer-side player with the least points is the Dummy. The Dummy announces their distribution, in a S-H-D-C format such as 2-5-3-3. Based on Dummy’s HCP and distribution, the Declarer announces the desired contract, such as 3. LHO makes the opening lead. The remainder of the hand is played as regular bridge.

Student Notes: (nb: The latest version of YMCA@Spr17Ch2 may be downloaded at BetterBridge.blog.)

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