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A Treatment for Reverses

After a one-over-one response in a suit, there are four possible bidding sequences where opener reverses. These are 1-1-2, 1-1-2, 1-1-2, and 1-1-2. Many partnerships do not differentiate between these sequences when they make an agreement on which responder rebids are forcing. I believe these rebids are sufficiently different to merit two separate treatments, perhaps even more, depending on the amount of bidding space consumed when responder bids the fourth suit (unbid suit). I have listed these sequences from least space to most space. In the first sequence, responder can bid the fourth suit in the bidding space immediately after the reverse (smooth). In the last sequence, responder must jump to the three-level into a bidding space that is higher-ranking than both of opener’s suits (clumsy). As in regular bidding without a reverse, a 4th-suit forcing auction here is much more effective when the unbid suit can be bid at the two-level.

The most common treatment for responder’s rebid after a reverse is to use a “denial bid,” which responder uses to deny sufficient values for game opposite a minimum reverse (about 17 HCP). The denial bid specified in an article on reverses in the March, 2011 ACBL Bulletin is 2NT, which is treated as a lebensohl type of bid. Opener on minimum reversing values is asked to bid 3, with a view to a minor suit bailout. In that system, a rebid of responder’s major could be played either as forcing (as given in the article) or non-forcing. But either way, the bidding is still uncomfortable.

The lebensohl-like denial treatment, although a popular method of handling reverses, suffers from serious problems. The sequence discussed in that ACBL article was 1-1-2. Here are some of the deficiencies in using the 2NT denial bid for this sequence.

  1. 2NT cannot be used as a natural bid by responder, so when he is too weak to jump to 3NT, he is unable to show a hand that has the unbid suit stopped. This is especially uncomfortable when responder has a minimum hand with only four cards in his major.
  2. Notrump contracts will often be wrong-sided in two ways. The hand that has the unbid suit stopped will be lead through on opening lead, plus the big hand will be exposed as dummy to the defenders.
  3. Playing the rebid of responder’s major as forcing precludes playing in two of that suit, a serious drawback when responder is weak.

Bridge World Standard (BWS) is a bidding system developed by Bridge World magazine from its poll of experts and readers. The latest edition of BWS (2001) is now a decade old. However, the system it selected for treating reverses is probably is still the one favored by most good players today. In the BWS system, responder’s denial bid is either the unbid suit or two notrump, whichever is cheaper. In the sequence we are presently discussing of 1-1-2, the denial bid is 2. This method is clearly superior here to using the denial bid of 2NT, especially in the ease of reaching a notrump game.

However, there is a problem with BWS-2001 because that system defines responder’s rebid of his suit as forcing. This means when responder has a weak hand, a parking place at the two-level will be missed whenever opener does not have three-card spade support. With an opening hand holding a doubleton spade such as Qx xx AKQx AQxxx opposite a weak responder hand with five spades, the best contract is likely 2. But how can the partnership play there when opener has only a doubleton honor and responder has not promised a five-card suit? There is also a problem that arises when opener has extra values. For example, with a strong opening hand such as KJx x AKxx AKJxx, if the 2 denial bid is used by responder, opener’s uncomfortable choice is to bid 2 and hope to not get passed or jump to 3 when responder may have only a four-card suit.

I suggest we scrap the whole system of using a denial bid if the unbid suit is located at the two-level, as happens whenever opener rebids 2. We can use the system of using a responder bid of the fourth suit as an artificial game force on this half of the reverse sequences, a system that is efficient and easy to understand. (This system can be coupled with whatever agreements you presently prefer when the unbid suit occurs at the three-level.) Of course, 4th-suit forcing is presently used on reverse sequences (except when bidding the fourth suit is used as a denial bid). But 4th-suit forcing is not integrated into the system in the optimal manner because of its unsuitability to be the sole artificial tool. (4th-suit forcing clearly needs a supplemental tool when the unbid suit occurs at the three-level). Seeking simplicity, players see that 4th-suit forcing cannot be used as their only tool on all reverse sequences of the type we are discussing, so they look for a gadget that can be used after any reverse sequence. They should look deeper, and realize that 4th-suit forcing is a great tool that needs no supplemental help whenever it is properly applied to a sequence where it will bypass little or no bidding space.

Fourth suit forcing works wonderfully as a stand-alone method in the sequence we have been discussing of 1-1-2, because responder uses no extra space when he bids 2, the unbid suit. When a game-force can be established this economically, there is no need to play bids such as supporting opener’s primary suit or secondary suit as forcing; all of responder’s other bids should be non-forcing. (We see this same principle used effectively by many big-club systems, where after a 1 opening bid, the lowest-ranking response of 1 is played as an artificial positive bid that is forcing to game, and all other bids lack that strength.) This treatment produces smooth and natural auctions after a reverse. Responder does not have to do contortions such as bid 2NT without a stopper or fail to raise opener’s second suit because he has too weak a hand. Responder can stop in two of his major when he has a five-card suit and a weak hand. Even though responder cannot bid 2 forcing on a five-bagger and a strong hand, opener with three-card support will be able to show it after responder makes the artificial game-forcing bid of 2, thus establishing the major suit fit at the two-level. If opener has a doubleton honor in responder’s suit, this will probably be shown by giving delayed support at the three-level.

The other bidding sequence where opener reverses and there is an unbid suit at the two-level is 1-1-2. This is admitedly somewhat less comfortable for exclusively using the 4th-suit forcing principle, because the unbid suit (spades) is higher-ranking than responder’s suit. But I believe 4th-suit forcing is still the preferred choice, because it allows us to stop in 2 whenever responder is weak. I admit that there is a drawback here because you cannot determine at the two-level the viability of hearts as trumps when responder has a game-going hand with hearts. But when you find out the nature of your heart fit at the three-level, at least it is with the partnership holding sufficient values for game.

Reverses by opener after a one of a suit response do not all merit the same treatment. We should recognize that when a game-force can be established at a low level, we don’t need a denial bid. If the unbid suit occurs at the two-level, I believe using the standard 4th-suit forcing principle is superior to using the fourth suit as a denial bid. (Both systems are superior to using 2NT as a denial bid here). For those who do not like my idea of using 4th-suit forcing and no denial bid for the sequence 1-1-2, at least have the courage to try it out for the sequence 1-1-2, where bidding using the 4th-suit forcing method is as smooth as silk.

Some may see my suggestion for handling reverses as “too complicated.” I beg to differ. If you are using 4th-suit forcing with no denial bid, all bids by responder are played as non-forcing when responder eschews bidding the fourth suit. This method is simple and clear. The fact that it cannot be applied profitably to all reverse bidding sequences should not prevent you from using it where the result will be excellent.

Relying exclusively on the 4th-suit forcing method after a reverse whenever the unbid suit occurs at a low enough level is an idea that deserves your attention.


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