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A twist on 4th suit forcing after 1H 1S

In this article, we will discuss modifying the 4th suit forcing convention to better handle the bidding sequence of a 1 opening bid and a 1 response. This is the only bidding sequence in Standard American or 2/1 where a new-suit response to a major suit opening bid can be made on as little as 6 HCP. All other new-suit responses to a major guarantee either game-forcing or invitational strength, depending on partnership agreement. The 6 HCP minimum for a response creates some bidding problems in the follow-up sequences. These compose an important subgroup of 4th suit forcing situations.

When a response can be as light as 6 points, both a jump preference by responder to opener’s major and a jump rebid by responder in his own suit are needed to distinguish a minimum response from a hand of invitational strength. This co-opting of jump bids by responder to show an invitational-strength hand puts a big crimp in his ability to show various game-forcing hands. It means when responder has a hand of game-forcing strength, he will need to either jump to game or have a special convention available to create a game-force below the game level. Since a jump to game allows partner to pass, it cannot be used on a hand that has substantial degree of extra strength. Thus, the need to jump all the way to game instead of being able to establish a game force below game impairs accurate slam bidding on the very hands that are the most promising for slam purposes. Even when responder’s hand is only a minimum game-force, the 1 opener, who still can hold anything short of a jump-shift, will be pushed beyond game to undertake any slam exploration. The need for a special convention below the game level to set up a game-force when the bidding starts with a 1 opening bid and a 1 response is apparent.

In my previous article, this problem in the Standard American bidding framework led me to suggest the Sparts Convention , which uses the sequence 1-2 to express a hand of game-forcing strength that has a spade suit with heart support. Sparts works very well in handling the purpose for which it was designed. However, I admit that situations for using it do not come up so often. One must look at not only the efficacy of a convention to solve a problem, but also the frequency of using it. Further, the problem of setting the trump suit below game level after a 1 spade response to 1 is not confined to hands where responder has heart support, but is also encountered in hands where responder has a strong spade suit.

When playing Standard American, the usual partnership approach to establish a game-force below the game level is to use the 4th suit forcing convention, where the bid of the 4th suit by responder may be artificial and establishes a game-force. There are two 4th suit forcing sequences that arise after this starting sequence of 1-1. They are 1-1-2-2 and 1-1-2-3. The main problem with both of these sequences arising after responder’s bid of the 4th suit comes when opener makes a rebid higher than the suit responder was hoping to bid at the three-level. This prevents responder from setting the trump suit below game. For example, whether responder intended to rebid his spades or support opener’s hearts, he is thwarted when opener rebids 3NT, because then responder has to either bid game in a major suit (opener may well pass) or take control of the hand without setting the trump suit. In fact, a 3NT rebid by opener immediately after responder bids 4th suit forcing is by far the most frequent culprit in preventing responder’s desire to set the trump suit with a forcing bid. What can we do to lessen this problem produced by opener’s 3NT space-hogging rebid?

Disallowing a 3NT rebid by opener is of course impractical. One of the main purposes of the 4th suit forcing convention is to reach 3NT when it is the best game contract, and also play it from the right side. However, there are two things we can do to reduce the undesirable impact of a 3NT rebid by opener. We can make 3NT a rarer bid, and we can make 3NT a more narrowly defined bid. Let’s see how to do this.

Our first 4th suit forcing sequence is 1-1-2-2. This sequence is not much of a problem, because there is so much bidding space left. There are two ways to play a rebid of 2NT here: game-forcing (probably more common) or highly invitational (Bridge World Standard 2001). Looking at these choices with an eye to reducing the frequency of the jump rebid to 3NT by opener, the game-forcing method is better. The requirement of a higher point-count for opener to rebid 3NT (when he could have rebid 2NT as forcing) greatly reduces the frequency of the 3NT bid. Furthermore, with a really big hand, opener has the option of rebidding 2NT and later showing that he actually has a hand that was too strong for a 3NT rebid (2NT-3NT-4NT is one way). This enables us to narrow down opener’s point-count range for 3NT. I suggest a good range for 3NT would be 15-16 HCP, though a pair that opens 1-of-a-major light might prefer 14-15 HCP or 14-16 HCP. So my first suggestion to improve slam bidding after the 1 response to 1 is to play that after the 4th suit forcing sequence 1-1-2-2, a 2NT rebid by opener is game-forcing.

Our second 4th suit forcing sequence is 1-1-2-3. This is a substantially harder bidding sequence to handle because there is much less space for exploration. It is the only 4th suit forcing sequence where responder bids the 4th suit at the 3-level after making a 1-over-1 response and opener has not reversed. A number of top partnerships have elaborate means of bidding after this awkward sequence (see the Brad Moss comments about my Sparts article). I am going to offer a simple and natural suggestion for this sequence that any partnership can play after a discussion of a few minutes.

If you did not have a special agreement with partner for the sequence 1-1-2-3, the default rebid for opener would be 3. This would not necessarily show a sixth card in hearts, any more than a 2 rebid by opener after an initial response of 2 shows extra heart length. Opener still has to bid something if he does not meet the requirements for any other rebid. I suggest that the better default bid for opener over responder’s 4th suit forcing 3 bid is 3, which gains valuable bidding space. When we make 3 opener’s default rebid, he cannot show a fifth diamond at this point in the auction––but look at all the goodies we gain! A rebid of 3 by opener guarantees a sixth heart. Responder has room to support hearts at the 3-level. An opener rebid of 3NT over responder’s 3 can be given a narrow point-count range such as 15-16 HCP, as opener can rebid 3 with either less or more, enabling responder to pattern out with either 3 or 3. (You might want to give opener the option of rebidding a natural 4NT over 3 to show 17-18 HCP.) Though there is no freebie with a new treatment of 3 here, I am confident that using a default 3 rebid by opener over the 4th suit forcing 3 rebid by responder gains a lot more than it gives up. In bridge, major suit bidding sequences are more important than minor suit bidding sequences. Setting a major suit as the trump suit below game level is more important than finding out diamonds is your best trump suit at the 3-level, especially since you can still set diamonds as the trump suit below game by doing so at the four-level. So try using a 3 rebid by opener as your default waiting bid after a 4th suit forcing 3 bid by responder. It looks like good common sense to me.

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