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Integrating the Semi-Forcing NT

Playing a semi-forcing 1NT response to partner’s one-of-a-major opening bid is mentioned quite often in current bridge literature. The convention is endorsed by many top bridge players and writers, though it also has its detractors. I have recently become a convert to the semi-forcing treatment, and am playing it with good results.

I think the semi-forcing system is particularly effective at matchpoints, where one can often get a good score over the field by playing in 1NT when much of the field is playing less effectively in a 5-2 major suit fit, a minor suit contract, or 2NT. Also, 1NT is a difficult contract to defend and a fertile one for good declarer play.

At IMPs, as long as you get a plus score, the partscore you play in is not so important. The slight difference in gaining 10-30 points on opponents is of practically no consequence, but at matchpoints it is huge. Though the semi-forcing 1NT convention is played at both matchpoints and IMP’s, I am speaking here mainly from a matchpoint perspective.

In researching methods to play the semi-forcing 1NT convention more effectively, I found little help in a Google search. Articles explain that opener is allowed to pass 1NT with a minimum balanced opening bid, but that only describes the convention, and does not give any of the fine points in playing it. So I am writing my article to fill this gap in bridge literature by presenting ideas on this subject and hope to learn from the dialogue generated.

An important element in successfully playing a semi-forcing 1NT response is successfully integrating the conventions and agreements that you play with it. The cardinal compatibility rules to follow are bolded below.

Don’t play anything that could cause you to play in 1NT when the field plays in an 8-card major suit fit. This type of disaster could occur either when your side has opened one of a major and responder has 3-card support or when your side has opened 1 and responder has a 5-card heart suit. I was fortunate early on because the companion bidding arsenal which works best with the semi-forcing 1NT response was already part of the major suit system of responses that I like and have used for many years. Some other partnerships could easily run into trouble by grafting the semi-forcing 1NT response to a system that uses one or more conventions or treatments that lack good compatibility. I note that Bridge World Standard 2001 uses the semi-forcing 1NT response to a major, but three of the companion conventions it favors are ill-suited to this usage because they could cause you to miss a 5-3 major suit fit. We must realize that BWS 2001 was composed by using a reader poll of individual agreements, without making a judgment about the compatibility of the poll-winning choices.

Here are some useful conventions/agreements that are nicely compatible with the semi-forcing 1NT response.

The 2 response to partner’s opening bid of 1 must be permitted on invitational hands.

You should be unhappy to miss an 8-card major suit fit when responder has an invitational hand with a 5-card heart suit and opener has 3-card heart support. Here is a layout where playing the semi-forcing 1NT response could miss a heart fit. Opener bids 1 on AKxxx Axx Txx xx. Responder holds xx KQJxx AJx xxx. Hearts is obviously the only strain you want to play in, and game is not out of the question. Those responders who make a 2-over-1 response of 2 will of course reach a contract in hearts, as will those responders who use a forcing response of 1NT. But a pair who uses a semi-forcing response of 1NT and has erred by mixing it with game-forcing 2-over-1 responses to a major will play in 1NT (unless the opponents balance) because opener has a minimum. This will usually result in a bad score, as they will take at most eight tricks. When you are practically the only pair in the field not playing in hearts, this is a clear sign you are doing something wrong systemically.

As a fan of matchpoint scoring, I prefer to play that a 2/1 response to a major suit opening bid is not forcing to game, regardless of how the 1NT response is played. But a number of my bridge partners like to play 2-over-1 responses to a major as a game-force. With a couple of them, I have been able to procure an agreement to make an exception for a 2 response to 1, in order to play a semi-forcing 1NT response to a major. If my partner does not agree, as a last resort, I will ask my partner to at least play a semi-forcing 1NT after our 1 opening bid. But with a partner who insists on playing 2/1 response to a major as game-forcing and wants to use the same system for both majors, I prefer to play the 1NT response to a major as forcing even if the person is willing to try playing it as semi-forcing.

As you see, I regard the game-forcing 2/1 treatment for 1-2 and the semi-forcing 1NT as a blend of two incompatible conventions. You may play in the wrong partscore, or even miss a good 4 game contract. Allowing a 2-over-1 response in hearts with the proviso that a responder rebid of his suit is not forcing unless opener has shown extra values, as used by BWS 2001, is not enough. This treatment lets you find your heart fit when an invitational strength responder holds a 6-card suit, but is unhelpful in reaching a 5-3 fit.

The 1NT response to a major must not used by an invitational hand with 3-card support for partner’s suit.

A common convention played by the 1NT response forcing advocates is to use the sequence 1NT followed by three of partner’s opened major to show 3-card support and a balanced hand of invitational strength. This convention is used by BWS 2001. Obviously, using this sequence combined with a semi-forcing 1NT response can leave you in a 1NT contract when you belong in the major. Gambling that you will not play in 1NT or that the notrump contract will take the same number of tricks as the major looks like an unacceptable risk. If you wish to play the 1NT response semi-forcing, you need to find another way to show a balanced hand of invitational strength that has 3-card support for opener’s major.

Some of my friends like to play that a jump-shift in the other major shows this invitational hand. I admit that convention helps to ease the problem of missing the 5-3 fit, but I dislike the whole concept of using a 3-level bid to describe this hand type. We matchpoint players aim for plus scores. It is grating to play at the 3-level in partner’s major when holding an invitational hand with 3-card support and go down because of offside finesses or a bad trump break. It is also annoying to have something detract from your efforts to be aggressive with fairly light major suit opening bids in first or second seat. (If you are too cautious to open a bridge hand like AKxxx Kxx xx JTx, let me warn you against wasting your time trying to learn how to compete at tournament poker.) Nowadays, I see some major-suit opening bids that are so light they are unsafe opposite a balanced 11 points even when the deal’s whole layout is fairly normal. The bottom line is that it is better to stay lower than the 3-level on a 5-3 fit holding balanced hands like those we have been viewing.

The stage has now been set for me to talk about my favorite convention, which is using the 2 response to a major as reverse Drury opposite first- or second-seat opening bids (2 is not G/F). I let the 2 response be used both by a hand with a regular club suit and a hand with 3-card support for partner’s major suit opening bid.

Before talking about the merits of this convention, we should discuss its legality and what needs to be alerted when playing it. The current ACBL position is that the 2 reverse Drury convention may be played opposite a first- or second-seat opener as long as you do not play super-light major suit opening bids in those positions. I am not sure of exactly where the ACBL has determined the point at which the opening bid is considered to be super-light, but I have been told that opening an 11 HCP hand holding a 5-card major or opening a 10 HCP holding a 6-card major is not considered to be super-light. Such opening bids are quite common these days.

You can play this convention without an alert of responder’s 2 bid if you require responder to have at least three clubs. If you are a purist who, after a 1 opening bid, wishes to handle the 3=4=4=2 shape perfectly, then you must allow a 2-card club suit to be bid, and an alert is then required. I personally favor the first method to the second. I prefer not to use an alert and enjoy knowing that my partner has at least a 3-card club suit. After the 2 response, opener with a minimum opening rebids two of his major. On most other hands, he rebids an artificial 2 showing extra values, which needs to be alerted. The “raise” to 3 by opener shows at least a chunky 4-card club holding and considerable extra values (enough to create a game force). The same applies to a jump to 3 by opener. I like to play that the sequence 1-2-2 may be made without any extra values, is a one-round force, and is ambiguous in strength, whereas the sequence 1-2-2S says that opener could have responded 2 to show extras but wants to show his shape.

After opener has rebid 2M showing a minimum opening bid, responder with a fit can pass the rebid of 2M, invite game by raising 2M to 3M, jump to game, or bid an artificial 4 to show a slam interest. After opener has rebid 2 showing extras, responder with a fit can bid a non-forcing 2M or make a G/F jump-preference to 3M. This structure works well for other purposes such as slam exploration, as well as staying at the two-level when opener has a bare-bones minimum opposite an invitational hand holding 3-card support.

This 2 convention as explained here could be played in a lot of other ways, but this is not the place to get so detailed. The point is that a first- or second-seat reverse Drury works well with invitational hands holding 3-card support for the opened major, which is an important hand type that needs to have allowances made for it when you switch from forcing 1NT to a semi-forcing 1NT.

Another hand type where many partnerships use a forcing 1NT response when having a fit for partner’s opened major is a weak hand with 3-card support. Some partnerships play that the response of 1NT with 3-card support shows perhaps 6-7 points in support of partner, and the single raise is moderately constructive. This agreement is used by BWS 2001. Other partnerships bid 1NT with 3-card support only on a terrible hand where they feel partner needs to be slowed down. An example would be responding 1NT to an opening bid of 1 holding 9xx Qxx QJx Jxxx. I think a response of 1NT on a complete oinker like this hand is perfectly fine playing the 1NT response as semi-forcing, but do not like the wider use of 1NT encompassing all 6-7 point responder hands.

Note that all the responder hands that we have discussed as being a possible problem have only 3-card support for partner’s opened major. In my opinion, using Bergen raises of 3 and 3 is compatible with semi-forcing 1NT response, even though it makes it harder to describe the typical weak or intermediate jump-shift to 3-of-a-minor. There is no such thing as a free lunch. Majors are more important than minors, and reaching good games is more important than preempting the opponents (and your partner).

The Bart Convention, which after the sequence 1-1NT-2 requires opener to bid 2, works well with both the semi-forcing and forcing 1NT response to a major. The most important use of this relay is helping the partnership play in the right major-suit strain and level, so it is clearly compatible with the goal of this article.

Steve Weinstein pointed out to me the value of playing 1NT semi-forcing after a 1 opening bid when using Flannery on your minimum 4-5 major suit hands, because 1NT is even tougher to defend when the opponents are in the dark on whether or not responder has four spades. (Weinstein and Levin seldom show a 4-card spade suit over a 1 opening). The semi-forcing 1NT response to 1 will prove useful even if you do not use Flannery, because it helps you avoid having to bid 2 on a doubleton when holding the awkward 4=5=2=2 shape. The semi-forcing approach is even more helpful after a 1 opening bid than it is after opening 1, so some pairs play the semi-forcing 1NT response only over 1 (Weinstein and Levin use this approach).

The semi-forcing 1NT response to a major is an excellent matchpoint structure to use. Many times, 1NT will be the best partscore contract after partner has opened one of a major, and you will be able to play there when opener has a balanced minimum. Many other times, the opponents will misdefend because 1NT is such a difficult contract to defend properly, and you will be gifted with a happy result. You will also have a nice opportunity to showcase your excellent declarer play. But to enjoy this convention, you need to select bridge methods that will help you find your major suit 5-3 fits. The companion treatments suggested here will enhance the value of the semi-forcing 1NT response to a major suit opening bid by eliminating most of the alleged drawbacks.

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