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Responding on Air

Previously, I discussed  the utility 1 response to 1, contrasting it to the Walsh style that most modern experts subscribe to.  I noted in passing that this style caters better to the modern practice of responding on air than Walsh.  Here, I talk more about responding on air.

“Responding on air” is bidding rather than passing as responder to an opening bid despite holding less than full responding values.  For the sake of discussion, I’ll define “full responding values” as (1) 6+ HCP, (2) 5 HCP with a king, or (3) an ace.  The precise definition is unimportant; I suspect many are more aggressive than this (I hear 4+ HCP mentioned a lot as the standard).

Why respond on air?  There are two “bridge” reasons:

  • Fear- shortness in opener’s suit, which might result in being stranded in the opponents’ 8-card fit if you pass, or
  • Desire- to improve the partscore, or sometimes even to reach a game that those who pass will miss

There is also a “poker” reason. Sometimes by bidding instead of passing, you inhibit the opponents from getting involved in your auction for fear of giving you a roadmap in the play, when it actually is supposed to be their auction.  This is similar to bluffing in poker—you might succeed in stealing the pot, but you also might go for your lungs, especially if the player you trick is your "center-hand opponent".  I think of the poker reason as more of a pleasant by-product of responding on air than as a primary motivator.  It is the upside possibility that compensates for the downside risk of your partner going ballistic on you.

Most of the bridge reasons to respond on air apply mostly to minor-suit opening bids.  In a world of 5-card majors, you don’t really have to worry about being “stranded” in opener’s major-suit opening bid: the opponents will seldom have an 8-card fit in it—even if responder is void, it is better than 50% that opener will have 6+.  So the fear factor is not relevant; what about the desire factor?  “Improving the contract” almost always entails maneuvering out of a minor and into a major or perhaps into notrump; the scoring table in bridge doesn’t normally reward maneuvering out of a major into a minor.  The games we reach from responding on air to a major are in responder’s major when opener has near-2 strength, and a primary fit for responder’s major.

This leads me to my “golden rule” of responding on air: respond on air to minor-suit openings but not to major-suit openings.

This sounds like tactical advice but it also affects system.  For example, opener’s strong rebids—reverses and jump shifts—should be absolutely forcing when opener has opened a major; but should be only “almost forcing” when he has opened a minor.  E.g., 1-1-2 and 1-1NT-3 are almost forcing; responder may pass if his initial response was on air.  If he has full responding values, he may not pass, and the auction reverts to normal: reverses guarantee a rebid and jump shifts to the 3-level are game-forcing.  The auctions 1-1NT-2 and 1M-1NT-3m are absolutely forcing because the opening bid was in a major.  Opener’s strong rebid must be natural when it is only almost forcing; when it is absolutely forcing opener’s second bid can be “manufactured”.

The decision of whether or not to respond on air depends mostly on the content of your hand.  But, you should also keep an eye on the colors.  If responding on air induces your partner to go nuts, you would prefer not to be vulnerable.  For example, you might want to respond to a 1 opening (assuming it promises 3+) out of fear with a doubleton, but if you are very weak and vulnerable, you might decide to pass despite the doubleton.  It is a matter of balancing one risk—that of being stranded in their 8-card fit—against the risk of partner not being able to take a joke.

As I discussed in the first segment of this series, 1-1-1M is a dream sequence for a responder on air.  With a hand like Jxxx Jxx xxxx xx, you don’t want to be stranded in 1.  If you respond 1, it is forcing; but if you can guide the auction to 1-1-1M-Pass, you are in great shape.  Using the utility 1 response, opener never bypasses a 4-card major after 1-1.  Under the Walsh style, the sequence 1-1-1M is unlikely, because opener doesn’t mention his major(s) with a balanced minimum, his most likely hand-type.

The nightmare sequence for a responder on air is 1m-1M-2NT: out of the frying pan and into the fire.  To avoid this nightmare, some partnerships don’t open 1m with 18-19 HCP—perhaps they open 2 or 2.  If you can have 18-19 balanced for a 1m opening, make sure your methods provide responder with mechanisms to get out at the 3-level, such as transfer rebids by responder or Wolff sign-offs.

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