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The 4th Suit Double
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This article is concerned with auctions where LHO opens the bidding by bidding 1 of a suit, partner overcalls with a different suit, and RHO bids a third suit. How should a double by advancer be played in this setting?

The traditional use of the double being for penalty has fallen into disfavor for this situation, just as it has for so many other competitive auctions. Nowadays, most pairs who have discussed the double in this particular situation play that it shows length and strength in the unbid suit. We use takeout doubles to say we are interested in competing in the unbid suits, so it seems natural to use this meaning even if only one suit has not yet been bid. Modern bridge literature indicates that the double these days shows something in partner’s suit in addition to just showing the fourth suit. So when advancer simply bids the 4th suit, he denies having support for partner, because he did not double. This use for the double is known as “Snapdragon”. Whether this “something” is full-fledged support for overcaller’s suit or merely tolerance is apparently left up to the partnership, rather than specified in a description of the convention.

I admit to being unimpressed with the odd name “Snapdragon”. No one seems to know the origin of that name, though I believe it was not in widespread use until near the end of the 20th century. It sounds like a rather fanciful name that was coined at a private bridge party in someone’s garden instead of at a bridge tournament by serious players. (In fact, I have even been teased several times when someone who had never heard of the convention notices the name Snapdragon on my convention card.) At any rate, applying this name to all the situations that come up when there is one unbid suit implies that they should all be treated alike. Thus, the name is an impediment to optimal bridge bidding.

After studying to see how my regular partner and I should play a double of the 4th suit, I realized that the “one size fits all” approach of Snapdragon is not adequate to apply in all the various situations where the 4th suit double might be used. The questions I feel need answering before creating a bidding framework to use this double optimally are as follows:

(1) If advancer bids the 4th suit, will this carry the partnership past the safety of playing in two of overcaller’s suit?

(2) Did partner overcall in a major suit or a minor suit?

(3) Is the unbid suit a major suit or a minor suit? 

(4) After our major suit overcall and a response, can advancer cue opener’s suit at the 2-level, or has the bidding progressed past that point?  (If so, a double should be considered for use as a game try in overcaller’s suit in order to keep the bidding lower.)

(5) After our major suit overcall, should the double be used to differentiate the strength of a weak single raise from a strong single raise (constructive raise)?

(6) If partner has overcalled in a major suit and the unbid suit is the other major, can advancer bid the 4th suit without going past two of overcaller’s suit?

(7) Can the unbid suit be bid at the 1-level, or will it have to be bid at the 2-level?

We need to recognize that the biggest advantage in advancer doubling to show possession of the 4th suit, as opposed to actually bidding it, is the conservation of bidding space afforded by the double. This space can be used for playing at the 2-level in partner’s overcalled suit when there is no real fit and partner has a good suit, or for playing in advancer’s suit at a low level when overcaller prefers that strain. If all three of the suits were bid at the 1-level,  doubling also leaves room for the partnership to play in 1NT. Conservation of space is most helpful when a double enables the partnership to remain below two of overcaller’s suit.

Let’s look at some auctions and see how the space-saving idea is enabled by doubling to show the unbid suit, and how the major suit vs minor suit factor affects how we play a double.

1-1-1: (This is the only auction where the unbid suit can be bid at the 1-level.) Playing a double here as Snapdragon, showing a fit for diamonds as well as spades, is clearly a second-rate job assignment for the double. The logical use would be that a 1 bid and a double both show spades, but the 1 bid shows a better suit. Double could be used to show a 4-card suit and a bid of 1 to show a 5+ suit, as we do with negative doubles of a 1 overcall. Another possibility is to have a 1 bid show a suit good enough with which to make an overcall.

1-1-1: (Partner overcalls in a major and the unbid suit is a minor.) A 2 bid by advancer here does not look dangerous, as partner can run back to his own suit at the 2-level if necessary. So saving space is not so critical in this situation. Even so, finding a minor-suit fit is of lesser importance when partner has already overcalled in a major suit. Here, one might well prefer to use the double to show some type of raise for partner’s major. Playing this double as a game try in hearts would be a redundant duplication of the 2 cuebid, whose normal meaning is a game try in overcaller’s major. But one could play a double here as a constructive raise of overcaller.  With that usage, a double could show 9-11 support points for partner’s hearts, and a single raise to 2 would show 6-8 support points. Diamonds are still easily reachable with the agreement that double is a heart raise because advancer can bid 2 without getting too high. 

1-1-1(Partner overcalls in a minor and the unbid suit is a major.) A 2 bid by advancer here forces the bidding to the 3-level if overcaller’s suit is the only home for a contract. So it is obvious that we need to use the double to show the unbid suit, because it is a major suit and partner overcalled in a minor suit. Why must we meet the requirement of a fit for partner’s diamonds before we can use a double to show hearts? Furthermore, if partner bids 2 rather than doubling, we find out that he has a quality 6-card suit, rather than the less important information of whether he also has some sort of fit for partner’s minor suit. Here is a hand where I would like to double showing hearts (as opposed to bidding 2) but do not have a fit for partner’s diamonds: xx AQxxx xx Axxx. If partner bids 2 I can pass.

1-2-2(Partner overcalls in a minor and the unbid suit is the other minor.) Using the double to show diamonds is obvious here. With the unbid suit being higher-ranking than partner’s, I suggest that the double should not require a fit with overcaller. If the overcall had been in diamonds, advancer promising a tolerance or a fit when doubling seems reasonable.

1-1-2: (Partner overcalls in a major and the unbid suit is the other major.) In this auction, the unbid suit is immediately below partner’s suit, so the double is less needed to show the unbid suit. If advancer has hearts, he can bid 2 conveniently. On the other hand, the bidding has climbed too far for advancer to cue opener’s suit at the 2-level, so a game-invitational cuebid would carry the partnership to the 3-level. I think a good use for a double by advancer is to invite a game in spades. Game may be unlikely with all four players bidding, but partner armed with a game invitation is poised to better judge whether to compete to the 3-level.

1-1-2: (Partner overcalls in a major and the unbid suit is the other major.) Again, if advancer has hearts, he can bid them conveniently, so the double seems better used as a spade raise. However, it would be a duplication of function to use a double as an invitational spade raise, because there is already a 2-level invitational spade raise available by cuebidding 2. My suggestion is to draw a distinction between a courtesy raise of spades by bidding 2 and a constructive raise of spades (perhaps 9-11 support points) by doubling.

1-1-2(Partner overcalls in a major and the unbid suit is the other major.) Here, the unbid suit is higher-ranking than partner’s overcalled suit. It is risky to show the unbid suit by 2, taking the bidding past the 2-level of partner’s suit, so a double should show the spade suit– with no strings attached. As I stated before, I do not think requiring a fit for partner should be an impediment to advancer showing an unbid major by a double.

I hope our discussion persuaded you that advancer’s double of the 4th suit should have a variety of meanings, according to the situation. I will present my own agreements, numbered below, but there is plenty of room for discussion of the best way to vary the meaning of a double by advancer. (In my partnership, usage is not always optimum, because my partner does not want too much to remember.)

(1) When the auction has gone 1-1-1, a double by advancer shows a 4-card spade suit, and a bid of 1 shows 5+ spades.

(2) When partner has overcalled in a major and the unbid suit is a minor, we ignore the unbid suit. A double by advancer shows a constructive raise of overcaller’s major (9-11 support points). A raise to 2M by advancer would show a raise with 6-8 support points.

(3) When partner has overcalled in a major and the unbid suit is the other major, a double shows advancer’s spade holding. (If overcaller bid hearts, the double shows spades. If overcaller bid spades, the double is a constructive spade raise.)

(4) In auctions where advancer shows the unbid suit, a fit is not required if a free bid in that suit would push the bidding past two of overcaller’s suit.

You may not agree with all my thinking, but I hope you will concur with the following statement: Doubles of the 4th suit that always show the 4th suit plus a tolerance or fit for partner’s suit is an inferior bidding method. Using the double to show a tolerance or fit for partner’s overcalled suit is less valuable than the other possibilities in every one of these 4th-suit bidding situations, with the possible exception of the bidding sequence where partner overcalls in diamonds and the unbid suit is clubs. Requiring the doubler to have support for overcaller restricts widespread use of the 4th suit double as a valuable bidding tool.

The term “Snapdragon double” should be considered synonymous with a double showing the 4th suit plus a fit with partner. Then, the term should be placed in the same waste-bin as the penalty double of the 4th suit. It is too confining to portray the 4th suit double as a choice between either use as a penalty double or showing the unbid suit plus tolerance for overcaller’s suit. Some other uses such as showing quality support for overcaller’s major are much superior.

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