The Tao of Gaming

Boardgames and lesser pursuits

Bridge Near Slams I have Known, and modern Blackwood Theory

(It’s been a while since I posted any bridge here…)

If you pick up an old Bridge Book, such as “Five Weeks to Winning Bridge” (which is still pretty good, archaic bidding notwithstanding) you’ll learn about Blackwood, an ace-asking bid. I understood that quickly. It’s as easy as counting to four. Nowadays most tournament players use Roman Key Card (RKC) Blackwood. And some use more esoteric agreements, dabbling in the Dark Arts of bidding.

(Thanks to Jeff for correcting the book title, BTW).

When I returned to bridge, I remember watching Meckwell play a hand at the five or six level in their 1-1 trump fit, violating the Law of Total Trumps (try to have more than the opponents), cold for a slam in their actual suit. (And a few years ago in a national final both teams bid a grand missing the ace of trump!)

For Meckwell, the confusion centered around a convention called Exclusion Key Card Blackwood. Naturally, any convention that can inflict such disaster between a great partnership was good enough for me! In fact, I consider Exclusion the second most dangerous convention I’m willing to play.

Sidebar — the most dangers is raising 2N to 3N showing 5 spades and 4 hearts. It’s dangerous because:

  1. The auction sounds normal
  2. It covers a rare case
  3. Few of my partnerships play it

Compare to splinters (Game forcing raises showing good trumps and a singleton or void). Those are jumps or jump reverses. 1 Spade – 4 Diamonds sounds odd, unlike 2N – 3N. And splinters are a common case (#2), ubiquitous (#3) and useful.

Anyway, I’ve been playing exclusion for a few years. It rarely came up, and the times that it might have come up we were on unclear footing. Eventual Hank and I set up exceedingly clear rules for it, and it showed up twice yesterday … with no disasters! A cause for celebration, and an excuse to write.

The original Blackwood asks for aces.

Key Card means that the king of trump counts as an ace (so now there are five, instead of four)

Roman describes how answers are encoded. Instead of “zero or four”, “one,” “two,” “three” being the answers, the answers are now “zero or three,” “one or four,” “two without the queen,” “two with the queen.”  (If you answer 0/3, 1/4, then there is bidding room to ask for the queen). There are a few things to note.

Having multiple meanings for each answer doesn’t cause much confusion, since the answer is usually clear via context, and there are agreements on how to follow up. You compress more information in a lot less bidding space. This follows the idea of journalist signals (and the Polish system we play). where a bid can mean X or Y — as long as X and Y have a significant gap between them. The gap makes them easy to distinguish. If it were “Zero or one” it wouldn’t be useful.

It also makes the cheaper bids more ambiguous (not showing the queen), because there is space for followup questions. It’s a well designed system. (There are better, Spiral Scan packs information very efficiently, but it makes my head hurt).

We also play Kickback (Instead of using 4NT as the ace asking bid, we use the bid directly after four-of-our-trump suit). which follows the Useful Space Principle. (The encoding also follows that principle).

Anyway, onto some hands!

I pick up S:J9x H:Q8765 D:KJx C:A9. I could open this and perhaps I should, but stray jacks and queens are a warning sign, and honors in short suits are a warning sign, and it’s an 8.5 loser hand and a minimum. We can open 11 counts, but I decide to pass.

Partner opens 1 club (Polish), I bid 1 heart, and partner bids 1 spade. I bid 2NT.

Having passed originally, this must be a near maximum game try (if partner has the expected weak NT hand).

Partner has more and bids 3 Clubs. At this point, we’re in a game force as partner has shown either 15+ HCP with primary clubs and secondary spades, or 18+ with primary spades and secondary clubs. (Still ambiguous, but we have plenty of space to clarify).

I bid 3 hearts, showing my fifth heart, and partner answers 3 spades, showing primary spades and 18+.

I raise to 4 spades. I have a good hand (considering I passed originally), but partner already knows that. If I could bid 4 clubs as an unambiguous raise of spades showing a club card, I would. But that would show clubs.

Partner bids five diamonds, which we play as exclusion.

Most people play that Exclusion must be a jump. But there’s rarely room to jump. Anyway, after having played exclusion without it coming up for years, I finally read an article by Fred Gitelman where he proposed a simple agreement: After agreeing trumps play kickback, and all other bids between that and 5 of our suit are exclusion.

So (having that agreement) partner is asking about aces (and spade honors) excluding the diamond ace. Partner has spades, clubs and a diamond void.

Because Exclusion starts at a higher level (and should only be done by strong hands) we use a simpler encoding. I bid 5 Spades, showing one “ace” and denying the spade queen. Before, we’d used the same encoding as regular RKC, but several hands revealed the problem.

(For the most part, we avoided disasters there. The person bidding exclusion could see it would eat up too much space).

Partner bid 6 Spades and we had a laydown slam

Dummy: S:J9x H:Q8765 D:KJx C:A9

Declarer: S:AKQ8xx H:AJ2 D:– C:KJxx

In fact, after the heart 9 lead Hank made seven. H9-Q-K-A and later (after pulling trumps) finessing against the Ten of Hearts. (As dummy it was quite dramatic, because after pulling trumps it went heart five – four – two – three!. Five winning. and then a quick claim).

Not a difficult slam. In fact, we probably should have hunted for the grand (by partner bidding 5NT, showing possession of all the “aces” and a willingness to look for a grand. We wouldn’t have gotten it, but if my King of diamonds had been in hearts grand is cold.

But not looking for the grand didn’t matter and — in any case — we were the only pair to bid this slam. Exclusion wasn’t the biggest reason, but it helped.

Another hand (this time in teams).

I picked up S:AJ H:KT98xx D:AKJTx C:–

Only fifteen high card points. But a monstrous fifteen. Using the Losing Trick Count, only 3.5 or 4 losers. In theory, I could open 1 heart and then bid an insane number of diamonds (assuming the bidding doesn’t get passed out). Since we play Polish partner will know I have a distributional monster with about this point count. There are tradeoffs. Partner could have a five count that gives me play for slam, or partner could have lots of misfitting points. Either way there are problems.

Feeling aggressive, I opened 1 club, treating this hand like an 18+ count. (After all, the old maxim is “Six-Five, Come Alive!”) Partner bids 1 diamond (many hands, but typically weak) and I bid 2 Hearts.

By agreement, this isn’t forcing, but shows a hand that could make game in hearts with a mild fit and a trick. It usually shows 18-21 HCP, and a six card suit. Partner bids 2N, denying a fit but showing points. I bid 3 diamonds. If partner has a misfit then we’re probably going down in something, but I’m in luck. Partner raises to 4 diamonds.

Five diamonds is probably the limit of the hand, but it’s just possible that partner has the stiff heart ace. (He may have raised directly with that, but with a real number of points he might have gone slow) I bid 5 Clubs (Exclusion) to check.

The next step is “No key cards outside of clubs,” which is five diamonds. Partner bids it and I pass. Partner, in fact, has most of his points in clubs, holding S:xxx H:x D:Qxxx C:KJxx. But my heart spots are good enough to set up. We didn’t get to a slam, and maybe I shouldn’t have used exclusion at all, to hope for a club lead (which may have helped out).

But I used it, and it wasn’t a disaster.

The old saw about Blackwood is that it is invoked way too often.

If you dig into that Gitelman argument, you’ll note he discusses cue bidding quite extensively (either in that section, or another part). Blackwood is meant to keep you out of bad slams. The idea is that you should (generally) either be phenomenally strong when using it, or have already exchanged enough information to know that there is a problem. Because we play Polish, we often have space to make a few cue bids (or general “slammish grunts”) before invoking it.

We play Italian cue bids. When we’re going along we will show an ace, a king, a stiff or a void. Not differentiating between them. The idea is that way we are looking for problem areas, and then use RKC or Exclusion to sort out kings from aces. Sometimes we have to stop at the five level, but its rarely too high.

I pick up S:KQT8 H:AKxx D:Qx C:743

Partner opens 1 spade. Good partner! Most people play Jacoby 2NT as a strong forcing game raise.

Interestingly, many people who play it only have ways for opener to show shape, not values (unless he has no shape to speak of). Which means when you have two minimum openers, neither one can tell that slam isn’t there and they drive to hopeless slams. (After having checked for aces, of course).

There are tools for this: You could play that the first step (there’s that Useful Space Principle again) shows all minimum openers, and then responder can signoff in game or ask again. Or you could play Serious 3NT (where by passing 3N shows you have a minimum). Or Frivolous 3NT (the reverse).

Many tournament players don’t use any of those, and so they end up describing their shape and — unless they spot any warning signs or have a flat shape and can actually show their strength — wind up just clucking a few times and invoking blackwood.

In this partnership, we solve this problem by making our 2NT (equivalent) show significant extras, and at least a slammish hand. Opener’s non-minimum is a bonus, one that he can reveal during a likely try for a grand slam. To make up for that, we need a “Game forcing only, balanced hand” bid and for us it’s four clubs. (Actually, we have two such bids, one showing good trump and one showing bad trump. I’m showing good trumps).

Partner bids four hearts, he’s got extras and interested in slam. Since I’m looking at the ace and king of hearts, I can tell partner has heart shortness.  But what’s important here is the dog that didn’t bark in the night. Partner didn’t bid 4 diamonds. He doesn’t have the diamond ace or diamond king.

We’re going to lose two diamond tricks. No slam this time.

I signoff in four spades.

Even after telling the opponents what partner’s bid means, the opening leader doesn’t lay down his diamond ace. No matter, partner doesn’t have enough pitches and those tricks can’t run away. Making (only) five. On this hand, the pairs that used Jacoby would have gotten a warning sign (shortness opposite the Ace/King of hearts) but may still have blundered into slam.

Finally (back to matchpoints again)

I pick up S:K8xx H:KT9 D:A9 C:AQxx, and an easy 1 No Trump (15-17 HCP) opener. I like easy bids, I rarely get them wrong.

Partner bids 2 Diamonds, (a Jacoby Transfer) showing 5+ hearts and requesting I bid them. Another easy bid. 2 hearts.

Partner bids 4 hearts. Showing a sixth heart, and game values. But, partner could have bid 4 diamonds immediately as a Texas Transfer. Why have two bids to get to the same place? Because one shows extras. Partner has shown the mildest possible slam try.

But. In context for a 1NT opening, I have a monster.

  • I have a third heart
  • I have a possible ruff in diamonds
  • I have three key cards
  • No lead can hurt me. Even if we’re missing a key card, We can’t lose the first two tricks (barring a ruff).

So, I have another easy bid. I ask for aces with 4 Spades (Kickback. If I had a spade void — which isn’t possible after a 1NT opening but could be in another auction, I’d bid 4 NT as exclusion for spades). Partner shows two key cards (which must be the major aces) and the heart queen via five hearts. I bid 5 spades, promising all the key cards, and asking for more information. Partner bids 6 clubs.

At this point, I stop and count. I have 2 spades + 6 hearts + a diamond + 3 clubs. Without trumping. I may be able to ruff a diamond in my hand, but I’ll have to lose a diamond first. I don’t think I’ll be able to make 7 hearts except on lucky layouts, and I’m certainly not bidding it. But I’ll always have 12 tricks without a ruff. So I can bid 6NT and get greedy, beating out all the pairs who get to the heart slam.

I bid 6NT and the partner’s hand is as expected: S:AT H:AQJxxx D:Tx C:K8x. I get a diamond lead and can make an overtrick if clubs are 3-3, or there is a squeeze or misdefense. Exactly as the people in 6 hearts do. We are in the highest scoring spot.

In a strong field, landing in 6 hearts (instead of 6NT) may earn well below average. In a typical sectional, 6 hearts will be above average (a few pairs will always miss slam) and 6N will be a co-top. As it turns out, in the relatively small field of last night’s sectional, 6NT was gilding the lily. Apparently all of the other pairs who held our cards didn’t drive to slam, which just shows that — in Bridge as in so many things — Easy is relative.

But it is a point of pride to try to play correctly even when you’ve already won (or lost) the event.

Written by taogaming

February 28, 2016 at 11:59 am

Posted in Bridge

2 Responses

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  1. You probably mean “5 Weeks to Winning Bridge,” a classic. Most beginners these days aren’t willing to read something that long. Audrey Grant’s intro books are much shorter.

    On the first slam, presumably trumps were 2-2. If they were 3-1, declarer should draw the last trump and bang down the hearts to guarantee a make. Running a five is fun, but risking your contract isn’t.

    1M-4C/4D…you are playing a version of “Fruit Machine Swiss.” That’s an oldie and one of the best names for a convention ever.

    You did well to reach 6NT on the last hand. Presumably you don’t have a stronger slam invite in hearts; if you have one, then partner was a tad heavy for his sequence. Some play that over 2H, 3S is a slam try with some shortness, 4C is a balanced try (stronger than 4H), 4D is key card, and 4H really was only interested vs. a superaccept. Yes, this is similar to methods over Stayman. It gives up a way to bid a 5-5 major suit hand, so you need to put that hand somewhere else.


    February 29, 2016 at 2:24 pm

    • 1) Yes, “5 Weeks to Winning Bridge,”
      2) I assume so. I really only woke up when he ran the five.
      3) We’re actually playing a variant of your major relay raises, but yes. (Our bids shift around based on which suit, so for hearts 3N and 4C are swiss).
      4) We do play that (although we use the slightly inferior version where 4C is key card and 4D is balanced. We’ve never got around to switching to the correct version). We also use OMAR relays as per Kleinman’s book, “The NT Zone.” I do think the hand could bid 4D and is touch heavy for just jacoby and game…. but looking at my hand if I was just a touch weaker in any suit slam becomes not cold (although odds on).


      February 29, 2016 at 9:48 pm

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