Saturday, 21 February 2009

Alighting on a pinhead

When I first started learning competitive bridge, my experienced partner told me that there was little point in stopping in four of a minor, as it was as akin to angels alighting on a pinhead. You may as well bid five, he said wisely.

And – he said in another lesson – let's play that 4NT is always Blackwood, and then we won't get into a muddle when it's not clear what is going on.

Later, other wise heads taught me that when playing pairs there was little point in stopping in five of a minor, since everyone in 3NT would probably score better. You might as well bid six, they said.

Being a good pupil, I took all this on board, and realised that once we had passed 3NT with no major fit in sight, six of the minor was the next available stopping place. Yes, my mentors all agreed, and that is why you shouldn't go past 3NT unless you can count twelve tricks.

This is all common knowledge amongst club players, which is why a likely result on any duplicate night is 3NT+2 for a flat board when six of a minor is stony cold.

A little older and wiser, I now realise that these advices were well meaning but only partly true. In Chilli we have gone some way to relieving the tyranny of the 3NT road block by making 4NT available as another stopping point, so that we can afford to put our toe in the water and then swiftly remove it again if it's too cold. Now we're going to go a little further ...

What do you want to do after partner opens 1 and you hold 92 Q84 AQ53 KQJ7? This is a perfectly respectable 14-count, and so surely you would want to force to game with a 2 Chilli relay?

That would be the right thing to do most of time, but every so often partner will turn up with a minimum flat hand, a fit for one of your minors and an empty heart doubleton. Now 3NT will probably go down on the obvious heart lead, and five of the fitting minor looks like too much of a stretch with only 26 points and two balanced hands between you. For once the right thing would be to explore 3NT and then to play in four of that minor.

It would be quite simple to make the 2 relay forcing only to 3NT to achieve this. But a problem would then arise when we have forced to 3NT and we are having our one shot at finding a minor fit at the three-level. If partner has just bid, say, 3 and we have a primary fit, currently we raise to 4, forcing, and take it from there.

If instead 4 were not forcing as per my suggestion, how would you bid a stronger hand that does want to go to game?

My suggested answer comes from looking at what jumps to the four-level opposite 3 currently mean. A bid of four of either major here is defined as to play if it is possible or a fit bid if it is not. It is quite easy to show that the 'to play' meaning should never be used.

Suppose partner has never bid the major but you have. So you are setting some strong suit, but then you could and – more importantly – should bid three of the major, a forcing suit-setter. I say 'should' because partner should be given the chance to re-evaluate his hand in the light of your unilateral suit-set, and space to then express an opinion (which might be 3NT to play or values-for-five, for instance).

Exactly the same argument applies if you are giving delayed support to partner's major i.e. setting a Moysian fit.

And we don't need to stop at four of a major: a jump to 5 is also to play and also wrong: set the suit first with 4 for the same reasons. Ditto five of a major.

Exactly the same analysis applies opposite 3 with one slight caveat: a jump to 4 currently shows a semi-solid suit, whereas going via 3 does not. But I can let that go: the sequence has never arisen, and in any case if you subsequently set diamonds, in all likelihood you have something like a semi-solid suit anyway.

So what we can say is that a jump suit bid opposite a neutral three of a minor is something we will never hear, and therefore these bids become prime candidates for re-use. What I have in mind for them is that they should all be fit bids agreeing the minor, and then interpreted as if we were already in the fit auction.

A simple schedule should clarify. Opposite 3 in a neutral game-forced auction, all these bids agree diamonds:
  • 4: to play (i.e. values-for-four)

  • 4: values-for-five

  • 4: Keycard Ask

  • 5/5/5: Exclusion Keycard Asks

And similarly for clubs. After either values-for-four or values-for-five, partner can continue in standard fit style, including the cheapest side-suit as the Keycard Ask.

Providing this special treatment for the minors does seem right. They get badly neglected up to this point, and they do not have the luxury of the 2NT agreement available to the majors, so they should have some extra tools when they do finally get their moment in the sunshine.

To support good minor suit bidding we need the right mix of encouragement to go beyond 3NT to explore minor fits coupled with good ways of stopping safely. In combination with 4NT to play, I think this provides just that, as well as relieving any fear of the unknown associated with the 2 relay.


The Chilli bidding system is described and defined at


Andrea said...

Hi Alan,

it's almost uncanny how your updates not only always address some unexpressed doubt of mine, but offer solutions with real added value too.

This time my doubt used to be: "Ok about the 2D relay being forcing to game, but what if we can't stop in 3NT and would like to bid 4m to play?"

And here's the answer, with the added value of the implicit fit if you go beyond 4m: now you can state the fit, show values for 4/5/more and ask for keycards, all in one bid!

Simply brilliant, again.

Another thought: the blog, with its amusing style and great explanations, is increasingly important relative to the more formal system definition. That makes me agree with your idea of a site "overhaul" and regret that it's not possible any time soon. A Chilli system described in the style of the blog would be a great read indeed... on the other hand, it's already very good. :)

All the best,


Alan Williams said...

Hi Andrea

Once again, thanks for your comments. I'm surprised you haven't yet worked out what those electrodes are attached to your brain.

Your musings about style got me thinking about the book again. My first question has always been whether to write for beginners or for experienced players. I don't really have an answer to that; two books would be nice, but I'll settle for one for the moment!

The other question is style and structure. The current website is written with the Chilli taxonomy very much to the fore, leaving you a little bit on your own on how to actually use the system.

I was thinking I might turn this on its head in a book: write it like a standard bridge text, describing what you do in this and that situation, and leave the readers to have eureka moments when they realise, for instance, that this was the third time that 2D was forcing to 3NT, and maybe it was a universal rule.

But your comment has made me think of another approach: a sequence of blog-style anecdotes with a bit of theory thrown in as required. I quite like that: it would be fun to write, and hopefully fun to read. It reminds me a little of one of my favourite chess books: 200 Open Games by David Bronstein.


Andrea said...

Hi Alan and all Chillians,

I think the "blog-style anecdotes" book would be a good and refreshing idea. Also, you would have some important chapters already in place, with a little tweaking.

To tell the truth, I don't like traditional bridge system books. With few exceptions, they tend to be overlong and boring, at least for me. To learn the system I have played most in my life, "Quadri Italia", I had to read and re-read, and in part memorise, something like 400 pages. And I have seen even bigger ones!

I think the "anecdote book" should be complemented by a formal synthesis of the system, as concise as possible and without any comment or example (that would make updates much easier). Such a synthesis would relieve the anecdotes from having to cover every system detail, which would be awkward I think.

I have an idea that much of Chilli's simplicity is in the way you explain it. Many systems are described in terms of a collection of sequences to be memorised, almost without any attempt to highlight the underlying logic (assuming there is one) and to extract universal rules. I guess even Chilli could look complicated if described that way...

All the best,


A very small question: 1C-2D-3C-4C (values-for-four). Now 4D is values-for-five or already a keycard ask? Thanks!

Alan Williams said...

Hi Andrea

I like your idea of combining the anecdotes with a concise formal synthesis, for just the reason you gave.

I agree with you that many systems books are a bit of of a chore to read. I will judge the success of a Chilli book by whether readers can grasp the system concepts on first read and still be smiling at the end.

Your question about the sequence 1C-2D-3C-4C made me realise that the website page 'fitsidesuitabove3NT' needs revision.

The generic idea is that once you have made a 'values-for' bid - be it four or five - then there is no further need for values-for bids, and the cheapest available side-suit bid (or 4NT if none) becomes the keycard ask.

So in your example sequence 1C-2D-3C-4C (values-for-four), 4D is now the keycard ask.

Geoff and I have been experimenting with a little toy in this area. To explain, here's an extreme example. Suppose you held four aces in a 3433 hand, and partner opens 1C. You bid 1H and partner agrees hearts with 2NT.

Now you have clear values for six and probably seven, but you haven't any sensible way to explore partner's wide variety of possible hands.

The experimental idea is to have a values-for-six bid just above the keycard ask, which says 'Let's go to slam - but you must take control, partner'.

In the given auction, we already have 4C as values-for-five, 4D the keycard ask and 4H as values-for-four. We add 4S as values-for-six, after which partner can use 4NT as the keycard ask.


Lino said...

Hi Alan and Chillians

I would like to know if there are Chillians players on the bridgebase online site. If so let us know the niknames so we can see the Chilli system in action. A god training for everybody.

best wishes Lino

Alan Williams said...

Hi Lino

Getting a Chilli group together on BBO would be a good idea. I've talked about that a little in a blog I'm just composing and will publish in an hour or so.

Best wishes