typical 4441 strong hand S.AK73 H.AQJ4 D.KQ95 C.2

Bridge: Two level openings

2 clubs as "strong unbalanced"
Handling 4441 types

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Expressing 4441 type via a 2NT rebid

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Strong 3-suited hands are a problem for all natural bidding systems. Basically standard bidding theory isn't geared for these three headed dogs! You haven't the space to jump, and if you do this to show strength partner reads you for at least 5-4. Worse, your 'natural' third round suit usually gets interpreted as a 3NT probe.

5440's can stand natural bidding, but 4441's are best expressed via the various Roman 2D methods. However with a (more than a) little cunning it turns out there is just enough 'bidding bandwidth' to pack a complete 3-suiter system through a strong (eg 2C) opening and a 2NT rebid. The sequences below are very coded. Keep your alert card on the table if you decide to play this!

Your system objectives should include ...

Like Cerberus, these hands have three heads, and are DOGS!

A 'declare 19-22 4441, show the shortage and then guess' version is occasionally seen in Britain but in my experience and experiments asking bids are essential. My 16+ method is anyway 4x as frequent. These are still rare hands, only ¼ - ½% of deals, and the method puts strain on your system memory.

A more significant but less obvious pay-off is that you take pressure off your other sequences. For example, with 4441's taken care of a jump opener's rebid in Approach Forcing is now always 5-4. You lose the 2C..2NT sequence showing a massive balanced hand. But I think it's worth it.

I have borrowed much from the Roman 17-24 2D as published in The Blue Club but of necessity my sequences are more closely packed, and I have solved the trump queen problem. I've lost only a facility to play in low level spade contract opposite rubbish.

ref: The Blue Club by Benito Garozzo, Léon Yallouze, adapted Terence Reese. Faber (London) 1970 ISBN 0 571 09265 9

Typical and suitable hands

The requirement for the 2NT rebid is 5 or less raw losers and upward of 16 points. If you are just 16-17 you should have excellent controls (and ideally both majors). Asking bids assume 6+ controls if the hand is 2-3 loser and you will have to downgrade otherwise

SAJ9x    HK    DKQxx    CKQ10x   
Absolute minimum for the method, 18 HCP with a possibly wasted king - I might prefer to open D, lacking both majors
Sx    HAKxx    DAxxx    CAJxx   
This bare 16 is OK with its 7 Blue Club controls - you may need a cross-ruff!
SKQTx    HAK9X    DAQTxx    C void   
3 losers - note we use raw loser count - that queen is "a winner"
SK9xx    HAKQx    Dx    CA9xx   
Marginal, but 5 controls and a fair bet holding both majors
SKQTx    HAKQX    D x    C KQJx   
Technically 3 losers, but you will bid this as 4 due to relatively weak controls. Otherwise partner will go too high.
S void    HAKJ5    DAKJ5    CAKQ42   
What a fine hand! Try bidding this last one "scientifically" after 2C* - 2D* .. negative from partner!

2NT as a 3 suited hand - asking bid method


Bail out now if you don't like asking bids . I use my own idiosyncratic responses to 2C and generally that's a 2D light positive. I think 'standard' two level positives should work - but haven't really experimented. Partner's 2NTshows a 2-5 losing trick count three suiters. You are going to use several levels of asking bid to find out

  1. Rough strength and precise shortage. Repeated calls in this suit are then efficient further asks
  2. Precise losing count, and whether partner has singleton or void
  3. The number of 'Blue Club' controls (A=2, K=1 point)
  4. Whether we hold the queen in our trump suit

With an awful hand you may scramble at the 3 level, or offer 3NT with a diamond stop "only"

2C* - 2D
2NT* - 3NT This shows a hand whose only feature is a diamond stop. opener should pass with 4-5 losers

Otherwise - all sequences start ..

2C* - 2D (light positive relay)
2NT* - 3C? (first asking bid)

here we go ..

  • First ask (always 3C) is for broad loser count and "bid below" the shortage
    • 3D = 4-5 losers, short hearts
    • 3H = 4-5 losers, short spades
    •     3S = 2-3 losers, short unspecified minor
          ... needs to be disambiguated with a 3NT ask (see below)
          ... safe because of the extra power
    • 3NT = 4-5 losers short clubs (note: "suit below" pattern continues)
    • 4C = 4-5 losers, short diamonds
    • 4D = 2-3 losers, short hearts
    • 4H = 2-3 losers, short spades
    The 2-3 loser short minor hand These reflect space constraints of a 2NT rather than 2D method. But with our extra strength it is safe
    • 3S = opener 2-3 losers, short minor (mnemonic: Spades, Short minor, Strong)
      Only 7 steps are available between 3D and a possible 4H spot, but it is enough. This call has to work harder, and a
      special sequence (given below) has to be added to sort this one out
    • With only a diamond suit (and a stop) responder "raises" 2NT to 3NT rather then asks 3C? It's the only way to safely reach 3NT on this as otherwise opener may reply 3S or 4C. Of course should openers shortage be elsewhere you have a nice diamond fit! For this call assume opener has about 18. A typical hand might be S83 HQ72 DKJ107 CJ963
  • Second ask (in the shortage) is for "further definition" - step responses
    (See special ask below when opener shows strong with a short minor)
    • Step 1 = 5 losers + singleton
    • Step 2 = 5 losers + void
    • Step 3 = 4 losers + singleton
    • Step 4 = 4 losers + void
    If opener has shown upper range short major its the same, but 3 and 2 losers. There's then always space for ..
  • Third ask (in the shortage) is for "Blue Club" controls - step responses
    • When lower range (4-5 losers) on a scale of step-1=4, 5, 6 ..
    • When lower range (2-3 losers) on a scale of step-1=6, 7, 8 ..
    • an Ace = 2 "Blue Club" controls
    • a King = 1 "Blue Club" control
    • Singleton aces count - singleton kings don't :))
  • Forth ask (rare: in the shortage, or 5NT if lower) is for queens not held
    This sounds bizarre, but grand slams lacking a trump queen may annoy team-mates. The 4441 hand is asked to bid the lowest suit (which may be his shortage) without a queen. Partner then passes, or sets the suit with the understanding that opener must raise 6 to 7 if he holds that queen. Convoluted, but it always works!
  • Special sequence Recall we had only 7 steps, but 8 hand types. The bidding has gone ..
    2C* - 2D (light pos.)
    2NT* - 3C? (first ask)
    3S* = 2-3 losers, short minor
    We will to use 3NT to unwind this ambiguity. This is therefore an unplayable 3NT spot, but in the context of opener having both majors. If opener has short diamonds it's the usual 'bid below' ...
    • 3NT? - 4C = 2-3 losers, short diamonds ... followed by normal second ask 4D? as above
    With short clubs - opener make a step response as if a 4C? second ask has already been made ..
    • 3NT? - 4D = 3 losers + singleton club
    • 3NT? - 4H = 3 losers + void club
    • 3NT? - 4S = 2 losers + singleton club
    • 3NT? - 4NT = 2 losers + void club
      .. followed by entirely normal third ask continuations as above

This is not a railway track. Responder may judge to terminate asking bids at any time, setting the contract which opener must pass. The only artificial bids not in the short suit after 3C are 3NT after 3S, and 5NT alternative forth ask. We like to keep 4NT to play, but you could use it as alternative 3rd ask. Imagination pays in these hands and you should generally bid out the sequences to the limit and apply the asking sequence tips below.


Scrambling a fit with weak responding hands

note With my unusually weak negative 2H/S responses to 2C - if opener shows 2NT=3-suited over this we drop the asks and just bid suits upwards to scramble into a fit and stop. Even after a semi-positive 3D - 2NT I still play 3D and 3H as scramble. 3S would be a weak 6 card suit. I have to say these latter sequences almost never come up. If your own system hasn't let you show a poor hand you should certainly play this escape, while retaining the important 3C relay. You may then have to bid a three-card suit on occasion rather than risk the four level.

Getting the most out of asking

note Here's an example of a 28 point perfect fit grand slam - you can bid it on 26 too!
C void
Auction (hover over bids for notes)
2C   -   2D
2NT   -   3C
3S   -   3NT
4H   -   5C
5D   -   5NT
6C   -   6S
7S   -   pass
  • 2C - 2D is semi positive (QQ+ or K+ in my style)
  • Over 2NT 3C is ideal as we must have a fit in a black suit
  • After 3S we need the extra 3NT further relay to untangle the minors
  • There is no explicit 2nd ask here. With short clubs Opener pretends his partner has asked 4C
    East (only) now knows spades will be trumps ..!
  • At the 3rd ask 5D shows 6 controls
  • After 5NT (lower!) ask West bids 6C being the lowest suit lacking a queen
  • 6S now set the suit and invites 7S - accepted with SQ
    Note: you still bid this missing the club queen :))
    With a different red queen you might have to cross-rufff, establish a heart etc

Notes and tips

  • It pays to take the plunge if your hand is suitable. Any 18+ or 16+ with goos controls. If in doubt go with both majors, and hold with both minors
  • Losers: Count singleton king a a loser. Qxxx as two losers. The method essentially assumes you will find a fit and uses raw losing count If you don't have 6 controls downgrade a three loser hand to four.
  • Controls: Blue Club style with A=2 K=1. Stiff K=none! We found experimentally that with a bare 16-17 points you need 5 controls for safety.
  • The weaker your hand - the more you need jacks and tens to provide some stuffing, although coded this system is not a substitute for judgement! However if your controls are very good the hand may crossruff. Conversely they should lead trumps!
  • Trumps have to work hard in marginal contracts. You should hold back with 8 and be adventurous with 9 as on a 2-2 break the extra one may be worth two tricks
  • We initially insisted on a 5 card minor if the hand was 5440. Other methods are prefered for (eg) the 5044 shape because of a possible useful 5-3 major fit. However it is difficult to bid all 3 suits out (the last might seem a cue) and in practice we found that 5 card majors work unless all the meat is in the major suit. Note that there is just not enough bidding space to identify the actual 5 card suit - just the shortage. Nothing's perfect!
  • That extra relay over 3S (strong - short minor) is needed as there are only 7 levels (count them) between 3C? and a possibly playable 4H. This is the only workable sequence and we found it the hardest to commit to memory.
  • The sequence 2NT-3NT is used to show a sound diamond stop and no major interest. This is the only way to reach 3NT as if partner is 4414 - he would reply 4C to the first ask, and you'd be too high. It is quite safe - if partner's singleton is elsewhere you have a good diamond fit! With values use the alternative 2NT-3C? It might take you to 4C, but will usually be better if you have two suits. This is one reason why I like 4NT "to play".
  • The method can fail if your only fit is in clubs - you may land in 4C or have to punt game
  • There is usually no need to ask for queens other than the trump suit. and if you are not contemplating grand slam it doesn't matter. Quite commonly after the 3rd control ask you can place the key cards precicely in any case.
  • Over intervention use takeout double/penalty pass. The 4441 shape is powerful defensively!
  • Against these hands - lead trumps!

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