When Not To Ask For Aces / Keycards

Blackwood, or its more sophisticated cousin Roman Keycard Blackwood (RKC), is frequently overused. It is a tool to keep us out of BAD slams, not a tool that discovers slams for us. Here is when NOT to explore for slam at all:

  • You do not have enough points. If you do not think we have 33 or more points, the only reason to explore for slam is if you have a highly distributional hand and have found a suit fit. If you have an affirmative misfit even 33 HCP may not be enough for 6N; you need a source of tricks.
  • If you’d need the “perfect” cards in partner’s hand.
  • You only have an 8 card fit but no overwhelming HCP strength.

Specifically, here are two cases in which not to ask for Aces / keycards using Blackwood or RKC:

  1. If the “wrong” answer will leave you too high. This is OFTEN the case in the minor suits — think of the possible answers one at a time, and ascertain you’re going to be safe with each one.

    If you usually play RKC 1430, you’ll need to switch to 0314 when clubs is trump. We cannot stand having the answer “zero” be too high!

  2. You hold a side suit with two “fast” losers, such as a small doubleton, you usually can’t use RKC. “Fast” means the opponents can win two tricks in that suit on the opening lead unless partner has the right cards.

    The problem is, you’re needing a certain Ace, not just the number of Aces. For example, you open 1♥ and partner bids 3♥ (limit raise or better). You hold:

    ♠62 ♥AKQJT ♦AKQJT ♣8

    The hand evaluates to at least 24 declarer points so with 10+ from partner we’re golden. But notice the two little spades. If you bid 4N and partner shows one Ace, you don’t know which one. If it is ♠A, you have a good chance for slam. If it is the ♣A, however, slam might be down one off the top. For example, partner might hold:

    ♠QJ5 ♥8765 ♦ 94 ♣AQJ5.

    See Bidding Controls for the cure.

Slam Bidding: Examples

This chapter puts together a lot of material and might be best read again over time as you learn. It concerns two actual deals; I’ll show just two hands.

Hand 1

Both vulnerable, East Dealer.

North (15) South (14)

♠ AJ543     ♠ Q6
♥ KQT9      ♥ A87652
♦ J63       ♦ A7
♣ A         ♣ KJ2

This makes 7♥ if the spade finesse works and spades split no worse than 4-2, which was the case. The fifth spade can be used to discard South’s diamond loser. Otherwise it makes six. One should not spend a moment’s thought about whether NS should have found a way to bid 7♥. There is no long-term percentage in bidding grand slams when you cannot really be confident of 13 tricks, much less hands with less than 30 points between them.

When the other side competes strongly and we have a stiff or void in their suit, so that all our points come from the other three suits, you get in a situation called a “thirty point deck”. In that case, miracles sometimes happen. If we have almost all the points that matter, we may take all the tricks. It is good to aware of this idea, that it is best if we have no “wasted values”, whether for slam or game bidding.

That is why it is a good thing when you have four little cards in a suit they have bid and raised. Our partner has a stiff or void, and is more likely to have extra trump length, than otherwise, leaving us with no wasted values. Three little cards, on the other hand, is not good. It may mean we have two losers in that suit.

Now to our sample hand. East passes, and after South opens 1♥, the North hand re-evaluates to about 17-18 points. The value of the A♣ is unclear, since the Ace may not be contributing to setting up any long tricks, but at least it promises no club losers. Using Losing Trick Count, the LTC is 6. That is not as thrilling as 18 points sounds. The problem, of course, is those three diamond losers. Certainly we have game and must be careful not to make a bid that can be passed. The question is, how do we look for a slam without going too high?

Without Jacoby 2N

Those who do not play Jacoby 2N will have to settle for a 1♠ reply, and South will bid 2♥. The problem now will be that 3♥ is not forcing, and 4♥ will lose any chance for slam exploration. 4N is out of the question: if the answer would be one key-card, we would not know if that was the Ace of Diamonds or the Ace of Hearts. We could even be down at 5♥.

1♥ - 4♣! would be a “splinter” in support of hearts, showing zero or one clubs. South can cue bid 4♦ to show the diamond Ace (or void), and thus alleviated of the fast-loser problem in diamonds, 4N can now be used to learn that South has both missing key-cards. The bid 5♥ shows those two Aces and denies the heart Queen, but North knows about that.

It is good technique to ask for Kings to show South that our side has all the key-cards, but when South shows just one King it seems best to stop at 6♥.

Note that without 2N being a forcing raise, things are very awkward, as you cannot show promptly that you have support.

Another alternative is to jump-shift to 2♠. That shows 19 HCP and five spades. This hand is not quite enough for it. Opener might bid 2N or 3♥.

With Jacoby 2N

The normal second bid for North is 2N!, Jacoby 2NT (J2NT), showing 13+ HCP and a four-card raise. This is game forcing.

If opener has a purely minimal hand, he bids 4 of the major, in this case 4♥. Otherwise, with something extra (say a King’s worth or so):

  • If opener has a singleton or a void then he usually bids that suit at the three level.
  • If however he has another good five-card suit he bids that at the four level. The second five-card suit means he also has shortness somewhere, so the decision is based on how good the second suit is.
  • With no shortness but with extras, opener chooses between 3♥ (if the trump suit is good) or 3N! (balanced or semi-balanced, not minimal). 3N is not forcing.

In this case, South probably should choose 3♥ or 3N – he has extras, there is no shortness; the suit is not great but it has a extra card. That means that we may not need to worry so much about the Q♥ since we have a ten-card fit. The hand looks a little too good for 4♥. I’d lean toward 3♥.

After either 3♥ or 3N, 4♣! starts cue-bidding, and hearing 4♦! from opener means that North need no longer fear two fast losers in diamonds, so can bid 4N. South should answer 5♠ (two keycards AND the trump Queen) because he has a sixth trump, which means we have a 10-card fit. North will know that South has six trump because he has the Queen already. North should bid 5N first to show that our side has all the key cards, but the resulting 6♣ is not good enough to bid the grand slam, so he will settle for 6♥.

There is another way to continue after 4♦ which is to cue-bid 4♠; then 5♣ (club King or singleton). But, it is really the trump Ace that North needs to know about so keycard-asking is better. On another hand, continuing cue-bidding might be better. You have to imagine the possible answers.

One note: J2NT is a HCP bid. You need 13 HCP, not counting distribution. The purpose is exploring for slam, so you want real points.

Hand 2

West (21)    East (12)
♠ KQJ3       ♠ A9764
♥ K          ♥ AT542
♦ AKJ107     ♦
♣ AT9        ♣ Q43

East dealt, both vulnerable, and opened 1♠. This is a Rule of 20 opener.

Even though you have game-forcing values and four trump, J2NT can be a mistake. A very strong responder hand, as this one is, should not bid J2NT so as to leave more room for slam exploration. Just be sure every bid is forcing.

Most of the time, if we bid J2NT as West, we’re going to hear 4♠, as we will on this hand. We would like to know more before we get so high. Let’s say we make a forcing bid of 2♦. Partner says 2♥.

We are a bit disappointed to be short in partner’s heart suit. Still, we have to bid at least a game, so whatever we do next, we cannot make a bid my partner can pass!

In SAYC, that rules out 2♠, 3♠. 4♠, 2N, 3N, or 3♦. If we are playing 2/1, we are in a game forcing auction which changes everything.

Without 2/1

If not playing 2/1, 3♣ is forcing since it is a new suit by responder. If playing Fourth Suit Forcing to game, it would be forcing but not promise a club stopper and partner would still think we have no fit. As it happens, partner will bid 3♥ showing 5-5 in the majors, and the auction is awkward. If we can bid 3♠ and have it be forcing, we’re ok.

With 2/1

If we were playing that 2♦ was game forcing, we bid 2♠ next. That agrees on spade as trumps; 2♠ is the strongest slam try we can make. Once we are in a game forcing auction, the stronger you are, the slower you go:

  • 2♠ strong slam try, a grand slam not ruled out;
  • 3♠ would be a mild slam try,
  • 4♠ would intend to end the auction.

The mnemonic for this is, “Slow Shows” – Shows strength, that is.

Note the difference with an auction like 1♥ - 1♠ - 2♦ - 2♥. That is a weak “suit preference” bid and is intended to be passed usually. It might be just two hearts. The difference is that this auction is not game forcing.

After partner heard a slam try his obligation is to control-bid first round controls up the line. In that case a bid of 3♦! would tell us partner has a first-round diamond control but no first round control in clubs.

We have the A♦ so we know he has a void. Our hand feels a little worse. At this point we have to bid 4N, and the reply is 5♥. (Yes, he has a void, but it is not a “useful void”, since it is in our suit; so he does not make one of the bids showing a void.)

Since we have all keycards we should bid 5N to tell partner that fact. That gives partner a chance to show Kings or jump to 7♠ if he knows we have the right stuff. He’ll show no Kings and with potential problems in clubs and diamonds we want to stop at 6♠.

Some partners will feel that cue-bidding 3♦ is not called for and just bid 4♠, feeling that with a void in partner’s suit, which is not a plus, and having opened with only 10 HCP, that they should try to get partner to stop. However, I think West would still want to ask for key-cards.

This is another hand that made seven as the cards lay, but nobody bid it.