Major Openings

To open in a major, you must have opening strength and at least five cards in the major. If you have five hearts and five spades, open one spade. If you have five hearts and four spades, open one heart, even if you have ♠AKQJ ♥65432.

Our motto: “It’s not how good, it’s how many.” The primary driver in bidding is suit length, rather than quality.

The system is quite different when we open in third seat and slightly different again in fourth (passout) seat, and different again if there is interference.

For the moment, assume that your partner opened one of a major M, your RHO passed, and it is your bid as an unpassed hand.

The Big Picture

The possible range of the opener’s hand is huge, 12-21 points. That is the big weakness of standard bidding. As a responder, the key is to know whether your hand is weak, intermediate, game-going, or has slam-interest, and to constantly re-evaluate it as the auction proceeds.

Bust Hands

To reply at all, you need in theory to have 6 HCP. If you have four trump with 5 points or an Ace, it is probably worth giving partner a simple raise. Otherwise you just have to pass. (But see also weak jump shifts.) Do not try to rescue partner if you have a stiff or void in his suit. If you do, he may just bid it again; and besides, your LHO will probably balance in some way. Worst case, you’re only at the one level and your partner has five trump.

Under 10 Points

If you have 6 HCP, you must bid. Even if you have a void in partner’s suit, you must bid. Your partner could have an unbalanced hand with 21 points. So, what do you bid?

  • With 6 to a bad 10 HCP and three of your partner’s suit, you make a simple raise to 2M.
  • Over 1♥, bid 1♠ if you have four spades. (Forcing)
  • Otherwise bid 1N. This shows 6 to a bad 10 HCP and says you do not have 3-card support for partner’s suit (and in the case of 1♥-1N, you don’t have four spades).

Important: 1M - 1N does not say you have a balanced hand. If we made such a requirement, and your partner opened 1♥, suppose we hold this hand:

♠K92 ♥2 ♦Q8763 Q952

We would be stuck. Let’s see why:

  • We absolutely cannot pass with those 7 HCP.
  • We can’t raise hearts.
  • We don’t have four spades, so 1♠ is out.
  • We don’t have 10 points, which rules out 2♦ or 2♣.
  • The only bid left is 1N.

Our hand is not balanced, so if 1N had to be balanced, we would have no bid.

Don’t confuse 1♥ - 1N with a notrump rebid such as 1x - 1y - 1N. When an opener bids notrump on his second bid it does promise a balanced hand. The responder who bids 1N on his first bid does not.

On this kind of hand, you get essentially one bid. So if your partner bids hearts again, you pass.

Invitational Hands

If you have support for partner’s major, be sure to revalue your hand and do a losing trick count. Sometimes points aren’t the whole story. A 12 point hand, especially one with four trump, or a hand with an LTC of 7, may be appropriate for bidding game.

  • If you have 3+ trump, and 10-12 points, bid 3M.
  • Over 1♥, bid 1♠ if you have four spades but not 3 hearts. (Forcing)
  • With 10 or more HCP you can bid a new suit on the two-level.
  • 2N! is not available because it is a special convention we discuss below, unless you’re a passed hand.

Game-Going Hands

You must make sure we bid game. You must not make a bid your partner can pass.

Note

“Bidding game” is a misnomer; you can stop in four of a minor even though that is not a game. However, this phrase is common bridge terminology so we will use it.)

One thing you’ll have on your side is that if responder bids a new suit, and has never passed, it is 100% forcing. That means sometimes you bid suits as short as 3 cards.

Suppose, for example, your partner opens 1♠, and your shape is 3=4=2=4 with 13 HCP. You have a dilemma:

  • 2♠ shows 6-9 HCP, so you’re too strong for that.
  • 3♠ shows 10-12 HCP, and again you’re too strong.
  • 4♠ shows 5 trump and a weak hand – again, not appropriate.
  • 2♥ is possible only if you have five hearts. You don’t.
  • 1N could be passed.
  • 2N is used as a conventional bid called Jacoby 2N that is game-forcing but promises 4 trump. And if you are not playing that convention, 2N is just invitational.
  • 3N gets to the wrong game. Partner will never guess you have support.

Therefore, you will bid 2♣; this is forcing because it is a new suit by an unpassed hand. You’ll tell partner about the support on your next bid by bidding 4♠.

Had your shape been 3=4=3=3 you’d be bidding a three-card suit. That’s ok, it is forcing. You’re sure to get another bid.

Big Hands

With a really big hand a new bid becomes available, the jump-shift. That’s a jump bid of a new suit. In standard bidding you’re showing 19+ HCP. We’ll cover that later. You can always decide to bid such a hand by continuing to make bids that cannot be passed as you explore for slam.

That’s the view from high altitude – now for some details.

Replying When You Have Support

If you have 3 trump or more, you have a fit. It is time to revalue the hand and make a losing trick count. This will help you decide whether to treat your hand as a minimal raise, an invitational raise, or as a game forcing hand. The invitational raise, typically a good 10 to 12 points, is also called a “limit raise” because it sets limits on your strength to a narrow range.

For most of what follows it doesn’t matter if the responder is a passed hand or not. For the moment, assume the opener was in first or second seat and there is no interference; we’ll cover the differences later.

The most frequent error is to immediately bid 4M over 1M with an opening hand; 4M is actually a weak bid.

Note

You may be tempted to bid 4M with an opening hand because you do not want to risk missing game, but actually, you risk missing a slam. There is no danger of missing game if you simply make a forcing bid.

The raises after a 1M opener are:

  • 1M - 2M shows 5-9, 3+ trump. Not forcing.
  • 1M - 3M shows 10-12, 3+ trump (limit raise). Not forcing.
  • 1M - 4M is weak, 5 trump, with a ruffing value.
  • 1M - 2N!(opening hand with 4 trump). This bid is called Jacoby 2N. Responses are discussed below. If you choose not to play Jacoby 2N, 2N means an invitational balanced hand with two cards in M and is not forcing.
  • 1♥ - 3♠, 4♣, or 4♦; or 1♠ - 4♣, 4♦, 4♥ are splinter bids. It is a game forcing raise, shows a stiff or void in the bid suit, 4+ trump, 13-16 support points and suggests some slam interest.

Holding a 10+ point hand where none of the available raises is appropriate:

  • 1♥ – 1♠ is forcing! Do not ever pass it even if you opened light.
  • 1M – 2♣/2♦/2♥ is forcing. 2♥ promises five hearts; the minors only four.

Both of these embody a general principal: the bid of a new suit by an unpassed hand is unconditionally forcing. Sometimes a responder needs a forcing bid. For example, if you have the opening hand with 3 trump but do not have the required four trump for Jacoby 2N, you need to bid something forcing and then 4M.

If your partner has opened one heart and you have invitational or better values, 3 hearts, and four or more decent spades, you can bid 1♠ and later bid 3♥. Note that with sub-invitational values you should just raise to 2♥. The reason is that you are not strong enough to bid 3♥, and 2♥ would appear to be just be a simple preference, as in 1♥ – 1♠ – 2♣ – 2♥, and would only show two hearts.

The motive in bidding 1♠ in this case is to possibly discover a 4-4 spade fit. If we have both a 4-4 spade fit and a 5-3 heart fit, we want to play in the 4-4 fit where we can probably use the long hearts for discards.

Jacoby and Jordan 2N

In response to a major opening, and in the absence of any interference, a bid of 2N is called Jacoby 2N (J2NT):

  • 2N!(game-forcing raise with four trump)

shows a hand you would have opened and 4 trump. By definition then, responder is not a passed hand. As you gain experience see When Not To Bid J2NT for some guidelines on when not to use this bid.

Responding to J2NT

Opener responds to J2NT by revaluing his hand in light of the fit. Then with a balanced hand,

  • 1M - 2N! - 4M Less than 15 declarer points
  • 1M - 2N! - 3N 15-17 declarer points, balanced
  • 1M - 2N! - 3M 18+ declarer points.

Note the theme – the slower your go, the more you have. This is often termed, “slow shows”. With a big hand, go as slow as you can but no slower; you must never make a bid your partner can pass short of game.

With an unbalanced hand,

  • 1M - 2N! - 3♣/♦/♥/♠ stiff or void in bid suit.
  • 1M - 2N! - 4a, a very good second 5-card suit, and no more than 13 HCP.

Note the “slow shows” nature of the balanced bids. If you have a choice between showing a second five card suit or a stiff, show the second suit if it is a good suit and you are at a minimum. However, if you have a void, show the void.

After the opener replies to J2N, a non-jump bid in a side suit is a control bid, which are discussed in more detail in the chapter on slam bidding.

Jordan 2NT

If the opener’s RHO makes a takeout double, 2N! shows a limit raise or better:

1M - (X) - 2N!(limit raise or better)

This bid is called Jordon 2NT (who popularized it in America) or Truscott 2NT (who invented it in 1954) or Dormer 2NT (who popularized it in Europe).

Standardly, this shows four trump as in Jacoby 2NT; with 3 card support, one redoubles and then raises. My recommended partnership agreement is to make a Jordan 2N bid with 3 card support also – this avoids confusion with the “redouble implies no fit” concept for bidding over takeout doubles, gets the support message in early so partner can revalue their hand, and prevents a low-level response by the advancer.

Note that in line with the “all jumps in competition are weak” concept, a bid of 3M here is a preemptive four-card raise.

Replying When You Have No Support

Sigh. Partner opened a major but you have 2 or less of his suit.

After 1M:

  • 1♥ - 1♠ shows 4+ spades, unlimited. If you have 4 spades do not skip over them to bid a minor or 1N.

  • 1M - 1N shows 6-10. Responding 1N shows 6-10 points and denies support for M (and denies spades if M is hearts), but does not promise any specific shape or stoppers. (Over an intervening overcall, it does promise a stopper in their suit.) Opener rebids after the 1N bid can almost all be passed. They are:

    • 2m shows at least 3 in the minor.
    • 2N 18-19 balanced.
    • 2M normally six cards, up to 15.
    • 3M 16-18.
    • 4M 19+. To play.
    • Jump shift by opener, 19+. Forcing for one round.
  • 1M - 2N is not available in this case! It’s Jacoby 2N.

  • 1M - 3N is 13-15 balanced, denies 3M.

  • 1M - 2♣/♦/♥/♠, promises 10+ points, 4 cards, but 2♥ promises 5 cards; forcing. Although opener must bid again, opener’s reply may not be forcing on responder.

  • A jump shift by responder (bidding a new suit while jumping a level) is a strong bid, showing slam values (19 or more).

    For standard bidders a jump-shift is somewhat useful; for those playing Two Over One it is less so, because they have other ways to explore slam. Such strong hands occur very infrequently, so some play that a jump shift is preemptive, in which case it must be alerted.

    When competition is involved, a jump shift is assumed to be weak and is not alertable. See the chapter All About Jump-Shifts.

    An advanced type of strong jump shifts, Soloway Jump Shifts, named after the late Paul Soloway, are discussed in Advanced Bidding.

Responding As A Passed Hand

When you are a passed hand, Jacoby 2N no longer applies, and 3M is a preemptive bid showing a weak hand and four trump. The limit raise is done by bidding 2♣!, Reverse Drury. To bid 2N shows a balanced, invitational hand with 2 card support.

Reverse Drury

When 1M is opened in third or fourth seat, it may be light. Reverse Drury is a convention that by partnership agreement lets responder show a limit raise without getting too high by bidding 2♣! as a limit raise rather than 3M.

Some people do not like Reverse Drury because they miss it all the time; you must be conscious of your seat position. If you don’t want to play it, you will have to use 3M as a limit raise and go down some times if partner opened light in third or fourth seat.

When responder is a passed hand, and there is no competition, 2♣! is the limit raise, while 3M! would be weak and preemptive. The responses are:

  • 2M: Opener’s hand was substandard. Responder passes unless he has extras.
  • 2♦!(Opener had an honest opener).
  • 3M!(Opener has 14 points).

In the usual convention, 2♦, 2M, and 3M are the only possible responses. However, we extend the convention somewhat to allow the opener to in effect make a game try. When opener bids a suit other than 2♦!, opener is further describing his hand, and has a full opener. Responder may now bid game or stop at 3M.

Note that the 2♣ bid is no longer available, so a responder might have to bid 3♣ over 1M to show 10 points with a club suit and no support for the major.

Note: the word “reverse” is historical; when the convention was first developed, the 2♦ response and the 2M response were swapped.

A variation, Two-Way Reverse Drury, is described in Advanced Bidding.

Add Reverse Drury to your partnership as soon as you feel you both can recognize it with a high degree of reliability.

Bidding After A Raise

Any raise agrees trump. Opener should revalue his hand, adding declarer points.

After a limit raise, the decision to bid game, or to make a slam try, is up to the opener. Any bids at the 4 level under trump show controls. For example, 1♥ – 3♥ – 4♣ is game forcing and shows first round control in clubs, and some slam interest. If you had no interest in slam, you would just bid 4♥ without giving away the extra information.

After a single raise, opener will pass with less than 16 points. If opener is not strong enough to bid game (19+ support points) he may wish to make another bid to explore for game.

Help Suit Game Try

After a major trump suit is agreed upon at the two level, any bid between that and three of the trump suit is a “Help-Suit Game Try”. This bid is not alertable.

Partner accepts the invitation to game by bidding game. Partner declines the invitation by bidding three of the major.

The standard is that the help-suit bidder shows 3 cards or more in the suit. If you and your partner agree, you could reduce this to 2 cards; in that case the bid is alertable (“could be just two cards”).

Partner should bid game if he has “help” in the suit bid and is not near minimum. “Help” is defined as any one of:

  • An Ace, King, stiff, or void
  • Five cards in the suit
  • A maximum
  • With no help, and a near maximum, partner may bid a suit below three of the major to show “help” in that suit, but no help in the suit mentioned.

With a minimum, partner just pretends he has no help.

It is very important that the responder to the help-suit game try just answer the question asked, and not try to second guess the opener’s holding. Opener with more than one suit of concern below trump may ask about the lowest, relying on partner to show help in another suit if the decision for game is not clear-cut.

Example: After 1♠ – 2♠, opener bids 3♦ asking for help in diamonds.

If responder has ♠KJ75 ♥93 ♦K832 ♣J74 he bids 4♠ since he has 8 points and the King of diamonds. If the ♦K and ♣7 are interchanged, he bids 3♠. However, if the ♦K is instead in hearts, he could bid 3♥ to indicate help in hearts but none in diamonds. Without the ♣J, at 7 points he would be near a minimum and should probably sign off at 3♠ even holding the ♦K. Change the hand to ♠KQ65 ♥93 ♦Q832 ♣Q74 and at 9 points responder should bid game.

If agreement at 2♠ is reached through some sequence such as 1♦ – 1♠ – 2♠, an opener’s bid of 3♣ would again be a help-suit game try.

So what meaning then should we give to 1M - 2M - 3M? The simple interpretation is that this invites partner to bid game if on the top of his 2M bid. However, one can also play it, and I do, as a sort of trump-suit game try – asking partner for help in the trump suit, perhaps holding a hand with the strength mostly outside the trump suit.

After 1♥ Openings

If responder has not passed or raised, opener must bid again.

The 1♠ response is not limited and therefore opener must bid. Be aware that 1♠ does not deny 3 hearts; with invitational or better values responder’s next bid of 3♥ or 4♥ shows 3-card support.

  • 1N shows a minimum opener and a balanced hand.
  • 2♥ shows a minimum opener and six hearts.
  • 2N shows 18-19 balanced.
  • 2m shows a second suit and a hand not suitable to bid at the 3 level or to reverse.
  • 3♥ is invitational and shows six hearts.
  • 4♥ shows 19+.
  • Raising spades requires 4 trump or 3 trump with an outside singleton or void. The latter is not ideal but the raise can be made if no more suitable bid is available.

After 1♥ - 1N

If opener bids another suit at the 2 level, responder should pass or preference back to hearts, depending on which suit is better.

If opener bids hearts at the 3 level it is invitational. A new suit at the 3 level is forcing.

2♠ is an “impossible” bid, since responder has denied four spades. It shows 19+ points, four spades, and more hearts than spades.

A bid of 2N shows 18-19 balanced.

After 1♠ – 1N

The responder has not denied having hearts, but has shown less than 10 points. If opener bids another suit at the 2 level, responder should pass or preference back to spades, depending on which suit is better.

If opener bids spades at the 3 level it is invitational. A new suit at the 3 level is forcing.

A bid of 2N shows 18-19 balanced.

More About Major Openings

Too Good To Raise

The most frequent error beginners make after a major opening is to raise to game because they have an opening hand. That’s understandable; you do need to reach game for sure. But the problem is you may be underestimating the opener’s hand and missing a slam.

Say partner has opened 1♥ in first seat, and you have ♠AJ5 ♥KQ8 ♦72 ♣AT983.

You have a dilemma. You cannot bid:

  • 1♠ – you’d be lying, because you do not have four spades
  • 1N – too small, not forcing so partner might pass.
  • 3♥ – too small, not forcing so partner might pass
  • 4♥ – too big, this is a shutout showing a weak hand and five trumps.

The just-right Goldilocks response is 2♣; your next bid will be 4♥. Note that playing Two Over One, you could bid 1N(forcing) with a minimal hand with three hearts, bidding 4♥ next. However, with the extras in this hand, 2♣ is right.

Note what happens if the bidding goes 1♥ - 4♥. Opener holding ♠K9 ♥AJT742 ♦AK9 ♣K2 is going to think that the partnership has at most 25 points and is not going to explore for a slam that actually has excellent chances.

With some hands, such as ♠AJ5 ♥KQ83 ♦97 ♣AT92, you might even be bidding a four-card suit. That’s ok; your bid is a new suit, so it is forcing and you’ll be able to clarify on your next bid. This is also an object lesson on why a new suit by an unforced hand is forcing; sometimes responder must make something up to keep the bidding going. Don’t be tempted to pass 2♣ because you have bid with a minimal opener and have clubs. It is, however, important not to bid 2♥ over 1♠ unless you have five of them.

Note that if you are a passed hand, your hand might have just become game forcing due to the fit. Still, you don’t just bid 4♥ right away. You bid 2♣!(reverse Drury), showing a limit raise. If partner then bids 2♥, you can then raise to 4♥, telling your story beautifully – I had a near-opening hand, but now that you bid hearts, I have enough for game with my distribution.

When Not To Bid J2NT

J2NT is not always appropriate even with an opening hand. Here are some situations where you do not bid J2NT. In all these situations do not bid 4M either!

  • You only have three trump.

  • You have a stiff or a void and 13-16 points; use a splinter bid.

  • You have a hand that you would not have opened but which has upgraded to be game forcing due to distribution. Do you have a splinter bid? If not:

    • If playing two over one, a forcing 1N followed by a jump to 4M is often appropriate.
    • If 1N is not forcing, find another bid, even 2m with a three card minor. Just do something forcing! Then bid game on your second bid.

In general, J2NT is not a bid that is merely trying to get to game; that’s a given. The strength of the bid is in searching for slam.

Interference Over Major Openings

Over an overcall, new suit bids show what they would have without the overcall – but you may not be able to make the bid you wanted to make because it would now be at the two level and you don’t have 10 points. When this happens consider whether a negative double is appropriate. A negative double shows 4 cards in the unbid major(s), or, after 1♥ (1♠), at least one minor.

To support after an overcall,

  • Raise to 2 with 5-9 and 3+ cards.
  • Most hands with Axxx are also worth a raise to 2, especially in spades.
  • Cue-bid the overcalled suit to make a limit raise or better.
  • A jump cue bid is a power raise with four trump, equivalent to J2NT.
  • A jump raise is preemptive in nature.
  • A jump to 4 of the major shows a weak hand and 5+ trump.
  • 2N becomes an invitational bid with a balanced hand.

Thus, 1♠ – 3♠ would have meant a limit raise, but 1♠ (2♣) 3♠ shows a weak hand with at least four trump. Having nine trump between the hands should be relatively safe at the three level.

In this case, 1♠ (2♣) 3♣ is the limit raise. This lets opener sign off at 3♠ if he does not want to accept the invitation.

Examples:

  • 1♥ (1♠) 2♠! limit raise+ in hearts
  • 1♥ (2♦) 2♥ 5-9, at least three hearts
  • 1♥ (2♦) 3♥ weak hand, 4+ hearts
  • 1♥ (1♠) 3♥ weak hand, 4+ hearts
  • 1♥ (1♠) 4♥ weak hand, 5+ hearts
  • 1♥ ( X) 2N! Limit raise or better, 3+ hearts. Forcing for one round.
  • 1♥ (1♠) 2N Invitational, balanced hand. This bid can be passed.
  • 1♥ (2♦) 4♦ is an opening hand with four hearts, game forcing.
  • 1♥ (2♠) presents a quandary because the 3♠ cue-bid would force opener to game. If you have a suitable hand you might be able to make a negative double and come back to 3♥ to compete. A plain 3♥ is invitational. Lacking the strength to bid 3♥, all you can do is pass; opener with extras should reopen with a double or new suit or, if single-suited, bid 3♥.

What’s My Limit Raise?

To avoid confusion in the heat of battle, realize this: in any situation that there is one and only one bid that shows a limit raise (or better). First, stop and revalue your hand in light of the fit, and then choose your raise. This chart shows what to do to make a limit raise:

Major Suit Limit Raises
  Unpassed Hand Passed Hand
No competition 3M 2♣!(reverse Drury)
They doubled 2N!(Jordan) 2N!(Jordan)
They overcalled cue bid cue bid

The bids that show at least a limit raise are artificial (rows two and three); this ensures that you will get to bid again, in case you have a game-forcing hand. (Even if a passed hand, your hand may have gotten better).

So, ask yourself, “What’s my limit raise?”. If you get that right, everything else will be easy.

There is a problem when they make a high-level overcall, in that your cue bid might force to game when you do not have the requisite values. The most frequent case is 1♥ (2♠); at this point 3♠ might as well be 4♥. If you can’t decide, double and if necessary bid hearts later. Or you can bid 3♥ and let partner decide if he has enough extra to bid game.

A cue bid that is forcing to game is still appropriate some times:

  • 1♥ (2♠) 4♥ is a weak hand with five hearts
  • 1♥ (2♠) 3♠ is a game force showing an opening hand or better.

Note on Two Over One

In Two Over One, a response of 1M - 1N! by an unpassed hand is forcing, showing 6-12. Therefore:

  • 1M - 3M is a limit raise with 4 trump (unless using Bergen).
  • 1M - 1N!(forcing) and later rebidding 3M, is a limit raise with 3 or more trump.

Playing Two Over One requires extensive knowledge of opener and responder rebids after a two level raise and after a forcing 1N. Two Over One has a chapter of its own. For now, we mention this much to understand opponents who use this system.

Opening in 4th Seat

In fourth seat it makes no sense to preempt. Therefore we can use an opening bid at the two level to show a hand that would have opened 1M and then rebid 2M no matter what the responder bid:

2M a single-suited major with 12-14/15 points.

The idea is to keep the opponents out of the auction. Opening at the 3 level likewise is a hand that would have been rebid at the three level. Opening 4M is a very strong hand, unlike it would be in any other seat.

Bergen Raises

Bergen Raises are an option; many people do not play them because of the difficulty of recognizing them, or thinking something is Bergen when it isn’t. Do not try them until you are experienced in the standard raise structure. Here are the basic ideas so you won’t get confused when the opponents play it.

The emphasis is on distinguishing three-card from four-card limit raises. A four card raise has a great deal more potential for game than a three-card raise.

With 4+ cards,

  • 1M - 2M 6-10 HCP with 3 cards in M; or a good five, particularly Axxx in trumps.
  • 1M – 3M! 2-6 preemptive, 4 card raise
  • 1M – 3♣! 7-10 constructive 4 card raise
  • 1M – 3♦! 10-12 limit 4 card raise
  • 1M - 1N forcing is forcing for one round, may have 10-12 and 3 trump.
  • 1M – 2N! 13+ game forcing 4-card raise. (Jacoby 2N)
  • 1M - 3N 12-15 points, 3 spades, very balanced.

If responder has 3 trumps and 10-12 points, he bids 3M the next chance he gets. Reverse Bergen interchanges the club and diamond meanings.

See Advanced Bidding for additional optional features.

When Is It Not Bergen?

Bergen raises are off:

  • if responder is a passed hand;
  • if there is an overcall or double

Rationale: If there is a double, 2N! is a Jordan raise so you wouldn’t need 3♦ for this. After an overcall, you have cue bids. As a passed hand you have Reverse Drury.