"Five card majors" is the foundation of the Standard American system. Yet rules are made to be broken under special circumstances.

My understanding is that some bidders will adhere to "five card majors" in first and second position, but bid good four card majors (say, KQxx or better) in third and fourth position. The rationale appears to be that if your partner has already passed, you are the "captain" of the team, and the cost of misleading partner is less than if partner hadn't spoken. In this case, partner may use the Drury convention to find out if you are bidding a four or five card major.

Another variation I've heard is that "five card majors" must apply to hearts, but need not apply to spades (with or without the third and fourth seat variation referred to above). The reason is that a bid of x spades beats out a bid of x hearts, but you need to go to x+1 hearts to beat out an x spades bid. So there is a greater need of the fifth card in hearts.

Which experts or variations basically follow Standard American but allow deviations from "five card majors" under particular circumstances?

  • Note that you don't need a Drury variant that specifically identifies that you have a 4 card major -- just a simple "2C means a maximum passed hand with support and opener's rebid of spades means shut up" is enough to cover both shorter-than-expected suits and 5-card suits with subminimum count.
    – hunter
    Apr 3 '14 at 15:53
  • @hunter: Yes, I would consider a "5 card major" consisting of say, 97532 weaker than the typical four card major.
    – Tom Au
    Apr 3 '14 at 16:17

First, note that playing 4-card majors an opening of 1 Heart or 1 Spade is about 80% likely to be on a five card or longer suit. Thus players of a 4-card major system are already almost playing five-card majors. Bridge theorists and players for the past century have determined that even this slight difference in probability (80% vs 100% for a f+ card bid suit) is significant enough to require a significantly different tool kit for accurate bidding.

That said, there is then one simple pre-requisite for bending the always shows five or more cards rule:

  1. You have no desire to ever play with this partner again, or with any opponent or kibitzer present.

The only exception to the above is when all of the above conditions are met:

  • You are in 3rd seat.
  • You do not have a no-trumpish hand.
  • You have thoroughly discussed with partner the circumstances and hand types which make this bid, and even more importantly those which do not make this bid, and properly summarized those on your convention card.
  • You are playing a Drury variant which allows responder to inquire on suit length and hand strength.
  • What about the "rule of 15?" bridgeguys.com/Conventions/Rule15.html It says to bid one spade in fourth seat with four spades and 11 hcps because you have the "boss" suit.
    – Tom Au
    Mar 30 '14 at 1:39
  • @TomAu: The Rule of Fifteen is a guideline for judging the advisability of opening in Fourth Seat, based on the likelihood that your side can outbid the opponents in a partial. It is not advice on when your spade length/quality is sufficient to open 1 Spade; that is a matter of partnership understanding. The only absolute in bidding is that there are no absolutes; but take heed on the consequences of your actions. Mar 30 '14 at 1:43
  • If you want to buy these auctions cheaply in Fourth Seat based on balance of power and a 4 card spade suit, why are you not playing and opening a Weak Notrump? Mar 30 '14 at 1:44
  • It goes back to this question, that I would be more inclined to bend the rules with a part score, than with love all. boardgames.stackexchange.com/questions/14644/…. That includes your suggestion of a weak NT. That's in a "good" game. But your answer to the earlier question was practical; against weak opponents, "tighten up" in a partial and let them hang themselves.
    – Tom Au
    Mar 30 '14 at 1:52
  • @TomAu: If you want to play a really aggressive system, check out Barry Crane's system notes:bridgeguys.com/pdf/FrenchBarryCraneSN.pdf. The key to a successful fast-in system is to also have a very good understanding on how to likewise get fast-out. You will lose slam precision, but that rarely interfered with Crane's success. Mar 30 '14 at 2:15

You basically have it right, that some people are willing open good 4-card majors with weakish hands, particularly in 3rd chair, as it is more preemptive than opening a minor, and Drury allows you to stay low. In my experience, there is no consensus on how frequently to do this in third chair.

Only once have I ever seen a player playing 5 card majors open a 4-card major in 1st or 2nd seat... and I never found out whether that was intentional. In fact, the current expert trend is toward opening 1NT with hands that are in range (a good 14 to 17) with 5332 hands... so if anything, the trend is in the other direction.

I think the basic reason for the 5332 trend is that 1NT is more frequently achieved as a contract when you open a minor or 1NT, and 1NT is frequently the best contract, especially at Matchpoints.

More frequent is to see somebody overcalling with a 4 card major, on a suit like AKxx or KQTx. Again, in such a situation, the disruptive effect can outweigh the "lie" that you are telling, although generally speaking partnerships are on the same page about whether they are willing to overcall on 4 card suits.

  • Left to my own devices, I'd be inclined to open, as well as overcall, a four card major with a solid suit like KQTx. IMHO, it's worth a full trick more than a "broken" suit like KJxx, which is why I need the fifth card to open with the latter.
    – Tom Au
    Apr 6 '14 at 22:51
  • Definitely with you on the overcalling front. One concern in competitive play is that unless you are alerting your bids as 4-card majors, it may be considered unethical to repeatedly open 4 card majors without disclosing that it's something you do. Apr 10 '14 at 1:33
  • @DrewHoskins I think the reason for the 5332 trend is more likely that when you can't hold a balanced 15-16 HCP for a 1M opening, some rebids become more descriptive. So, for example, after 1H-1NT, my 2NT rebid shows 18+.
    – ruds
    Jul 4 '14 at 21:41

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