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I've just started trying to understand the Lebensohl 2NT transfer --- used after partner opens INT and there is intervening interference from opponent, eg., 1NT > > > 2 ❤ > > > 2NT. My 2NT bid instructs partner to bid 3 ♧ and tells him that I have a stopper in opponents suit ("slow shows").

If anybody reading this can help me better understand this very complicated convention, I would be eternally grateful.

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Executive Summary

  1. Lebensohl sacrifices 2NT as a natural invitation in NT in order to allow responder to have two meanings for all 5 3-level bids - one if bid directly, one if bid after 2NT-3C. 2NT doesn't "show" anything; only the full two-bid sequence does. Lose one (pretty useless one) to gain five useful ones - a good trade.
  2. "Slow shows" (also known as "fast denies") only applies to two of those 5 auctions - the cuebid (Stayman) and 3NT.

Understanding the "Complicated Convention"

Formatting note: there are lots of rabbit warrens to go down with even a simplified explanation of Lebensohl. I've put a (*) next to the entrances, and then after the "basic" explanation, down the hole we go. If you care.

There are variations, but Standard Lebensohl is still reasonably effective, and anyone that plays any Lebensohl will be able to play it the "Standard" way. I'll try to build it up for you in a way that may make more sense (though Anderson's classic is still the best way to learn the basics).

Step 1: Getting halfway there

When I'm teaching, I start people off with what I call "half-Lebensohl", or "Lebensohl without Lebensohl". It can be taught to your partner in 5 minutes, you won't forget it, and it gets you a long way (at least ahead of "no idea" or "stolen bid doubles" - which against people like me turn into "stolen auction" doubles because I bid on garbage, knowing you can't double me):

  • two bids are natural and to play (transfers are off (*))
  • three bids are natural and game forcing
  • cuebid is Stayman (and game forcing)
  • double is penalty (opposite a standard 15-17 1NT, that's 7+ HCP or so and 4 trump. "more points" and "no 8-card trump fit" equal "going down").

Agreements can be made as to whether 2NT or 3NT promise a stopper or just hope; and whether this applies over a 2C overcall (I say no, double=Stayman and systems on seems better here).

Now, you'll notice some problems with this - and more the more you play it. I've already pointed out one - how do we know if we have a stopper in their suit when we have the points for 3NT? But there are others:

  • 1NT-(2H). I have to pass with xxx x xxx KJxxxx? Really?
  • 1NT-(2H). I have to guess with KJTxxx x Axx xxx whether to stop in 2 or force to game. It would be really nice to be able to invite.
  • 1NT-(2D showing spades and another suit). What's 2S? 3D? 3S? (basically you need rules about "what suit is the anchor suit" in artificial overcall auctions (*)).
  • 1NT-(2C, "some single suited hand") (or "diamonds, or a major and a minor") or (2D "hearts or spades") You need rules about what it means when you bid directly, versus what it means when you wait for them to show their suit and then come in (*).

Step 2: How to get the rest back - sacrifice the natural 2NT response

Again, when I'm teaching, I will wait a month or so for those people I've taught half-Lebensohl to, to realize where the frustrations are. Then I show them the secret, which is exactly your question:

The number of times you want to invite in NT is very very low (*), and you certainly never want to play 2NT on an invite opposite a minimum. So (key point 1), we sacrifice that call and instead it means "please bid 3C, so I can show you my hand" (technically this is called a "puppet". You don't need to know that). Effectively, you now have two ways to make each of the 3-level bids - directly, or after bidding 2NT.

That's all you need to understand about "the Lebensohl convention". They've taken away some of your room and some of your sequences; you sacrifice a nearly-useless sequence to gain 5 useful ones.

So, what sequences do we get? In "Standard", after going through 2NT-3C:

  • 3 bids lower than overcaller's suit (or pass of 3C) are natural and to play.
  • 3 bids higher than overcaller's suit are natural and invitational.
  • Cuebid is still Stayman, game forcing
  • 3NT is still to play.

But, but, what's this "slow shows"?

But, you may ask, if we now have two Stayman calls, and two 3NT calls, what's the difference? Well, remember the key problem was "how do we avoid playing 3NT when they can run their suit?" So the key thing to want to know is "do you have a stopper or not?" So:

  • direct bidding (of Stayman or 3NT) denies a stopper (so opener will do something other than 3NT without one either).
  • going through 2NT shows a stopper (so opener doesn't have to worry about xxx in their suit). This is "slow shows" (you took the two-round way to show your hand).

So, the second key: "Slow shows" (or "Fast denies", equivalently) only applies to these two auctions. All other 2NT sequences show differing strength to the "fast" version, rather than possession or otherwise of a stopper.

And that's it. With those 4 rules and that one stepping stone, "no meaning" bid, you get:

  • to play in all unbid suits;
  • game forcing in all unbid suits;
  • invitations in some suits (those higher than the overcall);
  • Game-forcing Stayman for unbid majors;
  • security that if we end in 3NT, we have their suit stopped at least once;
  • and you can still punish them when they come in and it's wrong.

Which is pretty much everything. Sure, you lose the "right-siding" of transfers (*), and sometimes you will just have the 8-count that doesn't feel comfortable doubling, and you'll have no invite. But if it didn't make your life harder, they wouldn't overcall.

For many people, this is where you can stop and be comfortable with what I call "the most complicated convention everybody should play".

(Some of) The Rest of the Story

But if you're Alice, like me, you'll have noticed a bunch of dangling threads you want to look at. Note: this will not be exhaustive (either in scope or in detail), just a bit of "drink me" to get you thinking or investigating.

Transfers are off

Standard Lebensohl takes away transfers. There are two reasons for transfers:

  • "the strong hand gets to play it"; and
  • you get two sequences for each "bid" - transfer-and-pass, and transfer-and-bid.

When we teach transfers, we usually emphasize the first one. And it is an advantage (especially with the strong NT). But the second is much more important.

With standard Lebensohl, we "get the sequences back", and give up the rightsiding.

There are alternatives. One, known as "Rubensohl" (after Jeff Rubens) or "transfer Lebensohl", treats all calls 2NT and higher as transfers (so now, 2NT does in fact "show" clubs; 3C is diamonds,...) It's an alternative way to get "to play" and "forcing" (and "invitational", where you had a natural 2x bid available), but it's even more complicated ("transfer to their suit is Stayman", for instance) and not everybody knows it or can remember it if they do.

Also, if you play Texas (4-level) transfers, the standard agreement is that they are still on over interference if it's a jump. So with KTxxxx x AQx JTx, you can still get opener to play spades after 1NT-(2H).

What about the 3 level?

Sometimes the nasty opponents overcall at the 3 level, taking away that nice 2NT puppet. What do you do? Well, nothing's great, but the following is "standard":

  • bids are game forcing
  • double is takeout (more flexible than penalty, and partner with KTxx can pass!)
  • double and 3NT could just be "I have a stopper".

More flexible? Can I hear more about that?

Another common variation makes the double takeout even at the 2 level. I switched 5 years ago and will never go back (I play a weak NT in a strong NT world; so "reproducing" their 1m-(1H)-X auctions with 1NT-(2H)-X is a powerful advantage. But even with strong NT, I like it better). Sure when they step out and they're wrong, the +800 is juicy; but the takeout double comes up much more often, and leads to +110 or +140 vs +100 (or -110)! a lot when it does. And sometimes opener has the trumps and can convert, so we still get some penalties. Also, opener "will protect" with a poor trump holding (my agreement is Qx or worse), so we get some of those back too (with the danger that we're now either -470 or -500; nothing works all the time).

Don't assume this with a partner without discussion, though! Standard is penalty, and -470 (and it's usually -5 or more 70, they make overtricks) is never a good way to find out you're not on the same page.

Artificial overcalls (or what is the Lebensohl suit?)

There are pairs with pages of rules about this; it is not easy, and with the plethora of NT overcall schemes (Nine pages of them here) you're bound to run into one you've never seen before. A good default:

  • if they have the suit they bid, that's the suit. If they have another (known or unknown), guess and hope on that.
    • there is an argument if they've shown 2 known suits, the "cheaper" cuebid is the suit (so 1NT-2D (D+H, Brozel), the suit is hearts, because you have a 2H cuebid cheaper than 3D).
  • if they show two known suits, neither of them the suit bid, the cheaper suit is the suit. (note this is most often a bid for both majors; frequently it will be 5-4 (or even 4-4), and your fit is in one of their suits. You can hope it's the other one!)
  • if they show one suit and an unknown second, ignore the unknown.
    • if they bid 2C "clubs and", decide whether to ignore it (and play double=Stayman, systems on) or have clubs be the suit (in which case you either lose the ability to "Stayman with a stopper" or you agree that 1NT-(2C)-2NT; 3C-3D is "Stayman with" and give up the invitational hand in diamonds (better if you both remember!)
  • if they don't show a known suit, you can bid "half-Lebensohl" directly (and leave them blind), or you can wait for them to show their suit and follow the above rules on the next round (there's a danger that fourth hand will pass because the suit bid is their suit, but it's very rare).
    • definitely if they double "single suit", or "4-card Major and longer minor, both unknown", just ignore it and play systems on (but if you pass and come in next round, Lebensohl applies).
    • also definitely if they bid 2C "single suit" or "diamonds or Major-minor", systems on, the first round.

But I want to invite in NT!

No, you usually don't. As mentioned earlier, if partner passes you, they're likely running their suit before you get yours set up, and you're not even making 2. And if you've got sufficient stoppers that that doesn't happen, you're likely setting them, so double instead. Yes, the time you have the hand is annoying. But compared to the times you have the other three hands, and the comfort when you get to 3NT that you do have the suit stopped, it's a drop in the bucket. Try it and see!

Why "slow shows"?

It's up to you. You can agree to play FASS (Fast Action Shows Stopper), if you want 1NT-(2H)-3NT to be the "will be passed" one (and avoid 1NT-(2H)-2NT!-(3H)). There are advantages and disadvantages to either way; but not enough to say that one is better than the other. But "slow shows" is more common, and "expected" in "standard".

This is cool, what else can I do with it?

A lot. The classic two other situations are:

  • after double of a weak 2. You have the same basic problem here; you want to be able to bid weakly, and show strength, and you only have one 3C bid. You want to maybe find 4-4 major fits, or see if 3NT is worth playing, but being off the first 6 tricks is embarrassing. It's also highly unlikely that you will have a "natural NT invite" opposite a takeout double. So 2NT Lebensohl puppet to the rescue!
  • after partner reverses. Reverses are strong auctions, usually 16 or 17-21. Almost always you're going to game. But sometimes you responded on the 6 count (or Axxx and out!), and you need a way to warn partner to slow down. Again, two ways to make 3-level bids come to the rescue!

Note that with both of these, unlike 1NT, opener is unlimited, and might want to wave off your attempt to slow down. That's even more complication...

There are also many other treatments that are "Lebensohlish" in nature:

  • a big one is "Good/Bad 2NT". Don't ask me to explain it (I've never got an explanation I can understand well enough to play it), but basically "in competition, 2NT is a convention, not a contract". So 2NT shows interest in competing to the 3 level, but not game ("bad 2NT"); where as bidding 3 level directly shows extras and game interest ("good").
  • 1M-p-2M-X looks an awful lot like "double of a weak 2", doesn't it?
  • there are even people who play 1NT (by a passed hand) in auctions like p-p-1D-1H: 1NT as "Lebensohl"!

There are also many other uses of puppet bids (not even looking like Lebensohl) in other conventions, that cover different situations; always with the idea of "we don't have enough sequences here, so let's give up a not-very-useful one to double the rest of them". (Note: interestingly enough, "Puppet Stayman" as usually played isn't a puppet).

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  • Many thanks for such an excellent response -- you have taught me a lot. Aug 21 at 17:19
  • This is an excellent summary. Too often a "teacher", or a convention chart, just lists the meanings of various bids without describing the underlying thinking. Sep 26 at 15:50
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The main purpose of Lebensohl is to allow responder to take control of the auction. Standard 1NT (15-17, 16-18, balanced) auctions generally suggest that responder is the player with more knowledge of the partnership's combined hands; you know a very small point range around what partner has, and you know what you have, but nobody else knows what you have, so you should be in control for the most part.

Lebensohl lets you take control of an auction that's otherwise fairly hard to navigate. 2H or 2S takes up a fair amount of room you otherwise would've liked to have had; so you use the "puppet" response.

N E S W
1NT 2H 2NT P
3C P ?

Now most of your responses require partner to pass - you can stop in 3C or 3D. It also opens up the invitational 3S here, where 2S was available; in the reverse case, where the interference was 2S, 3H is not invitational. But it gives you this third option...

  • 1NT-2H-2S = to play
  • 1NT-2H-3S = game forcing
  • 1NT-2H-2N--3C--3S = invitational

I would note that I don't agree that it shows a stopper in all auctions - only in the 1NT-2H-2NT--3C--3NT auction does it show the stopper (and make sure you know what to do if you're the 1NT bidder and the auction is 1NT-2H-3NT - pass is not correct if you don't have a stopper!). In any other sequence, it does not suggest anything about a stopper; it's just a way to exit the auction at the lowest level, allowing the "natural" bids to mean more.

The importance of this is that 1NT-2H-3C is not passable - if responder wanted to play in 3 of a minor, they would've used Lebensohl; so that sequence now can mean something else, something more interested in game or slam.

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  • Many thanks for your helpful answer. Aug 21 at 17:20

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