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It's a 16 pointer, with five good spades:

Spades KQJ85
Hearts A72
Diamonds Q7
Clubs A82

An expert (Frank Stewart) opined in a column that he would always prefer a one spade opening to a 1NT opening. I emailed him and said that I agreed with him for rubber bridge (1 spade is the safer bid), but thought that 1NT should be the opening bid for duplicate, aiming for a NT contract over a spade contract (Stewart disagreed with me in his reply).

If I had only four spades and the bidding sequence were something like me; one of a minor), opponent passes, partner bids one spade, I would prefer a spade contract to a NT contract even in duplicate. The flexibility given by the (presumed)four card spade suits in both hands might yield an extra spade trick. But opening with the above, I'm looking at a 5-3 in spades (which could be a 5-2 or a 5-4). But in any event, my five spades are "long," which suggests to me that I would probably make as high a NT contract as a spade contract. In this case, the 10 point differential for NT looms large in duplicate (it could be the difference between top vs. middle, middle vs. bottom, or even top vs. bottom). But it is meaningless in rubber.

Is there a way to determine who is more nearly correct? For instance, is there a body of expert literature that leans decisively in favor of either one spade or 1NT, or differentiates between rubber and duplicate in this case? Or would this be determined by a quantitative analysis of match results where similar hands ended up in either spade or NT contracts?

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    Most experts nowadays have ways of ending up in 4S rather than 3N after a 1N opening when responder has 3 spades and game forcing values. That's going to skew expert practice in favor of 1N by quite a bit. Jan 8 at 2:06
  • @AlexanderWoo: What I here you telling me is that it's easier to go from a 1NT opener to a spade game (when appropriate) than from a 1 spade opener to a NT game. Is that what you are saying?
    – Tom Au
    Jan 8 at 16:19
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    I don't think that's it. He's saying that it's a lot easier to find the right level if your 1S opener excludes 14-16 hcp balanced hands. The methods Alexander mentions means that you can still play 4S in your 5-3 fit even after opening 1NT instead of 1S.
    – ruds
    Jan 8 at 16:34
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    @TomAu - Many experts play that a 2N response to a 1N opening or a 3C response to a 1N opening is some variant of Puppet Stayman, asking opener if they have a 5 card major. Jan 8 at 17:52
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    @TomAu - Outside of expert circles, no one usually plays the conventions to accurately describe a 16 hcp hand with 5 spades. North American experts frequently play such conventions after a 1N opening (forms of Puppet Stayman), and some European experts play such conventions after a 1S opening (forms of Gazilli). Of course playing such conventions do add to your memory load and make it more complicated to show other hands. (But note that in either case, the conventions come in only if responder has enough to muster a game invitation.) Jan 9 at 2:47

5 Answers 5

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Modern expert standard is "if it looks like 15-17 balanced, open 1NT". There's one major reason for this - there's not enough space in the rebids for "12-14 balanced" and "15-17 balanced". It's easier to see with the majors reversed: A72 KQJ85 Q7 A82. After 1H-1S, what do you do? If you rebid 1NT, your 1NT rebid is effectively "12-17 balanced with 5 hearts". How does partner resolve this for game? She doesn't.

The key to effective NT bidding is that NT (re)bids are limit bids. Partner is able to, with possibly "are you min or max", decide how high to play. But with (11)12-17 as a range, she just can't.

So many experts are going to "5332 is balanced, even 5M332". Missing the 5-3 major fit is bad, so they add on a bunch of conventions designed to find it (sometimes, at least - 3C GF Puppet being the most common, but it requires game-forcing values). But it's still less bad in the long run than the conundrum of 1H-1S-1NT or 1S-1NT (Forcing 1 round or not)-? 5-4s of course are comfortable rebidding their second suit, even if, had the 5-card suit been a minor, even (42)(52), they'd happily open 1NT.

Why is Frank bringing this up, then? Well, it's a distortion to open 1NT with a 5 card major, but it's worth it not to have to either lie or totally misrepresent his hand next round. But here he has a nicer lie: 2S. Sure, it promises 6 (and I'm pretty emphatic about this one), but it's KQJ85. Much better than KT842, possibly on the same level as KJ8542.

Now in a 2/1 base, if it goes 1S-1NT Forcing, we rebid 2C with this hand, and partner knows it could only be 3. But if it goes 1S-2D, what's your bid? 2NT? Again, 12-17? 2S? 6-card suit?

There is no consensus on "which 5332s are opened 1NT", and Frank is giving his opinion. Now you didn't quote his argument for why (and there might not have been one), so I'm guessing. But I think it's a good guess.

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  • I'm not entirely sure, but the impression I get is that this is modern North American expert standard but not modern European expert standard. The European experts tend to open 1H or 1S and rebid an artificial 2C (Gazilli). Jan 10 at 5:09
  • Stewarts reply was "The extra 10 points at notrump counts only if you make your bid, so finding the best contract matters most." I don't mind re-bidding two spades with KQJ85, which I consider "5.5", and barely weaker than KJ8542 because of the honor sequence
    – Tom Au
    Jan 10 at 5:38
  • Interesting. So he's a bit old-fashioned, which is neither surprising nor wrong, especially as the writer of a column for non-experts. This is not a stealth insult - even if I were at a level to be considered worth notice should I make one, my partnerships also only rarely open 1NT with a 5cM (which is why I know only too well the problems thereof). I think Gazilli or equivalent may help, as well; I don't know how that impacts 5M332. I do know that I read a Swedish pro say "5M332 is a closed topic. Clear winner". In a relay context, to be sure.
    – Mycroft
    Jan 10 at 6:04
  • What if Stewart's range is 14-16? Or15 to a bad 17? Jan 14 at 3:37
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Experienced duplicate players who are not bad, but a long way from experts, playing with long term partners, will often have methods to handle a 5-card suit in a 1N opener. Puppet Stayman is one such method, there are others. Such methods are by no means limited to experts, but are not played by casual players or in pick-up partnerships. Given such a method, I would pretty much always open this 1N, as there would be no fear of losing a spade fit, and 1N describes the hand rather narrowly with a single bid.

Even without such methods, an agreement to open hands with 5-card majors in 1N simplifies later bidding for hands opened 1M, as a mid-range balanced hand need not be considered. But if good spade contracts are being missed too often, then a 1S opening, particularly with such a good spade suit might well be considered. Playing with a pick-up partner with no detailed discussion, say the only agreement is "SAYC" I would incline to open 1S for fear of the spade suit fit being missed.

Playing IMPs, which has a strategy much closer to rubber bridge than matchpoints does, I would again open 1N if I had discussed and practiced methods for handling a 5-card major in a 1N opening, but otherwise would open 1S.

Under no circumstance would I open this hand in one of a minor. It seriously misdescribes the hand. It will be hard to convince partner of the good 5-card spade suit. It undervalues the hand, and leaves things much too vague. And if you have a habit of opening hands like this with 1m, partner will be too inclined to over-bid when you open a 12-pointer with broken suits.

If one is looking for literature on such openings, there is probably more on IMPs vs matchpoints than rubber vs matchpoints. IMPs are often played in team games, particularly Swiss team matches and knockout teams. There are also IMP pair events, although far fewer than matchpoint pairs.

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Good points raised by Mycroft and David; but one key point is missed: What is Frank Stewart's range for 1NT? 14-16 or 15-17?

This hand evaluates as a good 17 Points and just barely falls within a 15-17 NT range. I've played with experts over the years that would disdain a 1NT opening here, particularly in IMPS or Rubber Vulnerable, as the hand is too strong to be treated that way. Add just a round T and it is clearly too strong, and I doubt any quality player I've played with over the past half century would open it 1NT.

The reason for opening 1 Spade is to use the rebid of 2NT to show the range intermediate between a 1NT and 2NT opening. Then the opening of 1NT can be made on hands of this distribution only when the range is clearly within the 1NT range - which is questionable here.

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  • Stewart uses 15-17. He's "conservative."
    – Tom Au
    Jan 14 at 4:25
  • Perhaps I have missed something, the given hand: KQJ85; A72; Q7; A82 has exactly 16 HCP. I might add 1 point for the 5-card spade suit, but I would deduct at least 1/2 point for the Qx that is drop-able, and probably I would deduct a full point or more.. Where do you see a strong 17?.I would call it 16 to a bad 17 at most. Jan 15 at 4:04
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I think the other answers are good but they leave implicit something that's very important to understand. When the hand belongs to your side (almost always the case when you have these sorts of values), the most important thing to figure out in the auction is what level your side belongs at: part-score, game, or slam. When both partners hold a balanced shape (4333, 4432, 5332), that question is answered pretty well by the combined point count of the two hands. When both hands are balanced, a no trump contract is unlikely to be a disaster, even if a 5-3 major fit exists.

After determining the level, the next most important task is to determine the strain. But this question is more important to get right for game hands than it is for part scores. So again, we can sacrifice some part score accuracy to more accurately determine whether we should be in game, and if so, which strain to play game in.

All this leads to making sure that the strength of your 5332 hand is described accurately in your first one or two bids. This usually means opening 1NT for 5332s in range, even if you have a five-card major, unless you have agreed to a convention with your partner to untangle this (Gazilli was mentioned in a few comments and answers as a common convention in Europe).

The calculations may change a bit at matchpoints, in which accurate part-score bidding becomes much more important.

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If we belong in NT, I think opening 1NT on this hand makes it harder to get to the right level than if I open 1S.


If I open 1NT playing standard methods, I'm stuck on how to proceed after 1NT-2C-2S-2NT. Did we already bypass the safe 2S contract? Is partner inviting game or just denying 4 spades? Does partner have 3 spades? Are we stuck in a no-trump contract without diamond length or stoppers?

If I open 1S, I can

  1. Pass 1NT
  2. Bid 2NT over 2C to deny a diamond stopper
  3. Bid 3NT over 2D to show a club stopper
  4. Bid 4H to sign off with a known 5-3 fit. (Or 3H if you think I'm being too conservative.)
  5. Bid 3S to invite game over 2S

Other stopper-showing bids are possible as well, allowing us to look for game in NT without going over 3S.

If partner can/must bid again, they have far more information about my hand than I did about theirs following the Stayman sequence above.

At worst, we might miss a close game in hearts if partner deems their heart suit insufficient for a 2-over-1 bid and I pass their 1NT bid, but I think that's far less likely than us belonging in no-trump, and 1NT is safer than and scores the same as 2NT in duplicate.

(Your concern about the 10 extra points in NT is balanced by the very real possibility that your long spades are useless if partner has xxxx or worse in diamonds.)

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    The critical issue is that you have the same arguments with SQJTxx (save passing 1S-2S). And partner has no clue with an invitational hand. That, and not "is it easier on this hand", is why players are moving to opening 1NT with 5M332. (I will say I think your responses are highly non-standard, but play what you wish. You still haven't distinguished between 12 and 19 counts, and having to also deal with "15-17 balanced" just makes it worse). Having said that, 1NT-2C; 2S-2NT is invitational - the only Stayman hand that doesn't have INV values is the one that passes anything opener bids.
    – Mycroft
    Jan 20 at 19:36
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    1N-2C-2S-2N INVITES GAME. Partner should not bid 2C over 1N unless they either (a) plan to pass anything you bid, or (b) have enough to invite game. Jan 20 at 21:46
  • OK, but that's part of the problem. We may not even belong in 2NT with the terrible diamond holding, let alone 3NT, or 3NT might be cold if partner has good diamonds. This auction has no way of finding out.
    – chepner
    Jan 20 at 21:54
  • If opener has at least 15 HCP and a balancved hand, and partner at least 8 HCP and no more than 5-4 in the majors (otherwise 2C is wrong) 2 NT is not very likely to go down because of diamond looser. Yes it is possible, but they have to find the key suit with limited clues from the bidding, and have a running suit or re-entries. It will happen sometimes, but the improvement gained from stating this with 1NT is IMO worth such occasional looses. Id this is opened 1S, as so is QJxxx; AKxx; Kx; xx and so is AKJxxx; KQJx; -; KQx how is partner respondin with say 8-9HCP to tell the difference? Jan 22 at 22:57

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